An Interview with Danielle Evans - Believer Magazine
×

An Interview with Danielle Evans

[writer]
by Lily Meyer
January 7th, 2021
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

In 2010, Danielle Evans released her debut collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, to rapturous acclaim. Its stories—nearly all portraits of Black girls and women coming of age—put her prodigious array of talents on full display. Evans is an excellent and unshowy prose stylist; she is an empathic but never soft-hearted constructor of character, and she is the best writer of short-story endings I have ever read. A decade later, her follow-up, The Office of Historical Corrections: A Novella and Stories, showcases those same gifts—and then some.

Evans’ protagonists tend to be observers. In the excellent title novella, the protagonist, Cassie, is a historian who keeps one sharp eye on the present. In “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain,” a photojournalist, Rena, studies a friend’s fiancée with reporterly detachment. Even characters who don’t watch for a living are, effectively, watchers. Often in contemporary fiction, this tendency connotes detachment or passivity. Not in The Office of Historical Corrections. Here, attentiveness is a chosen mode of engagement with the world, and one that tends to reflect a shifting mix of wariness, curiosity, and hope.

Over email, Evans and I discussed her own engagement with the American past and present through fiction. We talked about our shared hometown, Washington, D.C.; about the craft challenges of writing toward history; and, of course, about her phenomenal endings. In written conversation, as in fiction, Evans is immensely insightful—a true pleasure, as always, to read.

— Lily Meyer

THE BELIEVER: The Office of Historical Corrections is, unsurprisingly, highly engaged with history—but, though Cecilia sometimes retells the past in “Alcatraz,” the stories and novella here are squarely located in the present. Often, it seemed to me that I, the reader, was reckoning with history alongside the characters. Was that among your goals in writing historically-oriented fiction rather than historical fiction? What unwelcome limitations might writing stories set in the past, rather than stories about the past, have imposed on you?

DANIELLE EVANS: A lot of my interest as a writer is in narrative, and in the act of telling—the way the stories we tell about events become their own distinct things. And a lot of my interest in history is about what we don’t have reliable records for. In “Alcatraz,” part of what’s at stake is the family’s distress that the official record says something painful and untrue. For the title novella, I did do some research, just to get a better sense of time and place for the parts of the story that take place in the past. I went through twenty years of the microfiche records of the Milwaukee NAACP. I looked up the Black papers in the state at the time. I read Edna Ferber novels. I read the one comprehensive book about Black life in Milwaukee that covers that time period. I read a book of oral histories of how Black families arrived in Wisconsin. The NAACP records skip around wildly and only include some of the meeting minutes and some correspondence. The paper couldn’t afford to print some years, and not all of its issues were archived at the time. The oral histories are contemporary, and for the time period I wanted to think about, rely on people remembering and repeating the stories they were told. The novels don’t focus on Black characters. So, those absences are as interesting to me as what gets documented. And I suppose there is a kind of writer who would fill them in, or do deeper work in oral history and archives, and I don’t know why I’m the other kind, exactly, but I’m often most interested in what we don’t know, or what we’ve been told, or what we think we know but can’t prove. 

I’ve said before that I am obsessive about the relationship between interiority and performance, the gulf between the internal self and the external self. I think maybe the gulf between the actual past and the historical narrative is for me another way of thinking about that question— what is the story we’re telling about our country’s history, or our family’s history? What do we believe without records to prove it, and what do we make up to fill in the gaps? How is that a kind of performance that tells us something about who we are and who we want to be, and what does it take to change or reshape it?

BLVR: On arriving at Alcatraz, Cecilia’s first impression is that the prison, with its “old U.S. penitentiary sign. . . over the WELCOME INDIANS graffiti no one had painted over,” is “history, bleeding into itself in the wrong order”—an observation that seemed to me to rhyme with her college-student choice to get a tattoo quoting Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” As a writer, how do you impose order on the disordered American past, or invite its disorder into your work?

