Who Carries the History?: The Millions Interviews LaToya Watkins

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LaToya Watkin’s exquisite debut novel Perish examines the painful legacies buried deep within one Black family from West Texas. As the members of the Turner family gather at matriarch Helen Jean’s deathbed, shameful secrets begin to surface. Watkins is master at exposing how structural forces can inflame and perpetuate the cycles of trauma. Her depiction of Turner family examines the way that truth can both heal our wounds and force us to grow.

I was honored to speak with Watkins, a fellow Texan, over a lunchtime Zoom. We spoke about matrilineal storytelling, the burden of parenthood, and the “puzzle” of writing Perish.

Shannon Perri: In a recent interview with Debutiful, you mentioned that the initial spark for Perish was its Texas setting. Could you speak to how the fictional West Texas town of Jerusalem served as the novel’s catalyst? 

Latoya Watkins: I’m from West Texas. I don’t remember living there, so it’s never felt like home to me, but I’ve often visited, and it’s always been home to my parents. When I was in grad school as a first-generation college graduate, there was no blueprint for going to school, for choosing what you study. When it was time to sit down and create a master’s thesis and then a dissertation, it was really difficult. I just started researching things that interested me. Someone mentioned the Great Migration, and I was like, Yeah, but people have written about that.

Then I started thinking about my own family. I started asking questions and realized that I couldn’t trace my family back. I had to go to West Texas and visit the land and talk to people. A lot of the people who I talked to happened to be church folks. I started thinking about how we are anchored to place by religion and spiritualism, and then somehow it morphed into me looking at culture. There are a lot of small towns in West Texas. I started noting characteristics among them that were similar and that were distinct. What I ended up doing with Jerusalem is, instead of writing about just one place, I took that compiled list of similarities and created one place for dozens of small towns and small cities. That’s how Jerusalem became this fictional town.

SP: The book opens with teenaged Helen Jean, trying—yet failing—to self-abort a pregnancy caused by her own father. Throughout, the reproductive lives of women are central to the novel. Why was this terrain so important to explore as part of a story about intergenerational trauma?

LW: One of the questions that stood out to me when I was looking at Texas as a whole was, Who carries the history? How are stories, generational stories, told? I can trace my grandmother’s back a lot further than I can my grandfather’s. I was able to hear those stories from her. And I think it’s because the fathers were silent. They would tell me their names, but that was it. It was the mothers who would tell the stories. In many ways, I wanted to explore motherhood for what I really think it is—this burdensome superpower. One of the things for me about becoming a mother that was so surprising is that when my children all 18 and became adults, I realized my love for them hadn’t diminished. My fears for them hadn’t diminished. It actually became harder because they weren’t in the home with me. I went back to my mother, and I was like, Why didn’t you tell me it only gets harder? You just hope that you’ve done everything that you could possibly do or taught them everything. There’s so much power in being a parent, but it doesn’t feel like power when you’re actually mothering. I know that the world is changing, but a lot of times it feels like the burden of parenthood rests—I don’t even care if there are fathers in the home—heavily on the mother. I wanted to explore that powerful state, but also the powerlessness of it.

SP: Perish also illustrates that motherhood is not always a choice.

LW: A lot of times, there’s either a lack of knowledge or choice in whether we’re becoming mothers. We often don’t even have the knowledge of what being a mother entails. If we look at the legacy of slavery and how close we still are to it, there are things still living in each generation that we’ve not caught up to. That we’re still exploring and dealing with. So I wanted to look at how a lack of access dictates the choices that the women from Jerusalem have in their lives. These women are making decisions based on their limited choices. Throughout the book, women are put upon in ways that shape their lives profoundly. Everyone from Helen Jean to Jazera, right? Her mother’s trauma is what she’s being reared in.

SP: The novel spans over half a century yet moves around in time and has several point-of-view characters. Were there any particular challenges in landing on the structure of the book? How did you decide what to reveal when?

