from Iowa, Stephanie
Dickinson and her writing have traveled far
and wide—her work has appeared in Portland
Review, New York Stories, and Storyquarterly,
among many others. Her first novel, Half Girl, won the
2003 Hackney Award; in addition to that and Road of Five Churches,
Dickinson has also published Corn
with Stephanie Dickinson
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Stephanie Dickinson: The
stories in Road of Five
Churches were written over a three year period. I was
working simultaneously on a novel (Half
Girl), which seemed endless and turned out to be just
that, with one draft finishing where another began. The stories kept me
rational. I sought refuge in the shorter form, the intensity of
storytelling closer to poetry’s compression than the sprawl and leisure
of a novel. Some of my friends do no other writing when at work on a
book project, and while I tried to discipline myself to the novel only,
I failed. Stories suggested themselves; they seduced me, whispering the
pleasures of being able to actually finish something. For me, the
twenty-four hours of a day are increasingly fragmented and jagged, bits
and pieces of time rather than solid handfuls. I like to read short
stories while waiting in lines, on elevators and subways. They seem
perfect for the jolting rhythms of the 21st century. Perhaps there will
be a short story renaissance.
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
SD: I didn’t have a
collection in mind when I was writing them, as they were an escape from
the Alcatraz of Half
Girl. But if the conscious part of my brain had no
collection in mind, the unconsciousness was at work, sorting it out.
Every writer seems to have material they are drawn to, and when they
engage that subject matter, those characters, that place, something
magical happens, the creative force, life itself inhabits the page. My
point of fascination is with the teenage condition, that fluidity and
becomingness, the jittery movement toward adulthood. My own adolescence
was a whirlwind, and I’m particularly interested in girls, the
psychological states of vulnerability and defiance, of acting out and
being acted upon, where pleasures tasted and mistakes made have
lifelong consequences. The protagonists in Road of Five Churches
are all girls in predicaments.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
SD: The “place” of
most of these stories is rural. I decided not to include urban settings
as these nine pieces seemed to sit easily beside the others. Monarch
lives in a ghost town, Lida., Nevada; Trout, inhabits a Galveston bait
shop; Angelique, a run down Iowa farm; Hatchet is off the Rez; the
kidnapped Nia, on the road somewhere in western North Carolina; Bethany
has just returned from Iraq to corn country, Ciz is lynched in
backwoods Arkansas; and while the present of Jasmina’s narrative occurs
in an urban nightclub, the past takes place in a Eastern European sheep
shed. For the protagonists included there’s not only a commonality of
gender and age, but a ruralism that colors their struggle. Fire Maidens opens
the collection with the sentence “I wish I were anything that has
wings.” Perhaps that expresses the overriding sentiment or yearning of
all the stories. And After
Baah Ate A Dandelion closes the collection with an
epiphany, “The black soil is alive. Lilies burn orange trumpets in the
dust.” Between that frame I tried to intersperse the harder stories
with the softer.
does the word "story"
mean to you?
telling, shaping, sharing, a remembering and passing on. A tale written
in short prose, a modern form with ancient lineage harkening back to
the oral tradition. It’s more than a narrative with beginning, middle
and end that can be read at one sitting or reduced to a word count. The
word “story” also means for me Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum,
the first non-Biblical adult story I experienced. My fifth grade
teacher read it aloud during milk breaks. Intense, unforgettable. I can
hear through the fifth grader’s ears a scurrying of rats and the swing
of the pendulum. A few days ago I downloaded it off the Internet and
read the story again to compare impressions. Riveting still. I was
especially struck by the elegance of Poe’s syntax and vocabulary.
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
I work at a cubicle job and fight for the time and muscle to do the
writing. It’s the nature of the beast to want all of you in exchange
for a paycheck. I sometimes imagine my co-workers as a kind of “reader”
for my stories. A test audience. If it interests them, it might draw
other general readers. One co-worker commented, “Pretty good when
you’re not going off on a tangent.” Yet, I truly appreciated his
reading Road of Five
Churches, a bit girlie, a lot of tangents. Perhaps I’m
envisioning a reader in the whirlwind years or a survivor of them.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection,
anything at all?
SD: The light/dark
balance is a hard one for me. Does the material draw you in or does it
repel you? Are the stories too dark and depressing or are they
pleasurable enough? When a reader and a writer connect it’s life
changing. I devoured everything Jean Rhys wrote including her journals
and story collection, Tigers
are Better Looking. I’m incredibly grateful that Rhys
lived and wrote. Whenever I don’t want to be in the world that spawned
the cubicle and multi-tasking I re-read Good Morning, Midnight
or Voyage into the Dark.
That’s the ultimate crisscross between a writer and a reader, that
chemistry when the work resonates and is pleasurable. To imagine my
work resonating strongly with a reader, that is a lovely thought.
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
SD: There is an
element of nakedness and embarrassment in putting a book out. The
imperfections of the work stand foremost. And I’m not sure there’s a
flood of people buying Road
of Five Churches, but there’s been a trickle. For that I’m
happy. It’s a gift the reader gives the writer, especially when there
are so many competing books. It’s getting harder to find the silence to
read in. For me it’s not so much the buying but the reading that is so
meaningful. It’s a privilege for a voice to inhabit another’s mind.
TSR: What are
you working on now?
SD: I am just
finishing Memory and
Bluejay, a post-Katrina New Orleans novel. Water runs
through much of my recent work. Last spring my home state of Iowa
experienced a thousand year flood. In my recent story The River is About to Eat,
two sixty-year-old male twins survey their town as it is about to be
deluged. Also, I’ve worked for a number of years on an urban
collection, entitled Fugly,
a sequence of related stories narrated by Dalloway, a precocious
Manhattanite. But right at the immediate moment I’m beginning a
non-fiction piece. Three weeks ago I was mugged at gunpoint in the
lobby of my building. It felt like the assailants followed me from one
of my stories. An hour later the men were arrested, likely responsible
for a month long mugging spree in Greenwich Village. It brought up many
echoes from my past and I’m puzzling over all of it.
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
SD: Bad Dirt by Annie
Proulx; The Mad
Dog: Stories by Heinrich Boll; Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov