Sweaty with Effort: an interview with Rachel Swearingen, author of “How to Walk on Water”

Rachel Swearingen’s debut story collection, How to Walk on Water, is simply fantastic. Cover-to-cover, it’s one of the best story collections I’ve read in a long time. The stories are delicately nuanced, perfectly crafted, and the characters we meet are some of the most memorable I’ve met in fiction. It’s been well over a month since I’ve read the book, but I can still feel Ona’s frustration and lonliness, Arthur’s confusion, and Nolan’s desperation to find the truth.

I had the good fortune of asking Rachel a few questions about the joys and challenges of writing short stories. We talk about building characters, narrative pacing, favorite books, and obviously we had to talk about dive bars and martinis.

Keith Lesmeister: If we think about plot in the way John Gardner described it—character on a journey or stranger comes to town—I’d suggest many of your stories involve the latter, but not always in a straightforward way. For instance, in the opening story “Felina” we see the title character as both a “stranger” but also part of the protagonist’s “journey.” Similarly, the next story in the book, “Notes to a Shadowy Man,” holds an element of a journey for the main character (as she’s away from home to begin with), but the character’s change doesn’t occur completely until we meet a man three quarters the way through. I guess what I’m suggesting here is that your stories don’t immediately fall into an either/or camp in terms of plot arrangement. They often times contain elements of both, and I think that’s in part because the characters you write are so lively and full of uniqueness and each is competing so drastically for his/her own time on the page that when they do finally get there and have their moment, it’s often quite memorable. Could you discuss how you plotted your stories? Or perhaps talk about how you view plot in general?

Rachel Swearingen: It’s interesting to think of my stories in this way. The longer I write the more curious I become about why we tend to rely on such classic story types and shapes. Even the most experimental fiction often goes back to these archetypal stories. I don’t know about you, but I never grow tired of narratives in which strangers appear, and no matter how hard I try to write different protagonists, most of them end up as seekers of some kind.

But you asked about plot. One of the more practical reasons I bring strangers into my narratives is because they inject energy and newness into a story, which means that plot might take care of itself. When you have protagonists who are too into themselves and too passive, you need to find ways to get them moving, and to externalize their yearnings. Plotting a story didn’t come naturally to me at first. I had to study it, and my thoughts on plot continue to change. I’ve come to think of plot more simply as change—in energy, pacing, character, atmosphere and in the prose itself. I’m not as wedded to traditional plot these days, although I find it’s now hard for me to break from it. Linear plot, especially, doesn’t make as much sense in light of the way we experience time and history and memory now.

KL: I’m aware that the first question slipped from plot to character development, which go hand-in-hand of course, but what I’m interested in here is how your secondary characters were often times rendered as perfectly as the protagonist. I’m thinking specifically of Mitz whose larger-than-life personality earned her a title spot, and yet she’s not the point-of-view character of the story. How do you manage these magnificent secondary characters and not allow them to take over the story completely?

RS: Thank you for this, Keith. You do this too to great effect in your own stories. I think the short answer is through training and practice, and especially through reading. Characters often reveal themselves through how they view other characters. There are so many examples of this in American fiction. Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway is at one extreme. We don’t even realize how little we’ve learned about him until he is finished telling the story of Jay Gatsby. Henry James does this as well in much of his work. There is this sense of the narrator’s unlived love in so many of his stories. And I think this can be a danger too, in that focusing too much on colorful characters can allow us to lose sight entirely of the protagonist. But then again, that battle for prominence can be exciting too. Louise Erdrich’s “Saint Marie” is a perfect example of this. I love that story, and I still get chills thinking about Sister Leopolda and her battle with Marie. There are so many great payoffs to giving more attention to secondary characters, including that we begin to think more about the person who is judging the secondary character. I love it when protagonists slowly become more unreliable. In Mitz’s Theory, we never get Mitz’s perspective. Ona has turned Mitz into a figure that will continue to haunt her, but we never find out how much of an effect Ona ever had on Mitz, or how Mitz would tell the story.

