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    Cover photo: Sarah Strickley, by Amber Estes Thieneman.

    In her first published book, Fall Together, Sarah Anne Strickley creates eight strikingly distinct and satisfying stories, each with playful and careful attention to language.

    Strickley, who lives in the Highlands with her husband, author Ian Stansel, and her two daughters, Simone, 6 in July, and Lulu, 3, is faculty editor of the University of Louisville literary and arts journal, Miracle Monocle. She teaches creative writing at U of L.

    Her stories are a beguiling mix of humor and darkness. In “What Good Are You,” a depressed woman muses over her husband’s orderly sock drawer. “When does he find the time to make sure the red stitching in each toe faces outward? How does he do it? It’s like he’s created a private footwear choir and it’s in there waiting for the cue to sing. I assume it would do patriotic numbers, masculine tunes scented with dryer sheets.”

    In “The Collapse,” a coal miner trapped underground clinks a metal pipe against stone, hoping the outside world will hear him. In the isolation of darkness, the clinking becomes a code, an autobiography. “Your taps on the rock are your only way of saying you regret almost everything you’ve done in your life, and you’ve foolishly written them in a language no one else can understand,” Strickley writes.

    In “Girl Trash Noir,” a prisoner smuggles a letter inside a children’s book to his baby girl. The note tells the child to slit her mother’s throat and come to him. “He doesn’t know a one-year-old can’t read yet,” the mother says. “Or maybe he thinks I’m going to read this to my kid aloud.”

    The book has already stirred up trouble with at least one careful reader.

    “I really did myself in on the acknowledgements page,” Strickley says. She concludes her book with a line to her husband: “Let’s continue arguing about who loves whom more forever.” Six-year-old Simone memorized that line. When Strickley told Simone to quit bickering with her younger sister, Simone was ready: “Remember, Mommy, you told me to keep arguing forever.”

    Fall Together comes out June 1. A book launch party takes place at 7 p.m., June 14, at Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave. Read on for our conversation with Strickley, lightly edited for length and clarity.

     


    The cover of Fall Together

     

    Jenni Laidman: Did you know Fall Together was going to be about things collapsing? 

    Sarah Strickley: The secret behind the book is, all of the stories are retellings of some kind. “Sole Survivor” (about a school shooter) is a retelling of the pied piper. You probably wouldn’t guess “The Roads Are Like That” is a retelling of a Lucinda Williams song (“Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”). Each is an experiment in retelling and recasting other texts. That sort of principle ended up falling away in the editing process. I found I didn’t need that scaffolding anymore in the editing.

    I started noticing the characters were people who were often in precarious positions in their lives, and they were taking big emotional risks to get out of those predicaments without knowing if they would make it or not. Some come away unscathed, others we leave without knowing they’ll make it. It gave me a picture of a story world where everyone is trying to get their heads up in the water. I liked that there was a glimmer of hope in most of the stories. But I also like taking readers to pretty dark places.

     

    Was there a reason the stories appear in the order they do? Why start with “The Art Professor’s Guide to Mystical Pregnancy,” the tale of a post-menopausal woman who believes she is pregnant?

    “The Art Professor’s Guide,” it came out in Ninth Letter this year. (Ninth Letter is a literary and arts journal from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. —Ed.) I had such an overwhelming response from readers. I had people message me through Twitter and Facebook and my website to say they really connected with that story. I felt like it was a strong piece to open with. It takes readers to a dark place, but you come away from the story thinking the protagonist, Amelia, she’s in a better place, having gone to a dark place.

    “The Collapse,” the second story, is part of a more dramatic formal experiment.

     

    “The Collapse,” about coal miners trapped underground, feels like it’s lit with a single flashlight. It’s so interior. It gave me a strong sense of the dark, the disorientation.

    I wanted to make some formal choices that really synergized with the physical space the characters were in. They’re trapped in a mine, and it’s a very claustrophobic experience of course. Then I chose a sort of strange second person to direct the readers’ experience in that story.

