Ann Pancake Answers Interview Questions from
Michael F. Hughes
First published in the Hampshire Review
1. Please explain a little about your writing process. When you
start a story, do you know you have something working, or are
you taking a shot in the dark and hoping something will develop?
I usually begin a story not with an idea or a plot, but because
I feel a pressure to record a particular image or because I hear
a voice repeating several sentences in my head. The image and
voice are often closely associated with a specific place, and
they usually evoke a specific feeling or mood.
I am more or less taking a shot in the dark. The very first
draft won't be a story at all, but a series of fragmented paragraphs.
At this point, I'm working completely intuitively, burying any
pressure I feel to censor myself or edit. I usually write three
to seven pages this way. The next day, I'll start shaping the
fragments into a story. I almost never know where the story is
going until I'm actually in the midst of it. I learn what I have
to say as I say it. Then I reread and see, "Oh, that's what I'm
doing." And then I'll revise to make the whole story fit with
what I recognized I was "doing." Eventually, I'll probably write
seven to twelve drafts. I compose on paper, with a pen, and I
write the entire story from beginning to end in almost every revision.
I rewrite the whole story because that's the best way I can sustain
its voice and momentum and also because I can give the story more
texture with each repetition.
2. Do you have any rituals or superstitions about writing? Do
you have a special place you write?
I wouldn't say I have any superstitions about writing, unless
my reluctance to talk about a piece until it's very close to being
finished could be considered a superstition. If at all possible,
I write six days a week. Of course, I have to work, too, so I
get up very early and write before work. I have to write just
after I get up, before I do anything else. My mind is most receptive
to working intuitively right after sleep, before I start doing
the analytical work I do later in the day as a teacher. I can
work about anyplace, as long as it's quiet.
3. Do you think of your audience while you're writing, or during
I try not to think of my audience until I've gotten down the
story as truthfully and fully as I can. I don't want to think
about readers too early because if you're always looking over
your shoulder as you write, you'll probably take fewer risks and
not discover new things as you compose. After I have a solid draft,
I go back and think about where a reader might get confused. That's
about all the thought I give audience with a story. I'm writing
a novel now, and I worry more about audience with the novel because
I realize I have to work harder to sustain reader interest for
300 pages than I do for ten pages.
4. How do you decide when a story is finished?
I usually decide the story is finished when I've reached a point
in the revision process where I'm getting diminishing returns.
A story never fulfills the conception I have of it in my head,
but I'm able to recognize when further revision is actually damaging
the story instead of improving it, or when the revision is becoming
static. I just learned this from experience, and I'm sure it's
different with every writer.
5. What is your feel for the land in West Virginia? Does the
land become a character for you?
I've lived in many places outside West Virginia over the past
fifteen years, and I've never been able to write very well about
any place besides West Virginia. I think the land in West Virginia
for me is a lot more than character. The land, the sense of place,
is the most important generative force in my writing. Out of a
very specific deep-felt sense of place rises voice and image,
then mood and atmosphere, then character, then conflict. It's
all born from my feel for a place, for a particular piece of ground,
which is one reason my short story collection is titled Given
Ground. For example, the story "Ghostless" rose from the feel
of the pasture beside our house. "Revival" - the feel of a particular
hollow I was in once near Springfield. "Jolo" - the feel of being
in the woods along the river on Stump's Eddy in August. "Tall
Grass" - the feel of being in Phoenix Orchard. "Cash Crop" - the
feel of being in the woods on our farm up River Road. If I hadn't
grown up in West Virginia, I'm not sure I'd be a writer at all.
At any rate, I'd be a very different writer.
6. Your stories deal with poor people who work hard and have
many tragedies. The stories are psychologically tough and use
many dark images. Why are you drawn to this setting and these
themes? Is it difficult to write about people who suffer so much?
You know, people are always telling me my characters are poor
and my stories are dark, but when I'm writing the stories, I don't
see the characters as especially poor and I don't see the stories
as dark. From a distance, though, I do have to admit the stories
are fairly "dark." I still don't consider most of the characters
poor. They're all rural people. Some are downwardly mobile middle-class
people, some are working-class people, some are poor.
For me, a story that's not psychologically tough wouldn't be
worth writing. I believe we write best about subjects and tensions
that matter to us, and tragedy, loss, suffering - these things
matter to me. In a way, yes, it's difficult to write about people
who suffer so much. The writer must empathize deeply with the
character to write the character in a way that makes the reader
empathize, too, so the writer undergoes some of the pain the character
feels. But while it's at times painful, it is ultimately very
rewarding to present the emotions and the circumstances in a way
that might make a reader begin to appreciate a type of person
he or she has never taken seriously before. After living for some
time in urban and suburban areas of the U.S., I've learned that
some Americans don't believe rural people, especially the rural
working class and poor, are particularly psychologically complex
or sensitive. This misunderstanding makes me angry. By fully rendering
the kinds of suffering and emotional dilemmas these people undergo,
I try to show that their interiors are just as complicated as
7. I notice throughout your stories that you have developed a
"mountain voice" for the narrator that mirrors the main character.
It's done subtlely and effectively, and adds dimension to the
stories. Could you comment on that? Is it hard to do that without
overdoing it? What is your purpose for that voice?
The "mountain voice" is more or less how I hear the stories in
my head. It's the intuitive way the stories come to me, and I
imagine that's because it's how I heard people talk for the first
22 years of my life. So it's not hard for me to do it. Although
it's the natural way I tell a story, and although I never thought
about it much until I got more mature and more self-conscious
about my writing, I do have a purpose for it, at least in hindsight.
It's a way to take full advantage of the richness of the language
in West Virginia, the language's inventiveness, its originality
in turns of phrase, its figures of speech, its rhythm and music,
its flexibility. Using the language of West Virginia not only
in dialogue, but also in the narrative, grants a higher status
to a language that has often been derided. Traditionally, especially
in the 19th and early 20th centuries when most of the people who
wrote about Appalachia were not from Appalachia, writers represented
Appalachian speech only in dialogue and wrote the rest of the
story in standard English. This places both the reader and the
narrator, with their "proper English," on a higher plane than
the Appalachian characters, with their "quaint talk." It's a kind
of condescension. By using West Virginia dialect not only in dialogue,
but also in the narrative, I try to close that gap and put the
reader, regardless of the reader's origins, on the same linguistic
level as the characters. That way the reader can experience all
the richness and possibilities of the language.
8. Do you think of yourself as a particular kind of writer (e.g.:
West Virginia writer, Southern writer)?
I've been influenced by Southern literature more than by any
other kind of literature, but I don't really consider myself a
Southern writer. Yes, I do consider myself a West Virginia writer,
although I think my definition of "West Virginia writer" is probably
broader than the common definition of it. I think the concerns,
conflicts and controversies in West Virginia are emblematic of
concerns, conflicts, and controversies in a nation and a world
that are increasingly divided along class lines and increasingly
moving from traditional rural cultures to a homogenized global
culture. To write about West Virginia is to write about very important
issues beyond West Virginia.
9. What are you working on now?
I'm working on a novel set in the southern part of the state.
10. What are your goals for the future as a writer?
I hope to continue improving my writing. I want to finish this
novel and write more. I want to make readers see in new and complex
ways people, places, and issues they might have understood only
on a superficial level or as stereotypes before reading my work.
I want to change the way readers see.
Ann Pancake has won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship,
the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, and the Bakeless Literary Publication
Prize. In 2003, she won a $35,000 Whiting Writers Award, one of
ten given out each year to emerging writers of exceptional talent