Michael Fischer interviews Melinda Moustakis
Michael Fischer interviews Melinda Moustakis
Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories. Fiction (Short-Story Collection) by Melinda Moustakis. Winner of the 2010 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction. University of Georgia Press. Sept 15 2011. Cloth: 144 pp; $24.95.
In blurbing your book, Jaimy Gordon mentions your “innovative yet utterly readable…formal designs.” Well, I was fascinated by the modular designs of some of these stories, especially since I recently read Madison Smartt Bell’s book, Narrative Design, where he writes:
“In the case of modular design [as opposed to linear design] the writer will, at the outset, approach the raw material in a more fragmentary way. A sense of integrity in the work as a whole must be achieved by symmetrical arrangement of the modular parts. In a modular narrative design, narrative elements are balanced in symmetry as shapes are balanced in a symmetrical geometric figure, or as weights are balanced on a scale” (214).
“The Mannequin in Soldotna,” the second story in your collection that originally appeared in Conjunctions, is divided into titled sections (or modules?) that capture—among many things—the temporal ebb-and-flow of the Kenai River, salmon migratory patterns, and a culture of hardscrabble violence. Do you see this story and others designed modularly and fitting Bell’s description? If so, why are you attracted to the modular? How does it inform your aesthetic and vision?
The stories “The Mannequin in Soldotna” and “They Find the Drowned” were both culled from a longer, fragmented work set on the river. A mentor of mine told me I should try to see if I could collect the pieces into short stories to send out to magazines. I did start out with a longer meditation about the river and these two stories are the result of bringing certain narrative strands together. I imagine modular fiction is similar to digging diamonds out of coal and laying them out on the table and arranging them in a long line and finding the ones that speak to each other, that suddenly light up differently or reflect light in a more dazzling way based on which diamond comes before or after. I remember when I was arranging the sections for “The Mannequin in Soldotna” and I had the thought to collect all the sections about salmon running and intersperse them with the sections about the doctor and the fish hooks on the mannequin. Then I realized that it made sense to have salmon struggling up a river and battling rocks and hooks and to show humans navigating a similar maze where other humans and nature are threatening entities. There is, as Bell describes, a sense that you have to create symmetry and balance when you arrange the sections. Each section, like a scene, has to have its own narrative arc that also propels the overall narrative arc of the story forward. The symmetry creates a sense of inevitability in the story—if the salmon die after they spawn, then there is the question of what or who else will die on the river in this modular cycle. For me, modular fiction mirrors how my brain works. I am more of an associative thinker and I am able to pull together many more narrative strands in the modular form. I remember sitting down and thinking about the Kenai and really questioning how I could capture all the animals, all the humans, and all the interactions on the river. There were so many things I felt I had to include in order to do justice to this community and eco-system.
I see modular fiction as a collage where, instead of layers, you have sections. Or I can see it as a way of mapping coordinates of moments in a story. I am currently reading Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and, in one essay, she says that the fiction writer’s job is to find those moments where time and space and eternity intersect. I would say that, in modular fiction, each section has to be a place where time and space and eternity intersect. Otherwise, the reader will be questioning why you are writing in this form in the first place.
It would seem difficult to “do justice to this community and eco-system” in any other way than the associative, and—given your sense of obligation—I have to ask: do you consider Bear Down, Bear North a short-story cycle? There’s an intimate, interrelated quality to the stories reminiscent of other community and place-based cycles that initiate readers in a kind of shared, sensuousness-of-place. “Trigger,” the first story that runs a page and could read as a prose poem, and “The Mannequin in Soldotna,” are both language-driven and orient readers immediately in a setting that serves the more character-driven stories to follow, many of which have recurring characters.
Yes, I’ve been calling the book a collection of linked short stories set in Alaska, but, actually, story cycle seems more fitting. Or, I could even make a case for calling this book a “novel-in-stories.” The word “cycle” brings to mind cycles of violence, migratory patterns, maps, coordinates, but also how characters will reappear in later stories in the book, or how they are all part of one family or community. In addition, the word describes how different generations of the same family are dealing with alcoholism. I might have to sit down someday and chart out how images reoccur in this book as well.
I have to take the terms “language-driven” and “character-driven” to task, though. I think they are misleading terms. For me, it is very difficult to say that language or character drive a story. How can they be separated and parsed out? My goal when I write a story is to have a reader feel like they are immersed in another world, to punch them in the heart. I have failed as a writer if a reader gets to the end of one of my stories and isn’t emotionally altered in some way. I might say, rather, that “The Mannequin in Soldotna” is image-driven or linked together by images, but the center of the story is the character of the doctor trying to make sense of tragedy. Language and character go hand in hand and work together and my goal as a writer is to make them inseparable. Characters have voices. Landscapes have voices. Sound and rhythm are an integral part to all of the stories in the book.
