Julia Ridley Smith’s story “At the Arrowhead” appears in the autumn 2018 issue of The Southern Review. Here, she discusses mobilizing the act of naming for character development, folding personal experiences into fiction, and embracing Greensboro, North Carolina as a reoccurring setting in her work.
Rhiannon Thorne: Much of the action is emotionally driven by the tension between Sharla’s childhood and present. “At the Arrowhead” is titled after the motel where her brother drowned, and we see much of its grounds: the pool with its deep end, its cracking sign, the stained carpets of the room Sharla’s mother retains for the family as part of her job, and even the motel’s proprietress’s office where it is air-conditioned and the TV is tuned to The Young and the Restless. On the other hand, the nursing home in which Mr. Nichols lives out his remaining time and Sharla works as an aide remains nameless. How did you decide on the motel’s namesake? What effect does naming, or not naming, have on this narrative’s emotional energy?
Julia Ridley Smith: When I was a child, lots of run-down midcentury motels lingered along the two-lane highways we traveled on family trips in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. I was fascinated by their roadside swimming pools and rows of brightly colored doors, and thought they’d be fun to stay in. Some of them had names that alluded to Native Americans, and their signs often depicted cartoonish stereotypes that were pervasive in the South of my childhood.
Early on as I was writing this story, I noticed I was giving the character’s names rather frequently. I liked the rhythm that resulted when I read the story out loud. But it also seems to me that being able to call a thing or a person by name is important for Sharla because there have been a lot of things in her life—especially relationships—that she can’t quite find the right name for. What was Mr. Nichols to her, exactly? Or her mother? Or her husbands? Nobody in her life is ever being quite what she thinks they’re supposed to be.
Also, after Sharla’s mother abandoned her and she went to live with her grandmother, she became known by her given name, Charlotte, because her grandmother thought it sounded more respectable. Sharla was her mother’s nickname for her and the one she reclaims once she’s grown up. Hearing people call her by the name she chose for herself reminds her that she’s not invisible.
RT: What was your inspiration for Sharla? How did you go about crafting a character who, at one turn, believes that “it doesn’t hurt anybody to be civil” and yet whose personal sense of justice allows her to steal from an old man?
JRS: When my mother moved to assisted living, she became friendly with some of the women on the staff. They told her stories about their personal lives and about what went on behind the scenes at the facility. There was always drama at work—arguments, harassment, accusations of thefts—and at home, problems with money or with their children or boyfriends or girlfriends. At the facility, there was an obvious economic divide between the residents and the people hired to care for them, and class and racial tensions between the different levels of staff, and between the staff and the residents. As a writer, I found it an interesting microcosm to observe. I was moved by how kind and forgiving a lot of the staff members were toward the residents, even those who were disrespectful or suspicious of the people caring for them.
Sharla is a compassionate person, but at the beginning of the story, when she’s stealing from Mr. Nichols, she’s nursing this unresolved feeling that she’s owed something. She’s spent a lot of her life wanting those she loves to pay better attention to her, and she can’t help resenting that people keep disappointing her in that department. She believes Mr. Nichols failed to deliver on a tacit promise to her mother that they’d become a family. After her brother died, Mr. Nichols didn’t care enough about Sharla to try to comfort her, and when the story begins, many years later, she hasn’t forgiven him for that.
But by the end of the story, it’s dawning on her that she wants to forgive him. As we get older, more and more of the people we’ve been attached to leave us or die off. Eventually, you just have to make some kind of peace with whomever you’ve got left in your life, or else you risk having nobody left to whom you feel connected and who shares your memories.
RT: One of my favorite parts of this story is how the ends without any solid resolution. For Mr. Nichols, Sharla remains “Hey, girl!” and for Sharla, Mr. Nichols continues to deserve suffering her small robberies. Likewise, the reader never discovers exactly what Mr. Nichols did during Sharla’s childhood. We only know now that his presence is a painful reminder of that time and of her brother’s drowning. What went into the decision process for withholding this knowledge from the reader?