LW: It was difficult to determine what to hold back. At some points I had to ask myself, Why am I concealing this? Is that necessary to the structure and plot and character development of the book? If things are not revealed to readers, I think that it should feel natural. One of the things that was hidden in some of those first drafts was who the father of Helen Jean’s first child was. That was something that I didn’t reveal until the end of the book. And then I was like, Why? It felt like I was trying too hard to hold it back, and it didn’t feel natural to me or to the narrative. So I knew that was something that needed to change, but it wasn’t until draft five or six that it did. In changing that, there was a lot of unwrapping and unraveling that I had to do, not just in the Helen Jean POV, but with all of the characters.

With every draft—and there were about 11 or 12—it was almost complete rewriting because there were so many perspectives. For a while, each perspective had its own document. Putting those together was like a puzzle. Some of the information was overlapping, so that had to be revised. At one point, I had to write everything out on this poster paper and tape it to walls and look at what I had and what needed to be removed and added or switched from one perspective to another. It was difficult. I wasn’t necessarily a puzzle person before this process, but it made me good at it and actually enjoy it.

SP: The toxicity of secrecy is one of the central themes of the novel. In speaking to this truth, the novel doesn’t shy away from shedding light on some of the most taboo subjects out there, such as abuse and incest. I think this book is going to help many people feel less alone with their complicated traumas. Was that one of your hopes in exploring this subject matter?

LW: I think it was. A lot of my ideas for the narratives and different plot points came from articles that I was reading, stories that I was hearing—and the things that I wasn’t hearing in those stories. I studied the foster care system and abuse and was digging through these stories that we never hear about. I looked through public information, these databases, like registered sex offenders and what they had done. It seems crazy now because it gave me nightmares, especially because I had children.

But one of the things that was so striking to me was the silence. Why are we not always walking around talking about the danger that people are in? I even went back to the ‘90s when we had all of these kidnappings in Texas—later on, these girls and boys were found in sheds and basements where they had been held captive for years. When they were returned home, the silence around that—those are life-altering periods in their lives and to have them ignored, not for our comfort, but just because a lot of us don’t know what to say.

It’s like when we’re dealing with death. Sometimes silence is how we handle the discomfort. I don’t think it serves as a path to healing. I wanted to look at that, and how there are taboos that we don’t talk about, that we place in a corner so that we can live in the world with each other and sleep at night. I don’t know that we can get past things or learn to deal with them if we just keep our mouths closed.

SP: The irony is that staying silent can actually make people less safe. 

LW: Right?

SP: I appreciate your honesty around the profound dissonance that characters in the novel have to endure when they find out that someone they love is both a victim and a perpetrator. Not to excuse the behavior in any way, but a lot of perpetrators have been victims themselves. That’s just a reality for a lot of people and families. And what do you do with that? There’s not a clearcut answer, but not talking about it can’t help.

LW: Yeah, I don’t think it does. There was one story that I read about a man who had done these really heinous things to his girlfriend’s children. He was convicted and he spent the rest of his life in prison. He developed throat cancer while he was there and died. He came from a rather large family, so I went and found his family and talked to them. And they wanted to talk about everything except for what I had come to discuss. I didn’t want to discuss what he’d done. I wanted to talk about him and his childhood. But I think the memory of what he’d done—they couldn’t even talk about his childhood anymore. They couldn’t talk about his death. They didn’t have a memorial for him. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, something like that. They had been together their whole lives, and there had been tragic losses: their mother had died very young, they pretty much had raised themselves. So I was only able to create a narrative of his life based on what they were telling me about their own.

SP: Perish feels it belongs squarely in the Texas literary canon. What do you think makes a great Texas novel, and what would you like to see more of as far as literature from Texas?

LW: When I think about the Texas novel, I used to think about cowboys and cattle drives. Now, I like stories that aren’t as beautiful or as “country” as people think that the Texas story should be. No matter what people see on the news, I think Texas is a beautiful place. It’s huge and expansive, so the experience here is not a monolith. There are a lot of different experiences, and looking at those different experiences is what I’d like to see. And I’d like to see a lot more Black Texas stories because we’re here as well.

