Why We Believe What We Believe: A Conversation with Dantiel W. Moniz
Dantiel W. Moniz’s debut story collection, Milk Blood Heat, just published this week from Grove Atlantic, but you might’ve already encountered her work in the Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, Ploughshares, The Yale Review, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and elsewhere. Moniz writes about family, marriage, class, loss, and race with wisdom and intensity, and her stories are rife with vivid images and sentences that can stand strikingly alone. In “Feast,” she explores a woman’s alienation and grief following a miscarriage; “The Hearts of Our Enemies” details a “cold war” between a shamed mother and her teenage daughter; “Outside the Raft” dives deep into the darkness latent in the human heart. All of the stories here are boldly told and hum with tension.
Moniz is a Tin House Scholar and a recipient of the Alice Hoffman Prize for Fiction and the Cecelia Joyce Johnson Emerging Writer Award by the Key West Literary Seminar; the latter was where I met her in 2018. She lives in Northeast Florida, where most of the stories in her collection are set.
I caught up with Moniz recently over email to discuss linked story collections, rituals, motherhood, spirituality, Florida, and the value of writing workshops.
The Rumpus: I was impressed by the thematic coherence of this collection. Milk, blood, and heat factor into almost every story, often in some form of ritual, like the blood-sisters oath in the title story or the moon festival in “An Almanac of Bones.” Do you think of this collection as an interconnected whole rather than a set of standalone stories?
Dantiel W. Moniz: I definitely do. A lot of times with short story collections, it seems people have trouble thinking of them as linked unless the characters are the same, and that leaves out all of the other points of immersion—why someone might be attracted to a particular book—like voice, place, mood, ideology. Those are not small things, and what would happen if we, as readers, as critics, broadened our definition of what constitutes a link? There are certain words (besides milk, blood, or heat) that I think of as totems, that build resonance throughout the collection. These are cyclical stories, and in putting the collection together, I was interested in how each piece might be in conversation with those around it. How is one story propelling or expanding the reader’s understanding of another?
Rumpus: Motherhood is perhaps the most significant theme in the book. You write about miscarriage and the anxieties of pregnancy in the twenty-first century. There are absent mothers, domineering mothers, sweet mothers, grandmothers as stand-in mothers, and “cold wars” between daughters and mothers. What drew you to explore the many variations of motherhood, daughterhood, and sisterhood?
Moniz: I think, by force of conditioning, motherhood is something that has always been on my mind, even before it was conscious to me. Think about growing up as a girl in this country (and beyond) and all of the gendered expectations that come with that—the kitchen sets, toy vacuums, and baby dolls you might have mothered as play. So, on the one hand, it feels natural to explore all of the joys and anxieties that come with the territory. As far as sister/daughterhood, I’m really interested in the varying connections and shapes of femininity, and how our ideas of what that looks like are both limited and complex. When I was younger, I’d get bored or frustrated with shows, books, or games that had no characters that embodied my lived experience, or ones that were superficially drawn, but now, looking back on those mediums, I’m so intrigued by what those superficialities say about the person who created them, and the societal impact of the time period in which the creator was informed. When I first started this collection, I actually asked my agent: Is it a problem that so many of these characters are girls/women? And she said: No. Period, just like that. I needed to hear that plainly, that I’m allowed to write about whatever I want to write about without worrying about other people’s expectations. Honestly, I’m just happy to get to bring the kinds of characters I’m most interested in to life.
Rumpus: In “Snow,” “The Loss of Heaven,” and “Exotics,” you examine the service industry as a venue where race, gender, and class dynamics play out. Were those stories informed by personal experience at all?
