CONDUCTED BY ED ROBSON
During the Arkatext Literary Festival this February, members of the Arkana staff were excited to get the opportunity to talk with Caitlin Hamilton Summie, whose short story collection To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts won the 2019 Phillip H. McMath Post Publication Book Award. Among other writing and publishing advice, Summie shared her knowledge about being patient with the writing process and how to be a good literary citizen in our current publishing landscape.
Arkana: Tell us about the process of putting your short story collection To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts together. Why these particular stories? What do they have in common?
Caitlin Hamilton Summie: A couple years ago now, Marc Estrin at Fomite Press asked me if I had a collection. Marc and I go way back. I promoted his first novel Insect Dreams, which is absolutely brilliant, and I worked on a couple others, and then he went on to found his own press. But when he asked me if I had a collection, I immediately answered that I was very touched that he’d asked, but no.
About a year later, I started sending stories out again, and I thought, you know what, I should see how many I have. So I pulled them out, and I found that I had ten good ones and an eleventh that I didn’t think was good enough. So I put the ten together and emailed Marc, and I said, “If I’m not promoting any of your authors at the time, should you wish to publish the book, would you still be interested in considering it?” And he said yes. They were just what I had available—I thought ten were ready to go, and I put them in an order and I sent the collection off. I didn’t think too much about it.
A: How did you decide what order to put them in?
CHS: My original plan was that it would go from the youngest narrator to the oldest, because I felt there should be some kind of thread going through them. Marc’s response was that he could see that, but it really was so faint a line that it wasn’t really a very good line. So I decided to switch a couple around and left it as it was. Then, maybe a month or two before it was to be published, I switched the last two stories so the book would end on a note of hope, because that was very important to me. It was an instinctual kind of thing.
A: What prompted you to enter the McMath competition, and how does winning an award of that sort impact a writer’s prospects?
CHS: I discovered the McMath Award late. I’m not sure how I didn’t know of it originally, but when I saw it I thought I needed to give it a try. I had a book, and at the time I was very much in a space of “why not?” Why not just try? And so I sent it off with great hope.
I think these awards are really critical. Winning this drew attention to my book at a critical time—post publication, when it’s quieter. Although I’m still getting reviews, that’s really rare. Usually books get their coverage within the first couple of months around publication, and mine’s still getting reviews, we’re still doing events. Things are still trickling in, which is lovely. But the McMath Award was really critical to giving the book a second life. It was hugely legitimizing and really exciting.
When I first got the email, it said “Congratulations.” So many spam emails begin like that—so I almost deleted it, until I looked again. My husband and I work from home. We have young children, and to be available to them we often have to stop in the middle of the day to deal with common core math, or something, and then we go back and finish up our work at night. So when I got the email, I was leaving the dinner table, about to go back into my office and go to work, and I saw “Congratulations” and was like, “Ugh.” Just before I swiped delete, I saw “Philip H. McMath,” and I thought, “Oh—what?” I opened it and I was stunned. Absolutely floored. Thrilled. I turned to my family and said, “I just won an award.”
It was a glorious moment. It plays such a critical role because it’s post-publication. For anyone it’s going to be really legitimizing. It’s going to extend the life of their book. I had a TV interview because of this award. I got a newspaper interview because of this award. It’s just been tremendously exciting, but mostly because it’s legitimizing.
A: Many of the stories seem to revolve around death and grief and family. Do you consciously consider those themes while writing and revising?
CHS: No. I don’t sit down and think, “I guess this is going to be a story about grief again,” though write a lot about grief. I do think a lot about the ways I’ve told my stories and their texture. If I’ve referred to a brisket recipe in one story, the brisket recipe will come back in later in some way. I think about what details matter most. So it’s not as though I’m unconscious or don’t pay attention to craft when I’m revising, but I worry less about theme than telling the story in an emotionally honest way.