Searching for Authenticity: The Millions Interviews Ramona Reeves

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I first met Ramona Reeves in a nine-month-long fiction workshop, where I soon formed a sincere respect for the depth and verisimilitude of her work. Reeves is the debut author of It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories, which won the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be published this month by the University of Pittsburgh Press. A collection of linked short stories set in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama, the book explores themes of class, sexuality, gender, race, and reinvention. Throughout, an unforgettable cast of characters faces daunting hardships—heartbreak, violence, miscarriage, alcoholism, grief—yet somehow, they press on toward the light.
Over an afternoon Zoom meeting, I spoke with Ramona about her experience as a lesbian writer from the South, perseverance, second acts, and the value of authenticity.
Shannon Perri: I want to start by asking about your relationship to Mobile, Alabama. Did you grow up there?
Ramona Reeves: I did grow up there, but as I became an adult and realized that I was gay—I also grew up Southern Baptist—suddenly I felt very cut off from the city. I started to realize that belonging there also meant fitting in, and I didn’t fit in anymore. In that way, I’ve had a difficult relationship with it. In the last five or six years, I’ve come back around to embracing Mobile, even though I know more now about its tangled and troubled history. There’s a huge opportunity there for change.
For me, writing forces me to really look at people, even people who I don’t have anything in common with or who might not like me because of my sexual orientation. It makes me more compassionate toward the ways in which they might be damaged because we all are in some way. Writing helps me see people at that human level. But of course, not everyone deserves my compassion.
SP: This collection definitely paints people at their most human level, and in doing so it explores their capacity to evolve. What attracted you to this topic of self-evolution? 
RR: I thought about the characters searching for authenticity, trying to figure out a way to be authentically themselves in this world. I feel like there’s a point that a person reaches in their life—I don’t know that it’s a particular age for everyone, but it seems like it happens a lot in our forties—where there’s a moment of reflection where people think, Oh crap, I’ve lived half my life. Am I living it the way that I want? How’s it going? Am I stuck? Do I want to be somewhere else? Someone else? Just thinking about how one’s life might play out and what the meaning of it is—those are big questions. I’ve probably had that moment in my life several times.
SP: Linked short story collections are fairly unique. What drew you to the genre? 
RR: I started this book in my MFA program back in 2009 as part of a class where we read linked short story collections, and we had to write the first few stories for one. I wrote the first four or five stories, and those sat for a long time before I went back and said, I want to try and do this, in part because I read Olive Kitteridge during my MFA. Then I read it again, and I still love that book for so many reasons. I wondered if I could do something similar with Mobile like Elizabeth Strout did with Maine, and with characters who are not young, maybe not Olive’s age either, but in that middle age area.

