Taking the Time: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Mandeliene Smith

February 19, 2019 | 3 books mentioned 8 min read

Although some mainstream publishers still publish story collections comprised largely of stand-alone stories (George Saunders’s Tenth of December leaps immediately to mind), many contemporary collections published by large, New York-based presses are more likely to be novels-in-stories or linked collections.

Enter Rutting Season, a remarkable debut from Mandeliene Smith, out this month from Scribner. The stylistically and topically diverse stories in this collection demonstrate Smith’s extraordinary range, although a few commonalities are evident. Smith’s stories all take place in New England of the present or recent past and feature characters whose lives have been upended by personal or professional hardship, circumstances the author explores with compassion and occasionally with subversive humor.

Smith has been writing for more than two decades and scrupulously revised each story in this collection, several of them having taken years to complete. In an era where many writers feel the pressure—self-imposed or otherwise—to publish fast (and likewise have the opportunity to self-publish manuscripts written, in some cases, in a matter of weeks), it is heartening to encounter a writer who appears to value the creative process as much as publication and any rewards it might confer to her.

Via email and Google Docs, I had the chance to correspond recently with Mandeliene Smith about Rutting Season.

Christine Sneed: There’s such a range of character, point of view and theme in the stories in Rutting Season—for example, a young widow grieving over her husband’s sudden death, three siblings being held hostage by their dead mother’s deranged boyfriend, an African-American social worker who works in racially and economically divided New Haven, a little girl whose mother is selling off the girl’s siblings to strangers—how do you find your subjects?

Mandeliene Smith: Some of those stories, like “Siege,” “The Someday Cat,” and “You the Animal,” are loosely based on newspaper articles that grabbed me. “Siege,” for example, came from an article about a bunch of kids in Iowa who barricaded themselves in their house for two days after their mother was arrested for child neglect. I kept thinking about what it might have been like for them inside that house together with the police waiting outside—what a weird combination of danger and normalcy, to be trapped with the people they knew best. That was what I saw in that news article that hooked me: the power that family has over us.

Most of the rest of the stories are fragments of my own experience that took on a life of their own. “Mercy,” for example, came from a memory of my mother, a number of months after my father had died. She was outside, yelling at me to come down and help bury my sister’s dog, which had been killed by a car. I had had my fill of death and just wanted to skip the whole thing—there had been a number of deaths in the family that year, both human and animal—but my mother had dug a hole; she was going to bury the dog and then go on to the next thing in her day. By the time that memory came back to me, I had children myself, and what struck me wasn’t my own experience but what it must have been like for my mother in those first years after her husband died. So that was the jumping off point for that story: How does one go on after such a crushing loss? Or maybe more specifically, how does one find a way to accept one’s own need to go on?

I think the real answer to your question is that I’m drawn to subjects that trouble me, things I can’t resolve. The experiences (or articles or situations) that inspire me to write all embody something I find deeply disturbing. The writing, I think, is an effort to figure it out, or at least to lay out the pieces in a way that makes them clear to me. Maybe this is true for all artists, I don’t know. I recently saw a quote from the British director Sam Mendes in The New Yorker that I thought captured this beautifully: “There is a grief that can never be solved. And that’s what fuels you and confounds you in equal measure. It gives you a motor.”

CS: The violence in some of these stories, both emotional and physical, is strikingly raw but not histrionic—you write with admirable restraint. I’m thinking in particular of the title story, which is darkly comic but also chilling in the manner you portray the main character’s elaborate fantasy of murdering his mean-spirited boss. What draws you to the impulse in us to do others harm?

MS: When I was growing up, we spent our summers on a farm in western Massachusetts, and I would often see my parents—my good, kind parents—killing things. (Most of the animal deaths in “Animals” are drawn from actual events in my childhood.) This deep co-existence of compassion and savagery was something I puzzled over as a child. I still puzzle over it, I guess. We are often aggressive, underneath our socially acceptable demeanors: We fight about territory and our place in the hierarchy and who will get what. (That character in “Rutting Season” who is thinking about killing his boss isn’t just a nut. He’s responding, according to a certain animal logic, to what he sees as a threat—the fact that he’s at the bottom of the pecking order.) At the same time, of course, people can also be amazingly kind and generous, willing to make even the ultimate sacrifice for each other. Which side of us wins out in a particular situation, and why—that question fascinates me.

CS: You’re in your mid-50s, but you’ve been writing for many years.  How did this collection come together?  Did you assemble it and find an agent who then sold it to Scribner? Or…?

MS: I’ve been writing for most of my life (my first attempt at a novel was in third grade). It took me a long time, however, to commit to writing in any public way. I was in my 30s by the time I published my first story, and even after that I proceeded fairly slowly. (The stories in Rutting Season were written over a period of about 20 years.) I’m not a fast writer; I tend to let my stories marinate for a while. Sometimes I even put them away for a year or so, if I can’t see my way forward. There were times when I made a concerted effort to submit my work to literary magazines, but I found the rejections demoralizing, and after a while I mostly stopped trying. I did keep writing, however. This wasn’t due to any laudable trait, like grit or determination—I just need to write. If I don’t, I sort of lose my bearings. So, I kept writing, and tried to find jobs that wouldn’t tie me down too much, and let my husband carry most of the weight of supporting the family, which is a gift I hope to repay someday. Eventually, my friend Daphne Kalotay suggested I contact Rob McQuilkin, and I sent him my manuscript.

