By Emily Choate
Anne Valente is the author of two novels, The Desert Sky Before Us (2019) and Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (2016), both released by William Morrow/HarperCollins. Her short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, won the 2014 Dzanc Books Short Story Prize, and in 2017, an earlier chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics, was re-released by Bull City Press. A prolific story writer, her short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry, and elsewhere. Valente holds an MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and a PhD in creative writing and literature from the University of Cincinnati. She lives in upstate New York and teaches at Hamilton College.
Valente answered questions focused primarily on The Desert Sky Before Us. The novel follows a tense road trip undertaken by two grieving sisters who set out to honor their late mother, a lauded paleontologist known for her discoveries throughout the Southwest.
In both of your novels, mysterious occurrences in the physical world hang over events in the characters’ lives—unexplained housefires in Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down and now, in The Desert Sky Before Us, planes crashing out of clear skies. How do you view these elemental disturbances wending through your novels?
As a writer, I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious. The worlds of both of these novels, for me, resemble the world in which we live except there’s something off; in the case of Our Hearts, unexplained housefires that ultimately couldn’t happen in real life, and in Desert Sky, plane crashes that aren’t currently happening but could possibly happen in my imagining of the future under the current conditions of rapid climate change. These disturbances speak to the characters’ sense of grief and lack of control, certainly, but I hope they also create an overall setting of the world’s possibilities within each novel – worlds in which anything can happen, and in which the characters are left seeking answers. I like writing toward the unknown, and though in both novels the unknown is filled with grief and terror, I am more interested in questions than in answers within my writing.
This novel revels in the details of a road trip—its beauties, its minutiae. What significance have road trips held for you?
I wrote this novel the year my husband and I, both Midwesterners, moved to Santa Fe. We spent that entire year taking road trips since the landscape was so new to us. We visited many of the places in the book – Carlsbad Caverns, Arches and Moab, southern Colorado – and also places like Tucson and the Very Large Array in southern New Mexico. It was a time that for me felt wide-open with exploration, and despite the sisters’ journey of grief in this novel, I wanted their road trip to be one that opened them up to the world’s possibilities too. In addition, I took a road trip by myself while revising the novel, retracing much of the sisters’ route through New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. I ended up at the Spiral Jetty by myself, the only person for miles in every direction, walking the coil out into the Great Salt Lake. It was one of the most transcendent and gratifying days of my life.
In the Hurst family, there’s an interesting tension—played out in a wide range of their choices—between a life spent pursuing ideas and a life driven by action. Was this a deliberate contrast? How did this unique family come to be?
While it wasn’t a deliberate contrast, it became clear to me after writing the book that as much as this book is about sisters and redemption, it is also about women’s choices and the difficulties that accompany every decision a woman makes. I wrote this after completing my doctoral program in creative writing, a time that for me was incredibly fulfilling but also incredibly difficult. I was grappling with what accomplishments meant to me – degrees, books, jobs – and how this felt very much like a life of action couched in a life of ideas, and whether I knew who I was without those actions and accomplishments. To some extent, I wanted to explore what it means for women with drive to define themselves by this drive, and what it means to also be comfortable with letting go and not having to do all the time. In terms of the Hursts, this family isn’t my family, but I did borrow a few elements: my parents met in graduate school at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana where the Hurst family lives, and while they’re not paleontologists, they do practice the science of audiology. I also have a sister, and even though my relationship with her is very different from how Billie and Rhiannon relate to one another, an understanding of sisters certainly informed their relationship on the page.
As in your first novel, The Desert Sky Before Us contains a pivotal act of arson. What particular fascination does arson hold for you?
This is a great question, and one that I haven’t given much thought to until now. But I think in both instances, arson serves as a clean slate for the characters who experience it. In Our Hearts, arson is the explanation for why a person might disintegrate with grief if our world leaves them no other options. In Desert Sky, arson is an expression of rage, of burning everything down because a relationship has left no other options. Both, in some way, are a form of protest and resistance against violence – of taking control back, even if that control is to destroy oneself.
In the Acknowledgments, you cite Terry Tempest Williams as a “guiding light” for this novel and include an epigraph from her book, The Hour of Land. There also seem to be hints of her other work (notably a journal left behind by Williams’ mother in When Women Were Birds) imprinted on this novel. What has her work meant for you?
I have long admired Terry Tempest Williams’ unbridled empathy for our planet, her ability to write that love of landscape into language, and her deep activism on behalf of this earth, its plants and animals, and its people. Shining always through her rage at the way we’ve distanced ourselves from this earth is an absolute love for this wide planet, and a careful attention paid to its nuances. I had the privilege of hearing her speak a few years ago about land justice and land rights, and in the midst of her talk she described seeing a herd of elk mourn one of their own in Yellowstone National Park. The compassion and respect with which she described what she saw, from a distance without interfering, brought me to tears in the auditorium.
A supporting character describes her career as making “art in tandem with the land.” For her, that means a focus on land art, like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. Love for nature is evident in much of your writing. Is making art in tandem with the land something that consciously drives your work?
Absolutely. I wasn’t consciously thinking about this before writing Desert Sky, but the drafting of this novel has since sent me in a new direction with my work in examining how writing as an art form can work in tandem with the land. In addition to creative writing, I also teach environmental literature, and we look specifically at how humans have distanced ourselves from the land and how we can ethically repair that broken relationship. We talk about many reasons for this distancing – agriculture, urbanization, technology, monotheism – but as a writer, the one I’ve become most invested in is the ways in which writing itself has distanced humans from the land by allowing us to communicate only with each other and not with non-human life. I’m constantly considering how my work can “write its way back into the land,” in the words of David Abram, or “work in reciprocity with the land,” in the words of Robin Wall Kimmerer. This comes in the form of examining syntax, diction, and the ways in which the rhythms of my sentences pattern my own landscape of origin, as well as the landscapes I’m exploring in my work.
EMILY CHOATE is the Fiction Editor of Peauxdunque Review and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Mississippi Review, The Florida Review, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. She writes regularly for Chapter 16. Other nonfiction appears in Late Night Library, Yemassee, and Nashville Scene. She was a 2017 Tennessee Williams Scholar at the Sewanee Writers Conference.