Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
In Evans’s first interview before the release of her new and unintentionally prescient collection, The Office of Historical Corrections, she discusses humor, power, and replicas of the Titanic.
I was introduced to Danielle Evans, via Facebook message, by the poet Reginald Dwayne Betts in 2012. At that point I was thinking about leaving my career as a high school English teacher and applying to graduate writing programs, and I wanted to get the lowdown on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from a Black graduate, a writer whose work I admired. These days, she and I like to joke that we are both long story writers instead of short story writers, and her response to my questions about Iowa back then was indeed a long story of a kind, of her kind, not merely because of its length but because of its generosity and nuance, because it told me exactly what I needed to know.
Evans’s much-anticipated second collection, The Office of Historical Corrections (2020), marks the evolution of an artist. The titular novella will probably draw the most attention and admiration from readers and critics, but make no mistake that this entire book is a clutch of jewels. The work is somehow more robust, more playful, more experimental with genre, and, in at least one case, even more lengthy. At the same time, with charm, wit, humor, and an eye for the absurd, the women in this collection stare down very serious subjects—history, truth, race, love—and their stories have much to say about how things currently stand in the United States. “Happily Ever After,” for instance, finds a young woman working in the gift shop of a Titanic replica while she grieves the death of her mother. In “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” various characters deal with a wrongdoing, womanizing “genius artist” and his questionable attempts to make amends. “Alcatraz” explores, among other things, the impacts of the American carceral system on a family. Full of depth and complexity, Evans’s women not only delight and surprise readers, but they also delight and surprise themselves.
Jamel Brinkley Hey, Danielle.
Danielle Evans Hello! Where are you these days?
JB I’m in Oakland—moving soon, but still in Oakland. Where are you?
DE I’m in Baltimore.
JB What’s your routine been—if you have one—during quarantine?
DE I was supposed to be writing and wrapping up the copy edits on The Office of Historical Corrections. Starting in March, my plan was to hibernate in my apartment for a few months—which turned into everybody’s plan. My next book, which I’m trying to work on, opens with a police killing. It has been hard to write in a way that feels visceral but not exploitative. When the protests happened in June, I felt like I needed to step back from the book. Racism is always going to be topical, but I had to find some distance to make it feel like it wasn’t just reportage. So, I’m reading a lot, and staying indoors. I basically am a large cat now.
JB I know what you mean about it being hard to write. There have been so many bad-faith demands on Black writers for explanation or reportage, like you’re saying. I don’t want to do that kind of writing. I just refuse to write at all, which maybe isn’t the healthiest thing.
Can we talk about your new collection?
DEYes! You’re the first person I get to talk to about this book.
JB How do you see The Office of Historical Corrections in relation to your first collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2010)? Are there continuities or departures that you’re aware of? Do you feel like your values as a writer have remained consistent or deepened or expanded in any way?
DE I had a lot of fake theories about what The Office of Historical Corrections was before I arrived at a real theory. For a while I was calling it “my present-tense project.” So much of my first book was about the retrospective voice, about the distance between the version of the narrator telling the story and the version of the narrator who experienced it. There are always real-time inconsistencies with the way we present ourselves in the world, so the challenge of present-tense voice is how to make that operative tension between the imagined, constructed self and what’s actually happening in the world feel intentional and illuminating, without a layer of conscious processing over it. I thought this was my book of present-tense narration, but when I finally sat down and reread everything I said, “Shit. They’re not all in present tense.”
DE And I wasn’t supposed to be writing a short story collection, I guess I should say. In The Office of Historical Corrections, I wanted to play with the moments when we don’t have a choice about what matters most. The active plot choices are about outrunning or evading the emotional plot, which is just hovering there waiting to surface. “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” was the second-to-last thing I finished for the collection, and I saw in the clarity of its themes that the whole collection was actually about attempts at correction—corrections of the record, corrections of an understanding of the past, corrections of understandings of the self.
