An Interview with Novelist Angela Pneuman

Angela Pneuman (Photo credit: Alex Lauren)

Angela Pneuman (Photo credit: Alex Lauren)

Every once is a great while, if you’re lucky, you get a professor like Dr. Angela Pneuman. Her own short stories have been compared to Flannery O’Connor’s work, which is high praise, and her debut novel, Lay It On My Heart, was reviewed by Oprah’s O magazine as, “Biting yet optimistic, this first novel will knock you sideways with its Southern charm and quiet humanity.”

She’s the kind of caring instructor who knows — and remembers — her students and their novels, each in detail. Not only does she attend graduation ceremonies, she stands up and speaks off-the-cuff about those she mentored and then attends the private parties. If you didn’t already guess, she’s a gracious and giving woman.

Angela Pneuman is the author of a book of short stories, Home Remedies, and a novel, Lay It on My Heart (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories (2012 & 2004), Ploughshares, Los Angeles Review, Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, New England Review, Glimmertrain and many other literary magazines. Angela has received the Stegner Fellowship from Stanford, the Presidential Fellowship from SUNY Albany, and the inaugural Alice Hoffman Prize for short fiction from Ploughshares.

I caught up with Angela this summer in Lake Tahoe, where she graciously agreed to be interviewed from her home this fall in Napa Valley, California. (Sadly, we couldn’t do the interview face-to-face!)

Little Patuxent Review: Home Remedies, your collection of short stories, involve themes of evangelical Christianity, abandonment, grief, and childhood innocence. Are the subjects in these stories important to you personally, and why? How did writing these stories prepare you for crafting Lay It On My Heart?

Angela Pneuman: Yes, I think you’ve thoroughly listed the preoccupations of my first two books! In a way, I hope I’ve exorcised them at this point, if we ever fully exorcise our demons. I think evangelical Christianity has come to suggest a very narrow way of viewing the world, when one hopes that religious/spiritual practice expands one’s view of the world. However, I think this particular culture has become an easy target—there are so many ways that the rest of us narrow our worlds, aren’t there? Pointing out the narrow mindedness of evangelicals is a bit convenient, no matter how much their disgraced ambassadors set themselves up for it. It’s a bit like pointing out the racism of the South. The rest of the country gets to feel pretty good about that…the mote in someone else’s eye, the log in your own, etc.

I guess I think of the culture of evangelical Christianity (and its stories) as less exceptional and more of a visible index to more universal human dilemmas.

As to abandonment—it’s sort of an index, too (as opposed to a metaphor), of loss, of mortality. It shouldn’t happen to children, but when it does, it opens the child’s eyes to something very real about the world before the child has the skills to fully take it in. and before the child has the skills to mask it as an adult would. For me, something shows up in a specific way that makes it easy to see. The child acts out, blames herself, seeks answers, attempts control, draws rudimentary conclusions—all with very little perspective, right? I sort of got at moments of this with the stories, but in the novel I sat with the consciousness longer, and perhaps with more vulnerability? I don’t know.

LPR: The main characters in Lay It On My Heart are evangelical Christians. Why did you choose to write a story about an evangelical family?

AP: Well, for the above reasons, and also because it’s a culture I know well. My father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all ministers. My great-grandfather was a circuit rider, way back when, riding on horseback to a bunch of different churches in South Dakota, though eventually he returned to Kentucky. I’m sort of looking back on the culture I grew up in and trying to figure out how else it shaped me, since I didn’t stick with the belief system.

LPR: How has your viewpoint of religion changed over the years and how has this informed your writing? What has evolved for you?

AP: Very much so. I might say I’m spiritual, now (if pressed), but not explicitly religious. But for a long time I was angry towards evangelical religion. I wished I’d been raised with a different set of ideas so that I was more prepared for, say, Hegel, when I got to him. It was not a super intellectual upbringing, though it did me some favors with its unremitting analysis of the text (meaning THE BIBLE). But writing from that place of anger wasn’t effective—it was geared towards judgment and ridicule rather than understanding.

LPR: You’ve said that, “As a writer, I probably get closer to the core of what I’m trying to discover or express when I make stuff up than when I share something that actually happened to me.” Will you share an example where this was especially true?

AP: Well—the novel is a good example. A lot of people find out some of the things that have happened to me and tell me I should write a memoir. But I can’t find the real story in what actually happened, and if memoir doesn’t achieve story, then it has to do something with the way the writer processes things, a sort of directly ruminative accounting. I don’t think I’m so good at that. I process things through the indirection of story—or the type of story I am drawn to. Some novels, it’s true, take a direct approach—they suggest memoirs, and indeed the authors seem to invite the comparison. I enjoy reading those authors: Elena Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, Elisa Albert. But I don’t think I could pull it off.

