What If We Were Allowed to Do Anything We Wanted?: A Conversation with Clare Beams
Clare Beams’s debut short story collection, We Show What We Have Learned (Lookout Books), has garnered praise from Joyce Carol Oates, the New York Times, and O, The Oprah Magazine. A finalist for the 2017 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award for Debut Fiction, We Show What We Have Learned is a rich and nimble collection filled with vivid, surprising characters: an elementary school teacher whose body disintegrates before her students’ eyes, a landscape architect who pours himself into the job of a lifetime, a grandmother who suddenly begins to age in reverse. In Stephanie Reents’s review here at The Rumpus, she comments on the “lush, imaginative” quality of the stories, which transport the reader from contemporary New England to the home of a seventeenth-century plague doctor in an exploration of all that we learn and unlearn in a lifetime of hope, loss, and desire.
A graduate of both Princeton and Columbia, Clare taught high school English in Falmouth, Massachusetts for six years before moving with her family to Pittsburgh, where she now teaches creative writing at Saint Vincent’s College and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. I met Clare at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, North Carolina and was struck both by her stories and her clear-eyed, engaging commentary. We spoke over the phone just after the conclusion of her book tour.
The Rumpus: I’ll start by saying that I have the book here, and I just loved it. With collections, often I’ll read a few stories and then I’ll wait six months and read a few more, but I read pretty much everything in one weekend, and I was so compelled by each story and they ways that they work together.
You have this wonderful piece on the Ploughshares blog about “Five Fabulist Sentences,” so I thought we could start by talking about genre and this idea of female fabulism. Where do you see yourself in that conversation?
Clare Beams: There is a group of women writing now who I think of as the female fabulists, and they were very inspiring to me as a reader before I had even considered that category of strangeness as sort of a possibility for myself. People like Kelly Link and Aimee Bender… There’s such a range of what those women are doing—I mean, each of their kinds of strangeness is so distinct and getting, in their own particular ways, at the weirdness of the world.
My own work is not always overtly fabulist. There are some stories in the collection where there’s nothing not realistic about them, exactly. But I am always after—even in a story like “World’s End,” which is the most traditional in the book—for something to feel alive for me, there always needs to be something that feels a little exaggerated or pulled or magical. In “World’s End,” it’s the landscape—there’s a landscape architect building his own vision on the land, and meanwhile, he’s falling in love with this client’s daughter, or in lust with her—but her body gets all mixed up with the land in this way that I’m hoping is hyper-vivid for the reader. So, that’s where that living strangeness is in that story, whereas in some of the others it’s a little more obvious, like where the teacher is literally shedding her body parts—you don’t have to look very hard for the weirdness in that one.
I love to read that whole category of women we might call female fabulists: I adore Angela Carter and Helen Oyeyemi, but I think, and I hope, that I’m finding my own way because I think each of them—it almost does them a disservice to lump them together because they’re all doing such an individual thing. And so, they’re inspiring me, but I hope they’re inspiring me to do my own thing.
Rumpus: I like that phrase that you use: “living strangeness.” I think a lot about the quality of wonder in my own work, and I feel like that’s something that I see being present in a lot of your stories, too, even in the more realistic pieces.
It feels to me like—and maybe this is just because I am hyper-aware of it because I’m so interested in this kind of work—but it feels to me like this way of playing with strangeness is particularly strong right now. Do you think there are ways in which this approach to looking at the world is especially relevant in this historical or literary moment?
