Attracted to the Dark: A Conversation with Emily W. Pease

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Pinpointing what makes Emily W. Pease’s debut story collection, Let Me Out Here, so digestible is difficult. Maybe it’s the vernacular and tone, which oozes off the page so easily. Or the strange desires the characters are grappling with that are so peculiar, it feels nice to realize you’re not as weird as you think. Pease has a way of making the dark and oddball feel like a best friend by the time the story is over with.

Pease’s stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines and have won prestigious awards including the Mary McCarthy Prize and the Editor’s Prize in Fiction from The Missouri Review. In addition to writing her own work, she spent many years teaching writing at the College of William & Mary.

The winner of the inaugural C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, this collection features sixteen stories that explore the desires of relatable everyday characters. It has stories placed just after the Vietnam War through today. It features traditional-length stories and shorter works of flash fiction that break up the expectations of the reader.

I spoke with the author about the traces of religion in the collection, the ambiguity of place, and what drove her to write this debut collection after a ten-year attempt at a failed novel.

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The Rumpus: When you pitch the short story collection to a reader, what do you tell them it’s about in a few sentences?

Emily W. Pease: That’s a good question because this isn’t a linked collection. I had to do an elevator pitch thing for Hub City where I went to a table and every ten minutes you had to pitch to a different table. I finally just began describing the stories and told them they were weird and odd. It’s a difficult thing to do, to pitch a collection of short stories.

Rumpus: When friends saw me reading this collection, I told them it was about the small moments in people’s lives that could lead to something bigger.

Pease: I taught short story at William & Mary and I had to figure out how do I teach my students this genre. I am just drawn to things that are dark. In nonfiction as well. The short pieces I thought were successful were just dark. That became a topic for us. What was up with that?

As for writing, one time I set out to write a happy ending. I told myself it would end on an up note. That’s a challenge. George Saunders is the master of doing that. Dark attracts me though. I’ve been accused since the collection came out of having a really dark mind.

Rumpus: What about the darkness attracts you to it?

Pease: I like a story that really moves. I like a story that is leading in a direction of trouble. Something is about to explode, and maybe it doesn’t explode, but I like the feeling it could.

Rumpus: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Pease: I’ve been writing since I was a kid. When you’re a teenager and live a pretty happy life like mine, you think you don’t have any material. You think, I wish my parents would get divorced or I wish my house would catch on fire to have something to write about. Yet, almost all of the stories in this collection are based on experiences of mine or people I’ve known. I’m always looking for a story. I always start from an experience.

Rumpus: One thing I noticed was the subtle and not-so-subtle nods to religion. Is religion something that finds its way into all your work?

Pease: When I first started this collection, which was twenty years ago in my MFA program at Warren Wilson, I thought it would be interesting to write a collection of stories that could actually be read in a church. Pretty early on, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.

I am interested in people’s confrontations in faith and doubt. One of the stories in this collection is “Submission” and the family in it is really ruined by their faith. They have secluded themselves from everything in order to believe purely, but it’s so distorted. I feel that story has a hopeful ending because the main character Calvin escapes them and discovers himself. I believe he is discovering he is gay. It’s subtle, but it’s there. His father is so disgusted with him and Calvin is so disgusted by his family. That’s a religious story and I would read it in church because it’s worth considering that a person’s ideas about pure belief can take them down the wrong road.

Rumpus: Was religion a big part of your life twenty years ago?

Pease: I’ve always been a church person. I grew up that way and scripture and hymns just come to me. Honestly, I think that’s a pretty rich vein. My mother was also still living then and maybe I was a little haunted by writing something that my family would approve of.

Rumpus: Did you have different beliefs from your family even though you were a churchgoer who could recite scripture?

Pease: I had a long conversation with a student of mine yesterday about how you can be a member of a family but not feel like a member of the family. Each member in my family has a different approach to religion. Isn’t that true outside of religion? You’re different from your parents and you’re different from your siblings. You’re an individual inside a small circle. 

