Marian Crotty’s first book, What Counts as Love, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals such as the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Alaska Quarterly Review. Her personal essays have appeared in journals such as the Gettysburg Review, the New England Review, and Guernica. She is an assistant professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland and an assistant editor at The Common. Marian Crotty has most recently appeared in the Potomac Review issue #61 for her short story “What Counts as Love,” the title story of her first book.
The following in-person interview was done April 2017 by Potomac Review Intern Jack Stutz. The interview was recorded with the author’s permission.
JS: First I would like to talk about your story from Potomac Review, “A New Life.” The death of a child is an extremely traumatic experience for anyone to go through. I would think that writing about the lives of the parents, especially the mother, after a child’s death is a daunting task. But you wrote it and it was amazing. What inspired you to write this story and was it as emotional an experience as I am imagining it to have been?
MC: It was kind of emotional to write it. This is one of the harder stories that I’ve written and it took me a long time to get it right. I was working on it for a couple of years off and on, and usually at that point the story dies. I started writing it because I was living in the UAE and I met someone who had lost a child. The circumstances were different in that the child was older, like a toddler, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Not just that it was an awful experience, but what it would be like to have that experience when you’re in a foreign country and in particular when you’re in a place where so much of life is centered on the family.
JS: I love where Rebecca is starting to understand Nathan towards the end of the story. Two sentences in particular stood out to me. “She had thought Nathan hid his emotions because he was brave or stingy or else because he simply did not care. It had not occurred to her that he might feel as much as she did but had no tools to navigate the weight of what he felt.” I felt you had a keen understanding of the male point of view. I find it difficult in my own writing to understand the female point of view, so how did you come to understand the male perspective so nicely?
MC: I find it really difficult to write in the opposite gender too. I think because I don’t really understand men, they are really a mystery to me which is always a good subject to write about. So, this collection that’s coming out, there’s nine stories in it and all but one are written from the perspective of women. I think I go about it the same way I try to understand anybody: I listen to people talking, listen to my friends. I think that gender in a Muslim country is different, so that’s why I wanted to put that scene in there. The couple in the story wasn’t very conscious of gender until they were placed in a society that revolves around gender and gender roles.
JS: I would like to ask about your process. When an idea for a story pops into your head, what do you do first? Do you immediately start jotting down notes or run to your computer and begin writing? Or do you just let the idea stew for a while before beginning?
MC: I think that, and this is kind of a cliché, but every story is different. I think it does depend on the story. Some people get story ideas fully formed, but for me I’m usually interested in a person or situation and that is what will spark the story idea. Then other times, I’m interested in something technical that I can do like wouldn’t it be cool to write a story that takes place in this form or what if I gave myself a challenge. Those stories tend to work differently. In terms of prewriting, the only thing I try to do is figure out the character and the place. I have to work my way through the story instead of the whole story just coming to me.
JS: How do you feel about writing from different points of view? Two of your stories that I read were written in third person, but “After Bad News” is written in second person. Do you experiment with all types of POV or do you stick to a specific one and occasionally branch out to something else?
MC: I want to try out new things and be able to have different tools. I don’t ever want to have just one muscle that’s developed. So, I think there’s the question of how is this particular story going to work best and I think some of them naturally come in one point of view versus the other. The second person you are talking about is an essay and I’ve only written second person essays because those were the best way I found I could write them. I think I find third person harder and most of the third person stories I’ve started, at least initially, I was like, I need to figure out how to write in third person.
JS: When it comes to revision, what do you do? Here at the college, I workshop in my classes and have other readers besides. Do you go out to workshops or have readers you send work to? And if you do have readers, are they colleagues? Friends? Strangers? A combination of the above?
MC: I like the idea that you could get total strangers to read your work for you.
JS: Yeah, that would be really entertaining.
MC: It depends, but I do have readers. Right now, I have two people that read most of what I write. I try to spread it out, give one of them one story and the other a different story. And then it depends on the story how many drafts it takes to be completed. Every fifth story or so, I’ll look at it and think wow that’s mostly done and only needs a few edits, but then I have stories that need major revisions that take a few drafts to crank out. And then there are the stories that I just cannot figure out and that is when I will use multiple people to try and help me through the story. I almost always send my work to at least one person before I would try submitting it anywhere.
JS: Three of the stories that I’ve read, “A New Life,” “A Real Marriage,” and “After Bad News,” all center on a leading lady going through a harsh or strange ordeal. What I find interesting is that at the end of each story, the protagonist hasn’t solved her problems, only come to some conclusion about herself or those around her. Would you say that the point to these stories isn’t solving the problem at hand, but coming to an epiphany of sorts about yourself?
MC: It would be nice to have one of my characters solve her problems and get what she wants, that would be good. I think for me, the reason that I’m interested in reading and writing stories is to make sense of something. So, I think that is a way of solving a problem. For me, if there’s something that I have strong negative emotions about, once I put a frame on it and understand it, then I can put it on a shelf and I may not have fixed the problem, but if I understand it then I feel okay. I think that some of my characters come to that conclusion, or at least something shifts for them.
JS: As a follow-up, what would you tell beginning writers about trying to solve their characters’ problems?
MC: I think that something has to change and your reader has to keep reading. I think that however you accomplish those goals is up to you. I don’t think it matters if you’ve solved the problem so long as you think the world has changed. I don’t think it should be so much as you have a problem and are solving it, but as a series of events has begun and you have to respond.
JS: I want to talk about “A Real Marriage” for a second. By the end of the story, Abigail seemed to have realized, at least from my interpretation, that she was slowly turning into her mother, particularly when it comes to drinking. Where did this come from? I know many people say that we all turn out like our parents, so are you drawing from that or something else?
MC: That was one of those things that sort of bubbled up in the story. A lot of it’s not that conscious for me. I think there are certain things, in the revisions especially, that I’m conscious of thematically. Like with the new life story, there was a lot of gender stuff I was conscious of doing in revision. With this, I was conscious that she had two definitions of family and she couldn’t find something in the middle. I wouldn’t say that the drinking and turning into her mother was a conscious decision, but just something that happened to appear in the story.
JS: I have one more question for you. What advice would you give to new writers, specifically those interested in school and looking towards graduate programs?
MC: I would say read as much as you possible can. Find somebody who’s a peer, and who’s writing you admire, and become literary friends. Establish those relationships so you can support each other through the writing process. Read the old stuff, read the new stuff, read everything. I think with graduate school, there’s a lot of options, and I think the standard advice is to try to wait for graduate school. Go get some life experience, and some savings. I found that graduate school seemed to work better for those who were used to a 9 to 5 and had seen something other than college. I think that if you take two years and read 100, 200 books and are writing every day, there is no way that your writing will not get better.