January 30, 2021 |

Our Conversation with Carolyn Ferrell

new york city at night

Carolyn Ferrell is the author of the short-story collection Don’t Erase Me. Her work can be found in Best American Short Stories 2018 and 2020, and in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, among many other places. She currently teaches both undergraduate and MFA courses at Sarah Lawrence College. Her story “Something Street” is in Story’s summer 2019 issue.

This interview was conducted by Sarah Hume.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me a bit about how you first started writing?

CAROLYN FERRELL

Well, I think my story may be a lot like everyone else’s. The variation on mine is that when I was five and my sister was four, we had a big argument about who was going to be the artist in the family. We just couldn’t figure it out. We were arguing so much that my mom separated us and said, “Okay, Marlene is going to be the artist and Carolyn is going to be the writer.” And that’s really what started my path. I’ve always loved writing. I never got a chance to do it in school or in high school. By the time I got to Sarah Lawrence, where I went to college, I discovered that Creative Writing was a thing, and I was just blown away. I’ve stuck with it ever since.

INTERVIEWER

That’s so funny. Do you think your mom knew at that moment that you would end up loving writing so much?

FERRELL

[Laughs] Not only do I not think she knew, but when I mentioned this to her a couple of years ago, she said, “I never said that.” But she did! She got me this little speckled maroon-colored composition book where I started to write the world’s worst poetry. When I was at Sarah Lawrence and later on, I was exposed to so many writers. They were really my teachers.

INTERVIEWER

What is it about writing that resonates with you so much?

STORY

Fiction writing is the way I found I could express myself the best. I write a lot of things that are inspired by my own lived experience. Fiction has allowed me more room to work with it than memoir or any other form of creative nonfiction. While I would not say that my work is autobiographical in a strict sense, everything, of course, is influenced by my perspective and the lens through which I see the world. But fiction has always given me the most possibility for expression. It allows you to put together all of these disparate elements that you have floating around in your head. I think a lot about what happened in real life. But of course, we writers know that sometimes real life can be our enemy. We should be thinking about how to shape the story, and not rely on actual events. For a writer to defend her work by saying, “But it happened like that in real life” is truly the kiss of death.

INTERVIEWER

Definitely. In a lot of your writing, I’ve noticed themes of growing up, identity, and family. I’m sure that’s pulled from experience. I’ve also noticed themes about staying or leaving, especially when it’s tied to family. In “Something Street,” that’s a big question. What draws you to those themes?

FERRELL

That’s a good question. I always tell my students that content-wise, I’ve moved from early childhood to high school, and haven’t left from there! I’m kind of stuck in the 70s right now, in part because so much was happening then that I wasn’t aware of. I didn’t know anything about Roe v. Wade. I just knew that girls who got pregnant could get an abortion if they needed it. I didn’t know all of the things that were happening historically. Of course, now when I look back, I think about how it was all in place and functioning around me. So, I’m still working in the 1970s with those issues about belonging and not belonging, those who choose to stay and those who choose to go, and those who are left behind through no fault of their own. I’m really interested in that. These themes fit together with this particular period in my life.

INTERVIEWER

Do you often write from a place of knowing those historical structures and putting them into the story, or do you still write from a place of that earlier unknowing?

FERRELL

I think it’s really a combination of both. I’ll get an idea for a story and somehow it always reaches backward in time, but it also reaches forward in time, like in “Something Street.” Of course, the story of Bill Cosby is current, but I wanted to go back in time and trace the lineage of this story. That’s something I’m really interested in. I’m also interested in the way that people like Parthenia find expression when they feel that no one wants to hear them. And when the world explicitly tells them that no one wants to hear them.

INTERVIEWER

I fell in love with “Something Street” when I read it. It’s so beautiful. In it, there’s this really fascinating setup of the chapters. Can you tell me a little bit about your inspiration for formatting it in that way?

FERRELL

It’s funny you ask that, because I was thinking about it as you were talking earlier. I think that for me, the challenge has to do with this question: which form will match the content? In “Something Street,” I really wanted to have these brief sections. I wanted to use the Roman Numerals to reflect Parthenia’s classical training, the world of Jack and Jill. Parthenia’s mother, who’s traveled to Europe, the home of sophistication and class. The kind of person who longs for the good ol’ days, and actually lived through those days without realizing how bad they were.

This would’ve been a generation where people learned Latin in school. I like the fact that Parthenia still holds onto these old things, which are at once supports, but also the very things that do her in. Things like belonging to the Mahogany Maidens and being a dutiful wife. And seeing what she wants until it’s no longer possible.