My sister and brother are not still going to church. I was a weird kid who thought I was going to become a preacher. I thought I could hear God.

Rumpus: What led you off that track of wanting to work in the ministry?

Pease: I meant I thought that when I was a small child and would stand on a tree stump and preach the gospel to kids in the neighborhood. Don’t get me wrong, I was never truly moving in the path of the ministry.

Rumpus: Well, when did you stop fantasizing about preaching the gospel? During your teen years?

Pease: My mother used to send me to camps and classes as a kid. Once I was a teen, she kept doing that to keep me straight. I think I was about to head off on the back of a motorcycle somewhere. She had to hold me back. In fact, there is the “Primitive” story that is similar to when my mother sent me to a primitive camp when I was in middle school. I think she was just trying to rein me in.

Rumpus: Did her reining you in backfire?

Pease: Well, I haven’t been arrested.

Rumpus: That’s all we can really ask for in life. 

Pease: Thank goodness. I feel pretty lucky. I have a big nonconformist streak. I have three kids and the oldest is a strong nonconformist, my middle is more conforming, and my youngest is all over the map. Kids become a manifest of your personality. It’s inspiring as well as unsettling.

Rumpus: Did you try to guide them heavily in their religious or life choices?

Pease: You’ll always try to guide your children. My oldest is an artist and my youngest is a musician. One of the conversations we’ve had separately over the years is that having an artistic calling is a blessing and a curse. The curse of it is that you can’t escape it. To use a religious term: it’s a calling.

Rumpus: Is your call to writing a curse?

Pease: Yeah. Yeah, I think it’s a blessing and a curse. I could never not write. I probably should have become a full-time reporter. I love journalism, but I was called to write fiction.

Rumpus: A curse that kept you coming back to this collection that you mentioned was twenty years in the making.

Pease: What happened was that I had a pretty good collection ready in 2002. I had published four of those stories; one of which had won The Missouri Review Editors’ Prize. I entered some big contests and was a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize. There was an Abraham Lincoln story that sent me down a different path because some agents wanted a Lincoln novel. I put stories aside for ten years while working on a Lincoln novel.

I had maybe four different manuscripts that I’d get one hundred and fifty pages into and then realized they were awful. Then I pulled out the old collection one day and looked at what I used to write. I decided to go back to stories. I threw out three of the published stories and kept one of them and started over.

I was a different writer than I was ten years prior. I thought I wasted ten years, but I didn’t waste them. I didn’t forget anything.

Rumpus: In addition to religion, I also was drawn to the sense of place in your stories. How has place informed your writing? 

Pease: I don’t really think in terms of “the South.” Rather, I just imagine people in a particular setting, and that setting takes on the emotional tone of the situation, and vice versa. The first story I published (it’s the last in the collection) takes place somewhere in the country. It could be North Carolina; it could be Indiana—it doesn’t matter.

The story was inspired by a funny thing that happened to me and my husband. A neighbor on the country road where we lived saw our dog one day and asked if his dog could mate with ours. We said sure, that would be fun, but when we took our dog to the house, the fellow told my husband to take our dog “out back,” and he told me to go inside “with the wife.” I did as I was told. Inside the house, I found “the wife” sitting in a dark corner of a room with a giant Bible on her lap. She didn’t say one word to me, just sat there. Later, when I wrote the story, I decided to write it from the point of view of the woman with her Bible, dogs mating in the back. The house sat above a train track, so there’s that. And the woman had two teenage daughters who sat in another room watching TV. So there’s that, too. That’s “place” to me. The dogs out back, the train track, the teens watching TV, the big Bible.

Another story in the collection clearly takes place in North Carolina, as there are references to UNC and Duke. But it, too, could take place in any other state. What matters to me are the particulars of setting—the light in the sky, the traffic on the road, and so on. If the story is working right, those particulars, or details, begin to take on tone and emotion, if only subtly so. I’m also interested in the actual physical setting of a story, how a writer can move the reader’s imagination, or vision, from one physical spot to another. An example is the hayloft in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” When Joy/Hulga ends up in the loft with the Bible salesman, she’s made helpless not only because he takes her leg, but because she’s up a ladder. The barn is out in a pasture, too, so we get a feeling of space and distance. Another good example of the use of physical setting in this way is Allan Gurganus’s hilarious “Nativity, Caucasian,” in which a pregnant woman’s impending labor is felt and seen from the perspective of the dog under the table.