KL: Perhaps as a follow up, could you discuss how you go about building complex and meaningful characters?

RS: I would love to hear your answer for this, Keith. I could say that it’s all craft, that I build my characters draft by draft, and make sure I don’t protect them too much and that I test them, but I think that’s only partially true. I have had to abandon stories because I couldn’t make the characters live. There’s some sort of magical chemistry that makes characters come alive, and for every story the formula is a little different. For me, it’s often atmosphere and place and voice. I can feel when I’ve caught a spark, but even that isn’t completely trustworthy. There have been times when a story has taken hold of me, and I revisit it only to find that something isn’t quite working. The story doesn’t breathe. It seems to me that with all art there is something at work that cannot be fully controlled or planned, and that’s one of the things that keeps me writing.

KL: Your work, for me, conjures the word “atmospheric” – that there’s something happening between the characters and the environment in which the story takes place that feels unsettling or perhaps off-kilter. This notion of atmosphere is different than mood or tone. I mean, Mary Miller, in one sentence can really set a mood. Atmosphere on the other hand requires an accumulation of illuminating detail over the course of the story. For instance, in the story linked here, “Advice for the Haunted,” there’s this great list of what the deceased former owner of an apartment left behind after she passed: “We found a half-used bottle of anti-anxiety pills in the medicine cabinet, a glass accordion in a folded tablecloth, a baggie of foreign coins in a boot at the back of a closet. In a rickety piano bench, we discovered faded Polaroids of two girls at what looked like a family picnic.” And the details continue to emerge and build off one another and this build-up helps create this atmosphere of what can be described affectionately as strange and unsettling. It’s also what really lingers (at least in this reader’s mind) long after finishing the story. How do you do this?? I’m not sure if there’s an actual question here, but perhaps you could comment as you see fit.

RS: I like how you separate mood from atmosphere, and I want to spend some time thinking about this. I’ve had to work on pulling back on details in stories. It can be too much for contemporary readers. It’s a delicate balance for a short story because the more details you include the less room you have to do other things. On the other hand, atmospheric details can build a secondary story that competes with the primary one and creates some wonderful tension. Shirley Jackson does this wonderfully in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Filmmakers use this to great effect. Like most elements of fiction, however, there’s a slippery quality to images and details. I’m thinking about this more these days, especially now that we’re experiencing an explosion of more nefarious uses of visual storytelling in disinformation and propaganda.

KL: Your stories don’t shy away from the most difficult of issues related to: family, violent crime, loss, mental health, existential crises. Do these issues emerge naturally, while writing, or are they part of an initial conceptual impetus for the story? I’m interested in “idea”-centric fiction versus say character-driven, but your stories manage to do both. Take Mitz for example. We see a host of mental health issues (among others), but the narrative never loses sight of its characters, meaning there’s never a direct address of the mental health itself. It’s always addressed within the context of the characters’ actions or dialogue. How do you manage that balance between ideas/issues and characters/plot?

RS: For me, everything comes out of the story and the characters. I’ve never been able to begin a story with a theme or idea, although I do get inspired by news reports and ideas that come up in other art forms. “The Only Thing Missing Was the Howling of Wolves,” for example, was inspired by a radio story about people secretly baptizing the children in their extended families.) While I was writing this collection I realized that my characters were often working through generational or cultural or personal trauma and grief, but I didn’t set out to write about these things. If anything I tried to avoid these subjects, but questions kept surfacing. So, I guess it’s not ideas, but questions that trigger stories. For “Mitz’s Theory,” it was how do we separate our narratives from the narratives of those we love, and how much responsibility do we bare when the people we love are in trouble?

