The Public Garden at Pontoise, Camille Pissarro, 1874
Stephanie Dupal is a Franco-Canadian trilingual writer and associate professor who teaches composition and literature in Virginia. Her work most recently appeared or is forthcoming in Fiction International, Cerasus Magazine (UK) Little Patuxent Review, GRIFFEL (Norway), Storgy Magazine (UK), The Stonecoast Review, Eastern Iowa Review, Broad River Review, Orca, a Literary Journal, and Maryland Literary Review, among others. She is the recipient of the 2017 Best Prose Award from The Northern Virginia Review and she was named a finalist for the 2019 Ron Rash Award in Fiction from Broad River Review, for the 2019 Sonora Review Essay Contest, and for the 2019 New Letters Publication Award in Fiction. Two of her short stories were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She earned an MFA in fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she was an assistant editor for The Literary Review, and a master’s degree in English with emphasis on postcolonial literature from James Madison University. For more information, please visit www.stephaniedupal.com. Stephanie and I caught up recently and spoke about her writing process. Our interview follows.
Q: I was truly haunted by “The Woman on the Ledge”. It’s woven together so expertly: the imprisoned fish, the complacent figures in the Pissarro painting, then the incident at the store. Did you spend a long time writing this or was it an organic process?
A: For my MFA program in fiction writing, I spent two weeks in January 2019 and 2020 at Wroxton Abbey in Oxfordshire, England, the location of Fairleigh Dickinson’s winter residencies. Rebecca Chase led us through an ekphrastic exercise in which we were to select a painting among a dozen and discover the question it asked of us. The entire essay began with Pissarro’s The Public Garden at Pontoise and the question I sensed from this painting.
I wrote the first draft of “The Woman on the Ledge” in one sitting of twelve hours, composing at a glacial pace of one paragraph per hour. I then spent the next two days reworking the structure, while cutting out passages and expanding others. I ponder structure and time in all my writing, and many of my short stories are circular, ending at the beginning. The essay produced a challenging circular triptych: the painting and its question; the arrest; the aftermath of the arrest told in exposition, followed by two endings, one in simple past summary that announces the future and one in present tense scene that narrates the moments before the arrest, before the essay’s crucible. These two endings reinforce each other in their structural opposition. Likewise, there are a few intentional switches in verb tenses throughout the piece. Someday, I hope to fracture Western storytelling and its allegiance to show don’t tell, to its belief in the inviolability of point of view, to its insistence on linear structure. Southern literature and the literature of the Black Diaspora are rife with ingenious violations of these constructs, as is the writing of notable Franco-Canadians. Among many authors, I applaud Brit Bennett for her fearless use of exposition.
My motivation for writing this essay came from a deep desire to exorcise this event from my life and to add to the greater narrative of female experience and of motherhood. “
Q: I couldn’t help but study Pissarro’s The Public Garden at Pontoise (mentioned in the story) just to see this “quick brushstroke” as you say, the “easily missed” woman who is facing us, the viewer, on the ledge. This notion of leaving your children in the car for a second to get spackling tools, something I suspect just about every caregiver has done at one point or another (perhaps not spackling tools specifically, but you get my point) is interesting. I’m curious as to how you felt judged more for looking, head on, at the subsequent circumstances (your arrest, the judgement of customers in the store) rather than being overly apologetic, ashamed. That is to say, I saw you as the woman on the ledge, and found the alternative, frankly, quite disturbing in this day and age. Can you speak a bit about this, of your motivation in writing this essay and addressing the retribution?
A: In this essay, I confront multiple sources of shame. I felt guilty, humiliated, and unworthy. I felt ridiculous for believing the situation absurd. I began to believe that I was, in fact, a piece of shit. At the time, I was the advisory council chair for our elementary school, and I had been elected as a representative to the superintendent’s advisory board. I volunteered as a literacy specialist for first graders and devoted hours to my community. I tried to resign from these posts, but my principal refused my notice and offered me sound advice. She told me to confide and find solace only in those people I trusted most. I heeded her advice.
My motivation for writing this essay came from a deep desire to exorcise this event from my life and to add to the greater narrative of female experience and of motherhood. It worked. I began answering these interview questions on the fifteenth “anniversary” of my arrest. I have learned from it. I have benefitted from it. I eventually married the lawyer who represented my case. If I can help one woman avoid the mistake of leaving her children in a vehicle, I will feel vindicated. I made a terrible mistake, yet I am also a human being—with faults and qualities alike—and my children have turned out to be good, honest people. Philippe is now 22 years old and earning his BFA in architectural design from a fine university and Maia is a high school student and a brilliant photographer. I have three more sons now and they, too, will make a difference in their communities.