Moniz: I’ve written since I was young, but before the plunge of committing myself to my writing these last four years, the only jobs I held were in the service or retail industries. I’ve never had what people might refer to as a “real job,” which indicates a lot about the ideas ingrained in us regarding low-wage jobs and working-class people in general. I used to have a lot of shame about that, but having had time to reflect on my near-decade of service work, I realize most of that shame was externally generated. Customers loved to get in my business as if for my own benefit—”I hope you’re in school,” “What are your plans after this?”—when often it was just a way to couch their own judgments about how they perceived me and what I was currently doing to keep myself alive. I think restaurants are perfect, dynamic settings to explore characters and relationships, both on and off the page, and I know that’s considered cliché, to write about what you yourself have done, but I don’t care. I’m endlessly fascinated by what can be revealed in the kinds of power dynamics you find between servers and the served.
Rumpus: “The Loss of Heaven” features the collection’s only male protagonist, Fred, and I found him pretty pathetic, but I never felt that you, the writer, were judging him. Are you on good terms with your characters? All of them are flawed, but you don’t seem to look down on them, and you don’t protect them from painful situations either.
Moniz: One of my intentions with this collection was to explore the situational and subjective nature of words we tend to think of as absolute: good, bad, right, wrong. All of these are based in perspective, they’re judgments, and they effectively have no meaning without their opposites. With these characters, I do feel tender toward them, but I tried my best not to protect them from their own decisions and rather, let their storylines play out in a way that felt natural. I’m not judging them, and I’m not trying to lead readers to any particular judgement either. However, when people read these stories, I do hope that they allow space to observe the circumstances under which the characters are judging/being judged, and see where and how the power flows. In any given moment, who is being privileged by definition?
Rumpus: You write from a number points of view—first-person, close third-person, first-person plural—but the point of view always feels intimate, in part because of the way you render the physical experience of complex emotions. How do you decide on a story’s point of view? Did the point of view of a story ever change during revision?
Moniz: This is one of the things I wish I was more conscious of so I can sound super smart and in-control during interviews like this, but really, so much of my writing process is instinctual, and I’m still learning how to articulate it to myself and others. I guess, no matter what point of view I choose, I always want to make sure I can feel “dropped-in” to the emotional layer of the story, which in turn extends that same access to the reader. I want these stories to be felt in the body, so it’s just whatever allows me to do that most effectively. The choice between first and third is sometimes as simple as, how much psychic distance do I need in this piece? Sometimes I want to be able to pan out a little. I want it to be plausible that we can have a snippet of another character’s inner world. It depends. And I just checked to make sure I’m not lying, but for this collection, it looks like only the title story changed point of view, from first to third.
Rumpus: These stories feel so controlled without seeming constricted, and I wondered about your revision process. Do you write loose, messy first drafts and then trim back? Or do you try to maintain control from the outset? Do you tend to begin with an image?
Moniz: Whenever I open a document for another session, I start back at the top and work my way down to wherever I left off. It’s a compulsion in me, especially as I’m so focused on things working first and foremost on the sentence level. I never thought of it like that, as control, but I guess that’s accurate. The tinkering just feels a part of my process. It’s probably why I’m having such a hard time with the novel form. It’s impossible to start from the top once you’re in deep. When I finally have a complete draft, I let time pass before I go in again. Could be a couple of days, could be a week, a month, whatever, and then I open the latest draft and rewrite the newest alongside it. Retyping (as opposed to inserting/deleting) helps me get back into the flow of a story and generate new insights.
Rumpus: It was interesting to read “The Loss of Heaven,” having encountered an earlier version of the story in a workshop. Do you find workshops useful? As a writer you basically get battered with feedback and advice, and sometimes even the good advice isn’t the right advice for a particular story, which can be confusing. Were all of these stories workshopped at some point?
Moniz: Half of these stories were first written during my MFA at UW-Madison, and so were workshopped there. Some later drafts of these same pieces were workshopped at other conferences, like with “The Loss of Heaven” during KWLS. The rest were written after I graduated, but I still showed them to my first readers for feedback. With any feedback, I usually need distance before I can actually digest and see if it’s useful to me. I have to be able to let my guard down.
