Fiction Spotlight: Joanna Pearson

The stories in Joanna Pearson’s collection, Every Human Love, are haunting. They border the realms of real and mystical, taking us down stretches of a wooded, rural highway one minute and the next, through city streets at night, a lurker watching menacingly from an alley. Characters are rendered so vividly they could be standing outside your front door pleading for help, as in “Changeling,” or waiting for you to pick them up on the side of the road, as in “Fox Foot.” Pearson balances the mundane with the uncanny through characters caught in an existence that is not quite what they’d planned. Desire and obsession pulse through the stories like an animal trapped in the attic, thumping its way across the attic floor nightly. Pearson’s characters dare you to look at them—to see them and their imperfect thoughts and actions. And readers, like the characters, are left to wonder what’s real and what’s not. 

In addition to Every Human Love from Acre Books, Pearson is the author of a poetry collection, Oldest Mortal Myth (Story Line Press, 2012), winner of the 2012 Donald Justice Prize and the 2014 Towson University Prize for Literature, and a young adult novel, The Rites and Wrongs of Janice Wills (Arthur A. Levine Books, 2011). Her short stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Blackbird, Colorado Review, and Kenyon Review Online, among other journals, and have been noted as distinguished stories in Best American Short Stories 2015 and 2018 and featured in Best of the Net 2016.

Every Human Love has been one of my favorite reads this summer. I was drawn in by the prose that has a wonderful specificity of detail, the snappy and downtrodden protagonists, and worlds that brush against the mystical and uncanny. Some of the near mystical elements come through characters such as Ol’ Pants Leg in “Changeling,” while others come through the setting, as in “The Private Collection.” How do you approach the mystical and uncanny in your work?

Oh, thank you so much! You’re right—I’m definitely interested in the uncanny. It’s that uncomfortable intersection of the strange and the familiar that draws me. When Freud talks about the uncanny, he talks about an effacement of the distinction between imagination and reality, and to me this is a really productive place for fiction—especially the short story. There’s an instinctual attraction in seeing the humdrum made strange and the strange, humdrum. Often, I feel the rhythms of a ghost story whether I’m writing a ghost story or not. I suspect I have an appetite for mystery, but maybe not the capacity for it; there’s something in me that’s inherently skeptical, a quality I don’t always admire in myself. This probably influences the choice of situations in which I place my characters. I like to see them in proximity to something that unsettles them, or knocks them off their previous trajectory. The uncanny serves as a type of proving ground.

There are a number of themes that run throughout the collection. One of the most notable—and often the most disturbing—is desire. Sometimes, this desire is so strong it becomes an obsession, such as in “Rumpelstiltskin” where Bree will do anything to have her own child or Benny in “Higher Things” who paints what he desires and seems to will them into being. What are you drawn to about desire as a subject matter? What are your obsessions in your writing?

On the simplest level, desire makes plot happen. Desire makes story. Without any want, there’s nothing except for a series of beautiful rooms, a cleverly designed house that’s empty. I want people running through that house, grabbing things, tearing down the curtains. I want people burning that house down.  

My own writerly obsessions tend to change over time, but I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the stories in Every Human Love are preoccupied with parenthood and social disconnection. Most readers could probably make an educated (and accurate) guess that I’d spent some years training at a large urban hospital prior to the composition of these stories, and that this experience was also on my mind. (Although I should say that I don’t lift and fictionalize real-life events from that time, or from my professional life now, because even doing so in an utterly deidentified way would just feel creepy to me. The wrong kind of creepy, unlike the right kind of creepy, which I obviously enjoy!) At the end of the day, maybe my prevailing obsession is loneliness—and the longing to be understood. Sounds so simple, and yet it’s not. I see that at the heart of everything: in fiction, but also in my day job, and, of course, in myself.

In addition to writing fiction, you also write poetry. At times this comes through with images such as “The pastel dregs of sunlight softened the edges of the rowhouses” from “Lucky.” Then there are the Elizabeth Bishop references in “Every Human Love” with Sarah thinking, “It was no disaster,” as well as the Bishop mention in “Ouro Preto.” As a poet who also writes fiction, I’m interested in how you see poetry and fiction interacting in your work. How does poetry influence your fiction and vice versa?

