Karen Salyer McElmurray is no stranger to the writing and publishing process. Her fifth book and third novel, Wanting Radiance, was published in late April by South Limestone. A poetic tale of a daughter’s quiet exploration of her past and how it pushes her forward. Part mystery, part eulogy, McElmurray’s lyrical style transformed me from skeptical to fully invested in Miracelle Loving’s search for identity, meaning, and love.
In the days leading up to my chat with Karen, I was surprised by her growing nervousness. I thought, how could someone who’s written five books be nervous about a silly interview? McElmurray was not shy with me about what she calls her “awful self-doubt.” Just as the ideas of ghosts and magic made me skeptical of her novel at first, McElmurray told me at the beginning of our conversation that our age difference had made her skeptical about how deeply I would connect with her novel. By the end of our conversation, we were beside ourselves over the magic that seemed to be behind our pairing for this interview.
Over Zoom, as is the custom these days, I sat down with Karen Salyer McElmurray to discuss the fluidity of genre, writing from the body, and the challenges of forming narrative arcs.
The Rumpus: You just released your third novel in April, Wanting Radiance. The title encapsulates so much of your book. Tell me about the meaning “radiance” carries, beyond the fact that it is the name of an important town in the book.
Karen Salyer McElmurray: At first, the book was called Wanting Inez, which was connected to a previous novel of mine, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, a lot of which was set in Inez, Kentucky. The people I was working with who had read my drafts, they didn’t find that it was the same Inez, even though it was an imagined, fictional Inez by then. That was one reason for the change [to Radiance]. The other reason is that I went to a place called Berea College and I’m an old hippie, so we would go to a million junk stores to get all of our clothes and there was this little town near there called Radiant. It had this thrift store and in it there was this huge pile of antique shoes in the middle of the floor, so I picked Radiant with that memory in mind. Spiritually speaking, though, “radiance” refers to seeking something, some emotional or spiritual connection, because the main character, Miracelle, has lost that. There is a loss in her past that’s not just her mother; it’s her own spirit.
Rumpus: You mention your memories of Inez and Radiant. As writers, we know that there is a very thin membrane between fiction and nonfiction, so thin that it is often permeable. To what degree, if any, is Wanting Radiance autobiographical?
McElmurray: The term “genre” is like the term gender; I think it’s fluid. The more I write in general, that permeable thing between those genres gets more and more permeable. I think that Miracelle’s story really is my own. I’ve moved a million times in my life, moved states, worked a bunch of jobs. She is me. And until this last ten years in my life, I’ve not been somebody who trusted love, so I think that her story is mine. I have written this as memoir, but then I gave Miracelle many tasks and many skills and family history. The more I wrote her, she became her own person.
Rumpus: Knowing that you have written and published memoir and essays, what exactly was it about this material that made you take the fiction route here?
McElmurray: My memoir, Surrendered Child, is about surrendering a child to adoption when I was fifteen and I’ve written that story of loss again and again. I felt ready to push out from myself in some way. By the time I wrote the book, I didn’t push out completely from the repeated story; I’m still writing the story of the connection of a mother and a child. In terms of craft, I write very lyrically, and that’s the other boundary that’s permeable, the boundary between poetry and other genres. To write a plot that’s suspenseful, an exciting narrative arc, is a challenge for me, I really want to be able to do that. But I also want it to be poetry.
Rumpus: Yes, your style of writing in Wanting Radiance is quite poetic and there were several times I caught myself sort of gasping at some of your most lyrical lines for their precision and longing. What experience were you trying to give the reader with the lyrical writing and the narrative arc in Wanting Radiance?
McElmurray: It’s a complex answer for me. I feel that I write very dark work. An old sweetheart said that I was like Shiva, the goddess of destruction. Coming back to the title Radiance again, I wanted so badly to evoke not just hurt and longing; I wanted to evoke joy. I always come back to the thing you’re talking about, to this longing, and that ends up being what I translate from my psyche and my heart. I think that if I had the skill to be a musician, I would play blues. I think it’s possible for me to write this thing that’s like you’re reading the blues. The language is sweet, and it lifts you up out of sorrow, and that’s what I feel when I listen to the blues.
Rumpus: When I started reading the book, I thought it was going down a supernatural road, that it would be about magic and ghosts and seeing the future, which are difficult concepts for me. But I felt as I continued reading that the concept of ghosts here is less about supernatural spirits and more about those ghosts from our past who live on within us.
McElmurray: Absolutely! Ghosts in the body. That is another intention of this book. I want it to be in the body. I want the reader to respond to it with their bodies, because I write it from the body. I was reading in a class once, and when I finished someone commented that it was like I had gone into a fugue state. I thought, I’m not sure if I like that or not! A fugue state is madness and I come from women and madness in my mother’s family, so I thought, oh my god, it’s visited upon me! But I sort of like that. Don’t you feel that way when you play music?
McElmurray: It lifts you up.