I know this answer might not be what you’re looking for, but as you might be able to tell, I don’t think of Virginia as the setting for stories I write. I might imagine a Virginia road (the actual dog mating experience happened in Christiansburg, Virginia), but that road is just a thing that helps me create a bigger world—and I don’t care if it’s southern or not.

Rumpus: There are works that benefit from having a clear and distinct setting while others I love the ambiguity. I’m always curious how writers tend to fall into one or the other.

Pease: I guess in a way, one of the things I work against is the idea of “the Southern Writer.” Although I can’t deny my Southernness, it’s almost a genre and I don’t want to put myself into a genre. When you go in a bookstore, you don’t want to go to a section that says Southern Fiction and another that says New Mexican Fiction. I just want to get rid of all of those labels and just read and write fiction.

Rumpus: I definitely get that. I briefly taught high school literature and the curriculum was so focused and obsessed with the idea of boxing works together.

Pease: Teaching students in college, I am always fascinated by what they have read and have not read through high school. I am amazed by how poetry illiterate they are. Writers like Flannery O’Connor aren’t taught in public schools often. I once taught a community college class and taught Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Are Watching God and the students had never read anything like that.

Rumpus: The world of literature is so exhaustive and there are so many works I’ll never be able to read. There are so many experiences to have in so many different ways.

Pease: I like to read aloud. Whenever my husband and I take a trip I read to him even if it’s an hour. Sometimes I read the newspaper, but if we take a longer trip I will read some stories. I’ve even read him an entire novel. I remember reading “Isabelle” by George Saunders and it’s not typical of his works. When I got to the end of it, I turned to my husband and said, “I think I have just read the most perfect story ever.” Then I met George when he came to speak at William & Mary. I told him I read the story out loud to my class and he said, “Dave used to do that.” He meant David Foster Wallace.

I did the same with Junot Díaz and “Miss Lora.” It was so wondrous. Those are the type of stories that make me want to write. I want to write that good.

Rumpus: Since you were working on a Lincoln novel, did you read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders?

Pease: Let me tell you a story. When I picked George up from the airport when he came to speak, I was really nervous. I was responsible for him throughout the weekend. Tenth of December had just come out and he was being treated like a celebrity. When he got into the car, he was so generous and wanted to know what I was working on. I told him that I was working on a novel about Abraham Lincoln for ten years. He looked over and said, “So have I!”

By the time his came out mine was in a black box in my attic. I haven’t read it. I’ve read some of it, but I kept it at a distance because it dealt with some of the things I was working on. Mine was about the last three weeks of Lincoln’s life. One of the things that interested me and I think what interested George was the profound effect the death of Lincoln’s second son, Willy, had on him. That forms a lot of the ghost stories in the graveyard [from Lincoln in the Bardo]. We talked a lot about that graveyard and Lincoln’s grief. I didn’t think I could read it. My husband read it and when he finished he told me George did it. He always does it and pulls it off.

Rumpus: Your last attempt at a novel ended up in your attic. You mentioned at the top of our conversation you were working on new ideas over the summer. Is a novel in your future?

Pease: I think so. I like to go to conferences because I live a little bit of an isolated life and I like to get around really good writers to just observe. I’ve never been in a workshop and was in one led by William Giraldi. He lit a fire under me. I know writing a novel is a long process. I’m setting out and that’s what I am doing.

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Photograph of Emily W. Pease by Ed Pease.


Adam Vitcavage is a Phoenix-based writer whose criticism and interviews have appeared in Electric Literature, Paste Magazine, The Millions, and more. He runs Debutiful, a site dedicated to celebrating debut authors and their books. Find him on Twitter @vitcavage. More from this author →