Jonathan Corcoran is the author of the story collection, The Rope Swing, which was named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Awards and long-listed for The Story Prize. His stories have been anthologized in Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods: Fiction and Poetry from West Virginia and Best Gay Stories 2017. He received a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. Jonathan teaches writing at Rutgers and serves as a Visiting Writer in the low-residency MFA program at West Virginia Wesleyan College. He was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia and currently resides in Brooklyn, NY.
Why is fiction your chosen form for capturing the world?
Tough question! I’m still not entirely sure it is. Let’s just say it was the right form for the kinds of stories I wanted to tell with my first book, and at the moment, it’s the right form (I hope) for the novel I’m working on. In The Rope Swing, I wanted to tell highly personal stories about a place like the world I’d grown up in, that I’d known, loved, and sometimes hated all at once. I actually first tried to write a memoir—and in fact did write a memoir—but it was too personal, too close to the lives of so many important people who’d raised me and helped me along the way. I needed distance from my own lived experience to tell the kinds of stories that I hoped would resonate.
I’ve found that giving yourself a little fictional distance, giving yourself permission to muddy up the truth, can sometimes help you get closer to the heart of the matter. The stories I wrote for The Rope Swing are not truly autobiographical, but I can say the feelings I attempted to conjure with those works approximate the kinds of heartache, love, loss, and learning that I’ve been through myself.
How do you evoke such a strong sense of place in your fiction? How are place and landscape important to you?
I grew up in the mountains of West Virginia. There are exponentially more trees out there than people. Growing up in that wild beauty shaped every ounce of my being. The truth is that when I first started writing seriously, I had gone through a loss and was dealing with trauma. I’m gay, and I’d been disowned by my family when they found out. I was cut off from my family, my home, the trees, the rivers, the mountains. I became obsessed in my exile. I’d go to bed in my Brooklyn apartment thinking of my old home, the grass, the creek in the backyard, the woods behind my house. I’d walk those old paths in my head until I fell asleep at night. The trauma of loss is like that, I suppose. You hold onto the picture in your head and you cling to every last detail, praying that the image never fades. That image is your connection to what is gone. And so writing was my way of saving that world, those memories.
I was on a panel once with some fellow Appalachian writers, and we were talking about writing the local. We were chatting to the audience, and one of the writers made a brilliant point I’ve never forgotten. It’s so easy to forget what’s right under your nose—the leaning apple tree in front of your home, the pot-holed highway on your morning commute, the cracked drywall under the window in your bedroom. When we write with specificity, with details that may sometimes seem dull and quotidien, then we can make our worlds come to life for our readers. I’m not saying to overload your writing with every last adjective, but when we utilize the sensory—the smells, the lights, the touch—we can remind our readers to open their eyes, to feel, hear, and smell their own memories.
Your collection The Rope Swing has been celebrated for depicting the lives of rural gay characters in ways not usually seen—how do issues of sexual identity influence you and why do you feel it is important to highlight those issues in your work?
I didn’t grow up reading the stories of queer people like me, gay men and women who lived in small towns, who came from religious families, and who came from working-class backgrounds. Heck—I’m West Virginian, and I honestly don’t know if I read a book about a modern day Appalachian until I was in my twenties. When I went to graduate school for creative writing, I was likewise embarrassed by how little gay literature I’d read. When I started trying to fill that gap, I realized that many of the queer books I was reading took place in cities with characters whose lives had been very different than my own, whose experiences had taken place in eras that I didn’t understand. That’s not a bad thing—I learned so much about queer life and history by reading those books—but I craved something more personal. I started to cobble together a reading list for an independent study with one of my professors, and I soon learned that there was a beautiful, robust world of queer Southern and Appalachian literature already. Jeff Mann, Dorothy Allison, Fenton Johnson, Jim Grimsley, Randall Kenan, and so many others. But why hadn’t I ever heard of them? Why hadn’t I ever seen most of those on library shelves or on my college syllabi? Part of that was no doubt my own lack of research, but part of that, I think, speaks to the culture of literature in our country. The stories that get published, promoted, and sold are often dictated by an old guard that doesn’t necessarily see the monetary value in stories of difference and diversity—and that means everything from race to sexual orientation to geography. This is changing, and it’s changing because people are demanding to hear a wider range of voices. I was a library brat for much of my young life. I want to live in a world where a young kid coming to terms with his or her sexuality goes to the library and sees a queer book promoted proudly on the front shelves. Among other reasons, that’s why I write. For that kid, for that kid’s mother, and for the other community members who can learn to understand and love each other by immersing themselves in stories that encompass the lived experiences of their neighbors.
As I read your stories, I noticed how often you used small, physical details (drops of wax, a robin, a tree branch, etc.) to anchor the reader in your stories. What makes you so attentive to the physical in your writing and how does it shape your larger goals for the stories?
I try to inhabit the minds and bodies of my characters. And when I’m in that head and writing space, it’s the physical, the sensual that give me access. I have a hard time divorcing bodies from emotion. Touch, taste, depression, desire—they’re all interconnected. Some writers have different approaches, but some of my favorite writing I’ve ever read is so painfully specific. That drop of wax in the story is going to make a reader remember the last time they blew out a candle. That process of connection is so magical—because then you, your characters, and the readers are all connected in ways you never expected.
How do you, following James Baldwin’s aphorism, “find new ways to make us listen” in your fiction?
As you’ve mentioned, I’m drawn to landscapes and to physical details. That is certainly one way to make someone listen. But I’ve also been particularly drawn to pushing my characters toward hard choices and gifting them with opportunities to change. I imagine that if my stories are ever considered universal, it’s because choosing to stay or go, choosing to love or run, making the worst possible choice—those are shared human experiences. I’ve learned to be cruel to my characters at times, and I’ve learned to in turn allow my characters to be cruel. That’s reality, and it hurts sometimes. If I’m afraid to let my husband read one of my stories because I’m worried that he’ll think I’m a maniac, then I know I’ve done something right. He’s fortunately given me permission to explore the depraved spaces that exist deep within, as long as I don’t bring that character to bed!
That said, I also have a pretty tender heart. When I push my characters over the edge of a cliff, I try to make sure there’s a body of water to break their fall. A body can only take so much.
How do you hope readers approach the characters in your stories? Do you seek to evoke sympathy? Understanding? Epiphany? Something else?
I hope to make readers think. If my characters have to make tough choices, I hope that my readers too are forced to grapple. The beauty of reading about someone else’s fictional life is that it provides the reader a safe space to come to terms with their own inner struggles. Readers work through their own emotions by reading books. In one sense, reading is exposure to worlds we didn’t know existed. And in another sense, reading is an act that forces us to come to terms with our true selves.
What writers do you read and why are they important to you?
Too many and not enough! I’m a sucker for lyricism, so I like to trace a line from William Faulkner to Toni Morrison to Jayne Anne Phillips and beyond. There’s a lot of new, exciting queer work coming onto the shelves. Garth Greenwell’s work is unabashedly smart and sensual. Mesha Maren is writing a wonderful new take on West Virginia. Tayari Jones’ latest novel, An American Marriage, is one of the most important, beautiful, and well-conceived books that speaks to our country’s culture and how we love. I reread Joan Didion every year—both her fiction and nonfiction—and hope that I will someday have half as much wit and style. And when I need a break from literary fiction, I gobble up poetry—Claudia Rankine’s hybrid, Citizen, is my favorite of the decade—and then go to science fiction. And here’s my advice about reading science fiction. All the male authors are overrated. Head straight to Octavia Butler and Ursula K Le Guin. They’ll keep you busy for awhile.
Thanks for the interview!