SP: I don’t know if you’ve read Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston, but I thought of his collection while reading yours. Only some of the stories are linked, but they all center on a specific place. I also thought of There There by Tommy Orange, though that’s actually considered a novel. How do you see the distinction between a novel and a linked story collection? 
RR: I see my book as a linked short story collection and not a novel-told-in-stories. I originally thought it was a novel-told-in-stories, and I tried to sell it as such, until I realized it wasn’t. With There There, all of the stories move toward an explosive climax. A lot of the novel-told-in-story structures I’ve seen do that. I do feel like there is something of an arc in my book, but I don’t think it’s a propulsive, everything-comes-together narrative. That’s what’s nice about linked short stories; there is a novelesque quality to them, but they don’t always have that clean arc and climax. They meander a bit more than a novel might.
SP: One could argue that’s truer to life. Did you face any particular challenges while writing in this genre? 
RR: Yes, for sure. As I said, I initially thought, I’m going to write a novel-told-in-stories, so I’ll have each story stand independently, but I’m also going to create something close to an arc. Then after trying to sell it that way and being told, “Well, you could create more of an arc,” I resisted that idea because I felt like the way that it is, is the way that it needed to be. In revision, I started to think more about the spaces between the stories, the years that go by that aren’t mentioned. I began looking at the whole landscape and how the stories were interacting with each other and thinking about characters that might be in the background in one story, in the foreground in the next. Working with all those moving parts was harder than I thought it would be. I asked myself, Which of those stories do I want to tell? Which make sense to tell? It’s cool that with this form you can do that. Usually, with a traditional short story you write it, and that’s it. You don’t see the characters again or the many stories of their lives.
SP: You’ve spoken some about the book’s drafting and publication journey. Could you walk us through the process of completing the manuscript and finding it a publisher? 
RR: I started working on the book again probably three years after my MFA and just decided, Okay, I’m going to do this. I spent two years or so finishing the first draft, just getting all the stories written, tossed out one or two and wrote different ones. Then I went through and revised each. Some were in better shape than others. I mean, some stories I revised eight times—one I revised more than 30 times, and that took a few years. I finished the book, or at least the version I was ready to send out, at the end of 2018. I sent it to agents. Agents responded. Some of them responded very positively. But basically, from the feedback I was getting, I realized I had written a linked short story collection, and that it wasn’t reading like a novel. During that time, I started work on another book, a novel, and I let It Falls Gently All Around sit. That was hard because when one book doesn’t go the way you think it’s going to go, there’s a bit of licking your wounds.
Eventually I read the manuscript again and worked on it here and there. Then I sent it to the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, maybe the day before the deadline. I wasn’t sure if I was going to send it out, but there was no fee, so I thought, Okay, I may as well put it in the pile. When I won, I couldn’t believe it. You just never know. That’s what this whole experience has taught me. You never know how things are going to go or what’s going to happen, which is why it’s always good to keep writing.
SP: You recently tweeted something about how we as a writing community focus plenty on craft, language, et cetera, but not enough on knowing oneself. As we wrap up, I was wondering if you could expand on that thought.
RR: Coming out in the 1980s was certainly easier than coming out in, say, the 1950s, but it still wasn’t like, wow, everybody’s really happy about this. I think a lot of people flocked, as I did, to Chicago or New York or San Francisco, wherever you could go and feel safe. Figuring out who I was meant coming to terms with my identity as a woman who loved women.
Figuring out who I am has also meant giving myself permission to write the way I write, and to write the book I wanted to write. I went through my MFA and took various classes, and they were all great, but there was a point afterward where I remembered that the reason I wanted to write in the first place is because I fell in love with reading sentences and with language. I realized that maybe it’s not that the craft needs to be perfect and structure needs to be perfect in my stories—maybe it’s that I need to tell my stories and learn how to make use of those elements in a way that feels organic to me and my work.
SP: It goes back to authenticity.
RR: Yes, giving myself permission to express my voice plays into that. If a person doesn’t know who they are, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to convey who anybody else is on the page and have it come across as honest.

Our Dark Curiosities: The Millions Interviews Katie Gutierrez

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Katie Gutierrez’s debut novel, More Than You’ll Ever Know, out today from William Morrow follows two central characters: one, a Mexican-American mother named Lore whose double-life in the 1980s results in one of her husbands convicted of murdering the other; the other, a white aspiring true crime writer, Cassie, who is hellbent on telling Lore’s story. Both women have secrets buried deep that, over the course of the novel, refuse to remain underground.  

Over a mid-morning Zoom, I spoke with Gutierrez—who is also a prolific essayist, with work published in Time, Harper’s, Catapult, and elsewhere—about true crime, the many versions of ourselves, women’s ambition, the writing process, and our innate pull toward darkness. 

Shannon Perri: More Than You’ll Ever Know plays around with the truth, and really questions the nature of truth itself. But throughout the novel one truth affirms itself again and again: we all contain multitudes. We all have the capacity for multiplicity. What drew you to this idea? 

Katie Gutierrez: I’ve always been fascinated with the ways that we compartmentalize ourselves, the ways that we change depending on who we’re with. We can be one person with our husband, another with our best friends, with our mothers, with our children, with strangers. We’re all constantly presenting different parts of ourselves to the world depending on how comfortable we are or what we want.