JB I love that you wrote a rogue short story collection, by the way.
DE Always better to ask forgiveness than permission.
JB You explicitly framed The Office of Historical Corrections as a book that takes up the issues of the past. Both your epigraphs, from James Baldwin and Lucille Clifton, reference the problem of the past. It often feels like there are certain ways that writers are supposed to handle backstory, to minimize or avoid looking back, but you really just went for it. Even with the stories that are focused on the present, you showed no hesitation in delving into the past.
DE I think we’ve talked about this before, as people who are drawn to the long story, but one of the ways the short story feels like both a confined and expansive space to me is that you can move around in time. Alice Munro is one of my favorite writers to think about in terms of that. Her stories will go twenty different directions, and you’re like, But how, Alice? We were just there, and now we’re in 1975, and then we’re back again. Whenever the past, present, and future have to simultaneously be on the page, that’s when something is happening and when the characters are most fully present.
I’m not afraid of exposition. If I want to tell you something happened, I’ll just tell you something happened, so when I’m spending time in backstory it’s usually character time. For me, backstory is really related to characterization.
JB How did you decide on the particular order of the stories in the collection? What kind of journey did you want to take your readers on?
DE I think a story collection should feel like a complicated Venn diagram. Every story has to overlap thematically with at least one of the others, so nothing feels isolated, but every story also needs some territory that belongs to it alone. You don’t want too much overlap, where all the themes converge, because then the book is not covering enough territory. “Happily Ever After” introduces the collection because almost all the themes that recur in the collection come up in that story. It would be in the center of the diagram. It’s a story about grief. It’s a story about floundering in your thirties and feeling trapped. It’s a story about bizarre ways we preserve or revisit history, and it’s a story about enormous and justifiable anxiety about the future. It’s also about race, the everyday violence of racism and medical racism, the anxiety of potentially encountering racism in intimate and public spaces. I felt like all of the things that the book circles back to start there.
The opening story is also set on a replica of the Titanic, and the book gets weirder as you go. Here’s some nice realist fiction; here’s a fucking volcano; and finally here’s an imaginary government agency. I was hoping by the time we got to the weirder stuff, the reader would trust me enough to just roll with it.
JB You’ve written longer short stories, but this collection also includes a novella. What was freeing or challenging to you about the novella’s length?
DE I’d been working for a long time on a novel about a historian who was having a lot of trouble writing a textbook. It took me many years to acknowledge that a writer who can’t finish a book they’re working on is not actually an interesting crisis.
DE But there was a bigger problem: it was a political book set in a fictionalized recent past, and as the politics of the present became stranger and so clearly tied to the national reaction to the Obama era, it felt less relevant to set a book in an alternate political universe. I had to have a frank conversation with my editor and tell her I just couldn’t work on that project anymore. I had an idea for another novel, and I had most of a short story collection, so I told her I would show her whichever got finished first.
For Thanksgiving in 2018, I sent myself to the Pacific Ocean on a partial grief vacation and partial writing vacation—my mother and I usually spent Thanksgiving together, and the Pacific is where I took her ashes. I planned to write some novel chapters by the beach. I realized my new novel was a variation on my old novel—only I’d turned my historian into a detective. I’d outlined this whole cross-country mystery road trip, but I realized some of those chapters were just filler. I was wasting time. It didn’t need all the space I was giving it. It wasn’t a novel; it was a novella. I finally understood that the book I had been trying to work on for ten years was actually the novella and a short story collection. All of the themes of family and inheritance and grief were already in there. And I’d found a way to solve the novel plot by giving my historian a bigger crisis than writer’s block.
JB The protagonist of the novella is a scholar and historian who works for a government agency called the Institute for Public History, and she ends up investigating a complicated, decades-old mystery rooted in racial violence. I don’t want to give anything away about the novella, but the way it ends up going is both funny and serious at the same time. When I read that piece, I thought of Lila Mae Watson from The Intuitionist and the Liberty Paints factory episodes in Invisible Man, as well as one of Dave Chappelle’s more famous skits. Your work is always serious in its subject matter, but humor often seems to be a delivery system for that seriousness. How do you think about humor in your writing?
