The writer Tobias Wolff has said, “Other than very small children, we are all in some way responsible for the position in which we find ourselves.” In my teaching and my writing, I’m centrally interested in how we—as readers, as authors, as narrators—take and avoid responsibility, and how, more often than not, taking responsibility involves expanding one’s imaginative capacities. In her author’s note about her story “The Girl on the Plane,” Mary Gaitskill writes about being contacted by a reader who didn’t know what to feel when he read her story; he wanted to know how he was supposed to feel. Gaitskill writes, “You’re not supposed to feel anything. You feel what you feel. Where you go with it is your responsibility.” She goes on to argue that a reader who cannot take responsibility for feelings will never be able to take responsibility for actions. I tend to agree.
In my own fiction writing, I find that despite writing about a wide variety of people, places, and time periods (everything from 1970s New York City to 1960s China to 1870s North Adams to 1990s Kentucky), all of my fiction is centrally concerned (obsessed?) with the way my characters swing between protecting themselves and taking responsibility for themselves. I’m interested in the sources and consequences of those behaviors, and the way in which expanding our abilities to empathize always enables the possibility of our accepting responsibility, whereas limiting our imaginative reach always seems to diminish that possibility.
Of course, there are other obsessions in my fiction, I’m sure (though I’m probably the least qualified person to name them): the limits to how well we can know even those closest to us; the uses and abuses of power in groups of girls and women; the dark and difficult terrain of parent/child relationships; the particular positions of mixed-race characters. And although I’ve written from first, second, and third points of view, most recently, I’ve been loving the omniscient voice. Following models like Edward Jones and Alice Munro, I find myself fascinated with the effects of that extreme flexibility when it comes to perspective, time, and space. My loved ones will tell you, with some irritation, that I was born to write in the omniscient voice, given how bossy and all-knowing I pretend to be. I would tell you that I’m only pretending, imagining that I’m all-knowing. When I’m lucky, that pretending renders my capacities for imagination and empathy a little bit broader and wider and sturdier. When I’m really lucky, I can communicate some of that to my readers and my students.
M.F.A. University of Houston, English (1992)
Areas of Expertise
Creative Writing (Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction), Contemporary American Literature, Contemporary Memoir, Historical Fiction.