When I was in my MFA program [at Texas State University], sometime around 2011, I read this story about a man with a double life who’d been with his wife for thirty years. When she died, he married another woman two weeks later. At that point, people were like, Who is this woman? It turned out that he had a whole separate family with her. They lived 20 miles apart. He had two kids with each woman, and they all went to the same school at different times. He bought both wives the same white Lexus. That he could compartmentalize himself so completely was this extreme version of what I had always been interested in, but I wanted to explore that from the perspective of a woman living a double life. I feel like women are especially forced to compartmentalize themselves. I wanted to take that concept of, like you said, the multitudes, and take it to an extreme, the ways that we all do every day.

SP: Much of the tension in this book exists between motherhood and familial responsibilities versus ambition, and the ways women get punished for being ambitious.

KG: With Lore and her first husband Fabian, I was interested in exploring two people who love each other and are good together in many ways, but are put in this pressure cooker situation. Especially in Mexican culture, there’s that element of machismo, and expectation that men will be the providers. When that can’t happen and the roles are switched, that can put pressure on even the best relationships. I wanted to explore the impact that might have on an otherwise fairly good marriage. If a woman’s ambition and success were to outdo her husband’s, what could happen? 

SP: The novel is masterfully plotted. How much of the story did you know before you wrote the first draft and how much was discovered through revision? What was the initial seed?

KG: I mentioned that double-life story that I’d read, and that was probably the initial seed. At the time I was working on my thesis for my MFA, which was a collection of short stories set in South Texas. I had this idea of a woman living a double life and of there being a frame story with the reporter, but it felt bigger than a short story, so I shelved it. After I got my MFA, I had a full-time job as an editor for many years. When I stepped away to focus on writing, I was working on an entirely different book and that took a couple of years, and when that book didn’t sell, this double-life story idea was still in the back of my mind. 

I started playing with the characters and trying to figure out who they are. Who is this woman living this double life? How does she pull it off? Especially in this day and age of being online, where everything and everyone are so connected? It felt obvious that it should happen in the past. Setting it in the past also created the opportunity to explore truth in a different way—what if the events known to have happened didn’t actually happen that way, or what if there was a deeper story behind them? That opened a different door for exploration and tension between the characters. The next question was, where does it take place? I grew up with my parents telling stories about this time in the 80s, with the peso devaluation. I liked the idea of setting it [in Laredo] and playing with the idea of doubleness in this city that I grew up in. It’s a border town. The city itself exemplifies duality. 

Every decision led to another decision. Before starting to write, I like to have 50 to 60 percent of the book sort of outlined. I was using Scrivener for this, and I used the cork board feature to take any scenes that I could already envision in like a one-line synopsis and order them in the way that I thought they would go. The structure of the book changed fundamentally across probably twenty different drafts. The first draft was a mess—it was 600 pages. The 150 pages were all Lore’s perspective and then it switched to Cassie for the next hundred, and my agent was like, Yeah, this is not working. There was a lot to do in terms of braiding their stories and trying to make sure that both women were equally compelling. I realized that I didn’t know Cassie as well as I did Lore. I learned a lot about Cassie in the writing process. Lore as well, but Lore came to me whole for some reason. 

SP: The novel made me fall in love with Mexico City, which plays a central part in the story. I’ve never been, but now I desperately want to go. Did anything surprise you in your research about Mexico City?

KG: I actually have not been to Mexico City either. My family is all Mexican and I’ve been to Mexico a few times over the years, but less so after the violence got worse. In researching Mexico during this time period, I was able to get closer to my culture. I really enjoyed that aspect of it. I had planned to go to Mexico City several times, and then the pandemic hit. That’s a big regret I have with the book, because no matter how much research you do into a place, being there physically will always change it. Maybe not fundamentally, but being able to add those sensory details would’ve made a difference, so I’m sad that I didn’t get to. 

Mexico City was one of those pieces of the story that I didn’t know would be so central in the beginning. Probably my research about the 1985 Mexico City earthquake was—it seems weird to say my favorite research because it was so tragic, but it was a piece of history that I wasn’t aware of. I was just a kid when it happened, and it was so unexpectedly moving to read firsthand stories and to see photos and find articles and explore archives from that time period. There is a moment in the book where Andres, Lore’s second husband, is telling her about a little boy who was stuck in the rubble for a week or so before dying; that boy was a real boy that I encountered in my research.

