Unnatural Habitats and Other Stories is a collection of seven connected stories set in the Ozarks that explores the relationships between people and place and the changing culture of rural America where now, with a growing crime culture, characters are forced to reevaluate their sense of right and wrong. As The Arkansas Review states: “The stories are supremely well crafted, the characters memorable, and the meditation on place compelling…a stunning debut.”
The following interview of author Angela Mitchell, conducted by Peg Alford Pursell, director and editor-in-chief of WTAW Press, took place via email, and arose from the intense, deep work undertaken between author and editor in bringing the book to publication.
Peg Alford Pursell: My understanding is that you were writing and publishing the stories collected in Unnatural Habitats before you came to the realization that you might be creating a book, one of linked stories. Can you talk about when you began to realize that your stories might add up to more? What was that realization like—were you excited?
Angela Mitchell: In some ways, I’ve been working on this collection for as long as I’ve been writing fiction. I was writing stories that I liked, that had characters I found engaging and worthy of exploration, but I wasn’t exactly trying to put together a story collection, and certainly not one that was linked in any way. Stories are my first love, but I’ve had a novel in the oven for a few years, too, and I’d felt obligated to think of it as my “primary” work, because that’s the form of writing that agents and publishers most want. But then a new acquaintance contacted me and said he had read a couple of my stories and why wasn’t I trying to put together a collection?
After that, I started trying to find a way to fit stories together, thematically, but I couldn’t find the right combination. My friend and writer, Michelle Ross (There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You, Moon City Press), offered to read a version and, afterward, she gave me the hard truth: the stories were good and she could see what I was trying to do, but they needed to be more explicitly linked to create a final, satisfying experience for readers. So, I sat down and put the collection together again, embedding links between stories where there had been none before, and that’s the form that made its way to WTAW Press.
PAP: The stories involve animals, pets or undomesticated. This focus suggests that you find animals to be an integral part of your own life, though, of course, since your book is fiction, your stories might be a way to explore something with which you have no firsthand experience. Can you share your experiences with animals, and can you talk about how you hope a reader who doesn’t have or hasn’t had pets or care much about animals might approach this book?
AM: I grew up on my mother’s family’s farm, which meant spending a lot of time with dogs, cats, chickens, and cattle, as well as the wildlife along the creek and woods behind our house. Animal life and human life were inextricably intertwined for us, as it was—and still is—for many in the greater community. I’m a big people watcher, but I love watching animals, too, and discovering their habits; more often than not, I find that our experiences as humans are not so different from those in the animal world.
Cattle, for instance, are true creatures of habit who also self-select into groups that tend to have a singular leader, one that guides the others along a predictable series of events each day: breakfast at the pond, lunch in the upper pasture, supper at the edge of the field before returning to the cluster of cedar brush for the night. In many ways, the lives of animals—wild and domesticated—are more orderly than those of humans. All of this is to say that, yes, I see a relationship between the animal world and the human world and, to some extent, I think we would do well to be a little more mindful of our place in the natural world, to check our sense of superiority.
PAP: I’m interested in your female protagonists’ self-concepts, particularly in the realm of their physical looks. I’m thinking about Dee and Tonya, especially, and Libby, to a somewhat lesser extent. Why did you want to portray these female characters as ones who are centered on their appearances?
AM: It’s a truth that we live in a world that puts a great deal of pressure on women to look and present themselves a certain way. There is an emphasis on perfection that weighs heavily on many of us, a pressure to be perfectly thin, perfectly dressed, perfectly manicured and pedicured and styled. The message is that our looks—our hair and faces and bodies—are what determine if we’ll be successful, loved, respected. Pressure in fiction writing is what helps to create tension, so I found the concept of women and their relationship to beauty to be a device I could use to turn the action of the stories. What does Tonya do in reaction to her own negative feelings about her body? What will Dee think herself capable of if a little cellulite starts to turn up on the backs of her thighs? If Libby could have better clothes and hair and makeup, could she have a life more like the Clark girl from the bus she so envies? How the characters want to look is somehow synonymous with who they want to be.
PAP: Many of the female characters have complicated and, ultimately, unsatisfying relationships with the men in their lives. Come to think of it, the same could be said of the male protagonists. Can you talk about your choice to depict relationships that are so fraught for the characters involved? Do you see any of the couples in the book as satisfied? What do you believe is the source of the dissatisfaction, in a general way, for characters that runs through the stories?
AM: Many of my characters suffer from a basic problem of not knowing themselves very well, or they understand just enough to know it would be really nice to escape their lives for a bit, to find refuge in someone else. So much of what’s going on is just about avoiding the elephant in the room: a damaged heart, a deeply bruised ego, a disappointment that’s left a character feeling empty. But in almost all of the stories, my characters would love for someone to hold them steady, just for a minute, maybe offer a little good advice or a measure of comfort. It’s their struggles to connect that make them so interesting to me; I like to explore the
ways in which they keep pushing forward to get what they need, even if they’re doing it all wrong—just as many of us do in real life.
PAP: I’m struck by the level of violence that plays out in many of the stories. Would you share your thoughts about the reality of violence for these characters and how they might correspond (or not) with your ideas of the violence inherent in life overall?
