The Sunday Rumpus Interview: Jaimee Wriston Colbert
Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s linked-story collection, Wild Things, takes William Wordsworth’s directive seriously: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” Colbert’s sensibilities hit the page through heartbreakingly rendered characters struggling to make sense of a damaged world. Her gaze is wide, raw, and unflinching—a man kidnaps a girl in order to “save her,” a young girl mourns the death of her drug-addicted brother, a mother neglects her needy daughter only to find solace in the Tea Party, a biker is hit by a car when it swerves to avoid a large creature. A deer? Or a Yeti? Who knows? Their world, after all, has been turned upside down. Like Colbert’s characters, we’re left unsure and questioning.
Most of the characters in Wild Things live in the Susquehanna Valley, unmoored and reeling in the wake of IBM and other manufacturers’ abandonment. They’ve lost jobs, paychecks, and a sense of purpose. As a result, they’re either holding on too tight or not tightly enough. On an even larger scale, the natural world suffers from generations of systematic neglect and abuse. This poor stewardship results in climate change, extinction, and pollution. Wild Things is masterful storytelling with a message: Take care of each other. Take care of our earth. If not, we are all doomed. I caught up with Jaimee Wriston Colbert via email to discuss Wild Things.
The Rumpus: You chose three quotes to introduce Wild Things:
“When despair for the world grows in me…
I come into the peace of wild things”
–Wendell Berry, “The Peace of Wild Things”
“I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.”
“We’re in a giant car heading towards a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”
Can you talk about why you chose those three quotes?
Wriston Colbert: Oh yes, and I had to put the brakes on at just three! And yes, you are absolutely correct that these particular quotes address different aspects of the book. The Wendell Berry poem is where my book title comes from in part, “wild things,” the world of creatures around us that share this planet with us and deserve our care, respect and wonderment. They are for me personally a haven. That poem, particularly the two lines I quoted, represents Jones, the main character in the two “Wild Things” title stories (who also appears in “Suicide Birds.”) He is a man with a weight of emotional damage, who feels more comfortable living among wild things than other humans, and despite his lack of a formal education, knows more about them—particularly the ones who are endangered—than most. He believes himself a savior, tasked with saving the fragile wilderness and its threatened creatures. Which is why he abducts Loulie, believing he is “saving” her, a major trope in the collection. And birds! That wonderful Emily Dickinson quote—birds more than any other creature represent our evolution, as they are the last dinosaurs, the link to our evolving past. They are to me a symbol of freedom and hope. Many of the stories are dark, and certainly the David Suzuki quote speaks to this—an eco-fiction work with an environmental theme that says watch out! Climate change and species extinction will be our doom if we don’t start being better stewards of this world. Ah, but then that brilliant little bird appears!
Rumpus: Your characters often find themselves clawing their way through the world after a number of bad choices, or one magnificently bad choice, or circumstances completely out of their control. Their jobs have disappeared, drugs and despair have replaced a sense of purpose, and they find themselves scrambling to survive. The people who do manage to overcome those obstacles are doing their best to keep up appearances as Rome burns. What draws you to these characters?
Wriston Colbert: Oh how I love those “bad choices,” having made a few at one time or another, myself! You beautifully encapsulated what happens to my characters, and I had to smile thinking about how as a fiction writing professor I teach my students that their stories must have trouble, that how their characters are driven by what happens to them becomes the tension in their stories. Then the younger writers either blow up their story world or their characters have too much to drink.
As a realist writer (though I confess to dipping into magical realism upon occasion), I am interested in the daily struggle of people whose lives have been severely compromised by a stagnant economy, particularly in Rust Belt areas that have suffered the decline in manufacturing, where powerful corporations such as IBM, that once gave people good jobs with a decent paycheck and benefits, have shipped so many of these jobs overseas. This resulted in unemployment, or under-employment in low-paying service jobs, and a constant struggle to stay on top of one’s bills—do we pay the electric this month or buy the kid a pair of badly needed new shoes! The inequities that have for too many years elevated a few ridiculously wealthy people at the expense of so many others, impacting their ability to just live with some dignity, is for me a conflict worth exploring in fiction. So many people have suffered, particularly in much of upstate New York where I live now. And you are exactly right—the anger and helplessness manifests in my stories as drug addiction, cooking meth, getting in with the wrong kinds of people and in general behaving badly. Yet these characters are survivors, they push on, which I guess more than anything is why I am drawn to tell these stories. I am just not interested in the problems of the rich!
