JAIMEE WRISTON COLBERT
author of Wild Things
Interviewed by Patricia Ann McNair
Solstice Consulting Fiction Editor
(From Patricia): In Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s fifth book, Wild Things, we readers are lured into small communities and shadowy places close to the murky Susquehanna River in Upstate New York. Here we find ourselves moving through the book’s pages and the setting’s woods and waters, captivated by the stories and lives of Jaimee Wriston Colbert’s compelling and damaged characters.
In this brief interview, Jaimee speaks about writing the linked story collection, about Flannery O’Connor and the rural story, about creating characters and other wild things, and about her home-state neighbor, our past president, Barack Obama.
Patricia: You are a master at the linked story collection; Wild Things is not your first book done in this manner. Can you talk about that narrative structure and why you made the choice to use it?
Jaimee: Indeed, this is my third book where the stories are linked in some manner, and I’d have to confess not once have I started out with the idea, ‘I think I’ll write a book of linked stories!’ Either I “think” I’m working on a novel, and suddenly all these peripheral characters with their own complications start knocking on my writer’s door to have their stories told too; or it’s “just” a collection, but something in me keeps wanting to find the connections between the stories. And if the connections are not obvious, I’ll go and create them!
In the case of Wild Things, the linkage began with the two title stories: “Wild Things: Ghosts,” and “Wild Things: Migrants.” (The latter was a featured story in Solstice.) The two together are almost a novella—in fact I was so involved in the stories of Loulie and Jones, how he “saves” her from her horny meth-dealing boyfriend by abducting her, his mother who gets nailed in the meth lab explosion, and Loulie’s mother who suffered the loss of her IBM job, I wondered if I had a novel instead of a story collection. But then I fell in love with Janis and Ruth, who are from Hawai’i but became part of the community through Ruth’s inheritance; and Fortune, the kleptomaniac child, who discovers where Jones lives and spies on him and his captive girl.
“Dog Days,” which was originally an independent story, became about the stray pack of dogs finding Loulie’s hoodie in the woods—which gets the police involved, the Humane Society trapping the dogs, and thus it became the larger story of the community: those directly involved in this incident, such as her meth-dealing boyfriend Troy in “Finding the Body,” and those who are simply part of a community where these things happen, working through their own struggles, yet aware, as folks in small towns are, of the mystery and loss among them.
In “The Man Who Jumped,” Janis and Ruth are watching the news about a “fandango-pink hoodie” that belonged to the missing girl, found by a pack of dogs, and a person nearby where it was found speculates that the whole thing smacked of drugs. “See?” Ruth says to Janis, “You can’t really disappear. People will make up your life whether you have one or not.” I suppose as a fiction writer, that’s what I’m interested in: making up my characters’ lives, throwing them into a community where there’s been some trouble, and seeing what they’ll do about it. Makes me sound a bit sadistic! But it means the book is about community, the lives of the people who are part of such a community, which makes linked stories the perfect form for this kind of story-telling.
Patricia: Your new collection is being billed as “rural noir.” What does that tell us about the work?
Jaimee: My sense of this label “rural noir,” at least in this collection, has to do in part with its particular setting. Most of my characters live on or near the Susquehanna, one of the most polluted rivers in the country. But like all rivers that flow through multiple states, it’s a lifeblood. I visualized the book’s setting as an unnamed town in rural upstate New York, with that river as this entity that threads through and affects peoples’ lives in different ways. I have a character, for example, who has a lucid dream where she imagines diving into the river and coming across decades of waste from now shuttered industries that have gone into this river and polluted it. But the river also symbolizes freedom. It flows out of the area and ultimately ends up in the Chesapeake. It moves out in a way that the characters cannot, since many are poor and stuck in this community.
And then there’s the woods. They play a huge part in these stories. One of the things I was always fascinated with in Flannery O’Connor’s stories was how she uses a perimeter of woods, her “dark line of woods.” She uses the woods as an actual line of demarcation in her characters’ lives, but there’s also the metaphorical line of woods and darkness, of woods associated with mystery. I envisioned that line of woods in Wild Things. For example, Jones (who abducts Loulie to “keep her safe”), lives in a secluded place in the woods. The little girl, Fortune, who escapes for a while from taking care of her grandmother, goes into a deer blind in the woods and imagines these sorts of perverse things happening, and when she discovers Jones’ trailer and Loulie, the kidnapped girl, she does nothing about it, relishing her “secret.” The woods is a place for characters to go into that is both refuge and danger, and along with the crime elements in this book, thievery, kidnapping, a lot of drugs, these aspects might make people think rural noir!
But I also see it as stark realism. This is what’s happened in so many rural areas of our country. Good manufacturing factories and successful companies such as IBM (featured in Wild Things) closed down or pulled up roots to find cheaper labor abroad, and left a lot of people without jobs or hope for good jobs. Many of my stories take place around 2008, when the housing bubble popped, when everything went to hell, so my characters are also struggling in the wake of that economic depression. Fortune is walking along the road to her grandmother’s, and she’s spying on everyone’s houses with the “For Sale” sign in the yards. Then, of course, without hope for decent jobs, in come the drugs and before you know it, you have a big heroin and meth problem. Plenty of places in rural areas to hide meth labs—until they explode, that is. Rural noir!
