I met Renee Simms in 2015 in Taos, New Mexico, at the summer retreat for the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction where we are both fellows. I introduced myself to Renee, bringing greetings from a mutual friend who had told us to be on the lookout for each other. But I felt right away that Renee would’ve been just as warm and generous if we’d been strangers.
One early evening during the retreat, the fellows read from our published work and work-in-progress. Renee read a funny, poignant short story made up of email correspondence between a concerned Black mother and her son’s school. The story would later become the title story in Renee’s debut collection Meet Behind Mars, forthcoming next month from Wayne State University Press. Her stories explore our most intimate connections with family, lovers and friends, and are at turns grounded, absurdist, and magical, but always resonant with truth.
Renee is an assistant professor of African American Studies and contributing faculty to the English department at University of Puget Sound. Her publications include Callaloo, Southwest Review, and North American Review. She is the recipient of a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship.
In this interview, Renee talks about Meet Behind Mars, leaving law to become a writer, and writing through major life changes.
The Rumpus: I haven’t finished Meet Behind Mars yet, but the intimate moments are just so perfect. You capture so much. My friend Vanessa saw the cover and said, “I want to read this collection.” Just from the cover. We just love seeing us. We love seeing stories about us. Thank you for this.
Renee Simms: You’re welcome. I’m still adjusting to having people talk about the work. It feels like I’ve written for myself for so long. Other people have talked about appreciating stories that are about Black people, Black women in particular. People appreciate the humor, and I like to laugh, I love jokes. So, that’s something that I appreciate.
Rumpus: I love the moments in the collection that are so unexpected. They speak to this broader understanding of what Black writing is. It’s not all struggle and slavery. Stories about us that are funny or sexy can still be taken seriously.
Simms: There’s a lot of joy in our contemporary lives. And there’s the hard stuff, too—the challenges, the oppression, the racism. But they exist together.
Rumpus: How did the collection come together?
Simms: I started working on the oldest story in the late 90s. But I didn’t think of the stories as a collection as I wrote them. I thought of them individually and really worked on developing the world within each story itself. I started thinking about them as a collection maybe two or three years ago when I decided to pull them out and see if I could find stories that had similar themes. And there were many other stories that I’ve written that are not included because I didn’t feel like they fit. The process was really organic.
The theme of the collection, for me, is about adaptation to new environments and trying to find community, especially in a situation where you feel like you’re being dominated because of systemic oppression, racism, sexism.
Rumpus: Where does this collection fall within the arc of your start as a writer to now?
Simms: Girl, we ain’t got that much time. Let me think. [Laughs] This book is the first of my work that will be out there in the world. But my writing journey began in the late ‘90s, when I was practicing law in Detroit at a mid-sized firm, in a branch of law that we called insurance defense, which could have meant employment contracts or product liability, or personal injury, all of that. And I realized, at some point, that the only time I felt real joy in doing the work was when I had to do opening or closing statements in a trial, because then I could track a story. I could take all of this data and all of these documents, and put them together into a story and talk directly to the jurors. And because my undergraduate degree had been in literature, I just decided, I’m going to go back and write.
So I quit my job in ‘96, and I did it because I’d recently got married so I had another income that I could rely on. And from there I started moving intuitively, because I didn’t have a plan. The first thing I did was go to the Black writers’ conference at Chicago State University, at the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Center. They were featuring tributes to the Black Arts Movement writers. I went there alone, knowing no one. Which is funny because today we have so much anxiety about going to these conferences, and I didn’t know what I was doing. But I realized when I went there that I had been superficially introduced to many Black writers through my education. So, after that conference, I kind of read everything by Black writers.
Then, when I was in Los Angeles, I wanted to meet other creative people. I wanted to sign up for a fiction writing workshop, but it was full and closed. And then I was told, “Well, we do poetry every Wednesday night, and it’s $2 or whatever you can contribute.” So that’s how I got started writing, through finding community and writing groups. And, at some point, realizing that there’s a professional side, too. People have advanced degrees in this, and there are organizations that have conferences and retreats. And then finally going back to get an MFA and going to VONA and places like that.
I didn’t want to practice law anymore. I wanted to write books.
Rumpus: You’re now writing and also teaching. Can you talk a bit about that transition?
Simms: I started teaching once I entered the MFA program because we’re trained to teach first-year composition and creative writing. I did that as an adjunct professor. Then there was a lot of downsizing that was happening at Arizona State University, where I was teaching at the time, so I applied for a job out of state and ended up getting hired in an African American Studies department at the University of Puget Sound. They were interested in how I could bring my background in literature, creative writing, and law together to talk about Black experiences. So that’s where I am now. But I fell into teaching through the MFA program, because writers teach, because very few writers can live off of only the profits from their books.
Rumpus: Do you have a favorite story in your collection?
Simms: I think my favorite story is “High Country.” It’s really about the process of writing. What it means to be a writer and to have these characters talking to you all the time, having these voices in your head. And how frustrating it can feel if you can’t get those stories down on paper, if you’re being distracted by a million things that you have to do because you’re responsible for taking care of family.
As a writer, I love it because it’s about the profession. But I also love it because it was one of the most whole in the first draft. A lot of the stories that I write come really slowly, the revision happens over a very long period of time, and it can include going back in and looking at plot, theme, and all that kind of stuff. But “High Country” just came in one sitting and the revision process had more to do with mechanics.
