Rest Stops, Flower Shops, and Yankee Pie: A Conversation with Jon Corcoran.

By on Monday, June 27th, 2016 at 9:04 am

Jonathan Corcoran and Roberto Santiago reading together in California

Jonathan Corcoran is the author of the story collection, The Rope Swing, published in April 2016 by Vandalia Press, the creative imprint of West Virginia University Press. His work has been named a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction and a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and is forthcoming in the anthology, Eyes Burning at the Edge of the Woods: Contemporary West Virginia Fiction and Poetry. He received a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. He was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York. The Rope Swing is his debut.

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Roberto F. Santiago: Congratulations on the release of your first collection The Rope Swing! I am so proud of you! I must say outright that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have millions of notes in the margins. These notes range from ‘YASSSS!’ and ‘WERK’ to ‘STEAL THIS!’ and ‘THIS is poetry.’

Jonathan Corcoran: The highest kind of literary praise comes from a writer you respect, and you are that, sir. And to have a “capital P” Poet refer to my prose as poetry—I’m breaking out the champagne tonight (well, prosecco, if I’m honest). Thanks you. Seriously. It’s been such a journey getting this book out here. It feels like a victory lap getting to talk about it with you.

Santiago: Prosecco is my go to, as well! Let’s get down to some book chat shall we? Can you talk a little bit about The Rope Swings‘ journey from MFA workshop and thesis to this awesomely colourful collection I read (cover to cover) in one sitting?

Corcoran: About half of these stories began in one form or another in an MFA workshop setting. When you’re writing in a classroom setting, it’s difficult at times to read through the criticisms to see that, yes, your fellow writers not only see potential in your work, but actually enjoy your stories. When I was writing in that setting, I generated much of my work with emotion and feeling. I had this deep sense that grad school was a gift, and I had better make use of my time to produce the most meaningful work possible. The reality, of course, is that none of the stories I wrote was fully realized by the time I left grad school. But I had been given a life’s worth of tools and wisdom from both my peers and teachers, tools that continue to shape my writing. I internalized those lessons and spent the next six months or so after school reworking the stories alone, listening to the voice in my head, and finishing the collection. And then I sent out the collection. Again and again and again. It took about three years for the book to find a home (story collections are a hard sell for debut authors). I revised the whole thing dozens upon dozens of times until it landed at my current publisher.

Santiago: Why was it imperative to put these stories out into the world?

JC: Maybe it’s true with all first books, but this was the one I had to write. If I hadn’t got this one finished—published or not—I’d never be able to write another line. Each of the stories in this book resonates so deeply with my person. I wrote the stories I needed in my life—the narratives that I felt were missing or underappreciated. These are stories of queer individuals in rural spaces. These are stories of individuals deciding whether to leave their small worlds for better opportunities or stay and craft their own. I wanted to capture a glimpse of Appalachia from the point of view of someone who had been there and lived there. It’s a world that’s not dying, necessarily, but it might be crumbling. What comes out of that rubble remains to be seen. The mountains are filled with real lives, with people who have real desires. I hope some of this yearning and passion comes through in the work. I would say that all of my characters have strong passions. Sometimes these exist below the surface, but the passions are there. This book was, in many ways, my ode to home.

Santiago: In crafting my own collection, Angel Park, I was constantly revising the sequence of the collection, reading The Rope Swing I kept thinking that you paid VERY close attention to its sequence. What was your process in crafting a linked story collection? Was it a natural process, or did you have to consciously create all the tendons and connective tissue?

Corcoran: When I began writing these first stories, I didn’t immediately realize that they were congealing around the same themes and settings. There are ten stories in the book. I probably wrote five before I realized that these characters knew each other and lived in the same world. At that point, the crafting of the collection became very conscious. I printed the stories and arranged them on my floor. I changed the order by physically moving the stories around on the floor. I drew a diagram, a wave of sorts, that tracked what I saw as the narrative arc. I identified the holes and set to writing more stories. One of the last stories I wrote was the first one in the book, Appalachian Swan Song. This story was the glue that held the rest of the book together. I believe that all good story collections should have some kind of narrative arc, whether or not the stories are connected by setting or character.

Santiago: Appalachian Swan Song is an amazing opener to your collection. I immediately felt immersed in the slow moving lushness, the silhouette of the mountains in the distance, and the colourful ways of speaking. In Swan Song we are introduced to so many characters that appear later on… but what I need to know is when do I get a story about the Late Governor and/or his wife?