I like the term sensuousness-of-place. I think of swimming through words. When you say sensuousness-of-place, your mouth has to swim through it. I’d like to imagine that every word and line of this book has been dipped in Alaska, is dripping with it, with its sounds and textures. My aim is saturation—for readers to be so far gone in the world of the book that when they snap back to reality, there’s that haze of disorientation.
You’re right that “language-driven” and “character-driven” are misleading and ultimately unsatisfactory terms. I love what you say about “the word ‘cycle,’” which also brings to mind notions of ritual that permeate many of your stories, particularly stories ordered around fishing, a highly ritualistic sport with its own laws, ethics, and codes of behavior. In your book, fishing is always there, even when it’s not—it’s always lurking in the margins somehow. Do you consider fishing ritualistic? Does it order the lives of your characters, even when they’re not fishing?
Fishing stories are one of my weaknesses. I might be writing them for the rest of my life. Fishing is a quest, a gamble—there will always be danger and luck and the one that got away. The world of Bear Down, Bear North is a tangled net with hooks and line and lures. Fishing lines and blood lines. Hooks and addiction and family ties. But there is also the miraculous side of fishing. What you might catch or recover. There is comfort in the ritual of casting your line and letting it drift down the current and listening to river. Then there are the spiritual implications of fishing—the searching, the sense that another power is at work, the trial and error, and the otherworldly beauty of a blush-cheeked rainbow trout.
Let’s discuss gender. In some of your stories, characters lead double-lives between a rough exterior necessary for survival and a crushing, private vulnerability, often the result of exhaustion from the former. As a Southerner who has read a lot of Southern fiction, your working class characters remind me of fiction set in the rural South dealing with what I call “the burden of being tough.” In “The Weight of You,” Jack’s familiar to me not only on the page, but in real life. I know men like Jack—men who are completely different in certain situations and environments than in private. You explore this same concept with the mother in “This One Isn’t Going to Be Afraid,” which we don’t see as frequently in working class fiction, where women are often in the background, or have their “toughness” limited to the kitchen or home (not that the domestic can’t be as tough as the “wilderness”). But there are women in rural areas like Colleen who can change a tire or tackle a huge salmon without the aid of a net, flex their biceps afterward, and talk shit to the boys like it was nothing at all. How does the structure of “This One Isn’t Going to Be Afraid”—one with sections named after body parts like “Biceps,” “Calves,” and “Shoulders”—subvert gender norms or roles while underscoring the emotional price Colleen pays in the process?
First, I would like to say that I grew up around amazing, magnetic and complex women. I’ve also had them as colleagues and mentors and teachers and friends. And I don’t understand why there seem to be so many boring female characters in fiction that function as props rather than fully realized humans. Or maybe interesting female characters are being written and not being recognized, although lately there has been a surge of them—I’m thinking of Maggie and Gypsy in Jaimy Gordon’s National Book Award winner Lord of Misrule and I’ve been hearing a lot about Margo Crane, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s heroine in Once Upon A River, which just came out. One of my goals in writing this book was to write fascinating and complex characters, especially female characters. Women live and have lived in the wilderness.
The structure of “This One Isn’t Going to Be Afraid” came from an intuitive place. I was thinking about a particular scar belonging to someone I know and the story behind it and a character developed from making up different stories for a scar and then thinking about the stories behind other parts of the body. The result was a story that explored how the body physically keeps track of time and memory. The structure of this story has to be tied to the mannequin that the doctor puts all the fish hooks from injured anglers on—another map of memory. The daughter in this story is trying to understand her mother, Colleen, trying to find her way back home, much like the salmon on their migration in the mannequin story are trying to find their way back “home.” Also, this story could be viewed as a literalization of thinking of the body as a landscape. Historically, land and territory have been feminized in terms of language and imagery when a more powerful country wants to colonize it. And we know the tragic consequences. The wilderness, too, is feminized when it is called “mother nature.” I think by giving a voice to the female body, and giving it power that is not just sexual, I am also giving a voice to the landscape. Women and their bodies are so much more than sexualized beings. The first section in the story is called “nails” as in fingernails, but I deliberately left it as “nails” to call attention to the other meanings of the word and the phrase “hard as nails.” This section subverts the notion that having painted fingernails means one is specific type of femininity, is a specific type of woman, certainly not the type to chew them off at a job interview or keep them intact while chopping wood. I deconstructed the gendered notion of fingernails in order to create a new definition of the term in the same way I had the daughter deconstruct the mother’s body in order to redefine and better understand her mother. Of course, I did not set out to do all these things when I sat down to write the story. I had this fascinating character in the mother and was exploring the mother and daughter’s relationship. But in finishing the book and looking back over the story, I can see all of these other elements working in the piece.