Rumpus: As you know, there is a woefully small number of published short story collections by Black women. Did you look to any of these collections or these authors in general, as you were writing yours?
Simms: I’m always reading contemporary writers, canonical writers, writers who will inspire me, writers who will teach me something. So I absolutely was looking at collections of fiction by Black women writers. I think you and I had a conversation about Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?. I was looking at that one as I was revising my manuscript. Amina Gautier writes short stories and has a number of collections. I’ve read all of hers. I teach African American literature and so there are lots of stories by Black women writers that are in the Norton anthology. I teach those. As a writer, it would be a mistake for me not to be familiar with the tradition. The first one that really caught my attention was Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak!. I remember reading and rereading and rereading that collection.
There are many of us out there, Black women writers people may not have heard of who are writing incredible fiction, you included.
Rumpus: Thank you.
Simms: There are some amazing writers out there—like Selena Anderson, who has published short stories—and I can’t wait to sit and read their work. And on my shelves, I have Amina Gautier’s At-Risk, Now We Will Be Happy, and The Loss of All Lost Things. And some others: Venita Blackburn’s Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, Desiree Cooper‘s Know the Mother, Helen Oyeyemi’s What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Danielle Evans’s Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, and Chinelo Okparanta‘s Happiness, Like Water. On my to-read list are Lesley Nneka Arimah‘s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky and Roxane Gay‘s Difficult Women.
Rumpus: This question comes from my friend, Vanessa, who now has my copy of Meet Behind Mars: Which story had the most birth pains? Which was the most challenging to bring forth?
Simms: I think “Dive” and “Rebel Airplane” have been the hardest stories, and the stories I definitely revised the most. “Dive” was hard just because there was so much in it, and I had to weave through all these different elements and figure out, “What is this story about?” so I could focus it. But even though those stories caused me the greatest birth pain, there’s a level of craft in both that I’m happy with.
Rumpus: Did your experiences of motherhood inform your stories?
Simms: Authors hate for people to think that our work is autobiographical. Fiction writers get questions about whether the characters and their stories are based on real people. People want to try and understand how much they can attribute to the writers. And definitely motherhood has come out on the pages, but I’m committed to my characters. So when I am crafting them on the page, I try not to let that divide between my own consciousness and what I think the character might do. I try to talk to them and write what the character feels and thinks and would do.
But motherhood is bizarre. And when you’re trying to write, I think it’s the most absurd situation there is, because small children require a lot of attention. So that situation was one that I tried to capture in “High Country.” What it’s like to have little kids who are screaming and need your attention when you’re trying to be still and contemplate characters and story.
Rumpus: Is “High Country” the most personal story for you in the collection?
Simms: I’d say “Dive” is personal, in that it deals with adoption, and as an adoptee born at a time when there were no open adoptions, that’s been an issue that always interested me, because that’s been my experience.
Rumpus: There’s the story on the page, and then there’s the story when we read it aloud. Is there a story in the collection that you like to read aloud the most?
Simms: I like reading “Meet Behind Mars” because it’s an epistolary. There are different sections of letters and short correspondences. I think it’s easy to follow the story.
Rumpus: When you were writing this collection, were you working on other things concurrently?
Simms: I’m always working on several projects. I’m working on a novel, currently. I have one draft, but it needs to be revised, and I need to do more research. I was working on that at the same time as I crafted these stories, and I also wrote essays at the same time.
Rumpus: Do your novel and essays touch on similar themes as the collection?
Simms: The novel is totally different. The novel is dealing with a big idea, with cruelty, so it feels a lot different than the stories. And that’s true also with my nonfiction writing where I tend to have an idea that I’m trying to work out in my head. With my novel, there’s an idea but there are also the characters, and with short fiction it tends to be the characters who present themselves to me first.
Rumpus: Do you think the novel will come together over time the way your short story collection did? Or do you think trajectory will be faster now that you’re moving beyond your debut?
Simms: I don’t think I’ll go through the same process in the future because my first child was born in 2000, my second one was born in 2005. So all of that was happening at the same time that I was also transitioning from practicing law to focusing on writing. So there was a learning curve that I was on, and I was also starting a family. I also went through a divorce, and I lived in several states.
I’m in a different place now. And I don’t think I’m the same writer today in 2018 as I was in 1999. So hopefully it will not take that long. And, in fact, the first draft of my novel, I pretty much banged out during a residency in 2016. Give me twenty-five days where I don’t have to focus on domestic stuff, or working, teaching, committee work, blah blah blah, and I can sit down and be focused and write.
Rumpus: When you were writing in the midst of all of those life changes, how did you keep going?
Simms: Writing feels like something I have to do. I’m a much better person when I write than when I don’t write. So I think that I kept going because I didn’t have a choice.
Writing is really the way that I am able to experience and make sense of the world. So I have to sit down at some point, and put things on paper, so that I can understand what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard. And that’s not something that you stop doing just because someone isn’t interested in your manuscript, or because you’re not publishing, right? That’s something I do because that’s who I am. Yeah, it’s a compulsion. Writing is something that I’m obsessed with a little. I think that explains why I kept going. And I also just made sure that I was open to those moments when peers or mentors told me, “This is good. Keep going.” That also inspired me.
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