Patricia: You have a very compelling way with young adult women characters, particularly as they face defining moments or events in their lives. Can you talk about what draws you to these young women, their lives, and their stories?
Jaimee: I dunno, probably because I’ve never completely grown up! I mean is it just me, or do we all “of a certain age” look in the mirror and go, Hey, how did you get those lines in your chin, you eighteen-year-old girl?
Youth was a very unresolved time for me, intensely emotional, a roller-coaster ride from day to day. I was pretty wild. Loulie’s mother in the “Wild Thing” title stories, warns her daughter about being a “wild child” in a much more dangerous era. The description of hitchhiking down the coast from the Pacific Northwest to California is something I really did, and it almost ended pretty badly, as in I wouldn’t be here today writing this. I got into trouble a lot, and a lot of that trouble was simply trying to have adventures, and being limited in how and where I could adventure because I was a girl. The world is more dangerous for girls, and the unfairness of that has been something I’ve pushed back against all my life.
As a writer, I feel for those younger characters: Monty who has her little kid taken away, because of her sexual “appetite,”; Birdie who believes she has to exchange sexual favors for taxi rides; Sadie, pregnant by either a “friend with benefits” or someone she doesn’t like at all, wanting to keep the baby, because life without her beloved heroin-addicted brother in it is as “empty as the sky.” However, none of these young women in Wild Things or any of my other books think of themselves as victims. They live their lives on their own terms, even when the terms are not skewed in their favor. Even Loulie, abducted by Jones, does not give up. Instead she fantasizes about her mother’s life as a “wild child,” since being held prisoner, Loulie is not allowed to have much of a life.
Patricia: One might suppose that Wild Things, the title of this evocative collection, is in reference to the many animals (birds, especially, but not only) your characters share the pages of their stories with. Would I be right to suppose, too, that you intend for your characters to be wild things as well?
Jaimee: Spot-on correct! And it’s not only because of the “adventuring” and sexuality I referenced above. As I mentioned previously, many of these characters are being left behind, living in a rural community whose heyday was during the industrial 20th century, and now those good jobs and prosperity have disappeared. Without the means to move anywhere else, it’s almost like they too are reverting back to the land, the way weeds and plants are beginning to bury some of the old factory buildings, the way these buildings are crumbling into the land. Jones is probably the best example of a “wild thing,” a man more comfortable among animals and wild life than people. He mourns the Monarch butterflies disappearing from the world, while at the same time he is in fact disappearing: jobless, with no education or saleable skills, living in a broken-down trailer, feeding Loulie dinners of macaroni and cheese. At the end of “Ghosts” he fantasizes building a house for him and “the girl,” and… “new life will take root, the winds wailing from the valley in the winter and in the spring the seeds bursting open, a jungle growing thick and green and sure around them. Maybe then he can untie the girl and she’ll stop running, because there won’t be anything left of the world they knew before to run to.”
Patricia: As an author who grew up in Hawai’i, do you feel a connection to another fine American author who was born there and spent a good deal of his early life there as well? I am speaking, of course, about Barack Obama.
Jaimee: Ah, how I miss him! Such a class-act, his intelligence, his grace, his authenticity and honesty, life before “alternative facts”! So of course he’s from my home-state. (Ha ha.) But yes, I feel a huge connection to him, as for one, he went to my school. He was in my brother’s class, and I know we had many of the same teachers, and some of those teachers, as teachers sometimes do, told us that if we worked really hard—someday we could even become the president of the United States! Hawai’i is a unique place to grow up; we share a multicultural heritage with its very particular traditions and celebrations that is like no place else in the United States. When the Obamas spent their holidays in Kailua, I knew where they were and what they were doing, as that’s the town I was raised in for the first twelve years of my life. I know where he got his shave ice, and the restaurants he ate at—Buzz’s in Kailua is a favorite of mine, as well. I even know where his future vacation house is, as my father’s friend, who’s a realtor, sold it to him. My lips are sealed on that one, however!
JAIMEE WRISTON COLBERT is the author of five books: the newly-released Wild Things, a collection of linked stories; the novel Shark Girls, finalist for the USA Book News Best Books of 2010 and ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year; Dream Lives of Butterflies, winner of the Independent Publishers Award for story collections; Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize, and Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Gettysburg Review, New Letters, and Prairie Schooner, and broadcast on “Selected Shorts.” She was the 2012 recipient of the Ian MacMillan Fiction Prize for “Things Blow Up,” a story in her new collection. Other stories won the Jane’s Stories Award and the Isotope Editor’s Prize. She is Professor of Creative Writing at SUNY, Binghamton University.