Monday, October 14, 2019

TBR: The Lightness of Water & Other Stories by Rhonda Browning White

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe!

Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?

These stories allow us to peek in on the lives of a wide range of strong people, from West Virginia miners to Florida bikers, from Appalachian medicine-women to heavy equipment operators. These characters, like all of us, wrestle with the people, places, and memories they cling to, belong to, and run from, learning (sometimes too late), that these experiences remain with them forever. The nine stories in The Lightness of Water and Other Stories are bound by a strong sense of place—Appalachia and the South—and prove that no matter where we go, there’s no place far enough to leave home behind.

Which story did you most enjoy creating? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?

I loved writing “Things Long Dead.” I’d relocated to the Daytona Beach area, home of the nationally renowned “Bike Week” and “Biketoberfest,” in which bikers and MCs (motorcycle clubs) descend upon the town twice a year, and our local culture changes. I found this fascinating, especially the brotherhood—largely military veteran in nature—shared by these bikers. I knew there was a story there, and once I started interviewing some MC members, the story of this veteran biker facing his own morbidity poured out of my head. It’s one of the easiest first drafts I’ve ever written, though it still took me years to polish. I wanted to make sure I correctly represented the one-percenter biker culture, before sending this story into the world. 

“Heritage” was, conversely, more difficult. The story was always there, but it took more digging to unearth, and I changed the ending no less than a dozen times. In a near-final draft, my main character, Claire, was pregnant. My publisher found her pregnancy a bit too much, as it took the focus away from Claire’s internal conflicts. He was right about that. I was still revising the story right up until the last minute, but I believe I finally achieved the right balance, and I’m proud of how the story came together.

Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.

My high and low are one and the same: I received two contract offers for publication from reputable small presses on the very same day! I received a call at work that morning from Green Writers Press in Vermont, offering publication. I came home, planning to celebrate with champagne, and before my husband could pop the cork, I received a call from Press 53 in North Carolina, also offering me a contract. It was thrilling and surreal. Quite literally, I felt breathless. I was immediately elated (They like me! They really like me!), but before nightfall, I became anxious, realizing the choice of which contract to accept could make a world of difference in the path my writing career will take. It was a difficult decision based on many factors—which took away a bit of the fun—and while neither press would have been a wrong choice, I feel I made the right choice for me at this early time in my career.

What is your favorite piece of writing advice?

Oh! Tough question, Leslie! My favorite is, of course, the one that makes sense at the time; the one that gets me over the hump of whatever writing problem I’m facing. If I had to choose one that fits all the time, it might be Barry Lopez’s admonition that the story must be about us, not about me or you. It’s sometimes too easy to fall back on what’s affecting, or has affected, me, and how I feel about that, when instead, I should be telling a story about “ourselves,” not about “myself.” I want my stories to help every reader, in some small way, to better empathize with other people and the environment in which we live.

My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?

Without doubt, I’m most surprised by how my characters Romie and Jasper Grodin got under my skin and stayed there. They appear in my collection’s bookend stories, “Bondservant” and “Big Empty,” and they are now the main characters in my novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Filling the Big Empty. They face some ugly hardships, both individually and as a young married couple, but even when they fail, their determinedness and hopefulness overpower their fatalistic tendencies. They embody the human condition in all of us, and I’m learning a lot from them.

How do you approach revision?

In her excellent writing-craft book, Wired for Story, Lisa Cron says, “There’s no writing; there’s only rewriting.” My mind is always spinning, always revising multiple stories at one time. I’m revising when I’m showering, or doing the dishes, or driving. I never read through one of my stories when I don’t think of a way in which I could tweak it to make it better; a word change here or there, a sensory detail I could add. I don’t believe my writing is ever “done,” but when I reach the point where I can read the last line and smile with satisfaction, I know the piece is finished. For the time being.

Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food associated with your book?

All of my characters love to eat and drink! (We have much in common.) In “Bondservant,” Romie makes cornbread for Jasper, and I imagine she makes it, using my very own recipe:

Rhonda’s Sweet & Corny Cornbread

1 cup yellow cornmeal
1¼ cups milk
1 cup unbleached flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup cane sugar
2 tablespoons oil
2 large eggs
1 tablespoon of honey or molasses
1 cup (canned) creamed corn

Place your lightly greased iron skillet in the oven and preheat oven to 425 degrees. (You may use a lightly greased round cake pan, but don’t preheat it.) Stir together the dry ingredients. In a separate, large bowl, combine the other five ingredients, blending well. Stir in the combined dry ingredients, just until moistened. Pour the batter into your now-hot iron skillet, and bake for 25-30 minutes, until the center springs back when touched. (Preheating the iron skillet provides a nice, crisp crust for your cornbread.) Romie and I recommend dunking a hot, crusty piece of this cornbread in a cup of milk and eating it with a spoon, like cereal. Yum!




READ A SHORT STORY, “Things Long Dead”


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.