DE: I don’t know that I find an order in the past to be imposed, but I do think physically grounding that disorder can help us see it better. Images like the one I’m describing in the passage you quoted are one of the ways I think about tethering history to memory. There is, for me, a relationship between the geography of a story and the structure of a story. I talk a lot about how the pressure points in a story often seem to be to be the places where the past, present, and future are on the page at once—those moments where some kind of enormous emotional recalibration happens, and so someone has to confront their narrative of the past, the intensity of whatever they feel in the present, and a reimagining of the future and how it will be shaped by whatever has just happened or just been confronted. A physical place can be a really good rhyme for that kind of feeling—a landmark of some kind, whether something official like a monument or tourist trap, or as personal as a corner store, marks the passage of time and reminds us of the history we have with it, and is also concretely there to be engaged in the present, and also gestures, through whatever changes indicate either decay or an attempt to preserve it or rebrand it, toward a vision of the future, a vision that can shift as our collective desires shift.

BLVR: Throughout this collection, you engage with the questions of American-ness that emerge especially sharply in “Alcatraz” and in “The Office of Historical Corrections”: what does American identity feel like in this day and age? What are we supposed to do with our American identity? These are huge questions, I know, but I’d love to know how writing The Office of Historical Corrections clarified your views on being American, or complicated them, or both.

DE: Maybe both, maybe neither? I think I’m wrestling in the book with the same question I wrestle with as a person. This is the only country I have, and it regularly tells me it isn’t mine— “American” is a role Black people have to perform a lifelong audition to prove worthy of, and a failed audition can cost our lives or our civil rights, which are always up for debate. I veer between trying to reject the terms entirely and trying to play the game long enough to get some leverage or power to change it. These are both doomed strategies. I don’t yet know any others.

BLVR: I was immensely compelled by the premise of “The Office of Historical Corrections,” which centers on a fictional government institute that hopes to be “the solution for decades of bad information and bad faith use of it.” (I wish it were real!) As both a D.C. native and the girlfriend of a career civil servant, I found myself delighted to find a government agency at the center of your novella, and even more delighted by your protagonist Cassie’s grudging-but-alive belief in government, which she compares to “the way agnostics. . . sometimes hedged their bets and brought their babies to be baptized.” How did you decide Cassie should work in the government, not as an academic historian? And how did you come to invent the Institute?

DE: Here I think again I’m wrestling with some contradictions or internal tensions. For most of my childhood, my mother was a civil rights lawyer at the [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] in DC, and my father worked as a public defender in New York. I grew up around career civil servants, people who were generally proud of and  invested in the work they did, many of them Black professionals who could have pursued more lucrative opportunities in the private sphere but were in the public sphere for the public good. And I watched the push toward privatization dismantle for decades what felt to me like a community. When I was a kid, almost everyone in the federal office buildings I visited was a long-term government employee, with the opportunity to attain rank and decent salary and benefits if they were there long enough, including the people at the security desk, and the agency driver who took the commissioner to important appointments. Most of that is privatized and outsourced now, done by corporations that underbid each other for contracts, cut corners, and constantly hire, fire, and rotate people, putting them through quick trainings and retraining as contracts become available.

I used to think—because so many people raised in the DC area will live there for decades but, if you ask where they’re from, tell you they’re from wherever they grew up—that I was from a suburb with no specific character. When I moved away [from DC], one of the most shocking things was to hear how people talked about the federal government, which for me had always been an intimate thing, the day job for all kinds of people, as something alien, something to be proud of their role in voting to undermine or destroy. It felt tied to other national ugliness—a desire to disinvest in the public good, in the idea of a public good and a safety net, and it has always felt very racialized to me, post-desegregation attacks on the very idea of government related to the way that the government employed people of color and had stopped openly barring them from services and benefits. So, I realized I was in fact from a very specific place, one that had shaped how I see everything else, and part of me felt very protective of it.

The institute came from a running joke I had about being willing to pay more taxes for public historians who would correct people who were loudly and publicly lying or mistaken about history. There is also a part of me that wishes it were real! But I’m answering these questions a few weeks after our current President promised to promote “patriotic education” and banned federal training that addresses structural racism, so I recognize the danger of that kind of power, the way that his proposal reads like a bizarre-world version of what I invented in the novella. I’m aware that some of the ways Black Americans have made a way for themselves through the government, through the military, through various agencies and positions of authority, haven’t always put them in a position to [help] the people who most need them, have required compromise, have required that ongoing “audition to be American,” have sometimes put them in the position of enacting this country’s violence, or enforcing disparate policy, or radically failing the very people our institutions are most needed to serve. Certainly, a lot of people of color don’t trust the government, and have extremely good reasons. So, I wanted to think about that tension. What does it mean to want to believe in government? What are you required to ignore? What would an institution have to be to serve the public good, and how would it have to evade the ways institutions tend toward, if not being outright corruptible, becoming very quickly invested in the status quo by virtue of being institutions? At what point does faith in the possibility that an agency can work the way it’s supposed to actually become complicity? Part of making Cassie a civil servant was giving myself a chance to write into those questions.

