separate your first short story collection (Shiloh
& Other Stories)
and your latest (Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail).
How has your approach to the short story changed,
and how has it remained constant?
Ann Mason: They take
longer for me to write now. The early ones were
bursts of inspiration, reckless plunges, followed
by intense reworking and shaping. But as I learn
more about stories, they get more difficult, harder
to manage, less conducive to the reckless. I think
as the sensibility deepens, the deeper are the possibilities
that occur in the writing of the story. But that
makes them harder to pull off. I don't mean precisely
that the critical faculties get in the way; it's
more like the imagination is biting off more than
it can chew.
How do you
usually begin working on a story? Does it start,
say, with an odd news story you've read or a line
of dialogue you've overheard?
Yes, usually there is some little bit of something that
sparks a story. Usually it is the sound of something:
a few words, maybe. It may not end up being in the
story that evolves. It has to agitate my curiosity
and resound in my mind—an image or sound that
repeats and begs attention.
A lot of your
stories have as a theme the notion that adult life
isn't as fulfilling as at least some moments recollected
from childhood. Growing up, in a sense, is a fall
into experience. Do you think that's simply a part
of the human condition or is it particular to the
Mason:Well, childhood is longer in the last century or so.
But Wordsworth already had the notion nailed down,
so I'd suspect it's part of the human condition.
Rookers," from Shiloh & Other Stories,
you have a teenaged girl describe subatomic particles
to her parents. "If you try to separate them,"
she says, "they disappear. They don't even
exist except as a group." It's a perfect
metaphor, of course, for how many of your characters
define themselves as a father or a wife, to the
exclusion of all else, and they're forever fearful
that the group by which they define themselves-family,
marriage, etc.-will end, thereby ending their own
existence. Often, they're right. Why are you so
drawn to this theme, and why is it that it's most
often your female characters who set out to dissolve
I couldn't guess, but I'd imagine it reflects the culture
of the time, when frustrated women were thrashing
about for definition. It was a tendency, something
happening. I'm intrigued by people with the temperament
for roaming who get trapped in a situation that
doesn't allow much leeway for exploration. So that
tension is always alive in my imagination. The story
"Residents and Transients" embodies that
(and publishers) lament that the short story has
become merely a writing exercise. For better or
worse, they say, it should be considered a stepping-stone
on the (arduous) path to writing commercially viable
novels.. On the other hand, you've continued to
write critically acclaimed short stories along with
novels and nonfiction. What's your own take on the
short story genre? Is it indeed commercially viable?
And if it isn't, what advice would you give short
story writers? (Should they simply tell themselves,
for example, that commercial viability isn't the
primary criterion by which the genre should be measured?)
Mason: I can't keep up with what's in and what's out. Isn't
there a burst of short-story collections now? Won't
good—especially good—short stories find
their way somehow anyway, maybe not now but eventually?
Aren't the CNN-tailored attention spans sending
us toward shorter pieces? I don't like to think
of a story as a writing exercise or a stepping stone.
Writing a story is much less of a commitment than
a novel and can therefore be a useful outlet for
one's creative energy.
Where do you
think the Southern writing voice stands in contemporary
literature? Is the Southern voice in good form?
There certainly is a heap of it out there. And there
are plenty of people dedicated to the survival of
the Southern voice and Southern culture. The
Oxford American magazine, for instance, is a
repository of all things Southern. The Southern
voice will last as long as there is still a distinctive
culture. And although it may be more homogenized
than ever, the distinctiveness is still there. It
will fade eventually, I suppose, but we'll still
related questions. Many writers have a favorite
'neglected' writer—someone they think has
been unfairly ignored by the general reading public.
Do you have one yourself? And who do you think is
the best under-appreciated writer working today?
I'd like to go back and re-read Ford Madox Ford. I'm
not sure I can answer the other one. But James Still,
who died recently, is highly in parts of the South,
may have been neglected nationally because he may
have seemed a little too quaint. Also, I think Mary
Robison is brilliant. Her new novel, Why Did
I Ever, is intensely rich.