Big Time, White Space, and Endings that Haunt: an Interview with Chauna Craig
The author of Wings and Other Things and The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms, Chauna Craig is a professor of English and director of the Cook Honors College at Indiana University of Pennsylvania whose fiction and non-fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, Fourth Genre, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, and more. Moving deftly between genres, her writing draws on a strong sense of place and people on the verge of hard-won change. Over coffee during Connections: Old Dominion University’s 46th Annual Literary Festival, where Craig was a featured author, she spoke with Kate Lewis from Barely South Review about the power of literature in the world, her upcoming work, the craft decisions that make writing resonate no matter the genre, and a research strategy she learned from Margaret Atwood. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Kate Lewis: You’ve spoken a bit about reading essays that don’t feel finished, and pushing students and writers toward interrogating every choice they’ve made on the page until they can articulate why those choices are essential. What gets a piece to finished, for you?
Chauna Craig: It’s a good question. I used to be the non-fiction editor for Atticus Review, so I’d get a lot of essays to read and consider for the magazine. There’s surface level continuity of story or idea of essay, and it often hasn’t dug to the next level. You have to be dissatisfied with your first impulses – and simultaneously trust them. That’s why we’re all so neurotic as writers. You have to have faith that what you’re putting on the paper will go somewhere.
Once I feel like the draft is finished – that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end – I often have a short period where I’m very satisfied, because it feels really good [to be done with a draft].
Then, I love to edit. I just love compressing and cutting. It’s exciting. I start to think, okay, I just made this statement. There’s something really interesting in there. Is there something in my life that contradicts that statement? What is complex about that statement? People frequently point to the fact that essay truly means ‘an attempt.’ You’re always trying to grab a piece of something you believe to be true, at least in the moment that you’re writing it. We are all complex human beings and we want to reach people in complex ways. I interrogate: Why did I say that about myself? Are there people that would say something differently, and if they would, why? Whether that makes it into the next revision or not, it makes me think: what else can this piece be and where else can it go? If I can boil this down to this essay is about x, there’s probably something missing.
At some point, you let go. You let it go to other people, whether it’s your writing group or an editor. Editors get so much stuff that they usually want something to be really finished, but they will recognize when something is close and that with their editorial work, [it can be made] better. I love being on both sides of that process.
Nothing is ever done for us. That’s why we’re writers. It’s still lingering in our head. Getting it on the page does something, but the idea that you should finish something related to your life that has been unfinished all this time might be a big task to ask yourself to do. Sometimes it’s just problematizing; not coming to conclusions, but recognizing that the process is valuable, regardless of whether you can have an answer.
So, I keep looking at it, and I keep looking at it. When all I’m doing is moving pieces and then moving pieces back, and I haven’t found a new angle, it’s time to let it go.
Your stories often have a haunting quality; they end in a way that lingers, sometimes in uncertainty. I loved that sense of openness. What makes that resonate?
James Galvin has a quote: Real events don’t have endings / only the stories about them do. If it’s an effective story, the reader should be able to imagine lives for those characters beyond [the end]. We know that happily ever after is a fairy tale. I’m interested in people who have already made some recognition within the story, and maybe aren’t ready to make the change or aren’t able to resolve in the moment what’s happening, but they have the tools to do so. Where does that movement in that person’s life end plot-wise, and where does it end emotional-wise? Sometimes those aren’t always the same place.
One story that does exactly what you’re talking about is in my new collection [Wings and Other Things], “The Sweet and The Heat.” It ends with a knock on the door and the main character is going to answer: The trick, Elise thought, was to open that door like she wanted whatever was coming.
There’s all these possibilities of who could be at that door. You don’t know who’s on the other side. Sometimes that can become gimmicky but in this case, she’s considering the way she can open the door. She’s come to the recognition that she has choices she didn’t have before, so it doesn’t really matter who’s on the other side. What matters is she knows she can decide to answer it or not. The plot doesn’t have to wrap up with: does she find her stepdaughter? Does the neighbor move? What matters is she has recognized she has agency, so I can leave it lingering. The ending is her recognizing her own power. What she does with that, we don’t know.
You’ve spoken before about the importance of intuitive leaps in literary work. Why does that craft aspect feel impactful to you as a writer and reader?
I love white space. I love what happens between scenes, between paragraphs. The whole point of doing a jump cut in a scene is leaving a gap. Students always want things to be explained, and I point out to them music videos and films use those kinds of cuts all the time, and your brain puts this together. Why can you not do this on the page? I really like getting them to think about what you can cut out that you don’t need to tell.
I knew a poetry teacher who said she couldn’t write fiction, because it drove her crazy: You have to get the person to walk to the door, and then they have to do this. I just feel like it’s so redundant and mundane.
Why do you have to do that? Someone calls a taxi and in the next scene, they can be in the taxi. People have this very chronological idea of fiction that everything has to be laid out for them. That’s not how our brains work. It’s interesting that new readers and new writers have to go to that, this, then this, then this, then this, then this. I’m really interested in structures where you start here, and then you’re here, and then you come back to this somehow. Your brain likes little puzzles, likes to fill in those gaps, likes to imagine what happens after the end.
What I love about literary fiction is it requires a different kind of work than my beach reads. I love things that I read two pages and I have to stop and think wow. I find that exciting.
You’ve talked about the lyric essay before, how that’s another example of that white space and asking the reader to make connections instead of putting it on the page for them.