I do feel like my work has a kinship with Southern writing. I’d even describe my work as Northern Gothic. The South is on the edges of America, so to speak. Alaska is physically detached from “the lower 48.” Both are “othered” in various ways. Both have that “burden of being tough.” Jack is, at first, the tough, manly character one might expect to find in Alaska. But he quickly becomes complex and surprising through Gracie’s point of view. The story “The Weight of You,” which focuses on Jack and Gracie as siblings, was the spark that started this whole book. Understanding those two characters, and their particular types of toughness and vulnerability and modes of survival, gave me the tools necessary to create the rest of the characters.
The mother-daughter dynamic between Colleen and her unnamed daughter in “This One Isn’t Going to Be Afraid” reappears in “What You Can Endure.” Colleen “makes [her daughter] feel the top point of her skull where there is a dent the size of a poker chip” and says, “‘I have this mark and you have this mark and we were once whales.’” Later, Colleen tells her daughter, “California has made you soft.” Both stories reveal a generational rift. How do you see this generational rift connecting to body, time, and memory?
The book’s particular brand of generational rift is a mythology that is dreamed up in Alaska and is full of paradox. It’s a prominent theme in the book. There’s the majesty of the wilderness, of eagles, moose, and king salmon placed right next to extreme poverty—material and emotional. There’s a strong mother character who is actually very fearful and this fear protects her but also creates a barrier between her and her daughter. Motherhood is a type of trauma on the body. Hence, the attention on bones and bone structure and whale bones in these two stories. And so there is this image of the generational rift being bone deep. The body is a physical marker of this rift because it brings up the past merely by surviving and being there.
“Point MacKenzie” originally appeared in Vol. 6 of The Tusculum Review and was nominated for a Pushcart. It’s a story about a household’s reaction to a nearby plane crash and probably the most experimental in your book. Was this story inspired by a real plane crash? Did you have any literary models in mind when writing it?
Many of the stories I write are inspired by stories I have heard from my parents or from my Uncle Sonny who takes me fishing in Alaska in the summers. In the particular case of Point Mackenzie, I was inspired by two different stories about plane crashes that my uncle had told me. “Point MacKenzie” was an experiment in voice, to see if I could write five distinctive voices of children of different ages and have all of their points of view link up together to form a fragmented portrait of the emotional significance of the plane crash. I didn’t have any literary models directly in mind, although of course Faulkner and other authors have used this structure. I was focused on voice and then the line and then the connection of images. I had no idea how difficult and time-consuming this story would turn out to be. I was very grateful to The Tusculum Review for giving this story a chance because it had been rejected many times and I knew it would take a certain a reader with an intense love of language and image to become invested in the story, especially since Rias, who has a jarring and staccato sense of phrasing, is the first point of view the reader encounters.
Your work has an acute political and social awareness that I find refreshing. I’m weary of the apolitical and anti-intellectual strain in so much of America’s contemporary fiction—place-less story after place-less story about “individuals struggling psychologically.”Your characters struggle individually yet proportionate to place and community. I know you’re not out to grind axes or prove points, but how do you navigate the political in your work as a writer writing about Alaska? And, who are some other contemporary writers writing about Alaska in similarly subversive ways that you’d recommend?
I never start writing and think I’m going to write a political story or a story about gender or class. I usually have a point of view and voice that takes over first, or an image I know I have to write towards. I believe the personal and interpersonal and the concrete will do the work that needs to be done politically in an engaging way. Start on the ground with nails and then those lofty ideas and abstractions will descend and settle down in the story. Of course, what I’m passionate about will naturally come across in my writing. For example, I’ve seen how non-local guides mistreat the Kenai River and mistreat the locals who live and fish on the river so this will naturally come up in my writing of this setting. I am not a year-round local of Alaska and I am not a tourist but I have a lot of family history there—perhaps “localist” would be a more fitting term for me. I love books and films that capture a town, a location, a community, a setting. I tend to focus on the places in Alaska where my family has lived or where I have spent the most time—any expertise I have has been passed down to me, is learned on the river and listening to my uncle and other fishermen and fisherwomen. There are only certain areas of Alaska and certain issues I feel I can truthfully and respectfully capture.
I’d recommend fiction set in Alaska by Seth Kantner, Nancy Lord, and Lesley Thomas.
Are you working on anything new?
Yes, at least I think so. There are so many things I want to write next and I have finally picked one or two to focus on. All I can promise is that there will be moose.
Melinda Moustakis was born in Fairbanks, Alaska. She received her MA from UC Davis and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Bear Down Bear North, her first book, won the 2010 Flannery O’ Connor Award in Short Fiction and the UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction and is forthcoming in September. Her work has appeared in journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Conjunctions, The Massachusetts Review, American Short Fiction and The Tusculum Review.
Michael Fischer is a PhD Candidate in English and Creative Writing at Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Bayou, Beloit Fiction Journal, Green Mountains Review, The Tusculum Review, and is forthcoming in Wigleaf.