Suspend Your Disbelief

Big and Small: An Interview with Anne Valente

"...there is still solace in finding moments of solidity—between characters, in relationships, in what we know of ourselves."

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Big and Small: An Interview with Anne Valente

Diane Cook talks with Anne Valente about her short story collection By Light We Know Our Names: "In fiction, I think objects and patterns among those objects serve as something tangible for me and for characters, a way of making meaning out of something concrete in the face of uncertainty, intangibility, and everything we can’t and don’t know."

I met Anne this past summer when we were both scholars at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. I took to her immediately as she’s the kind of person whose heart isn’t on her sleeve—it’s on her face, in her eyes, and in the ready smile she’ll flash at you across the table. In her debut collection, By Light We Knew Our Names, published by Dzanc Books in September, she showcases this empathy as she explores both the banality and hardship of being alive at all ages, as any gender. The stories are rippling with the emotions felt by characters who are bewildered—powerless and angry, tender and hurt, confused and wary. Anne handles their feelings and their plight intellectually, precisely, and with great humanity.

In addition to this collection and the fiction chapbook An Elegy for Mathematics (Origami Zoo Press, 2013), Anne’s short fiction has appeared in such places as One Story, Ninth Letter, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and The Normal School, among others, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post. Her work won the 2012 Copper Nickel Fiction Prize and was listed as notable in Best American Non-Required Reading 2011. We emailed back and forth about her book and a little about mine over the past month.


Diane Cook: In the first story in By Light We Know Our Names, the children have special powers and can shapeshift in various ways. In the next story, young girls begin to morph into ursine figures and soon realize their mothers have this power too. In subsequent stories other kinds of shapeshifting in big and small ways occur: mothers and children disappear, people become distant, or withdrawn after trauma. It happens in fabulist ways or, as you demonstrate, in quieter reality-based ways. What interests you about this shapeshifting?

Anne Valente: That’s a fantastic observation, and something I hadn’t considered before about the collection—but if shapeshifting implies destabilization, then what interests me about disappearances and transformations is a lack of certainty, and maybe even a lack of assuming that we know and understand everything. We don’t know everything about the people around us: their quiet powers, their hidden grief.

” We don’t know everything about the people around us: their quiet powers, their hidden grief.”

We don’t know everything about so many things in the natural world. I like this lack of certainty in fiction, and of raising questions for the reader to consider rather than providing definitive answers.

Many of your protagonists are at first bewildered by what is happening. They are having a different experience from the other characters who often seem to know more. Almost as if you’re exploring the uncertainty while acknowledging that it isn’t forever. That at some moment we morph into people who are more knowledgeable. And perhaps that isn’t any easier.

I think I like exploring how the same situation can be experienced very differently by anyone involved, and that this too destabilizes the line between reality and non-reality. A lack of authority on how something is experienced opens up space for the possibility of magic. Your stories have a surreal, fabulist quality, too: I absolutely loved “The Mast Year,” where people gravitate toward Jane’s house and her banner year of good luck, and “Man V. Nature” where the men find themselves adrift on an easily navigable lake. Most of these stories begin with the predicament and unfold through character action or inaction. What is most intriguing to you about your characters’ decisions in the face of such extraordinary circumstances?

Much like you, what I find so interesting is how perfectly, unheroically human the characters are and at the root of that is a deep sense of uncertainty. Is this what I want? they all seem to be asking. Is this right? Or, even when they are certain, the situation is such that I think the reader can’t help but weigh in on their choices. I recently visited a class who had just read my story “The Way the End of Days Should Be,” which is about two neighbors living through an end of the world flood. One neighbor lets all survivors into his house and the other neighbor—the narrator—turns everyone away. The question the class was mulling over was which house they would rather live in. They started talking and it got complicated. Even though many didn’t admire the narrator and thought it might feel better to be in the house crowded with people, they understood that his life might be better in very important ways, and that, depending on your priorities there was perhaps something right about what he had done. I found the discussion fascinating and totally satisfying. I like to think about rules, whether real hard and fast ones or more slippery rules like moral codes. I like to watch characters test those lines, cross them, and see what happens. And I like for that to have an effect on readers.

I love that students discussed the narrator’s choices in “The Way the End of Days Should Be.” In this story, I also noticed a boundary of space where the narrator’s house keeps out the masses. This concept of borders appears in other stories as well: the alleged safety of home in “Somebody’s Baby,” while the man lurks just outside to steal children; the colleagues in “It’s Coming,” who hear the alarm sound and know something terrible is approaching just outside. What is compelling about these limits or borders in your fiction, which I suppose speaks to the title itself? What is gripping in the “versus”: the supposed dichotomy between inside and outside, known and unknown, man and the nature beyond the door?

