Facts That Turn Out to Be Fiction: Ann Cummins and Sarah Stone on Writing, Landscape, and Family

We met in 2002, when we were teaching at Pima Writers Workshop. Later that summer, we were fellows, and roommates, at Bread Loaf Writers Conference. For nearly a decade and a half, we’ve been friends and in the same writers’ group, reading each other’s stories, plays, novels, and nonfiction, including Ann’s novel Yellowcake, the family memoir she’s working on, and Sarah’s new novel, Hungry Ghost Theater. Our conversations usually take place as we walk by the San Francisco Bay, discussing our families and lives, but this time we sat down in Sarah’s living room with a couple of tape recorders and a pile of pastries Ann had brought over. Our initial conversation was full of those moments between old friends where you say about a third of a sentence, see full comprehension in the other person, and immediately tack to a new thought. So we followed up and added to the conversation via email. Ann Cummins: Your characters in Hungry Ghost Theater have the authenticity and intimate appeal of people struggling with real-life issues. I mean, the family at the center of this book pulses with believable complexity. Did you draw from your own family as prototypes for your characters? Sarah Stone: Like the family in the book, members of my own family have wrestled with mental illness, addiction, and alcohol, though in very different ways than these characters. I love to read books that come from the poetic or memoiristic urge to write down what happened, to make sense of it. But I feel an internal prohibition about doing that. Also, I’m interested in making up stories. I can’t help it. If I say to myself, I would like to try to tell the truth about this, I just start turning it into a story. In my life I feel—and this may be a lie I tell myself—that I’m truthful to a fault, truthful to the point of potentially putting people’s backs up. AC: With your family. SS: Yes, unfortunately. With my family I’ve fairly often brought up issues that might have been better left as subtext. In everyday life, though, I think I’m just regularly truthful. I don’t take pleasure in lying. This family I’ve invented, artists, scientists, activists, are not my actual family but still feel very real to me. In both your fiction and your memoir, there’s some material that overlaps, and yet you’re handling it in very different ways. Both your works of fiction, Yellowcake and Red Ant House, feel utterly realistic, though there are some fantastic elements in some of your short stories. But there’s something theatrical in the way you inhabit the characters in both fiction and memoir. The characters perform their own visions of themselves. AC: The theatrical in my fiction is a way to make the personal bearable, to get separation by seeming to embody a character closely but crafting the image of that character so that it’s separate from me. Distanced. Now I’m turning to memoir, and while the narrative is more revealing because it’s my life, the same kind of distancing still occurs. It’s just that the sense of what’s truthful and what is shaped isn’t filtered through an imagined character. There’s a sense of dramatic momentum that I use as a fiction writer for a character, and that character is myself in the memoir. In Hungry Ghost, you created a theatrical stage: It seems like you as the author are watching and allowing those characters to play their stories to the extreme. Like, I love how in the chapter “Ravenous: A Ghost Story,” your character Katya smells the lemony chicken her colleague has for lunch and has an attack of chicken desire. Katya yearns for meat but struggles so with her yearnings, which collide with her conviction that carnivores contribute to animal cruelty and deplete the planet’s dwindling resources. Katya’s such an engaging character. I completely empathize with her struggles. In this chapter, she loses the battle and devours a chicken in such a sumptuous way it ignites the reader’s hunger for chicken. But then, Katya’s filled with remorse. She gets drunk and the scene shifts to the graveyard, where the chicken’s ghost haunts her. A hilarious but also very touching scene. No pathos here. I feel that you as a writer have a great deal of compassion for Katya’s struggles. You take her very seriously. Now, I know you’re a vegan and share some of Katya’s beliefs, but she doesn’t seem like your pawn at all. She’s got agency. What about that—about creating characters that embody your political beliefs? SS: Katya’s working as a temp in an outpatient mental health clinic and gets involved with one of the clients. Her remorse by the time she’s in the graveyard is as much about the effects of that on him as about anything. I’ve been all over the map in my life, in terms of political beliefs and actions (including but not at all limited to eating), and the characters in this book are all over the map too. I’m always looking for ways to tell the story of the whole group, in this case, the family and the people whose lives they affect. Different chapters give different viewpoints because I’m interested not only in what we believe but in how we hold those beliefs and how we succeed and fail in acting on them. Also, I find family systems fascinating. I’m very close to my own family, which doesn’t mean that there are no tensions. But we also really support each other. AC: The memoir poses a whole new challenge. I can’t very well audition characters to play my brothers’ and sisters’ parts. My memoir is, as you say, about a family—a big Irish Catholic family. It’s impossible to tell my part of the family experience on the reservation without including them. But I can’t put imagined dialogue in their mouths—they’re not characters—and if I put remembered dialogue in, or remembered events, they’ll prove me wrong. Like, I clearly remember a time in the mid-’70s when members of the American Indian Movement took over a transistor factory on the mesa not far from the uranium mill. I told my little sister I remembered this, and she said, “You weren’t there.” Then she went to the internet, looked up the dates, and