An Interview: In the Flow with Evan Morgan Williams

by Nicole Bartley

Evan Morgan Williams, 47, is a writer from Portland, Oregon. His character-driven stories explore personal interaction, as well as the modes and nature of communication. He has published over thirty stories in literary magazines, including Witness, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, and issue 2 of The Fourth River. His story “Maybe I Want to Tell You” can be found in issue 8 of The Fourth River.

The Fourth River: In “Ivory,” you write about a character with a cochlear implant, and in “Talking Hands, Blue Eyes,” you write about a boy who refuses to speak and relies upon Native American signing to communicate. Is this a common theme in your writing: characters with communication disabilities? And if so, what drew you to the subject?

Evan Morgan Williams: Broken communication is a common theme in my stories. In the case of “Ivory” and “Talking Hands,” the characters have tangible barriers to communication, but I think they symbolize broken communication in general. In fact, a lot of the dialogue in my stories is fundamentally disrupted; characters talk at each other, not back and forth, but that’s the way it is in life. Real people don’t maintain a continuous line when they talk to each other, and I don’t like stories where that’s happening. Most television shows suffer from that. Just watch an episode of Law and Order to see what I mean. The great dialogue writers, such as Hemingway and Carver, have broken communication.

FR: Some of your stories are about the Northwestern Native American tribes. You’re from Oregon, but what drew you to that culture? Do you often write about minority cultures, and if so, why?

EMW: After college, I worked for two years in the National Park Service in Montana. I was at Custer Battlefield National Monument, on the Crow Indian Reservation, and a lot of my stories have sprung from that time. I am aware that when a non-Indian writes about Indians, it can be a sensitive issue, but once you’ve lived on a reservation, you see that the issue is infinitely more complicated than that, and I’ve tried to capture that complicatedness in my stories. Besides, writing about a truth that you feel is always fair game. In fact, one of the things that might have drawn me to writing those stories is the fact that Indian life is really complicated, but it’s also at a bit of a remove, which makes those complications easier to explore. Maybe that’s true for minority cultures in general.

My life is probably just as complicated, but I can’t see it. I once had a story rejected by a very famous editor because I was not Native American, and the editor did not want to offend [a famous Native American writer], who was also appearing in the issue.

FR: In addition to disrupted communication, broken dialogue, and living on the Crow reservation, where else do you get your inspiration for specific stories? For example, where did you get the idea for “Maybe I Want to Tell You”?

EMW: That story specifically is based on an abandoned mansion far up on the back roads of the Cheyenne Indian reservation. Some friends and I walked through and we were just shaking our heads, going, “What a shame, what a shame. What’s the story here?” The story is also inspired by a Barry Lopez story called “The Old Schoolhouse,” where the narrator walks the reader through an abandoned schoolhouse out in the desert.

Every story is different and so it’s hard to say that I always get my inspiration from the same places. I would say that most of my stories start with an interesting type of character. Less frequently, a story will start with taking a premise, like what would happen if a character did such and such? More often, it’s just starting with the characters themselves and the conflicts develop from there. Another place that I get a lot of inspiration from is just being a reader. There’s this constant dialogue between myself as a writer and the stuff that I’m reading. I might read something amazing and that gives me some ideas—not that I’m copying what the characters in the story are doing. You might call it inspiration or a conversation you’re having with the stuff that you’re reading.

FR: In “Maybe I Want to Tell You,” the story seems to have two parallel tales about the father and daughter’s strained relationship, and the father’s experiences with the blond girl. There are moments of mundane activities as they wander through the old house and look at things. The overall narrative moves away from the story the father is telling but shows the relationship’s strain through the dialogue. When it comes to the actions, though, how did you choose what they were to do? Did you follow your characters, or map it out? How were you able to push through the mundane activities to keep the story going?

EMW: In an early draft of the story, there was only dialogue. I tried to tell the entire story using only dialogue without any narration whatsoever, but it sounded forced. I tried to add action that the reader can see, action that doesn’t feel derived from anywhere else, which is very difficult. Simple actions such as taking out a notebook have to be what they are, you have to describe them in simple ways because they are simple. But you also have to be very careful because when a reader reads about a character doing an action in a story, it has to feel different from when a character in another story did any of those things. Some people call it received imagery or derivative imagery. Most of the actions in this story are very simple, just moving the characters through the flash points in their dialogue, the points where their dialogue is pushing the agenda of the story. The most definitive action is when the father tears up the girl’s notes. At that point, the weight of the story is moving from the things in the past to the things happening right now, and it definitely escalates the stakes between them.

You have to do a mixture of generating a ton of text and then be willing to delete most of it, because pushing through means you have to find something fresh to make that piece of text worthwhile, but it also means you have to take out the 90 percent that’s not working. If I have something that’s not working, sometimes I will forget that it’s not working and write an excess amount relative to that moment, knowing that I’m going to delete 90 percent of it…waiting for a breakthrough.

FR: What keeps you writing? Even after receiving rejections because you’re not Native American but are writing about those cultures, what returns you to stories?

EMW: If you have a sense that it’s a calling, don’t worry too much about the finished product and what’s happening with it. A friend in a writing program said, “There’s only the next story.” He keeps that sentence in the forefront of his mind so it keeps him involved in the internal act of creating that story instead of the external act of worrying whether it’s going to be accepted. That’s one of the things that keeps me writing, that moment when you’re so engrossed in the story that it has a compelling sense of reality, more so than even the reality around you at that moment. I think some athletes [call it] being in the flow.

FR: What techniques do you use to grab your readers’ attentions in the first page? One of the discussions between Fourth River Practicum students this semester was whether a first line should contain the hook and summarize the writer’s talent and technique. What do you think of first lines?

EMW: In graduate school, I took a workshop from Kent Nelson, and his take on the opening really stuck with me. He said that you’ve got about one paragraph to lay down something good. The first sentence can be a zinger, but it doesn’t have to be; the key is that your first paragraph needs to lay groundwork in terms of character, conflict, tone, style with the language, and theme. Whatever you lay down in that first paragraph, you build from during the rest of the story. A reader, coming back to that first paragraph, should experience sparks of recognition.

FR: What advice do you have for unpublished writers about changes that magazines might want to make on their stories, outside of line edits?

EMW: Listen! Heed! The writer-editor relationship is unique, and you’re no longer talking about a story as you would during a workshop critique. For one, the editor has already accepted the story; the editor is now equally invested with the writer in the final product. Also, a good editor gives readerly advice, not just writerly advice, and seeing a story through a reader’s lens can be a profound guide about what to fix. Lastly, I am always amazed at how many glaring errors a good editor finds, not just line edits, but errors of plot, continuity, etc., that no one—least of all myself—had found before.

Nicole Bartley is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s Creative Writing Program. She lives in New Castle, Pennsylvania.