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"Given Ground" by Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake Answers Interview Questions from Michael F. Hughes

April 2001
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 revisions?

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 anyone else's.

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 and promise.


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