Interviews · 09/12/2017

Human: An Interview with Chauna Craig

The very best stories have the ability to render the reader thrilled, understood, comforted. They promote growth and challenge us to closely examine our values. Chauna Craig’s debut story collection, A Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms (Press 53, 2017), is just the place to find such stories. Here Craig delves deep into the realm of relationships and uncovers the rare gems found within — the noble efforts of the human heart.

Of the twelve stories in the collection many depict rural living and explore closely the theme of family relationships, particularly those of step-parent to step-child. Pete Fromm, author of If Not for This and The Names of the Stars, writes:

With the heart of a giant, and an eye sharp enough to cut, Chauna Craig takes her hometown of Great Falls, Montana, and makes it every town whose glory may lurk mostly in memory. And within these towns, within the hearts of the people hanging on, hidden as if by a magician, lie the complexities of all lives, awaiting, like our own hearts, discovery. The great gift of The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms is to allow you to be their discoverer. Chauna Craig is the real deal.

Truly remarkable, A Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms, is tragic and heartfelt, giving weight to sincerity and miraculously, to hope.

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There are a many ideas about the American west and what it represents, especially in film. I’m curious about what was it like growing up in Great Falls, Montana? Do you think natives of the state are inevitably drawn back to the mountainous landscape?

Most Montanans I know have a fierce sense of connection to their identities as Montanans, even when (and often because) they no longer live there. Though I grew up in one of the biggest “cities” in Montana (at a steady population of 55,000), we had to drive about twelve hours west to Seattle, east to Minneapolis, or south to Denver to visit real urban areas, where the entire population of Montana fits into fewer than 50 square miles. Growing up in Great Falls as an avid reader — someone very curious about the world — I was eager to see more. I went to a small liberal arts college out of state where students came from Seattle and Honolulu and San Francisco, and I was immediately schooled in what it meant to be from Montana. My roommate pinned up prints of Matisse and Kahlo and listened to the Cocteau Twins and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. I’d heard of none of those people, and when she didn’t disguise her disdain at my ignorance, I papered my side of the room with pictures of Axl Rose and raced to beat her back from the showers to blast Whitesnake on the stereo.

I know now that my reaction — to fervently embrace whatever she deemed tasteless — was how I handled my sense of shame. I started to believe I wasn’t smart or cool enough to make it outside of Montana, and I transferred to Montana State to finish my degree. So, although the landscape — the mountains in the west and the open, short-grass prairie in the eastern part of the state and the truly big sky everywhere — are a permanent spiritual draw for me, I think a lot of natives feel safety in this idea of themselves as common, hard-working people resisting elite, liberal outsiders who think they know what Montanans need. I have a stubborn independent streak consistent with that rhetoric, and it’s served me (mostly) well. Unfortunately, that dynamic, at least when I lived in Great Falls, was unkind to anyone who didn’t fit that concept. The state regularly laments its “brain drain” of young people educated there who then leave, but that to me seems a natural consequence of a state that bills itself as “The Last, Best Place.” You can’t resist change and still grow and develop.

Now an east-coaster, do you ever feel “the call of the west?”

Eek! I don’t think I’ve ever been called an “east-coaster,” not directly anyway. The funny thing is that western Pennsylvanians don’t identify with that term, and they’re more Midwestern than East Coast. In my youth I would have lumped everyone east of the Mississippi River in the same category, but I’m learning the more I travel how distinct sub-regions really are. That said, I always think of myself as “from” Montana, and when I’m out West, something in my whole being lifts up — like I can somehow breathe better. So yes, that call is always, always there. I keep trying to answer it in my writing, but someday I hope to be back where I belong.

Several of the stories take place in rural areas of the west/midwest and depict the lives of its inhabitants. How do you feel the disappearing culture of earlier generations in the areas has influenced the people? What is it like to watch the process as a native living elsewhere?

Curiously, I don’t see as much a sense of a disappearing culture in Montana as you’d expect, in part because Great Falls had already seen its defining economic heyday a generation before me. The B&N Railroad was already in decline, and when I was a toddler, the copper refinery shut down for good. Although the air force base escaped closure, the Minuteman missile program (its specialty) shrank considerably after the end of the Cold War. Unwelcome adjustments and losses were already inherent in the story I inherited, and by the time I left for college, an ugly infestation of casinos had taken over the main avenue in Great Falls. By the time I moved out of state, places where my friends had grown up had turned into notorious meth houses.

