Stephanie Soileau Talks: "Writing is a License to be curious about Everything"
Stephanie Soileau Talks: "Writing is a License to be curious about Everything"
On November 17, 2020, Stephanie Soileau read from her collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights, via Zoom to a group of students, faculty, and enthusiasts at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. She answered audience questions afterward there, but she also agreed to meet with Breakwater, also via Zoom, for some further discussion.
"The Efficient Horizon" — On Inspiration and Movement
Breakwater Review: What, or who, inspires you to write?
Stephanie Soileau: I’m very much inspired by the people back home in my home state of Louisiana, and by the state in general. It’s almost inexplicable, the kind of attachment that I’ve maintained over all of these many years of being gone. Part of me feels like at this point I don’t really have a right to write about it anymore. I don’t live there, and it’s changed, you know? But at the same time, I can’t seem to escape it. So that certainly inspires me.
And people, especially, within that context, sort of wrestle with the kinds of dilemmas—personal and moral and environmental—that arise in that place, and try to maintain a sense of home and stubborn loyalty to the place and to the industries that have made it everything that it is. Louisiana is heavily dependent on oil and gas and offshore drilling, and that’s been an economic boon, mostly, except in times of oil crash. It’s also been, at least for a long period of time, environmentally devastating. It’s gotten better, but there are still places like Mossville and Diamond, Louisiana, which are predominantly Black communities, and the plants were built so near to them that they suffer the output of the petrochemical industry in a way that I think many residents don’t. So there’s an assumption that things have gotten a lot better, when really, the effects have been contained in a way that’s invisible to people with power. But what do I know? That’s what I’ve learned and read and heard from talking to people. So, all of those things inspire me.
BR: How do you then channel those inspirations into your work?
SS: The novel that I’m working on right now is entirely set in Louisiana and is about the environmental degradation of the coastline. I mean, it’s not about that; you can’t write a novel about that. [Shared laughter] It’s about the people whose lives and livelihood are changing around them. I do a lot of research for most things I write. The short stories were an exception because they were mostly based on experiential research: my own experience growing up there. But for the novel, my approach to the research has been more expansive and maybe more academic. I read a lot of scholarly papers, but again, you can’t really write a novel with research too heavy on your mind. You have to kinda squint and look at it with fuzzy vision: learn it all and then sort of forget what you know and just live in the story.
BR: You actually already started talking about this, and I’m sure you get asked this all the time, but what is your writing process like? How does it differ when working in different forms?
SS: You know, I have some anxiety about my writing process right now because I have a hard and fast deadline for this novel. I have to finish it by May. I think the writing process for the novel has been so scattershot, and I’ve been writing it over such a long, expansive time, and I’m finding as I’m looking through the material that I have after all these years and what of it that can be salvaged, there’s a lot of verticality, but not a whole lot of horizontal movement. There’s a lot of characters whose interior lives are very much on the page, but nothing’s happening. Now that I’ve done all that deep swimming, it’s a matter of stringing a story together out of those pieces, or dangling those pieces from a story. At this point, I’m hoping that the process will start to feel a little bit more like writing a short story, which doesn’t allow for a whole lot of verticality. The point of a story is that it’s efficiently horizontal. I think that moves a little faster, maybe, although it can be less interesting sometimes. Don’t you just get tired of just making characters move across the room?
BR: Yeah, the deep dive is the fun part, I think.
SS: Exactly! But to keep people’s attention, you gotta get ‘em to move across space.
BR: They have to go somewhere!
SS: They have to go somewhere.
Yearbook photos & finding form
BR: You spoke to this a little at the reading you did at UMB when you talked about characters, but I’m wondering: how are you choosing these characters that you’re writing? How do you choose which details of their lives should be shared?
SS: I think [at UMB] I talked about admiring work that sets up a moral dilemma, and so you choose people who would be put into the most uncomfortable situation or mental and emotional space by this moral dilemma. The main character in the novel that I’m working on grew up as a fisherman on the bayou and then became a liaison and a translator for the oil men who were trying to acquire property, so he was compromised. The decisions that he has to make in that situation are, I hope, illuminating a larger moral dilemma. But ultimately they can’t be figures in a shadow play—they have to be three-dimensional characters. So how to choose the particulars? I think, when I’m writing a story, I’ll recognize people in daily interactions that may otherwise have nothing to do with the story or place but are somehow the right kind of person, and I glean details from them.