     

    What research did you do for this one?  

    I’ve always been fascinated with mine collapses. I spent about seven years in rural Southeastern Ohio and lived very close to the site of a great mine collapse. That happened in the ’30s, the Millfield Mine disaster. There were about 80 people trapped underground that never came out. There was a plaque commemorating those lives. I lived very close to that site, and I would often go there and just felt haunted by the place. I did look into history of that event, but I didn’t want to make my story historical fiction. The devastating truth of mine collapses is they just keep happening. We think of them as things that happen in the past, when, in fact, there have been a great number of dramatic collapses in recent years. I had a little file where I would download stories about collapses and collect them. But I didn’t want the real story to overdetermine the fiction. Certain collapses I didn’t look at more closely because I wanted it to be a real imaginative journey.

     

    I found the second-person narrator’s disorientation so real. There’s a bit where he asks the other miners a question, and he says, “No one says a word, but you can hear some of them nodding. Then you realize you can’t hear nods.” The idea of hearing nods, that felt completely plausible after you’ve been in the dark a few hours.

    When I wrote this story, I was in the habit of taking long dog walks. That was one story where I had to do a lot of just thinking in the world of the character. I wanted it to really feel it was emanating from that experience and not from the outside. That took a lot of walking and thinking and meditating and playing with language to arrive at, and sitting in darkness and testing things out. What can you find? Can you find your watch? Can you find your way across the room? Things like that.

     

    Did you worry that, at some point, a coal miner will read your story and say, “You got this part wrong”?

    I had a fair number of those kinds of responses, not from coal miners, though. Strangely enough, the most frequent complaint I had in response to the first publication of that story was the character sounded too intelligent, too scholastic or academic to be a coal miner. I took umbrage at that assessment, which I think assumes certain things, not very flattering things, about people who work in the coal mines.

     

    The complaints seem to say more about the complainers than the story. Did they say, “Oh, I know coal miners?”  

    It was a mansplainy kind of thing. It was like, what’s this woman — what does this little woman writer know about working in a coal mine? I’d say I probably know as much as the average man knows.

     

    I was so intrigued by Jules in “What Good Are You?” Can you talk a little about her creation?

    What I had been aiming for was a character who has everything that she ostensibly wants but is fully occupied by this sense of longing. It’s not specific; it’s amorphous, maybe its sexual, but it’s other stuff too. I wanted to investigate a character who would be in that space and see what would happen if I applied certain pressure with her. And I also got really carried away with her voice. It just felt really fun to write.  She’s a funny character.

     

    I loved the scene in the parking lot where Jules tries to help a mom with a screaming kid and loads of groceries. It turns into a “terrible slapping dance.” The two fall to the ground in a weird embrace.

    It felt like there had to be an explosion point in the story, but I didn’t feel like it could be between Jules and her husband, Ray. It had to be between someone who didn’t even matter. It had to be a point in the story where the truth of her situation squeaks out.

     

    I kept wondering about the guy in the trucker hat who was so angry with Jules because she couldn’t give him advice about napkin rings, declaring, “You don’t know shit about shit.” I seriously wanted to have words with that man. They’re napkin rings! What shit is there to know? You seemed to have a lot of fun with this story.  

    I love Jules and her sense of humor. She’s got a really wry sort of self-deprecating stance. I like writing really snappy dialogue. This was a chance to do that.

     

    How much are you like Jules?

    I think I’m wry and self-deprecating like her. I think she’s someone who’s more comfortable with expressing angst than I am. If it were me, I’d keep trying to shove that balloon down. She’s sort of willing to let it squeak out. She doesn’t know exactly what her deal is, but she wants to communicate it. I would be less forthcoming with my discontent.

     

    The stories are full of Southeast Ohio, especially Athens. Did you go to Ohio University?