she was right. I couldn’t have been there. But I had heard her tell the story so well that it felt like I’d been there, and at some point over the years my memory morphed to include a fact about me that turned out to be fiction. In regular life, I fall prey to lying—not intentionally, but I instinctively translate events into stories that give meaning to my experience. So I’m trying to write the emotional truth in memoir and contextualize it with factual truth when I can for a layered expression of my and my family’s history. SS: Your work feels truthful to me, including the ways you bring in the physical world. Do you have a specific sense of what you want to do with landscape? AC: I see landscape, specifically the landscapes of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, as dynamic stages that go far beyond simple setting in both my fiction and the memoir. My characters in Yellowcake are high desert people. They live the dust storms and crisp nights of the desert, and their characters grow out of expansive wide-open spaces. But because they’re in the uranium business, they’ve got subliminal fear of the landscape—of unseen toxicity underfoot. And of course, they have dread and guilt about their own complicity in poisoning their home. Memoir allows me to reclaim the lost landscape of my childhood home. Because we aren’t tribal members, we couldn’t live permanently on the reservation. My father was a uranium mill worker for the Vanadium Corporation of America, who leased company housing on the reservation. By looking back and threading family history into the story, memoir has allowed me to expand the landscape of home. I can revisit that lost home within a larger geography of time and place. My father’s buried 30 miles from our reservation home, and my grandparents and great grandparents, 75 miles. There’s a comfort in viewing place through the prism of history and mapping how the land was, how it’s changed, and of marking my family’s place in a multidimensional landscape. SS: That’s very moving to me, Ann. The living and the dead, the larger geography. It makes me see something about how you can create landscapes in your work that are physical, familial, political, and psychological all at the same time. I do feel it’s impossible to be the person you are without taking into account your landscape and circumstances. My family are less rooted than yours. My mother’s parents fled Poland and Russia to New York, and later lived in Los Angeles, then my grandmother came to the Bay Area. My father’s people were small scale farmers and agricultural inspectors. I grew up in the hills of California and went to school here and then lived in Seoul, a huge city. Also in Washington, D.C., a very different huge city, and then Bujumbura, Burundi. After that, I went to Michigan for grad school. Now I’m home in the Bay Area. The person I am, after living in these places, is not the person I was or would have been if I had just stayed in California. Or if my family were at rest in or near their homes. A number of members of my mother’s mother’s family died in Auschwitz-Birkenau. And as for my grandmother, my father, my mother, my nephew, the family keep their ashes or bones with us as we move from house to house and place to place. My siblings and I used to talk about scattering our parents’ ashes. But I don’t think we can let go. AC: Can you talk about the landscape of the underworld and how it plays out in the book? SS: Hungry Ghost Theater started as an escape from the book I was trying to write, the book that’s now the third part of the trilogy I’m working on. Along the way, it became a fight with and homage to Dante. I didn’t start out to write that. I didn’t think, oh, I’m just going to punch way above my weight class. As I was tackling the subjects of idealism, cruelty, theater, mental illness, and mythology, I kept thinking about Dante’s realms, the division into the traditional morality of sin and redemption. A lot of what we now understand as psychological impairment looked like sin in Dante’s time. After working as an aide in a psychiatric facility, and because of my family history, I’m interested in the question of how much is biological and when and how we make certain decisions that affect who we become. The book is divided into nine pieces, like Dante’s nine circles of hell. But hell can also be our beloved families and what we put each other through. My students and I have been talking about the secrets we keep from other people and the secrets we keep from ourselves. I sometimes think that writing fiction is part of how we both face and avoid external conflict, and even how we face and also avoid internal conflict. AC: In creative work, in writing, I’m hoping that my self when I’m writing is going to tell me the answers that I don’t know now, the secrets that I don’t know now. It’s happened, just a little bit. With memoirs, it’s a question of how much you are willing to risk. There’s always that sense that somebody else is going to be reading this and you’re revealing yourself. SS: What do you find the scariest or riskiest in terms of what you are able to reveal? AC: I decided to write the memoir partly because I wanted to engage the issue of race and cultural differences without the filter of fictional characters. To delve into my family’s and my own fears of “the other.” We (some of us) had happy lives on the reservation, and as a family, we embraced the image of ourselves as tolerant and inclusive. But now revisiting certain events and conversations with the knowledge hindsight allows, I’m trying to peel back layers under the image we constructed. I find it scary and risky to give voice to my family’s particular ethnocentrism especially in light of the deep racial divides that have surfaced in America these last few years. SS: It’s hard to let go of the ideas of ourselves as good people. When I look at the contents of my imagination, they’re kind of terrifying. My characters act abysmally. And with this book, I feel a little unnerved about releasing it into the world. I think, I hope, that Sarah on the page is a lot darker than Sarah in life.