JRS: I think Sharla is starting to forgive Mr. Nichols at the end, and I also think that she understands that he doesn’t really care about money anymore. He’s past that. He’s dying. It wouldn’t matter to him if he knew Sharla was taking the money because she’s kind to him, and that’s all he wants at this late stage of his life: kindness. It’s the same thing Sharla’s wanted and hasn’t been able to get very often, except from her stepdaughter, Crystal, and, on a good day, her son, Donnie.
RT: In many ways “At the Arrowhead” can be read as a story about motherhood. As Sharla’s present relationship with Mr. Nichols unspools, we also learn about the intergenerational connection between women, from Sharla’s disapproving grandmother, to her single and sometimes absent mother, to Sharla who centers her children in her adult life but who once considered leaving them, down through to her stepdaughter who is barren. How do you see motherhood, and by its absence, fatherhood, functioning in this story?
JRS: Motherhood’s no joke. Even today, when plenty of mothers have careers and get along under their own financial and emotional power, there’s still a common expectation that once you become a mother, everything else in your life becomes secondary. Motherhood is supposed to be your highest priority. It’s disorienting. You’ve spent your life up until the moment you give birth trying to become a person with a distinct self, and all of a sudden you’re in complete servitude to an infant—and an ideal. Your needs and desires are supposed to take a back seat to whatever that child needs. Most of the mothers I know love their children fiercely—they really would do anything for them—but they also miss their lost independence, and they deal with that loss in a variety of ways, not all of them healthy.
As for fatherhood: daddy issues. Who doesn’t have them?
RT: Even though the action takes place in two very set locations that could be anywhere in America: a seedy roadside motel and a retirement home, the story makes sure readers know it is rooted solidly in northern North Carolina. It is only mentioned for a brief moment, but it seems significant that Sharla attended college at UNC Greensboro where you currently teach. What does setting it in North Carolina mean to you? Has living in Greensboro impacted your writing?
I grew up in Greensboro and for a long time avoided using it explicitly as a setting in my fiction. Eastern North Carolina, where my mother’s family has been since time immemorial, struck me as a richer landscape for stories, whereas Greensboro seemed too dull—I guess because it was home. To my kid self, it was just subdivisions and shopping centers.
But of course there’s much more to Greensboro than that. The city has a significant civil rights history—four North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University students led the Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins downtown in 1960. We’ve been a refugee resettlement city since the 1970s, and our population is more diverse than you might expect for a southern city of its size. We have an incredible independent bookstore called Scuppernong Books that puts on great readings and events. Now I find Greensboro an interesting place to live, in large part because I’ve become involved in the community. I volunteer as a docent at the Weatherspoon Art Museum and helped start an annual literary festival called Greensboro Bound. I’ve met so many smart, good-hearted people who are trying to make positive change in our city and our world. It’s inspiring to be a small part of that. It helps me be less depressed about the wider state of affairs.
UNCG has been a constant presence throughout my life. I grew up going to concerts and plays on the campus; I had my wedding reception there; various family members have gone to school there and worked there. When I started teaching at the university last year, it felt like coming home.
I’ve started using the campus and the city in my stories more often now—I guess I’m finally embracing where I’m from. It doesn’t seem boring anymore.
RT: Are there any new stories or essays in the works we should keep an eye out for?
A story of mine called “Damn It, Damn It, Damn It” was published recently in the Alaska Quarterly Review, and my essay “Legs,” which is about my father’s prosthetics, just came out in Ecotone. It’s part of a collection of linked essays about cleaning out my parents’ house after they died, a process that led to me think about my relationship with objects and how we form our aesthetic principles and habits of keeping. I’m also working on the eight thousandth revision of a novel set in post-Reconstruction Georgia, as well as making notes for a new novel.
Julia Ridley Smith‘s stories and essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Ecotone, and New England Review. She teaches in the English department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and is an associate editor at Bull City Press.
Rhiannon Thorne is the editorial assistant for The Southern Review. Additionally, she is the managing editor of cahoodaloodaling, an associate editor for Up the Staircase Quarterly, and President of Tandem Reader Awards. Her poetry has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Manchester Review, and Midwest Quarterly, among others. She is an MFA candidate at Louisiana State University.
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