The first WOMAN WARRIOR of 2018 is author, writer, and scholar Renee Simms. Her much anticipated debut short fiction collection Meet Behind Mars (Wayne State University Press, May 2018) features stories that span two continents, forty years, and a host of characters exploring issues of time and space. Her writing resonates with humor, magic, and lyricism, telling stories of how we live, love, and imagine. Renee Simms’ work has been widely published, appearing in Callaloo, Southwest Review, North American Review, Salon, and elsewhere. She’s the recipient of a 2018 National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, has received support for her work from Kimbilio, Ragdale, Vermont Studio Center, and is a professor at the University of Puget Sound.
1. Describe a challenge you face and how you address this:
The biggest challenge I have is trusting the story will develop as it should. I’m getting better at this, but as I look back at my story collection and think about where each story began and the scenes, sentences, and motifs I abandoned as I revised, I can now see that with each early draft, I wanted to hold onto the original vision even when it wasn’t serving the story well. This is what Junot Diaz has referred to as being a dictator on the page. I remember him saying that to our class at VONA years ago and it’s always stuck with me—Don’t be a dictator! But I think the tendency to control is true for most fiction writers. We want to feel as if we’re the master puppeteer manipulating all the components of a narrative and to a certain extent we are. But the most inspired, inventive writing comes when we let go that sense that we know the ending. For me, I’ve been more successful when I’ve experimented, when I’ve gone deep inside my characters and followed their lead.
2. Can you share thoughts about a particular work?
I’m really proud of the story, “Dive” which is one of the first stories I ever wrote and which underwent several revisions over the years. The first draft was my attempt to write a recurring dream that I had as a child of being on a boat and crossing a threshold. The dream was surreal as dreams are; there were curtains hanging down from the sky, an ocean and fire. And I always woke up right as the boat was approaching these mystical curtains. Years later, I wrote the dream as a story with a first-person narrator and I shared it with a group of writers who had connected through The World Stage Performance Gallery in Los Angeles. I remember their very encouraging responses. One poet said that the descriptions felt more like ancestral memory than a dream. Because my writing group had responded so positively and because the dream had inspired the first draft, I always felt indebted to keeping the dream as part of the plot. Years later, I’m at Bread Loaf with a revised version. The reaction to this draft is not so enthusiastic. In fact, the draft is not working based on the feedback I’m receiving. The dream is in this draft but also many other plot lines that deal with drug addiction, adoption, etc. I remember Randall Kenan, the workshop leader, saying that there was too much in the story, that it needed to be pruned in order to flower. So that’s what I did. I whittled some of the plotlines down to a sentence of backstory, and in the case of the dream I removed it entirely. And here’s the point of this anecdote: the dream is still there, it’s just not part of the plot. What I’ve learned is that sometimes what we write in first drafts is information we need to know about the fictional world or characters or themes, but this doesn’t mean that we keep what we write in early drafts in the same form as we revise. In this case what was a plot line in the first draft became motif in the final draft. In other words, I used ideas and objects from the dream (which are the ideas and objects from the TransAtlantic slave trade) throughout the final version. The story is about a black American adoptee and her struggles with not knowing her history. But through repeated mention of boats, scenes with black people underwater, descriptions of bones on sea beds, etc. I haunt the narrative with a subtext about ancestral history.
3. What advice do you have for a struggling writer?
My best advice is to believe in your work. Find mentors and peers who are supportive. Read everything. And persist.
4. Finances: Any advice for women who write?
I’ve always had to work at jobs that were not directly related to the creative writing I produced. Other writers have pointed out the creative freedom in this situation: that you’re not financially beholden to your publisher. I’d agree with this. If you’re a writer who also works in medicine, and your publisher doesn’t like what you’re turning in, you are free to take your manuscript to someone who gets what you’re doing without the risk of getting behind in paying your bills.
5. Comments on mental, physical, or emotional health?
I’m very interested in issues related to the environment and health. I think this shows up in my writing as fictional obsessions with violence, cancer, and descriptions of the natural world. In some stories, there are specific mentions of environmental issues. In “Dive,” a character notices that a lake has less plant life than she remembers and ponders whether “this is what global warming looks like.” In “Meet Behind Mars,” a character notices the shiny metallic packages of Kool Aid Jammers and predicts how they’ll end up floating as trash in the ocean. And in the novel I’m currently writing, I’m exploring the transnational auto industry. I’ve been reading about the havoc maquiladoras are having on the health of Mexican auto workers and the environment in Mexico.