The Rumpus Interview with Jonathan Corcoran
Jonathan Corcoran’s debut short story collection, The Rope Swing, was published by Vandalia Press, a creative imprint of West Virginia University Press, this past April. His book reveals the sorted stories and lives of those who come from a once-booming, small West Virginia town, depicting this backdrop with as much depth and heart as he does with the outsiders quietly residing there.
Fellow West Virginia writer, Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Quiet Dell, Lark and Termite, and Black Tickets, extols:
Jonathan Corcoran’s Appalachian voice, so fierce, so tender, portrays tradition as both weapon and soothing balm. The Rope Swing takes us inside quiet revolutions of the soul in mountain towns far from Stonewall: we can never go home again, but we recognize ourselves in these linked stories of love, loss, the economic tyranny of neglect and exploitation, and the lifelong alliance between those who stay and those who leave. The Rope Swing establishes a new American writer whose unerring instincts are cause for celebration.
Corcoran’s other work has been named a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction and a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and is forthcoming in the anthology, Eyes Burning at the Edge of the Woods: Contemporary West Virginia Fiction and Poetry. He received his BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in fiction writing from Rutgers University-Newark. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on the publication of your debut book and on coming off the heels of your first book tour! How has the experience been so far? Any surprises or disappointments along the way?
Jonathan Corcoran: Thank you! I have been humbled by this experience. Getting to write a book and then share it with the world is a gift. I went all over the country with The Rope Swing, but I think the real test for me was bringing my book back to Appalachia and to West Virginia specifically, where I was born. There aren’t really any big cities in West Virginia, so I read my book in small towns in whatever setting was available—a community theater, a bed and breakfast, an arts center. About half of the characters in the book are queer, and I was terrified of how these characters would be received in places outside of metropolitan America. I struggled for weeks trying to decide whether or not to read stories that featured gay characters, but in the end, that’s what I did. West Virginia’s population skews older, and at the end of each reading, a gaggle of gray-haired women would approach the signing table. They’d say, “I’d like two copies—one for myself and one for my gay nephew/son/cousin/brother.” It happened over and over. It was then that I realized that my book would find the people it needed to find. It was those kind, old women who gave me to courage to keep speaking openly and honestly while on the road. I began to feel a little like a traveling preacher, spreading the good queer word in my own form of a revival.
In terms of disappointment? Life, it seems, catches up with us no matter what crest we’re riding. My father, after battling a long illness, returned home to hospice on the day I was scheduled to read in my hometown. I don’t really believe in fate, but the coincidence was overwhelming. I was able to spend some quality time with him during his last days. He died about a week after my hometown reading. I still had a few tour stops left and thought about canceling, but then I remembered one of the last things he said to me, even when he was barely able to speak. He asked, “How’s your book doing?” Those last tour stops were emotionally trying, certainly, but I was buoyed by the memory of my father.
Rumpus: I’m so sorry to hear about your father. But I hope it is some comfort that your book is doing well and finding a home among new readers. I’d like to think most good books do eventually find their people, even in surprising settings. And in your book the setting becomes such a focal point; the prose detailing this landscape is so stark yet stunning, helping readers fully realize every sound and scent and scene. Appalachian literature also seems to be en vogue right now; one of the prominent West Virginia authors, Jayne Anne Phillips, shared a laudatory blurb for your book. How have she and other writers in this movement helped shape your voice or perhaps given you the space to write such crystalline prose about this landscape?
