Kevin Catalano talks to Jonathan Corcoran about being gay in rural Appalachia, and his collection of stories, The Rope Swing.
JONATHAN CORCORAN is the author of The Rope Swing: Stories (West Virginia University Press, 2016). He received a BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and an MFA in Fiction Writing from Rutgers University-Newark. He was born and raised in a small town in West Virginia and currently resides in Brooklyn.
Kevin Catalano: Let’s dig right in. Could you describe your writing desk? Is it messy, tidy, sweaty, bloody?
JONATHAN CORCORAN: A desk! I have one! Finally. I live in a ~400-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn with my husband. Until very recently, I wrote on the couch, the table, or the bathroom floor (seriously). When my book was accepted for publication, I finally made the husband throw out the exercise bike that was getting very little use and took up the only free corner we had left. The desk is small, stacked with various owl totems (not sure how that became “a thing”), and has a corkboard where I pin up ideas and notes to self. But it’s a desk, nonetheless, and I promised myself that the next book will not be written next to the toilet.
What is the correct pronunciation for ‘Appalachian’? I’ve heard it said a couple different ways.
Good question. There isn’t a correct pronunciation, I think, but how you say it lets people know where you are from and possibly your relationship to the area. In my hometown in rural West Virginia, they say “app (as in the iPhone version)-uh-latch-uhn.” In New England and the Northeast, I’ve heard “app-uh-lay-shun” with a slightly aristocratic ring. These pronunciations roughly correspond to deer meat and caviar — one comes down with a plop in the back of a pickup truck, and the other is spooned gently onto a plate.
“Appalachian Swan Song,” a story in your latest book, The Rope Swing, is such a beautiful, nostalgic version of rural West Virginia. However, the stories thereafter move way beyond that romanticized depiction. How did writing The Rope Swing change or complicate your personal relationship with your hometown?
I had and have a complicated relationship with my family. When I was twenty years old, my mother found out that I was gay and cut me out of her life. We didn’t speak for many years. We’ve been hot and cold for a decade, though recent events suggest we’re in a thawing period. One tangible effect of our separation was that I stopped going home. If I was lucky, I would make it back once a year, staying clandestinely in the home of a childhood friend. West Virginia — the nostalgic one, the one in which I grew up — loomed large in my imagination. It was all I had, a little town frozen in my memory, stuck in a particular point in time. I wrote “Appalachian Swan Song” as a way to house my memories, to make peace with the past.
In recent years, I’ve been able to go back home more frequently. West Virginia and Appalachia are changing, and there’s a lot of sorrow but also a lot of hope. There’s a building in my old downtown called the Tygart Hotel. It must be the tallest structure in town, some six or seven stories high. It was built during the boom days of timber and coal and railroads. It was grand at the time, with marble lobbies and sweeping staircases. Now it’s an apartment building that primarily houses low-income tenants. It’s become known as a drug den, and I’ve heard of a bedbug infestation. It’s only a couple blocks away from the train depot, which is now being used to ferry tourists on a train that goes back and forth through the mountains. If you were to walk by the building, you’d know it was special. But if you were to walk inside, you’d see the last century unfold right before your eyes.
The Rope Swing is a collection of linked stories. Did you write them in chronological order, or did you decide on (or discover) the “link” after having written a few?
Yes! I didn’t plan on having a linked collection, but then I realized I had been writing around the same subjects, the same places, showing a little progression with certain stories and certain themes. I had probably written about six of the ten stories when it became clear what was going on. At that point, I spread the printed stories across the floor of my apartment and arranged them in a way that made sense. I found the holes and made a plan to fill them in. “Appalachian Swan Song” was one of the last stories I wrote. It became the first story of the collection and the glue that held the rest of the stories together. Each story can definitely be read individually, but I do think there is something to be gained from reading each story in order.
My favorite story in the collection is the last one, “A Touch.” For those who don’t know, this story depicts a narrator-in-crisis who stalks a young gay man whose face has been mutilated as a result of a brutal hate crime. The ending of this story is so surprising and, as I read it, optimistic. Was it a conscious decision to leave the reader with a feeling of hope, not just at the end of this story, but at the end of the collection?
I’m glad you liked that one. It’s my favorite, too. Writing that story was like expelling a thousand demons. It came out in such a fevered few sessions. All my fears and anger and hate and sadness came boiling out onto the page. I was thinking about homophobia, about violence, about hate crimes — and of course, about unrequited love. By the time I had reached the last act of the story, I was exhausted and empty. It takes a good scream, sometimes, to recenter yourself. And so, yes, it was a very conscious choice to end the story and the book as a whole on a hopeful note, because a body can only take so much in this world before collapsing.
The Lit Hub had a great list that came out, “Books I Wish I’d Read as an LGBTQ Teenager: Queer Writers on What They’d Recommend to Their Past Selves.” First, I’m curious about what books you’d recommend to your teenage self; but second, I wondered if The Rope Swing was in some way the book you were writing to your past self.
That was such a good list! I do wish I’d had something like that when I was a kid. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but I didn’t even know that queer books existed. I’ve been talking with a few fellow writers about the lack of queer books set in rural spaces. There are many good ones, but there should be more. I’ve been thinking about how much I enjoyed Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. More recently, Megan Kruse’s Call Me Home punctured my heart. I think Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy was the first queer book I ever read that could have been a roadmap for my younger self. It was so full of love and passion and sorrow.