Corcoran: Thank you! I wanted to craft a story that oozed nostalgia, that provided a false sense of security. The citizens of this town—the town that continues throughout the book—don’t quite realize how their world is changing. I used the collective “we” with this story, which was something I’d never done before. Different types of stories require different voices, and this one demanded something larger than the “I.”

As for the Late Governor and his wife—I can’t say for sure. I thought I was done with this particular world, but I’m realizing there may be many more stories to tell. I’m conflicted, at times, about whether or not I should let the readers invent the “missing” stories. I struggle with that notion, finding the balance between mystery and illumination. I’m working on a novel that may or may not be set in this same world, that may or may not be a complete realization of one of the stories. I’ll keep you updated!

Santiago: You BETTER! I think the title story is a perfect reflection of the longing and reticence that permeates your collection, but I know that once upon a time Corporeal and Felicitations were contenders for the title story. Upon reading those aforementioned stories, I couldn’t but help think of how different my experience of the collection would have been had those stories beat out The Rope Swing. How did you make that choice?

Corcoran: The honest answer is that everyone (and I mean, EVERYONE) I consulted, including my publisher, thought that using Corporeal as a title wouldn’t have been commercial enough. We don’t always remember to think of those things as writers. I’m fortunate enough that my publisher gave me the choice. My editor said that if I absolutely wanted to keep the title, I could. But upon reflection, I realized that The Rope Swing, both as title and the lead story, represented one of the strongest undercurrents in the book. The title story is about two gay teens on the cusp of love, but one of them is so paralyzed by fear that he cannot act. A rope swing is a simple object, a piece of rope dangling over a river or a body of water. You either grab it and jump, or you don’t. My characters are all on the cusp of something—love, loss, reinvention. They can see the choices clearly. It’s the potential consequences with which they struggle.

Santiago: The Rope Swing deals with love in such interesting in unexpected ways. In our Octopus Literary Salon Conversation, we discussed queerness and queer love. I posited that all love was queer. I especially felt that reading your collection. In The Rope Swing, love feels like a memory, tangibly unattainable, and far from idealized…your characters often settle for the closest thing to love, or a hybrid form of love what love is and what it should be. Could you talk more about your queer take on love?

Corcoran: Life is messy. Queer life can be doubly messy. In the stories that feature gay characters, I wanted to explore how violence and love are often intertwined. Queer people have to contend with the threat of violence—verbal, physical, or psychological—in nearly all aspects of their lives. This is changing, but the threat remains. In fact, it’s often the act of loving someone publicly—a man loving another man, or a woman loving another woman—that sets off this violence. How then do we survive our relationships, resist this fear? We don’t always. Sometimes we aren’t able to commit ourselves fully to love because of this threat, which is constantly looming in the background. It’s horrible and depressing when this kind of dynamic destroys relationships, consciously or not. I don’t think we’re always aware that this dynamic is in play.

To your point that all love is queer, I would agree in many ways. We’re a world of individuals, who come from individual circumstances that others will never understand fully. We remain locked up in our own minds and share what we choose to share—and even those tidbits are filtered. We latch onto others who seem like they fit with us and we grasp—always grasping!—at what feels right. Like with Moira in Pauly’s Girl, love comes to us in unexpected ways and forms (in her case, by settling into an unusual form of love with a gay man that has nothing to do with sexual attraction). Love is a simultaneously brave and foolish act, as close to being stripped naked as a human can get. It makes no sense, and because of that, it makes perfect sense. What’s more queer than blind faith in another person?

Santiago: That is a writing prompt and a half if I ever heard one! In Appalachian Swan Song, you write “We didn’t love the Mayor or his views…we tolerated him…because we needed him.” Talk more about the concept of tolerance in West Virginia both in your own life and The Rope Swing.

Corcoran: Oh, my West Virginia. It’s a place so isolated that it’s in many ways unique. All of us who come from there are strange birds of one sort or another. And that’s why we look to each other for advice, trust each other implausibly, and even seek each other out when we leave. Being raised beneath the mountains is kind of like growing up on an island. You tolerate your neighbors’ eccentricities at first because you have to in order to survive, and then you learn to appreciate those eccentricities as vital to your well being, to your identity. But then again, I suppose that’s an overly-idealistic way to look at the place—a best-case scenario. Truthfully, I learned at an early age that tolerance can often be a one-way street. Tolerance requires you to adhere to certain boundaries. At the times in my life that I broke those boundaries—when, for example, I publicly loved another man (as opposed to loving another man discretely), I paid the consequences in scorn or estrangement. I had many allies, but this scorn came in equal heaps from strangers and the people I trusted. I had a heap of trouble with my own family, when they found out I was gay. Part of my mission with this book—and part of my mission in life—was to push those proscribed rules of tolerance, to make the very term more encompassing, by putting real life, messy life, out in the open. Exposure leads to dialogue, which ideally leads to understanding.

