Karen Salyer McElmurray is the author or editor of numerous books, including the novels Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven and Motel of the Stars and the memoir Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Story. She has received numerous awards for her writing while also serving as a teacher and mentor to other writers. Her newest novel, Wanting Radiance, was published in April 2020 from University Press of Kentucky. Much of this novel is about different kinds of mysticism and magic and the misunderstood, but in the end, the greatest magic is in the possibility of healing. Wanting Radiance is set mostly in Eastern Kentucky, where Karen was raised. My father’s family was also from Eastern Kentucky, and since the characters in Wanting Radiance share my last name, connecting us like distant cousins, I asked Karen if we could talk about the difficult work of writing novels, understanding family relationships and divining the future.
Denton Loving is the author of the poetry collection Crimes Against Birds (Main Street Rag) and editor of Seeking Its Own Level, an anthology of writings about water (MotesBooks). His writing has recently appeared in Iron Horse Literary Review, Kenyon Review, The Chattahoochee Review and The Threepenny Review. Follow him on twitter @DentonLoving.
Loving: I read an early draft of Wanting Radiance several years ago, and it was fascinating to read the final version and see different ways it had changed.
McElmurray: The novel began as a short story many years ago—a story called “The Black Cat Diner,” which was about a waitress who has an almost-love affair with a man who co-owns a diner and garage with his mechanic wife. The story, in turn, has its own origin, as it was based on family stories. My grandmother’s sister was named Della, and she did work on cars while her husband ran the grill. Russell was a card player and sometime drinker who often ran into big debts and ran after younger women. So, family history became a short story which became a novel over a period of about seven or so years. I knew, as I took up that story again, that I wanted to know much more. I wanted to know about the waitress, who I originally named Waydean. I wanted to know why she ended up waiting tables in a small town originally named Inez, in the middle of Eastern Kentucky. I wanted to know what lives she’d lived before, what hurts and loves and ghosts she’d left behind. And I wanted to know a great deal more about Della and Russell, what kept them together and what brought them into each other’s lives in the first place. Originally, as I worked, I imagined the waitress named Waydean having left behind her mother, who told fortunes for a living. That mother was always named Ruby, and she had once upon a time been shot by a lover—leaving Waydean to care for her while she told fortunes from her sick bed. And so Ruby herself had a life I developed. As I wrote that draft, I became more interested in the art of fortune-telling, and how that is handed down from mother to daughter. And I became more interested in why Ruby is shot by her lover, who that lover is, and Waydean’s other inheritance—love that leaves you wounded. I had several characters who are vital in these early drafts, and I was torn between them, especially Ruby and Waydean. Finally, that shooting—Ruby’s death—becomes the narrative occasion that propels Waydean’s life forward. In the version I finally headed toward, Waydean has been living a life on the road, moving forward again and again in the effort to leave the hurt past behind. I revised the novel maybe ten times as I became more and more sure that the story belonged to Waydean, who finally became Miracelle, a woman sort of looking for a miracle to heal her own heart.
Loving: One of my favorite aspects about your writing in general and this book in particular is that it so often captures a dream-like quality. There are aspects of Wanting Radiance that remind me of the dreaminess in William Gay’s work and some of Cormac McCarthy’s early novels. Part of the dreaminess in this book comes from the explorations of mysticism and magic. But maybe a larger part comes from the beautiful lyricism in the language.
McElmurray: I began my study of writing many years ago at the University of Virginia, and was admitted at that time to the MFA Program in Poetry. I soon realized that my poems were very narrative, and that I wanted to pursue the larger canvas of fiction to paint the stories I have to tell. Still, my writing remains to this day, as you say, lyric—language-based. My artistic goals in that writing remain those of poetry. The narrative form/vehicle of the story relies upon the tenor/the heart and soul of that story. As far as that heart and soul of good work goes, as a student dreading revision said to me a few terms ago, “You’re a mystic!” I guess I am. My favorite writers are mystics, after all. W.B. Yeats. Leslie Marmon Silko. And those you mention. Cormac McCarthy. William Gay. Arriving at that balance of story and language and intent is a huge task. I have tended in the past to put the words (the paint) on the canvas and then look for the shape. These days, I am carefully imagining the story for a long time ahead, then arriving at the language in draft after draft after draft. The language must be pared down, built up, pared down again and again to become the best it can be. It is a slow process, and I can get frustrated with that, given the demands of a hurried world.
Loving: As I read Wanting Radiance, I couldn’t help but see a lot of you in Miracelle, particularly in the fact that you both are travelers and seekers. It seems that a good rule in fiction writing is to give aspects of yourself to your characters. Do you find that fiction often comes from real-life experience?
