No-Man’s Land: A Conversation with Angela Mitchell
Angela Mitchell and I met in the summer of 2016 at the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, having been connected via email by a mutual friend. We set up a time to meet and had the kind of intense conversation that seems to be exclusive to writers at conferences, but we were attending different workshops and living in separate dorms, so we didn’t see much of each other after that. I was looking to publish my first collection, The Truth About Me, and I knew that Angela had an unpublished collection as well. A few months later, WTAW Press accepted my book, and it was published in the autumn of 2017.
Fade in, fade out: a year later, when the press opened its submission window for the 2018 books, I immediately thought of Angela. Somehow I knew that her excellent collection, Unnatural Habitats & Other Stories, would be chosen, and, happily, it was.
We spoke recently about her debut collection, growing up on a farm in the Ozarks, and what makes unsympathetic characters so interesting.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on the publication of your story collection Unnatural Habitats. Though not strictly a linked collection, three of the seven stories are strongly connected, featuring the same characters: Gary, Dee, and Layton. Had you originally intended to write a linked collection, or are these stories the germ of a novel? Who are these recurring characters? From what part of your experience/imagination do they come?
Angela Mitchell: When I wrote the first story that featured Gary and Dee and Layton, “Animal Lovers,” I had no intention of continuing past that one. I’d had the idea for the main character, Dee, in my head for a few years, and the narrative flowed out from what I knew about her: that she wasn’t cut out to be a pet owner or a mother or in any kind of relationship, really, but that she was struggling with all of those things. I knew she was a kind of misfit in her own life, and I wrote her into a place where I thought she could stay.
But then there was Gary, and I really loved Gary, with his cool exterior and his dry, western Arkansas sense of humor, and over-confidence when it came to his business partner Layton. I needed to keep exploring his life, too. But that left me with Layton, and I found myself imagining his future after his involvement with Dee and Gary, and I very much wanted to write about his life as a family man who just happened to build his fortune on selling drugs and laundering the money through his insurance agency.
As much as I hate the stereotype, we do have a rather robust drug culture in the Ozarks, so writing these stories let me dive into that, but from the perspective of looking at relationships, rather than just addiction. Right now, I say that these characters have come to the end of the road, but I could see one of them making a comeback.
Rumpus: All of the stories take place in the same general location, southern Missouri to northwest Arkansas. Can you talk about that area of the country and why you set the stories there?
Mitchell: I grew up in south central Missouri, on my mother’s family farm outside of Mountain Grove, but my dad is from Ravenden Springs in northeast Arkansas, and we visited there a lot. Later, I would attend the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, on the other side of the state. Altogether, I lived in Fayetteville for six years, which doesn’t seem like much, but it was an important, formative stage in my life and as a result Arkansas became my second, true home. Both southern Missouri and northern Arkansas are places that feel familiar and comfortable, places where I am most myself. Oddly, I’ve now lived in St. Louis for about twenty years, but it has never felt like home the way southern Missouri and Arkansas do, which leads me to believe that home is a concept that is formed through experiences rather than time.
Rumpus: Your characters are hardscrabble folks, some barely making ends meet, others involved in nefarious businesses. Money is an issue in one way or another, including the quest to have it. Tell me about why this issue interests you.
Mitchell: Money defines people, whether we like to believe that or not. I didn’t grow up in poverty—my father had a good job working on the Mississippi River, and my mother’s family were successful farmers—but I certainly was exposed to it. Though the people of the Ozarks are industrious and no strangers to hard work, the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first has not brought them economic stability. Growing up, I was very much aware of there being the haves and have-nots. Many of the kids I rode the bus with or who were in my classes came from households where money was scarce and which were dependent on government aid, whether it was food stamps or unemployment or free lunches at school. I was self-conscious about not being poor, and it was often pointed out to me that I seemed to “have everything.”
I knew I was lucky, especially as I went into junior high and high school and witnessed a lot of teen pregnancy and watched more and more kids seem to surrender to the idea that they would always be poor. Now, I see how this prolonged poverty has reshaped those communities. Drug use, increases in crime and suicide, child abuse and illness and disease—all of these stem from that poverty, from that loss of jobs and the dignity that comes with steady work and a decent paycheck and access to quality healthcare. I can never look away from that because it’s my home and I love it, even the ugliness of it.
Rumpus: In my story collection, The Truth About Me, many of the characters are hard to like. None of your characters are particularly “likable.” Would you say that you, too, are drawn to unsympathetic characters?
Mitchell: Troubled people are fascinating to me, yes. When I’ve encountered someone mean or angry or terribly foolish, I’ve always wanted to know why they were that way. Very few people are rotten for no reason (though there certainly are exceptions). Messy lives peppered through with mistakes, sometimes very grave ones, are more interesting. I think, too, that unlikable characters give me a chance as a writer to dig a little deeper to find that redeeming quality buried somewhere beneath all the rubble. There’s a certain reward to that. And, to some extent, I’m exploring my own darkness—those things about myself that aren’t so pretty and that I’d prefer the world not see.
Rumpus: How much research did you do and how much was drawn from experience? For instance, there is a good deal of information about farming in your book.
Mitchell: I didn’t formally research much of anything, but drew from my own memories and knowledge of farming and small town life. For instance, when I wrote the story “Deeds,” I was writing the landscape of my family’s farm. I was part of the eighth generation of my mom’s family to live there, so I feel intimately connected to it—the farm is the place in this world I know better than any other. But I’ve been gone long enough that there were things I had to verify, like the approximate price of fertilizer, or which piece of farm equipment does exactly what.
