Happy New Year and thank you for being part of our HocTok Gallery.
What is the best thing about being a writer in today’s reality?
My writing is a slow process, revision is crucial, and my understanding of what is being explored creeps along. It’s not an impulsive e-mail, or tweet, or Facebook share, or even something I could share over the dinner table. So that’s a relief. It takes me out of the fray. I don’t know how to conceptualize the term “today’s reality.” Today is never independent from the past for me. And reality, well????
Where do you look for material to dissect and develop in your stories?
I’ve lived in either New York or California for many years. The night of the election, I watched my home states of Wisconsin and Michigan go for Trump. I’d never felt so separate and elite and coastal. So I left and drove for two months through the interior U.S. I visited about 20 cousins and my brothers and sisters in the Great Lakes states. I’ve been reading a lot of history and geology of these areas, as well as family documents.
Who are the characters you are interested in writing about?
Right now, people from the middle of the country from small towns and rural areas.
Are you a tougher critic of your own writing than you are as a reader of other writers’ works?
I don’t know. I expect that I’m more objective about other people’s work. I need outside readers to critique my drafts eventually.
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Excerpt from the Story “Cradle”
by Mary LaChapelle
The car sidled sideways like a puck on the ice. I white knuckled the steering wheel and leaned closer to the windshield. My sister leaned forward too, peering through her own half-circle of defogged glass into the tunnel of pine trees, grayish, under the haze of snow. The car smelled like the foil wrapped packages of stuffing and turkey, one for my sister and one for me on the trip back to our colleges. I wished we’d stayed another night in the Lake house guestroom, side by side in our single beds, under the matching coverlets our mother had fashioned from polka dotted bed sheets. Big flakes skidded across the icy highway and because the flakes and joined the drifts that lapped along the sides of the silvery black road like sea foam along the shore. “Black Ice,” my sister said. “I know,” I said. It was an invisible frozen oil coating the asphalt. There was nowhere to pull over; the shoulder was narrow and heaped with snow and the visibility so blurry that another car might pile into us. Eventually we went into the big spin, reeling in slow motion across the width of the highway and we began to roll off the shoulder. I thought-- Is this what it’s like, rolling off a highway? Is this the end of us? We tipped softly against the banked snow, which, after a moment, gave way and deposited us on our side in the ditch. I could see through a porthole of whiteness on the windshield. Then, with a squeaky metal against snow sound, the car rolled further and we went from whiteness everywhere to dark.
Was that a dream, or did that really happen to us? My sister, years later, groggy from her pain medication wasn’t sure. I’ve been remembering the two of us, feeling our way around that dark space as I edit this video about the hominids. They were buried alive two million years ago. They were buried facing each other, their partial skeletons embedded like relief statues in a block of fossilized rock, on one side a young male’s head and shoulder and on the facing side, the long arm and shoulder of an adult female. The Academy sent me a photo of the young male’s skull; his teeth were still shiny with their enamel, four molars visible on one side and two in front. His baby teeth, I figured. They didn’t look so different from the bloody ones that I’d wiggled out of my own mouth, wrapped in tissue and kept, for some reason, in my mother’s jewelry box. A nine-year old boy found the fossilized male, who was also believed to be nine years old. For ten years the boy’s father, a paleoanthropologist in South Africa, had been excavating the same hill. One day he decided to explore the next hill over. He brought his son and their dog. His son prowled for about five minutes and then picked up a rock with the hominid’s clavicle protruding from it and said, like this dad? That got to me, one boy happening upon another, two million year old, boy. And then the mother for eons in that rock, still facing her child. I felt that she had something to do with my own mother, who had only just died.
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What is your approach to teaching writing?
Assigning a wide range of master works is as important as writing exercises. I have students start modeling very short stories, so they can see how much life can be put into a small frame and so they might learn right away to use fewer words. We have individual conferences at Sarah Lawrence, so I’ll go over the sentences with them or question the imaginative accuracy of a gesture, or an image. Midway through a course, I may have them transcribe their dreams and read crazier stories and ask them to write matter-of-factly about preposterous situations, or speculatively or fantastically. And eventually I have them bring in a work of fiction that they love and tell us why, which widens the aesthetics even more and helps the rest of us maybe better understand that individual writer’s own sensibility and aims. As a writer, how do you process the constant flow of news flowing non-stop from a variety of platforms? I’ve stayed away from social media, all of it. I have an app on my computer that disconnects me from the Internet when I’m writing. I am a glutton for the news however, reading and listening to many different sources, so much of it repetitive. It’s like picking at and picking at a scab. It’s not a good impulse. Can you share with us the title of a book or writing that has been a surprising source of delight?
One of those very short stories that I mentioned earlier is Donald Barthelme’s “The School.” His voice, and verve and economy in that story delight me every time. A book that has been especially clear and helpful to understanding why people from different parts of the country can seem so contrary to each other in their beliefs and voting patterns is "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America" by Colin Woodard. Where are your favorite places to rewind and concentrate on your writing?
Just slouched at home. What is the most remarkable real life story you’ve heard lately that could be a terrific starting point for a larger work of fiction?
Maybe it would be good for me to start with a real life story. But it’s usually an image that sets me off. I visited some family graves at Gros Cap cemetery, on the upper peninsula of Michigan. There were primitive wood crosses, and lichen covered gravestones tipping or fallen over. But what got to me were two large grave markers crudely fashioned out of concrete. The names looked like they had been engraved using a finger in the wet cement and then painted over with a wobbly brush. One had “grandpa” in parenthesis under the name and the other had hearts dotting the i’s. And the graves were festooned with little doo dads, tiny plastic baseball mitts and baseballs and a silver Detroit Tigers bucket with a sodden baseball floating in rain water on one and butterflies and angels on the other. I’d never seen anything like that. They were so homely and personal. So that’s the origin of the story I’ve been working on. How do you define utter happiness?
Given that I am starting from the baseline of having all my bodily needs more than met and no real worries about those needs in the future, I’d say I’m happiest when I’m fully, unselfconsciously absorbed in the moment, whether I’m writing, or cooking, or fixing a door, or walking across a bridge, or listening to someone tell me a story.