5 Questions with Kelly Cherry

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Kelly Cherry is an award-winning poet and novelist, and the former Poet Laureate of Virginia. Her latest book, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, is a collection of short stories. TSS assistant editor Maren Larsen reached Cherry by phone at her home in Virginia.

1.I recently read your collection Twelve Women in a Country Called America, and this collection’s title firmly sets the scene of these stories in the United States, but I would tend to argue that the true setting is the American South. You open the book with a quote from Norman Mailer: “This country is so complicated that when I start to think about it I begin talking in a southern accent.” Why do you (and Norman) think that the South is the “real” America?

Well, I don’t think that Norman thought that the South was the “real” America. He was making a sarcastic comment about how southerners talk: slow, not necessarily making much sense, putting in big words. It was a sarcastic crack, but I thought it was a funny sarcastic crack. It just occurred to me that that would be a good starting point for the stories in which the women do talk about their own states, but they also talk about America in general.

2.There was a wide range of women in these stories. What would you say to a male reader of your stories? Do you think that a man would identify with these characters and with these stories in the same way that a woman would?

I think so. One of the blurbs was from Lee K. Abbot, and he’s a male writer of short stories, and he liked the book very much. It’s harder, of course, to get men to read a book that’s all about women, but [laughs] if you keep showing it to your husband, eventually he will read it. Yes, some men have read the book, and I’ve gotten some very nice responses from them. I would like it if all men would read it, but I think that’s doubtful.

I think that it’s interesting that you say it’s difficult to get a man to read a book about all women, because a lot of women read books about all men.

Well, I think the men are missing out on a good thing. And, over time, it is changing, now that women teachers teach male students. There are women writers who are widely read by men. It’s a long, long way to go, but eventually we’ll get there.

3.This isn’t the first book you’ve written about women. You also wrote Girl in a Library: On Women Writers and the Writing Life and, I believe another short story collection, The Woman Who. Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yes, I’m a feminist, but I write about men and women and children and I write about war, I write about peace. I try to cover the ground.

I believe in feminism. I’m not very politically active because I’m too old to do that, but I grew up in the feminist movement in New York, and god knows we’re still desperately underpaid. So all of those things are important. They’re not foremost on my mind when I write; when I’m writing, I’m concerned about the character, whoever the character is. I’m not sending political messages in my books, except in some kind of very subtle way. I did include that story about gay women because I thought that they needed to be represented.

4.The protagonists in this collection were really grounded in gritty problems in the real world, but two of the stories had these supernatural elements: “A Change of Life,” about the two lesbian women, and “Autumn Garage.” What inspired you to write those two particular stories, and why did you include them in this collection?

It’s simply because sometimes, if you want to make a certain point, a god or an alien can step to the front of the page and say what needs to be said. The alien, of course, is not real. We move into that in a kind of fantastic way, and it expresses her feelings, and it allows her to say the last important line in the book, which is: “To life, wherever and however it occurs.” And that’s what I wanted the book to say. We are all different, we are all alive, we are all human.

5.You’ve written a few long works, a couple novels, your autobiography, and several non-fiction books, but you have created many more short stories, poems, essays. Why do you think that you gravitate more towards those short-form media?

I’ve written something like five or six novels, and then these stories that are linked stories, and really are sort of like stories and sort of like novels. Taken all together, I think there are 10 of those.

I’ve been drawn to character ever since I first read Shakespeare. In the seventh grade — maybe it was eighth grade — we were supposed to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the textbook, and the teacher decided it was too hard for us, so I and my little sister and a friend of ours got on our telephones and assigned different characters to each other, and we read the whole play over the phone that way. And that made me understand that I was interested in character.

I was also fascinated by music, and I grew up in a musical family. Those were the main two elements for me, and I could combine them in certain ways in fiction and in poetry, and to some extent even in nonfiction. My parents were string quartet players of classical music, and my sister was a flutist. The house was filled with music from the time I was born, and it’s very, very important to me. •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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