Amy Rowland’s short story, “Thirteen Ways of Thinking about Time; or, Time, the Two-Handed Thief” appears in the winter 2017 issue of The Southern Review. Hear Rowland read an excerpt of her story in our audio gallery here; read more about her process of crafting the story, as well as her own thoughts about time in the South, below.
Kathleen Boland: What inspired you to write “Thirteen Ways of Thinking about Time; or, Time, the Two-Handed Thief”?
Amy Rowland: It’s difficult to articulate my intention, never mind my inspiration. I grew up in the South, and though I haven’t lived there in more than twenty years, that’s where my desire to write this story originated. My first novel is set in New York, where I moved in the nineties, and where the literary real estate is as spacious and available as the physical real estate is limited and unattainable. I spent my twenties trying to write a Southern novel, but I couldn’t figure out what that meant, and I buckled under the weight of Southern history and Southern literature. Now I’m trying again, with linked stories that blend fiction and nonfiction. And I feel that the fragmentary form of the Thirteen Ways stories (the one that appears in The Southern Review is the first in a series) is the closest match to my splintered thoughts on a splintered place.
KB: Could you explain why you organized the story as you did? Is the modular, nonlinear structure a thematic commentary, a parallel to Wallace Stevens’s “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” or something else entirely?
AR: For several years, I’ve struggled with what it means to write fiction (not in a grand way, but for me personally), and with finding a form and structure that I can write within. I found that the modular structure freed me as a writer in a way I had never been free before.
To back up, when I was going through my writing crisis, I read writers who have experimented with autobiography, form, and subjectivity: Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Keene, Maggie Nelson, Rachel Cusk. I also fell in love with Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden.” Alongside this, I revisited Faulkner and Coetzee and Morrison. Then two things happened. After reading Coetzee’s In the Heart of the Country, I wrote a story with numbered fragments. Then I saw Marilynne Robinson speak, and she referenced the Wallace Stevens line I have always loved: “The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind.” This sent me back to Stevens and to his blackbird. The river of time was moving, as the blackbird was flying, and the structure of my story fell into place.
Essentially, I find this structure very suitable for moving between the abstract and the concrete. Maybe I should have just said that.
KB: The story opens and closes with the narrator eavesdropping at the movies. What’s the importance, if any, of this bookend? How does eavesdropping and movies dovetail with the other themes of the story?
AR: The experience of time in film has always drawn me to movies. There is an eternal present to films. I liked the movie bookend in the story for many reasons: the metaphor of being in the dark; as a way for the narrator to be in the world and also removed—an observer, though not entirely passive. She sits in the theater and watches time go by.
Eavesdropping is a way the narrator listens for stories. She is a solitary woman who has trouble connecting. But, like Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill, she has become good at “listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.”
There’s also the relationship between eavesdropping and how Southern history is remembered and related. I’ve found a tendency among some Southerners to take a small historical fact and build an entire story around it, much of which is false. But they are very proud of this idea of Southern history, and very nostalgic for it. Doesn’t James Baldwin say something like: It’s not what they know. It’s what they don’t want to know.
KB: There are cultural references throughout the story, mostly literary and cinematic; the title’s Stevens reference, Touch of Evil, the Marilynne Robinson talk, Birth of a Nation, and so on. How are these references ways of thinking about time? Or, what’s the significance of these references to the narrator?
AR: I’ve always been drawn to the way time is represented and experienced in film. Movies are both images in time and images of time. The recurrence of these references in the story makes the point that violence and evil always come around again. The narrator of this story grapples with her idea of time and being; for her, movies are almost a relief and a release, as she sits alone in the dark, keeping time.
KB: What’s your favorite verb tense and why?
AR: I’m available to too many tenses. No, seriously, I think about this a lot, especially in terms of writing about the South. In an essay on temporality in The Sound and the Fury, Sartre says Faulkner is like a man sitting in a buggy facing backward. That Faulkner’s immediate surroundings are only flickering shadows that he cannot see until they pass by, becoming fixed and changeless. I’m trying to find a different seat on that buggy. I’m attracted to Coetzee’s use of the historic present. But it’s difficult to pull off, and if you botch it you sound like a pretentious windbag. So I should just admit I can’t answer this question . . . yet.
Amy Rowland is the author of the novel The Transcriptionist. A native of North Carolina, she lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
Kathleen Boland is the editorial assistant of The Southern Review and an MFA candidate in fiction at Louisiana State University.