AM: I do think we live in a violent time, one filled with an abundance of guns and anger and hot-tempers. Add to this volatility certain illegal substances, and you’ve pretty much got yourself a recipe for disaster. But there are types of violence I’ve tried to explore that I consider more subtle, more intimate, particularly those against women and children. When I first wrote about Dee in “Animal Lovers,” I included a memory for her about how she came to have sex for the first time, that she’d been threatened by a boyfriend to do it or have him tell everyone they had, anyway, and ruin her reputation. Dee goes on to become such a sexual creature, but her first experience of forced consent (which, of course, isn’t consent at all) was one that made my heart ache for her, that something that should have been so lovely and sweet was turned into a weapon against her. And that’s how so much violence and abuse works—it isn’t a gun held to your head or a knife to your throat; it isn’t a punch to the face—and then we become accustomed to its presence, to its banality. For a writer, that’s such rich and horrifying and frightening territory to map.
PAP: You teach writing at the St. Louis Writers Workshop, so I’m curious about the relationship you experience between teaching and writing. Are they mutually beneficial activities for you?
AM: I really have to be careful about how often I teach a fiction class. I like to give my students’ work my full focus and that means I won’t have as much time for my own. I’m jealous of my writing time, so I guard it, and if that means teaching less, then I teach less. But I do find that I get quite a lot from reading and critiquing others’ work, or looking at a short story or a novel excerpt I’ve assigned a bit more closely. It’s like taking the engine apart and then figuring out how to put it back together again. In that regard, it’s a highly valuable and edifying experience for me.
PAP: I’m always interested in a writer’s background and would love to know when you first thought you might like to be a writer. Were you a child who wrote, or who had ambitions about writing, publishing a book? Can you share a little bit about your own cognizance and subsequent growth as a writer? Who nurtured your writing, if anyone?
AM: I was a child who liked to read and liked to write and I knew early on that those were things I was decent at and for which I could gain praise now and again. I was sort of fascinated by Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose house in Mansfield, Missouri, was the big field trip for all third graders in my nearby hometown of Mountain Grove, and I dreamed of being someone like her. But even though I was a good, solid writer, and majored in English in college, I just didn’t have the nerve for fiction writing. I don’t know why that was, but I was scared to throw myself into it and see what I could do. Maybe I just hadn’t had enough life experiences to write about, or I couldn’t wrap my head around how much discipline it would take to finish something, but, in any case, I didn’t write creatively then. In the years to come, I kept a notebook with me all the time and I’d jot down names or ideas for stories or observations of this thing or that, but, still, no writing.
Then I had my first son. My husband’s career was pretty demanding then and I decided to leave my job in college administration (work I liked, but didn’t love) and stay home with my child. About a year into that, I started writing. I decided to be very disciplined about it and I wrote every day for a month. That was enough to create a habit and to push through the fear of failure and into that space where I just wanted to write because it was necessary for me and because, frustrations
and all, I really enjoyed it. I don’t know why it took becoming a mother to make me do what I always wanted to do, but I think a big part of that was just not having anything left to fear. I’d had a difficult birth experience with my oldest son and he was an amazing, but challenging baby and I was being pushed both physically and mentally in a way I had never been before. Writing, I suspect, became a matter of personal survival.
PAP: Likewise, I’m always interested in a writer’s angst over their first book. Typically, it seems to me that debut writers especially are writing close to the bone—that’s what makes a book great—which can mean a lot of anxiety about how a book may be received by family members and friends. Do you or have you had worries or concerns about your family member’s or friends’ reception of your material? How do you work with those feelings, and is it possible to give advice to other forthcoming writers?
AM: Because so much of this book is set in those places I truly consider home, yes, I’ve worried about how others might interpret the stories. My portrayal of these places is sometimes a little bleak, but that isn’t because I don’t like them; to the contrary, I love them and I love the people there, too. I don’t worry much about how my family will receive my work—I’m blessed with incredibly supportive parents and siblings and extended family—and I’m not even all that worried about how people I don’t know back home will take it. But I suppose I’m more concerned over whether or not I did that small place in the world justice and that I didn’t add to the terrible stereotypes that exist of the Ozarks of southern Missouri and Northern Arkansas. It’s such a rich and beautiful place, even with its flaws, and I hope readers can see that.
PAP: How important do you see writing, and most of all publishing, in this world today that we share?
AM: Really important. When our essential humanity is under attack, as it is right now, reading and writing and publishing becomes as much about survival as it is about entertainment. My sons are going to be 18 and 16 and I’ll have to let them go soon, but I never thought I’d send them into an America that looks the way it does right now, that we’d be struggling so much with the idea of who we are as a people. It’s terrifying and it keeps me up at night. But what comforts me is that I see how they seek out information and what good, attentive readers they are. I discovered my younger son toting around a copy of Huxley’s Brave New World this summer and the book sitting by my oldest son’s bed at the moment is The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era by Michael Grunwald. And my kids really aren’t anything all that exceptional in their habits. These are rough times, but the next generation is coming and, I promise you, they’re really, really smart. Be encouraged.