Beams: I think it must be. As a writer, you’re not always thinking about it in conscious terms. At least, I’m not. When I sit down to write something, the actual practical challenges of putting what’s in my head on the page are so demanding that there’s no real place to think of that broader vision. The same way that I don’t really think about readers while I’m writing because if I did, I would just never do it; it would be too overwhelming—and it’s already very close to too overwhelming. [Laughter]
But there is this subset of literary fiction that’s so vibrant right now, and I think that there must be something about the world that we’re living in that’s calling for that kind of strangeness to capture it. Although I have to say, there’s an awful lot of weirdness in even The Odyssey. There’s something about making something really crazy or impossible happen that I think is really appealing to the storytelling part of our brains because it is this realm in which anything can happen. The limitlessness of that, I think, has maybe always been a part of storytelling in some way… I do think that a lot of realism is so, so wonderful, but there has been this broadening—this sort of recognition of, “Oh, what if we were allowed to do anything we wanted? What an idea!”
Rumpus: You were saying that when you sit down to write, you’re so focused on putting words on the page that you’re not necessarily thinking about the broader vision or about themes—but the result, nonetheless, feels really timely to me. Reading as a feminist, there’s so much about women’s bodies and the way society treats women. To what extent do you consider your writing to be political? At what point in the process does that element come into the room?
Beams: You know, I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but it’s been very fascinating to me to watch the critical responses to this book, and how often that word comes up. It makes perfect sense, it’s just that I don’t think of my writing in those categories for a really long time. It’s what I was saying to you before: I’m just so focused on trying to make the actual story live… Once the big pieces are in place and I reach the stage where I’m reading it through a zillion and a half times, then you do start to see these thematic things popping out at you, and then you can play and pull on different threads to bring things to the fore a little more.
I also think that in putting together a collection, you have another opportunity to do that, too, in the actual selection of which stories are making the cut and also in the ordering of the stories, which is something that my editor had a lot to do with. You’re putting them in conversation with each other, and making sure that the threads that you want to draw out are emphasized at the right time.
That’s not to say that I don’t think the writing is political… There are certain things about living as a woman in the world today that are not what I grew up thinking it would be like. I had really bought the idea as a kid, probably all the way through high school, that it was just exactly the same for women as men now. It’s been fascinating watching my generation of women make its way in the world and encounter the differences that are still there. So even if I’m not consciously sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a story that explores the feminist viewpoint on…” there’s a piece of my brain that’s always thinking about that stuff, so it comes out, sort of subconsciously, as you think you’re mostly considering these other technical choices.
Rumpus: So it’s sort of a collaboration between the subconscious and the conscious.
Beams: I think so. I think an awful lot of writing is like that, and I know that sounds a little mystical. I don’t feel like there’s a muse that comes and visits me and gives me these stories—I certainly put a lot of work into writing them. But there’s a piece of your brain that’s in charge of dreaming… a piece of your brain that you’re not always aware of that is certainly active when you’re writing… A big step in my writing was finally learning to let go enough to let the craziness come to the fore and worry later about whether it made any sense. That piece of your brain is very easily squelched when you’re awake.
Rumpus: One of the other things that I really loved about this book was the attention that you give to teachers and students. There are actually three explicitly school-related stories, including the title piece. Can you talk about what draws you to that particular setting?
Beams: That title story is the earliest story in the collection, and I wrote it in the very early summer after my third year of teaching ninth grade English. And I had not written anything new for those whole three years. I had been revising this novel that was supposed to be my real work [laughter], that was my grad school thesis, and it was really this piece of quiet realism. And I was revising other stories that I had written in grad school, which were all in that mode.
I had not started a new piece of fiction in those three years, but I had been thinking a lot, of course, about teaching, which I found to be an incredible and incredibly all-consuming job. I teach college now, but that’s different. Somehow, the age of the people I was teaching—ninth grade—you know, I would fret about them at 3 a.m. Ninth grade is huge. You could be a totally different person in the spring than you were in the fall, and that kind of transformation, the possibilities for that close off as you get older, and you solidify. You become a little more who you’re going to be. In ninth grade, you’re still deciding who you’re going to be, which makes it really exhilarating to work with that age of person, but also, a little terrifying.
