Jodi Paloni’s linked story collection, They Could Live With Themselves, has been called wise and brave. Quietly observant and written in deceptively simple prose, she explores the hidden lives of the citizens of a fictional Vermont small town called Stark Run. This debut book was runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and published by Press 53. As always, I’m interested in the path to publication for a first book. How did this collection take shape and now that Jodi lives and writes in Maine will that wild and beautiful state become the focus of future work?
VP: Over how many years did you write the stories in your collection?
JP: In a sense, I think the writing of They Could Live With Themselves about a small New England town was in the works long before I sat down to write them. I’ve been “gathering” personal experiences that fed the well of this project for years. That said, I started working on fiction in earnest back in 2010 during my MFA program at Vermont College. I finished the final story about three weeks before publication date in the spring of 2016. “The Physics of Light” was an add-on to the original manuscript. That is not to say that I worked on the book steadily for 6 years. And many stories originally slated for the book didn’t make it into this collection.
VP: Were you aware that you were writing a collection as you wrote the individual pieces? At what point did you realize it?
JP: Virginia, the thing is, I’m fascinated by the imagined place, Stark Run, which is based on a conglomerate of three towns in real life, places where I’ve lived. After I read and admired Olive Kitteridge, Winseburg, Ohio, and How the Devil Chose New England to Do His Work, and a number of other linked collections about small towns, I wanted to achieve the kind of read that left me both enamored with each individual story, but also left me touched by the greater whole. It came naturally to think about characters in terms of relevance to place. Place was the kernel and the stories grew from there.
VP: Your stories are interconnected, with the same characters appearing in different stories, weaving an intricate web of tales that together create the town of Stark Run, VT. Do you feel that some of your characters are more central to the collection than others? And do any of the stories feel more pivotal for the whole book?
JP: That’s a tough question because some characters show up a lot more than others, but others are people who hold the town together, yet hardly appear. Take Maeve Bellamy, the esteemed English teacher. She has her one story, is rarely mentioned elsewhere, but she has taught, or perhaps will teach, almost every character in the book. So in my mind, once we see her, and know her, her presence looms.
I guess if I had to zero in on a central character, I’d say Sky Ryan becomes somewhat of a “rock star” in the collection. He played supportive roles all along. My editor at Press 53, Kevin Morgan Watson, said he wanted Sky to have his own story. So in the final hour, I wrote a story from Sky’s perspective. In retrospect, his story takes on the whole of the collection. His voice becomes the collective voice for the town. I suppose the final story, “The Physics of Light,” is pivotal. Some would say it concludes. Others would say it left them wanting a sequel.
VP: The themes of loss and change are subtly explored in these carefully drawn portraits. I’m curious if there are certain writers you admire for their ability to reveal character in such an understated way?
JP: There are so many writers I admire for a variety of reasons and it’s difficult to pin any one to a particular aspect of my writing. I’ll just say that I love the way in which both Raymond Carver and Alice Munro deal with domestic drama in their stories, though I would never want to insinuate that I’ve achieved their level. Then there are particular stories that slay me: “Araby” by James Joyce, “Immortalizing John Parker” by Robin E. Black, Alistair Macleod’s, “The Boat,” and “Rana Fegrina,” by Dylan Landis. There really are so many great short stories out there.
VP: I’m always curious about how authors of collections chose the order of their stories. Was this a joint decision with your editor? What helped you place them in this order?
JP: The stories begin during spring, the month of May, and go around a calendar year ending the following May. This was purely accidental until I made it part of the plan, making a few adjustments–––nods to weather, a name changed here and there to make linkages linear and logical, etc…I found that becoming strategic in ordering stories was super fun. The collection could have started in September, or perhaps in January. At one point, my early readers all voted on opening with “Molly Sings the Blues,” a story chosen by Pam Houston for Whitefish Review years back. Molly sets the stage for the place, sets a tone, and introduces a few of the players.
VP: I’d love to know what you’re working on next. Will you be venturing into other landscapes or staying close to home with another book set in VT?
JP: Well, since writing TCLWT, I moved from Vermont to the coast of Maine. Here, I’m working on a mother/daughter story collection set in Maine, and a novel, also set in Maine. I tend to work on pieces set in the place where I am located. It helps me to immerse in setting and tone.
I can sit in a coffee shop and listen to conversations and find the “place-ness” in the characters, too, if you know what I mean. The trick is I’ve only lived here two years, whereas I had lived in Vermont for twenty-five. I knew small town Vermont, at least some aspects of a particular population.
The good news is I have some “born and bred” Maine readers who have already volunteered to read my Maine drafts and check me out for authenticity, which feels good. They’ve also said that TCLWT could have been set in Maine, so maybe small town rural New England has enough in common to carry me. Best to just “get er done” and figure the rest out later.