INTERVIEWER

The thing that kept me on the edge of my seat was that tension about how her perspective would change and how it would culminate. The ending was so unexpected and yet it seemed like the only way that it could happen. Did you know when you started writing Parthenia’s story how it would end, or was it something that happened as you went?

FERRELL

I didn’t know at the beginning. The original version of this story was told using different settings, rather than a back and forth in time. I wanted to tell a story from each house from which they were evicted. The reason it didn’t work was because there was no clear timeline. It was basically, for me, a case of wanting my cake and eating it too. There were too many things in there.

I realized that one of the downfalls of doing this kind of story is that the plot, which should really organize the story, fell to the wayside. The thing that really focused me was the question: what would be the last straw for this woman? Maybe the real Mrs. Cosby is going to stay with her husband through thick and thin. Who knows what’s going on in there. I certainly had childhood friends whose parents—particularly their mothers—stayed in loveless marriages. The women would stay in those marriages no matter what. If you look at the real life situation, you might not have sympathy for any of the characters in the Bill Cosby story. I wanted people to have sympathy for the mother in “Something Street.” I wanted her to have a breaking point where she would say, “This is it. I do actually have a moral core.” I did not want her to be a completely unsympathetic character. She wouldn’t have been interesting. The story wouldn’t have been interesting. She had to be the one who experienced the transformation.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely. So much is about the stakes in the story. That’s something we talk a lot about in my classes. Have you found that being a professor has influenced your own writing at all?

FERRELL

Definitely. I was just at a reading last night of undergrads and they were so incredibly talented that I found myself writing down a lot of lines. Students usually influence me in that way. Teaching has made me a better reader. When you become a better reader, you become a better writer. I tell my students that it’s really important to articulate thoughtful critique through actual dialogue. You can write it down, but it’s so important to be in a workshop and say things. As a student, I was quiet as the grave in workshop, not trusting myself to speak. It wasn’t until I started to share my ideas and opinions in workshop that the critical vocabulary I’d been working on made sense vis-a-vis my own fiction. I always say to my students, “If you can critique someone’s work and point out where you don’t know what’s at stake for their narrator, you’re much more likely to look at your own work and notice that you don’t know what’s at stake for your narrator.”

But the words have to come out of your mouth. You have to go through that pain of speaking them out loud. Writing out your critique of someone’s work is also a useful way of learning to be a better writer.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve experienced that too. It’s so helpful. I’ve also heard a lot of writers talk about their writing communities and how that network provides a lot of support. Has that been a part of your writing experience?

FERRELL

Oh, definitely. And your writing communities change as you move on. I have a really close friend from graduate school who reads everything that I write. She’s the one who read the original version of “Something Street” that took place in various settings, and said, “No, it’s not organized well.” I’m also lucky enough to work with really fantastic writers at Sarah Lawrence. I first met my current editor at Henry Holt, Retha Powers, when my first book Don’t Erase Me came out. She was working for Quality Paperback Book Club and they chose it as a prizewinner. She and I worked in a writers group once, and I learned so much from her. I trust her opinion. And I feel that she really cares about my work. The week before the pandemic happened, I was giving a reading in the city on a Sunday. I didn’t even invite anyone. But Retha happened to attend. She asked me if I had any stories for another collection. I said, “I’m working on a collection, but I happen to have a novel that I just finished.” One thing led to another. She had become an editor-at-large for Henry Holt, and within two weeks, I had a contract. Everything came back in this beautiful full circle.

It’s important to have those relationships, and not just so you get a book deal. Her opinion has mattered to me so much over all these years. It really has.

INTERVIEWER

And how important to have someone in your life who believes in your work and seeks out your work. Wow, so, you have a novel that you just finished!

FERRELL

My next piece of show and tell: This is my book Dear Miss Metropolitan. It’s coming out at the beginning of July next year. It’s just been a dream come true.

INTERVIEWER

When did you start writing it?

FERRELL

This novel I started writing in 2013. I got my inspiration from a true crime. Three young girls were kidnapped and held captive by a man in Cleveland. They survived in a ramshackle house, enduring all sorts of abuse, for ten years.

INTERVIEWER

Oh, my. It sounds familiar.

FERRELL

I just couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen. Dear Miss Metropolitan is about three girls who were kidnapped in Queens, New York. It’s a mixture of photographs and documents put together to show their confinement, captivity, and torture was felt by everyone, including the communities that failed to protect them, their families that had made their lives difficult before they disappeared. These young women escape and want to return to some semblance of a normal life. But how will the world around them react?

