by Anna Clark
- USA -
There comes a time when a reader is starved for something new.
A lot of tremendous fiction is being published these days, but most people don’t ever hear about it. In a time when big publishers pay to place their titles on the front tables of bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, when book reviews are slashed in most periodicals, when smaller publishers simply don’t have the cash to send their brightest talents out on book tours—then the avid reader tends to hear about the same authors over and over again, while work they might fall in love with slips through the cracks.
I love Cynthia Reeves’ new book, Badlands, winner of the 2006 Miami University Press Novella Contest. Being the work of a debut author and published by a small publisher, I might not have heard of it if I hadn’t attended graduate school with Reeves. The two of us entered the fiction program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina in 2004. Reeves worked on this book as a student, which meant that I was lucky enough to see the beginnings of Badlands. I was drawn to her creative sensibility; her story tells itself not in the traditional “first this, then that” chronology of mainstream fiction. Rather, her characters are developed through the juxtaposition of their dreams and memories with their present lives.
Not as long as a novel but much longer than a story, Badlands is a novella. When Reeves conceived the first seeds of the story ten years ago, she imagined it as three separate short stories that zeroed in on three moments of a marriage. Reeves returned to the story occasionally, but she says that Badlands didn’t really get started until she sent it to her Warren Wilson teacher, Michael Martone. Martone didn’t offer feedback—which “let loose” something in Reeves, leading her to write freely and to cease worrying about its final form.
Though Reeves is working in an uncommon genre—one that’s rarely published these days—she believes it to be the right choice.
“I think the novella’s great strength is what its in-betweenness allows the writer to do,” Reeves says. “The novella gives writers tremendous flexibility in structure and language precisely because it’s long enough to develop a subject and short enough to challenge the reader without unduly taxing his or her patience.”
And this novella is worth your notice.
Reeves lives near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two children. She’s now at work on a novel-in-stories set in post-World War I Italy.
Badlands draws from the history of America, architecture, anthropology, archeology, biography, and language. How did you fit research into your creative process? How did you keep the narrative grounded in facts, without letting facts dictate your fiction?
For me, the creative process is fed by words—whether those words are poetry, fiction, history, biography, or letters. If the story has a historical component, or depends on some factual material to create authenticity, I will spend a great deal of time researching and taking notes about things that interest me or that spark something intangible.
I start writing when I feel I have some momentum in the fictional asides in my notes. The factual notes are there for reference, but I find that the spirit of the research flows into the work, lending it authenticity without overly relying on facts. I do try to nail a particular detail if it’s important to the story. For example, with Badlands, I was especially concerned about incorporating material from Sioux history and culture as accurately as possible because I’m writing from outside that culture. I didn’t want to add to centuries of misunderstanding by being sloppy with my research.
But what dictates my fiction is not facts, but truth—the human element of the story. I want to find a way to make the lives of my characters meaningful to readers.
In your research, how did first-person oral histories compare to re-told histories—particularly of the Ghost Dance and the Wounded Knee massacre?
I relied more on first-person oral histories than on recorded histories of the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee. I wasn’t interested in a coherent narrative that explained the timeline and significance of events as screened through the eyes of a single historian. What fascinated me was the disparity between the first-person accounts—not only between the Sioux accounts and those of the soldiers who participated in the massacre as well as other witnesses, but also within each group. I was trying to get at the nature of truth.
Badlands gives weight to hallucinations, dreams, spiritual faith, and memories. As a result, the reader feels the dissonance that the characters feel. How did you craft this so that the reader, searching for traditional narrative clarity, doesn’t give up in frustration? Because it isn’t frustrating at all—it’s powerful.
Despite the fractured narrative, there are several threads that propel the reader forward. Will Caro die? Will Daniel discover Caro’s secret? How will Caro resolve her conflict with Dietrich and the guilt over the unburied bones? What reader doesn’t want to find out what happens? It’s that simple, really. I know some writers say they write for themselves, or for themselves first, but I keep the reader in mind as I write.I want to honor the narrative line, albeit in an unusual way. For the reader, I think there’s a certain satisfaction is trying to piece everything together to create one story even if it’s an impossible task. Like putting together one of those two-sided, uniformly-colored jigsaw puzzles. Badlands doesn’t wrap up in any neat fashion, but there’s a sense of closure.
