Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self was one of 2010’s outstanding breakout debut short-story collections. “Armed with no easy answers but plenty of bad choices, the talented, too-smart-for-their-own-good protagonists are painfully aware of the consequences of their actions, even when they think they have no better choice… A welcome new talent—with a funny and dark take on being black in America,” read the original Kirkus starred review. Currently at work on her first novel, here Evans took a break to talk to Kirkus about how she crafted the book.
How did you organize the stories?
It was less about order and more about what went together and what didn’t…The collection opens and closes with stories about adolescence, both of which take place in a very particular moment in the late ’90s, and both of which involve characters trying to make decisions about who they’ll be…Then in between those two stories there are adult characters in the present…There ends up being a neat kind of circularity, a kind of ending where things started, but hopefully with a greater sense of perspective and more of an eye toward the future.
Some of these read like nuanced, detailed back stories for contemporary headlines like “Wannabe Moms Purchase Ivy League Eggs” or “Teen Vandalizes Local High School.” Where do your stories originate—real life, imagination, headlines?
All of the above…There always has to be a moment of “but what if…” for me to be able to make it work…I can’t know the whole story and exactly how I’ll feel about it from the start.
Portions were very loosely inspired by news stories, and in some sense that put an added pressure on them. Fiction can’t just be nonfiction or sociology for writers who are too lazy to include citations, so if I start with any sense of a true story, I always have to ask myself why I’ve chosen this form for it, and what I’m doing with it that makes it mine or makes it new.
Do you have a favorite?
I’m temperamental enough that when I read through the stories, I tend to have different favorites each time…I am fond of Erica from “Virgins” because I really felt like that character showed up in my head and handed me the story.
I also really like Carla from “Wherever You Go, There You Are” because she embodies so much of the ambivalence in the collection. She was always right on the line between her better instincts and her worst instincts and easily lent herself to interesting developments. I changed the plot of that story at several points, but it was never as stressful as it might have been, because writing Carla was like flicking a pinball—I just had to let her go and watch where she went.
There seems a deep ambivalence at times regarding the futures of your characters. Do you consider yourself a glass half full or half empty kind of writer?
I’d like to think that I am a writer who is less concerned with what is in the glass and more concerned with whether you are drinking or pouring…A lot of us have a profound belief in the power of information—if you can name something, or diagnose it, or make people aware of it, you’ve taken a step toward fixing it. A lot of what I’m interested in as a writer are the moments when information and truth and self-awareness fail people…I am interested in people who have been given a lot of bad options, but I am also interested in the way that they’ve become complicit with them. There’s a sense in which that makes for depressing reading, because the characters keep doing things you wish they wouldn’t, but there’s also a sense of optimism in believing in agency—if we made even part of this mess ourselves, then it’s not completely out of our hands to fix it, should we be so inclined.
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Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
Riverhead / September / 9781594487699 / $25.95
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010