Someone who read Wild Things commented that “a lot of these characters would have voted for Trump,” which I confess gave me quite a start! Because, of course, as fiction writers we know our characters will do what they damn well want to do. So I considered this, but came to the conclusion that in fact most of them wouldn’t have bothered voting at all; they are that disenfranchised. Except for the middle-aged lesbian couple, “journalist Janis” and Ruth. They would’ve been Hillary supporters, along with Amanda Lang, who is probably neoliberal (as much as I dislike that term), “keeping up appearances,” manipulating her teenaged daughter into getting an abortion. Poor Sadie, the thought of that baby, abstract as it was, assuaged her loneliness, which I have great sympathy for—the loneliness at the heart of so many lives. That too, is a struggle worth bringing to life in my fiction.
Rumpus: Place is so incredibly important in your work. Many of the stories in Wild Things are set in the Susquehanna Valley where the allure of larger and more powerful cities almost seems like a slap in the face. Your characters often have links to Hawai’i too. Can you talk about your own links to these places, how place becomes character in your work, and how characters reflect place.
Wriston Colbert: A reviewer for one of my earlier books, Climbing the God Tree, reflected on the improbability of characters who came from Hawai’i ending up in Maine. And there I was, from Hawai’i, living in Maine, along with a surprising number of Hawaiians. Truth is stranger than fiction, I suppose! I am very much a creature of my environment when it comes to my fiction, letting whatever it is about a particular place—its uniqueness, its charm (or lack of), its smells, sounds, wildlife, its people—become a part of my consciousness, which then becomes the gateway to my fictive world. It’s never planned—is inspiration ever planned? And I have to live in a place for a while before it opens itself up to me in my imagination; I have to be able to engage with it emotionally, its history, its culture, what life feels like in such a place. Growing up in Hawai’i there was a palatial house on a cliff above the north shore of O’ahu, that James Michener had built for himself to live in while he wrote Hawaii. I remember reading somewhere that he went around the world building mansions in the places he intended to write about. Of course I envied such a lifestyle, who wouldn’t? But it wouldn’t work for me as a fiction writer, as it seems so removed from the world you are attempting to bring to life on the page.
My novel Shark Girls, was loosely based on a real shark attack that took place off Lanikai (O’ahu.) As part of my “research” I swam way out to where it happened, to get a sense of the ocean there, its coolness, clarity, its depth, what it smelled like, and what the land beyond looked like from there. My daughter, who was acting as my unofficial research assistant, was terrified—which I didn’t realize until after we swam back in and she let out her breath in a whoosh, collapsing on the sand. When I moved to upstate New York for my faculty position here, I was under the misconception that “upstate” was the Adirondacks. I had no feel for how huge an area it is, and how relatively small “downstate” is, which according to my downstate students is only New York City and Long Island. Yet that powerful, amazing city dominates this state in so many ways, and the much larger, poorer, more rural areas of upstate struggle in a persistent decline. Which captured both my heart and imagination as a fiction writer, the two things most necessary to bring a story to life, and this for me means character, as story is about a character’s struggle in such a place—any place. The place brings character to life, and vice versa—they are interconnected. Yes, Hawai’i does creep into this book as well, as it has done in all my previous books. Those islands, and my family’s life in them for several hundred years, will forever bear my soul. The sadness of not being able to live my adult years there resulted in a sort of cultural displacement that identifies my fiction, not feeling completely at home wherever I am, always a part of me the observer, the outsider, and thus the alienation of many of my characters feels authentic.
Rumpus: In many of these stories, people are trying to take care of each other but they either hold on too hard or not hard enough. And these same characters kept tugging at you, I imagine, because you built them into the overall narrative arc of the collection. Can you tell me how certain characters kept threading their way into the collection, how they “surprised” you, how they might have taken a story (or the entire book) in directions you never intended?
