By Barb Johnson
Photo by Claire Mulkey
Issue 75 author, Ramona Reeves, won the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her linked short story collection, It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories. We were thrilled to catch up with her and talk about her trajectory as an author.
Her stories and essays have appeared in The Southampton Review, Pembroke, Bayou Magazine, New South, Superstition Review, Texas Highways and other publications. She’s won the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, been a resident at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and served as an associate fiction editor for Kallisto Gaia Press in Austin, where she currently lives with her wife.
In this interview, Reeves talks queerness and class, about detours and wrong turns and how they make their way into her fiction.
This is your first book. It Falls Gently All Around Us is a collection of linked short stories that won the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Can you talk some about how the stories are linked and whether you wrote them with an eye toward linking them or whether the links became apparent to you over time?
I began these stories during a course I took during my MFA program at New Mexico State. Robert Boswell, an amazing writer and instructor, taught the course. I always knew these stories would be linked and wrote toward that goal. Initially, I thought they also would culminate in a novel told in stories, and while novel-like elements exist, I don’t think the stories have the same arc as a novel. The stories are interconnected through physical location (Mobile, Alabama), ties between characters (e.g., siblings, exes, co-workers), and theme (e.g., characters’ desires for belonging and connection).
You’re both Southern and queer. How do these identities inform one another, and how do they figure into your stories? Are you trying to say anything in particular about either one in this collection?
Place and the cultural aspects of place help shape who we are. In my case, that place happened to be Alabama, and I happened to discover that I was mostly attracted to women. Those two pieces weigh heavily in my writing, but I’m also a woman, wife, daughter, American, and so forth. I’ve come to appreciate the term queer because it feels more fluid, and it hints at the experience I’ve had at times of being the only non-heterosexual, or at least “out” non-heterosexual, in a room or at a gathering, particularly family gatherings. There is a queerness or strangeness to that.
In the book, I wanted lesbian characters to appear in several stories; I also wanted to show how class not only depends on wealth but also may depend on expectations that, to remain in good standing, individuals from a certain class must lead a prescribed sort of life. In “Aphrodite Reclining,” Corinne is from a class that affords her privilege, yet she’s on the social fringes of the world she grew up in because of who she loves. It’s true at times she’s also her own worst enemy, but that’s true of many characters in the book. Depending on whose point of view and whose gaze we’re talking about in the stories, the lesbian/queer characters in the book may be seen or unseen, which felt true for this cast of characters and this fictional world, and frankly feels true for me living in this country. The experience of not belonging or being unseen is not limited to the South.
Will you talk some about your writerly preoccupations and how they manifest in this collection of short stories?
One of my writerly preoccupations has to do with what it means to live an authentic life and truly connect with other people. On a basic level, humans want the same things: love, safety, sustenance, shelter, etc., but how they go about getting their needs met can be a hot mess. Detours and flat-out wrong turns interest me as do family dynamics in traditional families, yes, but also in blended and chosen families.
In this collection, I think some of these preoccupations show up as explorations into what it means to be an outsider versus an insider in terms of class and respectability. And how do other factors like race play into that? The question of outsider versus insider plays out in the title story and several others. Many characters also define “family” in ways that restrict them and cause them to judge themselves and others to the detriment of their own well-being as well as those around them. Characters in these stories are often caught in the past as well and measured against it—Rowan, Babbie, and Claire are tremendously influenced by the past, and that shows up in their current thinking, and ultimately, in their actions. So that’s probably another preoccupation, how the past informs the present and an individual’s ability or inability to break free from it.
Before they have a book deal, writers often can’t imagine how they’ll get there. Can you talk some about how you arrived at this moment of publication? What steps did you think you’d need to take and what steps did you actually take?
Great question, and it was hard to imagine. I came out of my MFA knowing I would need to write the first draft of a manuscript. At the time, I planned to finish writing this interconnected short story collection, and as I mentioned, I imagined it as a novel told in stories. I’d used the time during my MFA to experiment with writing different kinds of stories, so I knew my thesis would not be my first book. It took me a few years to get around to finishing the first draft of It Falls Gently All Around, and then a few more to revise it. I tried to sell it to agents as a novel told in stories, but learned over several months that I either needed to revise the manuscript pretty heavily to situate it squarely in the category of a novel, or I needed to accept that I had written a collection of linked stories and fully embrace that form and use the gaps and white space as effectively as possible. I chose the latter because, by that time, I felt the structure was right for what I was trying to do with community and place in the book. It was painful when I couldn’t sell it, but I’d begun writing a traditionally structured novel and decided that it might be my best option for a first book. I didn’t know if It Fall Gently All Around would ever see publication, but then I decided to submit it to the Drue Heinz Literature Prize contest. Two years after I first began querying agents, here we are. My first book is being published by a fantastic press and without an agent. I honestly never imagined it would happen this way.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Learn to play in your writing. Kevin McIlvoy stressed this aspect of writing, and it’s helped me a great deal. It would be difficult for me to sustain a writing life if I didn’t sometimes have fun with language and stories. I think “play” can also mean experimenting with aspects of craft in addition to the content of the narrative.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
Figure out who you are and work on fine-tuning self-awareness. Embrace the writing community and learn how to be a good literary citizen.