KL: And for as quirky and heartbreaking as these stories are, there’s a sense of patience and calm that radiates from each. Meaning: it feels like you’ve spent many months/years with these stories and they have benefitted from a cohesiveness that only comes from hours spent revising. I don’t want to sound overly fanboyish here, but there wasn’t a single false note in the entire book—everything felt as if it belonged, as if each of the words and sentences have been barrel-aged (probably some really good bourbon barrel) to form a perfect melding of characters and scenes. Perhaps you could discuss the amount of time you spent with these stories.

RS: Thank you so much, Keith. These stories did take time for me, probably because I don’t always know what my stories are about until I’ve set them aside to get some distance. It’s funny, a reader once said that my stories are “sweaty with effort.” I felt so seen when I read that and embarrassed–until I realized that this criticism comes from the, mistaken in my view, idea that good writers just sit down and in a burst of inspiration write perfect stories that appear effortless. That myth of effortless perfection has robbed so many artists of good work. I’ve yet to meet an author who doesn’t have to sweat out their stories, and then do it all over again. Sometimes you are gifted a story that comes easily, but most of the time writing is like finding your way through a dark forest.

KL: How did you decide on the order of the stories? What were you conscious of as you placed them opening to closing?

RS: Most readers jump around in collections, and so I tried not to overthink this. That said, I did decide to use “Felina” and “Advice for the Haunted” as bookends because they are in conversation with each other in some ways. Both take place in city apartments between lovers. I start with “Felina,” which is probably the strangest story, so that readers will know what they are getting into and won’t be surprised by the oddness of some of the stories that follow. It’s the earliest written piece in the book, and it’s also more contained and interior than some of the later pieces. “Advice,” on the other hand, opens up to the outer world” by the end.

KL: As a short story writer, I imagine you read quite a few short stories and short story collections. Could you recommend any? Perhaps the best you’ve read in the past year? Or other reading recommendations?

RS: Yes, although I didn’t read as many collections this year as I would have liked. John McNally’s The Fear of Everything is fantastic, and if you’re looking for atmospheric, spooky and humorous/heartbreaking stories, this is your book. Check out his story, “The Phone Call,” which is spectacularly creepy and would make a great piece for an undergraduate fiction course. Donna Miscolta’s Living Color: Angie Rubio Stories follows the awkward and smart Angie Rubio, as she moves from kindergarten through high school, with one story for each year. It’s deceptively simple in form, and compulsively readable. Jen Fawkes’s Mannequin & Wife is a cornucopia of extremely imaginative, genre-bending stories. And Caitlin Horrocks’ Life Among the Terranauts, which I just read in December, is also super imaginative. It’s eerily suited for the times, as it opens with a story about an entire town going into hibernation and ends with a story about a group of scientists isolating themselves inside a geodome. 

KL: Last series of questions, rapid fire, on preference.

RS: Disclaimer: If you were to ask me these same questions tomorrow, I’d probably change my answers.

KL: Techno or Jazz?

RS: Jazz.

KL: The Cranberries or Mazzy Star?

RS: Mazzy Star.

KL: Dive bars or Martini bars?

RS: Dive bars, but I still might order a dirty martini to get the olives.

KL: Ceramic wine cups or wine glasses?

RS: Wine glasses.

KL: Thursday or Friday?

RS: Are they different now?

KL: Do you call it a cemetery or graveyard (or boneyard)?

RS: Graveyard.

KL: Holiday dinner: turkey or ham?

RS: Turkey. (These days, preferably alive and in a field with no hunters in sight.)

KL: Deciduous or coniferous woodland?  

RS: Coniferous.

Rachel Swearingen is the author of How to Walk on Water and Other Stories, winner of the 2018 New American Press Fiction Prize (October 1, 2020). Her stories and essays have appeared in VICE, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review, Off Assignment, Agni, American Short Fiction, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2015 Missouri Review Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize in Fiction, a 2012 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction. In 2019, she was named one of 30 Writers to Watch by the Guild Literary Complex. She holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin – Madison and a PhD from Western Michigan University, and teaches at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago.

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