Over December, I had the privilege of reading Sea, Swallow Me, a lyrical volume of short stories by Craig Gidney. Each of these stories grappled with identity, sexuality, and history using beautiful language. They also made central the experiences of African Diasporic subjects, and explored gender and masculinity in a beautiful, beautiful way. As a college instructor, I also found these stories useful because of their allusions to histories of racialization, critical race theory, and histories of resistance in the US. I began emailing back and forth with Gidney — here is the interview resulting from our exchange.
1. Threaded throughout this anthology, I see a concern for ancestry. Can you talk a little about that?
A few stories in the collection deal with the acceptance and acknowledgement of one’s heritage and ancestry, all of its aspects. It moves from the more familiar—of a young man accepting his sexuality—to the more metaphorical—a boy accepting his magical heritage. One character must make a truce with his darker desires, while another must make peace with his dead and obnoxious mother. The gods in the story are ciphers, half-remembered, distant. Their power is faded and they are disconnected from their worshippers. There’s a danger when you don’t know your roots. But blind fanaticism and strict adherence to tradition also has its problems. Those of us on the margins of society have our histories hidden from us and we must construct it.
2. What goes into this reconstruction? For example, in the 1920s giantess story you shared with me, I saw an interest in archives and local memory.
I love how old family pictures can tell a story. Going through one’s parents pictures tells us so much about them. I remember finding a treasure trove of love letters between my father and my mother. Dad was unromantic–but these love letters could melt butter. He had horrible handwriting–but the handwriting in those letters was gorgeous–what they used to call Good Penmanship. Just seeing those letters from then and reconciling them with the man I grew up with makes a fascinating story. I think we all do a bit of ‘reconstruction.
I noticed that the endings of each story seemed to posit a new beginning…so let’s talk writing!
I usually begin a story with an image. This, by the way, is not a reliable way to begin stories, because sometimes the initial image is hijacked or overwritten by some other idea or character. But I am usually inspired to write something by an image.
4. What can pull you away from that central image in subsequent drafts?
One of the pieces in the book, “Magpie Sisters,” had a completely different plot that started from the opening paragraph/ central image. The rest of the story, which was considerable, just didn’t mesh with the initial impetus. So I trashed the rest of the story in order to keep to the spirit of the image of the magpie goddess.
5. How do you end a story?
When I am tired of writing it! Endings never come easily to me and they are the reworked part of the story. I have to get it just right.
6. What does your editing process look like?
There a couple of levels to editing, for me. There’s the plothole edit, where you figure out if your story even makes sense. There’s a line-edit, where you make sure every word actually fits. And there’s the ‘cadence’ edit–where rhythm, and imagery and atmosphere is maintained. I find that I have to have stories sit for a while before I approach any of these edits.
7. What histories do bodies tell?
Scars used to be called, “proud flesh,” a wonderful image, as if bruised tissue is a sentient, arrogant thing, bragging about the pain (experience) we go through. The keloid in the title story, “Sea, Swallow Me” tells a tale of rejection—for the protagonist. Is the keloid a curse or a blessing? It is up for the reader to decide.
We all have histories coded in our DNA. In addition to features, I have my father’s depression and probably a propensity for cancer from my mother. I believe there is a genetic component to sexual orientation. We are biological beings, and sometimes it is difficult to get out of our headspace remember that.
8. What do you do to remind yourself that you’re a biological being?
My body reminds me that I am biological being all the time now, thanks to the Ravages of Age. Seriously, in order to be a good writer, you must experience life fully, and that includes the physical world. Work that is too cerebral, at least for me, seems to be DOA.
9. I see Tanith Lee is one of your influences — how has she influenced you?
I like how she uses fantasy and its various tropes—including straightforward quest fantasy—to explore the human condition, in particular, sexuality. She’s intrepid—her imagery approaches the purple, but it is so richly descriptive of the character’s emotional states. I remember clearly reading a book of hers I picked up, Delirium’s Mistress, and being shocked by the graphic (but positive) queer sexuality on display and being pleased by the beauty of her word craft. Her short fiction is even more diamond-sharp. I have found that I’m more a ‘style’ writer than a plotter. She ‘taught’ me that use of language and atmosphere are a powerful tool in the author’s toolkit.
10. What is the difference between style and plot?
A friend of mine recently told me that F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in his notebook that “Action is Character.” I’ll take it one step further and say that Style is Character and Plot is Style. A story is working when both Style and Plot are in perfect concert, and you can’t tell the difference between them. Even Borges–one of the more cerebral authors–combines the two elements seamlessly. That’s the goal, anyway.
11. What was your favorite story in this collection?
That would be “Catch Him By The Toe.” It is a homage to Southern Gothic literature and the circus show trope, layered with racial themes. Plus it has an image that gives me nightmares. I think it came out pretty well!
12. How has going to Hampshire influenced your writing? (I’m a Smithie, by the way!)
Hampshire College is a part of a consortium with the 4 other colleges in the region. Surely, you’ve heard the term “The Happy Valley.” I took advantage of that system to take a class with Samuel R. Delany, who taught at UMASS-Amherst. It was extremely helpful to have him look at my fledging fiction. The other thing about Hampshire is that it is a hot bed of creativity, and hanging out with students in disciplines helped me view storytelling through a different lens. Sometimes I think of my fiction as a film or a piece of music—i.e., not restrained by literary conventions. I was also introduced to Critical Race Theory and feminism and queer studies there as well—some of those issues pop up in my stories every now and then.
13. What theorist/theories have especially influenced you?
In a roundabout way, Fanon, for his explanations about the colonization of the mind. A lot of my work is about self-hatred and people removing that obstacle from their lives.
14. What is on your must read lists for: fiction, theory, and non-fiction?
For fiction, you must read as widely as possible. This includes works outside of your comfort level, to figure out what kind of a writer you are, and to give you ideas. Theory? I’m not as familiar with it, but I’ve found Tim Wise and the blog entries of Ta-Nehisi Coates helpful. Non-Fiction—mostly the Oxford English Dictionary. I’m a word addict!
15. What is your favorite word? Why?
Opalescent. I like the sound and the image it conjures.
16. What is one book or tool every fledgling writer should absolutely have?
Every writer should have a brainstorming tool–whether digital (e.g., Scrivener) or old-fashioned pen and ink. I find brainstorming to be the best tool for getting out of the dreaded Writer’s Block.
[Seriously, writers planning collaborative projects: Zotero and Scrivener are AWESOME.]
17. I notice that violence (or at least bodies in danger) pervades this anthology. What do you do to psychically relax after writing such difficult fiction?
Watch Jersey Shore. Snooki is balm for my troubled soul. Seriously, a conversation with one of my friends who aren’t writers. They bring me back down to earth.
18. Speaking of friends… I noticed friendship/community appeared as major themes throughout the collection. Can you say a little about friendship and psychological survival?
It is commonly believed that writers are loners–and to some extent, that is true. We must spend a long time by ourselves, in our headspace. But I find that when I am writing, I become more social. I use to think it was odd, but it makes perfect sense: writing is a communicative act, and it’s about making sense of humanity. Also, when I write a piece of fiction, it’s always like a message in a bottle–in hopes of find kindred spirits.