*originally posted 2015
Food for Thought
The acrid smell of burning chicken potpie finally registered and drew my attention to the hot spot on my backside where I’d been leaning against the oven door. I laughed as I spun around, tossing my book on the kitchen cabinet and opening the oven door. Smoke swirled around me. I surveyed the damage.
I pulled the pie out of the oven, set it on a rack to cool for a few minutes and went back to my book.
The pie was almost cold when, once again, I realized I was standing in my kitchen, leaning against the oven I’d forgotten to turn off.
I had to laugh as I asked myself, When was the last time you got so engrossed in a book that you completely lost track of time and place? Two books came to mind, A Land More Kind Than Home and Olive Kitteridge.
Who needs food when there are books like these to be read? Over the next two weeks Anne Leigh Parrish's debut novel, What is Found, What is Lost, was never far from reach. In spite of a heavy editing schedule, I snuck in chapters whenever I could. Food was of little importance. I devoured words instead. And, hungry for more, as I closed the cover on What is Found, What is Lost with one hand, I picked up her book of short stories with the other.
The gripping Olive Kitteridge came immediately back to mind, as did the work of Joyce Carol Oates.
While reminiscent of Strout and Oates, Our Love Could Light the World isn’t the slightest bit derivative. Parrish’s voice is strong, her characters uniquely adapted, and her prose, satisfying.
For readers, Anne’s books are like a fine dining experience. The atmosphere creates a mood of anticipation and every word delights the senses. For writers and editors, Anne’s work can be examined much as a nutritionist would assess the quality of a meal. Regardless of one's perspective, the verdict is the same-delicious and nutritious.
So, let’s talk to the head chef and see what’s on the menu.
What's on the Menu?
Anne’s first book, Our Love Could Light the World, is a collection of stories about the Dugan family. The Dugans are that family and yet, they are, if we are honest with ourselves, every family, and Parrish’s understanding of each member is deep and honest, her prose bitter and sweet, complex and compelling.
Each story is bite-sized and tempts the reader to taste just one more. The book, like heavy hors d’oevrers, is a meal in and of itself and demonstrates that the novel needn’t be the only thing worthy of consideration for the literary plate.
Anne, you are a prolific short story writer, as evidenced by your long list of published works.
Why short stories?
Short stories were what I read when I was young, and first thinking of becoming a writer. There were so many wonderful authors to choose from, Flannery O’Connor, the Irish great, William Trevor, and of course my beloved Alice Munro. A lifelong subscription to The New Yorker Magazine also fed my passion for stories. And, I’m happy to say, that to date I’ve published thirty-nine short stories. I have to think that number forty is right around the corner~
What made you decide to write a collection of short stories centered around one family?
My first story collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home, had eleven pieces which didn’t intersect with one another at all. Each was free-standing, unaffiliated. The last story in the book was about the Dugan family, and thus became the first story in Our Love Could Light The World. I decided the Dugans were people I could spend more time with. I knew some people wrote linked story collections, where the pieces all have a common cast of characters of location, so I thought I’d give it a try. When the manuscript was finished, and being vetted by my publisher, there was discussion of whether to call the book a story collection, or a novel-in-stories, which is another form I’ve seen, though not as often. I opted for “stories.”
And how did writing short works prepare you for a novel-length story, what some might think of as the main dish?
I like to say that one can’t write a novel until one knows how to write a short story. Short stories require efficiency, being exact, economizing on space, if you will. That said, a novel, by virtue of being so much longer, means there is a lot more to manage. It can be a little hard to keep track of all the characters and what they’re doing over time. And this novel, What Is Found, What Is Lost, as you know, spans over ninety years. In sum, I had a lot of graphs and timelines at hand.
The consideration that Anne puts into her menu and the time and energy she committed to making each recipe and balancing the flavors are evident.
While we might be tempted to take in the Dugan family as a whole, each member has his or her own flavor that at times clashes, at other times compliments, the flavors of others. Parrish uses these ingredients to distinguish each character and exposes the roots of human frailty and familial dysfunction- what it is to be human with other humans to whom we are bonded by proximity and blood.
