Cheryl, if I were someone who didn’t read very much, which one of your stories would you recommend to me?
I would go with “This Violent and Cherished Earth,” because it reads like a fairy tale and in that way it is consciously inviting. The story is set in a seaside village, and the humble, hard-working people living there are under the control of a priest, who lives in a large white house on top on a hill. The people eat plain, salt-encrusted food because they’ve never experienced anything else. When a trunk full of oranges washes up on shore, the people start to change. The story uses imagery and concepts that everyone can relate to (the sea, bright oranges, sunken ships, fire, church, overarching authority of priests). I wrote that quite some time ago, and it remains one of my favorite stories. It prompted a related story, “Black Rocks,” which will be published by Juked in October. I would hope the fictitious you would like it!
Somewhere I read that you have lived in Italy. How long did you live there? How would you describe Italian people? Do you read stories (especially novels) in Italian, too?
I lived in Florence for about a year, after having visited three times in the previous three years. Right before the recession hit in 2008, I moved out of my studio apartment in Brooklyn, put everything in storage, took cat-sitting jobs for the summer, and moved to Florence in the fall. I had just enough money to do it! I worked as a freelance proofreader for a publisher back in the States and taught literature online while I was over there. Most Italian people I know are warm and kind; when you’re friends, you’re family. I’m still good friends with the people I met there, and I’ve gone back to visit a few times. It’s a for-life thing. Italians’ love of art permeates everything—going to see the new Verrocchio exhibit is more important than going for a drink. I wish I could read Calvino and Dante in the original, but I am a conversational Italian speaker only. It took a lot for me to speak it comfortably. If I had stayed there longer . . .
As far as I know, you live in Boston. I listen to WBUR almost every day so I sometimes feel like I’m living in the Athens of America, too. What do you love most about Boston? Is Boston a perfect city for a writer?
I live just outside Boston, a city that I love. I lived in the city when I was younger, and it was a fantastic place for a young writer—so many cafes, bookstores, parks, and museums. Now I live in a leafy suburb, with two young kids, and I’d say this is a wonderful place to be a writer. Even before the pandemic, I wasn’t able to get to readings too often. But there are woods near my house, and since the pandemic, I’ve been walking a lot. Once I step inside those woods, I take notes as I’m walking. I started a story in February and finished it in March, and many of the lines were taken from notes on my phone during those walks. Creating in this way is one of the unexpected joys of lockdown. My suburb does have more than woods, though; it has one of the best bookstores in Boston, Newtonville Books, which hosts readings by amazing writers (Gish Jen, George Saunders, Peter Orner, to name a few). Of course, all the readings are online now, but I am so excited for them to begin in person again, when Covid is behind us.
Let’s talk about creating characters. Do you spend a lot of time picturing your characters in your mind? Do you talk to them? I’m really willing to learn more about your character-making process.
Sometimes a character will appear to me, not fully formed, but as a basic image. When I put her in action and watch what she does, her image becomes clearer in the process. When I envisioned the main character of a novel I started last year, it took some effort. Then, one day, boom, there she was, so clear I could draw her. I don’t talk to my characters as much as I listen to them. I want to hear everything they have to say.
Now let me learn a bit more about you. Please pick one in each row.
Red or blue? Red
Coffee or tea? Coffee
Pen or pencil? Pen
Ocean or jungle? Ocean!
Flash fiction or novelette? Flash fiction
One billion dollars or ten loyal friends? Ten loyal friends
One bitter thing I’ve learned about literature is that reading stories and poems doesn’t necessarily make us nicer people. I mean I’ve met a lot of unfriendly, selfish bookworms. How can reading save us as intelligent creatures? And what is the main purpose of reading and writing all these stories after all?
You’ll find bitter, unhappy people in every profession, unfortunately! I can’t speak for everyone—because reading will not save everyone—but reading literature at a young age made me more empathetic. I didn’t realize it at the time, of course; I was just reading stories. But I was taken inside other people’s worlds, sometimes taken very far from where I grew up (I spent a lot of my imaginary time in Russian households), and came to understand things that no one spoke about. In books is where the mess of life is truly considered; in that way, reading can make you feel less lonely. At a young age—or, really, at any age—this is a tremendous help. I wouldn’t call that its purpose, though; it’s more like a side effect. I know a few writers for whom literature is a lifeline—who would be in jail or dead from an overdose otherwise—and I respect this beyond measure. Writing is the deliberate act of paying attention, and if it is done right, it requires all of you. To me that’s better than any church in the world. It is freeing and yet takes so much work. I don’t know if this answers your question.
Do you feel completely satisfied with the works that you have written so far? What is your Achilles’ heel in writing?
If the story’s already written, I let it go. It’s the ones that aren’t finished that ring like a warning bell throughout my day. I started a novel last fall, a modern retelling of Hansel and Gretel, in which the parents are addicted to opioids. It was very big in my mind, and I slowed down in the wintertime. After the pandemic struck, I was gratified by writing short only. I’ve now reconsidered the novel’s shape and am going to write it shorter. So, my Achilles’ heel then is not being able to write a 400-page novel yet. A novella, short stories, flash, micros: those I can do right now. I want to write big, though. It’s a goal.
Besides writing new pieces (for journals, etc.), do you also write stories that you never intend to share with any readers? If yes, what are those stories mainly about?
I have some stories tucked away that have ridiculously low stakes. I tried them as an experiment. I wanted to see what would come up. One takes place in an emergency waiting room (it’s still low stakes); another is a woman going through her day cleaning the house. I showed one to a couple of writer friends and neither was enthusiastic. I don’t blame them! I consider them sketches at this point. I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with them.
Cheryl, I don’t think we will ever meet in person. But let’s imagine we meet every day as neighbors or even friends. How could I make you feel happier and more confident every time we met?
Tell me Donald Trump is no longer president and that all his friends in Congress resigned. Better: that every flag-waving white American who fell for his con woke up and apologized to everyone they hurt and then gave money to campaigns of BIPOC candidates. Seriously.
And here is my last question. There are a lot of interesting websites dedicated to quotations. Let’s imagine I search your name on one of them and your famous quote pops up. What is that quote?
“In three days, anything could happen. You could wreck your whole life. Or crack it so something bright could come in.”