I think it’s more of this line crossing I mentioned earlier. And also it’s looking at ideas of safety and where and when we feel safe. It is when there is an actual barrier between us and danger, or when there is a philosophical shield around us, a This Is Right shield. I think our sense of our well-being has a lot to do with the lines we draw between ourselves and others, whether they are real or imagined lines. And the book is concerned with a sense of well-being, or how hard that is to secure for oneself. And probably that wobbly sense goes back to that preoccupation with uncertainty that our work shares.

Since we’re talking about the physical meeting the philosophical, I want to ask you about the work objects do in your stories. In some stories they appear seemingly full of meaning, but the story ends often without a cathartic clarification. For example, the tea seems to be just tea in “A Taste of Tea,” where a mother’s inexplicable obsession with tea after her divorce confuses her son. But it means something to the people there. The objects are important but the story doesn’t end up hinging on them and it feels a bit like a lesson in truth telling in fiction. How do you think about the objects in the stories? Is there something you want to explore about the role of objects in our lives? Do these objects in the stories lead you through as a writer? Are they a kind of carrot for your own exploration of the characters, the story, and the actual object’s purpose?

photo(2)This sounds a little bit like red herrings, right? Or in film, the way that MacGuffins serve as plot devices but in the end offer no explanation, and no real relevance to the movie. I feel like we do this as people, or at least I do—we attach significance to objects, we try to make meaning from seemingly disparate patterns. We name constellations for a seeming connection between stars. In murder mysteries in film, we follow a seemingly relevant object because we have no other answers to pursue. I don’t know if there are really patterns here or not, but I find myself looking for them. In fiction, I think objects and patterns among those objects serve as something tangible for me and for characters, a way of making meaning out of something concrete in the face of uncertainty, intangibility, and everything we can’t and don’t know.

The mirror near the playground rocket from “Until Our Shadows Claim Us” seems to do this work you’re talking about. It is an object (and place) for all the children to put their confusion, fear, and uncertainty after other children—their friends—begin to disappear from the community. They explain it all away with the myth, a ghost, an old story of a bad man. And even though it too is terrifying, it’s an answer, and so, perhaps feels better to them. It’s a beautiful, haunting story about shame and guilt and so well exposes how the weight of the world often has nothing to do with us, though we imagine ourselves to be at the center of it. I loved how even into their adulthood they still feel responsible in such a childlike way for these kidnappings.

In the same vein of making patterns out of the intangible, I see these children as taking on the responsibility of their classmates’ disappearances and these world disasters in order to take control over something they can’t control, and to contain their grief. In some ways, I see the connection here between what you mentioned about lines and crossing them, and where we draw those lines: these kids have been placed in a set of terrifying, almost outlandish circumstances at a very young age, and their sense of well-being has a lot to do with how they draw lines between action and inaction, between culpability and blamelessness, and between themselves and the missing children.

The situation is terrifying and their response so tragically believable. You know, we both wrote stories about children getting kidnapped, but we took on different POVs for it. Isn’t that funny? I wonder why it was such a compelling idea to both of us.

Though I know we’ve gone about it in different ways, you’re absoutely right. In “Somebody’s Baby,” I had a similar sense that Linda maybe took on the responsibility for her children being taken—as if there’s something she could do, some extra step of being cautious or watchful—to prevent this from happening. There’s a lot more going on in this story, obviously, but I wondered if this story takes up a similar concern of trying to find ways of controlling the danger beyond the front door of Linda’s home.

I think so. Linda is trying to control a danger for sure. The strange thing is, is that by accepting this danger into their lives the other women in the neighborhood have also controlled the danger. They’ve embraced it as a part of life, as one of the steps. If your child gets taken, just have another. Easy. Of course it isn’t, but what choice do they have? Linda is the one who balks and takes matters into her own hands. Like in some movie where every other character is doing the wrong thing, she’s the hero trying to do the right thing. Except that in her world, the right and wrong are mixed up, and by rejecting the way things are done in her community, she ends up burdened and confused about what she wants and what is actually good for her and for her children and the world they’re living in.

Man v. NatureQuestions of motherhood also feature prominently in some of these stories. In “Somebody’s Baby,” two lines in particular stood out to me. In anticipation of her children being taken, Linda feels “shot at every day of her life since she’d begun having children,” and in the face of the man taking every woman’s child: “And the defeated young women thought this must be what motherhood is, and they let it continue. They learned to expect—and so, accept—certain losses.” Can you talk a bit about the mothers in this collection, and how parenthood in general is envisioned across these stories?

