Lori D’Angelo earned her MFA from WVU in 2009. Since then, her short fiction has appeared in Stone’s Throw Magazine, Forge, Drunken Boat, Hamilton Stone Review, Juked and elsewhere. She is a fellow at Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, a grant recipient from the Elizabeth George Foundation, and an alumna of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers Fiction Workshop. She lives in Virginia with her family.
Her story “What She Found There” appeared in Potomac Review issue #66 in spring 2020. Shortly thereafter, PR intern Molly McFadden spoke with D’Angelo about her creative process, the difference between architecture and gardening, and the surprising profundity of a West Virginia supermarket. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Molly McFadden: “What She Found There” revolves largely around Amy’s relationship with a man named Jason, who suffers from an illness that affects his memory. But his illness is never clearly stated. Why did you choose to keep it vague?
Lori D’Angelo: I chose not to make Jason’s illness stated because I felt like it would bog down the story. Sometimes, I, as a writer and former journalist, get so bogged down in getting certain non-essential details right that it ends up mucking up the story. I workshopped a different story as an MFA student. In that story, the protagonist, a young woman, has a pulmonary embolism, and it was suggested that maybe I should make that character’s illness less specific. I didn’t. But sometimes readers (and writers) can be distracted by things that don’t need to be distracting, and it can be easier to set a story in a vague or non-real setting or to make an illness vague.
MM: One of my favorite things about this story is its little bursts of detail. The ring, for instance—it appears in the opening scene, and briefly reappears throughout the story, almost functioning as a framing device. I’m curious to know how that opening scene developed, and why you decided to emphasize the ring as the story progressed.
LD: I actually really dislike long descriptive passages. Instead, I’d rather read and see short descriptions that pack a punch, so to speak. I had another writer I know read “What She Found There” in draft form, and in an earlier draft, that reader noted that it kind of seemed like Amy had stolen the ring. So I wanted to make it clear that Amy had not stolen the ring, and I wanted to make it clear that the ring was powerful or had the potential to take on power for Amy.
MM: Several years ago you published “My Own Private Wind” with r.kv.r.y quarterly. In an interview you described the story as the product of the “collision of various life forces”—a family move, the death of a cat, the movie Ghost (which happened to be playing on TV one night). Could you talk a little about the forces that tend to inspire you?
LD: I like to break rules. So if someone says, “There are too many vampire stories,” then my inclination is to try to write a vampire story. I did actually, but that particular piece hasn’t found a home. I really like TV, movies, pop culture, and animals. I think that anything can inspire a writer. I think that a lot of my work is influenced by the fact that I was raised Catholic. I think I want readers to see mystery (and/or magic) in everyday life. Also, if I’m in a rut as a writer, I find that sometimes it helps to read or write out of genre. If I feel like I’ve tapped the fiction well dry, then I might write some poems or nonfiction. I feel like I’m weakest as a non-fiction writer, though I do enjoy reading non-fiction. I particularly like the work of non-fiction writers like Brenda Miller and Jo Ann Beard. When it comes to poetry, there are actually a lot of writers whose work I admire, too many to name probably. But a few of my favorite poets are Dorianne Laux, José Oliverez, Claudia Rankine, and Sharon Olds. I have one story in which a character participates in a fake game show called “Steal or Call.” To participate in the show, you have to either call an ex-lover or steal a neighbor’s lawn ornament. In another story, I just wanted to write a story about a cyborg. So I did.
MM: How would you describe your writing habits? Do you follow a strict schedule, or do you just go with the flow?
LD: I mainly write when I feel inspired. The other night, I worked on a story while tucking my son in for bed. I ended up writing the story entirely in an email to myself. At other times, I have gotten an idea like in the middle of a conference, sat down, and wrote a story on a piece of paper and typed it up later when I could. For me at least, a very set writing routine can lead to very routine writing. Maybe there’s a way to break that pattern though?
MM: Do you have a particular routine for crafting a story, or does it depend on the piece?
LD: So I mainly just write. But I think that in order to do that, you need to read. As an undergrad, I went through a period where we were required to imitate the style of other great writers. In high school, we had to write an exercise free of common cliches. I think that writing exercises can be useful. Imitation can be useful. But, ideally, I feel like there comes a time when you internalize all that. I still like to read about craft, attend readings, and listen to authors talk about their work. I think there’s always more than one can learn.