Q: I notice you’ve published a fair bit of fiction. Do you have a preference over stories and novels, versus narrative nonfiction?
A: I worked for two years as a photojournalist for Patch AOL. My nonfiction articles and essays published during this period were commissioned and light-hearted in tone. I’ve also published academic essays on Franco-Canadian and Caribbean literature. As such, I consider “The Woman on the Ledge” to be my first published piece of nonfiction. I hope there will be more. I plan to discuss my mental illness, my vices, my sources of vulnerability and shame—those subjects that keep women silent.
I think of myself principally as a short story writer. It took me 20 years to complete my collection The Kindness of Terrible People. And while no one wants to represent or publish it, I believe in its merits. Recently, someone who rejected it described the writing as “strange and sharp.” It is that, yes, and yet it is so much more than that. These stories represent the lives of girls and women as they experience invisibility, disappointment, shame, hope, belief, and courage. My novel In This Age of Hard Trying is entirely different, but it centers once more on the opportunities denied to women and the opportunities offered to men, this time during the Great Depression.
Q: What are you reading these days? What writers move you?
A: This is the most difficult question to answer because I fear a long answer. I’ll try to be succinct. In poetry, I am reading the collections In the Crowded Future by my friend Greer Gurland and The Best of It by Kay Ryan. I try to read one collection of poetry a week. I admire poets greatly and wish I could write as they do.
In short stories, I am finishing Madeleine Smith’s Rutting Season and Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Smith’s collection is a little jewel that didn’t shine as brightly in its reception as it should have. Her stories swim in an undercurrent of troubled water beneath a layer of ice. They eddy language while characters skate along, both aware and unaware of the darkness below. Collins’s collection is one of the best I’ve ever read. I mourn the loss of this genius, who never saw her stories in print during her lifetime.
Because my novel takes place in the 1930s, I’ve read numerous works in the past year written during this era. This week, I’m tackling Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. Additionally, I recently returned from a lovely writing week in Door County, Wisconsin, visiting my dear friend Laurin, and I picked up Martha McPhee’s An Elegant Woman at the airport at her suggestion, which I read on the plane. It’s a beautiful novel, and I’m delighted it’s doing well enough to be sold in airports.
Many writers move me. In Franco-Canadian literature, I highly recommend France Daigle’s Pas pire (Just Fine), Christiane Frenette’s La Terre ferme (Terra Firma), and anything Antonine Maillet. I must add the Franco-Caribbean writer Maryse Condé to this list. Put La Migration des coeurs (Windward Heights), a retelling of Wuthering Heights, on your reading list immediately. These women shatter literary conventions with great aplomb.
I am indebted to Carol Shields’s novel Unless; it changed my life and directed my writing. It’s a love letter to women, to their experience, to their voice and silence. Shields was also a masterful short story writer. Alice Munro is Canada’s iconic queen of the short story, but Mavis Gallant before her was the empress of that form. Anyone who wishes to understand the short story need only five collected volumes: Anton Chekhov, James Baldwin, Mavis Gallant, Flannery O’Connor, and Grace Paley. My apologies to all Cheever fans.
As far as structure and word economy, Paul Lynch, Cynan Jones, and Daisy Johnson write with a clarity of sentence that is astonishing. I believe they are all friends, too, as if the osmosis of their genius permeates their acquaintance. I worked with generous luminaries while at FDU, so I must mention a few works that deeply impressed me: René Steinke’s Holy Skirts (novel), David Grand’s Mount Terminus (novel), Walter Cummins’s The End of the Circle (stories) and Death Cancer Madness Meaning(essays), Renee Ashley’s Minglements (craft/essays/poetry), Rosie Schaap’s Drinking with Men (memoir) and Minna Zallman Proctor’s Landslide (memoir), the last of which came into my life when I needed to read it most. I plan to read the H. L. Hix canon. It’s best I stop here. I admire so many other writers. Reading fine literature has undoubtedly bettered and transformed my life.
Q: During the last year we’ve been asking writers if social isolation has influenced their writing and, if so, how. Now that this strange passage of time is coming to a close, are you seeing a difference in how you go about writing or what you write about? Are you more motivated, less so?
The writer Stephanie Dupal
A: I wrote the first draft of In This Age of Hard Trying during the initial months of the pandemic. My college teaching transferred to Zoom, and I was now fully home in a way I hadn’t been since my children were young and I was a stay-at-home mother. I’ve been writing more, not less. My mental health, however, plummeted to a dangerously low point. I am still reeling. Being rejected by 206 literary agents for my collection certainly didn’t help and neither did dedicating so many hours to that querying process. Nonetheless, I continue to write and hope.