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Stephanie Dickinson

Website: StephanieDickinson.net

Originally 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 Goddess.

Short story collections

Road of Five Churches (Rain Mountain Press, 2007) 

Reviewed by Kristin Thiel

Interview with Stephanie Dickinson

The Short Review: 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.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

SD:  A 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?

SD:  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