For instance, Sara from “So This is Permanence,” in the earliest drafts of that story, was—and I think a lot of characters start off as—kind of, me. Not me in a sense of “I actually lived this experience,” but they’re so close to my consciousness and what I would think of what was happening. That can be really limiting and can cripple the direction of the story. At a certain point with that story, I couldn’t figure out what to do with her. I couldn’t differentiate myself from her enough until I saw this picture. I was flipping through a vintage yearbook—it wasn’t even my own yearbook—and I saw this girl. She looked so mad. It was the ‘90s, and she had this dramatic sculpture for hair, and it was dyed black, and she had this dark kohl under her eyes, and she was scowling. I think it was a boyfriend’s yearbook, at the time, and he grew up in the south, and I was like, “Who is this girl? She must have felt so at sea in her world.” Just knowing what she looked like, that physical manifestation of who she might be, was enough to help me to separate myself from the character.
BR: How do you think about form when you’re crafting a piece?
SS: Do you mean the structure of a particular story, or story versus novel?
BR: I was thinking specifically about your short stories, since those are what I’ve read. Like, “When Pluto Lost His Planetary Status” is so different from “So This is Permanence.” How do you think about those sorts of things?
SS: That story’s an oddball, and I was thinking when I was writing it about—what was I even reading at the time? Probably a lot of lyric essays. I was reading Max Frisch, he wrote Man in the Holocene. Like, weird fiction—and I remember specifically with that story, I had some encounter in a museum with an Alexander Calder mobile, [one of] those giant sculptural mobiles, where everything is dangling from the central piece. I felt like whatever scattershot thing I was trying to express in that story seemed more akin to pieces dangling from a central support system than they seemed like a clear narrative. I don’t think that’s a story. It’s something, but I don’t know if it’s really a story. It’s more like a fictional lyric essay.
BR: Interesting. So just to kind of sum up what you said, you think about form based on what is influencing the story.
SS: Yeah, I think that’s true. My thinking about [the novel that I’m working on] has been influenced so much by my reading historical texts and folklore, and so the form is very much influenced by that. I’m rewriting bits of history, and—also, I think it’ll work, but who knows what will end up in the final draft?—interludes of a southern, story-telling voice, kind of like the one in “Pluto” that relates something more like a folk tale that illuminates what’s happening in the present. What I’m reading definitely influences the shape that the story takes. I don’t particularly think about form, like “The Whiskey Business” story was one where I just had to get from the beginning to the end. Something happened, and this is what happened.
BR: A lot of us who will read this interview are in an MFA, and we’re thinking a lot about form. I think it’s helpful to hear that, well, sometimes you just don’t think about it.
SS: I mean, you think about structure, but form in the broader sense, like “Should this be a braided essay, or a straight narrative?”—I don’t know, the story finds its own form. You just have a sense of how to tell it, don’t you?
Readers, building the collection
BR: So I’d like to ask about readers. What role do you imagine that your readers play in your work? Is there something you’re hoping they’ll see or come to understand? Are you excited by readers finding something you didn’t intend for them to find in your work?
SS: I’m very excited by that. You don’t always know what you’re saying until someone reflects it back to you. I don’t know if your professors have advised or required you guys to do this, but one of my workshop instructors at Stanford, Elizabeth Tallent, wanted us to first reflect the piece back to the writer, just talk about it as if it were a piece of literature that we picked up and read for fun, or for our own intellectual edification. I found that incredibly helpful, and it felt so good to have someone else point out the connections that, especially in a draft, you didn’t realize were there. You don’t always see the patterns that you’re making yourself.
It can also help you to understand why the story is not the one that you thought you were telling. It’s different if you’re talking about a draft versus a final product. One of my best readers was someone from the University of Iowa, but he always got everything dead wrong, you know? He really wanted the story to be shaped the way he wanted to shape it, but that was really helpful, too, because I could then sort of nudge the places further in the direction that I wanted it to go.
BR: How did you build your collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights? Did you map out themes you wanted to address? Did it grow from a certain story? How did it come to be?
