Book Awards E-MAIL US

Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail
Bobbie Ann Mason
Random House
211 pp.

Amazon.com order now logo



The Wag Chats with
Bobby Ann Mason

Bobbie Ann Mason, the author of Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, discusses how her approach to writing has changed since her first short story collection appeared twenty years ago and tells us why she thinks the Southern voice still has some life left in it.

Nineteen years 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?

Bobbie 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.

WAG: 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?

Mason: 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.

WAG: 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 contemporary world?

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.

WAG: In "The 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 the groups?

Mason: 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 theme.

WAG: Many writers (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.

WAG: Where do you think the Southern writing voice stands in contemporary literature? Is the Southern voice in good form?

Mason: 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 have Faulkner.

WAG: Finally, two 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?

Mason: 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.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted January 1, 2002


Photo Credit: Pam Spaulding

Bobbie Ann Mason is the author of Shiloh and Other Stories, which one the PEN / Faulkner Award, Feather Crowns, which won the Southern Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the bestselling novel, In Country. Her memoir, Clear Springs, was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her latest book, Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, is a collection of short stories.



Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.