Wriston Colbert: This is what happens to me: I write a story, think it’s finished, but certain characters from it just won’t go away. Ha! they cry, you think you can get rid of us this easily after giving us life? We’re alive, baby! Jones was a case in point. I created his story as a result of becoming intrigued and a little obsessed with the Jaycee Dugard kidnapping, abducted as a child by a monster who kept her for eighteen years, fathering two children with her. Jones abducts Loulie, but the more I worked on his story, the more I realized he was not at all a monster, that in his Billy Budd-like innocence, he truly believed he was saving her, another beautiful, threatened “wild thing” that needed his intervention. At the end of “Ghosts,” the first Wild Things story, when she’s still tied up in his trailer, I knew I needed to revisit them, explore this situation and their characters further. You don’t leave someone tied up and say, okay, good to go! The story of Janis, who loses her twin brother to drug addiction and then death, kept coming back as well. She finds love with Ruth, but is in such mourning, and as Wild Things is very much about loss—personal along with environmental—her pain kept drawing me back, and I needed to revisit her in a subsequent story to make some peace with that. I know what it feels like to lose beloved family members and her hurt was just so palpable to me. Once I had returning characters and a dramatic, novelistic situation with a disappeared girl, I realized I had a different book than I first imagined, linked stories instead of an independent collection.
Rumpus: Each story piggy-backs off the previous story and by the end it’s clear that, by destroying nature and decimating species we are supposed to protect, we’re ensuring our own extinction.
Wriston Colbert: You are spot-on right. We humans have not been such great stewards of our natural world, whether it’s the coral reefs dying due to the warming seas, polar bears endangered, what we’ve done to whales, the list goes on and on. I don’t want to sound didactic here, fiction is above all story, but Jones, for instance, who seeks refuge in wildlife and wild places, is also keenly aware of their endangerment. Of course since fiction is story, and my book has been tagged as “rural noir,” he goes about his mission in a twisted, perverse way when he determines the teenaged Loulie needs “saving” from her amorous, drug dealer boyfriend, so he kidnaps her and keeps her “safe” by tying her up in his trailer! But going along with the environmental endangerment theme, the little epilogue story, “The Hoodie’s Tale,” is meant to signal a transformation of sorts, as it depicts the wolf’s tragic disappearance from the northeastern United States, but now there is a new species populating our woods, parks, suburbs, even encroaching into cities—the coywolf, part coyote, part wolf.
Rumpus: Your language is just incredibly lyrical and in such contrast to the brutality of your characters’ lives. How do you find beauty within these characters’ horrible situations?
Wriston Colbert: I teach a course at Binghamton University called Loving the Unlovable. We read such classics as Lolita, The Bluest Eye, Last Exit to Brooklyn, pretty much every story Flannery O’Connor ever wrote, and McCarthy’s Child of God, perhaps the greatest necrophilia novel ever written. In fact we begin the class with that one, and I tell them the “greatest necrophilia novel” thing and their eyes get big, wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into! It’s a class on character complexity, how characters don’t have to be “likeable” (a common misconception!) but must be authentic, and we explore how to find the humanity in characters who have behaved really badly, such as Cholly, raping Pecola in The Bluest Eye. My language in Wild Things, if I might humbly propose, is a language of love. I love my characters, all of them, and in fact do find a certain poetry in their lives, in how they deal with (sometimes quite badly!) their challenges. If I can’t love them I can’t bring them to life on the page, and all the beautiful language in the world won’t save them from being flat characters. I also love with a reverence the land they live on—we live on—the creatures we live among, and that too brings out the lyricism in my writing. The language of love! Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt having begun my writing life as a poet. Not a very good one, but there you go.
Rumpus: Your narrative voice is beautifully chameleon-like. You effortlessly (and I know it isn’t effortless!) dive into your characters internal perceptions and then use their individual rhythm and tone in the narrative voice. This ability to tap into your characters thoughts and speech patterns made the stories feel respectful and truthful. How do you settle on a character’s speech pattern and use dialect and rhythm to develop character?