BLVR: In “The Office of Historical Corrections,” you create drama from historical discovery, which strikes me as a writerly challenge—and so I want to ask for writerly wisdom! I was as compelled by the novella’s research-focused storyline as by its present-day terrifying white-supremacist storyline (though, of course, they intersect). What craft techniques did you use to make sure your readers would be as invested in the past as in the present? Or, more broadly, do you have craft advice for turning characters’ research into an engine of plot?   

DE: Though I didn’t realize it until after I’d finished the first draft of the novella, Cassie was first developed as a character in a novel draft. In that book, she was an out-of-work historian who became a high school teacher and was supposed to be writing a history textbook. It turns out that person struggling to write a book she’s sure has important things to say about U.S history is not a super-compelling plot to anyone but me. When Cassie turned up again in the novella, it felt like I’d instinctively solved that problem from the earlier work by making that thematic question an active one—her role in the present action of the novella is basically to be a detective. I grew up in part on drug store mysteries and legal thrillers and I think they made clear what still feels true to me—all plot fundamentally runs on the structure of mystery, which is not the tension of withholding information, or being coy with the reader, but the tension of putting in play right away that something specific and momentous and often terrible has happened, and eventually the book is going to tell you as much as it knows about how it happened. This story gave me a chance to really lean all the way into that—the historical question is presented to Cassie as a puzzle, and every piece of new information she gets raises another question. And there’s a secondary tension in that we don’t know how many of the questions it’s going to be possible for her to answer, and there are stakes attached to that too.

BLVR: “Boys Go to Jupiter” stands out, in this collection, as—among other things—the story whose protagonist, Claire, most often makes the precise choice I want her not to make, beginning with her choice to put on the Confederate-flag bikini her winter-break hookup gives her. What was it like to write a character who so relentlessly turns toward bad ideas and racist behavior? How did your relationship to her change over the course of the writing process? And how did writing Claire differ from (or how was it similar to) writing Vera in “Anything Could Disappear,” whose ill-advised choices come from a far warmer place?

DE: I wrote those stories far enough apart that I hadn’t thought of the relationship between those two characters, so it’s really interesting to put them in conversation. Both Claire and Vera are driven by a desire to escape or cut ties with some past version of themselves; Claire’s motivations for that are perhaps even more understandable than Vera’s. What makes her less sympathetic is that Claire wants to exist outside of any sense of history. She cannot recognize her own agency or learn from past mistakes because she can’t acknowledge them. She can’t even think in the past tense. Vera’s acknowledgement, when she finally understands what she’s actually done, is inadequate and half-baked and happens in the process of her running away from the aftermath, but there is there a reckoning of the sort Claire doesn’t really have the capacity for. And there is also a cost, a sense that this was Vera’s second chance, and there won’t be another, whereas Claire feels entitled to the constant possibility of reinvention, and has learned to be strategic about it.

Part of what I’m interested in in this book is where and how we see around the person whom the story seems to be about. So, this is also about the story structure. In “Boys Go to Jupiter” we see Claire, from her own point of view and not without complexity, but we also see the people she’s harmed, and the way that she’s moved on from that, or centered her own losses. The consequences Claire’s actions have for [others] exist in the story, even when Claire won’t look at them directly, to remind the reader that forgiving Claire is a kind of abandonment of those other characters. I imagine that from some characters’ perspectives, Vera is not an easier character to forgive, but the story doesn’t give those characters as much room. The consequences for them are not on the page. Vera spends most of the story with a toddler for company, and he can’t counter her self-narrative, even if the reader realizes at some point it will fall apart. And part of the difference is Vera’s act is almost certainly unsustainable, and so it’s easier to feel tender for her because the question is how and when it will collapse, not whether, whereas the growing sense of horror in “Boys Go to Jupiter” comes from understanding how sustainable Claire’s act is, how many ways it can reinvent itself, because that’s how privilege works, which is part of what the story’s about.