For stories not set in southern Missouri, I again fell back on my memories, but used maps and photos and asked friends for advice when I was foggy on something. Of course, some details, like the names of a community or a particular road, I simply made up. I think writers have to reserve the right to do that, to reshape the world they know to better fit the needs of a story.
Rumpus: The stories, except for one, are relatively long, especially the title story. I tend to write shorter stories, and am only interested in writing stories. Do you feel that the short form comes naturally to you? Do you consider yourself equally a novelist?
Mitchell: I prefer writing longer short stories. Those kinds are often the ones I most like to read—it’s no surprise I’m a big fan of Alice Munro. I’m a really slow writer, too, and this seems to feed into my need to make a story longer rather than shorter, perhaps because I spend such a great deal of time with each. I’ve been working for a while on a novel, and I love so much about its world—the Arkansas Delta of the 1930s—but it’s hard for me and I don’t feel comfortable working in the novel form at all. Does anyone? All work is a struggle to do well, I imagine, no matter how long or short. But, given my druthers, I’d probably say I’m happiest when I’m skirting close to writing that’s in the realm of the novella.
Rumpus: Which story in the collection is your favorite?
Mitchell: My favorite is the title story, “Unnatural Habitats.” After writing the first two bobcat stories, “Animal Lovers” and “Retreat,” I wanted to take all those characters and give them a kind of closure, so “Unnatural Habitats” gave me an opportunity to do that. I think the protagonist, Layton Vines, is my most unlikable character, and yet I absolutely loved creating him. I laughed out loud at the things he said or did, even when they were awful.
I also really enjoyed writing the character of his teen son, Elijah. I have two teenage boys and I wanted to show how disorienting it is for a parent (even a disinterested one like Layton) to see their child go from mild-mannered and sweet to angry and unpredictable and yet, somehow, still be painfully tenderhearted. I don’t know anyone with teens in their house who isn’t baffled, at least some of the time, by the experience of trying to guide these suddenly wild creatures into adulthood. For Layton, it’s easier to focus his attention on an actual wild animal, Bobbie the bobcat, than his son. I get that.
Rumpus: Bobbie the bobcat! What a wonderful character. Where does she come from and what is her intended role?
Mitchell: A few years ago, a friend of my husband’s who lives in Arkansas was working on a law case in which a woman was keeping a bobcat at her house. She lived in a rather upscale subdivision—her neighbors were none too happy about it—and it struck me as such a strange event, I wanted to find a place for it in a story. Not long after that, when I was home to see my parents, we went over to visit a neighbor and he was keeping a “rescued” bobcat on his property, too. I do have to caution people to not make wild animals into pets; even if such an animal needs help, that situation is usually temporary and they should be returned to their natural habitat as soon as possible.
In the midst of all this bobcat-centric activity, I suddenly recalled my own earliest bobcat memory, of one that had been shot and killed on my grandparents’ farm in Arkansas. My grandfather was an outdoorsman by nature and by profession, a forest ranger, and he never killed for pleasure. But this bobcat had attacked his dog when my grandfather was out feeding cattle. He preserved the pelt as a rug, which I remember vividly: its open mouth, the white fangs, the glass eyes. I had been drawn to it at every visit, this animal I would never have gotten so close to, except in death.
As a character, Bobbie is a kind of alter ego for the three main characters, Dee, Gary, and Layton, in that they each see some part of themselves in the cat. Or, at least, they think they do. Bobbie can play at being tame most of the time, but she isn’t, and she needs to be back in the wilds of Arkansas, rather than coming and going out of Gary’s house through a dog door, or living in a cage in Layton’s backyard. In a way, all three of these human characters are playing at being something they are not, too, though the stakes are even higher for them.
Rumpus: You are clearly writing from a Southern perspective. Who are your favorite Southern writers? What authors have influenced you the most?
Mitchell: I’m never completely sure if I’m “Southern” or not. Growing up in the Ozarks, I knew we had a kinship with the South (many of us certainly have a Southern-ish accent), but that we were also a little bit Western (we love our cowboy boots and hats and horses), and, to a lesser degree, Midwestern. To be from the Ozarks is to be from a no-man’s land, I think, so I like to say that we are our own. But I’m more at home in the South, so if my stories have that sensibility, I understand.
I especially admire writers like Bobbie Ann Mason and Silas House, both from Kentucky, a place with an identity similar to Missouri, and Larry McMurtry, who, of course, hails from Texas. In my teen years, I fell head over heels for Eudora Welty, and then I discovered Jill McCorkle and Kaye Gibbons and Lee Smith and so many others who spoke a language that was familiar to me and who wrote in a way that made me see my own life and circumstances in a new light. I suppose I was like a lot of people and thought of writers as being from more glamorous, urban places on the coasts, but these writers I found showed me that anyone from anywhere can write stories that are worth reading. That discovery made my world a lot larger and richer.
Rumpus: I often say that if I drive a story, I drive it into the ground. My process is completely intuitive. Do you plot your stories from the outset, or do you leave room for surprise and see where they go? What is your process?
Mitchell: No plotting for me, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” because I sense that plotting things out in advance would somehow make the whole process less confusing and, perhaps, it would go faster. I’ll often start with a first line and maybe an idea of something that could happen in the middle, and I go from there. In a few cases, I’ve known exactly what would happen at the end, but I had to work through the mystery of the beginning and the middle. So let’s face it: I really don’t know what I’m doing. Writing for me is an act of searching in the dark. I wander around, clinging to the walls, until I finally find that light switch.