You make an excellent point regarding advice in the workshop: sometimes even the good advice isn’t the right advice for a particular story. That’s true. I think many of the complaints about the workshop model come from facilitators and participants trying to impose dictums about the craft of writing and from people thinking that the way they choose to write is the best way. I mostly enjoy workshop because I love discussing craft and ideas. It’s exciting. For me, the value in workshop is the opportunity for brains to spark off of one another in a way that can’t be replicated alone. My friend and I were talking about this recently. Writers we consider famous or prolific, like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison, maybe weren’t in workshops, but they didn’t do the work alone. They hung out with their friends in Paris, or cafés or parties, wherever, and talked about the work. That’s the kind of atmosphere I want to generate when I teach: no hard and fast rules, only conversations about what we’re picking up on and how to make it work.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit about the Biblical allusions in your work? This book is very much a work of realistic fiction, but it’s also deeply concerned with the spiritual.
Moniz: I grew up around four main faiths, sects of Christianity including Jehovah Witnesses, Islam, and Krishna Consciousness, and though on the surface they might have appeared vastly dissimilar, after understanding more and reading their holy texts, I felt each one was essentially calling the same thing by a different name. In my twenties, I also got really into spiritualists like Eckhart Tolle and Ram Dass, and wanted to discover alternate ways of experiencing spirituality and consciousness. I’m interested in exploring how perspective and our ideas about the nature of God conjoin to form our worldview. Even if indirectly, in all of my work and my existence I’m largely after why we believe what we believe, and what that means individually and collectively.
Rumpus: Your epigraph comes from Their Eyes Were Watching God, and there’s a Zora Neale Hurston reference in “Thicker than Water.” How has her work influenced this collection, and your writing in general?
Moniz: I think about her a lot, and how she died poor and unrecognized, her remains tucked away in an unmarked grave until 1973. I came to her work much later in life; for instance, she wasn’t taught in the schools and universities I attended. Obviously, now she’s rightly getting her flowers, and that’s great, but it makes me conscious of the importance of supporting the art and artists who move and change us before they’re gone, when it can still benefit them.
When I discovered Hurston, it was such a shock and pleasure to me. Here was a writer who had lived in Florida, whose stories took place there. In general, people don’t think of Florida as a literary state or as a place that can inspire literature. I think it’s easy to shit on the South, out of ignorance, out of elitism, whatever, so finding a Black woman who was writing this place before my time affected me in all the big ways. It gave me a pride and a precedent to do my own work.
Rumpus: How has Florida in general and Jacksonville in particular influenced your writing, besides providing the setting for these stories.
Moniz: I have complicated feelings about my home state, my city, but this is the environment that shaped me and I do love it, its intensity and excesses, even its contradictions. It strikes me as a very human place, not good or bad, just multifaceted, sometimes misunderstood, and absolutely singular. I try to capture that on the page when I write.
Rumpus: Were there any other key influences on this book? What was your reading life like when you were working on it?
Moniz: Movies and television shows always. I watched Sharp Objects the summer it premiered and just reveled in the Southern Gothic of it all. I was mostly reading other story collections for a sense of what can be done with the form: Friday Black, A Guide to Being Born, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, etc. When I checked out Female Trouble from the library and started reading, I just had this moment like, Oh, she knows exactly what I’m talking about. This is what I want to do. I ended up buying the book as soon as I was finished.
Rumpus: What’s your writing routine like these days? Do you keep strict rituals?
Moniz: I had a nice setup in my old life where I had the same two consecutive days off and I’d go to a coffee shop around 2 p.m. and stay until close. Some of that stuck with me. I still write mostly in bursts rather than every day, and start in the afternoon because I’m a night person. Even when I was younger, I pretty much always wrote on the computer, but I do outline or ask myself questions by hand. Not detailed outlines because that’s too strict for me, but a loose guide that gives me wiggle room. Always on a yellow legal pad with a Pilot G2 07 pen. I don’t know what it is about the combo, but it does something for me, so I don’t look at it too closely; I just try to catch the writing when I can.
Photograph of Dantiel Moniz by Marisa Pilolli.