I was very surprised, when I looked at the book to find the title, how many threads echo in the stories. I was asked to come up with some titles, and I went through each story looking for phrases, because I didn’t want to make a title of a story the collection title. I thought that would give that story greater heft in the reader’s mind. So I went through looking for lines, and I was really stunned. There are two or three references to laying ghosts to rest. Until I put it together and really sat with it, I never saw it. So I guess my attention is elsewhere. I’m very, very character focused.
But I will say, I like to think that my stories are also about reconciliation and hope. That might be what saved the collection from just being one punch after another punch after another punch. I recognize the stories are sad, but it’s not just about death. It’s about how these characters carry their grief. They find ways to carry it, sometimes in ways that aren’t acceptable to others, but they find ways forward.
A: These are internal stories, without a lot of outward action, but a lot of change, though.
CHS: Yes. I was interviewed for a site for writers who bloom over forty—I love this website, because we all bloom in our own time, and I was well over forty—and I was talking about the internal quality of my stories. In the interview they brought up that in my stories character and transformation are linked. My stories are not plot-driven. If you really want a plot-driven story, you won’t care for my book. Please don’t read it. It’s not for you. For me and my stories, the greatest action might be somebody agreeing to get a phone line because his family is desperate to be in touch with him and he’s cutting himself off. His giving that inch is a huge breakthrough. The stories very internal. They’re very much about forgiveness, forgiving oneself and laying to rest your ghosts—setting down your ghosts and moving on with your life. Internal stories aren’t for everybody, and that’s okay. But that’s what matters most to me as a person and a writer.
A: In “Geographies of the Heart,” a story from the collection, you show us two sisters who have grown in very different directions. Can you describe the process of slowly bringing these characters’ internal reactions and outward actions into focus? That must have taken an awful lot of time and work.
CHS: “Geographies of the Heart” is a story that means a great deal to me. Soup to nuts, that story was probably twenty years in the making, though I think there was probably a seven year stretch where I didn’t pick it up. I had my children close together, so it’s not as though I was toiling over this story for twenty years, but from when I began it to when I finished it was around twenty years. In some ways, not much changed in those twenty years. I worked hard on it.
In 2009, I was out of my workshop, and I had my business and my babies, but I sent the story to a consultation where you could pay fifty dollars and get it looked at by an editor. The woman was very kind, but she said it was boring. That stopped me for a number of years, because it took me a number of years to realize that her being bored by it was okay. I just don’t write her kind of story. She was lovely. She had lots of nice things to say. It wasn’t like she just slammed me down. It took me a while to realize it just wasn’t for her, but my story could still be successful.
So I added a scene, and I just thought it was ridiculous, so I took the scene out. And I finally sent it out, after taking out the scene. I sent it to Long Story, Short, and they agreed to publish it. They had some really smart edits. One of the best edits was they asked me, “Why do you switch tenses?” And I said, “I switch tenses?” Twenty years, and I had never seen that I was going from past to present in certain scenes. They suggested that I needed to choose when to go into present tense. So now it moves to present tense around the time the two sisters have their heart-to-heart conversation, when they’re on a trip together, trying to reconcile, finally taking a weekend together after years of icy interactions. Changing where it went into present tense helped me pick up the pace and make the story more interesting, and it helped me make it more powerful.
A: At first blush, one of the sisters in that story, Glennie, doesn’t seem like a sympathetic character. Yet you seem to care a lot about her. How to you balance those contradictory feelings toward her?
CHS: What I love about Glennie is that she is always honest. She is the one who holds her sister’s feet to the fire. Her sister Sarah is the one who asks to go away for the weekend to reconcile, but when Sarah tries to soft-pedal into the conversation, it’s Glennie who says, “No, this is why we’re here. And we are going to talk about this. And this is the answer to the question you’ve always had for me. And you may not like it, but it is the truth.” I also think it’s a really human response. Even if you don’t like it, even if you don’t like her, you come away saying, “Okay. She asked the question her sister needed to hear.”