Wriston Colbert: I was at a writers’ conference a while back, and the marvelous Reginald McKnight said something about how fiction writers are the only ones who can walk around with voices in our heads and not be committed to a psychiatric hospital. Though I would contend we are just a wee bit crazy! I do hear my characters voices in my head, in fact will sometimes carry on conversations with them in my head, and as they reveal more of who they are to me, their “attitude” and voice become essential to their characterization on the page. I believe this also refers back to loving our characters, because when we do that, at least in my experience, their voice becomes clear. Monty in “This Is a Success Story” is a case in point. She starts out by rattling off diseases that can kill you, then launches into her sexual history, and before long we discover she has the hots for a sixteen-year-old boy! When this story first appeared in a literary journal the editor called it “risky,” and to be honest I couldn’t figure out for a while what she meant. All I could hear in that rhythmic rant was Monty’s fear of a world where bad things happen, her pain from losing custody of her son (for a sexual act with a bouncer at a bar), and the suicide/desertion of her mother. But Monty is tough, a survivor, pretty much all my damaged characters are survivors, and so her voice, her attitude, never becomes about defeat.
Rumpus: Of all of the issues that take your attention in Wild Things, human impact on the environment, our carelessness, our hubris, our expectation that the earth will heal, seems most pressing. You wrote this collection over a number of years. What was the hair trigger moment when you knew that issues connected to the environment would link these stories? And, connecting back to eco-fiction, what books or authors or writers have influenced you in that regard?
Wriston Colbert: Of authors who write with a reverence for our natural world, there are many good ones, but in particular I’m a fan of Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, and Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior just blew me away. I’m a butterfly lover along with being a birder, and monarch butterflies hold a special place in my heart, as I grew up among them in Hawai’i. My grandparents had several giant crown flower bushes in their yard, and for the monarch caterpillar, this is tropical manna. That monarchs are so threatened now just breaks me. But to answer the first part of your question, I believe the hair trigger moment was with the story “Erosion,” one of the earlier stories I wrote, based on what happened to a real place, Hunting Island, South Carolina. My husband and I used to rent cottages there during my spring break week, and the erosion became so extensive, coupled with the frequency and severity of storms, the rising sea levels accelerated by global warming, that each time we returned more cottages were literally eaten by the sea. Finally, the last one was destroyed and that was the end of our treks down there. I wanted to document that in a story, and I had previously written “We Are All in Pieces,” which is about species extinctions, while simultaneously working on “A Kind of Extinction,” with glaciers melting—and it all started to come together. One of the final stories I wrote, “Suicide Birds,” is about fracking. Wow, way to destroy our water and air!
Rumpus: The book is about the importance of micro-communities (friendships, family) and the breakdown of larger communities (towns, economic systems, government). That’s a huge order for any book to fill and yet you fill it. You get to what is gnawing away the heart of things. Did you end up doing quite a bit of research or interviews while writing these stories? Or are they stories you feel are woven into your DNA?
Wriston Colbert: I suspect your point about the breakdown of communities is inherently in my DNA, as my heritage in part is from the Isle of Skye, the Scottish diaspora, having been “cleared” during the Clearances, when the landlords forcibly reclaimed land to graze more profitable sheep. Homeless, my crofter ancestors were compelled to emigrate to North America and start over. (Stay tuned! I’m currently working on a novel about that.) I think most of my research for this book though was living in the region I write about, during a decade that saw some pretty big changes, beginning with 9/11, the great recession of 2008—a disaster for communities already suffering economic decline due to the loss of manufacturing, and the increasing havoc from climate change, such as the three disastrous floods of the Susquehanna River within just seven years, the 100, 200, and 500-year floods. I wrote about this in my story, “Aftermath.” The book took me eight years to write, from the first story to the last, and over that time period there were all of these things impacting this region. I did research the facts and statistics I use throughout the book, species extinctions, glaciers melting, various animal behaviors, and articles I’d come across, such as the one reporting on people who lost their homes in the housing bust, living in storage containers. I must confess to also going to a Tea Party meeting, so I could better understand Fortune’s mother in “A Kind of Extinction.” I was a little terrified I’d be outed as an imposter, worried that somehow my forehead bore a scarlet L, for Liberal! But the heart of these stories, the lives of my characters struggling against forces greater than them, comes from observation, imagination, and empathy. Life’s inequities can be cruel, but in the end we are all part of our communities; suffering though we may be, we are not alone.
Author photograph © Marisa Wriston.