A Writer’s Insight: Corbin Muck

Corbin Muck’s short story, “A Centennial History of Cascade Depths National Park,” appears in the Autumn 2022 issue of The Southern Review. In this interview, he touches on what sparks his imagination, how formal experimentation can enhance theme, and the challenges of verisimilitude in realist fiction.

Zach Shultz, editorial assistant: In many ways, your story reads very like a nonfiction essay. What did your research process look like while drafting this story? Where did you begin?

Corbin Muck: I grew up in Vancouver, Washington, not far from where the story takes place, and on clear days in Vancouver you can see a good portion of Mt. St. Helens, which is the mountain whose eruption kicks off the whole story.

On one level it was natural for me to draw from my own knowledge of the area and start things off by working in some very local references I’d grown up with. But the whole idea of a story like this is that any kind of presumed, monolithic understanding of a place can’t help but be an illusion.

So, I spent a lot of time researching the ways that the Cowlitz, Nisqually, and other native peoples define the areas depicted in the story. I also researched nationalized sovereignty movements like the American Indian Movement, which were schools of thought which productively challenged some “safe” assumptions we make about the meaning of public land, paired alongside the lasting, if little known impact of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Pacific Northwest. The story is fiction, and the park imagined, but I hope that the verisimilitude is such that all its perspectives have real resonance.

ZS: This story shifts between a number of different voices and narrative registers throughout. How did you decide on a voice, and how did you develop these voices to render them with such realism?

 CM: I’m flattered to hear that the different voices felt real and distinct. I think that was one of the great challenges of the piece. The historic grounding helps here too, but I also had to know when to back away from that a little bit lest it feel like I’m sitting on the reader’s shoulder whispering, “See, it’s like in the nineteen seventies, isn’t it?”

But it’s hard. The characters here are doing some heavy lifting as both markers of time and place and perspective in a broad sense, while also needing to be “real” fake people. So I tried to think through what their quirks might be, their linguistic flourishes, and which words or sentences in each of their passages formed the core of who they were outside of the quotation itself. Even the characters who show up as just names and don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves need to feel real.

ZS: Where does the spark of an idea for a story come from for you?

CM: I usually start with an image that strikes me which I prod at until the why of it comes into view. Then I take a step back, and I think about what I want the story to say. After repeating that process a few times, the momentum tends to take over.

That initial image usually contains something very important about the theme or the purpose or the imaginative hook that should be sustained all the way to the piece’s final form. Inspiration is a delicately luminous thing, and the quickest way for a story to be bad or, worse, for it to be abandoned, is when that initial spark is lost in the process of realization.

ZS: Your story experiments with form and structure in some highly inventive ways. Can you talk about how you came up with the structure for this story? Did you look at existing models, or did you arrive at this shape by trial and error? Or both?

CM: I knew pretty quickly that the initial idea of this piece would be told as a series of faux historical events, as if you were walking through some imagined interpretive center or museum. I think that its form is its single most important aspect because it introduces, and hopefully sustains, the theme of reinterpretation which the park undergoes through the eyes of those who reckon with it. In my earlier drafts, there was far more contextualizing through that “interpretive” device, but I tried to pare that down significantly so that the voices could speak for themselves more, and in so doing, level the playing field between them and any “authoritative” narration.

ZS: What writers do you turn to when looking for successfully executed experiments with form?

If I wanted to convince someone that the form words take can be as important to a story as the words themselves, my go to suggestion would be House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, or the short fiction of the Irish writer Louise Hegarty. For inspiration in general, I have most recently been in utter awe of the work of Jesmyn Ward, Kawai Strong Washburn, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

ZS: From a craft perspective, what did your process look like when you were working with all the different threads in your story and finding a pattern that made sense in braiding them together?

It was very important to me that all of the excerpts seemed as if they were all part of one, long conversation. If it ever felt like something wasn’t there in response to something else, or if something couldn’t be riffed on and changed by the pieces which stacked on top of it, then that was usually a sign that it needed to be cut. And in a story with such a sweeping timescale as this—which references so many macro-level events in history—you have to be careful not to let the big stuff distract you from the granular, highly personalized way that a specific character might respond.

Real people very rarely respond cleanly to things. They bounce off in strange, hard to predict directions. If you try to embrace that element in your character design, I think you arrive at much richer, more fully realized results.

Corbin Muck is a writer living in Seattle, Washington, with his partner, Mariska, and their two cats. His work has appeared in Quarterly West, Crannóg, and Cirque.

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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