I think I ended up writing about mothers as a way to shed light on my own. Not that my own mother is emblematic of these mothers, but I wanted to have mother characters who surprised me, had secret yearnings and complicated feelings about their role. I wanted them to be fully fleshed out people, fully human and not just, well, mothers. My own mother is gone now. And now I have this ache to know her as a person, not just my mom. And as far as her role of mother goes, I find the questions I want to ask her most are about the times she hated being one. I want to know what that feeling is like. I don’t hear about it, and even the recent bounty of articles and essays on mothers being honest about their feelings doesn’t quite scratch the itch. It’s not exactly what I’m yearning to hear. I want to hear something more primal and basic. For me the best way to do this was to explore what instincts—and warring ones at that—mothers hold within them. There’s that nurturing, protective instinct, but what happens to a self-preservation instinct when that mothering instincts kick in?

As a reader, I definitely felt like those questions came through in the stories, and also an honesty in your writing. The stories felt frank in a way that feels rare sometimes in fiction, maybe as rare as addressing the taboo of what’s really hard about being a mother: the things people are less inclined to admit or talk about. To me, the surreal, fabulist quality of these stories provides a really wonderful set of circumstances for the characters to be even more honest with their actions and reactions, if that makes sense. They’re pushed to extremes, to the point where maybe taboos and social rules no longer apply.

It totally makes sense. I think surreal situations let the author, the characters, and the reader take a break from the pressures of fact and reality and let them work out these more abstract things about feelings, about being weird, messy humans. If done well it can be like working in a white room, stripped of all the distractions. I think that is why I like working in a fabulist realm so much. It feels like a pursuit of big ideas, big emotion, something off the page. You write a lot about childhood, and I wondered if that, along with some fabulism, is another way to get at something bigger and more true about how it feels to grow up and mature (or not). Even your adult characters have a not-quite-yet tethered feeling to them. Is this stemming from your pursuit of uncertainty or is there something about this time of life?

In the same way that your stories maybe ask for a more honest view of motherhood, I’m eternally interested in a more candid view of childhood and adolescence. I don’t really trust the common view I’ve learned across the years, that YA literature is about young adults and literary fiction is about adults. That seems narrow, and so do our notions of what writing about adolescence means: only teenage love, or angst, or a time when things were more carefree. I think the representation of childhood in fiction is more complicated than that. In writing about children, I’m seeking a more honest view of what being a kid might mean. As you mentioned, writing about childhood also offers more room for uncertainty, and more room for blurring boundaries between reality and magic.

So one of our earliest conversations was on a walk to dinner at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and we talked about how we both liked to think about/write about female violence. When I got your book, I expected to read a bunch of wild violent women stories. What I was so fascinated by is that many of these stories are told from a male perspective. But I understood that the stories were still about the women in them, just from this other perspective or in a juxtaposed sense. I’m thinking specifically about the riveting and surprising “Minivan,” a story that explores a brutal sexual assault told from the perspective of the victim’s boyfriend/husband. Can you talk about working with these male characters and what it afforded you as a writer?

valenteWriting from the point of view of a male character, especially one who is witnessing or experiencing a female partner’s trauma, was maybe an exercise in empathy for me in trying to grasp what sexual and gender violence looks like for a man who doesn’t quite understand. In order to comprehend an outsider’s point of view, I chose an outsider’s point of view too as the writer. In some ways too, though, I think I was initially drawn to male perspectives as a way of softening the blow of addressing female violence head-on. I don’t feel this way now, but at the time of writing these stories, I think there was a lot of talk about “women’s stories,” whatever that means, and talk in my writerly circles of trying to submit stories under male names to see if the response from editors would be any different. This was a few years before the VIDA count really began. I wrote the title story shortly after writing these few stories of female violence from a male perspective, just to see what it would mean to address violence directly and very much from a female perspective.

In that story you’re talking about, “By Light We Knew Our Names,” the young girls in the story are brutalized by the men in town. It is a raw story with the violence happening mostly off the page while the evidence of the attacks is drawn horrifically on it. Thinking about what you just said, what’s interesting is that the narrator, even though she is a girl, isn’t the girl being brutalized. She’s the one who is getting by with less personal trauma (though the trauma of threat and being witness is still there) so much so that in the end she doesn’t even feel as compelled to run away. I found this to be a stunning turn, and so…lonely for her! I thought about young girls and how often we covet even the worst things, as a way to feel we belong to someone or someplace.

That ending was hard to write because I wanted more for her and for all of these girls—I wanted all of them to run away or else fight back, but that’s just not the world they live in. Both options felt futile for them, in the end. Though the narrator has her mother, the one saving grace that keeps her from fleeing, there’s still what you mention about this ending, that to be less alone means you share a history of trauma. That violence and endurance are what binds you. I was fascinated by violence in Man V. Nature too. The violence in many of these stories is palpable, and yet also unexpected such as in “Girl on Girl,” where adolescent girls resort to punching one another. Can you talk a bit about violence in your fiction, and, in particular, female violence?