Corcoran: There’s such a rich history of storytelling in Appalachia, one that’s intertwined with music and living rooms and campfire tales. I’m always striving to make the landscapes in my stories do double duty. The town I grew up in was a little pinpoint of civilization surrounded on all sides by mountains and miles of forests. The nearest major cities were three-plus hours away—Pittsburgh to the north, DC to the east. In that way, I suppose, the natural world has always been a looming character in my stories, if not my actual lived experience. Jayne Anne Phillips is a master of language, a fiction writer with a poet’s eye for lyric. Through her stories and novels, I’ve learned to write sensorially, and also to experience the world through taste, touch, and smell. She and writers like Ron Rash take setting and character and bring them alive through a unique symbiosis. I know my stories wouldn’t be as successful without the looming mountains or the swiftly flowing rivers. I hope I’m helping to expand the tradition of this type of storytelling by bringing in the lives of queer Appalachians. I feel so fortunate in that the writers I’ve read and loved have embraced and promoted this book: West Virginia writers like Marie Manilla and Laura Long, and queer writers who explore the rural experience, like Carter Sickels and Megan Kruse. As far as writing communities go, the Appalachian one has been incredibly welcoming.
Rumpus: The first story in the series, “Appalachian Swan Song,” specifically zooms in on a particular albeit unnamed Appalachian town, where presumably most of the stories in the collection take place. It reads as very personal as readers meet the various members of this close-knit community, people so fully formed, especially in such a short form. Can you speak to your decision on the second person collective for this story? Do you think this point of view has become a trend now for short stories?
Corcoran: I can’t say if it’s a trend, though I know many people find the voice off-putting, that many writers consider it a risky one. This type of voice has existed for a long, long time in the American literary tradition (off the top of my head, there’s Faulkner and “A Rose for Emily”). When I realized that I was writing some sort of linked collection, I knew that I needed a story to act as the glue for what would come. I was writing a story about a town in economic and cultural decline, a decline that’s effect would be felt by so many characters. I had never before written in the collective “we,” and the experience of doing so allowed me to feel through my words in such a different and unique way. By writing this story in the collective, I attempted to highlight the shared emotions and experiences of the people in this town and region. Honestly, the environmental and economic hardships felt by many West Virginians has existed for so long that it might as well be mythological at this point. I always think of the collective voice as a sort of Greek chorus, a voice that amplifies dramatic action through a howl and repetition. Why not invent our own mythology?
Rumpus: The collection itself seems to create its own mythology as well. The metaphor of “The Rope Swing,” the title of the second story and obviously of the collection in its entirety, seems to carry a weight throughout the collection: an image representing the decisions we make about jumping into a new life, even when knowing it will “break the surface” or as the character Christopher fears, understanding we “might never find the air again” after that jump. Did you intend to work out these themes throughout the collection or did this motif naturally come out as the manuscript progressed in development and editing?
Corcoran: Great question. I think most books have a central concern. I think many writers, myself included, find themselves preoccupied with a theme or a notion, something that becomes all consuming. This book, as a project, was certainly a meditation on the notion of cusps and cliffs. In my opinion, the best short stories capture the smallest slice of life but reveal something so much bigger. I became obsessed with moments of decision and what happens in those fleeting but pivotal seconds. In the stories that focus on queer life and love specifically, I wanted to show readers how these tiniest of decisions, or moments of indecision, have the potential to impact a body for a lifetime, and how these very personal decisions are often forced upon people under the heavy weight of an often-hostile external world.
Rumpus: And that “slice of life” revealing something bigger, more universal perhaps is certainly where so much of the joy in reading this collection stems from. What makes this collection sing are the many characters of this town, even the ones who choose to leave it behind for New York. These are people I want to sit around in a bar with, listening to just one more story before close even when or maybe because of how heartbreaking some of them tend to be. How did you work on crafting such specific yet numerous voices? I was especially struck by the women here since they were as fully fleshed out and emotionally layered as any of the male characters—obviously the goal of any writer, but one that is so often hard to establish when writing from a different perspective.