Rob was incredibly patient, I have to say. I think it was probably more than two years between our first phone call and the time when the manuscript was finally ready to go out for bid. Initially, we tried to package the stories with a novel I’m writing, the assumption being that publishers would be more willing to take the stories if they could get a novel in the bargain. It turned out, though, that Scribner wanted only the stories. That was a blessing, really. It didn’t solve the problem of needing to earn an income, as an advance on the novel might have, but it does give me the space and freedom to write without having to answer to anyone, which is pretty important for me.

CS: What has the editorial process been like for you? You’re working with the great Kathryn Belden, who is also National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s editor.  Have you worked intensely with Ms. Belden on revisions or has the book changed little since its acquisition?

MS: The editorial process was so seamless, I barely remember it. Kathy made some suggestions, which all made perfect sense, and she decided to pull one story that wasn’t set in New England, which also made sense, and that was about it. She is very easy to work with, but I try not to think about her being Jesmyn Ward’s editor. I find that intimidating.

CS: “You the Animal,” the story about the New Haven social worker, is filled with what I assume must be authentic detail about Connecticut’s foster care system—do you have experience as a social worker? Or did you interview social workers while writing this story?

MS: I was never a social worker, which is probably for the best as I don’t think I’d be very good at it, but I’m relieved to hear that the details rang true. I always worry about this aspect of my work. For the record, I did interview someone in the field, and I read a few articles that went in depth about the child welfare system, but I’m sure if you asked someone who actually works in a child services department, they’d find plenty to pick apart.

The process of negotiating this line between real-world facts and a fictional story often feels challenging to me, since the story sometimes demands things, in a dramatic sense, that don’t strictly square with reality. I also have a certain apprehension about facts, because it seems to me that any event or situation can be viewed in multiple, even contradictory ways. This really haunted me during the year or two I worked as a reporter. I’d do the interviews, go to the government meetings, etc. and then, when I sat down to write, I’d freeze. I had a set of facts and a list of quotes, and now I was supposed to choose which to highlight and how to frame them. In other words, I was to decide what the story really was, and by deciding, I would necessarily leave out, erase all other possible interpretations. Who was I to do that? And what if I was wrong? As you can imagine, I drove myself crazy. It was a good thing when I quit that job.

CS: Race, social class, alcoholism, and divorce all inform the story “What It Takes,” which features a white adolescent female point-of-view character in a racially tense New Haven high school. Reading it was like taking a master class on building narrative tension—where did this story come from?

MS: That story is largely based on my own high school experience in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up. While the protagonist is not me and her family and friends are made up of bits and pieces of a number of different people I’ve known, the situation at the school is pretty much what I experienced. I should say that I myself did not have the larger socioeconomic and historical understanding back then that I tried to bring out in the story. I was just afraid, and angry about having to be afraid. It was only later, after I was safely out of that situation, that I allowed myself to think about things from the black kids’ perspective, to wonder what it was like for them. So, while the confrontation that comes at the end of the story is something that did happen to me, the realization that the main character has afterwards actually took me a couple of years to reach. I had to stop feeling threatened before I could open my mind.

CS: Who are your main literary influences?

coverMS: That’s a hard question to answer, because it’s always changing. When I was young, there was the whole world of children’s fiction, which I would have liked to just live inside, possibly forever. Later, in high school, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, really struck a chord. I guess if I had to pick just three writers from the hundreds who have affected me, they might be Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Alice Munro. Woolf for a kind of ecstasy of imagination—the permission of that. Hemingway for the incredible restraint of his prose, which somehow still manages to be deeply emotional. And Munro—well, Munro for everything, but maybe especially for narrative structure. Those are the three who came to mind first, but already I’m beginning to think of others: Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Strout. Really, it’s impossible.

CS: What are you working on now?

MS: I’m writing an historical novel about a 19th-century farm girl named Ada who defies her community to become an evangelical preacher. The story combines a place I love—the hill town region of western Massachusetts—with a tragedy that has always haunted me: My grandmother, when she was very small, saw her 15-month-old sister burn to death. The novel is not about my grandmother, but it does begin with a similar accident. Ada believes she is to blame for her sister’s death, and this sense of culpability ultimately launches her on a quest for redemption that brings her into conflict with the social rules of her family and her community.  The novel is set during a period of enormous change in our country, when capitalism was beginning to visibly erode traditional values and the primacy of community. It’s been interesting to delve into that time, and also to think about the hill towns and what they must have been like back then. I’ve really enjoyed escaping the tight confines of the short story. It’s very freeing.

is the author of the novels Paris, He Said and Little Known Facts, and the story collections Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry and The Virginity of Famous Men. Her work has been included in publications such as The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, New England Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, New York Times, and San Francisco Chronicle. She has been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and has received the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction, the 21st Century Award from the Chicago Public Library Foundation, and the Chicago Writers' Association Book of the Year Award. She lives in Evanston, Ill. and teaches for Northwestern University’s and Regis University’s graduate creative writing programs.

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