LPR: Lay It On My Heart is set in the rural, evangelical Kentucky town of East Winder, which is itself a character.  What aspects of this town are most important to you personally, and why?

AP: The town is a lot like where I grew up. I’m so far from it now, having been peripatetic for years, but for the first 20 years of my life, this town and its landscape was really all I knew. I remember so viscerally what it felt like not to know anything else, and thinking about that place almost always feels like a kind of temporal vertigo. The actual town is very beautiful, in the middle of horse country. Unlike the town in the book, there’s a seminary AND a religious college, with just about every brand of Protestant imaginable, and not much else.

LPR: The novel spotlights the mother-daughter relationship between Phoebe and Charmaine Peake. How much of their relationship was informed by your own relationship with your mother?

AP: I was definitely interested in what happens when a parent-child relationship becomes one-on-one. It’s how I grew up—my mother and I co-existing in a sort of aftermath of the sudden end of her marriage. But I also think that the mother-daughter thing is intense for lots of people, especially as one comes of age. I remember desperately deciding against breasts and my period, and thinking that my mother just didn’t know enough to have refused them. Just like I thought she didn’t know enough to grow long legs, etc. It’s hard to face the irrefutable nature of what is out of our control! Perhaps we hate its evidence in others?

LPR: What has been your mother’s reaction to Lay It On My Heart?

AP: Haha! She’s very proud. She wishes I were a Christian, but aside from that I think she feels it’s a generous book with people who struggle but really care about each other.

LPR: Charmaine’s father is mentally ill and through his illness abandons his family.  Your father left the family when you were quite young.  Share with us your process for writing these scenes, which you did with compassion and love.

AP: I had at first written sections from David’s point of view, and Phoebe’s, too. I struggled to get out of my own way, there. One needs compassion for the unwell. But if it takes everything a person has to manage him/herself, then there’s often not a lot leftover for the people in their life. I don’t mean that as a criticism, only to say that there are casualties—and no one, really, to blame. Children, of course, blame themselves, and that’s what I was trying to reckon with in the conversation between Phoebe and Charmaine at McDonalds, the second one—where Phoebe can see Charmaine internalizing David’s abandonment as having to do with her own (and Phoebe’s) undesirability. Phoebe is trying to get across the concept of what it means to be unwell, but it gets back to the issue of control, I think. It can be less scary to think one is defective than it is to think that one actually has no control over what others do. If one believes one is somehow the reason others behave the way they do, then one can believe that others’ behavior is in their control. I think if I keep saying “one” it will sound less like this is all coming from me, LOL.

LPR: You capture the universal awkwardness teenage years with empathy and humor. When layering on top of teen angst the evangelical viewpoint, there’s the risk of becoming farcical (I’m thinking of Christopher Moore’s Lamb). Share your craft thoughts on how to achieve the honest portrayal using dark humor.

AP: Well, I haven’t read Lamb, but now I’m curious. I appreciate the compliment, and wish I had a good answer for this. I guess I suspect that if you go to your own honest spots then they are very often funny, whether you’re going for that or not. People recognize themselves, I think, when other people are very honest about themselves, and that usually plays as funny…I have had the experience, more than once, of reading to a group and getting laughs where I didn’t expect. I think Tobias Wolff, more than almost anyone I have read, does a great job of humor through a sort of relentless examination of honest, secret, embarrassing character motivations…

LPR: Your own evangelical upbringing kept you from many aspects of the average American lifestyle. But in 1991, you discovered Best American Short Stories, which included a story by Lorrie Moore. Later, Lorrie said of your short story collection in Home Remedies, “These amazing stories have an inviting surface and a complex core that is in bitter conversation with it. They possess intelligence and grace of every sort. Angela Pneuman must surely be one of the most gifted young writers around.” Plus, you got to interview her for The Believer magazine. Share with us your feelings at having one of your first literary idols give such high praise to your work, and then agree to be interviewed by you. What did you learn from her and this experience?

AP: So far, the most rewarding thing about this career—other than having to do the work itself—has been meeting many of my literary heroes. I met Lorrie after she chose my story “All Saints Day” for Best American Short Stories 2004, and was star struck. I admire her a great deal, and I find her utterly un-imitate-able, though it doesn’t stop people from trying. She also read the story aloud for the CD version of the anthology—and I loved that, too. You get someone’s take on your story when you hear them read it, and it’s often made a little strange to you, in a wonderful way. And it gave me a way to interview her for The Believer, which I really enjoyed. She’s so smart, and the intelligence is delivered so gracefully, that it’s scary.

