1. In Still Life With Plums you weave together the stories of Latinos, West Virginians, and Texans. What common thread do these groups share, or what connection do they have? Is there a main theme or message you would like your readers to take away from Still Life With Plums?
I grew up in West Virginia when the state was not very culturally diverse. After college I moved to Houston for seven years and it was there I discovered striking similarities between Texans and mountaineers: our staunch individualism, our self-reliance, our suspicion of outsiders. I was also introduced to the food, music, and literature of the Latino culture. The Latinos I met were often at the bottom of the pecking order, the butt of jokes for their low economic status, poor job opportunities, and accents—something West Virginians have also been enduring for far too long. One overarching theme in the collection is that whatever culture we’re from, we are more alike than we are different.
2. Why did you decide to tell the characters’ tales as a collection of short stories instead of a novel? What do you like about writing short stories compared to writing novels?
For a long time I considered myself first and foremost a short story writer. As a reader I was drawn to those pivotal moments in characters’ lives that would forever change them for better or worse. As a writer I wanted to find and capture those moments and the result is this collection. I have since gravitated to the novel where I have the luxury of creating entire worlds. I still love the driving pulse of a good short story, though, that satisfying burst of adrenaline and truth that the well-written story can produce.
3. Do any of the characters in the book reflect personal experiences? Which character reflects your story the most?
In one way or another all of the characters are me. Like most people I can be a smart-aleck or kind, naïve or cruel. I strive to create fully realized characters who are both sinners and saints. I have also tried to capture the love-hate relationship many of us have with West Virginia. We can feel pride and shame simultaneously because we love our landscape and generous spirits, but we cannot deny our poverty, our tendency to rank poorly on so many, many national lists. Some of us have bought into the Appalachian punch lines and want nothing more than to flee the state, like the characters in “The Wife you Wanted” and “Get Ready.” I have been those women. I have also been the male characters trying desperately to hold onto relationships that are already over, or running away from commitments, or trying to bend someone’s will to my own. As a childless person I also grapple with the issue of parenthood. Some of my characters long for children, some of them don’t; some of them never should have been parents at all.
4. Where did inspiration for the Latino stories come from?
I was a graphic artist in Houston and the woman who cleaned our building was from Central America. Though she had been a school teacher and her husband had been a dentist, both were doing unskilled labor in the United States because their home country was war-torn and unsafe. Her story fascinated and saddened me. She was the impetus for “Amnesty” about a Guatemalan Civil War widow and her disappeared family. I am also a history nut and “Crystal City” is about a Japanese Latin American woman from Peru whose family was sent to an internment camp in Texas during WWII. One of the highlights of my writing career is that after that story was published in The Chicago Tribune, I got a phone call from a German man who had been held in Crystal City as a teenager. He’d read the story and wanted me to know that it rang true.
5. The short story “Still Life With Plums” is also the book’s title. How does this story stand apart from pieces you have written in the past?
“Still Life with Plums,” my most recently completed story, exudes my current writing mantra borrowed from Julia Child: “Don’t be afraid!” Writers have to be fearless and honest, and my favorite authors are also playful rule-breakers. In this story about a has-been, blocked-up writer, I felt much more relaxed and open to playful language and serendipitous metaphors that are all around us if we only open our eyes and have the cojones-ovaries to commit them to paper. The story was also an opportunity to poke a stick at the high-brow snotty literati who can be so closed-door, particularly to writers from Appalachia even if our themes aren’t strictly Appalachian. I have seen so many excellent writers buckle under the weight of all those rejections.
6. Did you learn anything about yourself while writing this collection? How have you grown as a writer?
Writing helps me make sense of the world. When I write about racists or predators, folks who are obsessive-compulsive or Guatemalan refugees, it’s an opportunity to slip into their skin and experience their lives for awhile. Particularly with the unsavory characters, I often wind up with at least a portion of empathy regardless of their actions because I begin to understand what makes them tick.
7. What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I am just finishing a novel called The Patron Saint of Ugly about a woman who may or may not be the descendant of a 16th-century Italian saint, and she may or may not be able to perform miracles. I’ve tried to channel two of my favorite magical-realism writers, Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez. Patron Saint is filled with odd artifacts like 60 Minutes transcripts, screenplay snippets, maps, holy cards, covers of underground newspapers, the family Coat of Arms—all written or drawn by me, which means I’ve been chanting my new favorite mantra like a maniac: “Don’t be afraid!”
In addition, my novel Shrapnel, which won the Fred Bonnie Award for best first novel, will be available soon from River City Publishing. Shrapnel explores the legacy of war (specifically WWII, Vietnam, and the War in Iraq) in three generations of the same family. The main character, Bing Butler, a retired (and very conservative) veteran from Texas, moves in with his liberal, antiwar daughter in West Virginia. Bing’s head is filled with many of the stereotypes outsiders hold about us, but by the novel’s end most of them have been shattered. He also finds himself pining for the melodic Spanish language that he used to roll his eyes over back in Texas. Like my own experience in Houston, Bing begins to understand that regardless of geography, humans have much more in common than one might think.
For more information: http://mariemanilla.com/