Interview: Julie Hensley

Julie Hensley

Most artists carry their childhood landscape like a native language,” poet and fiction writer Julie Hensley states, an observation that contains the framework for her captivating short story collection Landfall, recently published by The Ohio State University Press. Winner of the Non/ Fiction Collection Prize, the book centers on Conrad’s Fork, a small Kentucky town conjured so vividly that, in the words of novelist Amy Greene, “it’s easy to forget [it] is a fictional place.”

That’s due in no small part to Hensley’s childhood in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, where Elizabeth Taylor famously choked on a chicken bone and the spectre of John Fox, Jr. continues to haunt the hills. The stories and people she encountered there continue to inform her writing, she says, a legacy to which she pays tribute in this recent interview with Appalachian Heritage.

JASON HOWARD: Landfall is billed as “A Ring of Stories,” and it does seem as if there is a circular structure—the unbroken circle as the Carter Family would call it—to the collection. Can you talk about that?

JULIE HENSLEY: I struggled for a long time with knowing the book was finished. Many of the stories were part of my MFA thesis at Arizona State University, and I regularly submitted many different versions of Landfall to first book contests for over a decade. I kept changing the sequencing, occasionally adding or omitting a story. The book was a perpetual runner-up in so many contests—the Flannery O’Connor Award, the Katharine Anne Porter Prize, the Linda S. Bruckheimer Award. Finally, it won the Everett Southwest Literature Award, a contest which includes a generous prize but does not actually publish the book. I told myself I would give the project one more year of revision and one more round of submission, then I would let it go and move on.

The following summer, when I was teaching for a month in Mexico, I wrote three mornings a week at Café Montenegro, a little coffeehouse off the central plaza in San Miguel de Allende. As I crafted what became “Expecting,” I felt Landfall click into place as a book. It was like I’d been jiggling a key in a lock for years, and suddenly, as the voices of Cora and Grace emerged, the bolts gave and shifted. When that door opened, so many things settled into place—characters I subconsciously had been worrying about just reappeared, pushing their own stories to fruition in the periphery of the narrative. The book itself suddenly, literally came full circle.

I might have called Landfall “A Novel-in-Stories” or “A Cycle of Stories.” Certainly, books I’ve heard ascribed with those labels (Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Alice McDermott’s After This) were influential. But I gravitated toward the idea of a ring or circle because of the way that shape conveys both continuity and paralysis. A circle goes on for always, but it also creates a kind of enclosure, and by extension, a kind of exclusion. In my experience, small towns can do both: offer protection or cage one inside a tight pattern of conformity. The same might be said for family communities. You could argue certain stories in my book are as much “Ring of Fire” as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Ultimately, I believe the book is about connection, though. I want it to be hopeful.

JH: The book is mostly set in Conrad’s Fork, a fictional small town in Kentucky, and you do a great job in this book of showing how the supposedly simple, ordinary lives of small town Americans are actually rich and complex and stressful. Did you feel a sort of responsibility to do that as a writer from a small town, or did that theme just emerge by instinct?

HENSLEY: I always feel a responsibility to my characters to make them real and to make their lives matter. Conrad’s Fork is an amalgamation of some of the towns in Virginia where I was raised and some of the towns in Eastern Kentucky that make me feel nostalgic and homesick these days. When I began working on the stories, I really saw the Shenandoah Valley as the fictional landscape in my mind, specifically the town of Elkton. My family moved to a small farm there just as I began middle school. Long ago, when the town was just a trading post, it actually was called Conrad’s Store. At first, the responsibility I felt to that geography and its people was almost overwhelming. I think I wanted to do everyone justice; I didn’t want to mar what was so acutely familiar. But fiction is all about trouble, so, of course, that would never do. Once I let myself fully start to imagine the landscape, setting it in a fictional county in Kentucky, the writing became much freer, and ironically the characters grew more complex.

JH: You make use of the second person in a couple of the stories, and to me there’s always an inherent risk with that choice—it can sound stilted or off-putting. But your use of it reads and feels so natural. How did you manage that?