    I did my undergraduate work at OU and stayed and did an MA, and stayed a little longer and was just teaching. Then I did my MFA in Iowa. (She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati.) I feel like Southeast Ohio is sort of my creative birthplace. It’s where I became immersed in a community of writers, and it was a very supportive community. I made the mistake of thinking things would always be like that. When I moved off, I was surprised there weren’t writers who would live in the same neighborhood and leave our doors unlocked and just pop over and read each other’s books. Since then I’ve been trying in my own small way to recreate that experience.

     

    Do you plan your stories, or are you a follower of the advice in the E.L. Doctorow saying that writing is like “driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

    I could see where that would work with him, because he has so much encyclopedic information at his fingertips. I definitely was a believer in that philosophy for about the first 10 years of my writing life. I wrote word to word to word; I never went in with a plan. It was all about organic growth. It was not a very efficient process. I spent many, many years not knowing what my story was. The idea of having a plan was not compatible with my love for lyricism and my focus on the word. I think mainly I didn’t want to seem like a nerd planner. I don’t know who I was trying to impress. But it just wasn’t working; I just wasn’t finishing stories.   

     

    Do you write every day? Do you get up at dawn?

    I have two kids, 3 and 5. I really can’t work when they’re home. I smush the writing time in around their bedtimes. They go to bed at 8 o’clock, and I may start writing then even though I’m more productive in the morning. I do this thing — and this is something Chris Offutt (author of “My Father the Pornographer” and the recent “Country Dark”) has talked about recently, so I can’t even pass it off as something I came up with. He says he just aims for one minute a day. The idea is, you just come to the table, and it’s easy to write for a minute. You’re going to write more than a minute, but if you make the space in your day to write for a minute, you’re touching the text every day. I can always do a minute. What I like to have are giant swaths of time I can just fill entirely with writing. That doesn’t happen very often.  

    For whatever reason, I find that taking showers is a really crucial part of my creative process. I’m not sure exactly what it is. But it probably has something to do with being a completely private space, no devices, no one is going to disturb that space. I usually shower when the kids go to bed, around 8 o’clock, then from 8 to 9 or 9:30, that’s a really productive time for me, too.

     

    So, if we see you all pruned up, we can determine that you’re working on a really tough story?

    I have a historical novel I’m working on recently. When I was nearing the end of the first draft, I was taking multiple showers a day. My husband was like, “I hope this book pays for these water bills.”

     

    You’ve used the word lyricism to describe what you strive for in writing. What do you mean by that?

    I started as a poet, so my focus was always on the potentials in the word: So metaphor, comparison and that bright energy that comes out of juxtapositions that you don’t expect. So moving that into a narrative mode, I want to have that. I want to write the kinds of sentences you haven’t read before, where there are moments of comparison that surprise and add texture on the line level.

     

    Who are your literary heroes?

    The big three: Marilynne Robinson, Dorothy Allison and Antonya Nelson. I feel like there are aspects of their work in mine. Chris Offutt was a mentor to me, and I’m still just wowed by his work. His new one is phenomenal. He’s someone I turn to for inspiration, certainly. I also had a mentor very early in my career. No one ever knows him, which is a real tragedy. His name is Darrell Spencer, and he has a number of short story connections and a novel in stories, and I felt like, when I first started writing, I was impersonating him. It took me some time to get past imitation, but I still really love him as a prose stylist. He has a really lyrical style that is only his. You recognize him immediately. I would love to see more fans come to his work.

     

    Fall Together comes out June 1, and a book launch party takes place at 7 p.m., June 14, at Carmichael’s Bookstore, 2720 Frankfort Ave. Click here fore more info.

    Cover photo: Sarah Anne Strickley by Amber Estes Thieneman

    Jenni Laidman's picture

    About Jenni Laidman

    I'm a freelance writer who specializes in science and medicine but is passionate about art. I'm a hell of a cook. I think of white wine as training wheels for people who will graduate to red. I love U of L women's basketball. The best bargain in town is the $3 admission to U of L volleyball. Really exciting stuff.

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