DE I think we’ve all been talking about how to do the work of necessary witness without reproducing trauma. What does it mean to have so much of the art that gets attention be about terrible things that happen to Black people? “Here’s another examination of the way it feels to have your humanity questioned regularly.” In my writing, sometimes humor works as characterization, sometimes as a kind of defense mechanism, and sometimes as a release valve. The trick is to give people a space to breathe without diminishing the gravity of what actually hurts, but that can go really wrong. I try to think of where the humor is coming from. If it’s just me laughing at my own joke, I have to delete the joke.
JB When humor is coming from the characters, do you participate in it? Or do you feel more objective about it, like you’re just watching the characters do their thing?
DE Sometimes I learn about a character through their sense of humor, and it does feel like I’m watching the character to get a read on them, the way you might try to figure out any stranger by what makes them laugh. But sometimes the shape of the story is very much directed by my own sense of humor, which is fairly dark.
I was on a panel and we were talking about the relationship between humor and grief. There’s the obvious relationship, where a character laughs to deflect what hurts, but there are other, more complicated relationships. Humor is a way we create a shared universe or a sense of connection. Humor can also be the way we draw attention to the absence of that connection. When you lose someone, you lose all the shared stories and running jokes that were only funny to that person. Sometimes you try to tell a funny story to someone who wasn’t there, but when you start to tell it, you realize what happened wasn’t funny at all; it was trauma. You couldn’t do anything about the fucked-up thing that happened, so you created a running joke so you could at least laugh at it. The humor is the release valve for the shared trauma, and it’s not always possible to translate that humor to people who didn’t live through the trauma. So, I think there’s a really intense relationship between humor and grief. Humor can be a kind of mourning. A lot of the characters I write are laughing but also grieving. Or they’re telling a joke that is no longer funny to anyone but themselves.
JB One of the things that I find distinctive about your work is how you arrive at moments of emotional insight. Rather than coming at the end of the story, those moments of wisdom come within the story, at the ends of paragraphs, but they still always feel convincing and patiently earned. In a sense, it’s like setting up a joke. There’s something the paragraphs are doing that allows you to arrive at these moments of wisdom that don’t feel false. They feel true, and they slap you in the face, and the story goes on.
DE I think when moments of wisdom feel false it’s often because they’re at the end of the story. If you push too hard toward a final epiphany, it ends the story on a note that feels falsely conclusive. It feels more natural to me to reach a point where the story could end, but then keep going because that’s how being alive feels. We’re all trying to make narrative sense of the world and of ourselves. I hope those moments of wisdom can arrive as true in the moment, but not necessarily true universally or even a few pages later.
JB That makes me think of the blues. You can create these lyrics that are funny or profane or wise, but life goes on and shit still keeps happening. Like you said, the wisdom is tethered to the particular moment.
The title and content of your story “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want” made me think of something you tweeted in 2016.
DE Oh, no! Get off Twitter, Danielle. (laughter)
JB No, this is actually great. You wrote:
Some work has to be done in the world before it can be done on the page. I’m thinking about this for a craft talk about writing complex female characters… Flat female characters appear in work across genres and talent levels. If you don’t understand how much performance is demanded of women or how much women are punished for failing to perform in certain ways, the female characters’ behavior gets written as erratic, without the kind of interiority that would make it coherent. Which of course is the way some men experience the world… The problem is not lack of talent, but what’s going on and how they see/treat women in the world. That’s where the work is.
It feels like you’re attentive to elements of characterization that we perhaps don’t talk about enough in writing classes. What specific elements in the writing, in the craft, did you find yourself focusing on or wrestling with to make the women in this collection so rich and memorable?
