Thrown Off Balance: Talking with Malinda McCollum


In Malinda McCollum’s debut story collection, The Surprising Place (winner of the 2017 Juniper Prize for Fiction), readers meet striking, indelibly drawn characters that habitually walk a thin line between self-preservation and self-destruction.

Set mostly in and around Des Moines before Y2K, McCollum has created a vivid and viscerally affecting psychic landscape where many of her characters confront their darkest impulses when faced with harrowing choices. In “The Fifth Wall,” a drug-addicted single mother is strong-armed by her dealer, a man who was also her deceased father’s close friend, into what can only be considered a devil’s bargain: whether or not to enlist her young daughter as a drug courier. In “Smart Life,” another young woman, desperate for food and money after being tossed out by her ne’er-do-well boyfriend, throws in her lot with an alcoholic conman who uses a corps of impressionable teenage boys to sell bogus magazine subscriptions in well-heeled neighborhoods.

McCollum’s stories are alternately irresistible and disquieting, as she skillfully balances pathos with flashes of memorable dark humor. An heir to some of Denis Johnson’s thematic and topical preoccupations, it’s impossible not to be impatient for her next book.

Via email and Google docs, Malinda McCollum and I recently corresponded about the Midwest as literary inspiration, what it’s like to write flawed characters, and the pleasures of the short story.


The Rumpus: There are several recurring characters in these stories, but you don’t take us through their lives in a chronological fashion—why did you decide to leap forward and double back in time when structuring this collection?

Malinda McCollum: It’s true that with a collection you have to consider the structure of each individual story and the overall structure of the book. But when I first started writing the stories in The Surprising Place, I didn’t really foresee which characters would recur, or how and where their paths would intersect. I discovered the characters and their connections as I wrote, and the ordering of the stories reflects, in part, how the book gradually came together.

The non-linear structure may also be a way of undercutting the notion that there’s consistent progression in people’s lives, that as time passes and experiences accumulate, people learn valuable lessons and make healthier choices, steadily bettering themselves. In my view, people often move on a more volatile, unpredictable track, in which we stumble, stagnate, sprint forward, circle back. I think my collection tries to tap into that sense of disequilibrium. Rather than marching characters toward redemption, toward a moment when their problems resolve and the skies clear, these stories delve into the messiness of life and explore the unexpected directions in which that messiness might lead.

This may also relate to the collection’s title, which actually used to be the city slogan for Des Moines, Iowa, where many of the stories are set. At first, I wasn’t sure if that title would summon the right tone, because I thought the word “surprising” might sound too peppy or upbeat. But in the end, I realized surprise can take many forms: I’m surprised I did this, I’m surprised by how this person affects me, I’m surprised this hurts so much, I’m surprised to find myself here. In many of my stories, characters are thrown off balance by odd encounters with people or situations they didn’t see coming, and their shakiness in the wake of those encounters gets them questioning their conceptions of the world and themselves.

Rumpus: Green, the character who recurs most frequently, is a complex, conflicted man—he loves his wife but is a serial cheater; he loves his brother Roy, who survived polio in childhood, but fails to protect him from his self-destructive impulses. Did Green arrive fully formed in your imagination?

McCollum: I initially thought Green’s arc would span a single story, but then I returned to him as a teenager, and went back to him again for three additional stories. For me, it is his conflicted nature that makes him compelling, his relentless longing for more, even though he can’t quite pin down what more is, or how to get it. As you mention, there’s also his ambivalent feelings about family. He craves a close connection with his wife and brother––he strikes me as a very lonely man––but simultaneously worries that intimacy might somehow harm him or hold him back.

Like many people, Green experiences a disconnect between his aspirations and his reality, and I think that gap can breed bitterness, anger, and jealousy, which in turn can spur someone to hurt others and themselves. In The Surprising Place, there are a number of destructive and/or self-destructive people whose delusions, fears, addictions, wounds, and desires send them careening down rocky roads. Some writers (and readers) have an aversion to “unlikable” characters, but I seem to be drawn to them, and when I teach, I often pull a passage from Mary Gaitskill’s essay “My Inspiration: Vladimir Nabokov,” in which she discusses the appeal of taking on characters who are deeply flawed:

Sometimes I write from the point of view of characters whom I would dislike as people, not as a perverse exercise, but because this cracks the story open and makes me see it in a way I would not see it naturally. Not being locked into one set of feelings which you run the risk of mistaking for the Truth, you have greater and more intense access to all feeling states, including those you would never choose to act out. Such an accepting and at times dispassionate approach to feeling allows for an understanding of both tenderness and cruelty.

When I’m writing, my goal is to engage with both tenderness and cruelty on the page and render a wide range of emotions and experiences, light to dark.

Rumpus: Most of these stories take place in or near Des Moines, Iowa, and they all struck me as defying the stolid, God-fearing stereotypes of Midwesterners that rush to mind when some of us think of this region. I see your stories as more Coen Brothers than Norman Rockwell. What (and who) are your influences?

McCollum: There are these popular misconceptions of Midwesterners as simple, slow, or stoic, but those stereotypes have never matched up with my experience of Iowa or the Midwest. The Iowans I know are brilliant, hilarious, generous, passionate, sometimes reckless, sometimes troubled––in other words, complicated people. I like writing about people who embody contradiction, who make good and bad decisions and then grapple with the aftermath.