Santiago: Your collection explores what is means to belong through the lens of ownership, loneliness, reputation, home, fugue, (to name a very few), but I as I read each story…I thought more and more about fear(s) and/or confronting fear(s) as a vital part of each story. How does fear play into your writing?

Corcoran: Fear pulses through each of my stories, as it does in my own life. I’m motivated to be a better person when I examine my own fears, when I allow myself to glimpse at the dark version of myself that exists buried beneath the scaffolding. We all have demons, and I often try to realize my own demons through my writing. I sometimes write characters who commit the kinds of actions that I’m often afraid to admit that I myself am capable of. I allow my characters to approach the cusps of decisions and, sometimes, jump of the cliff into the spiraling abyss. It’s an awful experience for me, writing a character that makes the kind of decision that could throw her life over the edge. It hurts. But through that, I’m able to reveal something—I hope—about humanity.

Santiago: What was it like to read from your collection, a stone’s throw from where you grew up? How will this experience change you as a person and author?

It was wondrous, truly. I was so scared to go home and read something that revealed so much about me, even if it was all fiction. In particular, I had this horrible fear of a homophobic backlash to my work in those small towns in West Virginia. But the fear was unfounded. At all of my readings across small towns in West Virginia and Kentucky, I was greeted with thoughtful questions from the audience, enthusiastic readers, and generally kind human beings. In my hometown, I chose to read the title story, which is about two gay teens on the cusp of love. There are scenes in that story inspired by the community theater in which I participated in as a child, the same community theater that agreed to host my reading. It was a magical homecoming and brought back so many memories. I left with a new kind of trust in humanity. It gave me the courage to keep on writing daring works of fiction and to trust that my readers will find the light in my work.

Santiago: In the title story, Christopher and Greg play characters in the Wizard of Oz which fit them perfectly…if you were to play a role in the very same production as Christopher and Greg, who would you play? Why?

Corcoran: A not so big secret: I was the Tin Man in that play, the one in search of a heart. I can be hard on myself sometimes. I worry that I’m not good enough a partner in love, that I’m turning callous in my old-er age (hello thirties!). And I think that’s why I’d still be the Tin Man, the patron saint of all writers. We allow ourselves to access the darker parts of our existence, yet we do so by allowing ourselves to truly feel. I know that somewhere in there I’ve got a whole lot of heart. Writers are over-thinkers, sure, but I think the best writers shoot from the heart. We’d never play the Lion.

Santiago: No Cowardly Lions here! Soundtracks are very important to me so could you create a soundtrack for The Rope Swing? Bonus Points if the songs mirror your journey to The Rope Swing.

Corcoran:

Country Roads

  • Let’s start with the obvious choice. I’ve lived in New York for almost a decade, but I still cry (no joke) two out of three times that I hear that song. Home, in my case, West Virginia, has such a hold on people. But I’ll switch it up a little. I actually prefer the Dolly Parton version to the John Denver version.

Anything We Want by Fiona Apple

  • Fiona Apple has some kind of effect on me. I think every story I’ve ever written has been subject to at least one listen-through of a Fiona Apple song. This song in particular is from her last album, Idler Wheel… It’s a song so fraught with nostalgia and yearning, sex and desire, sadness and loss, and also moments of ecstatic joy. All of that in one song. I promise. Everything she did with this song, I tried to do with my book.

Invisible Light ­by Scissor Sisters

  • This is probably my sex song, if I have one. When I need to get raw, to access something more base, I put this song on and dance alone. This song is a reminder to allow myself to write characters that feel the world physically, to write characters that touch and scream and claw.

No Anthems by Sleater-Kinney

  • This is my rock anthem, the song that allows me to put on a fierce face to the world. Steel spine, stone heart, laser eyes. I feel all of that when I hear this song. My shoulders perk right up.

Ain’t Got No, I Got Life by Nina Simone

  • The act of putting a book in the world has to be the scariest thing I’ve ever done (aside from deciding to become a writer). Once it’s out there, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. But good gracious, what a gift it is to have done all of this. I sure do feel alive.

Click HERE for the The Rope Swing playlist.

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The Rope Swing is available from West Virginia University Press.

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