An Interview with Sharon Erby, by Celia Johnson

In 2011, Slice published a short story called “Night Dogs” by Sharon Erby. It is a powerful piece that, in just a few pages, will transport you to rural Pennsylvania. So, of course, we were thrilled when we heard that Erby had written Parallel, a collection of linked stories, all set in Timmons Mountain, the same backdrop as “Night Dogs.” I spoke with Erby about her characters, her creative process, and where she writes, and it all comes back to the region she calls home.

parallel (1)What inspired your short story collection?

The place where I live and its people, hands down. In rural areas ‘less is more’:  there are fewer people who inhabit the region, so their quirkiness really stands out. This makes for great fodder for fiction. More than anything, though, I wanted to give the tenacious, yet often stalemated working-class folks around where I live a literary voice I felt they might otherwise not have.

Are there any characters you feel particularly close to in the collection?

All of them, actually. The way I see it, characters have to mean something to me before I can make them unforgettable to my readers. That said though, I especially enjoyed creating Brenda, a young woman who happens to be a garbage collector. I think true working class women are under-represented in literature, and I really wanted to capture the essence of her work and how she reconciled both the work she did and others’ reactions to it.

And which ones were more difficult to capture on the page?

Brenda was tough. My wish to ‘get it right’ with that character made creating her very time-consuming and challenging. Also, there’s a fellow named Patrick (who’s a clinical psychologist and a bit of a cad) who took a while. Tackling his perspective and the gentrification his presence signals in the collection wasn’t easy.

Would you describe your creative process?

I teach creative writing and I always tell students to “notice everything.” For me, that’s where things start. Yes, I even keep a tiny notebook with me and jot down images and snippets of conversations and such. Sometimes I just know something I saw or heard is going to make it into a story or some other creative piece. And there’s always a ‘piece’ of me in everything I write—a feeling, an encounter, a memory. I take that nugget and spin it away from me into something else. And I always figure the further away it gets, the more it becomes art.

I feel like I’m never done. I’ve always struggled against self-editing even as I draft; it’s a very counter-productive tendency. That’s why I sometimes think I do my best writing when I’m about to go to sleep.

Where do you write? 

Anywhere and everywhere. I’m an outdoors person, and we live on a farm, so when the weather is good (and sometimes even when it isn’t), I’m often outside sitting under a tree, or up on the mountain above our house. And I am very much a porch-sitter. I can look up across the fields and into the mountain from the porch, and the view doesn’t stay the same for long. Even when I have to be inside, I don’t have a ‘go-to’ place to write. But I do like a place with a good view.

Which writers, past or present, influence your work?

Past writers include Hemingway and Raymond Carver. I also learned a lot about heart and soul in writing short stories from William Trevor. And Alice Munro’s treatment of time fascinates me. More contemporary favorites include Aimee Bender and Junot Diaz.

As a debut writer, what has surprised you about the publishing process?

The need to use social media. I’m a very private person, so the thought of blabbing to the world about myself and my work makes me cringe. I don’t even have a Facebook account! My family reminds me to take technology (in general) and social media (in particular) in stride; it’s not going away, they remind me. And then I remind them that regardless, I won’t ever become a slave to it. Often, I’m saying this while I’m checking my e-mail for the umpteenth time that day.

What advice would you give to other emerging writers?

Believe in what you’re writing about. Believe in your work. I always remind myself that the work that got rejected by some publishers is the same stuff other publishers thought was the cat’s whiskers.

Sharon Erby’s creative and critical work appears in a variety of literary journals and magazines She lives on a farm in rural south-central Pennsylvania, and teaches at Wilson College. Parallel is her first book-length publication.