Contributor Katie Cortese, author of “Back to Nature” and the book, Girl Power and Other Short-Short Stories, is this season’s featured author. Read below to learn more about her, her work, and her choice of sandwich.
Can you tell us a bit about where the story came from? Is it part of a larger series or theme, or did it arrive unexpectedly?
Sometimes I do know where a story comes from, but this one is a bit of a mystery to me. All I can say is that since moving to West Texas, my husband and I have had reason to drive through some landscapes that are pretty alien to my East Coast sensibilities. I grew up in Massachusetts and never thought I’d live anywhere I couldn’t see the ocean, but here I am in Lubbock, which Urban Dictionary defines as a place known “for its incredible lack of trees, water and hills.” The joke is that it’s so flat here you can watch your dog run away for three days, and the closest beach is five hours south. For all that, though, there’s a lot of beauty in the big sky and the red earth. It’s cotton harvesting season right now and the fields are chock full of fluff and giant tarp-covered modules of cotton waited to be ginned. The oil derricks and windmills and fences strung with barbed wire hold a lot of charge for me, as do the tiny towns we pass through on our way west—Maljamar, Tokio, Muleshoe, Earth, Sudan. “Back to Nature” was probably blowing around somewhere out there on the Caprock and got itself tangled up in my subconscious instead of the next writer’s, for better or worse.
As for its larger connections, right now it’s the opening story in a collection I’ve been working on for a couple of years called Love Each Other or Die Trying. All the stories have to do with love lost, found, unrequited, misunderstood, stolen, squandered, reclaimed, or otherwise besieged. It’s the last story of the collection that I wrote chronologically, though, and I didn’t know where it would fit with the others until I started playing around with the order last year.
What are some of the important things you’ve learned about fiction– about your fiction? Tell us about the best writing advice you’ve ever been given. Who have you been your most significant teachers?
I’m always passing on this piece of advice that I collected so long ago I can’t remember who originally said it (I want to say it was Julia Slavin or Lee K. Abbott or someone else that I met at the New York Summer Writers’ Institute, though): Never question your subject. I’ve spent way too much time worried about the whether the people, places, and events that appear most frequently in my fiction “count” as literature. I tend to write about young women and children in domestic settings. There’s a lot of buzz out there in the literary world about gender parity in publishing. More male authors have made it into the traditional canon than female authors, even when the majority of readers are female, and a few writers’ casual experiments with querying recently demonstrated that having a male name can snag an agent’s interest more often than the same project submitted under a female’s name. Put that together with the notion that men are often lauded for “breaking form” by writing about emotions and family while women writing about the same subjects are frequently shunted into the category of “chick lit,” and you can see how tempting it would be for me, or anyone, to doubt the merit in writing about and for women and girls. The thing is, of course, that writing only works when the writer is passionate about her subject, and if I wanted to write to please others I would have stuck with my editorial position at a commercial pool and spa magazine instead of going to grad school and setting my sights on publishing literary fiction. Toni Morrison famously said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I’m my own first reader and my first concern now is writing books I’d want to read. Of course, I still hope that some of the work makes its way into the hands of people who might be moved by what they read (to action, to anger, basically to feel something—anything) or might see themselves somewhere in the pages.
As for teachers and mentors, I’ve had too many amazing ones to list them all here, but I’m grateful to each of them for the fingerprints they left on my work, and on my life in general. I think literary journals can be wonderful teachers too, and I always try to subscribe to a couple every year, as well as work behind the scenes on one, both in the spirit of literary citizenship, and, selfishly, for the joy of finding voices that I can claim to have either discovered or amplified.
Whom do you read when you have a minute?
Margaret Atwood is my go-to. I fell in love with her at The Handmaid’s Tale, and deeper still with Cat’s Eye, and since then I’ve tried to read everything she’s written. Recently, I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s The Station Agent, Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, and Dylan Landis’s Normal People Don’t Live Like This. My to-read list keeps getting longer (people who know tell me this is one unfortunate side effect of having a baby, which is something I did back in July), but I can’t wait to get to new novels by Jennine Capó Crucet and Julianna Baggott and Mat Johnson and a poetry collection called Gog by my friend Brandi George. Until I can get back into a regular habit, though, I read things I can access on my phone while I’m feeding my son in the wee hours of the night—The Rumpus works well for this, as well as articles on the terrifying current political climate on NPR and in the New York Times. The latter isn’t the healthiest habit for my general well-being, though, so I’m looking forward to the upcoming break in the semesters when I can finally get into some good books.
The PR has a staff tradition of catered lunch (sandwiches, nothing elaborate) at our weekly staff meetings, so let me ask you–if you were joining us for lunch, what would you order?
The turkey cranberry sandwich from Paradise Bakery, or better yet, I’d doctor it up to a full Thanksgiving sandwich with the works—turkey, cranberry mayo, and stuffing. Paradise has this sweet dark bread, maybe it has molasses in it. I had a frequent customer card when I lived near one in Arizona. There are no locations within 300 miles of Lubbock, though, so for now my hypothetical order will have to suffice. Oh boy, that bread. I’d take it over dessert any day of the week.