SP: In some ways this book is a traditional crime story and in other ways interrogates the true crime genre itself. Given that, were there challenges in deciding what to reveal and when? How did you approach plotting a crime narrative while critiquing the way true crime narratives are told in the first place?

KG: Yes, especially with Cassie. With Lore, I always saw her as this unapologetic character putting it all out there but in sort of a self-serving way. Her revelations feel true and intimate, yet she’s very careful about the way she constructs her own story. Her character is all about the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we create from events in our own lives, how those narratives change and become what we need them to be at different times. With Lore, I wanted everything about the affair and the marriage to be upfront; I wanted the tension to be between what the reader knows that the husbands don’t. 

With Cassie, there were different points with her mother, father, and brother, that were withheld. It was a challenge to figure out when to reveal those things so that it felt compelling, but not manipulative. With Cassie’s perspective, I didn’t want to be withholding as a way to falsely build suspense. I wanted to earn it, so it was a challenge figuring out where the sweet spots of those revelations would be, and those also changed in different edits. I also was interested in her own personal blind spots. Cassie withholds information from the reader, and in a lot of ways, from herself. 

The last third of the book became a much more traditional whodunnit with those revelations. My U.K. editor works primarily with crime fiction, and so he was really focused on the suspenseful elements and the plot points, and he helped with a lot of the pacing in terms of when those revelations were made and how they were made. It was a great complement to my U.S. editor, who was very character focused. 

SP: You recently wrote an essay for Catapult about the ethical challenges of true crime and the possibilities of crime fiction. Why do you think so many of us find crime stories pleasurable, and for some, even comforting? I have friends who watch true crime shows or Law & Order: SVU to help them fall asleep. 

KG: I’ve totally done that. There’s something so morbid when you consider these shows are about people whose loved ones are probably still mourning them; meanwhile here’s a person putting the story of their murder on in the background to help them fall asleep. That is such a strange juxtaposition. And I think part of the comfort of episodic shows like SVU, in which each episode is self-contained, is that most of them have satisfying conclusions. Nine times out of ten, they’re going to catch the person who did it, and there will be some level of justice or catharsis. In turbulent times, which we’ve been living in, there is a level of comfort in knowing that soon, you’ll know what happens. 

There are so many different elements of why true crime is compelling. The fact that it’s proliferated into all these different categories—books, podcasts, prestige documentaries, network TV—no matter your mood or your personality, you will find a genre of true crime that appeals to whatever you’re searching for. Rachel Monroe does a great job of identifying these archetypes that people are drawn to, and maybe some of them overlap and maybe you identify more with one archetype, the victim in one story and more with the detective in another, but there’s a level of personal investment we place into our true crime stories. We latch onto one of these characters, we have something emotionally at stake in knowing what happens to them. 

Then there’s part of us that just has that dark curiosity. It’s like not being able to look away from a car wreck. We are drawn to things that we don’t understand and can’t comprehend. Also, like I said in the Catapult piece, men are murdered much more often than women, but when women are murdered, there is often sexual violence involved, and so many women have experienced sexual violence in their lives that I think it can be validating to see their world reflected back, particularly when justice for sexual violence is so rare. 

SP: It’s common for parents, especially new moms, to be flooded with visions of the worst thing that could happen to their baby, and sometimes that can weirdly be—I don’t know if comforting is the word?—but, for me, l would think, “if I imagine it, it can’t happen.” It reminds me of what you said about our pull toward the dark. 

KG: That’s so true. I did that a lot, particularly with my first baby. I think I had undiagnosed postpartum anxiety. Just those repetitive, compulsive imaginings of the most horrible things that could possibly happen. It was so endless and on a loop, and like you said, I felt like I had to think of everything from start to finish, and if I could, then I’d somehow prevent it from happening. I think that can be part of it as well with true crime stories, especially if we’re identifying with the victims. There’s an element of, Okay, let’s take note of what they did or didn’t do so that we can protect ourselves better.