HENSLEY: Thank you for that praise. Second person point of view is always tricky, but sometimes it works beautifully: Junot Diaz’s “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” Pam Houston’s “How to Talk to a Hunter,” and Lorrie Moore’s “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce” are great examples. That point of view, when it’s working well, is really a gradation of first person point of view—the narrator isn’t talking to the reader, but rather to herself. For me, certain characters insist on a particular point of view. Their stories simply can’t be told any other way. Second person narrators are often struggling with some element of shame, embarrassment, or regret. They need the distance inherent in the view point to more comfortably access and share their narratives.

I wrote the title story, “Landfall,” when I was still in graduate school, and Mike McNally, a professor whom I respect a great deal, had cautioned against using second person point of view. I tried to get that story out any other way, but when I tried to write in third person or more traditional first person, the words just froze up. When you tap into the right point of view, there is a sudden fluency.

JH: You grew up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia. What did you take from your childhood there that has influenced your writing?

HENSLEY: A sense of the power of story. Although I was a child when I lived in Big Stone Gap, I remember how proud the town was of John Fox, Jr., the way The Trail of the Lonesome Pine was still performed every summer on an outdoor stage. The story of Liz Taylor’s choking on a chicken bone at the Stage Coach Inn was already mythic by the time I was a kid. Even everyday gossip glows in a small town because of the sense of exposure.

An awareness of the beauty in ordinary, useful things (from a quilt to a jar of beans). During my childhood, there was a blossoming sense of the value of folk art. My father was dean at Mountain Empire Community College, and I have visceral memories of the Home Craft Days on the campus each October: the smell of wood smoke, cracklings melting on my tongue, the sound of a fret banjo pulling against my ribs. The festival was usually the weekend of my birthday, so I felt sort of like it was for me that the artists were out weaving and tatting and smithing. I remember an old man, when my mom told him I was five that day, handing me a tiny doll made from corn shuck and bit of blue fabric. It probably sounds like nothing, but it felt almost Eucharistic at the time.

A deep fascination with family systems. People in Appalachia and in the Shenandoah Valley love to track family connections. When we meet someone we often ask something like, “Now who are your people? Are you of the Sandy Bottom clan or the Naked Creek clan?” We are shaped even by what we don’t know about our family. I’m very interested in the idea that family secrets can be transmitted generation to generation without ever being explicitly revealed. I think we live around the previous generations secrets, that our almost telepathic awareness of them shapes our relationships and the decisions we make.

I think most artists carry their childhood landscape like a native language. I am always more comfortable when I can see mountains. My husband, Bob, says that I let out an audible little sigh as soon as we get to Berea—we actually just looked at a house there this afternoon. I went to school in Kansas for two years, and I never got used to so much flat space. I felt like a bird was going to swoop down and get me every time I stepped outside.

I hope the mountain landscape of Conrad’s Fork becomes a character itself in Landfall, a geographic center like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg or Wendell Berry’s Port William.

JH: You’re also a poet, and your collection Viable was released last fall. I’m fascinated by all the voices you embody in those poems—a farm girl who “rise[s] early” to “fight loneliness”, a young woman in love watching her “first love” fish, women dealing with pregnancies and miscarriages, as well as grieving mothers and cultural figures. How did all these powerful voices emerge?

HENSLEY: Many of the poems are intensely autobiographical. My husband, who writes nonfiction, loves to joke that I could take the line breaks out of my poems and submit them to Brevity [the online flash nonfiction magazine]. Between the birth of my son and daughter, we lost a set of twins in utero, one at six weeks and the other at eleven weeks. I was nearly overcome by the grief—it was as low and out-of-control as I’ve ever felt. Yet I discovered that miscarriage is a very silent kind of mourning, not something a woman is encouraged to talk about. Eventually, I began writing poems to both crystalize the loss (so many very kind people kept saying that I needed to forget about those babies and move on) and find catharsis.

At some point, I realized I did need to get away from myself. I needed a different vantage point. Then the persona poems emerged. I began writing in the voices of women—mythical, historical, literary—who had lost children in various ways. It helped universalize and relativize my loss.

