Interviews For Danielle Evans Authenticity is Key to Relevant and Timely Storytelling The author's award-winning short story collection 'Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self' is now available in audio for the first time and hitting notes that make it seem as relevant today as it was 10 years ago. By Margaret Hargrove stop mute max volume 00:00 16:32 repeat Update Required To play the media you will need to either update your browser to a recent version or update your Flash plugin. Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly. Margaret Hargrove: Danielle Evans burst onto the literary scene in 2007 when her first short story was published in The Paris Review. At the time, she was only 23. In 2010 she released her debut collection of short stories called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. The stories are both revelatory and inviting as they confront complex issues around race, class, and gender. Now, 10 years later, this short story collection is coming to audio for the first time, exclusively from Audible. We're excited to talk to this incredibly bright and refreshing voice in short fiction. Thank you for joining us today, Danielle.Danielle Evans: Thank you for having me.MH: So, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self was definitely a breakout hit when it was first released. It received the PEN America Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Paterson Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Award. You were also named to the National Book Foundation's 5 under 35 list. It's only coming to audio now, and we're so glad that it is. How does it feel to have your work still so well regarded and respected a decade after it was first published?DE: It's a really amazing thing to still be talking about this book 10 years later. I think one of the things that kept it in the conversation is that people really quickly started to teach it. I've gotten to visit high schools, colleges, classrooms. And sometimes people will say, "I read it for class and then I gave it to my mom, and she gave it to her book club." It's had a long afterlife for a debut short story collection, which as a debut writer, as a writer of short stories, if anyone reads your book you feel really grateful. Just the fact that it has taken on such a life of its own is really rewarding, and also sometimes kind of strange. There are times when I think, "I don't remember the answer to that question." There are times when I feel like my thinking about a story changes because of something somebody else says about it, just getting a chance to talk to other people about the work.DE: It's obviously been a long time since I turned 25, but when I was 25 my dad used to say, "The brain stops developing at 25." I don't know if that's actually true. My dad's not a scientist, but that's what he used to say all the time. So, if you have a problem with Danielle, she's grown. You can talk to her yourself. And there is some way in which I feel about that collection. At this point it lives in the world as its own thing and in various forms, so I'm so excited to hear it in this form and to hear the stories read and performed by new people and hear what they add to them because I feel like at this point I'm just excited to see what other people's relationships to the book are.There's always a sense of having to navigate both the already complicated world of just being a person... and then having to add that secondary negotiation of being a Black person in the world.MH: Got it. The stories in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self discuss a lot of issues around race and the experience of being Black and young in America. For example, one of my favorite stories is "Snakes," where a biracial girl is sent to her white grandmother's house for the summer. The story starts when she shows up at her grandmother's doorstep and immediately her grandmother cuts off her braids because she feels that it makes her look too Black. There's also "Robert Lee is Dead," where you have an honor student who is the only Black kid in her class, which is an experience a lot of us are familiar with.So, even though these stories were written more than a decade ago, I felt listening to them they did still feel so relevant for our current times. There's such a timeless quality to your work. I felt like a lot of the events you were describing could have been happening right now. So, just curious, why do you think that your stories have withstood this test of time?DE: There are two different answers to that. I think one is... I don't know what the racism version of "Always bet on Black" is, but I think some of these things always feel topical because there's always some incident or event that triggers the conversation. I have a new collection coming out this year, and I've been writing those stories almost since this first book was published. So, some of them are years old at this point too, but then they'll come out at a moment when something just happened and everyone's talking about it and seems like they're responding in this very immediate way to the present, when really what they're responding to is, I think, these questions of identity that never really go away.There's always a sense of having to navigate both the already complicated world of just being a person and trying to figure out how to communicate that to other people, and then having to add that secondary negotiation of being a Black person in the world and having an extra filter almost on everything, that sense of double consciousness that even in some intimate or familial relationships comes into play.And maybe as a way of getting into the second part of the answer, I think one of the things that's really exciting to me about that is that as a writer I get really excited about interiority. Interiority is a thing that can contrast to our external presence or life in the world. I think that's one of the things I love about most good fiction is that it allows us to be in the external world and in