You’re right that my background is in poetry. The title Every Human Love is, of course, stolen from W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby” which ends “…Nights of insult let you pass / Watched by every human love.”  The truth, though, is that I’m a lapsed poet. I don’t write poetry anymore because… I don’t want to?  I guess it’s that simple. Somewhere along the way it lost me. Right around the time my older daughter was born, I stopped writing poetry cold turkey and started writing short stories instead. There’s certainly a connection: the motion of the literary short story is often quite lyric. And I was usually trying to cram (too much?) narrative into my poems. So committing to short stories was perhaps just me getting honest with myself. It felt, as they say, surprising yet inevitable.

Many endings leave us hanging—in a moment of decision, faltered action, or revelation—such as in “The Scare” when Karina approaches her house in the moments before finding her son and we read her thoughts, but we’re not given the reunion and we’re led to expect that maybe she doesn’t know her child as well as she thinks. What is your sense of endings and what they should do?

Oh, what a good question! It’s one of those things where you know it when you read it, right? I think I sometimes run the risk of overwriting my endings. Maybe in part because I learned my sense of endings from writing poetry. In poetry especially, there can be an urge to construct this perfect (too perfect!) final image that’s made profound by whatever precedes it. Or to do what James Wright does, where the speaker/narrator sort of swoops in from nowhere at the last moment with a cheap sucker punch statement like, “I have wasted my life,” which casts all the lines leading up to it in a different light. Blegh. (I’m going to get hatemail for saying that, but I think Wright can withstand my puny criticism!) I don’t so much tend toward the latter, but a good editor has saved me on several occasions when I’ve wanted to get really grand and heart-pounding and full-throatedly poetical at a story’s last moment. 

I have this theory—and by theory I mean it’d make for a good drinking game—that all writers can be classified by overtone and undertone as cool/cool, cool/warm, warm/warm, or warm/cool. You can be cool to the touch and cool underneath, or cool to touch but with a warmth underlying that. Or you can have a warm overtone but be chilly beneath it, or warm all the way through. There are excellent writers in every category. (Any writer’s category is open to debate, but to throw out a few names and impulse-categorize them: Lorrie Moore, cool/warm; Edward P. Jones, warm/cool; Jorge Luis Borges, cool/cool; Flannery O’Connor, cool/warm; Shirley Jackson, cool/cool; Jamel Brinkley, warm/warm; Ottessa Moshfegh, cool/cool. Try it! It’s fun!  There are writers I love about whom I go back-and-forth—like Alice Munro. Is she warm/cool, or is she actually warm/warm? Or even, I think sometimes, cool/warm?) I think one’s tonal combo affects how one builds toward endings. For the most part, I believe I’m cool/warm. I value restraint at the end, and I want some heft, some gravitas, but I also want feeling. Sentiment without sentimentality. I’m usually in tension with myself on how to achieve this. 

To speak about the ending of “The Scare” specifically, I really did want to hold back here. I think that’s crucial with a scary story. Readers might think they want to know exactly what happens after the mother walks into the house, but that would inevitably be anticlimactic, a narrative bust, in my opinion. The real terror is everything that lies ahead, the unknown future with all its implications—the whole rest of this mother’s life with a son whom, she’s now realizing, she’s almost entirely misunderstood. This wide-openness is what’s terrifying, that moment of realization and dread. You’re all set up, standing on that threshold. Certainly one can also withhold too much in an ending—that’s the other danger—but I think in early drafts I err more often in the other direction.

When putting a collection together—whether it’s fiction or poetry—pieces must be arranged somehow. This collection ends brilliantly, with Mr. Butler surveying the humans in the room and lamenting them while commanding us to look. It culminates in an action that so many of the stories seem to suggest is necessary—to look, to truly see others—and that stayed with me. If the collection had been arranged differently, I’m not sure I’d have experienced the same effect. How did you approach organization in this collection?

Thank you for noticing and saying that—it’s the effect I was hoping for! I agree with you that there’s something that feels right when you achieve a certain order. It’s like arriving at the order the stories want for themselves. It’s my hope that the note from that last story will linger and reverberate with the entirety of the collection. Like harmonics in music—I want the stories to resonate with one another, and maybe sequencing helps achieve this. I don’t know how one goes about this other than by readily instinct? And also seeking good feedback. My husband is a really valuable reader, and my editor, Nicola Mason, has great instincts, so their input helped.

One final question: What are you working on now?

More stories!  The short story is the form I love right now. It’s also the form that, with a fairly demanding job and two little kids, I can (just barely) make time for!

Interviewer Anastasia Stelse teaches at the University of South Florida. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from Verse DailyNarrativeLouisiana Literature, and Crab Orchard Review, among others.


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