JH: In “At My Desk, Ten Weeks Pregnant,” you write so beautifully of creating, of laboring “each day for perfection,” and of the need for rituals. What are some of yours?

HENSLEY: I like to collect things—stones, shells, nests, seed pods—and place them on my desk where they can be easily at hand. Palming a natural object anchors me when I pause to think. I like to have a warm beverage and just a little background noise. I often write in Purdy’s Coffee here in Richmond.

My best writing happens when I can retreat from my life. That probably sounds terrible, but I have lots of people depending on me: two small children, a father-in-law with Alzheimer’s, an array of student writers. Sometimes, I’m not good at creating the boundaries necessary to cultivate creative work, so I try to spend at least two weeks a year in a writing residency. My favorite place is Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences in Rabun Gap, Georgia. I’m currently working on a novel with several narrative threads, and last time I was at Hambidge, I used ribbons and notecards to literally weave and pin the sequencing to the wall of my studio. Creating a visual element and shifting my spatial distance made huge difference. A residency provides necessary space, both physical and mental. I am able there to find the perfect rhythm for my work: spending an hour reading right after waking, writing for several hours in the morning, hiking in the middle of day, writing though the afternoon, and revising the day’s writing after dinner.

JH: Animals are often present in both your short story and poetry collections, whether you are writing about how “girls confused horses with people” in the poem “The Language of Horses” or recording a tag number from a cow’s ear in the story “The Sound of Animals.” Have animals been important to your life—and by extension, your writing life?

HENSLEY: Absolutely. I grew up on a small farm. We had Livingston’s latest book was published in March. horses, sheep, chickens, lots of dogs and cats. The first thing I did when I moved away from home for graduate school, even before I bought furniture, was go to the local shelter and adopt a cat. Currently, I live with a Chihuahua, two cats, and two hermit crabs.

I enjoy observing animals with my children. My son, Boyd, in particular, loves to bird watch and creek scramble. Flipping a rock and leaning in with him puts me right back into the childhood mystery of discovery. Last weekend, we went on a group hike in Raven’s Run to count stream side salamanders and their eggs.

People are animals. Watching other animals gives us insight into our own social organization, our strengths and weaknesses, our impulses and urges.

JH: You teach at the Bluegrass Writers Studio, the low-residency MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University. What advice do you give writers who are thinking of pursuing an MFA?

HENSLEY: Pursuing an MFA isn’t for everyone. It requires a surprising level of discipline and hard work, and it isn’t the sort of degree which awards an automatic licensure. It won’t guarantee you a book deal or a teaching job. All it guarantees you is a richer writing life. But if that’s what you’re seeking, there’s no better way to immerse yourself in a writing community. If you find yourself writing every week, choosing to write when you could (maybe even should) be doing other things, then it might be time to deepen your writing community. There are alternatives to the MFA— trusted friends who aren’t afraid to provide criticism, local writing groups which meet at libraries and literacy centers, conferences and workshops like the Appalachian Writers’ Workshop at the Hindman Settlement School. But if you’re still seeking more, you might be a great candidate for an MFA program.

The feedback that students get on their manuscripts in a MFA workshop is only a small part of how students grow as writers; they learn as much by critiquing their peers’ work. And of course, focused, critical reading of both classic and contemporary texts provides a foundation. MFA programs have evolved in their practicality since I was a student. In the Bluegrass Writers Studio, students learn about the publishing industry and meet with actual editors and agents. They might attend craft leactures on writing a successful grant application or building digital literacy.

I would tell students considering graduate studies in creative writing to research the programs out there carefully and find one that is a good fit. They should consider format (studio/ academic, traditional/low-residency), faculty, curriculum, funding, etc., and once they identify possible programs, they should submit their strongest work for the manuscript sample portion of the application. Sometimes it seems like prospective students arrange a manuscript to show breadth when what would really serve their interest is a smaller sample of higher quality work.

I do believe my MFA experience was invaluable. I couldn’t have published either of my books without the support I got at Arizona State University.

Jason Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and co-author of Something's Rising, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features, and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, The Louisville Review, The Nation, Sojourners, on NPR, and in other publications and venues. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is editor of Appalachian Heritage.

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