DE I’m obsessed with interiority because it gives so much room to think about structural realities in a human way, down to the level of character. Who does this character have to lie to? Who do they have to perform for in order to function in the world? How do they need to be seen in order to be safe, or achieve what they’re trying to achieve? Those are questions you ask yourself much more when you have to be aware of some kind of power imbalance. The more power you have in the power dynamic, the less you have to think about that kind of thing. But people of color, women, and queer people navigate the world with an awareness of who they’re expected to be and the consequences of straying from those expectations. My characters navigate every situation aware of the possibility of a hostile or discriminatory interaction. In my story “Happily Ever After,” the protagonist dresses up for her mother’s doctor’s appointments to head off racism and be perceived as a “real person” who deserves better information and care. I want the interiority to put some pressure on what’s happening in the story. To talk specifically about “Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want,” in 2018 the New York Review of Books published a controversial “The Fall of Men” issue, which was framed problematically in a variety of ways. As a joke, Barrelhouse magazine tweeted about making an issue called “The Fall of Men (into Volcanoes).” And then a couple people, including me, asked them to really do it. I thought it would be a fun way to think about the shitty, non-apology apologies you sometimes get. All the work in that issue went to some weird, complicated places. It turns out you can’t write a story that is pure joke—you won’t care enough to finish it.
JB Right, right.
DE The narrative of an apology is always about the person who owes the apology. It might still indicate real growth or change, but an apology is never the narrative of the victim. There are people who cannot move on until they get an apology for something that happened a long time ago. But what do you actually do with a belated apology? I think we’ve been wrestling with that as a country in a lot of different contexts. Sometimes you feel aggrieved that it takes someone else’s admission for other people to believe what you’ve been saying for years. Other times you get an apology, and you think, But I’ve done all the work. I don’t need your apology now. I’m happy that you can apologize because I’m glad you’re a better human, but also you can be a better human far the fuck away from me.
DEYou’re a Scorpio, too. I have a list of people who owe me apologies. (laughter)
JBI have several lists. (laughter)
Women’s interiority—the way women present themselves to the world through, for example, clothing and makeup and sex—is so powerfully rendered in your book. You dive into what some might take as a surface detail or a superficial action and show how it is, in fact, really profound.
DE I think I’m extra-conscious of presentation, in part because I grew up on not-super-diverse media. I’d read something and think, Well, I would identify with this character, except you’ve told me fifty-eleven times how blonde she is. When I describe a character, their coloring or the way that they’ve styled themselves might matter because it shows how they’re being perceived or what they’re trying to portray. In what way is somebody playing to or against their own perceived assets and deficiencies? Does it matter what their face looks like? Does it matter what their body looks like? I’m reluctant to include those details if they’re not concretely part of the story.
JB When do settings come into play for you? What kind of work do you want a setting to do? I’m thinking about the Titanic replica and the small town in Wisconsin and the gallery with the genius artist. All those places feel so rich.
DE In a couple of those cases I’m cheating a little. There really are two Titanic replicas in the US, where you can have a wedding or a children’s birthday party. It was a strange discovery that I made in the ER waiting room. I’d failed to bring a book so I was reading all of the ER propaganda, which included this brochure about hosting a children’s birthday party on a fake Titanic. And I thought, What?! Why does this thing exist? We are the kind of country that would build a Titanic replica and have weddings on it. I don’t mean that entirely dismissively. There’s something very endearing about how ridiculous that is.
I want to say this carefully because it’s not in any way a true story, but the story “Alcatraz” contains the most of my family history. It’s the only story that I gave to anyone for approval. I wrote the first draft more than ten years ago and gave it to my mother and said, “If you don’t want me to publish this, I won’t.” She loved the story, which made it harder to revise because she was gone by the time I was revising it. I thought it became a less optimistic story. Before revising, I told my editor I didn’t want to change the tone too much because it was the only happy story in the book. And she said, gently, “You think this is a happy story?”
