15 Bytes’ literary editor David Pace caught up with Menlove via email in preparation for the writer’s appearance at the next 15 Bytes Read Local Reading Series at Finch Lane Gallery, 54 Finch Lane, Salt Lake City, this Thursday, June 29, at 7 p.m., where he will be in conversation with memoirist and nonfiction writer Jennifer Sinor, author of, most recently, Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe. (You can listen to an interview of Sinor on Utah Public Radio here.)
Both will be reading from their works and talking together about the content and craft in another genre, that of creative nonfiction.
Menlove’s award-winning essay “Of the Coming River,” from which he’ll read, is dark and horror-filled in a way that presages his most recent works of “transgressive fiction,” another name for Grit Lit, including a novel still seeking a publisher. He offered to talk about this manuscript in the following exchange.
The READ LOCAL Reading Series is designed to pair an established author with an emerging, award-winning writer in concert. Sponsored by 15 Bytes, in partnership with the Salt Lake City Arts Council and Utah Humanities, the event is free and open to the public. A Q&A and reception will follow.
15B: You won first place last year in the Utah Original Writing Competition‘s essay category for “Of the Coming River” which you’ll be reading this Thursday at The READ LOCAL Reading Series. The judge, Stephan Eirik Clark, wrote of it: “In this braided essay, a father is haunted by his memory of witnessing a mother lose her child to the pull of a rushing river. The incident forces the man to reconsider his own lost children, those two boys he left in pursuit of a woman he believed would be his ‘One True Love.’ As honest and perceptive as it is moving, it reveals the human heart to be as expansive as a wild river — and no less dangerous.” That’s certainly high praise. Congratulations! The essay is of course based on a real incident in Provo Canyon that inspired its writing. Can you tell us a little bit of background about it?
LM: Thanks! This essay was my first real concerted effort to write a piece of nonfiction. I had read a work somewhere that inspired me. The author had witnessed a suicidal person on a bridge and talked them out of jumping. The writing played back and forth with this incident and a seemingly unrelated part of the author’s life. The two threads wove along tightening in on each other, strengthening both into a stronger whole. I thought: “I can do that.” It wasn’t too hard to come up with that horrible afternoon by the river as one thread I could work with. The other unrelated part of my life wasn’t really all that hard to find either. I worry I’ve bundled up the two most highly charged emotional events of my life in one essay. Might be a one-hit wonder, I’m afraid.
15B: We met at the Utah Original Writing Competition awards ceremony back in 2013. You had taken first place for your short story “Petey Immigrates North, Then Moves West,” about, among many other things, an armadillo of the title. Can you tell us how you expanded that short into a full-blown novel?
LM: You said it yourself, David. The short story was about an armadillo named Petey and “many other things.” For years I’ve been casting about for novel ideas while I wrote shorts, and honestly, it was the first place finish of my Petey story at the Original Writing Competition that gave me the confidence to expand on the situation, characters, and plot and see if I could eke out a novel. I wrote “Rush.” I also love the genre, if you can call it that. It’s been called grit-lit, crime-noir, Southern gothic. I don’t know what you call it, but I like to read it. And I like to write it. A lot of my short stories tend to push out there to the edges where people are doing some sketchy things with people they shouldn’t be doing them with.
15B: I’ve had the privilege of reading a draft of “Rush,” which I really enjoyed. It’s very dark and the characters don’t seem to change much in it. It’s of a certain genre that doesn’t really demand that characters, even the main character, change per se, but puts an emphasis on atmospherics and the harsh playing out of cause and effect, almost like clockwork. Is that a fair assessment of “Rush,” and can you talk about other writers of this genre who inspired you?
