Listening to Stephanie Powell Watts talk about the craft and process of writing, one has to wonder how she ended up as a writer at all. Because mostly, she makes writing sound like one big struggle—and an unending struggle at that.
“There were so many times where I wanted to divorce writing, and so many times where I thought, ‘Why can’t I do something else?’” says Watts, an associate professor of English. “But if your story doesn’t work, you have to figure it out. And either you do figure it out, or you stop. For a lot of writers, that’s very difficult. The rejection in this business is just awful. It’s very hurtful. Well, the first time isn’t that hurtful. But the 12th time certainly is.”
Fortunately for Watts, a native of rural Western Carolina, the rejections aren’t nearly as common as the honors these days—and though she may not always enjoy writing, there’s no denying the fact that she is really, really good at it. In October, Watts was named one of the 2013 winners of the Whiting Writers Award, one of the most distinguished honors in the literary world. Given each year to up-and-coming writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and theater, the award has in past years been handed out to such stars as Mark Doty, Jonathan Franzen and Tony Kushner, among many others.
Around the same time, Watts was putting the finishing touches on her first novel, which will be published in the wake of the hugely successful short-story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need. That collection, which drew on the stories—both happy and not so happy—of the people Watts knew and loved growing up, earned widespread praise, including the 2012 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and the Pushcart Prize. Shortly after accepting her Whiting Award, Watts sat down with the Bulletin to discuss her still difficult transition from South to North, the ways her hometown informs her writing and, of course, the day-to-day struggle that is the writing life.
HOW DID YOU END UP HERE AT LEHIGH?
I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri, where I got a Ph.D. in creative writing, fiction writing and 20th century African-American literature, with an emphasis on folklore—African-American folklore in particular. I then went to Memphis for a year, where I was visiting writer at Rhoads College, and then I ended up here. I was actually the first pure writer hired by the English department. My emphasis is on creative writing, while the rest of the department is really about faculty who are much more research-based. A couple of years later they hired my husband, who is a poet, as a professor of practice, and they also started a writing program, because we wanted to offer a writing minor for our students. I’ve been here since 2004 now.
SO IT’S BEEN A DECADE NOW. BUT I HAVE TO ASK: HAVE YOU FULLY ADJUSTED TO LIFE UP HERE IN THE NORTH?
It’s still an adjustment. I won’t lie. It’s one of those things you have to get used to with time. For the first two or three years I was here, I found myself being constantly surprised. Now I’m not as surprised anymore. But it’s still an adjustment. People are just different here. There’s a different way to this world. In the South, there is a sense of courtesy that lubricates the social interactions between people. People are polite. That doesn’t necessarily mean that people like you, though. That’s important for people to understand. I’ll hear people visiting the South say, ‘Oh, they are just so nice,’ and I’ll have to say, ‘They’re not your friend.’ That’s very different than here. There’s a different way of interacting. And then there’s the weather. It’s not terribly different here than in the South, because I grew up in western North Carolina, but we do obviously have a little more cold and snow up here.
IS THE REST OF YOUR FAMILY STILL IN NORTH CAROLINA?
For the most part, yes. I have a brother who lives outside of Washington, D.C. He’s a math guy, and does computer programming for a living. I have four younger brothers in all, and the rest of the others are all in North Carolina—though, thankfully, not in the same house.
TELL ME ABOUT THE TOWN WHERE YOU GREW UP.
It’s called Lenoir, and it’s pronounced Len-OR. It’s not Len-WA. It’s in the foothills of the state—just a really beautiful place. Rolling hills and mountains all around. It’s mostly known for its furniture manufacturing industry. If you had watched The Price Is Right 20 years ago, all of the furniture that they were giving away would have been from Lenoir. Of course, most of that industry is gone now. So it’s a struggling down in some sense, and that kind of reminds me of this place, as does the fact that all during my childhood, there was a big huge star up on one of the hills overlooking our town. But anyway, it’s a beautiful place, and people are struggling. It’s very much a small town. The Main Street has seen better days. My uncle still has a business on that street called Marvin’s One-Stop Record Shop, and as I joke, the name of the store itself tells you how viable a business it is. He still does sell records, though, so if you ever need records and are in the area, please stop by.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR CHILDHOOD?
I think it was a good childhood. It’s one of those kind of very Southern childhoods, I would say.
THAT SEEMS LIKE LOADED TERMINOLOGY: “SOUTHERN CHILDHOOD.”
