Interview conducted by Jennifer Bass (Pitzer '20).
Danielle Evans is a fiction writer who received a bachelor’s degree from Columbia University and MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Evans has received numerous accolades, including the Hurston-Wright Award, the Paterson Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” selection. Her stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, most notably Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Short Stories collections in 2008, 2010, 2017 and 2018. Evans’ first short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self won the 2011 PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize. Evans has taught creative writing at American University in Washington D.C. and the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and she now teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. daniellevevans.com
I read a New York Times review of your book Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self that praised the pattern of “in-betweener” characters in the stories. Do you relate to the idea of being an “in-betweener,” and if so, in what other ways has that influenced your writing process?
I’m not sure I’d specifically identify with that description, though it doesn’t feel wrong either. I think in many ways most artists, and most of the fictional characters readers are drawn to, tend to move between worlds. In order to write about something you have to care deeply enough about it to want to commit to paper, and know it well enough to get the details right, but also be able to step outside of it well enough to see it clearly, and from multiple perspective. So, the lens of writing is often generally about moving between worlds. As a writer I think a lot about interiority and performance—the difference between a characters interior self and exterior self, how aware characters are of the ways in which their exterior self is a performance, who in a story has the power to make other people perform for them, and of course, how structural identities play into all of that. But I guess because I think we are all, as humans, always moving between worlds, and to some degree moving between selves, it doesn’t feel to me specifically unique to my writing, or to my experience.
How would you describe your relationship with your writing? How has that relationship evolved since you first began to write?
My writing and I have good days and bad days. Sometimes good years and bad years. I have always known about myself that I’m not the kind of writer who will sit down every day at the same time and write x number of words, and that hasn’t changed. I write when the writing is there. That means I have to make space for it—to be willing to drop whatever else I’m doing when inspiration strikes, and to be reading, and thinking about my writing projects, and engaging the world in such a way that I’m open to the story when the story wants to arrive. I do think I’ve become, over time, a better editor of my own work—I can see more clearly now the drafting mistakes I tend to make, and avoid them or correct them quickly, and I can articulate better, at the end of a first draft, what I wanted a story to do, which makes draft two easier.
What sources typically inform or influence your writing (i.e., formal research, personal experience, other authors/books, etc.)?
All of the above? I generally feel like something goes from “vague idea” or “pretty sentence” to the beginning of a story when I see a connection between two things that aren’t obviously connected, and start to write my way into what ties them together. So often it’s something from one of those categories, and something else from another.
Do you write poetry? How does your process differ from your other forms of writing, if at all? (I personally find the line between my poetry and short stories to be pretty blurred.)
I don’t write poetry. I did, briefly, in college, and I was a thoroughly mediocre poet. If I had been a bad one, I might have tried harder to get better, but I was just like deeply OK at it, and kind of content with being OK—I would write a poem and feel better having gotten the word or idea out and lack interest in revising, whereas with fiction I would be driven mad by the difference between the thing I’d intended to write and the thing I’d actually written, and feel compelled to keep revising and revising until it got better. There is, for me, a flash fiction/prose poem space that’s perfectly in the middle of the short story/poem venn diagram, but I think, at least as a writer really interested in plot, the structure or intention of a short story is usually different than the structure of a poem. Both forms require a kind of intense and vivid energy, but a short story is asking you to walk through a door, a poem is asking you to look through a window. A short story wants you to experience, in some way, a before and after, and a poem wants you to focus on the part of whole you’re being shown, without necessarily having enough context to impose some kind of narrative sense on it.
Do you have a favorite writing spot(s)?
Before this month I would have said coffee shops, but alas, who knows when we’ll be able to hang on in coffee shops again. I tend to be a night owl though, so I’ve always written a lot in my home. I used to write at night in my living room, sprawled on the sofa, but a few months ago I moved my desk to between the window and the fireplace in my bedroom, and it has great light and peoplewatching while also feeling cozy, so for the first time I’ve actually been able to get creative work done while sitting at my desk.
How has your identity as a Black woman played a role in your personal and professional development as a writer?
It’s hard for me to answer this as a writing specific question, because identity is so central to my broader experience of being a person that it’s trickier to pin down what specific ways are related to writing. I think certainly, my recurring thematic interest in performance and interiority comes from thinking about race and gender and being very aware of how power structures can demand gendered or racialized performance. I think I also have a sense of clarity about how subjective aesthetic judgment can be, and that I am working ultimately to please myself, specifically because I understand, as a Black Woman, that it would be futile to write to seek validation from spaces that have historically been invalidating.
What are the good and “not-as-good” parts of being a professor?
I think by far the best thing is that, in a world where you often hear that the arts in general, or novels, or stories, don’t matter, I get to see on a regular basis students be transformed by either reading something they fall in love with or writing something that shifts their sense of self. So I never linger long on that “does writing matter” existential crisis, because I can see how it does. And I am lucky to have a stable job with a reasonable teaching load, so I have the time to give to my students and my work, and the stability of knowing I can take my time with writing projects and still pay my bills. The less good personal part is that as a professor, and a writer, which includes both the actual writing and the public work of “being a writer”/promoting or discussing my work, I have three set jobs with no hours, so it can feel like I’m always supposed to be working, or any down time is wasting time. The less personal less good part is that institutions are institutions, so at any given moment the institution or someone in it is probably doing something nefarious, and you have to negotiate your own relationship to that—at what points am I helping to solve the institutional problems, and helping other people do good within the institution and at what point am I oblivious, or not speaking up for fear of losing the good parts of my career?
What is the relationship between your academic career as a professor and your writing career? Which areas are separate, which overlap, and which are dependent upon one another?
Well, my academic career depends on my writing career, insofar as if I don’t write enough or it isn’t deemed important enough, I will not get tenure and then I won’t have an academic career anymore. But, I remind myself, my writing career does not depend on my academic career. Writing doesn’t require an institutional structure, and if I weren’t teaching, I would miss students, but I would be writing anyway. I like being an artist in the academy because of some what I said in the question before—meaning and stability—plus having access to libraries full of treasures and interesting colleagues who care about things I care about, or can introduce me to new ideas or subjects. But it feels important to remind myself that I’m here, writing within the academy, because I want to be, and because my job as a professor is more sustaining than depleting, and to check in often enough to make sure that’s still true and figure out what circumstances need to change if it isn’t.