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Friday, May 9, 2014

Oyster Shells, Broken Bones, and Snow-Houses: A Conversation with Catherine Zobal Dent

In a week we'll be closing our "500 for 500" Flash-Prose contest. We're so excited to have Catherine Zobal Dent, author of Unfinished Stories of Girls, judging the contest.

I first met Catherine five years ago. I was an undergraduate writing major at Susuquehanna University, and Catherine and her partner, Silas, were applying for an Associate Professor position at the SU Writers Institute. To no one's surprise, they got the job. Over the following years, I was fortunate enough to know Catherine first as a professor, and then as an adviser, writing mentor, author, and friend.

Catherine lives a life full of small, daily joys: fresh milk from a nearby farm, a storied and maze-like house that sits next to a graveyard, water balloon fights with her children, a garden that comes to life every spring, and the list goes on.

The stories in Catherine's collection are dark, honest, and magical. Like Catherine, they are full of joys and small, but important, wonders. I am honored to share this conversation on Catherine's work with you.

Dana:   What does it mean to be unfinished?

Catherine:   One American myth that I believed in for way too long involves a finish line.  We race toward it, and the first person to get there is the winner, and the last person—well, good job, you, as long as you finish!  I was pretty competitive when I was a kid.  I played each sport until the end of the season; studied test questions until I knew I had the right answer; stayed in church up to the final note of the recessional; and read novels each night until the flashlight batteries died.  To leave something unfinished was anathema.  I graduated, and I graduated again, and in my early twenties, I happened to start a meditation practice called Vipassana.  The point was to observe the behavior of my breath, my thoughts, nothing more, in order to learn how to live in the moment.  I am embarrassed to admit that, even in this mindful context, I still thought the goal was to finish—to sit the full hours until the last seconds.  I meditated while headaches drilled into my skull like gravediggers hitting rock.  This pain was my ego, I thought.  If I could only sit it out…sit…shit…ouch…and so it was not until I set out long-distance hiking that I began to understand something deeper about being finished or unfinished.  When you’re walking every day and loving it, part of you wants to finish, to make camp that night, to reach the next town or the next mail drop, to have at last walked 2,181 miles from Georgia to reach Maine to summit Mount Katahdin.  Another equally strong part wants to stay on the trail, keeping up a newfound communion with wind and muscles and rain and trees.  Yet the end looms.  It’s inevitable if you keep walking.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail, I was 24, and the luckiest thing possible happened to me when, five days from Mt. Katahdin, I fell and broke my arm.  I never “finished.”  Oh, this story wasn’t the one I wanted!  Living with it, I’ve learned how to tell it, reshape it, and tell it differently, and one realization I’ve gained from that experience is that stories are never finished.  There is a lot of energy inherent to being unfinished.  One of my projects in this book is to investigate the properties of unfinished-ness.

I started to read and write seriously after I got off the trail, which is when I discovered that a good many people had the same project.  I discovered John Barth, who grew up in the same town as my grandmother: Cambridge, Maryland.  His story, “Dunyazadiad” from Chimera, introduced me to a fiction writer, dressed as a genie, who says: “There’s a kind of snail in the Maryland marshes—perhaps I invented him—that makes his shell as he goes along out of whatever he comes across, cementing it with his own juices, and at the same time makes his path instinctively toward the best available material for his shell; he carries his history on his back, living in it, adding new and larger spirals to it from the present as he grows.”  The genie meets Scheherazade and her sister, Dunyazade, through a simultaneous realization that “the key to the treasure is the treasure.”  When I first read this book, I felt that these words would circle around in my brain forever.  And they have.  Now that I’m publishing these stories, I will give them over to others to circle through with the hopes that the stories never reach a finish line. 

So, to wrap up this longish answer: unfinished is a state of mind that I’ve been working toward for a long time.  Unfinished is also a trellis my partner and I plan to build in our backyard for yellow roses to climb on.  And it’s a series of stepping stones through the grass, and a honeybee hive, and a chicken coop.  Ironically, being unfinished is something we can’t avoid during our lives.  There’s the naming of it that seems important, and that’s what I’m writing my way through, this idea that our work is to reimagine and retell. 

Dana:     Setting plays a huge role in this collection. The stories are full of oyster shells and marshes and whorls of water. How have the settings of your life influenced this book? What is the importance of setting in story?

Catherine:    My decision to set all the stories on the Eastern Shore of Maryland had something to do with an idea that our childhood and young adult years occupy a near-mythical territory in our minds.  My first lessons about identity, and sexism, and racism, and class bias, and homophobia, and depression, and loneliness, and love, and death, all things I find myself writing stories about, were learned in Talbot, Dorchester, and Caroline counties.  I love Elizabeth Bowen’s curious observation: “Nothing can happen nowhere,” but I’m ambivalent about how she continues: “The locale of the happening always colours the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.”  Unlike what I think Bowen is suggesting, I don’t believe that regional characteristics give rise to people’s specific problems.  Similar stories exist everywhere, in all locales.  Setting allows me and hopefully my readers to work out the imaginative significance, or meanings, of a story.  The texture of a place, and its language, supports its characters—like human beings, whose existential problems, I believe, are the same no matter where we live.  I grew up around oyster shells, and I know how they cut when you walk barefoot on them, and how they crunch under bicycle tires, and how they smell like salt and dying sea creatures when they are freshly dumped.  However, what I love to consider, just as much as how oyster shells shaped me or my characters or my happenings, is the line, “a long oystershell lane.”  The phrase provides me with a jumping-off point, a way to enter a story, as I think all good setting details do.  So, I believe that the setting gives us language on which and with which to build. 

