We had the pleasure of talking with Anne Valente, whose debut collection By Light We Knew Our Names was published by Dzanc Books this fall. In these thirteen luminous stories, adolescent girls morph into black bears, a man is tasked with caring for one hundred baby octopi, and abused women form a fight club under the northern lights. Throughout all of this, Valente’s stories maintain an intimacy with their characters. Here, we talk to Valente about structuring her collection, magic in nature, inspiration from research, her nonfiction, and what’s next.
First of all, let me just say how much I enjoyed your debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names. I thought it was incredible. I’m wondering how you decided to order the collection—if you had a particular pattern or arc in mind. To me, it seemed like the first few stories were about the magic of self-discovery, as the characters came of age. Then, I felt a palpable shift as the characters looked outwards to focus on the harshness of the world, and the frustrating mystery of those closest to them. I thought this was a lovely progression. So: how did you structure the collection?
Thank you so much for your kind words! Your observation is spot-on in how I ordered the collection. When I put these stories together, I saw them as a progression from the wonder of childhood to the grief, loss and even violence of adulthood. It was my hope, however, that even amid the losses of growing older, the characters and stories still find some capacity for wonder, and that magic isn’t entirely lost when childhood is left behind. There is an unadulterated hopefulness to the earliest stories in the book that I hope serves as a touchstone through the darker traumas of the later stories, where ghosts and northern lights and pink dolphins still cut rays of wonder and light through the dark.
I really loved the story “Dear Amelia.” It’s now on my list of The Best Stories of All Time. I’ve been describing it to people as “a story about girls who are slowly turning into Maine black bears, and it’s addressed to Amelia Earhart.” But that summary doesn’t really encompass the power of the story. I’m wondering: what was the inspiration for this story? I would love to know anything about the process of writing it.
Thank you! The idea for this story came to me after I read a Center for Cartoon Studies graphic novel, Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean by Sarah Stewart Taylor and Ben Towle. The Center for Cartoon Studies has done a series on famous historical figures including Thoreau, Houdini, Satchel Paige and Helen Keller. The illustrations in this particular book were magnificent, and they made me think more about Amelia Earhart’s journey and what it must have looked like to young girls in the 1930s when women had fewer options than they do now, and when women’s rights were first being discussed. I’d taken a trip to Acadia National Park in Maine around the time of reading this graphic novel and recalled a naturalist in the park mentioning that it was one of the easternmost points to view the sunrise in the United States. Since Amelia Earhart took off from the easternmost points of the United States in her attempts to travel across the Atlantic, I began to think about what that must have looked like to those who witnessed this, and in particular, those in Maine. The bear transformation came quickly from these ideas as a way of exploring frontiers, limitations, and the boundaries of one’s own biology and body.
What are some of your favorite short stories of all time?
Oh, there are so many. A few that I return to again and again are Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Housewifely Arts” (the final lines make me teary every time), Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” Anthony Doerr’s “The Caretaker” (his use of language is incredible), and Aimee Bender’s “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt.” I also reread Margaret Patton Chapman’s “The Wormhole, A Romance” often, which appeared in DIAGRAM a few years ago. It’s just lovely. Definitely one of my favorites of all time.
I’m a really big fan of magical realism, and many of your stories (though certainly not all), include magical elements in a way that felt very seamless to me. In “Dear Amelia,” for example, the transformation of the girls into black bears is conveyed with such conviction that it feels perfectly natural. I’m wondering: how did you approach the magical elements in your stories? And, are there any magical realist writers you were particularly inspired by?
