Sue Staats: Valerie, in your piece, Touching Margaret Atwood, you wrote of a near-miraculous encounter with her – a goddess in my pantheon as well – who, by her touch, seems to begin your process of healing during a time when you lost your words. I’m so curious: what happened next? Did you immediately begin to write again? Did you write about the “modern jellyfish ladies?”
Valerie Fioravanti: My next step was to travel again, to Eastern Europe and Turkey, settings that I’ve returned to in both fiction and nonfiction. I did write from that point forward, but it probably took close to a decade to go back to the neighborhoods of my childhood, to give modern jellyfish ladies their due. I needed to mature as a human, to develop greater patience and empathy for the choices that were not my own before I could do their lives justice. The depictions of jellyfish ladies of every era are so full of judgment and contempt. I wanted to do better by them.
SS: And have you done better by them? Some examples, if you can, if the answer is yes. Some future plans, if the answer is no.
VF: I don’t think I have done justice to the type of women I mentioned in the essay, those high-haired, faux-tough chicks sashaying around in stilettos. My second collection seems one story shy of completion, so I think you may have sparked an idea here. I believe I have done justice to women who remain in the neighborhood because of their strong family ties, even when common sense tells them to flee. Garbage Night at the Opera has characters that take off at the first opportunity, and characters who stay behind to support this fused family unit which is so resistant to change.
SS: If an encounter such as you had with Margaret Atwood had happened to me, I would feel that connection, her hand on my head, forever. Or, at least in moments of self-doubt. Do you?
VF: The five years that followed were a bit of a whirlwind in terms of travel, opportunity, transformation from neighborhood girl to well-traveled woman who had very little patience with her own frailties. I think I buried the memory because it was so steeped in shame. Fast forward maybe fifteen years, to the Napa Writers Conference, and this memory comes pouring out of me in defense of Margaret Atwood, in response to a conversation about how difficult she was to work with. As I was retelling it, I could feel her hand on my scalp again, how much it had meant to me to receive this form of blessing. When I was finished, someone said, “Have you written about that?” I hadn’t, but I knew I would.
SS: Your linked short story collection, Garbage Night at the Opera, recently won the 2011 Chandra Prize and will be published by BkMk Press next fall. Do any of the pieces in the collection date from the experience described in the story?
VF: My first published story, which is in this collection, was set in Switzerland. It was published in Baltimore Review as “Why I Hate Geraniums” although it’s now “Weeds.” One of the themes of that story is loss of identity/displacement, although those issues are resolved by the story’s end. My earliest stories are mostly about overcoming obstacles, moving forward, refusing to be sidetracked. If I were to redo that story now, I’d probably spend more time owning her fears and doubt.
SS: You’re a writer of creative nonfiction, flash fiction, short stories and novels. What makes you choose one over the other, when you have an idea for a story and sit down to write? In other words, given that most stories have their inspiration in true events, how do you determine whether you’ll write the story as fiction, or as memoir? Or as flash?
VF: With creative nonfiction, my desire is to process experience. It’s more intellectual in nature, although of course I want my cnf to also have heart. The proportions are skewed toward intellect, toward shaping meaning. With fiction, it’s the opposite. I want to convey experience, which is all about being emotionally intelligent, stepping back and allowing the reader to be witness to something meaningful. But it’s important to mention that I am a huge fan of invention. I took a neighborhood and a family model I was very familiar with and created a fictional landscape.
In terms of the different types of fiction I write, it’s mostly a matter of scope. If I set out to write a story that ends up with novel-sized elements, I refocus my attention to something more appropriately story sized, a smaller part of the original whole. My linked collection emerged as part of that paring down. I was interested in the historical moment I had witnessed in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the neighborhood at the core of Garbage Night at the Opera. In my early childhood, there was deindustrialization, the quick and wholesale loss of factory jobs that had supported that neighborhood for several generations. Then the neighborhood languished, neglected, as the families that couldn’t or wouldn’t move waited for “better times.” Finally, those times arrived with gentrification/renewal, but those same families were squeezed out by rising rents they couldn’t afford to pay. I couldn’t tell the entire arc in one story, but I could point toward that arc in a dozen inter-related stories.
SS: As a Sacramento writer, I’m very excited about the innovation and energy you’ve brought to the Sacramento literary scene. Why did you choose Sacramento? What inspired you to begin your teaching, the Master Classes, and Stories on Stage?
VF: Sacramento was meant to be a pit stop. I was teaching online and editing book manuscripts, so I wasn’t geographically constrained. I thought I would explore California for a bit, and then move to the coast. But Sacramento charmed me. I loved my Midtown neighborhood—it’s walkability; those funky, turreted Victorians; three great used bookstores coupled with a newsstand and indie bookstore with varied literary magazine selections (a combo which might lead to bankruptcy). I felt the writing community needed someone to be its advocate, to focus on what it might offer, rather than what it lacked. So I advertised some workshops and started up a reading series. Now, people bring their ideas to me. That’s how the Master Teacher Weekend Workshops began—with another writer asking for help to make one event happen. We brought the Atlantic’s fiction editor to town, and I thought, why stop?
SS: Any current projects – writing or otherwise – that you’d like to tell us about?
VF: Right now, my focus is on my second story collection, which is nearly finished. After that, I hope to return to my Italy novel, Bel Casino, which is a sort of sequel to Garbage Night at the Opera, as I’ve taken two of the recurring characters from the collection and set them loose in Italy as adults. In terms of creative nonfiction, I’ve been working on short pieces like “Touching Margaret Atwood” which I think might eventually cohere into a memoir.
SS: It’s a wonderful story. Have you ever thought of sending it to her to read?
VF: Thank you for saying so. Margaret Atwood has a poem in this issue (that I share space with her just thrills me), so maybe she’ll find it on her own? I’d like that, but I might just believe in letting idols be idols. This moment was big for me, but to her it was just a hiccup at one event in a life crammed with readings and speaking engagements. I don’t know—should we ask Mary Akers to forward the link to her? (Editor adds: I already did!)
SS: What’s the “recovery” experienced in the story “Touching Margaret Atwood,” and is that how you might define recovery, if you were writing your own dictionary?
VF: I returned from Switzerland less whole than I had left. This moment with Margaret Atwood didn’t change that–it just helped me turn the page, and move forward as a woman with a strong voice who now understood some things about silence and self-censorship. Whether it was a recovery in the truest sense or what that might mean, I’ll leave to others to decide.
Sue Staats is a Sacramento writer of fiction and a recent Pacific University MFA graduate. Her short stories have been featured at Stories on Stage in Sacramento, and she’s a frequent participant in the Master Teacher Workshops, founded by Valerie.