McElmurray: Without question, Miracelle is me, in many ways. I like that you use the word “seeker,” which is what several of my closest friends have called me over the years. Yes, Miracelle is a seeker, a lover of roads and highways and the quickest way out. She’s a lover of Tarot and the hope that maybe one card, just the right future card, might change everything, this time. I could very well have written my own personal story of lovers and highways, odd jobs and pursuit of heart’s truth. But Miracelle was somehow born on the page. I handed her the flashlight and let her set out on a journey, lending her a particular mystery to solve, rather than the myriad questions of my own life. In some ways, that felt like real magic. Miracelle=journey=peace. Miracelle=rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Writing nonfiction doesn’t have that particular narrative shape, that closure. But as you say, Miracelle is me, and I am her. And, yes, I do often find stories from my own life or my family history to lend to the world of fiction. Sometimes, I actually think that the boundaries between genres—fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry—are way too rigid. Just as gender is fluid, so is genre. Fiction borrows from life, and can in fact borrow from narrative, and can in fact bend and twist the definitions of time, point of view, language, name it. And nonfiction, certainly, can borrow from fiction, creating scenes out of memory, transcribing the essence of conversations to make dialogue—even making worlds in which the magical, the speculative, might just be the realest real.
Loving: Another way that I see your real-life bleeding into Miracelle’s life is in the complex relationship you both have with your parents. Where Miracelle is trying to find out exactly who her parents are, you’ve tried to understand your parents through your writing. I know that both of your parents have passed away during the writing of this novel, your father most recently. Do you feel that you’re still trying to understand them and your relationship with them?
McElmurray: Oh, now that is a question, one I’ve been with all year, and especially during this time of the virus and quarantine. A long time ago, I was at an art colony and I met a woman who did huge—wall-sized—canvases. And in all of them, every single piece, there was the silhouette of a bear. A small, dark shadow. That, she said, was her father, who she in some way or another had painted over and over and over again. I’ve been like that painter, writing my mother in a memoir, writing her in stories, writing her in this novel in Miracelle’s complex, painful and also complexly-loving relationship with Ruby. And my father. He, too, has been in my work so often. And, yes, this last year, both have died. Does peace then come at last, and the final story is thus written? I certainly have asked myself that. Is my journey, like Miracelle’s, finally finished with that last line in which a woman steps outside her own skin? That’s a question I fear and also hope to answer in these years ahead. I know what I want to believe. I want to believe that my complicated relationship with parenting has reached a new if not a final chapter. I am no longer the child, really. I must be the woman on her own journey at last. Whether that journey is now best suited to fiction or to another memoir about all that I’m writing in answer to this question—I don’t know quite yet. Both memoir and another novel are sitting still inside me as we speak.
Loving: While I was reading Wanting Radiance, I thought a lot about the recurring images and descriptions of hands—literal descriptions but also figurative in Ruby’s and Miracelle’s ability to read palms. This reminded me of your essay, “Hands,” that appeared in Superstition Review. I went back to read that essay and saw other cross-over, as if that essay was almost related to this novel.
McElmurray: The first hands I recall most clearly are my mother’s. She suffered from mental illness, and one focal point of her illness was cleanliness and making sure that her world, and mine, was impeccable. Her hands suffered as a result, and were always chapped, red and cracked. I don’t remember mother-hands as ones that were loving. Those are the hands in that essay you mention, and they are strongly part of my memoir, Surrendered Child. Other hands have been integral in my life. My father’s, folded in prayer to an often-implacable God. My own hands. For years, I was a landscaper and gardener to support my writing life, and I had hands that were beat-up looking as a result. Somebody called them hands that knew work, and that has always been true. And other hands, too. I love looking at how people pet a dog or a cat with their hands—how that can reveal their gentleness or conversely their dismissiveness. I love hands that seem to know how to do things, whether its building a shelf or touching another human being. So, yes, hands and hands. They are part of the stories I have told, be it memoir or fiction. In Wanting Radiance, in one of the many drafts, Ruby Loving, Miracelle’s mother, had odd hands that both knew how to tell lives and also scared people. Her hands had long, long fingers, ones that were like silver teaspoons stirring the air. But the more I wrote, and the more I took a hard look at what I wanted this novel to be about, Ruby’s hands still told fortunes, but they were also just a woman’s hands. They belonged to a woman who had hurt for love, let her life be led by someone other than herself. As this last draft evolved, I wanted Miracelle to finally be in possession of her own journey, her own version of her own life. I wanted her hands to hold her own hard-earned truths. Yes, hands have been an obsession in my work, whether they are my mother’s injured ones, or the hands of a woman taking on the task of her own life’s understanding. My hands, these days, are ropy with veins. They are scarred and beat-up from working in the dirt in my yard. They know life pretty well. I hope those hands find their way into the new work ahead.
