The winner of the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, It Falls Gently Around and Other Stories by Ramona Reeves has been published! We’re excited to share this interview with Reeves, conducted by former TMR Anthology contributor Carrie Grinstead (whose own collect releases at the end of this month). In the interview, Grinstead and Ramona discuss the collection, the writing life, and what’s next for the Drue Heinz winner.
Grinstead: I loved this book so much, the engrossing storylines, pitch-perfect characters, vivid and varied settings. On the one hand, I will not be at all surprised if it gets adapted into a miniseries—on the other, I think these stories are meant to be fiction, meant to be read, and they’ll always work better on the page than in any other medium. And I’m curious: what does fiction mean to you? When did you start writing, and why?
Reeves: First, thank you so much, Carrie, for asking me to speak with you. It’s truly an honor and I hope everyone will read your stellar short story collection, which is out in a few weeks.
To your question, fiction is one of the best ways I know to tell the truth. I’ve written essays and feel a vulnerability and impulse to self-censor that I don’t experience to the same degree when writing fiction. And maybe fiction is not telling the truth but a truth. I still experience the writing on a deep level and at times feel raw after having written, at least on the good days, but there’s still at least one degree of separation from the narrative that gives me freedom to explore.
I started writing as a kid. I don’t really remember why, though I was huge fan of Aesop’s Fables and the Mother Goose rhymes. I started out writing poetry. I don’t think I wrote my first short story until my last year of undergrad.
Can you share the story behind the book? How long have you worked on it? How has it developed over time?
The earliest stories from the manuscript began in a creative writing course taught by Robert Boswell in fall 2009. After finishing my MFA program in 2010, I put the stories aside for about three years and worked on short stories unrelated to the book. Really I think I was trying to learn how to write a short story that incorporated the three years of craft talks, workshops, etc. from my MFA program. What I ended up doing was figuring out how to apply what I’d learned to a narrative structure that felt more organic to my writing. When I finally returned to the stories in It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories, I spent two years drafting and choosing the ones that would be in the book and another two to three years revising them. Not that this process was linear. Sometimes I let the manuscript sit for a few months while I worked on something else, but I’d say I put in about six years total.
Over time, I added stories, omitted stories and began to realize that in a linked story collection—meaning a collection in which characters start out in one story and recur in others—that I could see other parts of a character’s life and choose the stories to tell. I also saw that I could layer some backstory into the stories I chose. The last story, “Wheel of Fortune” is one that grew out of peering across the landscape of the main couple’s life together to discover a pivotal moment.
What has it meant to you to belong to, and to build, a wider community of writers? I often tell people that you’re the best literary citizen I know. I think you do a really extraordinary job of supporting your friends and boosting the works that you love, and I’d love to hear more about the role that community plays in your writing life.
Thank you so much for saying that! I try hard to boost my friends’ work and work that I love. I think part of my motivation comes from the years I spent not writing fiction and telling stories. For about a decade in my twenties and thirties, I gave up on this idea, in part because writing does expose one to some degree—its job is to expose—and figuring out in my twenties that I was a lesbian took a lot of my bandwidth for a while. As background, I was raised Southern Baptist in Alabama and went to a Baptist school, so the notion of being gay was not cause for celebration in my family. Certainly there were more possibilities in the 1980s than earlier decades for LGBTQ+ people, and luckily I was in New York, but AIDS was also ravaging young men and there was a lot of fear. I did some freelance writing at the time and wrote a few pieces for a men’s fashion trade magazine where I worked, but I gave up on fiction until I was nearly forty. It makes sense now. I think writing is closely connected to figuring out who I you are and accepting yourself.
So it could be when I boost others’ work that I’m making up for lost time, but I also think I’m grateful to be alive and part of the writing community after all those lost years. It feels like a miracle. Plus, so many writers have done so much for me, so there’s an aspect of paying it forward, and lastly, I’m a big fan of a Tillie Olsen quote, the gist of which is that writing is not a prize-fight ring nor a competition. We’re all here trying to do our best work, and to me that’s huge and worth celebrating.
Your sentences are solid gold, rhythms inflected by the thoughts and moods of characters, metaphors that are lyrical and surprising but still seamless, still perfectly integrated with the larger story. These lines, for example, have stuck with me since I read “The Right Side of the Dash” a few years ago in Jabberwock Review: “Every day the unmarked gravel paths and dirt roads of her mind grew. They did not lead to interesting places. They led to holes she tripped and fell into, then climbed out of with great effort.” Do you find that lines like this come to you instinctively, or do they take some reworking? Anything else you can share about your process for revision?
Lines like those usually come during revision and sometimes after many revisions. I need to be completely immersed in the character and in a zone for those thoughts to arise. It’s true that I occasionally get lucky, too, but those instances are gifts—manna from heaven, if you will—and don’t happen often. I think my tendency as a writer is to want to go long when what I need to do is go deep, dig down. I’m trying to learn that lesson because I think it leads to those surprising places, which is half the fun.