someone's inner space at the same time, so we can understand what someone wants and what someone is thinking outside of what they're doing. And it's most interesting to me when those things don't quite line up, because that's what creates narrative tension and substance when you're like, "At what point will this person actually do or say what they're thinking, or at what point will they be pushed so far that they'll become a different person?" And that's where transformation is in a story.So, I try in my fiction to think really hard about how to use that interior space to think both about character and structure at the same time, so I hope that's what makes some of the characters feel like... They feel complex and alive. That they have layers to them is that I'm trying to think about the tension between that interior space and the external world, but I'm also specifically thinking about that in terms of race and gender. We are used to the idea that people have to perform some version of themselves. But when you have to go from a version of yourself when you're aware of the stakes of getting it wrong, and you're aware of the presumptions that someone else may be projecting onto you, and you're aware that you don't necessarily have the power to be the person you want to be and be heard, or safe, or protected, those negotiations, that's where the engine of all fiction becomes that much more complicated and I think, for me, that much more interesting.MH: So, what does it mean to you that a new audience will get to experience your work in a new way? For someone new just coming into Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, what do you hope they get out of the audio experience of hearing these stories read by voice actors?DE: I think one of the things that's so exciting to me about this is that almost all of the stories in this collection are first person. There's so much about voice. There's so much about being able to hear the way a character talks and also the way a character structures a story, which tells you so much about where they are in relation to the events of the story. So, I'm really excited for this experience, even just for me as a person who has read this book way too many times. But especially for new people to come to it in this audio form where they can hear the voices with that extra sense of immediacy and vibrance that an actor is going to bring to it and get a sense, hopefully even more so than it feels on the page, that it feels like this is the story a real person is telling you.MH: And also probably for people who may have a read the book before, now they can listen to it in audio. It may even help enhance the story, do you think, for them to hear it read aloud?I have started listening to more audio so I can be doing something else in my house while I'm also reading or thinking about a text, and it does add a really interesting element to the narration.DE: Yeah, I think so. Someone was just... I don't know why they were looking for it, but someone was looking to see if there was a recording of me reading "Virgins." And I was like, "Guess what? There is none of me, but very soon you can hear someone else read the story." I do think it adds another dimension, especially as we're all somewhat more limited in our social worlds these days lately. I have started listening to more audio so I can be doing something else in my house while I'm also reading or thinking about a text, and it does add a really interesting element to the narration.MH: Speaking of audiobooks, are there any that you've listened to recently, or any particular titles or narrators that you are a fan of?DE: I just listened to Nafissa Thompson-Spires's Heads of the Colored People on audio. I think it's always fun to see how they do a short story collection in audio because sometimes it's the writer, sometimes it's one person, and you can hear the reader's voice in all the different stories, and sometimes they lean more into the character or the narrator of each individual story. That was an exciting thing to listen to for me.I just read, actually, the book form of Raven Leilani's Luster, but I've been hearing a lot of good things about the audiobook, so I was going to look for that one next.MH: Cool. You mentioned having a single narrator. For Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, there are actually six different narrators, so it's great to be able to hear all these different voices coming in and out and telling the story. I hope you get to hear it soon. It's really fantastic.DE: Thank you. Yeah, I know it'll be a real treat for me.MH: You mentioned earlier that you have another title coming out in November, The Office of Historical Corrections. For my understanding, it's a novella and a short story collection. Is this the first work you've published since Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self?DE: It is. That's absolutely correct. It is six stories and a novella.MH: How do you feel that you've grown as a writer over the past 10 years?DE: I used to have a colleague who was a poet who was a lovely person but also could sometimes be dramatic in the way that poets are, and he would say, "Your job as a writer is always to kill the you that wrote the last book." I don't know if it's quite that dramatic, but I do think that there is a way in which when you finish a project you kind of want to feel like you've done what you can with that project and you want it to live in the world without out but you want your energy to go into something else.At the same time, I think that the other part of being a writer is that we're also being outsmarted by our own subconscious and our obsessions find us in whatever we think we're doing. So, I think it's interesting to me to look at the books together and think about them. There is a lot less first-person in the new collection, so I'm interested as to how they'll do that in the audiobook. There's a little bit more of a distant narrative voice. There's a lot more present tense, and I think for me that's partly