Fiction That Performs As Only Fiction Can: An Interview with Ann Pancake

John Brown Spiers: To what extent do you think a novel needs to be dependent upon plot? You’ve spoken of what you perceived to be your own deficiencies with plot while writing Strange As This Weather Has Been, but that novel seems to be driven as much by event—driven successfully—as it is by character and language.

Ann Pancake: Well, I’m much relieved to hear that you think the novel feels successfully driven by event. I think writing Strange taught me how to use plot. The early drafts focused more on the Bant chapters, which are primarily language-driven, as was most of the fiction writing—all short stories—I did before I tackled the novel. Before the novel, I wrote almost entirely intuitively, drawing on my intellect only when I got in a bind, and what comes to me intuitively is language and character. When I started the novel, I realized two things: one, if I tried to write the whole thing exclusively by intuition, it’d take me decades to finish it, and two, if the novel was primarily language-driven, I’d have a smaller audience for it. Because I am so passionate about the political issues in the book, I really wanted a larger audience than I’d had for my short stories. I figured a decent plot would expand my readership—more people are captured by story than they are by lyricism. So I asked a friend of mine who does plot well, Kevin Stewart, another West Virginia writer, for advice. And he told me simply, “Give each character a destination.” That helped me immensely.

JBS: The cadence and lyricism of the voices in the novel sound like a distillation of place. Can you talk a little bit about your characters and their voices—how you arrive inside these linguistic spaces and what it’s like to inhabit them?

AP: I was given the great blessing of growing up speaking and hearing an English that is more musical and inventive than standard English. The language of the characters in the novel is my home language, their voices the voices of my childhood in West Virginia. For me, the impetus for a piece of fiction is usually a voice I hear in my head. Sometimes that voice is speaking words, telling a story. Other times it’s more just rhythm and sound; the words come later. With all six speakers in the novel, I heard a voice, the voice of each individual, in my head. Bant came first, then Dane, then Corey. I was certainly not given each character’s entire story like this. Once I get down as much I can hear without asking, there comes the delicate process of re-conjuring that voice deliberately or of “making up” the voice, mimicking it more consciously, to fill in the gaps between what was given spontaneously.

No one has ever asked me what it’s like to inhabit them. When the voices are coming without any intention on my part, the experience is rapturous. I’m outside myself completely. I have to admit, I’m addicted to it.

JBS: Your story “Arsonists,” from the Summer 2009 issue of The Georgia Review, continues to explore some of the issues and themes you work with most prominently in Strange: poverty; the loss of identity that can come with it; the individual consequences of corporate concerns. It’s clear from “Creative Responses to Worlds Unraveling” that these issues are close to your heart; would you say they characterize most of your writing since the novel’s publication as well?

AP: Yes, I’d say those three issues you mention show up in some form in almost all my writing, including the writing I did before the novel. They are more explicit in stories like “Arsonists,” which is about retired strip miners, and “Rockhounds,” which is about a family who has leased their land for hydrofracking. As I mention in “Creative Reponses,” what I’m trying for now are stories that are less about documenting loss and poverty and environmental disaster and more about imagining a way forward. So far, the stories that do that—one, “Sab,” will be published in The Chattahoochee Review in January—are experimenting with and exploring ways of knowing that are beyond the Western Cartesian model, because I don’t think that model has the solutions we need right now. I’m planning to include several such stories in the collection I’m finishing at the moment, Bone Dowser.

JBS: Do you find John Gardner’s call for fiction—that it be a “vivid continuous dream,” as you reference in your essay—too constricting? Is the expectation we have of a clear divide between fictional writing and political writing too rigid? (Another way to ask this might be: How much does art need to be an escape from reality, and how much do politics need to be a real-life confrontation?)

AP: I see “dream” as a state that is generative and transformative more than I see it as an escape from reality. I think if the political fiction writer can immerse her reader in a rich “dreamtime,” the reader will emerge with a more complex understanding of “politics,” with a greater compassion for the people who suffer from destructive political policies, and possibly with more capacity to imagine solutions. I don’t find political writing that is not artful to be as emotionally or psychologically affecting as artful writing that is also political. Political writing that is not artful can be much more effective and efficient at educating the intellect, but, frankly, it seems to me that at this point many minds are very knowledgeable about what’s wrong in our society, yet we apparently aren’t motivated enough by that knowledge to take enough radical steps to transform the mess. The motivation may have to come from somewhere deeper inside us.

Changing political policies absolutely must include real-life confrontation, in all kinds of ways. Political art simply does something different, something complementary. Art can be a stimulus for direct political action.

JBS: You note the ability of fiction, perhaps uniquely among art forms, to illuminate the inner lives of its characters, and in so doing to broaden a reader’s capacity for empathy. I wonder if you’ve given any thought, since working on your sister’s film Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice, to the capacity of documentary filmmaking as a means of achieving similar effects. It seems possible that that medium, where interior is concerned, could be just as expressive as fiction, depending on the interviewee’s openness and the interviewer’s insight.

AP: I was helping my sister Catherine with Black Diamonds before I started writing the novel, and at that time, I believed that documentary film was without a doubt the best way to approach the subject of mountaintop removal. Of course, I still think Black Diamonds is a phenomenal film (and one of the few on the subject made by a native Appalachian) that has helped the movement tremendously. It’s just that as I’ve received reader reaction to my novel, I’ve come to understand how the political novel has some unique qualities.

