Jane Hawley Interviews Nina McConigley
PUBLISHED BY HEAVY-HITTING independent press FiveChapters Books, Nina McConigley’s debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award. In the Judges’ Citation, McConigley is described as giving readers a Wyoming that is “precisely the way we expect it—in landscape, sky, and animal life—and in ways we don’t. The inhabitants of this surprising, thrilling, and richly textured short story collection are unpredictable, both in their actions and identities.” The stories feature outsiders connected by their relationship to either Wyoming or India and the fascinating intersections of those places and cultures. I had the pleasure of briefly meeting Nina at her own book-signing at the 2014 AWP Conference, and I can definitely confirm she’s one of those genuinely friendly writers who cares about having conversations with her readers. Even though I’d only spoken to her for a few minutes, Nina treated me with the warmth and candor usually reserved for longtime friends.
Earlier this year, Cowboys and East Indians won the PEN Open Book Award. What has that experience been like for you? What have you learned?
It’s been magical. I truly thought it would not happen as my book is from a small press. And many of the people nominated had several books. So winning was a dream come true, to be very clichéd. It gave my book the kind of attention I never thought possible. But I’ve learned that you don’t necessarily have to be with a big press for your book to succeed. Word of mouth and independent bookstores have been wonderful to my book and to me.
In your story “Fenced Out,” there’s a comparison made between Western pioneers and Indian immigrants. Can you further elaborate on the connection between the two?
I think of many immigrants today as modern pioneers. They are coming with what they can carry, trying to make a new life for themselves in a new place. And traveling to do that. My mom and dad don’t seem so far removed from this idea to me as people that crossed the plains to settle the West.
The epigraph of your collection is a Laura Ingalls Wilder quote from Little House on the Prairie that says, “Ma despised Indians.” Why did you choose that quote?
I grew up hooked on the Little House books. I was kind of shocked one day when I realized that Laura and I probably wouldn’t be friends because I was brown. As an adult, when you read the Little House books, many things about the books are more complicated than I thought. I liked that quote as it shows an attitude about “the other” that isn’t so different today. Ma never really knows any Indians, but hates them. And I wanted to show that that is problematic, as Ma is pretty damn likable when you read the books. So from the first page of my book, you know there is going to be trouble—that cultures are going to clash.
In an interview, you mention that when reading, we often read a character as white 100 percent of the time and that you can’t know a character’s race from their name, so you try to introduce the race of all your characters. What do you think are the particular challenges of describing the nuances of race for characters who are biracial, multiracial, or even multinational? What do you think writers can do to capture those nuances?
It is a challenge. And for me, in writing Indian characters or biracial characters, I pretty much just tell you their race – I’m not nuanced. Or make the names so obvious, you know they are not white. Names have a huge amount of weight in a story. But in writing characters who are mixed, it is hard. I don’t have a good answer for how to do this well. I think I am still perhaps explaining too much in my work. But I like to read diverse fiction about diverse people, so I am going to keep trying to figure this out.
You’re currently teaching at the University of Wyoming. What are you teaching and how has the profession influenced your writing life?
I teach for the Honors program, so I teach the colloquium, which is teaching great books like The Odyssey, The Inferno, Paradise Lost, etc. I also teach Indian literature, which is wonderful, as I get to teach many books that have meant a great deal to me. I don’t teach creative writing. But in reading and teaching texts, I have become a better reader. And reading for me shapes all my writing. I also get to talk about books with really smart students, and I love that. I get fired up after class and want to work! With them, I dissect novels and stories, and this is helpful when I am considering the structure of a story in general.
Wyoming is the least populated state and its major towns tend to be quite far apart from each other. What’s the writing community like there?
I am lucky in that I live in Laramie, and of course, the University of Wyoming is here. But, I don’t teach creative writing, so my writing world is really small. UW has an MFA program, and those students are very close. I love going to their readings. But I feel pretty isolated here. I don’t know a lot of other writers. I think that’s why I love social media as much as I do. It opens up worlds for me. But that said, my parents are my first readers, and they live close by! They are my community.
Living in Wyoming can be an elemental experience. How has the way of life there affected both you and the relationships between characters in your writing?
Living in Wyoming colors everything for me. But it is sometimes a hard way of life. The weather affects everything and you are so aware of the wind, the snow, the sky. I think for my characters, Wyoming is a character. And setting and place are so important to the way they act. I think with so much sparseness, there is also an economy in the way my characters talk. I feel like there is less to say—and maybe in that way, they are reflecting their environment.
How has your writing evolved from when you first began writing the stories in Cowboys and East Indians?
I’ve been working on a novel on and off for a while. So, just in switching from short stories to a longer work has changed how I write. All of a sudden, point of view, for example, becomes critical. If I write a story and hate the POV, it’s not that hard to fix. I wrote a whole novel draft in third person, then rewrote it in first. It was horrible. I longed for the days of a twenty-page story! I also think I am more sure of myself as a writer. Most of my story collection was written during my MFA, so I was often thinking about audience and my workshop. I’ve let that go, which is nice.
An audio excerpt of you reading from your novel recently appeared on Wyoming Public Media. Can you tell us more about your novel? How has the experience of writing the novel been different from the process of writing your short stories?
Again, writing a novel has been hard for me. A novel is just, well, bigger. And you are with the characters and the work for such a long time. My novel is set in Wyoming in the 1980’s and in the present day. It’s about two families that live together in an extended family situation. There is a murder and much time is spent figuring out why it happened.
In terms of the writing, when I write short stories, I tend not to over-think them too much. I start with a character, and go from there. How the process shapes into a story is always kind of a mystery. But with the novel, since I’ve had some false starts, I have had to do a lot more planning. I have outlines, posters, family trees, even a printed blueprint of the house in the book. It’s been a lot more plotting and thinking—and that feels very different to me.
Outside of reading, what has most inspired or influenced your writing?
Visual art. In particular, the art of Cy Twombly. When I was in grad school in Houston, I lived next door to the Menil Museum. They have a separate Cy Twombly gallery. I went almost every day to look at his work. His use of color, of myth, of Rilke’s poetry—it floored me. If I ever felt bad or had writer’s block, just looking at his work calmed me. I now have several coffee table art books, and I flip through them when I am feeling unsure of what to write.
What are you obsessed with right now?
Finishing my novel.
Nina McConigley is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, which was the winner of the 2014 PEN Open Book Award and winner of a High Plains Book Award. It was also long listed for the 2014 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She was born in Singapore and grew up in Wyoming. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where she was an Inprint Brown Foundation Fellow. She also holds an MA in English from the University of Wyoming and a BA in Literature from Saint Olaf College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Orion, The Virginia Quarterly Review, Salon, American Short Fiction, Memorious, Slice Magazine, Asian American Literary Review, Puerto del Sol, and Forklift, Ohio. She was the 2010 recipient of the Wyoming Arts Council’s Frank Nelson Doubleday Memorial Writing Award and was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. She currently serves on the board of the Wyoming Arts Council and, teaches at the University of Wyoming and the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She is currently at work on a novel.