What I love about “Geographies of the Heart” is that it’s the deepest story in the collection. It’s the story that peels the layers back, and when you’re done you really feel that you know these people in a way that you might know somebody in real life—that this might be the kind of emotional truth that people can really get to if they give each other a chance.
A: The characters in your stories, even first person point of view narrators, often seem far removed from the track of your life. Do you agree with the idea that writers should only write about themselves and what they know from personal experience? Tell us what you believe about a writer’s imagination.
CHS: The writer’s imagination is really important to me. I have always bridled at the advice to “write what you know.” I’ve never liked it. I wanted to write whatever I wanted to write.
It wasn’t until I went to the Breadloaf Writers Conference in 1991 and heard Nancy Willard speak that I heard somebody articulate what I felt, which is—we shouldn’t write what we know, we should write what we understand. This idea was so freeing to me, because stories matter. Stories connect us. Stories are how we understand one another. And if we’re all only telling our own, if we can only write and understand what we have lived, we wouldn’t quite connect.
So, I want to write what I understand, and I can understand how it would be—and I’m sure anyone could—to be a child whose father is in, the last you heard, England in the midst of World War II at a time when we weren’t so connected and you don’t know if he’s coming home. Any of us could write a story about a secretly terrified child.
A: How would you describe your writing habits? Given the demands of family life and the business that you share with your husband, how do you make time for writing?
CHS: I don’t. That’s the honest answer. That’s one reason that “Geographies of the Heart” took twenty years, with mighty gaps of years. I am somebody who is driven to write, and is grateful for whatever time I get. Sometimes I’ll take a lunch hour, and I will give myself a little time to write, and then go back to work. I write in the morning. I write when I can. And I think it’s one reason I write across genres, because I don’t always have time for a story or a novel, but sometimes I have fifteen minutes to work on a picture book. So, why not? That’s my motto—why not? Why not try? It makes me feel connected to my craft, and I’m still writing something.
A: When did you know you had to write?
CHS: My mother tells the story that before I learned the alphabet, before I learned to write, I would bring her scribbles and ask her to read my stories. I have always been just amazed by her response, because I would have never thought of it as a mother. She replied, according to her, “Why don’t you read them to me?” And then I would tell her my stories. When in fifth grade, we were supposed to make and draw a children’s book and then hole punch it and put it together with little ribbons. We were asked to write one, and I think I wrote five. I still have them. I had a novella done at thirteen and two novels done by eighteen. I’ve just been writing my whole life.
A: What makes you keep writing?
CHS: I hear things. I hear a line, I hear a voice. I just finished a draft of a novel in stories about the two sisters in “Geographies of the Heart.” I finish their story in this novel. I tell you what happened. I’m just compelled, I guess. Aren’t all writers? I mean, we can’t stop. We have to write.
A: You’ve mentioned writing in several other genres. You’ve mostly done short fiction, but you’ve also mentioned a novel and picture books, and your website links to a poem. Are there other genres you dabble in, too?
CHS: For the last seven or eight years I’ve been writing and rewriting a middle grade novel. So, yes—whatever I can write.
A: So do you know what genre it’s going to be in when the inspiration hits you?
CHS: No I hear a line and I just write. I have to write my way into my stories and my characters. I kind of have a general sense of whether I’m working on a story or a novel, but the middle grade novel is the only story I have ever known how it would end from the beginning. I wrote the first twenty five pages in one sitting, and when I was done, I knew how it ended. For the first time in my life I had to figure out how to get to that ending. I actually had to try and put a plot together. The problem I’m having with that novel is, not enough action. I’m really having to step up my game and write something that is internal, but will speak to some kind of movement and plot that will keep a middle grade reader reading. I think I’m one draft away, but talk to me in five more years [laughter].
A: What do you see as the biggest challenge for writers in the current publishing environment?
