A Sense of Place: An Interview with Gwen Goodkin by Jen Michalski

Gwen Goodkin is the author of the short story collection, A Place Remote, from West Virginia University Press. She’s won the Folio Editor’s Prize for Fiction as well as the John Steinbeck Award for Fiction and has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She has a BA from Ohio Wesleyan University, an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia, and has also studied at the Universität Heidelberg. Gwen was born and raised in Ohio and now lives in Encinitas, California, with her husband and daughters.

Jen Michalski: Congratulations on A Place Remote! I’m always interested in a book’s journey. Can you tell us how you came to work with West Virginia University Press?

Gwen Goodkin: Thank you, Jen! Because A Place Remote is a book of short stories, I knew I wasn’t going the agent route and instead focused on small presses. When I looked through the fiction catalog for WVU Press, I saw that they were mainly publishing works related to West Virginia and Appalachia, but their submission page said they were interested in books beyond the region if they demonstrated ‘a strong sense of place.’ A Place Remote sounded like a good fit so I sent it in.

Abby Freeland, the acquisitions editor at the time, contacted me a few months later to tell me they were interested in the manuscript and that the next step was to have it evaluated by two readers. Both readers thought one of the stories in the book didn’t fit because it was fantasy/magical realism and felt out of place next to the other stories. I agreed and took it out. I also incorporated a couple other pieces of feedback into my revision, which was then accepted for publication a few months later.

JM: Yeah, deciding on what goes into a story collection can be so difficult! Did you have a plan for the order of the stories? You lead off with one of my favorites, “Winnie.” Was there a journey, with each voice in each story, on which you wanted the reader to take?

GG: I definitely didn’t have a plan for the order of the stories when I started and didn’t realize I was writing a book of stories until very late in the game. Part of this was because I was working on a bunch of projects at once (I’m always working on a bunch of projects at once), but also partially because I had three babies in six years and maintaining focus during that phase of life is really difficult. What’s great about short stories is that you can work on one, turn to something else, then come back to it. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense my first book would be short stories because it’s what I could sustain mentally.

As for voice, I didn’t plan for the stories to be voice-driven but I’m happy that’s how they turned out. One of the first stories I wrote was “A Boy with Sense,” which was very much the result of me wanting to imitate Frank O’Connor. Two of my favorite short stories of his are “My Oedipus Complex” and “Guests of the Nation” and I now realize I was trying to combine the two in some way and, quite honestly, I do believe I achieved that – the combination. The strange thing is, I felt like I was cheating in some way, ripping off another writer, but then I took a workshop with Yiyun Li and she encouraged us—even challenged us—to try writing in the voice of another author. Later, as I was putting the story of mine she read, “A Month of Summer,” through yet another revision, struggling with it, I remembered what Yiyun had said. I’d just read The Country of the Pointed Firs and thought, yes, that’s it. I didn’t so much rip off the voice of it as the plot. Or, anti-plot, as I call it.

JM: That’s great advice! I’ve never tried it on purpose, but I find myself (of course!) subconsciously imitating writers I’ve loved. So voice—there are so many strong voices here. A lot of the the stories are told by men, and they’re so poignant. Do you gravitate toward a certain sex, consciously or not, or is it just a case of the voice serving the needs of the particular story you want to tell?

GG: All of of the stories in the collection are first-person point-of-view, so switching to a different sex was a way to put distance between myself and the protagonists. After I wrote a couple stories from a male point-of-view, it became a challenge, then more deliberate. “The Widow Complex,” which was published in jmww, was very much a deliberate choice in using a male POV. I knew some full-time dads and, while our experiences overlapped in a number of ways, they had different restrictions on their lives than I did – and different frustrations. I was more interested in exploring that because I had plenty of opportunities to speak with other full-time moms, but less opportunities to have in-depth discussions with dads. I wanted to figure out where our stories connected and diverged and what that meant in a larger context. An aside: I hate the term stay-at-home parent and wrote an essay detailing all the reasons why, but mainly because ‘stay-at-home’ implies a certain leisure that comes with the job and it’s anything but. ‘Full-time parent’ acknowledges the work involved in raising children.