The story is also full of powerful emotion that had to be controlled through the use of language. The more lyrical passages tend to be those in which the underlying emotions are muted, whereas in several of the fraught family scenes, the language had to be stripped down to prevent those scenes from becoming sentimental. I find that understatement adds to the power of those scenes.
I was also consciously trying to capture the way thinking and dreaming and hallucinating feel through the use of associative language and juxtaposition. I studied the work of several writers I admire who succeeded in making me feel like I was inside the character’s mind, feeling what the character felt. Katherine Anne Porter’s "Pale Horse," "Pale Rider," "Old Mortality," and "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall" were especially useful. She was adept at mirroring the landscape of the mind through her choice of point of view, narrative distance, and use of language. Studying these aspects of her work let me see how she captured the workings of the human mind: its complexity and texture, its ambiguities and contradictions, and the irreality of its dreams and nightmares.
Porter’s goal was to grasp through the mind of a single character some essential truths of the human experience. In almost all of her work, a single viewpoint character drives the psychological effects of the story. I included the viewpoints of two characters because, unlike Porter, I was interested in the nature of conflicting truths. What the reader of Badlands responds to is this feeling of being inside the characters, so much so that at the end, most readers have the emotional response of the character.
Language figures heavily into Badlands. While present-day Caro, sick and medicated, struggles to express herself with words, it is her husband Daniel who stumbled over his sentences when the two first met their senior year of college. How do you use dialogue, and wordlessness, to define your characters?
Caro is the character who loves words—who used to read and write poetry, who spends most of the novella attempting to create a story for the unidentified bones—and yet she is the one who has lost much of her ability to speak coherently. Her life occurs mostly in the interior—in her dreams and hallucinations—the only place she is now able to express herself clearly. In fact, she actually becomes more powerful within her dream world as her grasp on the exterior diminishes. Yet Caro’s transformation takes place outside of what we would call reality. Does the fact that it is reality for her make it true?
Daniel is the quiet one, the man who took four years to say hello to Caro, and then only because an accident forced him to speak. But he’s not inarticulate; he’s shy, and he just doesn’t see the point in wasting words, or in wasting words to describe things that aren’t true. At least not true for him. As the novella unfolds, his fundamental perception of truth shifts, and so does the way in which he uses language. The only real dialogue between Caro and Daniel occurs in the final chapter. That’s not accidental, and I think it’s what makes that final scene so powerful.
At times, characters speak in French or in the Lakota Sioux language. Sometimes you translate their words into English, sometimes you don’t. What did you want these languages to add to the story, and how is their affect on the narrative influenced by whether or not a translation appears?
For the most part, I translate foreign words into English immediately, unless their meaning is clear from the context. I tend not to repeat the translation, trusting the reader to remember at least the spirit of the words. I try to balance the intrusiveness of translation with the reader’s frustration of not understanding foreign words.
The exceptions occur in the stream of voices in Chapter 4. Partly this is because I wanted that stream of voices to mimic the way Caro’s mind is working: she would hear the Lakota without necessarily translating the words in her head. The opening line “Ee-nah, hay coo-e-yay” is translated in the final lines of that stream as “Mother, come back.” But one line—“Haŋ le miye što”—remains a mystery until the Miniconjou mother appears to Caro later in the novella. This was a way of creating suspense and underscoring the importance of the words, the sacredness of the words, so to speak.
The sacredness of words also has something to do with the way I use foreign languages, for example, the French phrase “ces mauvaises terres.” French fur traders called the land “these bad lands,” and that name stuck in English. But the Sioux had a different name for the land—Paha ska or White Hills—which emerges during a scene between Little Magpie and Caro. What is the importance of a name? Well, in this case, I think it has to do with taking possession of something by naming it. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s not.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
The older I get, the more interested I am in capturing the netherworld that reflects the compromises demanded by human nature, and the acceptance or rejection of those limitations.
The extended version of this interview is available at Anna Clark's literary and social justice website, Isak.
About the Author
Anna Clark is a freelance journalist and fiction writer living in Detroit, MI. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Utne Reader, Women's eNews, Bitch Magazine, Writers' Journal, RH Reality Check, and other publications. She maintains the literary and social justice website, Isak.