In Jenny Boully’s The Body, most of it is white space with footnotes. It blows my mind. It’s so smart. She doesn’t put in any more than she needs to put in for you to close that circle and get something from it. I like being challenged when I read. I’m not a poet, but I love using poetic techniques like white space in prose. I love the rhythm of language and the sentence has its own rhythm. Sometimes I edit just for sound and have a run through just of reading aloud. You feel that.
You wrote The Open Door in 2019 prior to Roe vs. Wade’s overturning, and reading it in the aftermath of that decision feels prophetic. How does literature help us meet the political moments we face?
Ray Bradbury was writing about colonizing Mars before anyone even walked on the moon. You have to be able to imagine something to make it come into being, and you have to be able to imagine something in order to fight something coming into being as well.
The rhetoric of oh, we could turn over Roe v. Wade, it’s under threat had been the rhetoric my whole life. I was born just a couple of years before Roe v. Wade. Justices wanting to get on the court told us that was settled law. I had become, and I think most of us had become, numb to the rhetoric of oh, they could overturn it. I didn’t really believe it.
There had been some lower court case in Texas that prompted Jellyfish Review to start publishing some pro-choice stories. I had the story drafted, which was similar to the one that ended up there, but it was zombies outside. I started with the idea of zombies. When that call came out, I was like, what if it was the potential child that could come knocking on the door? What if there was some technology that allowed that? I finished that story pretty rapidly, and it was accepted pretty rapidly.
Speculative fiction is a really hot genre, because especially with climate change, people can spin and spin things out and give us a glimpse – and frighteningly, maybe an accurate glimpse – into what does happen. In Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins imagines a West that has no water left, and then water becomes like gold. This novel makes you live what a character is living under those circumstances, and maybe opens up this emotional acceptance of that potential reality that when you feel you’re being lectured about recycling or you’re being lectured about wasting water, maybe you’d react against.
I remember going to a lecture by Margaret Atwood after Oryx and Crake came out, and she described her process. It was really stunning. She kept clippings – old-fashioned clippings of newspapers, and science magazine articles, and things like oh, they spliced genes and made a glowing rabbit out of jellyfish genes. Oh, they’ve done this.
She said: I would imagine, what’s the next step that could happen with this?
I was stunned because I could see in everything she’d written in that book, which seems so collectively far-fetched, was Oh, I can identify, you know, we have Botox. We have this. What if everyone did take a pill to feel young and it had something in it? Not impossible. It was scary because it was more real. It was close to reality.
I’d love to talk with you about flash (which I’m obsessed with). What makes works of such a short length so compelling? What draws you to make a short story even shorter, rather than drawing it out?
From a really practical point of view, I can complete a draft in flash in a short period of time. I was raising two little boys on my own for quite a while. They’re 18 months apart. They were toddlers when I left their dad. I was determined I was still going to be a writer, but I could not get my head wrapped around a big project, let alone have the time to work on it. Flash allowed me to feel like I was still a writer.
What I love about it is it’s an interesting and fun challenge to figure out how much of a life you can cram into 350 words, or 500 words, or 1000. How much of a life and how much of a significant moment can take place? There’s a challenge in that. There’s an ability to write really lyrically with that.
There’s such a variety of types of flash. Limits always force us into creativity. If you give an exercise to students, if you tell them to just bring a story the next day, you’re not going to get as good of stuff as if you say: bring a story that has a toothbrush, a box, and a ticking clock. They go, that’s impossible, then something in their brain says, I have to make this work.
Somebody was telling me ten years ago that flash was dead – that it was a trend. I don’t think so! It really has fanned out and continues. There’s a growing community of flash writers and flash festivals and magazines dedicated to the genre.
What are your latest obsessions? What are you working on next?
I’m working on a non-fiction project. I am from Montana. My family has a small cabin in the middle of Montana and I go there every year; I have a book that’s tentatively subtitled Meditations from the Middle of Montana. I’ve been trying to structure it with the idea of community in mind, and the idea that we go away to the wilderness to get away from community, but what are we in communion with?
I’m interested in large time. When you’re somewhere where the limestone cliffs were shaped by a sea that was there and you can touch those things, you’re making a connection to Big Time. There are pre-historic peoples’ handprints in some of the caves. I start with that, but then there’s the current community of people, many of whom are super wealthy. It’s this notion that there is nowhere to escape to per se. It’s re-imagining your connections to place and to people, and my own recognizing that I needed people. I think I was escaping, and I wasn’t. I couldn’t.
The land there is beautiful and amazing, and my history with my grandparents is there. It was also me coming to terms with: what does it mean to own something when you don’t own anything really? None of us does for longer than our lifetime, right?
It’s the way everything’s interconnected and to try and find my own self in that. It’s very personal. And also trying to connect to larger issues about place and wilderness. The idea of ownership and rights around ownership is so interesting to me. Who really owns this canyon? Who gets to own something that is bigger than any one of us? I’m trying to play with those questions in complicated ways.
I love the language in creative non-fiction of hedging, and questioning, and it being okay on the page to just trust your memory. All you have is memory until you start attaching documentary evidence. I have this great letter that the cabin association owner wrote to everybody in June of ‘68 reminding them of all the rules of living in the canyon. I found [this] in the cabin, and I have other things, but ultimately, it still comes down to a subjective human with flawed memory or preferential memory trying to put it together and make sense of it.
You have to be an entirely confident person to write like that. At the same time, you have to be completely distrustful of your motives in order to be a good writer. It’s this crazy paradox of writing. Having to claim that your experience and knowledge and experiences are valid, while at the same time being willing to show what you don’t know – that takes a certain maturity.