Misty Urban’s debut collection, “A Lesson in Manners,” offers a lesson in exceptional storytelling. In an interview through email, Urban, who lives in Muscatine and is also the manager of femmeliterate.net, reflects on the award the book has won and considers her themes and influences.
Q: The collection won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Tell me about that process. Did you collect these stories specifically to submit to the competition? Has winning the award been a boon in terms of distribution and attracting readers?
A: The Serena McDonald Kennedy Award for fiction is a yearly award sponsored by Snake Nation Press, a small, independent, free-spirited publisher operating out of Valdosta, Ga. The prize comes with a monetary award and publication.
It took me a long time to finish “Planet Joy,” the last story, but once it was done, I felt the collection was complete, so I sent the manuscript to a handful of contests and had the extraordinary good fortune to have it selected by judge Jacob M. Appel for the Kennedy Award.
Snake Nation doesn’t have a huge distribution — right now the book is only available through (its) website (snakenationpress.org) but it does sound awfully nice to say I have an award-winning book, and I think they did a beautiful job on the production. Story collections are hard sells to begin with, and story collections from small presses hardest of all, so I don’t expect huge sales or readership. Like most authors, I will be happy if a few people read the book, feel drawn into a story or two, and maybe mention it to their friends.
In an interesting coincidence, when I was in graduate school in New York and first sending stories out to contests, more than once I was beat out by a very prolific and talented author called Jacob Appel. I started to ask myself, “Who is this Jacob Appel guy? I need to learn to write as well as he does.” So it’s funny and wonderful and bizarre that he should have been the judge who picked my manuscript out of the pile. Now we’re planning readings together, so he’s turned into my mentor in a very real way.
Q: You employ a variety of narrative approaches throughout the book. When you start a new story, how do you find your way to the narrative voice? Are you conscious of a desire to try different approaches or do those choices emerge more organically?
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A: I’ll admit that sometimes I try a new technique just to see if I can do it. An author I admire — I think Francine Prose in “Reading Like a Writer” — mentioned that true omniscient narrators are hard to do well, but it’s the most powerful technique in fiction. Naturally in my next story I set out to use a true omniscient point of view. “Ask” hasn’t been published yet, so perhaps I’m not doing it well enough.
But, most of the time, the narrative choice comes from what the character has to say. “The Memoirs of Sam Wesson” began and stayed as first person; her voice was distinct and she was determined to tell her side of things. “Green Space” had to be first-person because Amelia is so stuck inside her own head; same with John from “Monsoon.” “The Keeping of the Counts” began from the viewpoint of Joseph, the boy, but that didn’t work at all — the story turned out to be Helen’s. “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County” began with the title and then a line: “Dacey still hadn’t told Steve about the money.” So the third-person narration flowed from there.
The title story, “A Lesson in Manners,” went through all sorts of narrators before I settled on second person. Second person, as we’re all told, is very hard to pull off and should be avoided at all costs, but I chose it specifically for that sense of disassociation and dissonance. The discomfort of the voice is part of the story’s effect.
Q: Coming to terms with the illness of a loved one (or one’s own illness) is a theme of several of the stories (“A Lesson in Manners,” “The Keeping of the Counts,” “Green Space,” “Planet Joy”). What brings you back to that subject?
A: Writers tend to have their favorite themes and obsessions, and mine is grief. The grief of losing someone, the grief of not having something you want, or the grief of not feeling like you belong in your own skin: it’s something shared among all the characters in my short stories, both in this collection and the one I’m working on now.
Or the grief so huge you cannot even acknowledge it, like Andrea in “Still Life with Dog” insisting that everything is not about her mother, when that abandonment gapes hugely in her life. Grief is so interesting, in all its layers, its complexity, its power to haunt or ennoble us. And “A Lesson in Manners” came from that interest, from wondering how specifically one might behave to lessen grief, or spare oneself — which is, of course, impossible, in real life, to do.
Q: Reading “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County” brought Flannery O’Connor to mind and raised the question of influences. Who do you think of when you consider writers who have influenced your work?
A: Lorrie Moore is probably the person I’ve stolen most from, but who wouldn’t? She’s extraordinary. Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty are the short-story writers I’ve most studied and enjoyed. I adore Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Jhumpa Lahiri, Robert Olen Butler and Melissa Banks. I probably steal from whomever I’ve read most recently, but why not steal from the greats? At a recent reading a friend told me my story reminded her of Alice Munro, and I went home and hugged myself for an hour.
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But my greatest influences have been the teachers who taught me how to write: Mark Winegardner, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Stephanie Vaughn, Maureen McCoy and Claire Davis. I owe them great thanks.
Q: In addition to a fiction writer, you’re a reviewer, an editor, a medievalist (and former professor), and a non-fiction writer. How do those various activities contribute to (or distract from) your fiction?
A: Distract from is right! I often wonder if my medieval scholarship and non-fiction work are just ploys to keep me from the story I’m working on. But really all these tasks are different modes of reading and writing and thinking, so I like to think it all works together somehow — that all the literary energy comes from the same place and achieves the same thing, a better understanding of stories and their profound power.
One summer I did an experiment and made myself sit down and write every day, the same novel, every day. I started chewing paint off the walls. Either I lack discipline or I need to give my work space to breathe, and having a different project to turn to gives me lots of pauses, lots of air holes.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Fun stuff. I’m sending a second collection, “The Necessaries,” out to contests and editing a collection of essays of medieval scholarship on Melusine. There’s a whole world of book promotion and marketing that has opened up now that “A Lesson in Manners” is out. But my heart is currently with a novel that I’ve just sent out to beta readers, a big fat historical novel about a girl mathematician. I’m hoping that finds a life in the world.
I would tell all the writers out there struggling with rejection that this book took 20 years to develop. Twenty years! I am an expert at long gestation. Believe in your story, do the work, and you will find your reader. I promise.