Winter is a time for compression—shortened days, confinement indoors, a turning inward. But compression produces something nuclear-hot and energetic, and our February Web Exclusive, “The Hungry Valley, ” is a stellar example of this. Author Kathryn Scanlan helps us explore how this is achieved in writing.
“The Hungry Valley” also appears in our Winter issue .
Erin McReynolds: In addition to an MFA in writing, you have a BFA in painting, which isn’t surprising, given how visually rich “Hungry Valley” is. Where does painting continue to inform your sensibility and technique as a writer?
Kathryn Scanlan: In the habit of seeing and noticing: what my eye is drawn to; what I wish to reproduce; framing, selecting, and omitting. I write things that are of interest to me, and as soon as I lose interest, I stop—then find a new thread to pick up. As a reader and a writer, I like a lot of negative space in a story.
EM: So do you tend to write pretty lean right out of the gate, as opposed to jettisoning a lot while revising?
KS: Yes, usually. I actually tend to add when revising, to press on the restrained places, where another sentence might tease something out. I work really slowly, sentence by sentence, and I edit really slowly, too.
EM: Do you have any favorite stories/novels/authors in terms of setting? Or where the setting lingers perhaps more vividly in your memory than even plot or characters?
KS: Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping comes immediately to mind—also Terrence Malick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven, which has been an enormous formative influence on me visually and narratively.
EM: I bet! This story reminds me of Malick in how much emotion it evokes without dialogue. Your specifics have a lot to do with that; did you grow up around a place like this one?
KS: I did. Probably more than any other I’ve written, this story is very much based on a place where I spent a lot of time as a child and young adult.
EM: Is there a certain location or vibe that draws you when you set a story? When approaching a story, what element(s) come to you first?
KS: Physicality of place has always affected me very strongly and is one of the driving forces in making my work. And by place I mean every location the body ever finds itself in—a stranger’s house, a gas station bathroom, the dentist’s office—and what one picks up from the air there. But I think every story comes to me differently, and I wouldn’t say that I’m ever consciously “setting” a story. I keep several notebooks where scraps of conversation, turns of phrase, and images are taken down, then begin writing a story when a few of those things, assembled, begin to spark.
EM: You have a collection forthcoming, right? What would you say connects your works, thematically?
KS: Well, I was to have a chapbook collection out this previous fall by Caketrain Press—but shortly before that, it became necessary for the editors to put the press on indefinite hiatus. Bum luck! But I’ll have a full-length collection finished soon. At this point, I have a lot of very short works, some of which are more alike than others—but some connecting interests include objects, food, rooms, animals, and fables.
Kathryn Scanlan’s work has appeared in NOON, Fence, Caketrain, DIAGRAM, Two Serious Ladies, Pastelegram, and The Collagist, among other places. She has received fellowships from the Tin House Writer’s Workshop and the Vermont Studio Center, and her story “The Old Mill” was selected for the 2010 Iowa Review Fiction Prize.