I do believe filmmaking can achieve similar effects. I also believe that the relationship a reader has with a novel is very different from the relationship a viewer has with a film. The novel asks a reader to inhabit, to identify with, a character for period of time that will span many hours over the course of days or weeks. The novel demands that the reader expend significant imaginative effort to live as that character—more imaginative effort, I would argue, than film demands because the film provides its viewer’s imagination more “help,” fills in more sensory blanks. I also think that because documentary film is bound to “tell the truth,” it is doesn’t have as much freedom as fiction to create for the reader a wide range of “interiors.” It’s bound to present the “interiors” it can find and it’s bound to present what its interviewees express. Fiction, on the other hand, can make up anything it wants to give the reader any experience it wants that reader to have.

I’m certainly not arguing that fiction is a more powerful political tool than film. Film has all kinds of advantages, including, in the case of mountaintop removal, its ability to provide devastating visual imagery of the practice. I really, really struggled to provide such imagery in my novel. There is also the immediate and dramatic reaction a viewer has to hearing a real-life story from an interviewee. And film usually reaches a much broader audience than fiction. So, it’s not a question of better or worse. The two media move audiences in different ways, and all those ways are valuable.

JBS: On a related note, do you think that activism—a word that can be rather broadly defined—is the answer to your suggestion that artists “take [themselves] more seriously and make [themselves] more relevant”? Practically speaking, how do you think artists should get people to pay attention to art, to fiction?

AP: There is pressure in the contemporary publishing atmosphere for fiction writers in particular not to tackle “political” subject matter. We’ve also been warned against it by our mentors of the late twentieth century. I’ll never forget attending a conference panel on “Politics and Literature” maybe eight years ago, and the final message from every panelist except one younger woman was “don’t do it.” Never mind that literary fiction has been “doing it” from its inception and that it’s a commonplace in other countries’ literary traditions. If you’re a writer who is not interested in writing about politics, I am not suggesting you take them on. But if you are a writer who feels some draw to politics, I ask that you push forward, take that risk, keeping in mind always that fiction can address political issues in myriad ways.

But that is not all I mean by “taking ourselves more seriously and making ourselves more relevant.” There is also pressure from the large publishing houses for fiction writers to write prose that is “accessible” and “reader-friendly,” and this usually means prose that is relatively artless at the sentence level. Sentences that are “transparent,” diction that is uninventive, syntax that is uniform; in other words, a prose that a reader can essentially skim for the “subject” or “story,” such as that is, because when language is dumbed-down the “larger” issues in the piece are also compromised. When fiction is diminished like this, it is stripped of its unique qualities as an art form, so why read it when one can more easily get an accessible story from, say, journalism, certain kinds of nonfiction, or television? I think when fiction’s primary aim is an accessible story, it makes itself obsolete. Other media and genres are naturally more accessible.

Commercial publishing people have repeatedly told me that if I use lyrical or unconventional language, nobody will read my fiction. What I’ve learned after publishing two books that are lyrical and that do unexpected things with language is that readers actually respond with great enthusiasm and even a sense of relief, like finally finding water after a long period of thirst.

So I guess one way artists can get audiences to pay more attention to fiction is to write full-blown artful fiction that takes advantage of all of fiction’s capabilities. Make fiction that performs as only fiction can.

JBS: Has your own physical distance from West Virginia enabled your ability to write about the place, or does it feel like an obstacle? Does any physical or emotional distance you feel heighten your concerns about the “political” nature of Strange As This Weather Has Been?

AP: Before I left West Virginia when I was 22, I believed it was one of the most boring places in the world and that I had to leave in order to become a writer because there was nothing to write about in West Virginia. Only after I lived away from there, both overseas and in other parts of the U.S., did I get the perspective to recognize that we had a distinct culture and that the region was teeming with fertile, complex subjects. Here I was in Japan, in Thailand, in Samoa, trying to write about those places because they seemed exotic and dramatic, and the only fiction I was writing that was “real” was set in West Virginia. My homesickness played a part in that, too.

Regarding Strange As This Weather Has Been and mountaintop removal, I think that if I had been living right in the disaster zone, it would have been very difficult to separate myself enough from anger and grief to spend the seven years I spent creating a fictional world about it. Also, my home place is not in the coalfields. It’s in a different part of West Virginia. The culture is similar to that of the coalfield region, and the topography is similar, but it’s not identical. If my own home place were under assault, I’m not sure I could bear to engage with it imaginatively for such an extended period of time. It would hurt too much.

When I started drafting the novel, I did move to Charleston, West Virginia, on the edge of the coalfields, for a year, to get closer to the events and to the language and to interviewees, and to be more involved in direct action against the mining. That was also absolutely necessary, the temporary proximity during a critical phase of the drafting process.

At this point, ten years after leaving Charleston, the distance does feel like an obstacle in some ways, especially because I almost never hear the language of back home. On the other hand, living away from Appalachia has given me opportunities and experiences that wouldn’t have been available if I’d stayed there, and I see myself in the future writing more about non-Appalachian places and subjects while never abandoning my love of Appalachia and my commitment to it.

JBS: How important is place to you, personally, outside of your writing and activism?

AP: This question is so far-reaching I don’t think I know how to answer it. The natural world is sacred to me. That’s where I get spiritual nourishment. West Virginia is my home—it sunk deep, deep into my body and psyche, and it’ll always be there. I love that land in a visceral way. And I love, in a different way, the land of the Pacific Northwest where I’ve lived for fifteen years. It’s not family, but it’s a friend who has given me a whole lot of solace, especially when I’m hurting about the exploitation and destruction of the land that I do feel as family. We all know that when you have a troubled family, it’s sometimes easier to live apart.