As for revision, I love it. Revision is the place where I can explore. The first draft for me is pitching the tent and setting up camp. That part is necessary, but it’s what comes after, the journey into the wild, that’s exciting. Having readers I trust with my work helps with revising, but sending work to a reader is usually late in the process for me, after I’ve interrogated it as much as I can. My idea of revision is that it should open up stories, including the ending. I think it was Lorrie Moore who said the ending should speak to the beginning. Not that I have all this figured out by any means.
I loved how you handled point of view, especially as characters I wouldn’t have expected (Rowan, Claire, Corrine) rotated into central roles in some stories. Others, Marti especially, recur in story after story, remaining on the periphery of other people’s lives yet growing more and more prominent in the mind of the reader. How did you make these decisions about who to highlight and how? What was it like for you, getting to know these characters?
Even in early drafts, I knew I wanted to explore class, which seems like a big issue that often is not discussed in American culture. Babbie and Rowan are the linchpin of the book as it relates to class. Their relationship leads to many of the odd relationships and connections that are explored. I wanted to represent this community in terms of class, race, gender, religion, and so forth, which determined many of my choices. I knew Claire and Rowan would have stories in their points of view to offset those of Babbie and Donnie. I also knew Corrine and Fay would be point-of-view characters—Corrine because of her status as a lesbian and how her situation reveals the entanglement between class and living up to personal and societal expectations, and Fay because she’s such a mother figure to several characters, including Donnie, Marti and Babbie, even if the latter isn’t written on any page.
Place is so important, and so beautifully rendered. I’ve never been to Mobile, yet every day when I sat down to read It Falls Gently All Around I felt like I was coming home, with all the comfort and all the pain that home entails. Did writing this book change your feelings toward your home city?
That’s a great question. The characters became very real for me, and I could see and imagine them in the city when I visited. My mother is still there, so I visit several times a year. Growing up, I adored the bay, beaches and trees, and I’ve always loved Mardi Gras, though it’s not without its issues. I was surprised to learn, in fact, that other places didn’t celebrate it when I went away to college.
What I haven’t loved over the years is the way religion has played such an outsized role in decisions about who should be accepted or supported within certain communities in the city and how that has bled into politics. But writing is wonderful because it allows me to explore my feelings about homophobia, racism, etc., on the page. Not that the page is always a safe place. Sometimes it’s a difficult place, full of land mines, but wrangling with it helped me realize that I didn’t need permission to write the book I wanted to write, and that’s led to other doors opening in my psyche about home and Mobile. I embrace it now, especially its attempts to tell more diverse stories. It’s true that anyone can visit Mobile and see problems, but I think they’ll detect the beauty as well. Having said that, it was important to me to not let a character like Rowan completely off the hook. To me, Mobile represents the complexities of being American—the good, the bad, the ugly, as they say. I will tell you that, if you ever visit Mobile, Dick Russell’s restaurant has some of the best biscuits you will ever put in your mouth.
Another question about Mobile. I often feel that people like me—white liberals who hail from other regions—tend to equate the South with anti-Black racism. To locate anti-Black racism primarily in the South, and primarily in the past, and in so doing let ourselves and our cities off the hook. You don’t let anyone off any hook. You do create a complex picture of a place that many readers have probably never been to (but still have opinions about). This may be a big question, but I’d love to hear a little about how you approached race and place in these stories.
I thought a lot about race and how it might evolve through the lens of each character. I knew it would be a topic, not only because of Mobile’s history, but also because it would have felt disingenuous not to consider in it the context of these stories. My greatest hope is that writing about it helps creates dialogue. But to your question, I approached race through characters and in the context of their world views. I thought, too, about money and how affluency seems to make it easier for some white people to ignore inequities and go on living as if everything is fair for everyone from the get-go, which just isn’t true.
Your comment about how the rest of the country sometimes tends to locate Black racism in the South made me think of an incredible poem by Jacqueline Allen Trimble, a favorite Alabama and American poet of mine. It’s titled “Everybody in America Hate the South,” and one of the poem’s ideas is that of the South taking on sins that belong to the entire country.
As for place, your question reminded me of an essay by Dorothy Allison that appears in The Writers Notebook published by Tin House. Allison says place is not simply a locale but is visual details and emotions (which are expressed through characters) and that place requires context. She says place is people. I tried to get at that holistic idea of place throughout the book and show it through character point of views and voices.
What has the publication process been like? Has anything surprised or challenged you?
It’s been surprising, but not unpleasantly so. The University of Pittsburgh Press has been incredibly supportive. I keep telling people that I feel like I hit the lottery for a short story collection. I think the most challenging part has been working a forty-hour-a-week job through most of process.
What is next for you? What are you working on now?
Thanks so much for asking. I’m working on a novel that moves between two timelines, the 1930s and the aughts of this century. The main character is eighty-three and not anywhere near ready to give up the ghost. I’ll just say that writing a character who’s in a great deal of denial can be exciting. Heartbreaking, too, but that’s all part of writing.
interviewed by Carrie Grinstead