The PEN Ten: An Interview with Danielle Evans
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, Jared Jackson speaks with Danielle Evans, author of The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories (Riverhead Books, 2020).
1. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
I don’t really think momentum needs to be maintained or that inspiration needs to be a permanent or forced state. Many things in our culture push us into constant momentum as a means of survival, but you only need to be as productive a writer as it takes to stay alive—and that’s a pragmatic call, not a moral or artistic one. By the time I was born, there were enough brilliant books to keep me busy for a lifetime, and every year since then, more books than I could ever hope to have time to read are published. There’s no reason to feel an urgency to generate more writing for the sake of there being more of it. There’s enough writing.
What’s missing is whatever specific thing an individual writer is driven to do. It’s all of our work to build a culture that sustains and supports artists in the long run, but the artistic work of an individual writer is only to make what feels urgent, and trust that the work that needs you to do it will tell you when it needs to be done. My creative process is mostly about accepting that and committing to seeing the bursts of inspiration through when they come. I am disciplined in revision, but I never try to discipline inspiration.
2. What is one book or piece of writing you love that readers might not know about?
Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive: After the End of the World. It’s a really brilliant and imaginative exploration of survival, archival, and the theoretical and creative bridges we build between the past and the future.
“The backlash to the minimal progress we’ve made in honestly talking about race as a country is alarming. It’s terrifying to have a president proclaiming that teaching the true history of race in America is unpatriotic.”
3. What do you consider to be the biggest threat to free expression today? Have there been times when your right to free expression has been challenged?
The backlash to the minimal progress we’ve made in honestly talking about race as a country is alarming. It’s terrifying to have a president proclaiming that teaching the true history of race in America is unpatriotic—even signing an order barring government agencies and projects receiving federal funding, including university projects, from openly discussing structural racism—while also calling on white supremacists to monitor voting in major cities, and celebrating violence against antiracist protestors. So, I think open and state-endorsed white supremacy—and its particular desire to restrict voting rights, protest, and the discussion of historical and contemporary disparities—is the most immediate structural threat to free expression in this country.
But, less extreme versions of this same kind of thinking are so pervasive that it’s hard to imagine what my own unrestricted free expression would look like. Certainly, if I, as a Black woman, actually freely expressed myself all of the time, I would not have a career or health insurance or rent money. That’s why I think it’s often hilarious that people—who are used to having the power to set the terms of the conversation—panic and claim censorship whenever people’s objections actually have the power to impact them or cause them to have to consider how they’ll be heard.
4. How does your identity shape your writing? Is there such a thing as “the writer’s identity?”
My particular identities certainly shape my writing, but I am always thinking in terms of identities—plural. Characterization and narrative tension come from the tension between a character’s inner life and their exterior life, and I’m acutely aware—because being a Black woman compels me to pay attention to power dynamics—that this tension is always not just a reflection of an individual character’s desire, but of the story’s structural world. I need to be aware not just of what any given character wants, but of which characters have the capacity to make other characters perform for them. And I think I love the short story form in part because I am always wary of being boxed in or reduced to a stereotype, and it’s a form that allows me to shapeshift or layer voices or answer the same question in contradictory ways. That has a lot of appeal.
5. What is the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words? Have you ever written something you wish you could take back?
Honestly, the most daring things I’ve written are the most private, the moments when I’ve needed to communicate something not for an audience or for the sake of the public record, but because I thought it mattered for one person to hear it. I’ve been spectacularly wrong on occasion, but I wouldn’t wish away a record of my capacity for vulnerability.
“My particular identities certainly shape my writing, but I am always thinking in terms of identities—plural. Characterization and narrative tension come from the tension between a character’s inner life and their exterior life, and I’m acutely aware—because being a Black woman compels me to pay attention to power dynamics—that this tension is always not just a reflection of an individual character’s desire, but of the story’s structural world.”
6. What advice do you have for young writers?
About 20 percent of the writing advice you get will be utterly ridiculous and worthless to your project, and about 20 percent will be exactly right—even and especially when it breaks your heart to hear. A major part of your work is to build up your own aesthetic and editorial sensibilities so that you can tell sooner which is which.
7. Why do you think people need stories?
To impose a sense of meaning and forward motion in our lives. To remind us to pause long enough to consider what we might have missed.
8. Fiction is one of the best tools we have for understanding the relationship between individual lives and the collective experience. Your story, “Boys Go to Jupiter,” follows Claire, who becomes a viral pariah after a photo of her wearing a Confederate flag bikini surfaces on social media. But her story is more nuanced than this occurrence. In this story, and in your collection, how did you examine contemporary issues without necessarily driving a point of view?
Well, I hope that story has both nuance and a point of view. The arc of the story is that Claire wears a Confederate flag bikini, and then—when called on that—escalates the situation and then commits to that escalation. We learn some of Claire’s backstory, which is told in the present tense, both because Claire is frozen in a real and visceral grief and because Claire is utterly incapable of accountability and takes for granted that she’s entitled to multiple second chances. She doesn’t have the capacity for past tense. As the story unfolds, it’s clear in both timelines that multiple Black people have been harmed or displaced by various acts on her part, and that the consequences she’s faced have been comparatively minimal but felt unbearable. The ending of the story suggests rather clearly what lesson she’s learned from that.
