An Interview with Danielle Evans

Conducted By: Sienna Strickland, Tess Varley, and Talia Rueda.

Daniella Evans is a young and successful author who is currently coming out with her second novel, ​The Office of Historical Corrections​. Throughout her career she has written pieces highlighting the themes of race, class, gender, and self-actualization. Her first story collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self​ was published roughly a decade ago in 2010, receiving an immense amount of positive recognition. This collection of short stories earned her a spot on the National Book Foundation’s “Five Under 35” list. A successful writer in her own right, she moved on to teaching others the craft. She has taught creative writing at American University & University of Wisconsin Madison, and teaches now in The Writing Seminars at John Hopkins University. Danielle Evans with her uplifting voice, keeps short stories alive as she pulls younger readers in.

Her stories have been published in endless magazines, some of which being ​The Paris Review​, ​A Public Space,​ and in ​American Short Fiction.​ She has been featured in ​The Best American Short Stories​ for four years. Evans’ success has been documented through interviews with ​The New York Times,​ ​Esquire,​ ​Poets & Writers​, and many more. Lastly, Evan’s writing has earned her numerous awards: the PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Hurston-Wright award for fiction, the Paterson Prize for Fiction, and others.

1. How did you get into writing? What influences informed this choice?

I think, like a lot of writers, writing felt for me like a natural extension of reading. I loved stories, so I wanted to tell my own. I felt pulled by books into other people worlds and lives and I wanted to share worlds I made.

2. Did you start writing as an undergrad? What was your writing like when you started out?

I had always written, but I started writing fiction more seriously and thinking about what it would mean to be a writer as a profession in college after taking creative writing courses. Two of the stories in my first book were initially in my undergraduate thesis, so clearly some of my interests and obsessions started early. But the rest of that work felt like practice—I was still trying to figure out how to structure a short story, instead of just producing the right number of pages of writing.

3. Do you think schooling made your writing better or would you attribute improvement to personal experience?

I definitely think my education helped me be a better writer, though certainly there are aspects of that process people can replicate outside of school—school was just where I happened to do it. And there is no process, really, that makes the blank page less intimidating—all of our craft talk is about revision, but that’s where most of the work gets done. Workshop is essentially an editorial process, where you learn to hear and filter feedback, and better articulate your own vision for your work, so that helped me better form a sense of my own aesthetics and gave me a more clear vocabulary for thinking about my intentions. And, going to a funded MFA program gave me two years of time to primarily be a writer, without having to publish or sell anything before it was ready, or divide my time and work at something else to support myself, so that was certainly useful.

4. When you were a child did you ever see yourself becoming a writer one day? Were you a reader as a child? What other interests did you have?

I don’t know that I understood “writer” to be an actual job, but I certainly always wrote and wanted to write books. I also wanted to be an actress and a lawyer and a politician, but writing was the thing that came most naturally to me.

5. What was your route to being published?

I met my agent in graduate school. At the time I had a draft of my short story collection, so I told her I would work until I had both a story collection and a novel, because the conventional advice then was that you needed a novel in order to sell a story collection to a major publisher—they were more likely to buy both than just a collection. But, then I spent the first year out of school continuing to work on the stories—writing some new work that rounded out the collection, and revising a lot of what I’d already written and sending a few stories out to magazines—and by the end of that year I thought I didn’t know when I might write a novel but the stories were ready to go out. Happily, my agent, and then eventually my publisher, agreed.

6. What do you enjoy writing about? What kind of stories do you enjoy telling?

I don’t know that there’s any particular plot I’m most drawn to. I tend to gravitate toward realism, though not exclusively. I think the most recurring narrative obsession in my work is the difference between our interior lives and our exterior lives, and what happens when people by choice or because some external structure requires it, begin to perform a version of themselves that is vastly different than who they want to be.

7. Is your most famous work, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Selfyour favorite? If not, what is and why?

Well, for another week at least, this is still my only published work, so I don’t know how much longer it will be my most famous! Every book is in some ways a record of the writer you were when you wrote it, so I remain really proud of that book on its own terms, but, having spent years working on a new project, I now feel closer to the questions of that work, because I’m closer to being the person who wrote it. Post-publication is a weird process though, and I expect I’ll quickly go from being happy and eager to talk about the new book to feeling exposed or like I have nothing to offer to a conversation about the book that I didn’t offer in the book itself. It’s possible that process will be disorienting enough to make me feel closer to the first book, the book no one was waiting for, but I suspect that, just as publicity for a book tends to be temporary, my feelings about it will also pass.

  1. What is the significance of the title, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,and what does it mean to you? The title comes from the poem in the epigraph of the collection, Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem”. The poem is about navigating and negotiating situations where the speaker is at the center of everything but still an outsider—as a Black woman, as an artist, as a daughter—about being treated like a bridge between or for other people and learning to be a bridge to her own honest self instead. It seems to speak to the work of the stories in the collection, most of which involve characters involved in similar negotiations.
  2. The characters of the short story “Virgins” and the situations they find themselves as burgeoning young women feel very real to the maturing experience. What inspired the premise of this story? How much of real life was infused into this work?