SS: I wasn’t thinking about it as a collection as I was writing it. I was just, like most MFA students, writing whatever I could think of to write. I guess they were all sort of linked by place, but not necessarily. When I was writing them,“Camera Obscura” had nothing about Louisiana in it. It was something entirely separate and didn’t seem to belong in the collection, or in a collection with the other stories. Because these days it’s hard to sell a collection of stories, they have to have some sort of cohesiveness, and the obvious thing is that they’re place-based. At that point, I started revising the stories with that in mind. It helped me delve deeper into “Camera Obscura,” to find a new specificity and angle in its treatment of leaving home or separating yourself from your background and the consequences of that, which wasn’t necessarily in it before. Now I feel like that’s what the story is about, whereas before it was just about unrequited lust. I started shaping the stories to touch more on Louisiana, and then thinking about what the gaps were and trying to revise the stories so that there were as many angles on the place as I knew how to give, trying to find ways to nudge individual stories deeper into the conversation. I wrote “The Whiskey Business” partly because I was so mad about the Kavanaugh hearings when that was happening and partly because it seemed like one of the gaps in the collection. There’s a lot about working class people, but there’s also this aristocracy and how the aristocracy of politicians and doctors and lawyers—how that strata of society—affects the regular folk or the people who, like Lindsey in “An Attachment Theory,” come out of the trailer park as single mamas.
BR: How did you choose what order to put them in?
SS: That was largely my editor’s eye. He wanted to lead with strong women and then end on this sort of—I mean, I thought “The Boucherie” was going to be the last story. I’ve always placed it there because it ends with a hopeful note, I guess, but there’s blood everywhere.
BR: Yes, exactly what I thought: Hopeful, but there’s blood everywhere.
SS: That’s kind of my world view, I suppose. But people also tell me that they feel good reading this story. It’s the one that if my old relatives want to see something that I’ve written, that’s usually the one I give them because, I think in some ways, it’s more traditional in its approach to the south and in its approach to storytelling.
BR: This is going to be a kind of shift, but I know that you are teaching at the University of Chicago. How has teaching impacted your writing?
SS: I love teaching. I find so much inspiration and motivation from working with my students. It’s so much fun; I get to talk about what I love everyday with other people who love it too. It’s so lovely teaching creative writing in particular, and also in the way that University of Chicago teaches creative writing, which is very interdisciplinary and takes the approach that being a writer is license to be curious about everything. That’s just the ethos of the university. I went there as an undergrad, too, drawn to that very idea. It’s inspiring to see these young people who are like eighteen, nineteen years old producing work that’s like, worlds better than anything I feel I do, sometimes. It’s amazing, and I just feel so good for them. I think also having to articulate the methods of craft and research and habit is really helpful to my own writing practice, too.
Persistence & patience: writing in the realm of post-MFA, peri-pandemic
BR: I wanted to talk about the MFA as well. Why did you get an MFA? What was most valuable for you in doing so?
SS: I got an MFA because I didn’t know another way to go about this. I’ve always been kind of a handraiser and I wanted to check all the boxes, and those were the boxes I was told to check by one college creative writing instructor. “How do you become a writer?” I must have asked so naively, and he told me about MFA programs, particularly the University of Iowa where he himself, I think, had gone many years ago. It seemed like that was the way to do it. I didn’t know how else to do it; I’m not independently wealthy, I don’t have a trust fund. I didn’t know writers, I wasn’t at all connected to this world, and there was no means to be connected to the world through my undergraduate program. So, that’s why I got an MFA.
I think the best thing that came out of it was my connection to other writers. Granted, my professors were absolutely blindingly brilliant. Marilynne Robinson—have you read Marilynne Robinson?
BR: I haven’t.
SS: Oh, my dear, you must. Read Housekeeping, her first novel. And Gilead is one of my favorites. I like it better than Housekeeping, but I think only because it just happens to touch me in a way that Housekeeping doesn’t. In any case, she also writes prolifically; essays on philosophy and theology, and she’s just so freaking smart. I had professors like her, or James Allen McPherson. More than that, I have what has turned into lifelong connections with other writers, like my friend Elizabeth Wetmore, whose novel Valentine came out this year, too. She lives around the corner! We’re like sister-friends, but we’ve also read each other’s work over the years and were supportive writing pals. I have a core of readers who have come out of the MFA program and the Stegner Fellowship, so that’s been the most important thing. Also, just the larger community of writers and knowing how to do it. It’s not when you’re a kid or a teenager or even young adult telling your family, “Oh, I’m going to be a writer,” and it sounds like a fantasy, like “I’m going to be a unicorn.” But it’s not! There are practical things that you do. You can send work to journals, you can apply for grants, and there are ways to go about it that I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t gone to an MFA program, or that would’ve taken me so much longer to figure out.
