On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week we have the pleasure of talking with Anne Valente, author of By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books) and the upcoming One Story issue #205 “Tell Us You Were Here.” Thank you to Anne for taking the time to answer our questions about her brave and beautiful collection of stories.
Where were you when you found out By Light We Knew Our Names was the winner of the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Prize? How did you celebrate?
I was at home in my living room when I received the phone call from Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books that the collection had won. I absolutely couldn’t believe it. It was Memorial Day of 2012 and I was living outside of Columbus, Ohio. Since it was a holiday, I already had plans to go into the city that day with my husband and our friend Lareese, but we made it a super-day of celebration—we went to the COSI Museum, we saw a movie, we got vegan cupcakes, and we went out for sushi.
This collection is full of stories that are somewhat horrific—disappearing children, violence against women, dissecting live octopuses—yet you write with incredible warmth. It’s such a unique balance that I’m curious, who do you consider to be your influences as a writer?
I’ve always admired Lorrie Moore’s ability to blend laugh-out-loud humor with extreme pathos—some of the funniest lines in her stories and novels are sliced right next to the saddest. Though I don’t write humor, I’ve taken to heart her talent at holding two seemingly disparate elements together in fiction. I’ve also taken a cue from the warmth in Aimee Bender’s prose, where despite the horror of some of the things her characters face, everyone seems so capable of love and so terrified of losing one another. There is such optimism for humanity in her fiction.
The title story in this collection, “By Light We Knew Our Names,” floored me. I reread it several times mouthing Wow, wow, wow as I moved through. It’s a powerhouse story about a group of young women living in the town of Willow where it seems that sexual violence against women is not only expected, but the norm. To cope, the women meet at night and punch pillows, hit trees with bats, and talk about getting out. Many of the stories in this collection contain some element of violence against women but this one in particular builds an entire world around just that. What was the seed of this story and what was your greatest challenge in writing it?
Thank you for these nice words! It definitely wasn’t an easy story to write, and as you mention, I’d touched upon violence against women in other stories. But at the time of writing this story, which was in early 2010 before many of the recent conversations about sexual violence began to happen, I felt so frustrated that what I was seeing and intuiting about gender disparity in the world wasn’t being heard. I wanted to make it so over-the-top and so blatant that it couldn’t be ignored. I wanted to set a magnifying glass to violence against women and sear it open. My greatest challenge was to avoid alienating the reader into not listening, or into dismissing these young women and their anger.
There are 13 stories in this collection. When did you realize you had a collection and how did you go about arranging the pieces?
This collection went through several revisions of weeding stories and writing new ones before I put together the final version that Dzanc accepted, and even in the editing process, I still made replacements. In terms of arrangement, I made decisions based mostly on theme, on tone, on length, and on the movement of one story to the next. For the most part, the collection progresses from adolescent narrators and protagonists to older characters reaching and experiencing adulthood. I wanted to preserve this movement across the collection while also making sure that no stories overlapped or grew repetitive, from one to the next.
What are you most looking forward to at the Ball on May 15th?
I’m beyond delighted to take part in a celebration of literature, words and debut authors with one of my favorite literary magazines of all time. One Story has been a long-time favorite since I first began writing. I’m very much looking forward to meeting the other debutantes, whose books and work I’ve read and admired from afar. I’m also really looking forward to meeting Karen Friedman after her tireless, sharp editorial work on my issue of One Story. It will be such a great celebration, and I can’t tell you how thrilled and honored I am to attend.