JB I can totally see how “Alcatraz” is a happy story. We’re in this moment that feels good, and part of why it feels good is that we know it’s not going to last. I’m with you. I’m with you on the happiness.
Your new collection feels saturated with grief and loss and death. Recently I heard Angela Flournoy talk about hearing people say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through” in response to the grief of others and whether that’s just a figure of speech or, more seriously, a failure of imagination. We’re in trouble if we can’t imagine this thing that inevitably presses up close to all of us. How do you think about writing and imagination and death?
DE Grief is a space where time compresses. You’re in the present because you’re in a very intense feeling. There’s a constant desire to impose narrative on the past and a constant breaking of that narrative when some other, conflicting memory intrudes. You want to construct a narrative in which someone’s life makes sense, but you’re wrestling with all the ways a life does not always make sense. Grief is also about the future because of all the things that won’t get reconciled—all the narrative arcs that won’t ever end or resolve, all the time you have to reimagine with someone gone.
JB That feels true of many of the stories in your new collection, but in particular of the novella. There’s something about death or grief or loss that forces you to reckon with the differences and the overlap between facts, truth, memory, and the stories that a character can or cannot tell.
DE One of the frustrating things about grief is that the answers to some questions die with people. That’s especially true of people whose records weren’t well preserved, or people who had reasons to protect life-or-death secrets. When I was researching for this book, I was looking very hard for records of Black people in Wisconsin in the 1920s and ’30s. I went through twenty years of the NAACP’s microfiche records for Milwaukee. There’s intense documentation of particular meetings, then there’s a month that will have no records at all, and then suddenly the record picks up in the middle of a correspondence. For example, there was a dispute about five dollars in dues that got collected but never got to where it was supposed to go. I can read tonally and decide whose side I’m on, but do I actually know what happened? It seems more honest to me to say we can only answer some questions.
JB Right now, in the context of COVID-19 and quarantining and the rebellions in response to racism and an election year, so many writers have been saying that they can’t write, that writing feels trivial compared to what’s going on. Even though you wrote these stories before 2020, The Office of Historical Corrections speaks exactly to this moment in many ways. The Confederate-flag bathing suit. The Juneteenth cake. The anti-truth culture. Your collection is coming out close to the election, when who knows what’s going to happen. How do you feel about this book and its emergence into the world?
DE I’ve been joking that I should apologize for inventing 2020. I didn’t intend for the stories to be so topical. There’s a story where a man is wearing a mask poorly, and no one is sure what the actual viral threat is. There’s the Confederate flag story, which I first wrote in 2013. In the novella, I imagined Juneteenth as a gentrified holiday, thinking it would signal that we were in a slightly different future. Nobody’s fallen into a volcano, though, so I won’t take all the credit for imagining this year into existence.
In some ways a book is a document of who the writer was when they wrote it. I’ll read the first couple reviews of this book, but beyond that I won’t read any more because I think reviews are for readers. A review is not going to teach me how to be a different writer. A new project is going to teach me how to be a different writer. I don’t say that with disrespect for reviews. I think they’re deeply important. As a reader, as a critic, as an academic, I rely on reviews for a number of things, but as a writer, that space is not for me. I am, at this point, more worried about the state of the world than I am about the book. I don’t know if anyone’s going to want to read a book about anxiety and trauma in November of an election year, but I hope so. (laughter)
Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories (Graywolf Press, 2018), which was a finalist for the National Book Award. A recent Wallace Stegner Fellow, he currently teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Originally published in
Our winter issue includes interviews with Tashi Dorji, Danielle Evans, Walton Ford, Guadalupe Maravilla, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, the Ross Brothers, and Aaron Turner; DIY cookbooklets from Dindga McCannon; poetry by Rae Armantrout, Imani Elizabeth Jackson, and Allison Parrish; prose by Langston Cotman, GennaRose Nethercott, and Brontez Purnell; a comic by Michael DeForge; protest drawings by Steve Mumford; and more.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.