Kelly Cherry talks to her ladyship, the editor

Kelly Cherry

LB:  It is an open secret that every reader suspects that there is a real person behind every character in a story, so who are the women of Twelve Women in a Country Called America? Where did they come from?

Twelve Women in a Country Called AmericaKC: I wrote this book precisely because I was tired of everyone thinking my work is autobiographical. But as Fred Chappell says, "There is no such thing as autobiographical fiction." That's because sentences gather material or information that pulls the fiction writer away from autobiography even as she may draw small details she has noticed in her own real life. In this particular instance, though, I was determined to write from so many points of view that it would be obvious that none of the stories was autobiographical. Nor were any of them based on real people. I picked names for the leading characters, listed their ages, made a very short list of facts and characteristics, gave each a state to occupy and very quickly each woman became her own individual, different from every other woman in the collection. I did have an aunt who spent much of her life taking care of her mother, but not even Henrietta in "False Gods" is a copy from life. (My aunt was a translator of Hungarian, though she was not Hungarian; Henrietta works in a bank.) The two ingredients that made the twelve women come to life were (a) place—I had been to every one of the places—and (b) I felt I could understand—even inhabit—each woman's circumstances and point of view.

LB:  It seems like a common theme is women on the cusp of change -- they are all in motion, all wanting something to be different in their lives. Is this the universal impulse that drives every story? That we are all in the continual process of creating ourselves?

KC: Maybe it is. Something has to drive a story. A story that has nowhere to go is stillborn. But I seldom know what that something is until the story tells me what it is. I just follow the sentences: one sentence leads to another and that to another and so on. Each successive sentence suggests possibilities. A writer chooses from those possibilities to arrive at another sentence. At some point she sees that the possibilities are narrowing, heading toward an ending. I find I am always especially interested in how my characters view the world, life and death, nature, good and evil, religion, and so on. I'm interested in what they think about those things because I think about those things too. Characters' feelings are crucial, but what they think is also important and contributes to their reality.

LB:  How long did it take you to write Twelve Women? It's impossible to read these stories without thinking about the current cultural and political climate women face in the United States. Were you responding to that climate in any way?

KC: It took me more or less ten years. I revised and revised, but I was also working on other books. I like to move among genres. I also like to give my manuscripts some time and space before I return to them. Then it took another year to find a publisher and another to do final revisions. The first story was "Autumn Garage," though as soon as I wrote it, I knew there had to be a group of stories and that "Autumn Garage" had to be the last.
"Autumn Garage" turned up as soon as I moved from Madison, Wisconsin, where I'd taught for years, to Huntsville, Alabama. It seemed to me as if coming back South had released a story already in my mind. More than that: I was reminded of the riches in Southern English: the syntax, the adventurous word placed amid common words, the somewhat Shakespearean echo of blank verse, and the accent of country talk. And so I was launched on a collection of stories about women in the South. An early title was "Southern Streets at Noon."

LB:  How did your editors respond when told them that you were including stories that featured Greek gods and aliens?

KC: They raised no questions. I don't know what I would have done if they had. Greek gods and aliens seemed to me to belong in the stories they appear in. The sentences conjured them. And sometimes Greek gods and aliens can point out things that a "real" character would have difficulty saying.

LB:  Your title is "a country called America" but the setting is mostly the South and the women are Southern. Why "America" instead of "the South"? How does the Norman Mailer quote you cite at the beginning of the book, "this country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a Southern accent," how does it relate the South to the whole of America?

KC: I had come across the Mailer quote years earlier, found it hilarious, and tucked it away in case it might be useful someday. Mailer is saying that sometimes when he thinks about this complicated country he can only drawl like a Southerner—and sound stupid—because its vastness is too hard to make sense of. That's a caricature of the South, of course. I'm sure he thought it was a funny crack, and I thought it was a funny crack. But the women in the collection are smart, even if some of them find themselves in predicaments from which they cannot extricate themselves. To that degree, they show up Mailer's comment for what it is: a desperate excuse. I like the way the stories play off Mailer's comment.

Although the women are Southerners, the South they live in has only a tenuous connection to the Old South. In this age of overwhelming media, they are cognizant of what is going on elsewhere and have things to say that encompass not only the states they live in but the country as a whole.

LB:  And speaking of complexity: your characters run the gamut: gay, straight, black, Native American, Jewish, Christian, apathetic, Junior League, "white trash"....it almost seems like you set out to decimate every stereotype women have been forced to endure. Or is it simply that any woman, any person, destroys our stereotypes just by virtue of being themselves?

KC: I very much like the way you interpret this. Yes, nobody is a stereotype. There are too many sides, too many angles, to any comprehensive portrait for any character to become stereotypical unless the author neglects to look at all those sides and angles. And certainly it's the task of the author not to neglect to look at them.
Plus, I'm fascinated by my characters, and I want them to have the dignity of a fair and honest scrutiny. I'm not interested in mocking my characters. I also don't want to write down to readers. This is a hard world to live in for everybody, Southerners, Northerners, aliens, everybody. I want to respect that.

LB:  Do you realize you managed to write an entire collection of stories about at least some contemporary women and yet I don't think you ever mentioned a designer label?

KC: This question tickles me. Yes, I do realize that. I didn't want anybody to mistake this book for Chick Lit. Chick Lit has its place, perhaps especially for women readers under 35, but these twelve women (one of them being a young girl) are complicated, complex, and, I hope, fully human.

LB:  In most of your stories, you stay with the woman's point of view. But in one of my favorite stories, "Famousness," you let a man's voice tell part of the story. It almost seems like, the more present Hodder is, the more remote Georgianna becomes. Why did you decide to let Hodder speak for himself here?

KC: There are a number of men in the collection, and they play essential roles. In "Famousness," Hodder and Georgianna find themselves living apart on occasion, and I didn't want to shut a door on Hodder while he was pining for Georgianna. And he had to have real feelings and a past of his own and his own point of view if the reader were going to see what Georgianna was blind to. I like writing about men; they show up in a number of my stories and novels, sometimes as leading characters, sometimes as minor characters. I've been considering a collection of stories about men but I have other projects underway and don't know if I'll get to it. I love to write— writing is incredibly exciting—and I spend most of my time writing or thinking about what I'm writing, but there are obligations and things to do and see and people and pets to be with. Writing requires a great deal of energy.

LB:  It was once famously said that the great test of Southern literature is "Is there a dead mule in it?" Did you purposely set out to pass that test? Or are you poking a bit of fun?

KC: Both. I didn't want to bypass the opportunity to include a dead mule!