Like many writers, my foray into fiction began with short stories. I guess they’re easier to teach in the span of a college night course than novels, but I’m not sure they’re easier to master. The short story leaves no room for error. They’re little diamonds, perfectly brilliant.
My friend, Anne Leigh Parrish, has mastered the form. Her work shines, and I’ve been fortunate to have her as a friend and writing mentor for 20 years. We met at a University of Washington Extension course in literary fiction writing — not that she needed it. I remember my awe at learning that she’d already placed a story in the Virginia Quarterly Review.
Since that time, she’s published more than 40 short stories and four books, including one novel, What is Found, What is Lost (She Writes Press, 2014). Her second novel, Women Within, is forthcoming from Black Rose Writing.
By the Wayside (Unsolicited Press, 2017) is her third collection, and it’s another fine one. With heart and honesty, she pulls you into the lives of women who are trying to move forward and find their true selves in spite of past hurts and those who would dismiss or deny their strengths.
As the title implies, they might start out sidelined by guilt, emotional-scaring and self-doubt, but by the end of the story, either manage to break free (in sometimes dramatic fashion) or arrive at a new understanding about themselves.
Parrish’s writing is spare, but she manages to convey the rich complexity of her characters and their lives with well-chosen details and spot-on dialogue.
In my favorite story, An Act of Concealment, the main character, Anna, is called upon to save her neighbor’s holiday dinner. It’s a seemingly innocent scene, but it reinforces the story’s theme of behind-the-scenes women who protect their family’s (read male) reputations even at the expense of their own.
Smoke begins with the observation that, when it comes to forest fires, “a healthy, living tree was harder to ignite.” It’s the perfect metaphor for a young woman so filled with hate and self-loathing that she can’t give or receive love.
I would describe Parrish as a feminist writer, but her message never feels heavy-handed. She tackles her most political subjects – racism and abortion – in short allegories with some humor.
Magic realism is also used to highlight how blind to the truth people can be. A genie pops out of an engaged couple’s spare-tire compartment (Trial by Luck) to grant them one wish, except these two can’t agree on anything. In “How She was Found,” a young woman, Fiona, who has been living according to her father’s wishes, discovers an ancient skeleton while on an archaeological dig with a group of men. The men see the discovery in win/gain terms, but Fiona is so captivated by the possible life behind the skeleton that she hears it speak to her.
I could go on siting more stories I enjoyed, but I want to give Anne a chance to answer some questions. So here we go:
First of all, congratulations on your third collection! What a productive year you’ve had. Is there a secret to your productivity or do you just superglue your butt to the chair and write until the bond wears off? (I’m kidding, sort of.)
Writing gets easier with time. It used to be an awful struggle. I think back to a story I wrote in 2003, “When Every Part of You Breaks.” This was a 5,000-word story that took me almost six months to nail down. I can’t imagine anything taking that long now. Also, my children are in their twenties, and that has meant a world of freedom for me. Having two books come out this year was something of a surprise. I was lucky enough to find two different publishers, one for the collection and one for the novel. I need to keep writing. If I’m not writing or pulling something apart and putting it back together, I just don’t feel right. With the recent launch of By The Wayside, having just finished the first exhaustive round of edits for the publisher of Women Within, and querying agents for my just completed novel, The Amendment, I‘ve got plenty to do in terms of tasks and marketing, but it’s not creative in the way that only writing can be. I can’t stay away too long.
Many of your stories are told from the point of view of girls or women struggling to overcome or escape oppression that is either self-inflicted (in the case of the adults) or inflicted upon them. Why is that?
I put this down to my emerging feminism. I’m obsessed with the boundaries and limitations imposed on women, both from within and without. Women sometimes can be their own worst enemies if they feel they have to live up to an unexamined ideal, one that really doesn’t work for them. They’ll always run into trouble that way, and I’m fascinated by the cognitive disconnect that can occur. Reproductive rights and issues are moving to the top of my list of manias, though the word “mania” implies a pejorative connotation I perhaps don’t intend.
I’m impressed by the range of situations and settings you present so convincingly in these stories. There’s the immigrant newlywed in Huron, North Dakota circa 1920 (An Act of Concealment); the anthropology major on an archaeological dig (How She Was Found); the woman researching mystics to better understand her troubled sister (The Keeper of the Truth); and girls growing up in poverty (The Lillian Girl) and privilege (Letters of Love and Hate). Where do you get your ideas and how much research are you doing to make them come alive?
With stories, an idea usually comes from an image, around which I build the narrative. In “An Act of Concealment,” the final scene was that image. In “How She Was Found,” it was the protagonist holding the skull, looking into its empty eye sockets, and so on. I had to do some research for that particular story, so I could name human bones correctly. As to “The Keeper of The Truth,” I looked up Tarot cards, and the various meanings they held. With “The Lillian Girl,” obviously I had to acquaint myself with the films of Lillian Gish; and for “Letters of Love and Hate,” there really wasn’t any research per se.
You’ve written many more short stories than you have novels. What keeps you coming back to the short form?
The short form is a break from novel writing and all the marketing and promoting I have to do around my two titles releasing in 2017. Lately, I’ve gotten into flash, variously defined as a story under 1,500 words, or under 1,000 words. These are GREAT fun, and fairly easy to place, so there’s also the element of relatively quick gratification. I learned about writing from writing stories, so I think I’ll always write them, always come back to them. They just feel like home, if that makes sense.
If you could share one major lesson you’ve learned from your years of writing and publishing, what would that be?
What really matters is whether you’ve written your story to your own satisfaction. There’s no point in being baffled by how someone interprets your work because people will experience it according to their own private paradigm and world-view, and you have no control over what they bring to it.
Can you give us the teaser for your forthcoming novel, Women Within?
For the curious reader, I can say that if feminism—or the female experience—is your thing, something you feel strongly about, you will want to read this book. I show women as caregivers, rape victims, mothers, daughters, failing in love, succeeding in life, struggling with accepted norms about how they should look and act, there’s even one character who poses as someone’s mother when she’s in truth something else (won’t spoil that moment for you).
What else can we expect from you?
The Amendment. This is my third novel, and a sequel to my linked short story collection from 2013, Our Love Could Light The World, where I introduced readers to the Dugan family. The protagonist, Lavinia, is a wry, cynical, feisty soul who suffers a sudden life change. She takes herself on a cross-country road trip and has several weird, sometimes hilarious encounters with strangers.