Yep. It was about a big family, and dirt roads, and not enough money. We had lots of interesting characters and everyone had a lot of very close-knit interaction. Sometimes that could be really wonderful, and sometimes that could make you crazy. My son, I realize, won’t have that same experience—he won’t have people running in and out of the house all of the time. But he can have a new beginning entirely. He just won’t have that family around him. Both of my parents come from very large families. My father was the oldest of eight, and my mother was the sixth of ten. That’s a lot of people, and most of them are still relatively close to or still in North Carolina.
DO YOU MISS YOUR FAMILY—AND EVEN THE CRAZINESS THAT FAMILY BRINGS ALONG WITH IT?
Yes, I do. There’s a certain kind of anchor that family gives you in the world—a kind of historical continuity—that’s really hard to manufacture. I am always reading child-rearing books, and one of the ones I was reading recently was talking about the importance of talking to your kids and telling them about their family stories. It was all about the importance of getting them to understand that there was something before them, and that there will be something after them. And while I think that’s very important, I think it can also get really suffocating, especially if some of those stories are less than happy and especially if some are downright tragic.YOUR FICTION DEALS WITH A LOT OF THOSE STORIES YOU WERE JUST TALKING ABOUT. I’M WONDERING IF YOU FEEL AS THOUGH YOU NEEDED TO GET AWAY FROM THAT PLACE IN ORDER TO TELL THESE STORIES ABOUT THAT PLACE.
I think this is one of those things about being writer, where you do need to have a certain kind of mindset. People talk about the importance of displacing yourself, about getting lost somewhere else, and how that might help you think about what was valuable and terrible about the place you left, but I also think you can accomplish that even if you’re still there. That distance that you need, I think, is not necessarily geographical. You just have to be able to see everything in all of its facets, and still be connected with it. Now, some people can do that and still be right there in the midst of it. I do think it took distancing myself from that place in order for me to really figure out what I wanted to do with it.WHEN DID YOU START WRITING?
I have always written. I was always writing as a kid and I always wanted to write, but I never considered myself as ultimate being a writer. Going to college was a really big decision for me. I come from a very religious family, and at least my understanding of that religion at the time was that college was not something that I should do—that it wasn’t my mission in life. As a first generation college student, there was a lot of push and pull on me at the time. I thought, well, I could at least go somewhere and may try [college], but then if it didn’t work out, I could change directions and do something practical. Part of did me want to do something practical and make some money.BUT IN THE END,YOU DID CHOOSE COLLEGE AND YOU DID CHOOSE WRITING. WHY?
I guess I would say that I just eased into it, and then I just kept going. I am pretty stubborn and difficult at times, and I’m not sure that people really tried very hard to stop me. I can be like talking to a brick wall. There were times when I was as undergrad where I felt really uncertain as to whether I would ever actually graduate. But by contrast, when I got my Master’s, I felt absolutely certain that I was going to get my Ph.D. I knew that was something I wanted to do. But up until then, at pretty much any time, I felt as though I could have just quit and gone home and done ‘the right thing.’SO HOW DID YOU GET TO THAT PLACE OF CERTAINTY?
There is a time and a place in life when things have to become real, or you have to let them go. That was what happened to me. I finished my degree, and I felt like, ‘I’m either going to do this and work hard at it and do the best I can possibly do, or I’ll let it go.’ And right around then, I decided I was going to graduate school, and I made that commitment to myself. When I was in graduate school, I remember feeling as though I had my ‘come to Jesus ‘ moment, and I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be my life. This is going to keep me from feeling like a loser or a bad person. I’m going to do it and I’m going to do the best I can.’ But even then, who knew how it was going to ultimately turn out?HOW WAS YOUR GRADUATE SCHOOL EXPERIENCE?
I had a great experience. I loved it. I felt part of a community, and I loved thinking about writerly things. I know this is going to sound high-falutin, but I recall thinking about how, when you were writing a story, even fiction, somebody’s life was being represented, and that person has entrusted you in some way to get it right. Which meant that I knew I had to get it right. You can’t represent them in a way that makes them look stupid or laughable. You have to be able to show all of their flaws and beauties and complexities. I didn’t want to mess that up.YOUR STORIES ARE OBVIOUSLY BASED IN THE PLACE WHERE YOU GREW UP. ARE THE CHARACTERS BASED ON REAL PEOPLE? OR MAYBE COMPOSITES OF PEOPLE?
