By Barb Johnson
This year’s fiction contest judge, Stephanie Soileau, is the author of the short story collection, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights (Little Brown & Co., 2020). Her work has also appeared in Glimmer Train, Oxford American, Ecotone, Tin House, New Stories from the South, and other journals and anthologies, and has been supported by fellowships from the Wallace Stegner Fellowship Program at Stanford University, the Camargo Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has taught creative writing at the Art Institute of Chicago, Stanford University, and the University of Southern Maine. Originally from Lake Charles, Louisiana, Stephanie now lives in Chicago and teaches at the University of Chicago.
We recently had the great pleasure of talking with Soileau about the environment and writing and the wrong-acting people who populate her fiction.
Your debut collection of short stories, Last One Out Shut Off the Lights: Stories, was published recently. Could you talk a little about how that collection came together?
One of the wonderful things about short stories – apart from the aesthetic perfection of the form – is that you can write whatever subject or style suits you in the moment and then quickly move on to something else. They’re snapshots in time, not only of the characters but of the writer, too. The stories in this collection span such a long period: if it were a human, the oldest (“The Boucherie”) would be voting for the first time in this election, and the youngest (“The Whiskey Business”) would still be in diapers. Altogether, I think they reflect my roving interests for the past twenty years and my ever-changing perspective on my home state and its people and myself. When I wrote these stories individually, I didn’t think about how they might all fit together. With the help of my agent and my editor, I started to recognize what seems obvious in retrospect, that these stories are all about characters trying to stake out a home and a self when those selves and homes are very much at odds. In every case, the home in question is some version of Louisiana because that’s the home I have wrassled with most. Once I saw this thematic connection, I started retrofitting some of the stories to fill in gaps in the collage, to shed light from a different angle. “Camera Obscura,” for example, looks almost nothing like it did in its original form, which included nary a mention of Louisiana.
You grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, which is practically in the Gulf of Mexico. Most of the stories in your collection reflect the concomitant effects of this location—the petrochemical industry, the now more visible effects of hurricanes, poverty, isolation— on the characters’ lives. How do you think these environmental factors influence the culture of that place?
O, Lake Charles! I’m still learning about my hometown, still trying to see it clearly. In some ways, it’s a very different place now from the one I knew growing up in the 80s and 90s, when the oil crash was taking its toll. And it’s a very different place now from the one depicted in the book’s cover image, which is from a series of photographs taken by freelance photographer Marc St. Gil for the EPA’s Documerica Project in the 1970s to record the state of the environment. His images of “polluted Lake Charles” are so stunning — and, to my mind, perfectly emblematic of the relationship between humans and an ailing environment. But they were taken when the EPA was brand new, trying to triage an astonishing number of toxic disasters. Those were very much the environmental conditions that defined the region as I remember it and which spawned any number of gallows-style jokes with my cousins about the lake, what lived in it, what it could do to your body.
I don’t think of my stories as some definitive portrait of Southwest Louisiana in particular, or a political statement about the effects of the petrochemical industry, but I do hope that I managed to capture the human effects, the drag on the soul, that comes from living under conditions of environmental and economic distress. It seems to me those effects, particularly on people who have a certain kind of curiosity or creativity or nascent ambition, can manifest as despair, addiction, moral compromises, callousness – yet even in the midst of these effects, people are capable of wonderful acts of kindness and hope.
As Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite writers and a former mentor at University of Iowa, has said, “If you pay attention to people, you find out that they are continuously original, continuously generating a new possibility out of themselves.” I suppose the same can be said of a place. Louisiana happens to be the setting for these private dramas because it’s the place I know best and because I love it and am fascinated by it and can’t seem to really leave, at least in my mind and heart, no matter how long I’ve lived away. I love watching and writing about all the ways it has been generating new possibilities out of itself, and all the ways it has held stubbornly to old identities, too.
All writers seem to have themes that preoccupy them and which tend to crop up in their writing. What are your writerly preoccupations and how did they work themselves into this collection?