I could have written a story with a more clearly telegraphed moral from the opening, but I’m not sure who that story would be for or how interesting it would be. The reader who recognizes Claire immediately as a familiar kind of villain—and all the more a villain because she’d never view herself that way—doesn’t need me to spell out how the world works. The reader who wants to love Claire, who identifies with Claire’s grief or Claire’s attitude toward authority, can grapple with what that identification means, and the relationship between that desire to love Claire and the price other people in the story pay for her. That reader understands in a way that wouldn’t happen if Claire were a more reductive caricature of racism or privilege, one from whom the reader could easily maintain emotional distance.
“The two biggest changes in the literary world that have influenced me are probably the number of high-profile literary stories that move beyond realism and make use of genre, and the greater attention to the work of contemporary writers of color—not just one book a season, or one writer at a time, but many books and writers in conversation. Both of those changes are delightful, and both have made me a bolder writer—less afraid to experiment with form and genre, less afraid that what I write will be in some way taken as representative, or that I’ll be the only Black voice on somebody’s syllabus.”
There probably are readers who will work to erase Claire’s agency or find any reading of the story other than the one the actual arc suggests, but I don’t know what story I could have written for those readers or why I should wreck my imagination trying to center them. I could have tried asking those readers to see the story from the perspective of Carmen or Angela, but to center those characters in a story where Claire is the agent would be reductive—a way of using them to beg for Black people’s humanity. And if whatever effectiveness that begging had is only true as long as Claire is a monster—if even in that hypothetical other version of the story there’s a kind of reader whose willingness to hold Claire accountable only exists up until they see that she is truly sad, or she had a Black friend once, or simply that she’s a person—then what would be the point?
I wanted to allow myself the power of the gaze. I am not writing to beg the reader who loves Claire to see me. In this story, I’m writing from the position of power; in this case, the power to see Claire—and that reader—clearly. And while the story has ended up feeling alarmingly topical at various points since I drafted it in 2014 and first published it in 2017, I think its actual underlying questions—about race, about power, about performance, about the story form—are very old ones, as are a lot of the questions in the book that have contemporary resonance.
9. This is your second collection, and it comes 10 years after your first critically acclaimed book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. In effort to link the relationship between the progression of an art and the artist, do you think the short story form has changed between your two publications—literary styles, topics, influences—and if so, how have these changes impacted your own growth as a writer? Has your approach to the form changed? Have your concerns shifted?
I think my approach to form has shifted somewhat. Or, perhaps not shifted permanently—who knows what’s next—but that the stories in this book work differently than the stories in my first book on a structural level. There is a more active disconnect sometimes between the active plot of the stories and the emotional plot of the stories. There are still choices being made, but the agency in these stories is the agency of crisis—the narrative movement coming often from the things people do to distract themselves from the important fixed thing they can’t do anything about, rather than moving toward a pivotal emotionally climactic event.
There’s also less reliance in this book on the retrospective first-person voice, and instead, more use of third person and present tense, which is I think related to the structural question. These are characters often who haven’t arranged the events of the story into a narrative yet because they aren’t clear on what the actual heart of the story is, so it’s my job as a writer to let the reader see around them. That type of story has of course always existed—it just became more interesting to me in this set of stories than the last, possibly because of an increased sense of crisis, both in the country and in my personal life while I was writing this book.
“We only ever know in retrospect how a work of fiction fits into the larger picture of truth and history. Its impact on the present can only be measured by the future.”
The two biggest changes in the literary world that have influenced me are probably the number of high-profile literary stories that move beyond realism and make use of genre, and the greater attention to the work of contemporary writers of color—not just one book a season, or one writer at a time, but many books and writers in conversation. Both of those changes are delightful, and both have made me a bolder writer—less afraid to experiment with form and genre, less afraid that what I write will be in some way taken as representative, or that I’ll be the only Black voice on somebody’s syllabus. This is a weirder collection than my first book, and I’m grateful for the bigger cultural shifts that made me feel like that was possible.
10. The eponymous novella follows Cassie, whose job it is to correct historical records. Her employer is the Institute for Public History, a federal agency designed to address “the contemporary crisis of truth.” The story itself is absorbing, but even more so given our current cultural and political moment, and the relationship between truth and fiction. Putting you in Cassie’s proverbial shoes, how does your writing navigate the contemporary crises of truth? How can fiction participate in the events of the day?
We only ever know in retrospect how a work of fiction fits into the larger picture of truth and history. Its impact on the present can only be measured by the future. Cassie has noble intentions and a growing unease or disillusionment with all of the institutions that exist to help her realize those intentions. The novella has as many questions as it has answers about what it means to ask people to confront the truth or what truth is ultimately knowable.
I think I’m working through some of those same questions in the collection as a whole. I am trying to navigate one of the truisms of fiction—most people don’t see themselves as the villain of their own story, most people have some kind of internally coherent self-narrative—while placing it alongside a larger truth. This larger truth is the fantasy that the most important thing we can do is empathetically see people as they see themselves, that doing so is often dangerous and serves another reductive fantasy, one we pay for in our politics—the insistence that “both sides have a point” or the truth is always somewhere between two people, any two people, no matter their specific credibility or motivation. So, I’m thinking about stories that put pressure on that question. What about the things that are true whether or not someone else believes them, the damage done whether or not anyone acknowledges it happened? I’m interested in the space where that collides with the fiction writer’s faith that there are infinite versions of every story.
Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self; winner of the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and Paterson Fiction Prize; and a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” selection. Her stories have appeared in many magazines and anthologies, including The Best American Short Stories. She teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.