Some of my stories have the germ of people that I know—somebody I once met or somebody even that I love—but so long as they are presented with honesty, they usually don’t care that I’ve written about them. Sometimes people might say, ‘Oh, didn’t your brother say such-and-such that’s in the book,’ or ‘That’s just like something your grandmother would say.’ But again if it’s done with honest, people just go with it. But I rarely have single character that is about just one person. One of my characters might do something or be in a situation that somebody like somebody I knew, but the rest is all fiction.I’M WONDERING: DID YOU HAVE ONE OR TWO KEY MENTORS WHO HELPED YOU ALONG THE WAY?
I’ve had a lot of great feedback in my career, and I’ve had a lot of wonderful professors and friends who helped me out. And I have to say, my early stories were terrible!IS THAT JUST YOU SAYING THAT, THOUGH?
No, they are really bad. They are underdeveloped, just bad, bad stuff. And that’s one of the hardest things about writing. That’s where the real commitment comes in. Malcolm Gladwell has that whole idea about the notion of 10,000 hours of practice to mastery, and I think there’s a lot to it. You have to be willing to stick it out and see what can happen.TELL ME ABOUT HOW YOUR SHORT STORY COLLECTION, WE ARE ONLY TAKING WHAT WE NEED, GOT PUBLISHED.
Well, I sent it along to this little boutique publisher, and my thought was, ‘I’m going to send this out and just hope that it gets published, and if it does, then I’ll send my novel.’ The short story collection was going to be my entrée into the writing world. I don’t know, maybe everybody has these dreams, but I had these daydreams about being on the Oscars and walking the red carpet and giving acceptance speeches. I was hoping to win Pulitzers and move to the Barbados. But honestly, I have been shocked that it did so well. I had just brought my son home from the hospital, and two days after that, I got the call that it was going to be published. It’s been a whirlwind since, but a really wonderful whirlwind.THAT COLLECTION DID REALLY WELL WITH THE CRITICS, AND THIS YEAR YOU FOUND OUT YOU HAD WON THE WHITING AWARD. WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT AWARD?
It’s just one of those names that people in this field recognize. And after I won it, it seems that I have a lot of interesting people out there trying to find my email address. It’s really been great.SO WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW? ANOTHER NOVEL?
Yes, it’s a novel. I feel like I’m being a little bit nervous about it. Obviously no matter what you write, you want it to be good, but I have to say, I really, really want this to be good.
BUT HOW DO YOU DEFINE ‘GOOD’?
I just don’t want it to be a situation where people buy it and their reaction is, ‘Oh, wow, I thought she was good. This sucks!’ People love to tear others down, they really do. People love to anoint and they love to tear down, and that’s just part of the human condition. Both are wonderful things to do, I guess, because they make you feel god-like.
GIVEN THAT YOU’VE BEEN THROUGH THOSE WRITERS’ STRUGGLES, HOW YOU HAVE ENJOYED TEACHING—AND HELPING THOSE STUDENTS DEAL WITH THOSE SAME ISSUES?
It’s a great experience. I love teaching and I love my students. The thing is, you just have to be so careful with people who are just trying this out for the first time, who are just trying this life. It’s a difficult life, and a long struggle. You have to be careful not to injure somebody in the midst of that struggle. It’s a real balance where you have to say to them, ‘Well, this part is good, but here’s what you need to work on.’ It’s very hard to not make this a personal criticism it’s hard not to hear it as a personal criticism. But the thing is, I was in graduate school with adults who were much older than my students are, and it was difficult for them, too. It’s not just hard because they are young. It’s hard because the experience itself is hard. I want to be able to help them with that—to be a facilitator, a helper, somebody that can help them down that road, rather than being somebody creating a big huge moat with crocodiles inside. Because I really do have some very talented students here.
FINALLY, WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN 10 YEARS? OR 20 YEARS?
I guess I don’t know enough about the writing life to answer that, necessarily. I am guessing the anxiety and insecurity is just part of it. I feel that will always be there, and I guess in some way, I hope it always will be there. I think it’s a good motivator. It spurs me to think, ‘OK, this can be better. How can I make it better? As for your question, I would say that in 10 years I hope I’m still working, and still writing, and fighting the good fight, because I think there is something missing in a society that doesn’t know how to tell a story or doesn’t read its stories. There are so many amazing stories from unlikely places, just like those people I knew from those poor dusty roads in North Carolina. So I guess I would say, I hope I’m still writing, and sitting on a stack of my own books at the dinner table.
Story by Tim Hyland
Posted on Friday, January 10, 2014