Interview by Whitney Litherland and Trista Riggs.
2011 Mary C. Mohr Fiction Award winner Mary Larkin earned a PhD in creative writing and English at Florida State University and her MA from Hollins University’s Creative Writing Program, where she won the Andrew James Purdy Award. Larkin is a Pushcart nominee, a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an AWP Intro Journals Award nominee, a Writers@Work National Finalist, a two-time finalist for the Doris Betts Fiction Award, and the recipient of the North Carolina Blumenthal Writers Award. Her short stories have appeared in Shenandoah, Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts, The Nebraska Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Inkwell, The New Purlieu Review, and other journals.
Southern Indiana Review: What was your reaction to “All That Was His” winning the 2011 Mary C. Mohr Fiction Award?
Mary Larkin: When your editor, Ron Mitchell, called me with the news, I was absolutely thrilled. It’s always exciting to hear from an editor, but winning the award is such an honor. It’s a great feeling.
SIR: How did your friends respond to the story and news of the prize?
ML: Sharing a success with friends makes it a celebration. Many times I don't show a story, but some of my closest friends have been my readers as I’m finishing a story, or struggling with a section. There are a handful of these wonderful people: a life-long friend in Birmingham, another long-time friend in Massachusetts, one in Maine, another in North Carolina, Maryland, and Florida. I don’t send my work to all of them, but perhaps two of these people might read something one time, someone else another. The thing is they’re honest in their comments. Their input is invaluable. If the person is also a writer, it’s a mutual thing: we reciprocate, happily. It keeps us on our toes.
SIR: What inspired "All That Was His"?
Larkin: I’ve lived in Maine twice, a few years each time. Part of me would move back in a heartbeat…it’s that beautiful and pulls at me that fiercely. I was right on the southern coast, the ocean was at the end of my road, a winding walk alongside a tidal river. So the landscape itself means something to me: the twists and turns, the small hills, the sea with its rocky shores, the deer and herons, the iced edges of the river and even the shoreline in winter. Then there’s the weather, which is so delightful in late spring and throughout summer, and glorious in early fall.
But some of my strongest impressions of Maine were etched by the hard winters. Maine winters are long and dark. They can be depressing, and wreak havoc on your mood and spirit despite their beauty. Blizzards would blow in and at three a.m. in the otherwise quiet of the night, you’d hear the snowplow scraping up your drive along with the bleep bleep bleeping of the plow backing up to come at the snow from a different angle. They’d return later the same day to shovel you out again, because once it piles up too much, you’re pretty much stuck. Even though the plows woke me many nights, I miss their sounds. So the land and weather were part of the inspiration and mood of the story.
The other inspiration, simply, was life. We do suffer, there is misery, things happen that aren’t fair and can’t be guessed or planned for. Carl for me is not unlike Job in his sufferings, or even Lear. As tragic as he is for me, and I did feel an inner tragedy as I wrote, there’s also a stubbornness in him that becomes heroic. I like it that as vulnerable as he had become he stood his ground, fought steadily to rebuild himself, and rule his own kingdom again. I would like to have his strength and fortitude.
SIR: You have a very diverse past. How did you begin writing?
Larkin: My careers and past have been diverse. I’m not sure how to answer your question except to say I feel fortunate to have been born and reared in the South because there’s a cadence to the language of everyday folk and people can tell a good tale. I was equally fortunate to create or discover other lives and experiences for myself living and modeling in NYC and Europe with its different cultures. I’ve been in Vogue and Bazaar, ridden to the hounds, mucked stalls, developed software for the Department of State and U.S. embassies, and taught elementary, college, and graduate students. And more. It’s living all these experiences that has given me a broad base to draw from, something rich and soul-nourishing.
Some of my earliest stories were character sketches or slice of life or just exploring how to write because even though I was well-read, I’d had no formal training in literature or writing. As my writing developed, groups with other serious writers were important to me, wherever I lived. When groups didn’t work, I found that having at least one other writer in my life was not only helpful, but necessary to the soul. I went to readings and gave readings. I attended writers’ conferences when I lived in California, New Mexico, Maine, and North Carolina. A month at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts provided the time and space to focus solely on my stories, without the distractions of our normal daily lives. My work was being published by Shenandoah and other journals and winning small awards, but I needed to push myself and my writing further.
Then I was awarded a full scholarship from the graduate creative writing program at Hollins in 2002, and afterwards was accepted into the PhD writing program at Florida State University, which only took two fiction writers that year. My professors and workshops were intense and engaging at both universities. Writing, reading, noticing how other writers used voice or point of view—or developed their characters—helped me develop as a writer.
The other thing that helps is reflecting on life every step of the journey. While a few stories have come to me fully in a dream or dreamlike state, those instances can be rare. It can take years for a story to come together or to be ready to write it. Still, younger people are obviously writing great fiction and poetry and nonfiction all the time. Eudora Welty said that by the time a child was five he or she had all the emotional experiences needed for stories, and Flannery O’Connor said something very similar. It’s a matter of getting it down, finding the deeper truths.
SIR: How much of your success do you attribute to your travels? Do you think you would be able to create such geographically colorful pieces without this experience?
Larkin: No, I think you’re right: travel and diverse experiences definitely inform my stories and me. They make me who I am and inspire place and character in a story. Having said that, one of my stories is set in Alaska, and I’ve never been there. But I don’t think I could have imagined other places had I not traveled at all. And certainly not if I hadn’t read all my life and explored other lives through literature.
