Hadley Moore’s debut collection Not Dead Yet and Other Stories won the 2018 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the 2020 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection. She lives near Kalamazoo, Michigan and is currently at work on a novel and another collection.
Carrie Guimond: The stories that make up this collection have all previously been featured in literary journals. At what point did you realize you had something that might hold together as a collection?
Hadley Moore: It took a little while. I wrote and published each story separately, over about ten years, while I also worked on other things—I like to have more than one project going so I can toggle between them if I get stuck.
I had drafts of eight of the nine stories in the collection when I realized there was probably enough plain volume to make up a book—and I had started to notice patterns, too, that are hard to see when you’re working piece by piece. Then I wrote what would become the title story, and that seemed to supply the final resonance the collection needed. After that came ordering the stories and doing many, many rounds of revision. Even after publication in journals, I found there was still work I wanted to do on each story—and in the editing process I did several rounds more.
CG: Since these stories were written and published over the course of many years, what do you feel this collection reflects about your development as a writer?
HM: I think it would be hard to read the finished book and guess the order in which they were written (which also has only partial correlation to the initial journal publication dates), or which were smoother or rougher going in the drafting and editing. All of that is to say that so much of writing is learning to tolerate the difficulties of the process, and learning to revise. When I get frustrated with a project I often remind myself that I have gotten through slow-moving drafts and done major (and successful!) revision before; therefore, I can do it again.
It’s also clear that I like to try writing in a diversity of forms and voices and points of view. That said, there are also themes I’ll probably never let go: loss and existential dread, as well as dark humor to cope with these unavoidable aspects of being human.
CG: Story collections are often thought of as notoriously difficult to publish. What draws you to the short story?
HM: Writing starts with reading. In my MFA program I learned to read as a writer, and I can remember what a revelation it was that a collection of short fiction should be something more than a group of stories sufficient in number and length to add up to a full manuscript. It sounds so basic now, but a collection should comprise stories that belong together, that are ordered deliberately and that can comment on one another.
There’s psychological research that shows that the more you understand something, the more pleasure you take from it (think wine tasting or art appreciation). Well, my deeper comprehension of the purposes and possibilities of story collections led me to read them more critically, with more excitement, and as whole works rather than as long-enough grab bags.
Yes, they are harder to publish than novels. That is one reason I went the small-press book contest route with this manuscript: independent publishers often welcome short fiction.
CG: “When My Father Was in Prison” and “Mother and Child” have a similar structure, which takes advantage of the white space on the page by using space breaks. What inspired this form?
HM: Content dictates form. In “When My Father Was in Prison,” each short section (there are thirty-seven of them) is written so it can be introduced by the title phrase. So, for example:
– [When my father was in prison] we had this bird called Smokey.
– [When my father was in prison] there was a girl across the street whose father was a government functionary.
– [When my father was in prison] two church ladies came to bring us Christmas presents.
It’s almost as if each section is its own very short, provisional story.
Also, the narrator is a nine-year-old boy, and I think the breaking apart of his thoughts, suggested by the white space between the sections, fits his limited understanding of all the implications of the situation his family is in.
In “Mother and Child,” the mother character is also limited, though in a different way; she appears to have very serious mental illness, and her world is extremely small. Her thoughts and behaviors are fragmented in ways that I think the white space underscores.For both of these stories, the white space did show up in the initial drafting, and in revision I had to think about how and why to retain it.
CG: Religion plays a key role in both “Mother and Child” and “Ordinary Circumstances.” How does the theme of religious fervor appeal to you?
HM: I think I’m drawn to the intensity, the interesting possibilities for character motivation, the potential for conflict, and the existing structures—the organizations and rituals and beliefs—to have my characters either adhere to or veer from. For example, the mother character in “Mother and Child” thinks God is talking to her, the new religious belief of one partner and lack of it in the other are essential to the marital conflict at the heart of “Ordinary Circumstances,” and the mother-in-law and daughter-in-law in “Last Things” will never get past their cultural divide even though they should be bound by their shared love for their son/husband.
Religion is an element that shows up in other work too, and I’m particularly fascinated by idiosyncratic interpretations and practices—which can sometimes really go off the tracks in ways that are useful for fiction.
CG: Seven of the nine stories in Not Dead Yet incorporate some aspect of grief and loss within marriage. What inspires this framework?
HM: As in the above answer about religion, I think there’s a similar intensity to marriage: so many ways for things to go well or poorly, so many opportunities for conflict. And because of that intensity, the loss can be especially profound.
I didn’t set out to write a book about marriage, or about religion, or even about loss more generally, but these themes did accrue over time, which honestly does feel a little lucky to me, that I ended up with stories that could reasonably hang together.
CG: Do you have any short story collections that you recommend reading?
HM: Oh, lots! Making book recommendations is practically my favorite hobby. I could go on and on and on, but here are ten by contemporary women writers that I find exceptionally memorable:
1. In the Not Quite Dark by Dana Johnson
2. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
3. Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee
4. Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
5. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
6. The Good Life by Erin McGraw
7. What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
8. The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed
9. Get Down by Asali Solomon
10. The News From Spain by Joan Wickersham
CG: And finally, you stated in an interview with Midwestern Gothic that you wished you had started writing fiction earlier. Can you talk a little bit about what held you back? And do you have any advice for young writers?
HM: I was always a big reader, but it didn’t occur to me until well past college that I might also try to write seriously. I don’t know that anything in particular held me back, just that there was a slow dawning. Thankfully it’s something you can do into old age; I’d be out of luck if I wanted to be a ballerina or an elite athlete now.
As for advice, the only way to keep at it is to keep at it. Persistence counts for a lot. When I get frustrated or tired I ask myself if I quit now would I regret it in ten years, or twenty, or fifty. The answer is always yes. For new or emerging (or established) writers of any age, I think this is a useful reminder.
I’ve also lately been thinking a lot about the importance of determining the process tools that work for you and sticking with them. Your process might be very different from other writers’, and that’s OK.
Carrie Guimond studies Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and is an intern for the independent literary press, Braddock Avenue Books.