Rumpus: We’re talking about it being bodily, but it’s also kind of an out of body experience, right?
McElmurray: Yes. If we come back to the genre and gender thing, the work being fluid, then there’s in the body and out of body.
Rumpus: So then, how does your nonfiction writing process differ from your fiction writing process?
McElmurray: In writing memoir, in writing undiluted nonfiction, The Surrendered Child covered many years. It was a long time from the surrendering of my son for adoption to the writing of the book. But nevertheless, the arc was present. My major task was to determine how much time I was going to give to the way-back past and how much time to the present. It was about arranging things. Whereas, in writing fiction, my struggle is narrative arc, and then the struggle is to decide how much I want to adhere to that narrative arc. In classes, do you remember that inverted check-mark shape [for plot]? I teach that to my students and I’ll think it’s good to learn it before you abandon it. But it’s a war in me, how much I want to conquer that shape with my fiction.
Rumpus: It’s interesting you say that, because it’s in writing memoir that I struggle to find a narrative arc, because there’s so much there. I’m still working on getting to the core of what my memoir is about, and in a lot of ways your main character Miracelle reminds me of myself. We’re both seekers.
McElmurray: Yes, my friend calls me a seeker, too. It’s true, and I think it’ll keep on that way until I’m about ninety. With the narrowing down of the material for memoir, did you ever read Sue William Silverman? Also, Mary Karr is a good example; she has The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit, so what I think about with her is that it took three books until she covered all the material. You may have to start thinking in more than one narrative.
Rumpus: That’s a great point. So much of your novel deals with place and identity. Your protagonist, Miracelle, seems to be struggling to find a sense of home and family, and is seeking it in seeking her father. But she never quite gets there. The book ends with her returning Cody Black, a man she thinks she could love. What do you think Miracelle would want us to know about finding home and finding family?
McElmurray: Somebody else who read the book thought it had an open ending. I was sort of taken aback. I mean, we find out who did kill her mother. The father dies in the front seat of the truck because he sleeps with the heater on. The past ends, so to speak, and she moves forward. I didn’t necessarily mean for it to be an open ending, but part of what Miracelle is telling me is that that’s what time is like, that’s what lives are like. You’re solving this mystery, you’re taking this journey, but that’s only an opening to another journey. I think that as hard as I push to achieve a Hollywood ending, I just don’t have it in me because I just don’t think that is the way I see the world.
Rumpus: I agree. Your novel is so full of so many different perspectives and points of view, so I want to talk a bit about your characters and your structure. What is your process of characterization like? How do you develop your characters and the connections between them?
McElmurray: Initially, this novel was only in the two points of view, those of Miracelle and Ruby. The further I wrote, I realized that Russell needed to speak. I needed to understand his journey alongside these women to understand where we were going. The more I understood Miracelle, the more I understood the longing she felt for her mother and that’s when Ruby opened on the page. I liked the idea of this journal at the beginning that’s missing and initially it was journal entries by which we got to know Ruby. But that changed and she began to have her own sections proper. The more those characters had their own voices, the deeper I went into them and the more sympathy I had for them, especially Russell. Then on a simpler level, I just love novels that are in multiple points of view a whole lot. Do you?
Rumpus: Yes, and I loved how the structure of your book bounces back and forth between chapters first-person and third-person point of view. How did you decide on that structure?
McElmurray: I wanted more sympathy for the stories Miracelle was telling, the stories Miracelle was remembering. I wanted dimension to that. If this is a book about coming to understand one’s identity, coming to understand one’s ability to love or not love, trust or not trust, I wanted to understand some of the origins of that, because we’re made of these parts that are other people and other times and places. In terms of point of view, giving someone first-person or third-person, the concern is to make the voices distinct. We talked earlier about music—it’s like each voice is a certain instrument and they’re layered against one and they play their parts in the song, which is the book as a whole.
Rumpus: That’s profound! I love the metaphor. The multiple perspectives did something huge for me as a reader. When you’re a kid, which is how I saw Miracelle even as she grew into a young woman, you think that what’s happening to you or what your parents are doing, the experiences you’re going through, the feelings you feel, are absolute truth, especially if you’re traumatized or neglected. You think, what did I do wrong? You don’t realize that your own parents are their own traumatized beings as well and they’ve got this story that they’re living out that came from their parents’ stories that they lived out, and so on.
McElmurray: That’s absolutely, exactly it. Have you ever read Julie Marie Wade? She wrote the book Wishbone as speculative memoir. She writes part of the memoir where she’s in the point of view of her mother. What’s very complicated is that Julie herself is in the scene, too, following behind her mother on a night in the 1950s, and she brings her mother’s ghost alive and meets her mother and has conversations with her mother. Just what you’re saying, we’ve got to have those conversations and understand these ghosts to hopefully have peace. I’m from an abusive home; I’ve got to have conversations with those ghosts. And Miracelle had to have conversations with those ghosts to be whole in some way.
Photograph of Karen Salyer McElmurray by Johnny Johns.