To me, in these stories, the violence is uncontained emotion, whether that is the obsessive emotion of teenagers or the urgent emotion behind some effort to survive. Violence can be used to portray a lot—power dynamics, war, etcetera—but to me it was one of many doors helping me get to an emotional truth. I think this is especially true for young people, whose edges aren’t smoothed out yet, and so their expressed feelings come out much more raw. The rawness translates to violence for me because violence seems to come from impulses we haven’t learned to control or haven’t socialized ourselves out of. Or don’t want to. Meaning, even if we don’t act on impulses, we still probably have them. A friend asked a table of us recently how many times a day we have deep, white-hot raging feelings. And all of us admitted to having that feeling several times a day. (And I should note that we’re a real congenial bunch.) But it took some of us a few minutes to recognize our feelings as rage, and then, admit that to others. Some of us weren’t as comfortable with that idea of our uncontrolled, wilder responses to the world, to name them as that. Or of having people know that about us. I’m really interested in contradictory feelings like that. They feel like our animal selves looking into a mirror and seeing our civilized selves staring back. Disconnect meets familiarity, intimacy.

That’s fascinating, especially given our discussion of taboos—of all human emotions, anger feels like the most taboo to me, or maybe the least understood. It’s the most antithetical to civilized behavior, and it also seems to disguise so many other emotions. Like how we rage when we’re actually terrified, or when we’re deeply frustrated or deeply sad. Maybe this points to being fundamentally uncomfortable with raw, uncontained emotion, or being socialized out of expressing our emotions in such an unprocessed manner.

In your title story we’ve been talking about, the young girls are brutalized into a kind of action. They are emboldened by their rage and we see that action and that rage on the page. They become wild by it. As I read, this story seemed to be a kind of linchpin to the collection, that much of what we get in subtle or small doses in the other stories slaps us hard with this one. But how do you see this story speaking to the rest of the book? How do you think about the violence, and does it instruct or illuminate the subtler tensions of the other stories?

I agree that this story feels like a linchpin, in content and tone and also in its placement midway through the book—the spoke of a wheel is a really apt way to think about it. In so many ways, this story feels like a direct, full-frontal addressing of many of the themes that other stories touch upon: violence, the unknown, taking control in the ways we can when so much else is beyond control, nature as solace, finding ways to live with uncertainty. This directness didn’t feel right for all of the stories, but it did feel like the most vocal in touching upon the book’s central concerns. In addition to the themes I mentioned, I think voice is paramount: some sense of naming oneself, particularly amid the many violences and losses these characters experience, big and small. Despite the lack of control that so many of these premises and situations offer, there is still solace in finding moments of solidity—between characters, in relationships, in what we know of ourselves. This seems to be similar, in some ways, to what I noticed in Man V. Nature—that despite the extraordinary circumstances presented to your characters, each still had choices, or some measure of acting or reacting to what was beyond their control. In other words, the stories introduced amazing conditions—a testament to the power of your imagination—but how the characters chose to react to them created really fascinating turns in each story.

Elegy for MathThey had to react in real ways, which is why I think they are surprising. I think it can be hard to react in real life in the ways we want to. There are so many expectations and rules in place for our own behaviors and interactions. In fiction, maybe we can get closer to a truth, and that true thing can slowly become more comfortable to us in our own lives. We learn how to be better humans because when we read about other people we slow down and get comfortable with our own complexities. Which makes me think about this small thread I saw in your stories which looks to animals to get at something more human. In the last story, “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart,” a doctor captures an octopus and hides it away in the recesses of the lab to experiment on. He tells our protagonist, “Any scientist can find a cure for heart disease, but we, we will find the origins of love.” It’s one of two stories in your collection (and possibly there are more subtle examples) where there is something very human we are trying to find in some animal or animal form. In “Dear Amelia” the girls can become bears in order to self protect in the dangerous society, and in this last story, the answer to something unknowable in us we hope can be found in a creature as different from us as can be found on earth. As though, in these natural forms can be found some key to surviving. Some key to the truth. It’s one of many keys throughout the book. How do you find truth as a writer?

It’s a hard question, but one of the simplest ways I know to find truth in fiction is to pay attention and to make connections. For me, so much of writing is taking notice and asking questions, and figuring out how everything is connected. I keep a small notebook of observations from daily life, just lines here and there about things that capture my attention. When I write, I try to figure out how to pull everything together—how bear populations might be connected to Amelia Earhart’s flight, or to lobster anatomy and the dawn of WWII and the bright hope of teenage girls. To me, truth in fiction is a belief that everything constellates together. I just have to be open to learning how it does.


Diane Cook

Diane Cook’s fiction has been published in Harper’s MagazineGrantaTin HouseZoetropeOne StoryGuernica, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in the New York Times Magazine and on This American Life, where she worked as a radio producer for six years. She earned an MFA from Columbia University, where she was a Teaching Fellow. She lives in Oakland, California.

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