One of my favorite writers, Tayari Jones, says this thing “If you know how it feels to be trapped in an elevator, you can write about being trapped in a spaceship.” Our work as fiction writers is to create a context and raise the stakes and find a way to make the feeling of the story still ring true. So, certainly I know what it feels like to be an adolescent and be confused about whether other people’s desire for you is something that gives you power or something that gives them control, how it feels to wonder where your agency is or make a choice because you think the other options will be worse, how it feels to be in a fraught friendship or feel like you betrayed a friend but the alternative was to betray yourself. Most of us who’ve lived through adolescence know all of those feelings! And I tend to set stories in places I’m at least partially familiar with, so that I don’t have to wholly invent a landscape. But the specific characters and plot are all invented, since that’s my job.

10. One of our favorite parts about “Virgins” was the presence of the protagonists’ voice throughout. Is this something that lends itself to the first person POV of the story, or is it a universal tool in your writing toolkit?

I think it was really important to me that “Virgins” be in first person, because part of what I wanted in that story was to make sure that Erica didn’t get reduced to some more cliché narrative of a girl who made a bad decision. I wanted her inner life to be complex and her way of seeing the world to be interesting and often clear-eyed. A first person narrative is always part of the story—it’s part of the after of the story, the who was this person then and who are they now, and it makes the structure part of the characterization—how does this person tell this story? It was a way to leave in place some of the story’s thematic questions.

11. What does Erica, the main character in “Virgins,” mean to you?

I don’t know that I think of the character in those terms—I hope, at least, that she’s layered enough to feel like a complete person, which hopefully makes it harder for her to be assigned any purely symbolic weight.

12. ​How do you come up with the storyline for your stories?

Usually for me a story comes into focus when I start to see a connection between two things that would seem unrelated, and I feel like I can write my way into that unexpected connection. A story might start with a voice or setting or character or image or thematic question, and it starts to turn into a story when I figure out what second thing it’s in conversation with.

13. What makes a good short story for you?

I talk to my students about stories in terms of operating questions. I think a story has an immediate or active or narrative question that it offers toward the beginning and promises to answer toward the end, and a larger question, or set of questions, that it promises to leave for the reader. Many of my favorite short stories also make use of time in a compelling way. Because the story form is compressed, the active part of the story is often zoomed in on one pressure point, or one moment that feels like it’s some kind of dividing line between before and after. I think the stories that stay with me, or move me the most tend to move through time, so you have that moment, but you also get glimpses of the past and the future that magnify its place in the character’s lives.

14. What is writing to you? An escape? Spiritual practice? Work? All of the above, maybe? Plus also a compulsion and an offering.

15. What are you most excited for readers to learn from your new book, The Office of Historical Corrections?

I don’t really think of fiction in terms of learning—if I had clear information or instruction I wanted to impart, I’d put it in one of the forms of nonfiction that exists for that. Part of why fiction is an act of faith is that you’re trusting the reader to have a substantial part of the conversation. I think the thematic questions of the book are perhaps more consistent than the

stories in my first book—they circle apology, correction, history, the value of correcting the record and what it costs to do so—but the work in the book is more divergent in style and tone.

16. What was your inspiration for The Office of Historical Correctionsand when did you begin working on it?

As is often the case with short story collections, I was working on it before I knew that I was working on it. So, I’ve been writing stories for this new book since my first book was published in 2010—in one case even before that. When I had enough stories to see the book come together, I realized that to me, in addition to the thematic questions I mentioned in the previous response, it’s emotional territory was about grief, anxiety, and about the terrible tension between joy and hope during a period of crisis—the way a nihilistic joy can arrive in times when hope feels like impossible work, but it’s that joy of letting go that brings us back to the desire to survive and build something better, to the space of hope which feels in some ways harder than joy because it involves so much hard work and unearned faith in the future.

17. In “Nobody’s Gonna Sleep Here Honey,” you write about a futuristic society that seemed like a heightened version of the past America, was this your vision when writing it?

I actually wrote that story out of a profound fear for the future after the 2016 election and the general rise of open white supremacy that in my view led to it. My parents were born in this country in the late 1950’s—a country where they didn’t universally have the right to vote and open discrimination was legal. The recognition of the basic civil rights of Black people in the U.S. is relatively new, and clearly not at all sacred to most people. I worried that within my lifetime I was potentially looking at living in a country without those rights again—I saw the end of the Voting Rights act, open appeals to armed poll watchers in diverse neighborhoods, the attempts to normalize gerrymandering, disenfranchisement, and threats against anyone left wing, the legal and police protection of the right of assembly for violent white supremacist groups while arresting, teargassing, and shooting with rubber bullets crowds protesting for due process for Black Americans. I was and am terrified of the future, and of how quickly I felt like we could find ourselves back in the kind of fascist white supremacism that existed for most of this country’s history and never fully went away. The story was a way to write into that fear on a more extreme timeline. But, it didn’t fit in my new collection in part because it was so much shorter than everything else and in part because it was written out of a very specific period of anxiety, and as time passed, I felt like some parts of the future were already worse than my story imagined and some of them were less dystopian, and it was both too late and too soon to try to commit to print something that tried to speak directly to the present moment, when so much is in flux.

18. Did your own personal story of getting your first ears pierced relate to the story told in “A Natural History of My Earlobes?”

That is one of the few pieces of nonfiction I’ve ever written. If I had published it today, I would have called it an essay. But, in 2008 when I wrote it, I had never written creative nonfiction, and I didn’t know if you could write an essay in the second person and I didn’t know who to ask!