I keep up on local politics by reading the Great Falls Tribune online. I even watched the candidate debate for that special election this spring (I was giving a reading in town), and sometimes I think very little has changed, that Great Falls encourages a nostalgic bubble as a kind of defense against larger cultural changes. But really, change is always going to happen, and what I see happening in Montana is true of other rural areas too. If you’re stuck in trying to preserve what was, instead of creating and working toward a vision for what can be, your resources will be wasted on short-term fixes. But then the settled West was built on boom/bust cycles, and maybe we’re just waiting for the Next Big Thing.

Also, I should note that Montana has been the home to many Native American tribes long before Euro-Americans settled it, and the issue of a disappearing culture is likely very different from that point-of-view. I don’t feel qualified to speak to that, but it’s important to recognize.

The character ‘Mouse’ in the story, “This Is History,” intrigues me. I admire her strength and insight. She is steadily losing her childhood but I would say still has her innocence. Many writers use child narrators for their stories. What was your process in writing this character?

Eve/Mouse started as a character in a failed novel, one of those rare, fully formed characters whose voice spoke in my head. I was a painfully shy and self-conscious oldest child who thought too much and said too little, so when this slightly sassy kid still at the age when she wanted to believe her parents and older brother were infallible announced herself to me, I wanted the opportunity to embody her perspective. She’s the same age I was when the smokestack was scheduled for demolition, so I drew on my own memories for her character’s observations and awareness, but where I would have just noted something and stayed silent, I knew Mouse would say or do something, and so I imagined how a more daring kid than myself might act, and she evolved from there.

Also, I knew more of her story after the events in “This Is History,” and though that’s never explicit in the published story, I know Mouse/Eve exists on the page as she does because I’d developed her elsewhere too.

Blended families and divorce is a recurring theme in this collection. You showcase all aspects, the beautiful and the heartbreaking, of blended families and single parenting. “The Stroke of Midnight” stood out, especially the character, Jamie. This story is particularly specific and with such devastatingly complex circumstances. What did you want to bring to the light with this story?

I actually wrote this story before I had children of my own. But I was raising my partner’s kids then and grew to understand the unique difficulties of the stepparent role (and the heartbreak around it): you are not the children’s mother or father and shouldn’t try to be, but you can’t let that be a barrier to love. You also realize that if your relationship to your partner doesn’t work out, you may never again see those children you’ve grown to love. And you can’t let that be a barrier to love either. It takes a very healthy, mature person to successfully navigate the stepparent role, and I have a great deal of respect and empathy for people who feel (and are made to feel) deficient there. I read a lot of literary fiction, and while parenting is a common theme, I encounter very few stories or novels that center on the stepparenting relationship or dig beyond clichés and stereotypes to create fully-imagined stepparent characters. Though I didn’t set out to fill that gap, my own life was (and is again) consumed with the daily joys, frustrations, surprises, and hard work of parenting kids related and also not related to me. It creeps into my writing over and over, and I think this story was the one in which I lived out my worst fears related to loving a child over whom I have no legal rights. So I was trying to convey the risks, rewards, and sorrows of choosing to love a stepchild who may reject you, possibly even forever.

What did you want to accomplish with these stories and these characters? You have created such rich characters and diverse interconnecting themes. What voice did you want to give to these characters and subjects?

I love people. I love their fragile hopes, their persistent flaws, and their often-buried simple wish to be loved and accepted as they are. It seems very old school to say I write to explore the human heart and hopefully expand my own, but that’s the core of my impulse toward fiction writing. I love fiction that takes me somewhere far from myself (I enamored of Ray Bradbury’s Mars stories in junior high), but, like most readers, I also read to have my own place in the world confirmed (again, Ray Bradbury’s influence, this time through the coming-of-age novel Dandelion Wine.) That’s probably why I obsess about characters in a small city in Montana off most people’s radars. Their interior lives are as rich and worthy as those of politicians, New York City publishing house interns, detectives, and wizards. (Okay, I might swap lives with a wizard.) I wanted to give voice to people who rarely have a place on the Big Screen but who have a lot to teach us about who we are.