CHS: There are a lot of challenges. We still struggle to have enough people reading in this country. That’s probably our biggest problem. Although many teachers are urging parents to read with their kids, the parents aren’t reading. We have a smaller readership. We are losing, still, the book review pages in the newspapers. There are fewer and fewer and fewer, which makes it harder to talk about books. The internet is great, and social media is great, because they’re free and level the playing field for those who don’t have a budget, and there are lots of really smart journals, but the conversation is fractured. We’re not all reading newspapers now. We’re all reading different blogs. While we might all circle into one area and talk about one article or one review, there are so many conversations going on that are exciting and wonderful but at the same time they’re niche.
At the same time, books are books. We persist, and we survive, because stories do matter. When they take away our review pages, you flip it around and you look at it from the positive and you start things online. The conversations continue. We are struggling to sell books, but we’re creating new ways to sell books. There are the self-publishers, traditional publishers, print-on-demand publishers, who are traditional in many cases. There are the hybridly published traditional—you can be traditionally published and then self-publish, or you can go to a hybrid publishing house, which asks you to pay a fee, but then otherwise it’s like a traditional house. There are just so many options. So every time there is an obstacle, we seem to find a way to let the water run around it.
A: Are there particular joys, do you think, of being a writer in 2019?
CHS: You know, I write because I love to write. I’m proud and thrilled to have published. It took me forever. That in itself is a joy. And the McMath Award. I told everybody. Called everybody. It’s a huge honor and joy. Connecting with other writers and the community is a joy. It’s really tough out there, so from the very beginning of my career, I have celebrated every success. The joy is there if you look for it, and if you don’t, you’re going to struggle.
A: What do you see as the role for the little lit mags, like Arkana?
CHS: You guys are critical. Absolutely critical. When I was deciding it was time to start trying to send some stories out again, I looked at a story that I didn’t really think anyone in my workshop had liked. But I liked it. So I sent it out to a small online-only journal called Mud Season, and they took it, and they too had some smart edits. It changed everything, because then I said, “Why not keep going?” I kept sending things out. Those little lit mags were a place that gave me a chance after a long drought. I published three stories immediately in my twenties, and I was going back twenty-five years later. The small journals are what give writers a space, help writers with edits, give writers hope, give writers a chance. It builds careers. You guys are the ones who take the risks, and those risks can turn into careers.
A: Has your novel found a home yet?
CHS: No, it’s not ready to go. I think that’s a really important lesson for writers to learn. You can’t be overeager. I guess for me it’s a matter of writerly integrity. I know it’s not quite ripe, and I’m not going to let it go until I know it is. But, you know, I know the game. I’ve been in for a long time.
A: Any other thoughts and advice for new writers?
CHS: Learn to trust your process, and be patient. A lot of people who come to me for publicity help are rushing, rushing, rushing, because they’ve finished what they think is a solid draft. But you know, that’s what I’m not doing. I’m not rushing. Give your work the attention, time, and respect it deserves.
A: Which means rewriting.
CHS: Yes, but also trusting your process and your instincts. Because you may be right. One of the hardest things about writing is taking that feedback from a workshop and deciding how to sift through it and use it to tell the story you’re telling.
One of my dearest friends who I knew during my MFA read one of my stories, and he said I should cut the last paragraph. But although I didn’t completely know why that paragraph was there, I knew it was right. He might not like the story in this fashion, but he respects my choice. You just have to trust your process, your instincts, and your characters.
Learn to listen well, and learn to find the community that gives you the advice you need. There are going to be people in your workshop who you always listen to, and maybe there are some who you can’t always listen to, even if their hearts are in the right place.
It’s also really important to be a good literary citizen. You have to buy books. You have to attend readings. You have to say thank you. You have to remember your readers. I can’t tell you how many writers never think of their readers. If you have one person at one event, or eighty, that person came, or those people came, to hear you speak, and you need to present yourself professionally. You need to remember that manners matter.