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Interview: Erin McMillan

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Every few weeks we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices feature. The next in our series is ‘Crossing Cut Creek’. Its author, Erin McMillan, speaks to Roy Robins.

RR: Where are you from?

EM: I grew up in the Chicago area, and left to do my undergraduate degree in Ohio. From there, I moved to Colorado, and then to Minnesota. Currently, I’m living in New Jersey.

When did you start writing? And why?

I’ve always written little bits, but they were more along the lines of rambling journal entries. There were, when I was a kid, a few stories about aliens, or mice on pirate ships. I didn’t seriously undertake writing (meaning a conscious effort to create something whole, instead of just jotting down thoughts) until about five years ago. I’ve always been a reader, but resisted the temptation to write because it just seemed too huge, too daunting. What finally got me into writing was the same thing that had kept me away from it for so long: the sheer overwhelming difficulty of it. I was ready for a challenge, and once I began, I was completely hooked by the complexity of the craft. The best and most surprising part of studying writing is that it gives me a whole new way to look at literature. Now, when I reread the books that I love, there are new layers of meaning and accomplishment for me to discover.

The other important component of the why of writing is that I’ve always been a bit of a liar. Not really about the important things, but I have always had the impulse to edit stories from my real life as I’m telling them. Sometimes I switch who said what, make up dialogue all together, change the weather or the time of day. When I started writing fiction, I realized that I had been editing all along, following a narrative hunch to make the story better, more complete.

What was the germ of ‘Crossing Cut Creek’?

A friend of mine told me a story about the day her mother nearly left her father. That day, her brother hurt his wrist, and her mother didn’t leave. No one in the family ever discussed it, in fact, my friend didn’t understand exactly what had happened until much later. Yet even though she didn’t know exactly what was going on, she sensed the importance of the situation, and the tension that surrounded it. She was an observer, and had no real part to play, but a huge stake in the outcome all the same. What intrigued me about this story, and the idea that I wanted to explore, was the way that life-changing decisions can be made, or changed, because of the smallest incident.

All the characters in this story – the narrator, Dawn, her younger brother, Keller, her mother, father and grandmother – are vividly realized and acutely observed. What is perhaps most impressive is your feel for the way children speak and behave, and for detailing their imaginative inner lives. Dawn’s narrative never feels forced – she comes across as entirely authentic. The child’s perspective (which combines innocence, intuition, imagination and shrewd intelligence) is certainly a great way to refract adult emotions and to give depth and shape to everyday events. Does writing from a child’s point of view come easily to you?

I’ve always thought children are very perceptive, not just because they are so observant, but because they see things that adults cannot. I think we too often underestimate children – what they can comprehend, and what they are capable of. In a way, they often have a clearer perception of things than adults do, unclouded by all of the concerns that muddy up the waters for us.

I’m not sure that writing from a child’s point of view comes easily to me, but the impulse to reflect adult lives and decisions through a child was a part of this story. Dawn is of an age to be aware of undercurrents of tension, while not exactly understanding the history behind them. She is old enough to feel the need to protect herself and her brother from what she perceives as a threat, but not old enough to take full control of the situation. In the end, she is still subject to the actions of adults, and is fairly powerless.

Writing from a child’s point of view became an exercise in reminding myself that my life is not that different from Dawn’s, that we are all subject to events beyond our control. It is easy to think of lack of authority in one’s life as being the problem of a child, but this issue is of central importance in our adult lives as well – the difficulty in assuming control, and the inability to fully understand events that will affect us. This is nothing that we don’t experience every day as adults, but our own lives more often have the illusion of control, an illusion that kids don’t have.

‘Crossing Cut Creek’, which is set in northern Florida, is marvellously evocative. Why did you choose this location for the story?

I have family in northern Florida, and the setting of this story comes from what I remember from my visits. The landscape, the heat, the quality of the light, and things like the texture of the roads, remain with me more than specific memories. I have been there only once as an adult, and so my perceptions of that place are rooted firmly in my own childhood. Of all the places I know, it seemed the most perfect setting for this particular story.

Environment plays an important part in many of my stories. The landscape assumes the proportions of another character, at least in my head. In particular, I am interested in the ways that rural landscapes shape the lives of the people who live there. Many of the challenges of living in rural areas come from the landscape, the weather, the elements. The short stories in the collection I am currently working on takes place in northern Minnesota, which couldn’t be more different than Florida in terms of weather, but there are startling parallels between the two places.

Who are the writers that have shaped your literary sensibility?

To answer this question, I went to my bookshelf and looked for the books that were in the worst shape (I treat my books terribly – I break bindings so that the books will lie flat, and dog-ear pages with no remorse). What follows is the short list of the authors of what are, currently, the most ragged books on my shelves: Willa Cather, Rick Moody, Denis Johnson, Jane Austen, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, Charles Baxter, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver and Elizabeth Gaskell.

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