INTERVIEWER

That’s fascinating. Like you said, those are some really important questions about humanity in general and how we treat one another. It’s not only about the person doing the horrible things, but also the communities that are accepting or letting go of people. How much time do you take before you let something go? What does that mean for the people still experiencing it?

FERRELL

The question that I tried to put in there was, how could you not know that these girls were in this house? This rundown, beat up, weird house where all the windows were boarded up but where it was clear someone was living? How could you not know? That question haunts everybody in the book.

INTERVIEWER

I keep thinking about what it would be like to be that next-door neighbor, finding out that it was happening for ten years.

FERRELL

It just so happens that the titular “Miss Metropolitan” is the next-door neighbor! She’s an elderly woman living across the street who believes herself to be a journalist. In reality, she writes an advice column for a local newspaper. She is eventually just done in by guilt. She’s a newspaper woman—why didn’t she know? The rest of the community seems to be able to move on, but she just can’t let go of her guilt, remorse, and sense of complicity.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed too that Miss Metropolitan is an older woman, and so is Parthenia in “Something Street.” Do you know why you’re so drawn to writing both high school characters and older women looking back on life?

FERRELL

I’ve always been interested in characters who don’t feel heard or seen. Characters who feel marginalized, for whatever reason. Teenagers, older people. When they were with their families, the girls in Dear Miss Metropolitan felt invisible, ignored. They experience a horrendous erasure while in captivity. The challenge they face is to make their voices heard. When they’re rescued, everyone has a way to “cure” them. Needless to say, they aren’t ever “cured” in the conventional sense. Miss Metropolitan—who is one of many characters who feel a certain amount of responsibility to these girls—truly empathizes with these young women. She herself had grown up in a very strict environment. Women were groomed to be married and become a devoted helpmeet. She wasn’t supposed to have any goals of her own.

INTERVIEWER

That’s so interesting. There’s this tension between being heard and the implications of that. Can you tell me a bit about your experience writing this novel? This idea has been in your head since 2013, and I imagine it’s somewhat of a weighty topic. Can you tell me about the process of working on it and carrying it with you for so long?

FERRELL

One of the things that was clear to me from the beginning was that I didn’t want to attempt to tell the story of the real-life people. It was too fresh in the world and I also did not feel entitled to tell their story.

But I have to say, the subject matter was harrowing. It was really hard to write it. It’s a harsh book. In some ways, I’ll probably have people who skim through it and won’t read it all, but that’s alright. I just tried to really be as emotionally honest as I could.

INTERVIEWER

Absolutely. That’s powerful. It keeps it very human and very specific to these characters. It’s not trying to tell the story of a generalized person, but is instead about this character’s experience. I’ll be looking out for it!

FERRELL

Thank you, thank you.

INTERVIEWER

With this coming out and everything going on, can you tell me a bit about how the pandemic has shaped your writing experience, if at all?

FERRELL

I think that like many people, I thought, “Oh, I’m going to take up knitting.” And that never happened, twenty-five skeins of yarn later. But I don’t think it has affected my writing in a negative way at all, even though I feel that I am busier than ever before. Yesterday I was on Zoom for twelve hours straight, and it was hard. It was a lot. I only got to escape because in the last event that I attended, they said, “Let’s get into breakout rooms!” [Laughs] I said, “I’m leaving now, I’m leaving now. I can’t take any more breakout rooms!”

I think that it’s always interesting to me when I hear about writers who say that they’ve run out of things to say or that they can’t write anymore. I went to graduate school and I got a job, published my book, and then I had kids. My writing slowed down a lot in the intervening years. Even though I always published stories, I could never really get a novel out. And now that my son just graduated from college and my daughter has just started college, I feel like I have more time. I’m fifty-eight—and I feel like I could write from now until I was ninety-eight, and never run out of things to say because I just have so much I want to get down. One of the drawbacks for me with the pandemic is that I just can’t be in front of the computer that long. I thought, “Oh, I’m going to be able to write six hours today!” But then after two hours, I feel like I have those cartoon spirals in my eyeballs. So, I think I definitely write more now, but it’s fatigue on your eyes and you have to pace yourself. I just feel like in every waking moment I have, I should be writing. When I’m not grading students’ stories or doing other things, I should be writing.

 

Sarah Hume is a Junior at Denison University, where she studies International Studies and Narrative Journalism. Photo courtesy of Luca Sartoni. Read Carolyn’s prize-winning story “Something Street” here, which first appeared in our summer 2019 issue.