That said, The Surprising Place isn’t trying to objectively document what it’s like to live in the Midwest, and I’m sure there are readers in Des Moines (and elsewhere) who don’t recognize themselves in these stories. While writing the book, I was most interested in the specific experiences of individual characters, their particular flaws and foibles, and how they play out in a heightened, somewhat surreal vision of Des Moines. Maybe this is a parallel to how the Coen Brothers’ films unfold in stylized versions of the real world in which the landscape and characters are turned up or tweaked?

In terms of literary influences, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the writers I went to grad school with many years ago, including Ben Neihart, Jordan Ellenberg, Julie Orringer, Nathan Englander, ZZ Packer, Daniel Orozco, Adam Johnson, Doug Dorst, Ann Joslin Williams, Ed Schwarzschild, Angela Pneuman, Ron Nyren, and Anthony Varallo. Besides being great friends, they’re all exceptional writers, and encountering their stories early in my career set out a path for me to follow. Being part of a literary community was––and is––essential.

Along the same lines, two of my favorite short stories in the last few years are from writers I’ve known forever: “Mentor” by Mark Jude Poirier, published in Crazyhorse, and “So What If I Love You That’s None Of Your Business,” by Amber Dermont in The Iowa Review. I’ve read and loved Mark and Amber’s stories for so long, and what they’re writing now is as fearless and wild and wise as anything they’ve ever done. It’s incredibly inspiring to watch how their work continues to evolve, how they keep pushing and never stop taking risks. In contrast, two other stories that floored me in recent months are from new-to-me writers: Venita Blackburn’s “Black Jesus” and Brandon Taylor’s “The Larger World.” These stories are totally different from each other in terms of style, subject, length, and tone, but both pieces feature electric, sweeping narratives and gorgeous sentences, one after another.

Rumpus: You write from the point of view of teenagers very well (I’m thinking of “Think Straight” and “Kicks” in particular). Do you find it more challenging to write from their perspectives than from an adult character’s? Or maybe you hear a character’s voice first and the story takes off from there?

McCollum: Sometimes I find it easier––and more interesting––to write from the POV of characters who are significantly different from myself. The adolescent perspective is especially appealing to me as a writer, in that teenagers have so much intensity, impulsivity, and creativity. I like how that mad energy can propel and twist a story.

I’m also interested in exploring adolescent wariness, the way teenagers keep a close eye on others and themselves. Self-consciousness is so acute at that age, and teenagers are very strategic about what they reveal and what they conceal. The process of figuring out what to disclose to others and what to guard can generate a lot of tension, and I feel like teenagers (and everyone, really) wrestle with competing impulses to invite people in or to keep them at a distance. A longing for connection comes up against a fear of rejection, constriction, embarrassment, pain.

You asked about voice, and voice does play a major role for me, especially with a character like Severa, the adolescent girl who appears in multiple stories in The Surprising Place. Severa is physically aggressive and also verbally aggressive, lashing out at whoever enters her orbit, trying to push them to the edge––or off it. For me, the most challenging part of writing from an adolescent perspective like Severa’s is making the dialogue sound organic and real. I sometimes worry the dialogue will sound like Steve Buscemi’s character in 30 Rock, when he goes undercover at a high school, toting a skateboard, and greets students with, “How do you do, fellow kids?”

Rumpus: The dire prediction that the novel will soon be dead resurfaces with depressing regularity in articles about current trends in literary culture. Similarly, readers and commercial publishing houses often take a dim view of short stories. What do you say if people ask you why they should bother reading fiction at all?

McCollum: Maybe this is magical thinking, but it seems to me that short stories, as a genre, have been getting lots of buzz lately, with “Cat Person” from the New Yorker going viral and lauded collections appearing from debut and established writers like Carmen Maria Machado, Jamel Brinkley, Curtis Sittenfeld, Roxane Gay, and Lauren Groff. I love the short story, as a writer and reader, because of its concentrated power and the way it takes you on a ride. When I finish reading a great story, I’m in a different place than where I began, the last lines still ringing in my ears. It’s a physical reaction.

I also love how a short story––and fiction in general––makes the world seem smaller and larger at the same time. Reading fiction, you might encounter an avatar of yourself on the page, which can help you understand aspects of your own life in ways you haven’t before. Of course, fiction also launches readers into unfamiliar realms, and that’s something I seek as a writer as well, to immerse myself in settings, perspectives, and situations outside of my direct experience. There are so many things I don’t know, or that I’ve overlooked, or misunderstood, or thought I couldn’t imagine, and sometimes, through fiction, they become more immediate and real.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

McCollum: I’m one of those writers who’s superstitious about discussing work-in-progress, anxious that I’ll lose it or jinx it if I try to nail it down too conclusively. But very broadly speaking, my current project focuses on characters beset by various fears who are grasping for different ways to ameliorate their dread and to alter or amplify their lives. While The Surprising Place unfolds in the Midwest, before tech and social media permeated everyday life, what I’m writing now is set in the present, along the East Coast, and delves into the online experience, among other things––like children’s museums, haunted houses, and hurricanes. I realize this description sounds ridiculous, but at this point, I’m trying to let the writing roam wherever it wants to go. Later, I’ll whip it into shape.

Christine Sneed is the author most recently of The Virginity of Famous Men. Her stories have been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern Review, and Ploughshares. She has received the Grace Paley Prize, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the Society of Midland Authors Award and has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in Evanston and teaches for Northwestern University's and Regis University's MFA programs. More from this author →