Magic feels as much a part of this world to me as anything else, so approaching these elements in the collection was often a process of trying not to draw too much attention to them as something extraordinary, unless the story demanded that they be extraordinary. In some of the later stories, for instance, the magic manifests as bizarre and noticeable in contrast to some of the harsher realities of life, such as the appearance of a sentient, shapeshifting octopus in the face of a couple’s infertility. But in others, the magic is an inherent, accepted part of the story’s world, such as the transformation of girls into bears. I read a lot of magic realist stories as guides to how magic is handled, and beyond Gabriel García Márquez’s seamless aligning of the magical and the mundane, I also really love how Aimee Bender introduces magic with frankness in her stories, how Haruki Murakami lets ordinary monotony slowly unravel into layers upon layers of magic, and even how writers like Laura van den Berg introduce magical elements in otherwise realist stories. The protagonists in her first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, are often scientists or explorers very much tied to the real and tangible within the world, and yet they’re exposed to the possible existence of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot, or even the more magical elements of nature (such as the discovery of a rare flower) that are entirely extraordinary.
Your stories also include many spellbinding facts about the natural world. You discuss the northern lights, echolocation in dolphins, the biology of octopi. Did you do research for these stories? And, did the facts contained in these stories help to inspire them?
I love research in fiction, particularly research into the natural world, so many of these stories required a significant and enjoyable amount of digging. For me, there’s an inordinate amount of magic and mystery in the natural world – how seasons change, how birds know when and where to migrate, how whales communicate to one another, how leaves know when to turn all at once in autumn – and the magic of nature inspired so many of the magical elements in this book.
You earned your MFA at Bowling Green State University. Since a lot of our readers are in MFA programs, considering an MFA, or just generally curious: What was your experience at your program like, and what do you think made it unique?
My MFA experience was seminal and definitive for my writing, and my two years at Bowling Green were incomparable. I came late to writing fiction, so I felt way out of my league by the talent that surrounded me when I entered the program. But it was an amazing experience: the MFA taught me how to establish a writing schedule, how to work hard for something, how to be a good literary citizen, how to support journals and other writers, and how to submit and publish. The program has a literary magazine library, for example, and I’d barely read any before entering the program; I spent hours in that library reading journals, getting a feel for magazine aesthetics, and discovering up-and-coming writers while also learning how to submit my own work. Furthermore, the program gave me an incredible cohort of such amazing writers and mentors, and two fantastic years of inspiration, creativity and learning how to pay attention to the world around me, all things that I feel have set me for life in being an engaged writer. Bowling Green is a small town, but it’s quirky and strange in the most wonderful of ways. The nature that surrounded the town inspired me, everyone in the program motivated me, and the program ethos of learning how to be a working writer set my writing habits well.
You’ve also published essays in publications like The Believer and The Washington Post. I loved, for example, your essay “My Body, My Machine” in The Rumpus. Would you consider publishing a collection of nonfiction? What inspires your nonfiction and how does it contrast for you, personally, with the process of writing fiction?
Thank you! In addition to writing fiction, I also really love nonfiction. I find that they complement each other as two different outlets for being curious about the world. I’d absolutely consider publishing a collection of nonfiction, though I suppose a collection of my nonfiction would be a little disjointed at this point: I love the personal essay, but I also love the creative nonfiction essay as a means of researching and exploring. The essay I have forthcoming in The Believer, for instance, is about sea monkeys and the growth and transportation of brine shrimp from the Great Salt Lake. I wrote features as a freelance journalist before I started writing fiction, a process that was more about discovery for me than about hard news. I’ve carried this sense of exploration into my fiction, and though I don’t know definitively what makes me choose to address a topic in fiction or in nonfiction, both processes most certainly involve research and curiosity.
This leads me to the question: What’s next for you? I’d love to hear not only about what you’re working on now but also about any projects you have in mind for the future.
I just finished a novel manuscript about a series of mysterious house fires that erupt in a community after a mass school shooting, a project that took a significant amount of time and emotional energy across the past year. Now that it’s complete, I’ve been working on a collection of short stories about the city of St. Louis, my hometown. I’d also like to tackle a few more essays in the future, again possibly involving research. I tend to collect notes from various avenues of research and thinking and try to connect the dots between them: right now, those avenues include the mechanics of rollercoasters, the chemistry of neon tubing, and the life cycle of the luna moth. I’m not sure yet how they’ll constellate together, but I look forward to finding out.
Interviewed by Sadye Teiser