The Rope Swing was definitely a book that was written with an eye toward my past self. In a way, I think the book is a note to the alternate-reality version of me that stayed behind in West Virginia. I built up a whole world in my head based on that doppelgänger. It’s not easy growing up gay in a place like West Virginia, and it’s not the easiest being an adult there, either. I know it’s changing, but you have to remember that change comes slow to a place like the one in which I grew up — a little town surrounded on all sides by mountains, a three-hour drive from the nearest major city. I hope this doesn’t sound too risqué, but I think it’s extremely important that teenagers read about relationships and love, both sloppy and pure. That also means reading about sex and desire. I spent most of my youth in the closet. I didn’t have any examples — hardly a one, in books or on television. I took all the feelings I had inside of me and ended up in a lot of dark places, both physically and in my head. I put myself in dangerous situations and, really, am lucky to have come out relatively unscathed. The next generation of queer kids is going to come out less damaged than the last, and it’s in large part because we see people like ourselves in books and movies and on the Internet. This is all doubly important for kids who don’t live in cities, who might not have the resources and support networks that cities offer.
This is your first published book (but surely not your last!), and I know many aspiring writers, who are trying to publish their own manuscripts, are always hungry for success stories. Would you mind telling the story of how The Rope Swing found its home with Vandalia Press?
I love my press. Vandalia is the fiction imprint of West Virginia University Press. I think publishing, as it’s been said before, all comes down to finding the right place at the right time. I’d been entering my unpublished collection in first book contests for two years (story collections are a hard sell to agents). I had been a finalist or semifinalist on a few occasions, but never crossed that all-important threshold. I was ready to give up when I saw something online about WVU/Vandalia seeking submissions. I wrote an email of introduction to the editor, sent off my collection by mail, and received a contract six months later. My advice is this: If you don’t think your book is a good fit for an agent or one of the big houses (or if you’re not having any luck in those venues), think strategically about small and university presses. Think about style and subject matter. I had a book about queer Appalachians, and I’d been sending my manuscript to presses in New York and California. WVU Press loved my book, both for the writing and for the subject matter. As a university press, they’re a nonprofit with a mission to the state’s and region’s people. It made perfect sense for them to publish me, to put out a book about a different kind of West Virginia. And it turns out they’re fantastic — They have the same distribution as the big houses, and we’re collaborating on a 15-stop book tour. They only publish a handful of fiction books each year, so they’re giving me a lot of attention and pouring resources into promoting my book. Your book has a home — You just have to find it.
In a recent Facebook post, you announced your decision to (*gasp*) quit your full-time job and (*double gasp*) take up writing full-time. Seriously though, I commend your bravery. Was this a difficult decision? How is the full-time writing life going so far?
(*triple gasp* )
I don’t think this will last forever, but it sure feels nice right now. I came from a blue-collar background, and I’ve been working more or less since I was sixteen years old. I’m very goal-oriented, and I knew that someday I wanted to gift myself the time to write. I’m not getting rich off of this book (trust me), but it gave me a good excuse to really put myself out there and to try for something bigger. I’ve spent the last years working administrative jobs and putting money into savings. (Note to writers: day jobs are important — Make sure you develop a skill of some sort.) I’ve been preparing for this moment. If I don’t have another book finished in a year from today, I’ll feel like I’ve failed myself. I’ve started a novel that feels like the spiritual successor to my story collection. There. I’ve said it publicly. Now feel free to keep me on my toes.
What are you reading right now?
I just picked up a copy of Ann Pancake’s Strange as This Weather Has Been. She’s another writer from West Virginia, who I believe lives in Seattle now. Up next is Garth Greenwell’s big debut, What Belongs to You, which I’ve heard is stellar. I keep reading all of his interviews, and he speaks so eloquently and forcefully about queer life and literature. I’m going to drag myself to one of his events soon and make him become my friend (Hi, Garth!).
What album have you been listening to?
I dove in hard and overdosed on Sleater-Kinney’s new album, so they’re off my rotation for a while. It was a good run. I’m a big, big fan of this indie band out of North Carolina — Mount Moriah. Their last album, Miracle Temple, was a country, blues-infused wonder. The lead singer sounds like a rock version of Dolly Parton. Their new album, How to Dance, just came out, so I’m giving that a spin as we speak. For a taste of West Virginia, check out my super-talented friends, Emily Miller and Jesse Milnes, who reside near my old town and run around the country playing fiddle and guitar and singing their hearts out. There’s a great little session with them online here.
What’s the best thing you’ve been watching on TV/cable/Netflix?
I don’t know if it’s the best show on TV right now, but I’m addicted to The Walking Dead. I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic entertainment, which, in its best form, reveals something deep about our humanity. I just spent two weeks binge-watching the original Twin Peaks. How did I miss that show? Watching David Lynch do his TV thing opened some new sphere in my brain that has been helping my writing. I’m a pretty modern, realism-centered writer, but I draw inspiration from people who push the boundaries of narrative convention.
Interview originally published on 4/4/16.