Loving: You have a collection of essays forthcoming from Iris Press. Can you talk about those pieces and what other writing you’re working on now?
McElmurray: That essay collection, called Voice Lessons, should be coming out later this fall. It is partly a compilation of short pieces I’ve written over the last several years, ones that—as I sorted and organized—began to have a shape. The collection is in sections, the first being very early experiences with both faith, and with my mother. As sections accumulate, there are essays about both my mother and myself. My experiences with cancer. Her experiences with Alzheimer’s. Later essays are about me and my relationship to professional work—being driven. Finally, there is a sense of letting go, both of my mother upon her death, and of who I have been. At least that’s the hope for the way the essays are arranged. As to what lies ahead with writing, I have enough long essays to accumulate as a collection I imagine calling The Land Between. There’s an essay about towns underneath lakes. There’s an essay about vertigo. One about ghosts. And, yes, I do dream another novel, though am fearful of naming it specifically yet. I do know that for some years now I have been totally in love with going to the ocean at Chincoteague Island. The dream-novel may take place there and may be about a burned down house.
Loving: Besides reading palms, reading cards and fortunes is an important element in Wanting Radiance. You’ve talked in other interviews about unique experiences you’ve had in having your fortune told, such as the Tarot card reader in Lynchburg, Virginia, who predicted you would soon meet your son whom you’d placed for adoption. When was the last time you had your fortune told? And perhaps more importantly, what do you see in your own future?
McElmurray: When I lived in Weaverville, North Carolina, I had just gone through the painful end of a long-term relationship. I was ready for anything to bring my lover back to me. One person who knew love charms suggested writing his name on a newly laid egg, and burying it in my yard under a full moon while I recited, three times, bring my love home to me, bring my love home to me, bring my love home to me. I did this, but told myself the charm failed to work because I used a boiled egg rather than a newly laid one. Anyway. Then, I went to see a woman who told fortunes by reading the shadows in photographs. This woman lived in a trailer up on a hill near the Ingles on the old road to Asheville. I went up to the door at my appointment time and knocked and knocked and finally a voice said, come on in. The fortune teller was in the bedroom in the back of the trailer, and she was this gigantic woman. I mean huge, and she was lying in this bed with a tall velvet headboard. She had been shot, she said, by her boyfriend, and had to tell fortunes right from the bed. I showed her the photos I’d brought, and she said, there’s lots you don’t know about him. I figured this was true enough, but I also figured she might not know as much about overcoming difficult love as she advertised. The last time I went to a teller of fortunes, it was to a woman who read cards in the Atlanta Underground. She was maybe twenty dollars for half an hour, and I went for that. She told me I needed to stop letting my father have a big influence over my decisions, and I agreed, though it still took some years for the truth of what she said to set in. Of late, I haven’t gone to an actual fortune teller. I do read my own cards, mostly the Motherpeace Tarot. I like that those cards are round, and that they have no reversals, though we all know that reversals are integral to experience, be it living or narrative. For this interview, I drew this card: Daughter of Discs. When you get this card in a reading, it signals a period of solitude and learning to trust the wisdom of your body. You are required now to rely on your instincts. New experiences may make you feel vulnerable and exposed, reminding you that you don’t have all the answers. But as you seek truth, you learn courage. Your awareness will grow and you may experience secret gifts from within. I like that very much.
More about Karen Salyer McElmurray:
Karen Salyer McElmurray writes both fiction and creative nonfiction. Her memoir, Surrendered Child, won the AWP Award Series for Creative Nonfiction and was listed as a “notable book” by the National Book Critics Circle. She is also the author of Motel of the Stars, Editor’s Pick from Oxford American, and a Lit Life Book of the Year. Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven (University of Georgia Press), a novel that won the Lillie Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing and, most recently, Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean, co-edited with Adrian Blevins, from Ohio University Press. Her essays have won the Annie Dillard Prize, the New Southerner Prize, the Orison Magazine Anthology Award and have several times been Notable in Best American Essays. A collection of her essays is forthcoming from Iris Books.
Wanting Radiance: A Novel
Karen Salyer McElmurray
HC: 9781949669145: $24.95
University Press of Kentucky