In my review of Washed in the Water earlier this month, I suggested this debut collection of short stories made Nancy Hartney an important new voice of the South. That was very much on my mind when I got a chance to talk to Hartney about her roots, how her upbringing influenced her writing, and how she feels about the region she grew up in. Here is our interview, slightly edited and condensed:
MW: Would it surprise you if I told you that there’s one character that appears in every one of the stories in Washed in the Water, namely the South? I think you create such a vivid, visceral feeling for the region that it almost becomes a character in your stories.
NH: Yes, I am surprised. I had not realized it since I wrote these stories over time, but the South is a character. She’s got warts and beauty marks alike. It has taken me years to appreciate and embrace my Southern roots. I grew up on a tobacco and hog farm. My mother taught high school history and was one of probably only three liberals on the faculty. As it turned out my high school and college years were a time of change that shook the South and challenged its racial, social, and political thought. Maybe it’s that upheaval that comes across and gives the area its character. As I’ve grown older, I have come to respect and value my humid mosaic called home.
MW: Do you think a reader who grew up in the South and a reader who’s never lived in that region are going to walk away from your stories with different messages or reactions?
NH: I hope so. I want folks to think about the South in terms of the common, ordinary person that lives there. People that care for each other, that have a connection, that try to redeem the good in themselves, that struggle to do better. The South has a history of grinding poverty – forget Gone with the Wind and think To Kill a Mockingbird or Norma Rae. Think music, like the blues; born in hard sweat and blood, thriving even today. Think politics and the changes as northerners move into the metropolitan South. Think lifestyles, things like hunting juxtaposed against state-of-the-art golf courses. Think chicken plants that are a worker’s worst nightmare and best hope for a decent wage.
MW: You obviously love the South, but there are moments in your stories when you’re less than complimentary to southern ways. Or don’t you see it that way?
NH: I cannot ignore the discrimination and harshness of this region nor its mean-spirited citizens. Cannot ignore its continuing civil rights issues or problems with voting. Neither can I ignore the ongoing struggle of good, honest people that genuinely strive toward a level playing field for everyone. My characters do the best they know how. Some succeed and some do not. But, at the end of the day, the South, like every region, has its good and bad, ugly and beautiful, kind and harsh.
MW: One of the least appealing characters in these stories is the itinerant preacher in Washed in the Water. Have you ever known someone like him?
NH: Characters such as my itinerant preacher live all over the United States—yesterday and today. He’s pulled from the pages of the newspaper. Fox News aired a 2007 report compiled by the Associated Press citing 260 sexual misconduct cases each year reported from major insurance companies. That’s a lot. And, sadly sexual abuse is found in all Protestant denominations, among Catholic priests, storefront ministers, and various church workers. There’s no shortage of examples.
MW: I was struck by how real the racetrack felt in “The Stooper.” I know you’ve been around horses most of your life and have written extensively about them, but I was wondering if you ever worked at a race track. What prepared you to create such a vivid picture of one?
NH: No, I’ve never worked at a track although I’ve owned and ridden off the track thoroughbreds. Over the years, I’ve loved going to the track to see the ponies run as well as watching the characters hanging out there. I’ve read most of the nonfiction books about the racing world I can find and seen almost every “horse” movie produced. Since I work in a library, I have access to a wealth of information. Well, so does the general public. The horse racing industry is colorful, exciting, and has a nasty underbelly.
MW: You mentioned that you work as a librarian. How has that influenced your writing?
NH: Every day I go to work is like walking into a candy store. I am constantly stimulated with new titles by favorite authors, unknown writers, patron suggestions, recommendations from colleagues, and all those book spines sitting on the shelves ready to be checked out. It’s an endless stream of ideas. I even find the size, texture, and feel of books stimulating.
MW: Have you always wanted to write? When did you realize you could be a serious writer?
NH: In elementary school as well as high school I jumped into my writing assignments with relish. I wrote a few short stories during that time but they were pretty naïve and amateurish. Not until I did articles for my college newspaper did I really begin to think about writing. I focused for years on nonfiction pieces covering horse events for various publications. I slipped into short stories, had several published in regional anthologies, and won awards at writers’ conferences which built confidence. I belong to a critique group—two in fact—and was encouraged to continue to write and try my hand at a book by those folks.
MW: Can you talk a little bit about your writing process? Where do the characters and the plots in your stories come from? Which come first and how easily do you put them together?
NH: I try to write daily – usually in the morning. I get grumpy when days go by and I don’t get to write. I love honing my writing skills and the revision process. Stories come in all shades and shapes at all times of day and evening. A word, a phrase, an interaction, an overheard conversation, a reflection pops up and a story starts to spin out. I carry a notebook and jot down ideas, words, and phrases—whatever strikes me. That’s when I get anxious to get back to my writing hole and pound out a tale. I write and let it rest. Rewrite. Read. Rewrite. Ask my critique group to vet. Rewrite. Revise. Repeat.
MW: How did this collection come together? Were the stories written within a few years of each other or over a longer period?
NH: Well, several grew out of workshops or seminars and had been aging. Others just sprouted on their own. Washed in the Water came about after I attended a writers’ conference and, on a lark, interviewed with two publishers and got a critique from a freelance editor while there. They offered suggestions which I mulled over. Later, I won several awards in the short story contests at that conference, entered other contests, won a few, and gradually began to think about a collection. Everything has evolved over time.
MW: Who are your favorite writers? Who did you read before you started writing?
NH: That’s like asking which child is your favorite. I read international authors such as Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Isabel Allende, and Colum McCann. The nonfiction of Thomas McGuane, Jane Smiley, Larry McMurtry, Roy Reed, and Ivan Doig are an endless delight. I’m also fond of some of their novels. Fiction writers I enjoy include Lee Smith, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Erskine Caldwell, and Tom Franklin. As I said, can’t choose just one – can’t eat just one potato chip either.
MW: And who are your current favorites?
NH: Whatever I’m currently reading. I don’t read everything I pick up—some get a leaf-through, some I read only a chapter here and there, some I skim read, others I read cover to cover devouring every word.
MW: Although you’ve published a lot of stories and articles before this, Washed in the Water is your first book, and having it published has to have been a different kind of experience for you. What has that been like?
NH: At first I sat and held my book and petted it. It became real at my book launch event when people actually bought a copy. Folks buying off the website and from bookstores also made the whole thing real. The money doesn’t matter so much to me—it’s the feedback from people that say they liked the book.
MW: What about your future plans? What can we expect next?
NH: I’ll keep writing out of sheer pleasure. Look for another collection of tales set in the South, a collection of stories set in the racing world, and maybe some Western short stories. I’m playing with the idea of a novel. At one time I rode to the hounds. The rallying cry in the hunt field was “Kick on,” meaning to ride forward no matter the trappy terrain or height of the jump. Now I shout “Write on!” Same idea.