Anne Valente’s story “Who We Were” appears in the summer 2016 issue of The Southern Review. “Who We Were” is an adapted excerpt of Valente’s debut novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins (October 4). Hear Valente read from “Who We Were” in our audio gallery here; read more about her process of crafting the story and novel below.
“Who We Were” is a harrowing story about a terribly tragic event, a school shooting. Out of that context, however, I’d argue that the story’s structure and language are remarkably playful: the first person plural narrator, the multiple tense changes (past, conditional, future), the frequent use of repetition and lists. How do these craft choices relate to, interrogate, or reflect the larger themes of the story? Why have so much narrative play in such a heavy story?
In general, I’m a writer who enjoys narrative play—I love repetition and listing, and any other mode that experiments with linear storytelling. But beneath the surface of structure, I also contended with what narrative mode would best tell this particular story. So much of this story—and so much of the novel—is about memory, and how each character attempts to reckon with this tragedy. Neither memory nor grief are linear: both double back, both take loops and turns, both obsess and repeat, and both follow maddening paths that are anything but straightforward. To best reflect the process of grieving and memory, I chose a structure that mirrored the ways our brains attempt to make sense and move on.
One of the more astonishing aspects of this story, to me, is how expertly the narration guides the reader through the school. We also shift between the points of view of Lewis and Clark’s yearbook staff members: Christina, Zola, Matt, and Nick; and there are shifts in time, toggling between scenes before, during, and after the shooting. This creates a chorus-like effect, further underlined by the use of the “we.” Could you talk about why you chose to write from this point of view, and how it might influence the telling of this kind of trauma?
Much in the same way that memory circulates in nonlinear ways around trauma, I think that point of view is also so difficult to pinpoint around a tragedy like this. One of my leading questions while writing this was: Whose story is this? I think we’re accustomed to stories of tragedy belonging to the media and news, and it’s one of the only ways we access information about mass violence. Broadcasts bring such authoritative voices, and I didn’t want a singular voice to own this narrative. The news is only one voice, and I imagined whether trauma like this belongs to everyone, or to each individual who experienced it, or to some gray space in between. I wondered if this kind of tragedy would bring a community together—a township, a high school, an entire city—while also splintering the collective apart, since no one experiences grief in the same way. By shifting the points of view between the collective and the individual, I wanted to explore the ways in which trauma is communal but also singular.
Unfortunately, school shootings like the one featured in “Who We Were” are all too common. How did current events and politics influence you while writing this story? Moreover, why set it in 2003, rather than, say, 2013 or 2016?
I began writing this in early 2013, just after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I’d been a junior in high school at the time of the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, and a college instructor at the time of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007. I couldn’t believe in 2013 that as a nation we still hadn’t found a way to prevent mass tragedies like these from happening. Though gun violence occurs every day in America, something about mass shootings—maybe because they are almost always carried out by men—suggested to me a fixation on power and a perceived threat to that power. Though this isn’t explicitly explored in “Who We Were,” I set the book at the time of George W. Bush’s presidency and the search for weapons of mass destruction. The audacity of that search, as well as its need for power and answers when there weren’t any, felt like the right backdrop for a community seeking answers where grief so often provides so few. I also wanted to set this at a time when we as a nation hadn’t yet grown numb to so many incidents of mass violence.
“Who We Were” is being published in 2016, a year that feels marked by an excess of gun violence. These incidents, as well as so many that occurred after I finished writing the book in 2014, have further saddened me about the state of violence in this country—mass shootings, including those in Charleston and Orlando, but also police brutality in Ferguson and Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights and so many other cities in America. I don’t know what to say about so much violence, other than that I hope we continue to stay vigilant to not grow numb, and to continue speaking out and fighting against brutality, gun violence, and excessive force.
This story is the first chapter of your forthcoming novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Why or how is “Who We Were” a beginning, structurally, tonally, or otherwise?
I think “Who We Were” sets a tone of interrogation of memory; that in the wake of trauma building an archive is not only an objective but also an impossible task. For the yearbook staff members, the project of building a book after this kind of tragedy is both a diversion and a compulsion—a project that helps organize and funnel their grief, but a project that is essentially intolerable because of the material it forces them to engage with. I also wanted to begin with an account of the shooting so that the novel explores the aftermath—what we so often never see after television cameras and newscasters move away. Our media tends to focus on shooter and motive, and not as readily on how a community does or does not move on. “Who We Were” addresses the shooting immediately, but through the prism of four points of view, so a new narrative can unfold considering how these points of view process grief.
Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is also your debut novel. Congratulations! You’ve published dozens of short stories, including two collections. How did your process change while writing a novel? Did it change? What advice would you give to someone shifting from short stories to their first novel?
Thank you! I did write only short stories when I first began writing, and I still write short stories now. To write a novel, I extended what I knew of short stories to a much longer form—that there still needed to be conflict, rising action, everything that a short story required, but outlined across multiple chapters. My process didn’t necessarily change, though I’d say that writing a novel required far more mapping of events, of timeline, and of the background of 2003. I built a big visual map above my desk to keep me on task. It also required more devoted time to stay within the world of the narrative, so I made time to write every single day.
For someone shifting from short stories to a first novel, I’d definitely suggest creating concentrated time each day so that the world of the novel stays fresh and immediate. In terms of more abstract advice, however, what was most helpful for me was to hear that a novel can be an enormous umbrella for many ideas. Whereas so many of my short stories tackle a single narrative across fifteen to twenty pages, I’ve found that a novel can contain even the kitchen sink. Part of the fun of the novel was drawing connections between fragments of ideas I’d kept but not known where to place: gun violence, but also astronomy, swimming, memory, cicadas. I found ways of exploring these ideas through character development and setting within the novel. Constellating ideas together is a big part of my process, and the novel provided a bigger playground for drawing connections between different strands of thought than short stories.
Anne Valente is the author of Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, forthcoming from William Morrow/HarperCollins, and the story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names. Her stories and essays have appeared in One Story, Ninth Letter, and the Washington Post. She teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.
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