LPR: Your short story “Occupational Hazard” was selected for the 2012 edition of Best American Short Stories. How did it feel to have one of your stories published in the annual anthology that turned you on to great literature?

AP: It felt great! That was the second time for me, and you just feel so lucky and grateful that some terrific writer, like Lorrie Moore or Tom Perrotta, really liked your story. It’s also neat that they usually say something about why they chose it. And has always been close to my heart—so that felt special. I took one creative writing class I took in college, where we read BASS 1991, and that teacher invited me back to her class last year to speak, and the text was BASS 2004, with my story.

LPR: You wrote about music the following, “It’s obvious that music does have power — not unlike the seductive power of narrative, as the theorists tell us. It is capable of carrying us away. And an open heart is a defenseless heart. As much as I enjoy music today, I don’t entirely trust it.” I’m curious to know more about the trust factor of music and a defenseless heart.  Is there a fear of being carried away that keeps you from letting go and leaning into those feelings?

AP: I guess there could be a bit of fear, there—maybe more of a respect for my own immoderate responses, I suppose. I think when one is easily carried away one learns to guard against it, a bit, or one wastes a lot of time. Most writers let things in, I think, or learn to. I think I have always naturally let everything in, and my task has been to learn where to draw boundaries. You work with your own nature. Perhaps another way of thinking of my response to music might be that I should have pursued a career in it? Not that I have any musical talent. I did play the trombone for a few years…

LPR: You wrote in Salon: “Sex scandals are particularly powerful, in part because of the strength of the whole wedlock injunction and the desperate measures taken to prevent extramarital fornication from about the age of 12 on. In my town of about 3,000, largely if not exclusively evangelical, prayer was our first line of defense against the call of the body. And as a 12-year-old, once you figured out that something felt good “down there” you didn’t have to go through a church seminar to know it was probably against God’s will.”  How has this fundamentalism during your formative years impacted your adult day-to-day life?

AP: Not much these days, but more in my 20s. My ex-husband was my college boyfriend, a wonderful person, but the decision to marry young is possibly not one either of us would have made under other circumstances. Like any decision with consequences, you spend some time recovering—and sometimes it’s time you wished you had back. If only my early marriage was my only regret!

LPR: How has your background uniquely set you up for success as a writer?

AP: I would say that feeling at odds, at an early age, in your native community is something I experienced and something that many writers I know speak to—everyone feels that way a bit in adolescence, but it’s not always so intense and motivating. I had no idea what I wanted but I knew what I didn’t want, from a pretty early age.

I would say that growing up as an only child, with a mother who encouraged a lot of reading, really helped me tolerate the necessary time alone that it takes to write fiction.

LPR: In addition to a Ph.D. from the State University of New York – Albany, which you use to teach at Stanford, you also consult for wineries in Napa Valley as a wine PR expert. And to take it even farther, you are actively involved in the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, looking to co-lead the 2017 event. Share with our audience your vision for the upcoming conference and how they might become involved.

AP: Yes! I do handle PR writing for the wine industry, but most of my work is marketing writing of some kind—vintage notes, websites, educational materials, back labels, app work, etc.

The Napa Valley Writers’ Conference celebrated its 35th year this summer. I love this conference for the way it retains its tight focus on craft. It’s known for attracting serious writers, many of whom already have their careers underway—admission is pretty competitive. We have a great faculty line-up of fiction writers and poets who give craft talks and readings in addition to workshops, and the conference is purposefully kept small and intimate. And of course it’s in beautiful wine country, with all our fantastic restaurants and wineries. Readers should apply!

LPR: What was it like to work on a TEDxNapaValley campaign?        

AP: Funny you should ask—as soon as I’m finished with this interview I go to work on the language around our theme ideas for this year. It’s fun to work with a group of talented, local people who are passionate about ideas. So much of the work you do as a writer is solitary that I really enjoy working on teams, wherever I find them. And one thing about the TEDxNapaValley team, is that they’re hospitality and event pros—it’s a very well-executed example of TEDx!

LPR: What else are you working on now?

AP: I’m not quite sure if what I’ve just started is a novel or a story, and I have one other thing that I’m pretty sure is a novel—sure enough that I’ve now stopped talking about it. A good sign!

LPR: Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

AP: No, but thank you for the interview! Lots of great questions!

Online Editor’s Note: Little Patuxent Review submissions for “Myth” remain open through October 24. 

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