In her debut novel, What is Found, What is Lost, Parrish expands the selection to four generations of a family: grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and daughters.
When taken in as a whole, Anne’s story pulled this reader smoothly through. I didn’t want to stop reading. Eating lost its importance. Sleep was put off. I was wholly engrossed as if the story was unfolding around me. I identified so strongly with parts of each character that it was as if I was both in it and outside of it. And yet, there were lines in the book so profound that I had to stop and just listen and open myself to a deeper understanding of myself, those I love, and those I want to love.
Anne, like any good literary fiction writer, your work speaks to meaning. What is Found, What is Lost examines marriage, motherhood, faith, and love (not a requisite ingredient for any of the previous three relationships but one that makes each more palatable).
How do you measure and incorporate love into your character’s relationships to create such complexity for readers?
Everyone has some capacity for love, so naturally it’s a sort of common denominator for my characters. And I always recall something Toni Morrison said (and I paraphrase here) “Angry people love angrily, weak people love weakly,” and so on, which I take to mean that love is an expression of character and sensibility. That alone creates complexity, I think. Love is measured in gestures and impact. In my novel, Freddie knows Ken loves her, she also knows he can be harsh and sometimes cruel. It’s easier to accept this inconsistency in him because her own mother, Lorraine, was very much the same way. Freddie understands, on an innate level born of experience and observation, that love has many facets, not all of them kind.
That answer is why I love doing author interviews like this. It gives me an even deeper appreciation for Anne’s characters, and it serves as a palate cleanser, allowing me to reexamine and appreciate love in its many forms in my own life. That’s the critical, but difficult, understanding great authors must reach before they can tell a compelling story.
A good book is, at least for me, one that I read with the book in one hand and a pencil in the other. Over and over again in both of these books, I found myself circling lines and paragraphs and making notes in the margin: raw and real, honest, profound, beautiful.
Anne tackles difficult subjects and relationships: lost childhoods, lost love, lost faith, neglect, betrayal. At one point, toward the end of What is Found, What is Lost I wrote: She has an amazing grasp on relationships as if she’s experienced the tumult and triumph of each first-hand. Her writing is 100% believable.
Anne, you seem to have a grasp on human nature that extends beyond your years and experience. It seems innate, completely natural, almost magical.
From where do you draw your inspiration and how are you able to allow yourself to go so deep into each character?
I was born to a complex, highly-intelligent, narcissistic mother. She took a lot of figuring out. I spent years on that personal project, and after hearing her deathbed confession, my analysis of her life and character deepened a great deal. My mother used to say, after watching our house cats interact, that affection very quickly and easily gives way to aggression. She was proof of that, in spades.
Having had the pleasure of reading both of your books and many of your other published short stories, I see strong, rich threads that bind the body of your work.
I cannot help but wonder, is this purposeful? Are you setting a table for a specific occasion or purpose or are these the foods you grew up with and have become accustomed to?
I like to consider the main drivers of female experience – what women typically go through, I should say. This includes marriage and motherhood, but also sorting out one’s relationship to one’s own mother, and how those fundamentals are relayed – or avoided – if one has a daughter. Interestingly, my novel-in-progress is all about the female experience, as lived by three women, unrelated by blood, but brought together in a nursing home, of all unlikely fictional settings.
If you were to think of your work as food, what part of the meal do you hope impresses itself upon your guests the most?
Oh, I always like to think that every book is simply leading to the next one as I create a life-time body of work. So, think of what you read as being a small course in a long, candlelit dinner with many, many courses!
For me, parts of Anne’s work serve to satisfy each of my appetites. It is not often that a writer can be compared to Wiley, Strout, and Oates, but her work is every bit as creative, well prepared, and tastefully served as any of the great and better-known literary fiction writers of our time.
Anne’s are books that make you hope for bad weather, power outages, or sick days-any excuse to stay put and read for hours on end, until the end. She is a writer whose work I expect to someday see on bookstore shelves everywhere. And when I do I will buy her latest work, go home, stand in my kitchen reading it as another meal burns, and end the day wholly satisfied.
Appetizers and Desserts
Coming soon: Women Within