SIR: Many of your stories focus on male characters or are told in a masculine voice. Do you find it easier to write from a male perspective?
Larkin: Actually, it’s much easier and more natural for me to write from a feminine point of view. It’s a stretch to write from a man’s point of view, but a good workout. Most of my stories have female protagonists, and many of the settings are southern, so it’s a vacation of a sort to have a man as the main character, or set the story in a distant landscape.
Obviously, both male and female characters and voices can make stories work, but for “All That Was His” it’s Carl we come to know intimately. Yet, his wife is a large and underlying part of his personal tragedy. Faye wasn’t easy to write…I didn’t want her taking over the story, so I kept her somewhat clipped. It was a balancing act. For me she is a character with a strong, if disturbing, presence, one I wouldn’t want to encounter. She could easily have her own story. Maybe she will some day. She’s not sympathetic, but she’s very real: there are people like her in the world. It’s partly through Faye that the reader comes to understand what Carl had and didn’t have, or feel some of his misery.
SIR: Often your stories allow the reader to imagine or anticipate the lives of your characters. Is that intentional on your part, or does it simply happen that way organically?
Larkin: I started to say that no, it wasn’t an intention, but perhaps it is. Some of my stories are more neatly wrapped up, but I also like my characters to have lives of their own. Then yes, we might wonder what happens next. I don’t try to force a story either way. If you force it, it sounds forced, and doesn’t work. Stories really make their own forms and shape themselves. I listen and feel for their shape and put it down as best I can.
SIR: Many of your stories focus on nature. Carl, for example, lives and breathes his land, while Josh from "Where Luck Lies" has an affinity for maps and waterways. Tell us about the presence of nature in your work.
Larkin: Welty also said that Place is story, that character rises up out of setting. (If you think about it, Sister never could have moved into a P.O. in Concord, Massachusetts, and O’Connor’s June Starr and John Wesley would have behaved differently in Philadelphia...) Place has to do with landscape as well as language and the people who are part of that land. Carl is part of the land just as much as the land and nature are part of him. He searches for his center by being centered in creation, despite his emotional and physical afflictions. He dreams of the deer at night, he walks his fields and woods, he works the earth, builds on it, digs deep into it. At the close of the story, he has fallen to the ground, and doesn’t—can’t—stand right away. In the depth of his misery, he seeks solace and I believe finds it along with strength as he rests on the earth.
You mentioned “Where Luck Lies,” which was first published by Shenandoah. Here again the land and rivers and ocean are a part of the characters, their birthplace, their heritage. Josh is bedridden with cancer, and shows the narrator a map of the places he’s been and knows so well. She tells us:
With his finger he traces the Tennessee River flowing into the Northwest corner of Alabama where it bulges out to become Wilson Lake and later Wheeler. "It goes all the way across the top of the state like a borrowed blue garter on a bride's leg," he says, and I know he is thinking of Mother’s leg. He goes on in a voice that widens, pools up and overflows. "The Coosa comes in from the East, winding south past Gadsden and Pell City, flanked by the Talladega National Forest a good way. Then it runs on to Wetumpka before it marries the Alabama River, which flows all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. Lake Tuscaloosa’s waters empty into rivers named Black Warrior, and Tombigbee, ending up at the mouth of Mobile Bay. Towns with names like Chickasaw, Mon Louis and Daphne rest on those rich shores, waiting for the waters from the rivers of Alabama to flow and rush and comingle with the warm Gulf."
So the land and rivers are part of who he is, he is of these places, the landscapes of his life.
I have a new story set in the hunt country of Virginia, and again, the land itself brings forth the characters. The earth, the fields, the hounds, the horses, the community of friends sprang up for me like tall grasses, all rooted, belonging. So I’m with Welty on all of that. Then I have stories with no distinct landscapes. Stories truly come to you as they are meant to be.
SIR: Leaving "All That Was His" out of consideration, which of your stories are you most proud of ?
Larkin: You’re asking me to choose amongst my children? I do have favorites, something most parents won’t readily admit. I like a story that was first published in Red Mountain Review from Alabama School of Fine Arts that's now archived online in Santa Fe Publishing Project’s The Journal. “The Heart is a Slow Learner,” with its Alaskan setting, the town’s interwoven relationships, and the love that got away still pleases me. Currently, I’m engaged with a story of a woman who grapples with infidelities, the slow loss of her husband to Alzheimer’s, her own loss of health and youth, and death itself—all against the changing backdrop of Birmingham during the decades from the 50s through the present as it becomes the New South. It’s a story I believe in.
I can honestly say, though, that “All That Was His” is one of the stories I’m proudest of. It was hard work even though parts of the story came to me like a gift. Other parts were hard labor, like the character’s post-digging. Maybe that’s why I do like it: I put so much into it, and I’d say I took risks. As a woman, it is a risk to write from a man’s point of view. I wasn’t sure I could write explicitly of his sexuality, but I braved it. After all, he was a man. I had to be in his head and heart as I wrote. It was devastating to plumb the depths of his hardships, to fathom the betrayals and bleakness bestowed upon him. Yet for me, and I believe for him, grace is found at the end. A hard grace not yet delivered, but waiting.
Thank you so much for your questions. I appreciate the opportunity to share my writing and thoughts on writing.