by Michelle Reale
FFC: Heather, I have admired your work for a long time! “Good Country. People.” Was so clever—really a delight and though it is not flash fiction, I had to nominate it for our Top 100 list. I love that it is a play on Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People.” Tell me about the genesis of this story and what I assume to be your obsession with O’Connor.
HF: Thanks so much. The story originated from a solicited request from a fiction editor to take the last line of a story, new or old, and write a new story for Necessary Fiction’s January 2011 First Footing project. I believe I had about a month’s advance notice. I applaud Steve Himmer for his editorial decision to run a month of such stories—and was excited at the prospect of working with a story I love, in this case “Good Country People” by O’Connor. Though I’d cracked her collected stories when I heard about the endeavor, I didn’t know I’d be working with that particular story as I began, but I did know I was under the gun for getting it done, and that since this was solicited, I’d have a great chance that what I wrote would be published, so the choice of who to play with was almost too delicious to fathom! I promptly decided I would shoot for the moon! (Flannery is my personal moon, you see! Of course, Flannery, my beloved Flannery! I need to calm down.)
Though I’m well aware that I’m not the only writer who lights continuous votives in the honor of Ms. O’Connor, I’d venture to say my obsession with her was (and is) more like a full-blown love at first sight that lasts twenty years, replenishes the heart each time it’s seen, and is never diminished. I now flashback to that first look, that geeky time in glasses for a chubby, nerdy, self-conscious and sassy writer type, myself in corduroys, maybe in seventh grade or so, when I first came across “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The grandmother cracked me up. June Star was my idol. I wanted to immediately find Flannery and make her my favorite aunt or family friend. I laughed aloud. I re-read passages to myself because I loved them so much. I suddenly wanted to go to Florida, or decide I never did.
This was also the beginning of my love for Southern literature and an interest in many things Southern. In the end, however, my love for that story and its perfection was too strong for me to want to adjust it in the slightest. There was, however, one story that pissed me off every time I read it: “Good Country People.” How could a man take a girl’s leg and leave her up in a barn? Oh, the image haunted me for years. Thus, it’s almost like the moment for a new reverie was at hand in the exact second I reread the title. I’m going to get you cruel boy, I thought, beat you bloody senseless. And so it began.
FFC: What were the challenges in getting that “deep south” sound in the story? You pulled it off perfectly , by the way!
HF: Thanks and what an astute question! There were a few dialect challenges because not all parts of the South have the same sound. Also, I wanted to mimic the style of Flannery as well as the region. What I did in an effort to get as close as I could was to read and re-read her stories, one after another, noting what slang she used and how she produced dialect—and where she didn’t. I allowed myself dialect she herself had used. I let the sound of her sentences sing in my head until I could hear them humming in my subconscious as I wrote. I looked at her structure. I had great fun with this.
FFC: Treble Ann is a great name for a hilariously devilish character. I would not want to meet her in a dark alley! She seems to alter space—both literally and figuratively. She seems imposing physically and attempts to outwit everyone. Did you have a clear physical representation of her in mind when you wrote the story?
HF: When I wrote the story, my thought was: Flannery’s whole piece is a commentary on true goodness vis- a -vis “Good Country People,” rebellion, pseudo-intellectualism, repressed sexuality, and the way society decides “good” versus “bad?” Treble Ann was the direct result of my decision to create a character who could one-up the irreligious Bible salesman, who played by her own rules, who could be bold and ruthless enough to not allow this con man character to indulge his fetishism with her suffering. I wanted to make her disability part of her armor, wanted her strong and seemingly indifferent, with a wicked sense of humor and a lack of need to be socially acceptable or “good.” Her “goodness” would not be her downfall. She’s already an outsider, I thought, so let’s make her a pugilist. Let’s make her a girl who will not be victimized and will knock the bejesus out of this man so shifty his real name is never revealed in Flannery’s story. Let’s take the bad man/boogie man down, I decided. With humor. Like Flannery is so good at. Welcome, Treble Ann, I thought as I created her. You have a job to do.
FFC: Treble Ann’s trouncing of the boy salesman felt wickedly good. Justice for smart, but dumb Hulga?
HF: Why, yes. And for every other woman who reads it and has wanted this guy’s character pounded, but good, for ages.
FFC: How many drafts did this story go through?
HF: Oh, several. I worked on it compulsively, and then I re-read Flannery’s piece, and then I worked on it some more. It has already gone through two additional drafts since its publication, but these are minor, mainly just for sentence beautification and flow.
FFC: Have you written other stories as a play on other well- loved authors, or is this the first?