This was your debut story collection. They are beautiful stories, brought richly to life. What does this collection mean to you, and what do you want it to say about you as a writer?

That’s another scary question. I find it relatively easy to write a story and send it out into the world, and most of these stories appeared in literary journals first. A different meaning emerges when a writer chooses to put certain stories together in a debut collection, because whether you like it or not, it will represent who you are as a writer until the next book expands that definition. So what I want The Widow’s Guide to Edible Mushrooms to say about me as a writer is this: that I try to present human characters and situations with empathy, honesty, and humor, that I still believe in humanity despite the evidence in the world suggesting there isn’t much left.

Sometimes literary fiction, in all its truth telling, can become rather dark. Many of your stories here end on a hopeful note, or with the characters consoling themselves to a better place. What is important about this positivity for you?

Thank you, thank you, thank you for recognizing the hope! I teach a literature course in the short story, and my students joke (in that way that tells you they mean it) that everything I assign is “depressing.” The first time I heard this, I was genuinely surprised. These students regularly watch horror films in which human beings are reduced to their slashed body parts. Some of them stay up all night with a game controller in their hand battling imaginary creatures because it’s easier than fighting their own demons. Numbness to suffering — those of others and your own — is depressing. Forgetting what it is to experience the range of human emotions is depressing. Reading literature that wakes you back into yourself is the very opposite of depressing.

In that same class, one young woman dismissed Anna in Joyce Carol Oates’ nod to Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” as “crazy” for intentionally cutting her own arm and wondered aloud why I assigned this kind of story. When I responded that it actually seemed reasonable in the face of overwhelming emotional pain to try to feel concrete pain with a recognizable source, this student claimed that I too must be crazy. But several of the silent students were looking at me with these surprised, relieved expressions that said, “This writer gets it, and my teacher gets it, and so maybe my own reactions are sane responses to a crazy world.” I want my own writing to explore the range of ways people try to survive this world and also to affirm that we shouldn’t be ashamed of even the failed or destructive ways of doing so.

That said, I also consciously bookended this story collection with stories in which love wins the round. I am a relentlessly optimistic person who only stays that way because I try to recognize and understand the dark side of human nature. I don’t pretend it isn’t there, but I don’t dwell in it either. Writing is my consolation.

You are a professor of creative writing in Western Pennsylvania. How has teaching influenced your writing and your thoughts on the craft?

Teaching provides that all-important reminder that writing is a skill and that “good” stories are the result of effective craft choices. When students come to recognize the difference between revision and editing, many of them tell me they never really revised their work before. And they say that with wonder, delighted to discover evidence in later drafts of all they’ve learned and been bold enough to try. I never divide my students into “good” and “bad” writers; there are only those who remain open to learning the craft and persist in their writing practice and those that decide to pursue other interests. The most painful position is the writer who wants to be the first type, is behaving like the second, but hasn’t actually made a conscious decision about writing. I’m most helpful when I know what type of writer I’m working with, including myself. When I’m not doing much writing, I question what other interests I’m pursuing and why. If I’m focusing on a new relationship or life skill because it makes my life better, I let myself enjoy that, knowing the writing will return. But if I’m advancing levels on Candy Crush because I’m retreating from writing I’m afraid to do, the loving-but-firm teacher kicks in and nudges me back on track.

What’s next for Chauna Craig?

In the last six months, I’ve published and promoted a book, gotten married, worked on integrating another combined family, read over two hundred stories as guest fiction editor for Prime Number magazine, and planned my parents’ fiftieth-wedding anniversary party. I want to say that what’s next is a Rip Van Winkle kind of nap, but I’ve nearly finished my second story collection and my Great Falls memoir. And someday I’d like to write a post-apocalyptic novel because I love reading them, and I don’t think they’ll ever really go out of fashion. We’re all obsessed with the idea that not even endings end.

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Chauna Craig grew up in Great Falls, Montana where she’s seen mermaids swim, and, she swears it’s true, the wind once lifted her off her feet. A fiction and essay writer, she now lives in a purple house in Pennsylvania with her partner and children.

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Meghan Reed studies creative writing and French at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. A Cooper Honors Scholar, her work has appeared in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s literary magazine, Equinox, where she won the 2017 Award for Fiction.