There was a way that writing a character like Claire felt like an act of my own agency. After the first collection came out, I would often find myself reading from it in classrooms or auditoriums where almost all of the students and faculty were white. Sometimes I was literally the only Black person in the room. And so, even though I didn’t write my first book with the specific gaze of a white audience in mind, it was undeniable that I frequently had one. And even when that audience was warm and generous, it could be an uncomfortable dynamic. I felt sometimes like I was performing, making a case for empathy, and that, without any great difficulty on their part, a white audience could applaud themselves for having empathy if they felt anything at all.  Writing Claire was partly a way for me to redirect that gaze, to be looking instead of being watched, to make a space where it was possible for me to ask some readers to grapple with their own willingness to forgive racism, and to consider the limitations of empathy as a frame.

BLVR: I took such angry joy in reading “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” which, ultimately, becomes an ode to female ruthlessness in the face of predatory male behavior. Would you say that The Office of Historical Corrections, as a whole, celebrates female ruthlessness, or centers it, or complicates it?

DE: I like the phrase “angry joy.” People talk all the time about the joy of forgiveness, and yes, there can be a pleasure in letting go of things, especially petty things, the things you might someday forget happened. But there’s no joy in forgiving someone who isn’t sorry, only resignation. And in the face of a harm you won’t forget or outlive, sometimes there is a profound joy in staying angry, in having the confidence and sense of self-worth to stand up for the version of yourself that no one else did, and say that was wrong and it will be wrong forever and I didn’t deserve it and I don’t forgive you. So, there was some pleasure in the anger in that story. But I don’t read it as celebratory. There’s also real grief in that story—grief that whatever does or doesn’t happen to the artist won’t change, and for some of the women, grief for the artist in spite of all the things he’s done. It’s another story where the structural arc is decentering the person who seems to be at the core. Whether or not he’s truly sorry is less the point than the fact that there are some characters who don’t recover, or don’t recover a version of themselves they’re happy with. I don’t know that the character in that story who identifies herself as ruthless is thrilled about that, even if she is empowered by it. What if there were a world she could survive and make a name for herself in without being ruthless?

That negotiation between what a person actually wants and what’s structurally possible exists in a lot of these stories. I think for women in general, and Black women in particular, setting a boundary can be considered ruthless, saving yourself can be considered ruthless, holding people accountable for their harm to you can be considered ruthless, wanting anything for yourself that isn’t in the service of someone else’s agenda can be considered ruthless. So many of our narratives—even our narratives about “diversity” or “equality”—are about suggesting that women and people of color exist as character-building exercises or learning opportunities. If a white person or a man has learned something in the end, we’re supposed to call it a success; we’re not supposed to look at who it cost what to teach that lesson. So, when the kind of woman who we’re taught exists to teach and serve and mother instead occupies the story as the protagonist, or centers her own desire, that can look like ruthlessness when it’s just being a full person, or being unwilling to be a human sacrifice for someone else’s potential growth. But what I want for my characters is not a world where ruthlessness is celebrated. What I want is a world where being tender and open wouldn’t kill or erase them.

BLVR: I have long loved and admired the endings of your stories, which, to me, are always satisfyingly emphatic without ever becoming so conclusive they wall off possibility for the characters, or for my imagination. How do you achieve that balance? How early in the writing process do you know how your stories will end—or, alternately, how do you recognize the ending when it arrives?

DE: I think of stories in terms of their operative questions. First there’s the active question (or the narrative question, or the “small” question)—the question I owe it to the reader to resolve. Gradually, the larger, thematic or moral or intellectual questions of the story arise, and that’s what I intend to leave open for the reader when the story closes. I rarely know how a story ends before I start—I think it’s only happened twice. But I usually recognize the ending when I get there, because by the time I get to the end of the active plot, I’ve already written past and recognized the open question, the thing I didn’t know the story was actually about until I got there, and once I get there everything else about the arc of the story becomes clear to me. I’m waiting usually not for the moment when I’m certain of the plot, but the moment when whatever’s underneath the story comes to the surface and illuminates the project for me. In revision, I think about how the things in the story serve either of the story’s two operating questions, using the ending to help me calibrate. If the ending feels like the right place to stop but isn’t working yet, I reshape the rest of the story until it fits.  

More Reads
Uncategorized

Spiritual Adventure Should Get You High

Forsyth Harmon
Uncategorized

Drawing Loneliness with Kristen Radtke

Uncategorized

An Interview with Melissa Faliveno

Jeannie Vanasco
more