HF: I love to play with others. I have done so many times. Recently, I had a piece in Ampersand Books’ Re:Telling Anthology called “A&P, Come Again,” that retells Updike’s famous story “A&P” from the girls’ perspective. I’ve written a pair piece for Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” and one for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale For Children.” I like to respond to the work of others, but am careful not to do that exclusively—because I like to work on my own plots and themes.
FFC: To say you are prolific is putting is an understatement. Talk about your process and the way you move from fiction to poetry and back again.
HF: You know that chicken with its head cut off that stumbles about the yard before it keels? How the blood just kind of splatters where it will? That’s my ink.
But, I’m happy any time I’m creating. Whatever I’m creating. Fiction is usually my first love, but poetry I go to in times of need. Whatever I’m writing in the very moment or second always simply feels like what is needed. I can’t write a love poem when I’m thinking dystopia. Similarly, I can’t write dystopia when I’m thinking: “Ah, that’s so gentle and lovely! Let’s poem it!”
FFC: Your collection of stories Suspended Heart was recently released by Aqueous Books to tremendous reviews. ( I own it and love it!) Tell me how that feels.
HF: It feels great to have a book out. Aqueous Books has been a joy to work with in all capacities. I am quite delighted, too, to now have something my mother can show her friends and that I can give to colleagues. I also love that I’ve decided to give the whole first year’s proceeds, in entirety, to my elected charity.
Still, the concept of having a book as book object is very surreal to me. Oh, delightful, I have a tome! And how strange! Wait, delightful! Previous to this book, I had already published probably two to three books worth of single-serving stories—and now have six to eight manuscripts for which I need to start seeking homes—but it’s still quite grand to have my first actual book come out of the gate and land where readers can purchase it. I am overjoyed, but I am quite simple in that the largest excitement I derive from this publication still comes from the excitement and joy reflected by friends and family at this new success, as well as the heady and interesting experience of new readers addressing 300+ pages of my work—and coming from out of the woodwork to remark that they’ve read what I’ve written. That’s a thrill. It’s like my words have entered a larger echo-chamber now. I’m still kind of small and shy in the bigger room, though–wondering how I got here and glad just the same that I’ve arrived.
FFC: You have Flannery O’Connor in a room with you. She stares at you. She smiles and tilts her head. She has read “Good Country. People.” What do you think she is thinking? What would you tell her?
HF: I think she is thinking: All right. All right. But could you have brought in more of my devout Catholicism?
And I am thinking, in reply: I knew you might have been thinking that, Flannery, but can we focus for a moment upon how I pummeled your derelict salesman? That was good, wasn’t it?
She laughs and doesn’t bother to explain herself. And then maybe she asks if I want some sweet tea, wearing that fabulous expression she so often wears that looks both like you left a dirty diaper in her car and like she would like to ruffle your hair.
Because she is wily, I smile and nod, fearful she will think I am a blathering idiot—which will probably create my own speech as replica as soon as I open my mouth. I want to speak. But I’m having trouble speaking as, “Tea?” she asks again, lifting one eyebrow, looking at me like I have considered the initial question for far too long already and she is about to sweep me out.
At this point in the exchange, I am pretty sure she thinks me somewhat dim-witted rather than just awed by her, delighted by her, and an unfortunate yet hellacious blend of a person who portends to be both ornery and shy in the shakedown.
So, of course, I tell her, “Yes. Tea, please, ma’am. Thank you. My throat was so dry I could hardly speak…. Say, can I see the geraniums? Are they here? Oh, never mind if it’s too much trouble. The Misfit—can we talk about the Misfit? But, tea. Yes. Sorry. Back to your question. Yes. Tea.”
Hey, it’s Flannery: What do you think I’d say? “Yes. Yes, and yes.” I would always tell her yes.
Heather Fowler received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. She has taught composition, literature, and writing-related courses at UCSD, California State University at Stanislaus, and Modesto Junior College. Her fabulist fiction has been published online and in print in the US, England, Australia, and India, as well as recently nominated for both the storySouth Million Writers Award and Sundress Publications Best of the Net. She was Guest Editor for Zoetrope All-Story Extra in March and April of 2000. Fowler’s story, “Slut,” won third prize at the 2000 California Writer’s Conference in Monterey. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, was recently featured at The Nervous Breakdown, poeticdiversity, and The Medulla Review, and has been selected for a joint first place in the 2007 Faringdon Online Poetry Competition
Check out Heather’s website !
Here is information about her collection Suspended Heart from Aqueous book.
Read “Good Country. People.”