LM: I’d say that’s a pretty fair assessment, yeah. Since you’ve read it, though, I’ve added a little more backstory that reveals and adds some depth to many of the characters and provides some sense of how these folks ended up where they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
There are a number of contemporary writers who are working in this space today, generating some of the best books I’ve read. Smith Henderson, Patrick deWitt, Benjamin Whitmer, David Joy, Steve Weddle, Frank Bill, Brian Panowich, Donald Ray Pollock, I better stop. This list could get long. And of course there are some of the old-timers, Daniel Woodrell, Dorothy Allison. Ron Rash, Cormac McCarthy. But for me, above all, Larry Brown is/was the most inspiring writer. He worked as a firefighter by day and knocked out stories at night, or vice-a-versa if he were working the night shift. He put a name to something I’d always known but didn’t understand: the gloaming. That time after sunset and before dark, the time when spirits rise up out of the warm soil and whisper ideas into your ear. Brown died in 2004 at around the same age I am now. Broke my heart. I know he had another dozen novels in him.
15B: Your stuff is deeply rooted in Utah, not only the settings, but the characters and the culture. I know you’ve had material published in both Dialogue and Sunstone, both Mormon-content magazines. You and I have talked about the tension between wanting to be a regional writer—to write what you know–but as, post-Mormons, having to negotiate what in powerful ways is the civilizing force of the place. How are you negotiating that as you move forward in terms of both your work and the marketing of your writing?
LM: When I was young and stupid, not that I’m any less stupid now, I wrote all these stories set in places outside of Utah. I must have thought then no one wants to read a story set in Utah. We’re boring, right? And maybe that is true. We’re boring. We hold fast to the rod, and all that, Church on Sunday, Wednesday night, Saturday morning, and white shirt and ties all in between. No drinking, smoking, sex before marriage, off-color jokes are a no-no, and there’s a church or stake house or temple on every block to remind us. But, as you say, I’ve lived under that wave-less surface of this place long enough now to know there’s a whole ‘nother depth to Utah and its people. I often wonder if that’s why I’ve had success in the Mormon fiction market. I’m not afraid to write what I know. Most of those writers I mention above come from a Southern mountain tradition of writing where it seems hardships are all too common up in the hollers behind the stills and meth kitchens. We have mountains here. And county roads, deep canyons, and plenty of closed doors where people don’t come out until Sunday shined up and smiling like they got nothing to hide. I’m shaking the state I know, knocking some stories out of it. And yeah, I want to break out to a wider audience with these stories about this place and its peculiar people. I’m doing my best on that score. My stories may not always have a bunch of Mormons in them, but they will always have a church parking lot. Lots of fun and sorrow can happen in a parking lot during the gloaming, and after the sun goes down.
Even in Utah.
Larry Menlove lives in Spring Lake, Utah, and is published widely in such venues as Weber, Drunken Boat, Sunstone, Corrium, Dialogue, and saltfront. He won first place in essay and short story in the Utah Original Writing Competition. He is nearing completion of his first novel, which is set in Rush Valley, Utah, and features love and violence, beauty, betrayal, murder and an armadillo. You can read other work by Menlove here, hereand here.
Jennifer Sinor is the author of three books, including Letters Like the Day: On Reading Georgia O’Keeffe and Ordinary Trauma: A Memoir. She is a recipient of the Stipend in American Modernism, as well as the winner of the Donald Murray Prize and the Utah Original Writing Competition for both the novel and book-length nonfiction. Jennifer’s work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, as well as a National Magazine Award. Her essays have appeared in The American Scholar, Creative Nonfiction, Gulf Coast, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, Utne, and elsewhere. Her essay, “Confluences,” can be found in the 13th edition of The Norton Reader. She teaches creative writing at Utah State University, where she is a professor of English. She lives with her husband, the poet Michael Sowder, and their two young boys at the foot of the Bear River Range in northern Utah.
Read Local Reading Series
with Jennifer Sinor and Larry Menlove on the topic of creative nonfiction
Thursday, June 29, at 7:00 pm
Finch Lane Gallery, 54 Finch Lane, Salt Lake City
Free and Open to the Public
In partnership with
Larry Menlove is a graduate of the University of Utah. His fiction has appeared in many venues including Weber Studies, Dialogue, Irreantum and Sunstone. He lives with his wife, children and an old cat in Spring Lake.
Categories: Literary Arts