Q & A with Linda Mannheim

Earlier this year I read the astounding This Way to Departures. I absolutely loved the short story collection (you can read my review here: https://fallenfigsbookblog.com/2020/03/26/this-way-to-departures-by-linda-mannheim/ ) Now I have been fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ask the author, Linda Mannheim, some questions about the collection!

1.      An eclectic mixture of locations and themes are used in your collection. For example, in Noir you write about the right wing Salvadoran death squads, in Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months you write about social services and how the system works and in The Christmas Story you write about the abuse of landlords against tenants. I was wondering how much research is required to write these sorts of stories or was this information you already knew which you then utilised in the stories?

A lot of the stories in the collection were sparked by personal experience, but once I started developing them, I always had to do some research as well. ‘Noir’ came to me when I was living in Miami (though not during the 1980s, when the story takes place). It was easy to imagine the kind of intrigue and illusion that make up classic Noir there. The background to the story, too, is that I was a journalism intern in Nicaragua during the Contra War and very much focused on Central America in general for a time. When I came back to the US, I worked for a community group that was trying to educate Americans about US support for El Salvador’s far right government and how that support ended up fostering the kind of brutality I describe in ‘Noir’.  ‘Missing Girl, 5, Gone Fifteen Months’ is based on the true story of a girl who went missing in Florida’s foster care system. I was working for an organisation that supported children in the Florida court system when she went missing and I kept trying to imagine how it could have happened. Many of the things that officials say in ‘Girl’ – even though some sound astonishing — are verbatim quotes. ‘The Christmas Story’ is based on a terrible thing that happened in the neighbourhood where I grew up. All of that said, every story involved research to make sure that the historical elements were accurate and that the fictional elements were plausible. In a story like ‘Noir’, where the central events are so shocking, it was especially important to make sure the fictional elements were anchored by historic accuracy.

2.      One element I love of this collection, which is very important but can be overlooked, is the order of the stories. Who decided on the order? And what was the logic behind it?

Ah, I’m glad to hear you think it worked well as a collection. I’m also struggling to explain how the story order came about though.  I both write and construct things intuitively, so I’m inclined to say, everything’s in that order because it felt right.  The stories are roughly in the order they were when I first sent the collection to Kit Caless, my editor at Influx Press, though we removed some stories from it along the way and added some new ones. I was still working on ‘The Christmas Story’ quite close to production time and I remember the order of the stories switched a bit in one draft. I really wanted the collection to end with ‘Dangers of the Sun’ though, and I wanted the last line in ‘Dangers’ to be the last line in the book – that is, hopeful but realistic – and in the end all of that worked.

3.      Who are some of your favourite short story writers? Either growing up or writing today.

Grace Paley was really important to me when I was younger – one of the first writers I came across writing about working class life in New York from a Jewish woman’s perspective – and her work remains important to me to this day. I came to Lucia Berlin late – that is, I read A Manual for Cleaning Woman a few years after everyone else seemed to be reading it – and I’m not sure how I managed to live without her stories. I interviewed Irenoseon Okojie and Leone Ross about their short story collections for Why Why Why: The Books Podcast, and both of those interviews and both writers’ collections had a big impact on how I approached my own work in that, I started to realise I’d been playing by the rules too much and the rules, including rules about genre, were irrelevant.  I wrote about some of the short stories I love for Jonathan Gibbs Personal Anthology series –where writers put together an imaginary anthology of 12 stories they love. Mine included stories by Abraham Rodriguez, ZZ Packer, and George Saunders.

4.      Through this collection, it is clear that you are well travelled, how do you think these experiences have influenced your writing over time?

Getting away from the place I was from, and all the limitations of living there, was a key to me becoming a writer. There are a lot of places in big cities that have their own kind of provincialism, and Washington Heights – the neighbourhood in New York where I grew up – was very much that way when I was growing up. And of course, having some distance from that place made it possible for me to write about it years after I’d left, meant I was able to see it from a different perspective. I think there’s a lot to be said for being in a place that isn’t your home town and a lot to be said for being an insider-outsider – someone who knows a place well enough to take part in everyday life but notices different things than someone who’s been there forever. I also very much feel there are things you can’t take in unless you visit a place. This past year, I’ve been travelling to some of the places my father landed in as a refugee during the Second World War, and being in those places completely shifted my understanding of his life story.  

5.     What are you working on next and when can we expect to see it? 

Next up is a collection called Documents set during and shortly after South Africa’s apartheid era.  The title story is made up of letters, government documents, and official notices. One of the other stories, ‘Trigger’, is out as a Kindle Single and out on Audible. The audible version is narrated by Peter Noble and his narration scared the hell out of me (in a good way). I’m also working on a constellation novel about the years when my father was a refugee. The research for that has also involved exploring how we talk about seeking and providing refuge, and there’s now a blog up on that refugee writers and non-refugees are contributing to (thank you, Arts Council England).  You can find the blog right here.

This Way to Departures is out now and is published by Influx Press. I would like to thank Linda for her insightful responses to my questions and for been so helpful.

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