JM: I love that idea of keeping distance from the protagonist—as writers, the temptation is figuratively to put oneself in a character’s shoes! It’s funny you mention it because many of the characters in the collection are from the heartland—farmers, veterans—and gravitate more toward action than expression  So it was really rewarding to read “How to Hold It All In”—not only the span of bad blood between Chic and Marv but how Marv sort of slowly opens himself up over the years, petal by petal, to his own vulnerabilities without it feeling forced. How do you approach Marv? How did the idea for the story germinate?

GG: I’m so glad you found that story rewarding to read. As I was writing it, I kept challenging myself—and Marv—to see how long I could hold him off from cracking open, or if he would ever allow himself to. I’d throw something at him and think, No, not now. Keep pushing. How much can he take? If my family has a motto, it would be, “Never let them see you cry.” It did not serve me well as a child living with grief, so while we may attribute the idea of keeping emotions at arm’s length with men, I certainly embodied that. And “How to Hold it All in” is my reckoning with it.
The story originally started from Marv’s wife’s point-of-view. Harriet was in the early stages of dementia and believed that she’d won a contest whose reward was a grand piano, which wasn’t real and was mixed up with one of her childhood desires to own a piano. At the time I was working on the story, I was attending a lot of workshops and realized that every workshop had a story whose elderly female protagonist was in the early stages of dementia. I thought, Well, that won’t work, so I switched the story to Marv’s point-of-view and it became an entirely different story. A story about an insistent, almost pursuant memory rather than a fading one. It’s like Marv never left his war. When he stopped running from enemy soldiers, he started running from his grief and caused a lot of harm along the way.

JM: What period of time in your life do these stories span? How are you different as a writer from the first of the stories you wrote to the last? I often think about whether changes in ourselves drive the stories we write or whether, as we grow as writers, our perspective also grows in how we frame our everyday experiences—maybe it’s a little of both?

GG: I started writing these stories during a period of time I call B.C.—Before Children—when I was in my late 20s. Now I’m in my mid-40s and the expanse between then and now is vast. If I started writing the stories in A Place Remote over from the idea stage right now, they’d be completely different. The more recent stories that I’ve written and published are almost exclusively female, some third person. There’s a detachment from your own body that happens during pregnancy, childbirth and while caring for newborn babies. Your body is no longer exclusively your own, which can be a serious mind-fuck. For me, it dredged up my own dissociative experiences as a child and pushed me into postpartum depression. It makes sense that, in the most recent story I had published, a woman’s body starts changing in ways that are out of her control and she must figure out how to adapt to these changes and, in the process, find her power.

JM: That’s very powerful. While we’re on the subject of birth, so to speak, how do stories begin for you?

GG: Stories begin in all kinds of ways for me. Some stories start as a voice, some as an image. Some are a combination of lived experiences that I piece together and fill in with my imagination. For instance, a story like “A Month of Summer” has many moments that I experienced myself while a student in Germany, but the majority of that story is made up. I remember one rejection I received from an editor for “A Month of Summer” said, ‘Just write it as an essay. It’s clearly non-fiction.’ And I had to laugh because I’d made so much up! None of the music lessons happened, most of the horse scenes are invented. With a story like “The Widow Complex,” I have found black widows in my mailbox and underneath my children’s bikes & trikes. It’s another item on the stress list of parenthood and I wanted the spiders in that story to feel like a creeping, lurking presence, when in reality what’s creeping and lurking is the protagonist’s own depression.

JM: What’s next?

GG: I’m working on a few projects at the moment. I finished a comedy screenplay a couple months ago called “Trust Circle” that has a “Bad Moms” meets “City Slickers” vibe. I also recently finished the second draft of a novel titled The Plant, set at a television factory in the same fictional town as in A Place Remote. I am letting it sit before rolling up my sleeves and heading into round three. A couple plays in various stages of readiness.

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