MM: And when that idea for a story arrives, do you tend to get right to it, or do you prefer to let the idea gestate for a while?
LD: I feel like I try to write it quickly before the inspiration is lost. Sometimes, I will email an idea like a phrase or whatever to myself. But then I don’t always go back to those emails. In general, I feel like my writing usually goes better when I can get an idea down and run with it.
MM: George R. R. Martin once said that there are two types of writers: the architects, who meticulously plan their stories, and the gardeners, who favor a more spontaneous approach. Are you more of an architect or a gardener?
LD: I actually attended a writing panel at DragonCon where this was discussed. I went to the convention (it’s a sci-fi convention that is held each year in Atlanta, Georgia, over Labor Day weekend) because I’m a huge fan of the Netflix time travel show Travelers, and I wanted to meet the cast. But on Saturday, the convention was really crowded, and I kind of wanted to stay in the same area of one of the convention hotels. So I ended up attending a bunch of YA panels. And the panelists discussed whether they were planners or pantsers (fly by the seat of their pants) writers. Pretty much all of the writers said they were planners, that you need to be, to write a novel. I’m more of a gardener. Maybe that’s why I haven’t successfully written a novel?
MM: I was hoping we could talk about another of your stories: “I Met Death at the Patteson Drive Kroger” (readable online at Forge). It’s a wonderful story—funny, surreal, and ultimately quite moving. Could you tell us a little about its evolution?
LD: The idea for this story was a writing prompt that my MFA thesis adviser gave to his undergrads. I was in his class that day because I was advising several undergraduate writers on their senior thesis projects, and he gave his students a prompt that was something like: write a story about something magical happening in a real place. So I chose the Grim Reaper appearing at a very specific Kroger grocery store in Morgantown, WV. I started writing it that day during his undergrad creative writing class and finished it later. That story ended up being part of my MFA thesis.
MM: The story’s protagonist, Terri, is an aspiring writer, and she describes success as “a publication in a decent literary.” How would you define success for a writer? Do you consider yourself successful?
LD: In some ways I don’t really consider myself to be successful because I haven’t (yet) published a book. I went to a competitive school for my undergrad degree. And we were encouraged to have internships every summer. Then, we had to do a school-sponsored internship. So, at the age of 20, I was interning at a satellite office of The Miami Herald. That was stressful and intimidating to feel like we were constantly in competition with all our peers. I feel like the atmosphere at an MFA program can be like that too. I think that I still do hold myself to high standards. I was talking to someone that I have known for a long time, and he asked me my idea of success, and I was kind of like well, I want to write a New York Times Bestseller. He kind of laughed at me. But, I think that we, as writers, need to be careful to not confuse popularity with quality. A book can be a bestseller without being good, and a good book may fail commercially. About a year or so ago, I went to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia. Poe is one of our most important American fiction writers. Yet, he died young and broke. Unfortunately, that sometimes is the case for writers and artists in general.
MM: You’ve mentioned that “I Met Death” is one of the stories you’re most proud of. Are you always satisfied with your stories once they’ve been published, or are there pieces out there you’d like to revisit?
LD: I feel like writers evolve. I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to dwell on failure. As a younger writer, I sometimes didn’t edit my stories very well, and I’m not very proud of that. But it can be hard to revisit your own work once you are finished. The part of writing that I most enjoy is the drafting. The editing I don’t love as much. But it is necessary.
MM: I noticed that the protagonists in “What She Found There” and “I Met Death” are both 32. Is this a coincidence, or was it deliberate?
LD: That’s a coincidence. But I probably chose to make Terri 32 years old because I was thirty-two years old at the time I wrote that story. As for Amy, I wanted her to be between extreme youth and middle age. I wanted to leave open the possibility of a brighter future for her.
MM: On that note: as far as writing characters, is there a particular age range you’re most comfortable with?
LD: I don’t know. I probably don’t write many stories from the point of view of an older woman. But I’ve written stories from the point of view of both women and men. And I’ve written stories from many of the ages I have been. I noticed that Alice Munro started writing about older women as she got older. Maybe I will too?