So I had this really creepy thought as I was falling asleep about this teacher shedding body parts in front of her fifth grade students and what effect that would that have on them, and so I jotted down a couple of lines of it right before I fell asleep. I had never written anything like that before, but I was feeling pretty far away from workshop, which was—you know, workshop is wonderful, but I went to get my MFA right out of undergrad, and by the time I was done, I think what workshop made me try to do was do things perfectly, which is maybe not always the right approach. I think I ended up writing these very careful, kind of dead stories. There were no missteps, but it just didn’t really live. And all of a sudden, I was feeling far enough away from that that I was just like, “Well, I’m just going to try something crazy that may totally fall on its face, and nobody ever has to see it.”
For me, the classroom ends up being a really good arena in which to explore this idea of transformation, which turns out to be something that interests me. Because in teaching, you’re actually setting out to change people. That’s part of your job. They’re supposed to know more things when you’re done with them than they did when you started. I don’t think there are too many jobs that are like that, in terms of your project actually being another person.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you understand people in a different way after having that kind of relationship with young adults?
Beams: I think I probably do. Again, it wasn’t something that I was aware of, as in, “I’m going to go into teaching so that I can understand humanity.” But I do think that teaching really changed me and made me look at people differently and understand people differently, and that has certainly worked its way into the writing. It’s not an accident that there are no stories in this book that come from before I was a teacher.
It was the job that I got right after getting my MFA. I turned twenty-four two weeks after I started teaching, and I went into it originally because I thought, “Hey, you’re done at 2:30! I can go home and have some writing time.” Which is so hilarious in retrospect. I could not have picked a job that took me more time. I didn’t like high schoolers very much when I was a high schooler, so I thought I’d have a couple kids that I would like and that I’d just sort of tolerate the rest of them. They were such a surprise in that way, just how much you end up really loving the kids that you’re teaching—it was just a total, amazing shock. So I was very wrong about many things about teaching, but I did up loving it in ways that I had not expected.
I used to be really afraid of public speaking. That was the thing, all through grad school—ask me to write, but don’t ask me to give a talk on anything, it would just petrify me. I was thinking about that on this book tour. Thank God I was a teacher! I mean, you get over that part, you just do. I had to do so many kinds of talking to so many groups of people, and once, that would have been paralyzing. The idea that somebody might ask a weird question. Well, yeah. [laughter]
Rumpus: Kids are already going to ask a weird question.
Beams: But I think that for writers who have never taught, all that stuff is very scary because it is so unpredictable and uncontrollable, and when we’re writing, we have absolute control over what we’re doing, in the perfect little quiet environment.
Rumpus: What kind of books did you read growing up?
Beams: I read everything I could get my hands on. My mom was really great about this. She reads more than anybody I know, including most of the writers that I know, and she always has. So once I had exhausted the children’s section, she would go into the adult section and find books that she thought I might like. And occasionally this would result in kind of hilarious—I read The World According to Garp when I was twelve, and there’s a lot of adultery and a lot of very graphic, kind of violent sexual stuff. I think she had remembered thinking that it was a great story—and it is a great story.
I read a lot of Lois Lowry as a kid. I loved the Narnia books without ever understanding that they were Christian allegories. And it’s actually to my mom’s great credit because she’s a Presbyterian minister, and she never wrecked them for me. She never said, “Did you notice that Aslan’s a little like Jesus?” I loved the Little Women books, that whole series, but mostly Little Women. I probably read Little Women more than I read anything else. I think there’s something so irresistible to girls of a certain age about those four sisters who are four different types of girls. Which one are you? Which one are your friends like?
Rumpus: Who did you identify with?
Beams: I wanted to be a combination of Jo and Beth, where I wouldn’t have to die tragically, but where I’d be a really good person, but also kind of spunky and get to be a writer and do cool things. I really was probably mostly like poor, boring Meg, sitting up there at the head of the family doing what she was supposed to do. I was mostly a pretty dutiful kid.
