Cain’t Do Nothing with Love — Author Q&A
Most first short story collections are released in print by publishing houses. Why did you decide to record your short stories and release them yourself?
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “no one’s buying story collections anymore.” I’m not sure I buy this, but the reception for collections is tepid enough to make it a real slog. Thinking about it, I realized many of these stories have already been published. Whatever “pop” I would get from acceptance and stamp of approval, I’d already received when the journals sent me the “congratulations—you’ve been accepted!” news. So why not present them in a way I found fun?
Were you self-conscious about recording the stories yourself, rather than having a voice-over artist do it for you?
Years ago, when I was recording commentaries for WKNO-FM NPR for the Mid-South, the first time I heard my very Southern voice on the play-back, I thought I was going to die. Over time, I got used to it. I also hope I learned over the years how to best use my voice in recording. Because of this experience at WKNO, the idea of recording my own work was familiar to me.
I see from your bio that you’ve written more stories than appear in this collection. How did you choose which stories to include?
I went through the normal analysis for creating a collection: unity of tone and connection of theme. In addition, I read the stories aloud to make sure they were good candidates for recording. I learned in doing my commentaries that stories read silently, oral or told stories, and stories read aloud are all slightly different. Several stories I originally intended to include in Cain’t Do Nothing with Love got cut because the structure or the narrative did not lend itself to listening.
The stories are told from many different points of view: young and old, male and female, the well-off and working folks. Is that something you do on purpose?
Stories have always come to me through the character; the story originates with, and belongs to, a particular character. So, no—I do not consciously decide to include a diversity of voices in my stories, nor could I tell these same stories from another point of view—a different character speaking would lead to an entirely different story.
All the stories are told in first person except for one, The Gift of the Elephant, which is told in third person. Why did you include this story?
My first favorite short story collection was Golden Apples by Eudora Welty. The stories are set in a small Southern town, except for one set in San Francisco. I don’t know if I heard her say so in an interview or I simply concluded she did this on purpose to prevent a sense of claustrophobia. Either way, that was my take-away from the collection, and I’ve followed that structure of including one outlier.
The stories are set in several different states: Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, and North Carolina. Was there something drawing you to each setting?
For the most part, the stories were written from incidents that happened when I lived in those states. I lived in Mississippi as an adult for nineteen years; we had a river house in Alabama for ten years; we now split our time between Memphis and New Orleans. The exception to this is the North Carolina story—although I lived in North Carolina for thirteen years, I set the story in Charlotte because my parents live there.
Many of the stories engage what could be called liberal or progressive themes; this is reflected in the charities you’ve linked them with. Are you concerned that some readers might be put off by this?
I’m not sure anyone would place a political label on the stories just from reading them. On the other hand, they might have such a view of some of the charities I’ve picked which champion the themes. So, in a backdoor way, they could be viewed as political, but I did not so view them when I wrote them. I hope people will read the stories and decide for themselves if they enjoyed them.
Your first book was a nonfiction book on cross making as a form of physical prayer. In these stories, you’ve got Jesus and the Devil, as well as some, let’s say colorful, characters. Are these stories a break from your religious writing, or do you see some sort of connection?
At one point when I noticed how often Jesus popped up in the stories, I thought about releasing my first collection as “Jesus in the New South.” But not all the stories I wanted to include fit that description so I reshuffled the deck and came up with this collection, which I think is more authentic. My writing is never going to be too far removed from my constant sense of God in the world. Some folks might not recognize it as God, but I do.
Are any of the characters based on real people, family and friends maybe?
I can’t write off people I know. The characters become wooden, constrained by what I know about the person. The only real people I can use are those I do not know, such as the man I glimpsed in the grocery store who became the narrator in “Ain’t No Commies ‘Round Here.” Fleeting glimpses, fleshed into characters.
What are you hoping for this story collection? What would you consider a “success”?
I want people to listen to the stories and enjoy them. I want them to laugh. I want the characters to return in their thoughts when they don’t expect it. I hope listeners want to hear more of my work. And it would be really nice if folks would actually donate to the charities.