reflecting a different way that I'm thinking about the passage of time.A lot of the stories in the first collection are coming-of-age stories, and coming-of-age stories fit really well in a traditional narrative structure where you're expecting something, you're anticipating something, you have a big decision to make. You think it's going to change your life in some way, and either it doesn't change your life and that's disappointing or the change is different than you were expecting and something else happens. So, that traditional story pyramid that somebody drew on the wall in elementary school kind of holds true.And I think that there's an interesting thing that happens when you're writing stories about people who are a little bit more subtle in their lives, which is that the active plot of a story and the emotional plot of a story don't always follow the same path. People are still making choices. There's still action and plot and consequence, or it's not a story. But sometimes the actions people are taking are the things they have agency over, and the actual emotional plot of the story is about the things that they don't have agency over. And that's true in some of the stories in Before You Suffocate too, that there are characters who are making lots of decisions and doing lots of things to distract themselves from... they can't do anything about.But I think it's something I more leaned into structurally in the new book, so some of the stories are a little bit more experimental, some of them are a little bit weirder. I don't know if I got weirder or the world got weirder. There's a little bit more... I was going to say departure from realism. I think it's still departure from realism, but it's one of those things where I keep looking at the news every day and being like, "Well, by the time this book comes out it just might be realist again." We'll see.But I think mostly, for me, it was a different way of thinking about structure. The way that I used voice in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self a lot was to have a retrospective narrator who could give some depth to the coming-of-age story by also thinking about how it felt to look back on it and the space between what it feels to remember something and what it feels like to have experienced it at the time. And I think in the new collection, actually, some of that space has collapsed a little because people are, even though they're older, experiencing something that they don't feel very wise about. There's not that kind of distance in between the processing and the event, and some of that processing is left to the reader.MH: Right. There's no time to go back and reflect on it because you're actually in it and living it in that moment? Cool.DE: Yeah.MH: I'm just curious about short stories as a genre for you. What is it about writing short stories that's particularly appealing?DE: I love the short story form. The trick of a short story is to be compressed without being small, and that feels like a really interesting challenge that people solve in a lot of ways. One of the things I really love about the short story form is that those moments when a story feels really intense or you're really moved by it are often those moments in the story where the time collapses. The short story is organized around some kind of pivot point, something that has a before and after, but it also has access to the past and the future. But it's suggesting, "Here's this one thing, but we're paying attention to this one thing because it pulls everything together or because it's going through in this person's life. So, that's why I'm asking you to watch here."We have moments where on the page in most of my favorite stories, in one paragraph, you'll have flashback, flash forward, and the present, and you see that happening in real time. And the way that intense feelings often feel like they occupy all space and time, but they require you to be intensely... like grief, or love, or regret requires you to be intensely engaged in the present with that feeling. But it also asks you to tell a story about the past, and it also asks you to imagine what the future is going to be like now. And I think that a good short story can capture that.I also love the story collection because I think you get to see the things that overlap and also the things that a writer is doing differently. I tell my students that I think of a story collection like a series of Venn diagrams where every story has some shared territory with some other stories but none of them are doing exactly the same thing. You get to see a writer answer the same question in lots of different ways but you also get to see a range of styles or interests or obsessions. I think the experience of reading or listening to a collection story by story ends up giving you something that's greater than the sum of its parts.MH: Do you ever think you will write a novel, or do you prefer to stick with short stories?DE: Well, my editor thinks that I'm writing a novel, so let's go with yes.MH: Spoiler alert.DE: I am working on a novel right now.MH: Okay. All right. So, you're teaching creative writing at Johns Hopkins. You've also taught at American University and University of Wisconsin, Madison. I'm just curious. What books are you planning to include as part of your Race and Passing course [this fall]?DE: About half of the semester is in doing historical groundwork, so we're going to start with some stories by Charles Chesnutt. We're going to read "Désirée's Baby." We're going to read excerpts of Iola Leroy, but I don't have the class time to spend on the entire novels. And then we'll do some of the classic texts going into the Harlem Renaissance period, so passing in Quicksand, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Plum Bun, a couple of Langston Hughes stories.We're going to do The Bluest Eye, which is not per se a passing text but I think is an interesting book to put into that conversation. And then we'll move into more contemporary things, so we're going to read Danzy