Corcoran: Is there a scarier scenario for a writer than that of assuming the voice of someone who doesn’t look like you, act like you, or who isn’t of your own gender? In crafting a collection about a town and its coterie of individuals, I set myself up for just that. I wanted to talk about queer people, a community of which I’m a part of and know well, but also others living on the periphery in rural America. About half of the characters in my collection are queer and half aren’t. In “Felicitations,” I talk about a single woman, a medical professional, living in a town with very few eligible bachelors. She’s put through some hard choices. In “Pauly’s Girl,” I write about an older woman who has been in this strange, lifelong, platonic relationship with a gay man. She has to figure out what life is going to look like after her friend’s death. I suppose my main piece of advice when writing characters who don’t directly (or even tangentially) embody your own personal experience is to write with love and compassion. I had to sit on these stories for a long time and let the characters take over. These characters, the ones most outside of my self, spoke to me in such interesting ways. Writing outside of your own experience is a risk that all writers have to take in order to create fully-formed worlds. Ultimately, readers will judge your work and decide if you’ve done a character justice.
Rumpus: Well this reader in particular felt that risk was well worth it! One of the lines that really stuck out to me from “Through the Still Hours” read: “This villain has a backstory, I think, full of broken hearts. His own heart included.” because it seemed to encapsulate most of the stories in the collection, giving so many outsiders a voice. Is this a tactic you work on utilizing as you construct round characters, even those who might not root for, the violent or misanthropic, the ignorant or isolated?
Corcoran: Absolutely. I don’t think I’ve ever met a truly villainous person. I’ve met plenty of people who make terrible decisions, sometimes repeatedly. If literature exists to expand our understanding of humanity, we writers had better make room to air the stories of the bad guys. There’s a beautiful exchange that occurs when someone reads the lives of these characters. Perhaps there’s judgment, but there’s also the recognition of self in these characters, either the potential to commit heinous acts or the role we play personally or as a society in allowing these characters to hit their breaking points. By writing and reading about the violent, misanthropic, the ignorant, or the isolated, we permit ourselves to engage with the world.
Rumpus: As you’ve already noted a few times, the collection seems to come from a very personal place, in terms of your sexuality, your home town, even your move to New York City. I hear too you have also been working on a memoir about similar topics. How have these genres differed in your examination of true lived experiences? In other words, how do you decide on genre and form?
Corcoran: I think form is about what you want to write and when you’re ready to write it. When my family found out that I was gay, I was immediately disowned. We’ve been through a decade-long process of tumult and healing, a process that’s still ongoing. I was ready to write this book, a work of fiction that largely explores the lives and experience of queer Appalachians, because there were stories I’d lived and seen lived that I felt needed to be told. I draw on my own personal experiences to help invent and shape characters. There are bits of autobiography embedded in those stories, but the bulk of the work remains a creation. Fiction, I’d say, has allowed me to explore my own inner demons, the ones that haven’t been realized in the actual world. I wrote a whole memoir (unpublished) about my experience with my family—about being disowned, about growing up gay in West Virginia, about religion—but I realized that I was still too close to the subject, that the writing was too raw and painful. One day, when my family and I have sufficiently healed, I’ll retackle that book. There’s a story in there that some will recognize and from which others will learn. But for now, I need to maintain the safe distance of fiction in order to preserve the love and understanding that my family and I have been working to rebuild.
Rumpus: The moment I put down The Rope Swing, I couldn’t wait to read more of your work, memoir or otherwise. What are you working on now?
Corcoran: I’ve been busy at a novel, which is a new form for me. I want to say it’s an expansion of the universe of the short story collection, one that’s going to focus on a particular family during a relatively short time span. I’ve planned and drafted and outlined this story for years, but I know that at some point the words and characters will take over and dictate where the book is going. I’d say I’m looking back to Faulkner as the inspiration for this book. I’m envisioning a classic family saga with multiple voices, but one that’s updated with contemporary concerns. As silly as it sounds, one of my main issues has been settling on a specific era. I’m not sure I’ve yet figured out how to write a near-contemporary book that takes into account smartphones, social media, and dating apps. I tend to set my work in times just before devices began to take over our lives. It’s surprisingly difficult to put characters in scene when half of the action taking place revolves around people typing into their phones. I’m inching my way toward the present.
Author photograph © Christine Whitney.