A Writer’s Insight: Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor’s short story, “Remnants,” appears in the Autumn 2022 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses the centrality of place in her writing, the power of story to humanize the opioid epidemic, and the challenges of moving between novel and short story.

Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: The landscape of Phoenix comes to life in “Remnants” – almost as if the city itself is a character in the story. How important is place to you in fiction?  

Bryn Chancellor: Place is right up there with characters for me. I grew up in northern Arizona and then lived in the Phoenix area for over a decade; my family and friends are still there, so I go back often. In Phoenix, my house was a mile north of the (semi-fictionalized) neighborhood in “Remnants”; I’ve fictionalized the businesses and renamed streets but retained the layout and landmarks, such as the Coliseum and fairgrounds, a well-known park, the city’s oldest community college, and the otherworldly lake on the far eastern outskirts of the city. One of my best friends used to live two blocks from the Coliseum, and we’d sit in the back yard listening to faint shrieks and music from the fairgrounds under the glow of electric lights.

I think my obsession with place in part comes from growing up where I did, in the shadow of red sandstone rocks that I climbed barefoot and caves where bats flew out at dusk, where giant sinkholes had names like Devil’s Kitchen. In the desert, you can’t ignore the landscape. It’s big and strange and fragile and dangerous. Walking out the door at midnight and running smack into a wall of 90 degree heat—that stays with you.

ZS: What short story collections and/or novels have inspired your own work? What other writers do you see your work engaging with?

BC: I carry so many writers’ influences, their words and images fluttering around inside me. I recently taught Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and they all slay me. Amy Hempel and Alice Munro, the minimalist and the maximalist, are the first literary writers I loved. For linked collections and multivocal novels, Rohinton Mistry’s Swimming Lessons, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge and Anything Is Possible, Louise Erdrich’s LaRose. Lord, it’s impossible to narrow down.

ZS: In the past few years, we’ve witnessed more stories about the opioid epidemic—in both the literary world and in popular culture. I’m thinking about Nico Walker’s Cherry and Beth Macy’s Dopesick (and its Hulu adaption). What do you find inspiring, or lacking, in the existing stories out there about this issue. What do you hope your work contributes to the larger discourse on addiction?

BC: The recent reporting—yes, Beth Macy and Patrick Radden Keefe—is shattering. Those stories are vital because they shine a light on the systemic culpability in this crisis. Since the start of the so-called War on Drugs, many dominant narratives about addiction tend to blame individuals, punish them, stigmatize them, make them responsible for their own recovery but ignore societal and governmental neglect and devastating legal and carceral policies. With opioids, there’s extra cruelty in drugmakers inflicting and profiting from this pain.

But this fictional story started in a smaller place, after I saw a live-streamed video of two people overdosing on a sidewalk. I thought, this is where we are now, passersby filming strangers in crisis? Publicly humiliating people in their worst, life-threatening moments? Have I stumbled into an episode of Black Mirror? At the same time, my writer brain noticed those people’s physical contortions—the word that came to mind was body-snatched. That’s what ultimately led to this story, wondering about how it felt for a person to recover in the midst of such public and private shame, about how our bodies are so external and internal.

ZS: Most recovery stories center on male characters. The hyper masculine anti-hero struggling with addiction has become something of a trope in the larger genre of redemption narratives. But your protagonist, Sunny, subverts a lot of expectations we have of characters dealing with this issue. How did Sunny’s particular recovery experience—as a mother, daughter, woman—inform your development of her as a character? How did she come to you?

BC: Sunny actually is a character from one my earliest stories, “Water at Midnight,” published almost twenty years ago now. She was seventeen years old in that story, sent by her mother to live with her father in Phoenix, hugely pissed off and flirting inappropriately with the lawn irrigator. When I began writing these new stories, set seventeen years later, I wrote her daughter Penelope’s story first. I was pondering her mother’s addiction, this neighborhood, and it came to me seemingly out of nowhere: What if her mother is Sunny?

I think it’s the rage that brought her to me. Sunny was furious as a teenager about her circumstances, but she didn’t understand why—which infuriated her more. Sunny’s escalating, misdirected but righteous anger about her present and past life, which finally explodes outside the brewery, is one of my favorite things about her. But it’s also terribly sad; at the end of the first story I wrote with her, she’s so hopeful, on the cusp of adulthood. It broke my heart a little to take her through this fire, but it also felt true to how our lives take unexpected and often tragic turns.

