The third volume of The Masters Review, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, is available now and garnering excellent reviews. To celebrate, we’re conducting interviews with the ten wonderful authors our anthology features. In Joe Worthen’s story “County Maps,” a girl attempts to discover and make sense of herself by mapping the county. In this piece, writer Joe Worthen examines his characters by pairing them with a very clear sense of place. It is a quiet and direct piece, filled with nuance and texture. We’re thrilled to be publishing it.
“They find an old motorboat flipped between two cypress trees, covered in algae. Jack walks out on it and smokes a cigarette. Suzanne looks at the shape of him and chews the edge of her pencil.”
“County Maps” is a story about a young woman who is attempting to map her county, including a small island. Where did you get the idea for this piece? Are you interested in cartography? The outdoors?
I’m not really interested in either of these topics directly. This story started with the image of younger children watching Suzanne wade across a shallow river next to an overpass. From there I added her motivation to map the island but I can’t remember why. I think it stuck because I liked the idea of a teenage girl with GPS technology documenting a gross, used-up place. Her mission sort of ramps up the faux post-apocalyptic vibe that strip mall Appalachia naturally produces.
In “County Maps” the story’s two characters, Jack and Suzanne, are trying to reconcile their feelings toward one another as they walk the island. Why did you choose to explore a relationship within this context?
There’s a sense of place in the south that people really internalize. Even though everything in Suzanne’s county is sort of busted and weird, polluted, Styrofoam cups and old cell phones, that’s her place and who she is (and who Jack is). So the characters and their histories are part of the landscape (not just the mountains and islands but the Chili’s and Texas Roadhouses and vape huts) in the same way the landscape is part of the characters. Suzanne thinks that knowing the county will allow her to know herself and her family. But she winds up getting to know Jack using the same proxy, which she sort of encourages/lets happen. It’s a more positive outcome for her probably, because it’s hopeful. I guess the mapping of the island also provides a pretty direct metaphor for navigating the day after a one-night stand.
Is “County Maps” similar to your other writing? What are you working on now?
I tend to write language intensive stories that are either very regional (like “County Maps” that deal with youth in SC) or totally magical where language and imagery drive the narrative to places that it would never go in a realistic story. So, sort of, I guess. It’s on the more realistic end of the spectrum of things that I write.
Which writers or stories do you turn to for inspiration? Where there any in particular that served as the inspiration for this piece?
“County Maps” definitely draws from Mary Miller’s Big World collection as well as Barry Hannah’s Airships. They write the sort of short stories I feel the most connected to. Where really raw, colloquial language meets up with extremely deliberate syntax and rhythm to the end of creating a poetic gloss over the prose and allowing for a sense of heightened meaning/emotionality even if the narrative itself is simple and the drama muted.
What was the most difficult part about writing this story? How long were you working on it?
This story took a really long time to write. I might have put this story through more drafts than any other story I’ve written, trying to get the parameters/scope right. Like what Suzanne wanted, the details of the island, the POV, her relationship with Jack, trying to keep the tone consistent and easy. The ending especially took a while, even though it wound up pretty simple. I had them finding so many different things inside the burned-down house (at one point the other family was still living there. Spooky!) before I settled on just letting them have sex and drift into the afternoon. Overall I worked on this story off and on for about a year.
Can you describe your experience at UNC Wilmington?
UNCW was a pretty good experience. I met a lot of very talented people there (teachers and students). My one general criticism is that I wish it had been a little more intense. The level of rigor was mostly dependent on the student and how much they wanted to get done. So it could be rigorous or it could be sort of a lazy river where you just float along. I had an okay time keeping myself on task (it’s important to be able to do this, no doubt) but I wanted to be pushed, while I was there and paying, to write and read more intense, unusual fiction. The best thing about getting a MFA was that it allowed me to better understand the literary community, the magazines, the people, the job market, and the prevailing vibe of the art form. It would have been hard to get that perspective as an outsider. This answer is totally a compliment sandwich.
As far as new stuff: I’ve actually been solicited for work several times since publishing in the Master’s Review. So I really appreciate the publication. Really enjoyed the other writer’s stories as well. I just got a new story in Bodega called “Blackbird” about a college football star and his attempts to look behind the curtain of fate.
Thank you, Joe!