I would set weird reading challenges for myself. My dad took me to see Les Miserables when I was ten, and I decided I was going to read the book—in English translation, of course—but that’s a big, hefty book. My parents were always really wonderful about this. He bought me this old copy of it—I always loved actual old books that smelled good. So he found this very inspiring copy of it for me, and I slogged my way through. I probably understood about a quarter of what I was reading, but the challenge of it was fun, too. We went to the library every week or two when I was in late elementary school or early middle school, and I would just get stacks of books and I would wake early and read them before school and kind of carry them around with me.
Reading was this very wonderfully unlimited part of my life, at a time in one’s life when almost everything is limited. It was a place where anything could happen, and I could make all these choices about what I wanted to be reading. That’s something I really hope to give my own kids.
Rumpus: You mentioned old-book smell—I wanted to discuss the way that several of the stories in this collection have historical settings. What appeals to you in sort of writing about times other than the time we live in?
Beams: Well, I grew up in Newtown, Connecticut, in a house that was built in 1733. And I loved that house. There were places where you felt like the floorboards were going to fall apart, like you might actually fall into the basement. There were gaping knot holes. And the basement actually had a dirt floor and these tree trunks that were a very structurally important part of holding up the house. To me, it was the perfect house, and we had this falling-down old barn, and back behind there, we would dig up these old glass bottles and pieces of porcelain dolls that were broken. So I think that growing up that way, I always had this feeling of time overlapping. I never felt like the present was all that separate from the past.
I don’t exactly think of myself as a historical fiction writer in that I’m not really interested in teaching the reader about the historical moment. I really hate when I’m reading along, and we’ve got two pages on the kind of cloth that was in the curtains. That sort of thing isn’t all that interesting to me, but there’s something about the flavor and the sound of other times that can be a source of that kind of living strangeness that I was talking about before. Sometimes I can find that in a different historical time.
Rumpus: You just brought up Newtown. On the flip side of this question, then, there’s “All the Keys to All the Doors,” which is the only story clearly grounded in a very contemporary real event. Can you talk about the experience of writing that story?
Beams: That was a really scary one for me to write. Basically, when Newtown happened, my parents had already left. They had moved after my brother went to college, so nobody that I knew was living in Newtown when the shooting there happened. But I lived there from the time that I was six until the time that I graduated from high school, so Newtown High School was my high school, and when the president gave his speech from the stage, that was the stage where I used to play orchestra concerts. In 2012, when that happened, I was about six months pregnant with my first daughter. It was very surreal—it’s a place that I associate so much with childhood, and a childhood of a really particular kind—I mean, I would spend whole afternoons at my brother’s Little League games, just kind of frolicking through fields of grass—it was a really really good and quiet place to be a kid. To be on the edge of parenthood myself for the first time, which is already a really scary place to be, and then to be bombarded with these pictures of these kids and their families… I think that I knew that something formative was happening to me in that confluence of events, but I was conscious, too, that that did not mean this was my tragedy in some sort of significant way. The people who were directly impacted were different from me. So I knew that this was something that I wanted to write about, but I really didn’t want to do it in a way that would feel like I was appropriating something that wasn’t mine.
So when Lookout told me, “You need to write a new story,” this was the idea that I had been sitting on for a little while. Plus, I knew that if I was going to write this story, it was probably going to belong in this collection because I knew that it would have to do with school, and—I mean, it’s almost the most extreme version of this idea of how we change each other. I knew that it was time to try writing that story, but I was looking for a way to do it that would feel indirect and weird enough that it wouldn’t feel like I was trying to tell a story that wasn’t mine. So that’s what I did. I think that, by making the protagonist Cele, who’s in charge of the whole town, and making it mostly about the aftermath and mostly about what you do—how is it ever even possible to move on from this, and what would a solution look like, and would the solution be any better than the actual pain that she’s trying to address? Those became questions that weren’t exactly, necessarily mine, but they weren’t not mine either.
Author photograph © Kristi Jan Hoover.