A CONVERSATION WITH DINAH COX
BY KATIE YOUNG FOSTER
Dinah Cox’s debut short fiction collection, Remarkable (BOA Editions, 2016), won the BOA Short Fiction Prize. Her stories appear widely and have won prizes from The Atlantic Monthly, The Texas Observer, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. She teaches in the English Department at Oklahoma State University, where she also is an editor at Cimarron Review.
To begin, what books and stories have perhaps most influentially formed you as a writer and made Remarkable possible? What are you reading at the moment?
DC: I am indebted to a great number of writers, but two I’d like to mention here are Sherwood Anderson and Joan Silber, both extraordinary in their ability to portray what’s simultaneously sad and funny about human behavior. Most everyone has read Winesburg, Ohio, but the Anderson collection I like best is The Egg. Everyone should read it. I’ve read all of Joan Silber’s work, but the stories in her 2000 collection, In My Other Life helped me see my way through some of my post-graduate school self-inflicted stagnation. At the moment, I’m mostly reading every last piece of political news I can get my hands on, but I just finished my colleague Aimee Parkison’s new collection, Refrigerated Music for a Gleaming Woman and Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton.
I’m from a small town in the rural Midwest, and I saw myself or someone from my childhood on almost every page of Remarkable. At the same time, each character felt entirely new and nuanced, and unsettling, like no one I’ve ever encountered. What’s your secret to writing such great characters?
DC: I’m especially pleased you found some of the characters unsettling because I’ve always wanted to write about people who might leap from the pages of a book and spill your glass of water or knock over your potted plant—maybe they will clean up their messes later on, but not before they’ve made you sorry you invited them over. I’ve read about other writers who imagine themselves observing their own characters—watching what they do until the story is over—and I’ve always tried to do that, to listen to what Weirdo #1 wants in relation to Weirdo #2 rather than to whatever I might want for them, because if I imposed my own wishes on these people they’d all end up somewhere else, perhaps in an insurance office in a faraway state or maybe a minimum security prison, as long as they leave me alone. But there’s no secret to writing good characters other than reading a lot, observing people and allowing yourself the time and space to think about them in new ways, and embracing all the odd traffic inside the landscape of someone else’s inner life.
Much of Remarkable is set in Oklahoma. The protagonists of your stories express a mixture of emotions about the land—feeling trapped, bored, happily settled. You live and work in Oklahoma. What would you say is your relationship with the state, and how do you think is changed (or didn’t) over the course of writing the collection?
DC: My relationship with Oklahoma is sometimes a difficult one, especially since I never imagined I’d do what I’ve ended up doing–spending most of my adult life here. Oklahoma is a beautiful, haunted place, and I’d like to continue to wrestle with ability or inability to write accurately about its natural beauty and range of plants and animals, but right-wing politics and religion can make it hard to live here without feeling isolated and even—at times—threatened. Saying those things aloud doesn’t put me in good stead with those who would like to promote the state as a place worth living or even visiting, so I’ve long felt my willingness to claim Oklahoma does not translate into Oklahoma wanting to claim me. Perhaps my relationship with the state has changed insofar as I’m no longer inclined to romanticize aspects of the culture here, but it seems to me I’ll likely have no choice but to continue writing about it for the rest of my days.
There are three stories in Remarkable arranged as vignette triptychs—“Three Small Town Stories,” “Three Sad Stories,” and “Three Stories of Prosperity.” It’s a very beautiful way of storytelling. What led you to write in vignette triptychs, and is it something you do often?
DC: For a long time I resisted writing in “the short forms” because I thought they were somehow lazy, made for online consumption and not for print, a reflection of our collective inability to pay close attention to anything longer than a tweet. But the ubiquity of shorter forms forced me to pay attention to them as a worthwhile art form, and I continue to admire the possibilities for heightened energy and intensity in flash fiction. I conceived of the triptychs of separate stories huddled under the same umbrella, only the reader, in my mind, was not supposed to know it was raining until something like a Mack truck came barreling by them and splashed them in the face. I find myself returning to the triptych as a means of attempting to lend additional complexity to the stand-alone very short piece; I like the idea that three, seemingly unrelated scenes or stories can stitch themselves into a whole.
I absolutely loved the second vignette in “Three Small Town Stories,” in which Melissa and Shane take a hay-less hayride and drive slowly past the Subway sandwich shop, the liquor store, a church. That’s my own small town writ large! Do you have a favorite story or moment in the collection? If so, what makes it your favorite?
DC: I’m really pleased you liked the second vignette in “Three Small Town Stories,” the triptych that opens the collection. The first vignette in that same triptych—really the collection’s opening sentence—contains an anecdote about a robber holding up a Kentucky Fried Chicken, but asking for chicken rather than money. That “crime” actually transpired here in Stillwater, Oklahoma some time in the early 2000s, and, at the time, I thought it was hilarious but also emblematic of the desperation and absurdity here. I told that story to everyone long before I wrote about it, and it became one of my stock answers to the question, “what’s it really like here?” I always wanted to write about it, too, but never did until one day when I couldn’t think of anything else. That it became the opening story in my first book is something I consider a vague success, the one chance I’ve had to fulfill the oft-unrealized desire to write about something that hasn’t been ruined by speaking it aloud.
Various themes at work in Remarkable resonate with on-going and topical conversations in our country—for instance, gender equality, sexual identity, mental health concerns, rural vs. urban economic inequity, etc. Do you consider yourself a political writer? To what extent do you believe writing is political?
DC: All writing is political; it’s just a question of whether or not the writer is very good at it, and whether or not the political agenda benefits those who need it most. I’d like to think my artistic aims naturally coincide with correcting injustice, but sometimes identifying injustice—naming it—is all I can manage. Sometimes I can’t even manage that much. Our finest writers speak for the voiceless and force the culture-at-large to confront its own shortcomings, and I’m always writing with some sense of those goals in mind.
Finally, The Adroit Journal is lucky enough to have a sizable audience of teen and young adult readers, writers, and literary enthusiasts. What was one piece of advice that you received when you were younger that you feel helped you on your way, and who are three writers you’d recommend young aspiring fiction writers read?
DC: Young writers should read writers who challenge them, and for me, that challenge came from reading Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and Alice Munro, not because my own work resembles theirs but because it does not. As an undergraduate, I failed out of an introductory creative writing course, a long story not worth telling. But the instructor told me something in her office I’ve often thought stunning in its simplicity: “you will write again.” Apprentice-writers often swing back and forth between overconfidence and the feeling of abject failure; in either case, closing the notebook or saving the document on the screen should lead to that one, simple conclusion, “I will write again.” I’ve been working on changing it to, “I will write again tomorrow.” Here’s hoping.
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Katie Young Foster grew up in the Sandhills of Nebraska. She is the 2016-17 Creative Writing Fellow at The Curb Center in Nashville, Tennessee. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Masters Review Anthology V, Arcadia, The Boiler Journal, Booth, SmokeLong Quarterly, The New Territory, and elsewhere. She is the winner ofThe Masters Review Anthology contest judged by Amy Hempel, and has been recognized by DISQUIET International Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal.
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