Darlin’ Neal is author of the story collections Elegant Punk (Press 53, 2012) and Rattlesnakes & The Moon (Press 53, 2010). She is the 2011 winner of DH Lawrence Fellowship from the Taos Summer Writers Conference, their highest honor. Her short stories, essays, poems, and reviews have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies, including The Southern Review, Shenandoah, Eleven Eleven, The Mississippi Review, Puerto del Sol, and Best Of The Web. She serves as faculty advisor for The University of Central Florida’s award winning undergraduate literary magazine The Cypress Dome, and for The Writers In The Sun Reading Series. She is Fiction Editor of The Florida Review.
What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer…
I think it’s crucial, that having someone to show you the way and to inspire and encourage you. I’ve had many people I consider my mentors. The first writing mentor I had as an adult was Kevin McIlvoy at New Mexico State. His belief in my writing opened the door for me. His dedication and hard work were models that remain with me. Then Antonya Nelson came along and took over working with me on my book. What an amazing eye she has, and Robert Boswell was there early on. These people were all mentors because of the way they lived and breathed the writer’s life. I went from New Mexico to study at the University of Arizona and Joy Williams came to mean a lot to me as did Joy Harjo. Later when I found myself lost as a writer because of so many things that were going on I decided to get my doctorate and Mary Robison sort of saved my life as a writer at the University of Southern Mississippi. Frederick Barthelme taught me so so much about form.
Now I have the pleasure as a professor in an MFA and undergraduate creative writing program of acting as a mentor in my own right. I can’t even begin to express the awe and great satisfaction seeing undergrads I work with on Honors Theses and in classes fly off to places like New York University or Emerson and to have them keep in touch with me about their accomplishments, or to work with grad students on wonderful books. To be sending all these fine writers and editors out into the world and to know I had something to do with coaching them along, that I have had the opportunity to give back so much of what was given to me is immensely rewarding. We are a tribe and we need each other. We make the world a more beautiful and understandable place. We cause important disturbances that resonate.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
I focused on getting my book together, this latest collection, while so much was going on: my mother was dying, my dear aunt had a terrible accident, my daughter had a baby and came back home to me. I haven’t been writing. I feel like so much has been going outward and I needed the space of the summer that’s coming up to go back inside to my characters. I am planning to work on revisions to my first novel and also to work on a memoir. For me it’s all about staring and being still, getting a pen in my hand and some paper, being at the computer and proceeding. Not over thinking it too much. I will be teaching first summer session. I’m buying a house near the ocean! Second session though it’s going to be all about nesting and traveling if I need to for the book. I got a university research grant to help me have that time and I’m going to use that time to write and maybe do some healing from loss.
Are there favorite writing exercises or prompts which you use regularly & will share?
Writing flash fiction is rather recent for me and I have a group of friends I work with when I’m writing flash. We give each other prompt words, just a few words to put us in the space in our minds of language and what it triggers. I let the words take me where they will. That’s how the flash in this collection and the two pieces of flash in the last book came about, with the power of those words and the nurturance of this writing group. I really needed and need them. For years I was moving so much and so disconnected from the world of art and writing, or at least I would have been without these people I could keep in close contact with through the internet, some of them in Australia, in New York, in Colorado, in South Africa. I treasure these people.
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?
I don’t know who my characters are really before I write, for me it is a process of discovery I gain by working to inhabit the visceral moment with the pov character.
What’s the best writer’s advice you ever got?
Kevin McIlvoy: “Know that in everything, everything, there is sufficient mystery for story. Be in readiness for wonder.” I think I have that right.
Antonya Nelson telling me to stiffen up my gut when I was headed to Tucson. Now I know I’ll be flooded with memories of advice from people like Robert Boswell, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, Joy Williams tonight when I’m trying to sleep. How lucky I’ve been.
Please talk a bit about your new collection Elegant Punk… I’m curious, what percentage of the collection flash fiction? I am a big fan of your flash fiction work as well as your longer pieces.
The collection is mainly flash fiction. There are four longer stories and many, many flash pieces.
What is next for you?
That house with the baby and the dog by the ocean, and everyone there. The space to have company. We’ll see if it passes inspection tomorrow! And then the summer of writing, writing, writing on that memoir and finding its shape. The main thing is going to be finding the shape because I’ve got reams of notebooks filled with my scrawl. I’ve always wanted a house, growing up as I did moving and living mostly in trailers. It was a desire I shared with my mother. She passed into the New Mexico sunset on the second day of spring this year. In my home as I play house with my own daughter I hope to feel her presence guiding me through the nonfiction. I believe this can happen.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.