Wendy Rawlings is the Director of the M.F.A. Program at the University of Alabama and a writer of novels, short stories, and essays. Time for Bed is Rawlings’s most recent collection of stories that gives voice to resilient characters seeking authenticity and belonging. Rawlings has received numerous fellowships from artist colonies, including The MacDowell Colony, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. Her work won the Sandstone Prize for Short Fiction from The Ohio State University Press and the Michigan Literary Award. Rawlings has graduate degrees from Colorado State University and the University of Utah. Presently she is sheltering-in-place with her poet husband in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
Shannon Brady: We were slated to chat before the pandemic hit and got sidelined. Given the intense past few months, how are you doing?
Wendy Rawlings: I have a powerful ability to imagine the worst. When I was young my Dad asked me to imagine the worst, I think to lessen my fears, but it created the opposite effect. I could imagine the worst in great detail and usually did.
SB: As a writer, you seem to use that ability to explore tough places. I’m thinking of the first story in your collection, “Coffins for Kids!” where a mother whose daughter was killed in a school shooting begins a road trip searching for a specialized coffin and ends up at the NRA headquarters.
WR: As a fiction writer I’m not terribly good at plot, so I am drawn to impulse in characters to jump-start stories. I was teaching an undergraduate course on comedy and the students were struggling with the question of taboo, which is where most comedy comes from. We watched Chris Rock, whose comedy often addresses taboo topics, and then did an exercise in which we wrote and passed around papers with titles that seemed inappropriate but funny. When I wrote “Coffins for Kids!” my students told me the exclamation point was over the top. I took it as a challenge.
SB: That story definitely had an impact and touched on the social problem of gun control. Particularly given our current climate of systemic racism and protests, what is your opinion about, or what do you suggest to your students, regarding writing about social movements?
WR: Some writers really crank it out, like Joyce Carol Oates. I don’t work that way. I only write when something seems really important to me. Every writer has certain themes or subjects that obsess them, but they often don’t know what those are when they’re young. Their job is to discover their turf and push to the edge of comfort. My mother came out when she was 50. We had no inkling she was gay. She seemed interested in men and men seemed interested in her. It made me rethink gender, my own sexuality, and my childhood. I’ve continued to explore this topic in my writing for many years.
SB: I connected with that story having had a family member come out later in life. What I found interesting in your story, and from what I experienced, is how much learning and growth comes when we’re pushed to grow and expand our understanding by someone we care about. It makes the political personal.
WR: Sometimes I’ve wondered if it has become dated, if we’ve moved beyond that point and onto new issues: trans identity, bisexuality, nonbinary identities. Then I was giving a reading and some people were uncomfortable with that story and walked out. I was told they were Christians who opposed homosexuality, so I figured maybe not yet.
SB: It probably depends on location and what people have experienced in their lives, but it read as authentic grappling to me. Hopefully we will eventually get to a point where love stories don’t need to fit into neat boxes, but would they be as interesting then? This reminds me of your story about the overweight white woman switching bodies with a Kenyan distance runner in “BodSwap™ with Moses.” That was such a unique take, something I had never read a story about before.
WR: I was thinking about late-stage capitalism and a privileged white first-world character who wanted to lose weight switching bodies with a runner who, although he was good, he wasn’t number one so didn’t win the race and get the big payout. So I imagined him having to do something exploitative with his body in order to survive.
SB: The end of that story had a fascinating twist too, as far as how what the characters initially wanted morphed as their desires and impulses intermingled. There is no way they could have known the surprising aspects they liked about the change and that there could be hesitation to return to their own bodies. The idea of characters wanting something somewhat forbidden, even without fully realizing it, resurfaces in other stories too.
WR: I think you’re right on the money there, though I didn’t realize as I was writing the stories that so many of the characters want something forbidden without realizing it. As I think about it now, I suspect that theme for me might be related to reaching middle age. For me, so much of my life before now was about trying out things to see how they felt, whether that was in dating different people, moving to an unfamiliar city, working at a new job, or even trying new things like training to run a half marathon. I’ve now been married to the same person for nearly two decades, have worked at the same job for that long, have lived in the same small city for that long—even though I’m more settled and comfortable, I miss that novelty and danger, forbidden or otherwise.
SB: Reading your collection, I often felt myself among complex and messy characters. Their needs and identities don’t fit neatly into common social packaging. That is one of the aspects I enjoyed most about your work and what made it feel authentic. As a writer who doesn’t shy away from difficult emotions, and given our current situation with the pandemic and protest movement, where are you with writing? Are there suggestions you are giving to your students about writing now?
WR: This may be a situation like 9/11, where work needs to clearly be set before, during, or after these events. Unless people are too traumatized, it can be helpful to write into our situation, to capture the immediacy. I find myself journaling to catch the first feelings—staying away from everyone, first time out, responses to racism and backlash. It helps to lean into it, if it’s the only thing that comes out. There is always going to be change. The shape of our perceptions will shift and we will forget how we felt in the midst of it.
SB: Your work has an air of remembering and of giving voice to characters and situations not always lauded, such as the affairs with a stepsibling, a married man, a student. Also there’s the functioning alcoholic who goes out and tries to connect with her niece while drunk. In addition to stories, you have also written novels and essays. This collection reads as lovingly crafted, like they were destined to be stories. Do you have a preferred form?
WR: I have a kind of perfectionism on the sentence level that doesn’t mesh well with long form. I have loved writing stories but am now turning to personal essays. I’m at a place where I have lived and observed for a while and feel better able to write essays than I did when I was a younger woman. One essay is about an experience as an abortion clinic escort here in Alabama.
SB: I read that essay! I loved the juxtaposition of characters and motives. It was also frightening considering how easily the tide can change. Do you write essays as collections similar to your short stories?
WR: I have been working on a collection titled Crying in Public, which is about public mourning, based on events such as 9/11 and Princess Diana’s death. I just wrote a coda for the manuscript about the pandemic and the ways we are mourning in isolation, in private. The pandemic has resulted in grieving alone for those ill with Covid and isolated from friends and family during their final hours.
SB: That coda sounds like a powerful closing to an interesting series. I want to read it when it’s published! As a skilled writer and teacher, how do you know when a story, essay, or collection is finished? Are there any tips you have to share with Adroit readers?
WR: I think there’s a moment when language and structure and emotion come together in a way that feels fortuitous and effective. It’s hard to articulate the exact moment or an exact place or feature in the text where that happens, but I think it’s useful in one’s own reading to pay attention to those “a-ha” moments when something crystallizes for us and to see if we can identify what it is about the piece of writing that gives us that a-ha feeling. I know that sounds hazy, but I do think it’s a skill we can develop over time, the way actors can tell if their choices when they act in a scene are working.
SB: Thank you so much for sharing your insights and process! What are ways readers can stay in touch with your work?
WR: I have a writer page on Facebook. I’m on Twitter @wendymairaw. My page at UA: https://english.ua.edu/people/wendy-rawlings/