BR: What are your thoughts on the MFA as a whole? Should emerging writers be working to get into these programs? What do you think comes from being in an MFA program that maybe wouldn’t happen outside of one, which you were already talking about?
SS: There are a few things that you get from an MFA program, and especially if you’re coming out of a background where you don’t know writers, then absolutely. Not in the sense that it helps to know people to climb the rungs, but in the sense that it is buoying to know other writers. If you’re serious about it and you treat it like a vocation with the knowledge that it won’t necessarily be a career—in the sense that you pay your rent on the proceeds of it—then I think it’s so important to have a community. That’s huge.
The other important thing is the time. It’s hard to prioritize writing or art of any kind in your daily life, especially when it doesn’t pay the rent, or if you have kids, or if you have any number of other situational challenges, and an MFA clears the path for you. You’ve got nothing to do but that, or maybe teaching, too, but teaching is good! You can feed off of that, and it’s good training. The dedicated time and the license to dedicate time to the craft of writing I think is huge. And there are the more obvious things, like mentorship from people who have already mastered the thing and learning the craft toolbox stuff, which I didn’t know going into an MFA program. I hadn’t read the Janet Burroway book, Writing Fiction. It’s an incredibly boring read, but it’s so useful. It’s just the most succinct, bland advice about how dialogue works; it’s what fiction is, it’s just nuts and bolts. Super helpful. You get training in craft, which is important, too, but mostly it’s time and community.
BR: How do you feel 2020 will be marked in the world of fiction, and how are you working within the circumstances of this year?
SS: Are people writing about the pandemic yet? I guess they probably are. I had a student who wrote what I thought was a successful undergraduate story about the pandemic, but he had had the stroke of genius to set it in a different time. It was like the late ‘80s or something like that, so it became sort of this speculative piece instead of now. Not only the pandemic, but the two thousand kinds of upheaval that have happened this year...I don’t know. I can’t possibly process that in my own fiction right now, but I’m sure there are others who are better at that kind of thing. It does seem like it would be a watershed, in some ways, but I don’t know how it would look. I don’t have a good answer to that question. I’m sorry.
BR: No, that’s a perfect answer. I think when we’re confronted with that question, we’re just like, I don’t know—
SS: We’re still in the middle of it!
BR: Yeah, I was talking with others about how fiction writers need time and distance, I think. So we’re like, “What do you mean, write about the pandemic?”
SS: I wonder if the poets are having better luck. Do you know? Or the nonfiction writers?
BR: I think a little bit. I think they’re a little more in the now.
SS: Yeah, totally.
BR: What advice do you have for writers who are just getting started today?
SS: I’m gonna sound like an elementary teacher. I get to hear the elementary school teachers talking to my daughter [due to remote schooling], and they’re all about growth mindset and persistence. I’m sorry to repeat those concepts, but that’s true! The writers who I’ve known—you know, I’ve been doing this, I’ve been out of grad school for twenty years—and the writers who have made it or made a career of it are the ones who were not necessarily the flashiest writers, or the writers that the program deemed the best, or the writers that I thought were the best. They were the ones who just kind of stuck with it and treated it, like I said, like a vocation.
As long as you keep doing it, and keep working on your craft, and keep challenging yourself to do harder things, and be persistent in sending out and don’t get discouraged by the bazillion rejection letters. It’s hard during virtual learning to do anything intellectual or creative, so I’ve been messing with the house. Tinkering and purging things. I found this treasure trove under my bed of old rejection letters from like, 2000. They were mostly kind, but they said some brutal things, like “The story is solid, but it leaves me feeling depressed and hopeless.” Well, shit. Now, I look at them, and they just seem delightful to me. They’re a portrait of the time and the writer that I was and the place that I was in. People who are not writers seem horrified by the idea that writers would save their rejection letters or savor them, especially when you get a hand-signed one, or something that actually gives you a critique of the actual story, and not just a three-by-three mass-printed square that says “Sorry, best of luck elsewhere.” But yeah, you can’t take that stuff to heart, because everyone gets a lot of rejections. You just keep doing it.
Originally from Lake Charles, Soileau is no longer in Louisiana, as she now teaches at the University of Chicago and holds an MFA from the University of Iowa. Along with her collection, her work has been published in magazines such as Tin House, Oxford American, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. Look for her upcoming novel in summer 2022.
ANDRÉA RIVARD is currently an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, while also working as an online tutor in English and teaching fellow at UMB. Her fiction has been published in Youth Imagination Magazine and in Teach. Write.