As I said above, I’m preoccupied with Louisiana, certainly. I’m always imagining it, arguing with it, wondering at it. And I’m interested in how, in its environmental troubles, it represents what environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls “solastalgia,” the psychic ache that comes from living in a home-place that has undergone an irreversible transformation. The rapid disappearance of coastal wetlands, the frequent (even more frequent these days) threat of hurricanes, the fading away of the Cajun language, the tenuous but stubborn roots set in a place that is determined to wash out from under you – this is all so poignant, and again, the specifics in my writing come from Louisiana, but the feeling, the problem, is damn near universal these days, in one form or another. Wildfires in California. The melting Arctic. The drying up of the Aral Sea. The decline of family farms and manufacturing. I’m interested, too, in the kinds of moral and practical compromises we’ve made – and we have ALL made them – that have led to this moment, these changes, and what we will make of ourselves as our homes change around us.
You do a great job of depicting a teenaged mother who is not at all bonded with her baby. Even as she is making some very bad choices with that baby, you make us feel compassion for her. This is true of many of the characters in this collection. Can you talk a little about this from a writerly perspective? How do you create a fairly unlikeable character for whom readers are still able to feel compassion?
In “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin says of his very complicated and in some ways unlikeable father, “It was better not to judge the man who had gone down under an impossible burden. It was better to remember: Thou knowest this man’s fall, but thou knowest not his wrassling.” I think our job as writers is to imagine the wrassling, to imagine ourselves into another person’s struggle, and that job becomes so much more important when the person in question is, by most standards, unlikeable. When empathy seems the hardest, isn’t that when it’s needed most? And fiction is in the business of growing readers’ empathy. Empathy is an incredibly important, incredibly useful, and, it seems these days, somewhat atrophied muscle.
From a craft perspective: when I’m writing an “unlikeable” character – well, first of all, I start by liking them! Or finding something to like about them, or giving them a moment of goodness, a moment or trait that runs counter to the awful things they seem to be and do. I like Sarah! I love Sarah! There’s so much I like about Sarah, but she’s gotten a tough break, and she’s behaving badly, as we all do from time to time. I have never – nor would I – shut my child in a closet, unattended, so I could go make out with a boy on the beach (would I?), but I’ve certainly had moments of reckless abandon somewhere on the wide spectrum of moral transgression and harm, and I try to access that analog within myself and abide by the old adage, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
You are this year’s judge for Bayou Magazine’s James Knudsen Prize in Fiction. Can you talk a little about what you look for in a short story?
I love stories that are morally engaged without moralizing, that ask questions about who we are and how we behave without offering obvious answers. To me, a great story is only the start of a conversation, and if I find myself arguing with or mulling over a character in the shower three days later, then something is very, very right with that story. But I also love stories that map some borderland of human emotion, that name something uncannily familiar but as yet unnamed, or name something you think you understand but in a new, defamiliarizing way. That’s all so abstract, though! Fiction can be wonderful in so many ways, and I’ve loved long, messy, ambitious stories as much as I’ve loved tidy, contained, minimalist stories. I admit I’m a sucker for pretty language, but mostly, I just want you to punch me in the gut. Come on, harder. No, harder!
Is there anything you wish we’d asked?
Like most bookish people, I love talking about what I’ve been reading, especially when those books are by my contemporaries. The Seventh Mansion by Maryse Meijer and Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains by Kerri Arsenault (yes, like, the Maine branch of our Louisiana Arceneaux) both deal with solastalgia (if you find yourself into that) in very different ways. Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family by Mitchell S. Jackson incorporates historical and living voices in prose that hits all the high and low notes of both academia and the everyday, to talk about race and class in the recently designated anarchist jurisdiction of Portland, Oregon. Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild is an astonishingly empathetic inquiry into the political milieu of Southwest Louisiana. Women Pioneers of the Louisiana Environmental Movement by Peggy Frankland will give you a deep appreciation for the strength of will and character that is required to fight the good fight against the petrochemical industry in a society where that can seem near enough to treason.