Dana:      There is such magic in these stories – such childlike curiosity and wonder. It makes me wonder: Has being a mother affected the life of your stories, and if so, how?

Catherine:   Ah!  Ha!  Thank you!  I should say yes, for certainly, there is much magic in my life now that I am around two children all the time, from rediscovering Outside Over There to making shrinking potions to finding snow-houses traced out on the backyard by my son and daughter.  Yet I have always been a devotee of magic and wonder.  When I was a kid, I believed, or worked hard to believe, that fairies left presents for me to find out in the fields and woods.  Clumps of tiger lilies.  Honeysuckle and raspberries.  Arrowheads and Indian pottery.  Being raised Catholic, magic and immanence went hand in hand. 
Many of these stories were written pre-motherhood.  In “Flesh Ring,” the story within the story that is subtitled “Mother” was my attempt to imagine the interior life of a brand-new mother based on a sculpture by Ron Mueck.  I wrote this Mother long before I was anywhere near ready to be a parent, but like many of Ann Piper’s paintings that accompany the stories in Unfinished Stories of Girls, my stories are palimpsests resting atop earlier versions of themselves.  I’m a late bloomer, and a slow writer.  Your question is really interesting because the writing of my stories has been extended over a decade of learning how to write.  Pieces that emerged at the beginning of my writing career, such as “Lost Queens” and “The Hole in Backyard Park,” have undergone many revisions, even since they were first published.  I’m sure that some of these revisions were affected by the realization that one day, if I’m lucky, my children will be interested in reading them.  This thought put on some additional pressure to be honest, which I find, whether in art or in life, to be wondrous and compelling.

Dana:      How do you see art and text to be in conversation in this book?

Catherine:   When I first saw on Ann Piper’s work, I felt two things: awe and fear.  Ann was doing things visually that laid bare some deep emotions, often the darker emotions.  There is an exhilaration in her work that matches the way I sometimes feel drunk with language, and there’s absurdity, and the sublime.  When we started this project, Ann read my manuscript, and I pored over her canvases.  The conversations in the book emerged from hours of face-to-face conversation over BJ’s oysters and white wine in which we made connections that startled us.  For example, I selected the painting to be paired with the story “Lost Queens” with no idea that Ann’s title for the painting is “Queen of Maybe.”  Ghostly synchronicity!  Another example of this is how the painting that is now in conversation with the story “Half Life” is a detail from an enormous canvas featuring a woman with a blackened eye.  The detail reminded me of the brokenness of my character Amber’s life, and the way she misses mundane things from her life outside jail.  I knew the painting’s larger context, but I did not recognize until Ann told me that the arrangement of tea cups and saucers approximates a human face with a black eye, which is what the character Fran claims to see under the surface of Amber’s photographs.  Amber keeps her photographs under her bed.  In a good conversation, each participant comes away with a more complicated, more richly textured understanding of something.  Ann and I believe that the paintings reveal layers of meaning inside the stories, and the stories illuminate narratives within the paintings.  

Dana:      If you could travel back in time and give advice to yourself as a student-writer, what would you say?

Catherine:   If you love writing, young Catherine, take it more seriously.  Commit to it sooner.  Know that failing is part of the process, and have faith in your own hard work.  Listen to people who know more about writing than you do, but know that your goal is not to write like they do.  Your goal is to write the books that you wish to exist in the world.  Work your wishes into existence.  (Try saying that three times fast.)

Dana:      Another hypothetical: If you could take a year off from your responsibilities, what would you do? Where would you go?

Catherine:   Which responsibilities?  Teaching and working at the university?  Developing FUSE?  Learning how to rebuild the windows and porches on our old house?  Gardening?  Caring for our ancient cats and the chickens and bees we hope to get?  Would someone else help Silas to parent the kids?  I don’t know…this doesn’t seem like such a good idea.  But if we are talking only of responsibilities for which I get paid by the university, and finances are not an issue, I’d take Silas and Emerson and Lake to live in an apartment in a big, art-filled city.  Beijing, maybe.  Or let’s say Rome.  The children would go to school, learn Chinese.  Or Italian.  Silas and I would write four hours each day and spend the rest of our time walking, reading many books, listening to music.  This is one kind of dream I have.

Dana:      What’s next for you? Are there any projects you’re currently working on?

Catherine:   I’m in the middle of several long projects, including two collaborations.  First, with my friend Ann Lockhart, a family practice doctor in Martinez, California and also a mother of two, I’m writing a memoir about friendship and long distance hiking.  It’s composed in two voices and features multi-media texts, and our working title is Falling: A Book of the Appalachian Trail, Polyester, and the American Dream.  In 2016, Ann Lockhart and I plan to hike from the Hundred-Mile Wilderness of Maine up to Mount Katahdin.  Second, with my friend and Susquehanna colleague Lynn Palermo, I’m working on a translation of stories by the French writer Cyrille Fleischman.  My final project is the revision of my novel Jubilee, a contemporary retelling of the Biblical story of Dina that I’m wishing into existence.  There is another project I’m excited about, a second collaboration with Ann Piper, so new that we can’t talk about it yet!  It has to do with unfinishing the world.

Catherine Zobal Dent was born in Washington, D.C., and raised on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Unfinished Stories of Girls (Fomite, 2014) is her debut short story collection. She teaches creative writing at the Writers Institute of Susquehanna University.

Dana Diehl is a second year MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. She serves as editor of Hayden's Ferry Review.

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