ZS: One of the most heartbreaking elements of “Remnants” was the fractured relationship between Sunny and her daughter, Pen. What motivated your choice to make Sunny a mother, and to have this fissure with her daughter become a central tension in the story? What are we, as readers, to make of Sunny’s inability to repair this mother- daughter relationship?

BC: The fissure was there from the early drafts, though I had to discover more about its roots and complexities. I often have to fight the impulse to fix everything for my characters by the end of a story, and that was true here. I wanted a reconciliation, but I also knew it wouldn’t be true to the situation or the characters.

My sense is that Sunny and Pen can repair their relationship, but Sunny first needs to repair herself. She’s fortunate that Pen’s father and wife step in and give her that space. Actually, the scene with Francie, which was a bit of a surprise for me, helped me see that. The final scene when Sunny is by herself, not riding to escape but simply for pleasure, feeling herself in the world, felt really hopeful to me.

ZS: Is “Remnants” part of a larger project? If so, tell us about what we can expect next.

BC: Yes, it’s part of ten linked stories set in the same Phoenix neighborhood where three families cross paths over the course of about a year. “Remnants” is the final story (right now, anyway), and the other characters in it—Pen, Francie, Arthur, and Vera—also have their own stories. Sunny is the through-character, whom we see from everyone else’s perspective before her own. My goal is for the stories to stand on their own, though they lean on each other and can form a larger story if you read the whole set. Like stars in a constellation, maybe. That combination of singular and communal always has appealed to me.

ZS: “Remnants” does not follow a traditional story structure. The narrative is often thrown into the past by a memory triggered in the protagonist, which sheds light on her current situation in powerful ways. How did you decide on this non-linear structure, and what challenges and possibilities did this form offer?

BC: You’re right, the movement is kind of bonkers. It took me awhile to figure it out. One thing that helped was to put a strict timer on it; it takes place on New Year’s Eve, and then one night two weeks later, the day of the presidential inauguration. I also tried to keep Sunny in motion in the present: she’s unloading fabric, sweeping the salon, riding her bike, fidgeting at a meeting, buying apples, mowing the lawn at night.

This fits with her story—she needs to keep moving, keep busy—but it also let me throw her backward into thought without it feeling too navel-gazey. The structure also should emphasize her internal state: Her mind is constantly in motion, battling urges and ruminations that interrupt the present.

ZS: You’ve previously published a novel titled Sycamore, and a story collection, When Are You Coming Home? What is it like for you to move between long and short forms of fiction? Do you find one form more compelling, or energizing, as a writer or reader?

BC: Currently, I’m working on a novel at the same time as these stories. I feel a little like my brother’s Stretch Armstrong action figure (look it up, kids), which we once tested to its limits by pulling its limbs across a street. I didn’t plan to do both at once: an early draft of the novel split in two. So I’ve been swinging back and forth, slowly, slowly, stumble, bumble, tick tock.

The truth is that as a writer, many days, I find both forms excruciating. I’ve been sitting here trying to think of a good analogy for short story versus novel, but the image that keeps coming for the baffling writing process is… pole vaulting.

There you are on the track, with a long pole balanced on your shoulder. You rock back and forth in your spiffy shoes. You’ve trained years for this. You take a deep breath, heft the pole, and bolt down the track. You plant the tip of that bendy stick, contort like an inchworm, and catapult yourself skyward, toward an impossibly high bar. Most days you miss—clang, the bar falls. But sometimes you clear it. Then, falling is flying is floating. You sprawl on the mat, make invisible snow angels, your skin shushing on the vinyl. Then, you get up, start again.

For a short story, do it blind-folded or with a monkey on your back. For a novel, make it a decathlon, lop off a finger, and age a decade. Either way, the miracle isn’t clearing the bar. It’s that you keep going to the track.

Bryn Chancellor is author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. She lives and teaches in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Zach Shultz is an MFA Candidate at Louisiana State University and former nonfiction editor for New Delta Review. He is a 2019 Lambda Literary nonfiction fellow and a 2022 Indiana University Writers’ Conference fiction fellow. His work has appeared in LitHubElectric LiteratureThe Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere.

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