Interview with Myfanwy Collins

Myfanwy Collins is the author of the new novel Echolocation (Engine Books, March 2012) and her short stories have been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, and Potomac Review, and others. A collection of her short fiction is forthcoming from PANK Little Books in August 2012. Myfanwy lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son.

I love the title of your novel, Echolocation, evoking a bat or dolphin’s sensory experience of identifying the relative positions of other objects and beings in the world. I thought it beautifully captures the way your characters felt their way through the novel – on instinct, and sometimes without clear vision. What was your inspiration for the novel and the title – did the concept of echolocation spark the idea for the novel? Did the story give rise to the title?

Thank you. The title came as the novel was coming together. At first it was specific to one of the characters (who has since been cut from the book), but over time, the metaphor became universal to all of the characters and from there came the title.

As for the inspiration, that came from [characters] Cheri and Geneva. When I began, the first two chapters were actually one short story. I wrote the story for the Tin House writers workshop that I attended in 2006. My workshop leader was the inspiring and generous writer and teacher, Dorothy Allison. She kept my story for the last story of the last day. I thought maybe this meant she was ambivalent about it. I was wrong. She praised it highly and told me I should keep going with these characters. She suggested I write a novel using them.

I went home and a couple of months later got to work on the novel and never looked back.

Your characters in Echolocation are flawed and damaged people, souls that have lost their way, and the plot itself takes some rather dark turns. Such characters and stories don’t appeal to everyone, but some of us love them – what do you think draws some readers to them, and others not? What draws you to write them?

Great question. I can only speak for myself as a reader. What draws me to such characters and stories in what I read is, yes, that they are dark and unlikable, but also that they are real to me. I can relate to them. My life story has sometimes been dark. I can certainly be and have been unlikable at times. I can also be forgiving and optimistic. So what I am drawn to is the complexity that makes us human. I’m guessing, then, that the readers who appreciate such stories and characters are like me in knowing and acknowledging the dark places within their lives and within their hearts.

As a writer, I tend to write from the perspective that life is complex and not always sunny. I write from the perspective that we have dark moments where there is an opportunity for light. Some of us are broken but pull ourselves up and some of us are broken and lost forever.

My writing road has been long and bumpy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It runs parallel to the road of my life.

I noticed in your credits you have written both fiction and non-fiction – what has your “writer’s road” been like? When did you first know you were a writer?

I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was a child. As a teenager I wrote stories, but I didn’t really believe that writing creatively was a possibility for me until I was an undergraduate and met the woman who would be my first writing mentor. I approached her about writing an senior honors project and she asked me, “Have you ever thought of writing a novel?” I had thought of it but had never dared say it out loud. That day, though, I said yes. As such, we spent my senior year working on my first (unpublished) novel. We met once a week, when I would turn in the ten pages I’d written since I last saw her and she would go over her feedback from the previous week’s pages. One of the many valuable things I learned from her was how to give and receive feedback. It need not be a battle. It’s all about opening yourself up to taking it or leaving it.

After I finished writing the novel, she helped me get an agent, who then started shopping it. I don’t remember what most of the feedback was other than one editor calling it, “relentlessly depressing” (which still cracks me up). By that time, I was in grad school, studying literature. I still intended to write but MFA programs were few and far between back then and I wanted to further my grounding in literature. Long story short, I finished all of my grad school coursework but never my thesis (I’ll get back to this later), and then spent the next several years having several crazy, interesting, and low-paying jobs. I kept up working at writing on the side, doing freelance projects (hence some of the non-fiction credits), and I was writing in my journal and pecking away at stories.

It wasn’t until my mother died 11 years ago that I took back to creative writing with full commitment, as I always hoped I would. I wrote one horrendously bad (unpublished, thank god) novel and then focused back on short stories for a while. I joined Zoetrope Virtual Studio and met some terrific writers, many of whom are my friends to this day. There I learned about flash fiction and ezines and the world sort of opened up. I saw possibilities where before there had been boundaries.

Over time, I started going to physical workshops over the summer–I went to Squaw Valley, twice and Tin House, once–and received some wonderful encouragement. While I was working on my third (unpublished) novel, I pulled together a story collection. With that story collection, I was able to sign with my agent. When I turned in my third novel manuscript, she provided feedback and I revised. I could definitely tell the difference between this third novel and the first two. I felt that I had grown.

Then I wrote Echolocation, which is my fourth novel. As Penn, my agent, was shopping it. I started work on my fifth novel, which is waiting to be revised right now.

My writing road has been long and bumpy, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It runs parallel to the road of my life.

In addition to your novel, a forthcoming short story collection, and many other writerly endeavors, you have also been busy finishing a thesis – congratulations! Based on a certain Facebook post I can’t quote here on LitStack, my interest is piqued – can you tell us a little about your thesis topic and why you chose it? How has your MFA (if am I correct?) experience overall affected or changed you as a writer?

Thank you! Well, I am actually finishing up my MA in English Literature and not an MFA, though I do have hopes of doing an MFA or, preferably, a PhD in creative writing, at some point. I’ve gone back to the school I left 20 years ago and am now at the tail end (I hope!) of my thesis. I’m finishing up a revision which is due by the end of next week and then my thesis defense is on March 19th.

My thesis topic is flash fiction. Though it seems to have sprung from nowhere, the form has been developing from other narrative fictions such as the novel, short story, and from other forms, like lyric poetry, for many years. As such, flash fiction writers use tools that cleave them to what has come before them—such as archetypal characters—but take a step away from what is typically known in narrative fiction by often leaving readers in ambiguity. Indeed, flash fiction readers are often those readers who are comfortable with such ambiguity because of their understanding of other forms such as drama and poetry. Thus, flash fiction is a part of the larger system, growing alongside that which has come before, and yet surprising readers in ways previously unexpected.

It’s a fun topic because there is not much scholarly work on it. So I’m blazing some new-ish ground.

Please tell us a little bit about your  forthcoming short fiction collection I AM HOLDING YOUR HAND (PANK Little Books, August 2012).

I have admired PANK for a long time and when I saw that they were accepting submissions for their little books this past summer, I submitted not one, but two manuscripts. The first was a flash fiction chapbook and the second a collection of short stories. I hoped that they might like one or the other. Imagine my surprise when they liked both of them. Total shock and delight. Instead of having two separate books, we decided to combine them as one book of fiction. I turned in a manuscript to them in January. I am so excited about it.

It’s funny because I feel like the brain which writes my short fiction is a different brain than the one that writes my novels. I use more humor in the short fiction. I’m still pretty dark, though. And my characters do tend to be flawed. Scratch that. Same brain after all.

Myfanwy, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and for the opportunity to read Echolocation!

Thank you for the opportunity. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m so happy that you liked Echolocation.

You can learn more about Myfanwy at her author site, www.myfanwycollins.com.

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