Monday, August 22, 2022

TBR: We Were Angry by Jennifer S. Davis

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?



We Were Angry is a linked collection of stories about a group of friends in small town Alabama whose lives are haunted by tragedies that reverberate across generations. In We Were Angry, Alabama is more than a fictional setting. It’s a scene for interrogating power, privilege, pain, and what it means to live in—and to leave—the American South.


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


I had a blast writing the titular story, which is the first story I wrote and the story that came the easiest. I had never written in plural first person before, and it was fascinating developing a voice that contained several characters. I am also drawn to the rhythms of that story, the repetitions, the lulling cadence. That last image, Mandy exposed and rage-filled and wholly vulnerable, informed the entire collection as I wrote it.


All of the other stories were incredibly difficult to write. I am a slow, slow writer who labors, often needlessly, over every image and clause. There is also a lot of sensitive content in this collection that I wanted to get right. “Those Less Fortunate” was probably the story I lingered with the longest. It is not as complex structurally as a few of the other stories, but it is—I hope—a thoughtful examination of race and class in the context of a small town in Alabama where the power dynamics are complicated by poverty and a particularly brutal and ugly regional history. In all of my stories, I seem to return to a similar theme: how desperately we want to connect meaningfully with other human beings, and yet, how we so often cause harm in our interactions and relationships because we are operating in a social structure designed to cause harm.


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


My first two collections came rather quickly and easily, both in the writing and finding publishers. Earlier in my career, I had no clue what it was like to scrape together a few minutes a day to write and to hustle to get your work out into the world. We Were Angry was a much different journey. It took me over a decade to finish the collection, and during that time I had four kids and found myself directing the MFA program at LSU. The roles of mother and teacher/director are incredibly rewarding, but they greatly impacted the time I had to work on the collection. It took forever to write these stories. My agent did shop an earlier iteration of the collection to some of the major publishers, and though I got good feedback, they all wanted a novel. A collection of short stories, particularly a non-debut collection, is difficult to place. But I love short stories, and I knew there were others out there who feel the same way. I began researching small presses that support short story writers, and I stumbled upon Press 53, which has published the work of so many wonderful short fiction writers. I thought: why not?  I revised the collection one last time and sent it out to the Press 53 Fiction Contest. I was incredibly fortunate that Kevin Watson saw something in my stories. I have learned so much during this process, and I am beyond grateful for the experience.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


I’ve taught fiction writing for over twenty years now, and the most meaningful advice that I share with students is to write what is alive for them, not what they think they should be writing. Sometimes my students will meet with me and describe several potential projects, and sometimes I sense that they are intent on pursuing the project that is seemingly most marketable because it is more marketable. I’ll ask them—which characters are with you as you navigate your day, which characters are you thinking about as you fall asleep? Whatever the answer, that is the project you need to pursue. Yes, this is a business, and I don’t romanticize the idea of the starving artist in any way, but if the work is not alive for you, it won’t be for the reader either.


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


I generally begin a story with an image, and then I write toward that image. My characters journeys are never clear to me until I complete a story. Yet, with this collection, the stories are never quite complete. A perspective character from one story will appear as a secondary character in another story and completely upend what the reader thought they knew. The narrative arcs and character arcs keep changing and evolving as the collection progresses. Nothing is as it seems. This shifting, the layers of revelation occurring outside of each seemingly self-contained story, happened organically as I was writing, and it was definitely a welcomed surprise. I really loved the shifting narratives once they emerged, as they get at the core of what the collection is about to me: the missed connections and miscommunications so many of us experience when trying to forge relationships, our inability or reluctance to reveal ourselves to another, how trauma destabilizes our sense of self.


How do you approach revision?


I love revision. I find revision far more satisfying than the early generative stages of writing because the heart of the story is there and I just have to find its shape and voice. I practice radical revision. I start with a clean document and keep the original in my lap, referencing it as infrequently as possible. If not, I just end up moving text around the page and I can get too precious about what I want to keep. I’ll often switch perspectives, tenses, begin at the end or combine two drafts of two different stories that aren’t working on their own. Most of writing is revision, and for me, it is the best part by far.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


There is a surprising lack of food in this collection, but “Those Less Fortunate” is all about Thanksgiving turkeys, and I have a wonderful recipe I use for leftover turkey each year: Turkey Pot Pie {Great for Leftover Turkey!} - Spend With Pennies







ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: We Were Angry: A Novella and Stories by Jennifer S. Davis — Press 53


READ A STORY, “We Were Angry”: Issue 227, Short Fiction — Press 53





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