Senna, Matt Johnson, Brit Bennett's new book, The Vanishing Half. We're going to read Pachinko to give a sense of what a passing narrative looks like in a very different setting. And then I'm going to talk some about... I think there's something really interesting about why the passing narrative seems to have made a comeback in the last decade and I can't quite figure out why. I had to cut down the syllabus so I wasn't making them read two 400-page novels a week, but I'm sad that I couldn't get Maurice Ruffin's novel, We Cast a Shadow, in there. I felt like I couldn't teach it unless I taught Invisible Man, which I didn't have the syllabus space for. Helen Oyeyemi's Boy, Snow, Bird. I feel like there were a dozen books, and I was just like, "What's going on in this moment?" Maybe the students will hopefully enjoy the reading that we do enough to take a look at some of the other people writing about this in the present.MH: Cool. I interviewed Brit Bennett for The Vanishing Half. I loved that. I really love that book a lot, so I'm glad that's part of it. I want to take this class.DE: Yeah.MH: It's probably too late for me to go back to school, but…DE: Well, you can Zoom in. Now we can just have people show up. You just need the link.MH: You're right. I could. I could become a student again, for sure. And also this year you were awarded a creative writing fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts. Have you been able to do anything with the fellowship? I know that happened in January right before the pandemic. I'm just wondering what your plans are for that.DE: I think during my major research trip I did take right in January, so I was at least able to get that done. And partly, I was just using the fellowship for time, which I now have an abundance of. I've been using that to work on this next project, which is a novel. Which has become, again, strangely topical in that it was originally, and this was several years back, about a celebrity being moved to stand up for somebody who is killed by police and that calling into question the other choices the celebrity has made and the retrospective of that person's career and at what point it became pragmatic for them to embrace being an outspoken Black political figure.DE: I don't know if I'd lean into the ways in which it's topical or pare back on some of the topical things, but I'm going to write it the way that I planned it and we'll see where that ends up. And in revision it may [be] that I feel like now this just feels like reading the news and I have to add some more things, but we'll find out.MH: It seems like your writing is always on the pulse of what's happening. Like you said, even though the Before You Suffocate stories were written so many years ago, they still feel relevant. I read that you studied anthropology in class. Do you feel that you have a very anthropological, I don't know if that's a real word, but perspective when you're writing to make them feel that they're very set in whatever time, and that they're relevant, and they have this timeless quality to them?DE: I think that, for me, the core of my writing is trying to pay attention to people, so I think that that makes sense, trying to figure out how people understand themselves. I would like to suggest that it's because I'm an intellectual and it's my anthropology training that taught me how to pay attention to people and cultures and what's on the bubble. I remember describing something once to my therapist and she was like, "The reason you won't let go of your anxiety is because it's your writing process. You're kind of trying to game what someone's likely to do and what's going to happen next all of the time." So, I would like it to be a function of my academic training, but it also might just be a function of my character in that I'm trying to always just figure out what someone's likely to do next or how to read through them.What's a small moment in my forthcoming book in which somebody corrects somebody on their misunderstanding of what Juneteenth is, which was in press before the recent embrace of Juneteenth by all of the mainstream press and the corporations and institutions. I probably would have changed that if I'd time because I didn't want it to feel like it was so topical that... I was actually trying to signal that we were in a slightly different future where Juneteenth had been gentrified, and now it just feels like now.MH: Gentrification of Juneteenth. That's coming, I'm sure.DE: So, yeah. There are things that I sort of wished that if I had better psychic vision, I would actually do something slightly different in the stories to prevent them from feeling so topical. But I also do think there's something interesting in questions that recur and things that come up again and again. The old cliché is there's only two stories, someone comes to town and someone leaves town, and I think there may be only so many stories of a way to be a person. So, if I'm trying to honestly ask that question of how is this person moving through the world, that's going to feel hopefully timeless. I think questions of how do we navigate our person dreams and desires and goals with a sense of belonging to a community or a sense of expectations that are placed upon us based on our social position or based on things like race and gender are never going to quite go away. So, I think that hopefully telling the stories that interest me most will also give them some long-term human interest.MH: Cool. Thank you so much, Danielle. It's been a real pleasure talking to you today. Again, we are so excited to have Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self in audio exclusively from Audible. I think it will be a treat for your fans who have already read your short story collection, but I think it will also introduce you to a whole new audience who will get to experience your work in a different way. We're definitely excited, and thank you again so much for your time. This was great.DE: Thank you. 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