MM: Returning to “What She Found There”, I’m curious to know how many drafts that piece went through before you submitted it.
LD: I don’t really count drafts. But I did do some editing on it. There were typos I missed, logical flaws that I didn’t notice, and things like that that had to be corrected. One of my personal experiences that I guess inspired that story was the fact that I was obsessed with reading Tom Clancy when I was in high school. Then, later, in college, I interned at a newspaper in the Rust Belt (I’m from Pennsylvania) that was in a town with a paper factory. Then, I kind of just wanted to write a story about a magical ring, and that’s what I did.
MM: Looking back on it, is there anything you’d change about the story?
LD: I don’t know. I mean, I wanted the story to be ambiguous. I wanted to leave it up to the reader to figure out the answer to the question: Is the ring magical or not? Hopefully, that question is open ended.
MM: You’re a former journalist. How do you think this affects your writing?
LD: One of the good things about being a journalist was that it allowed you to meet all different kinds of people. One of the bad things was that, when you’re a journalist, you spend so much time writing for someone else that it can be a challenge to find the time and emotional energy to write for yourself. I’ve had many jobs, and that allows me to draw on the experience of those jobs to make my writing more realistic.
MM: You also taught college writing for a number of years. I’ve heard it can be quite difficult to balance teaching and writing. Did you find that to be the case?
LD: So I’m not a teacher anymore, but I taught college writing for nine years, three as an MFA student and then six years after. I left teaching partly because I was an adjunct (like Terri), and the work was really unstable. Some semesters, I taught five classes. Some, I taught one. I needed to have a more reliable income. One thing I didn’t like about teaching (and at one point I was primarily teaching online) was that you never had a break. Now, I have a job where I go to work, and I come home. When I’m off work, I’m off work. I don’t have to grade papers or respond to emails. I did love getting to learn about my students and their lives and help them to become better writers. I did really enjoy that.
MM: What sort of advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
LD: Since I’m not teaching anymore, I don’t get asked that a lot. But, even when I was teaching, I don’t know that I got asked that a lot. When I lived in Morgantown, West Virginia, I drove down to Charleston, West Virginia, to hear Joyce Carol Oates read. And someone asked her a similar question. She basically said: No one writes who doesn’t read. There are times in my life when I have read less, like when my kids were infants. That was a hard time to get reading done. But now I’m finally reading again—mostly ebooks, which is good for me because I never was able to return library books on time, and I can’t afford to buy all the books I want to read. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of books about race and politics. But I’ve also read some Stephen King as well as The Discovery of Witches trilogy. One piece of advice that I remember when I attended the Community of Writers workshop in California was read everything you can get your hands on, good stuff, bad stuff—everything. Some old detective novels are great. And, as an MFA student, I was lucky to get to read the work of other writers who were doing really cool things that inspired me, writers like Aimee Bender and David Schickler. I really loved Schickler’s book, “Kissing in Manhattan.”
MM: How about just general life advice for those of us entering adulthood?
LD: Try not to get into too much debt.
MM: Apart from writing, what are you working on these days?
LD: Well, I’m working on reviewing French and Hebrew, which I had previously learned, and learning German and Spanish. It’s a kind of pandemic project, I guess. In 2021, I might try jewelry making. I set strange goals for myself. Like, as an MFA student, I got to do an independent study where we (me and two other students) read some pre-Austen British fiction. I ended up loving some of those novels. I feel like, as a writer, you never know what experiences are going to be important to you or will have the potential to shape your writing.
MM: I wouldn’t call “What She Found There” a happy story. Still, as you said, its ending suggests the possibility of a brighter future. And I’ve noticed that a lot of your work tends to end on notes of hope and recovery. Is that intentional? Or does it just sort of happen?
LD: I don’t think that most writers want to write a story as if it’s an after school special, but I do think that they have something that they want to say. I find myself returning to writing about characters who are down on their luck or are in or have been in unfulfilling relationships. A story usually needs to happen at a significant time in a character’s life, and, for my characters, that time is often when something happens to kind of destabilize their place in the world and maybe offer them a better one. I don’t know why that interests me, but it does. I also find myself using humor repeatedly in stories even in stories about very sad things.