Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Carolyn Ferrell

photo credit: Matt Licari
Carolyn Ferrell’s short-story collection, Don’t Erase Me, won awards from the Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares, and more. Her stories have been selected for anthologies by Roxane Gay and Curtis Sittenfeld, among others. A recipient of grants from the Fulbright Association and the National Endowment for the Arts, Ferrell teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and lives in New York.

Her new novel is Dear Miss Metropolitan.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

What a great question. I think some readers might find the title a bit intriguing, because the eponymous Miss Metropolitan occupies comparatively little space in the novel. In other words, the title might surprise—which I think is actually a great thing. It embodies Emily Dickinson’s line: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—.” I could have given the book a more straightforward name. But Miss Metropolitan is both an individual character as well as a representative of the various communities experiencing the trauma, grief and healing at the novel’s center. I think of her as a kind of Everywoman. She stands for the community that has failed the “victim-girls” and yet ultimately bears responsibility for them. The title is a nod to the woman who has lived across from the “house of horrors” yet neglected to see what was right in front of her.

What's in a name?

I thought hard about all the names in the book. Some had their origins in fairy tales, or specific events from my past; some were nods to literary references. I had originally named Fern’s brother “Gemmy” as an homage to David Malouf’s protagonist in Remembering Babylon—a brilliant novel about race, gender, and colonialism. I later changed his name (at the wise suggestion of my agent Lisa Bankoff), thereby giving him a more direct connection to his sister Fern. There was something about those characters that was to me very botanical—they were delicate yet resilient flowers.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

My teenaged self would be shocked at the structure of Dear Miss Metropolitan—she would likely ask, “You can do things like that in a book?” (Actually, that is a question I ask myself all the time.) I love discovering writers for whom formal innovation is key to their storytelling—Edward P. Jones, Jenny Offill, Milorad Pavic, Alejandro Zambra, George Saunders, and Gayl Jones are just a few examples. When I was a teen and first read Hemingway—whom I doubt anyone now would call experimental—I was stunned to discover stories that weren’t plot-driven. Because that’s how I’d been taught to read in school: for the plot, for the twist ending, etc. We were given Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” as an example of a complete short story. Hemingway’s Nick Adams Stories alerted me to more layered aspects of literature: character development, setting, voice. Hemingway’s stories opened my mind, formed for me the most important question: what can a story do?

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I think that question changes with each piece. Beginnings usually come quickly to me. I never know where a piece is going to end up, even when I think I know. Everything changes when you revise. Dear Miss Metropolitan actually began with a small scene where the girls, captives in Boss Man’s house, are arguing over a bra (for Jesenia, the bra is a relic from her former life, but for Gwinnie, the bra is a practical object—a sleep mask—something that will make her captive life a bit more bearable). During revision, I wound up moving that scene closer to the end of the book, where it would resonate with earlier details. That anecdotal bra launched me into the story of the three kidnapped girls; it later came to function as a symbol of the love that grew between them.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I’d say my characters are very much a part of me because all writing is in some form autobiographical. Though I didn’t go through the same experiences as Fern, Gwinnie and Jesenia, their voices came from my head and heart. I did virtually no research for the book. I had to learn to see their world through their eyes—the fragmented, the absurd, the horrific, the reassuring. I had to face their very difficult questions—Why didn’t anyone find me? How could I have disappeared for so long? Where was the outrage? Was I—as a Black and Brown girl—simply considered disposable? Exploring the answers was, for me, a really hard process.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Music and art were huge influences. Music clearly means a lot to the characters in Dear Miss Metropolitan—Gwinnie finds respite in Prince, for instance. I have a dear friend who introduced me to the world of Prince fandom—I’d never heard of Prince fan fiction, did not know that people traveled over the world to attend his concerts. (I remember a Prince fan once telling me, “If ‘When Doves Cry’ is your favorite song, you don’t really know Prince,” and feeling pretty ashamed, because that is indeed my favorite song of his.) While writing, I listened to a lot of unaccompanied Bach; it recharged my batteries. My late stepfather was a jazz musician, and spoke eloquently of the influence of Bach on his craft. I found that really enlightening. At one point I was inspired to add images to the narrative in Dear Miss Metropolitan. I loved the ways visual art allowed for nuance and expansiveness in the characters, settings and conflicts. I felt I was always growing as a writer.
Visit Carolyn Ferrell's website.

--Marshal Zeringue