Interview with Author Ann Pancake

Image courtesy The Stranger.

As a part of Airstream Dispatches, 38 writers and I are spending September reading and celebrating the work of author Ann Pancake. I reached out to her for an interview, and here’s what she had to say about writing, place, and tiny moments that change a life.

Katey Schultz: I’ve read every book you’ve published, and I’m always reminded of Diane Ackerman’s ideas in A Natural History of the Senses. Her book includes an entire section devoted to synaesthesia, and if I were to say I see one common thread in every single character you’ve imagined, I’d say it’s his or her ability to experience the world as hyper-real, or synaesthesially, if that’s even a word. Writers are taught to “use the 5 senses,” but what you’re doing is so much more than that. What can you tell us about how your characters move and experience the world, and why, if you agree, it seems to so often be experienced through synesthesia?

Ann Pancake: I haven’t thought a lot directly about my characters experiencing the world synesthesially (I love that you created that word), but maybe my writing suggests synaesthesia because of how I create characters. I try to place myself into their bodies and then follow them as they have various experiences. I try to inhabit their senses and through those senses, respond to their worlds as they respond. This, for me, is the easiest deep way to develop a character. 

I think, too, that it’s important to me to help readers viscerally experience natural landscapes, so maybe that’s part of my unconscious motivation for this synaethesia. I believe that we need to repair our relationships with the natural world, and I think that to do that, we need to relearn how to experience the natural world with our bodies. 

KS: It’s been said before that you have a to leave a place to write about it. But many other writers say they have to go back or, in the very least “research” and visit a place, before they dare touch the page. You grew up in West Virginia and Appalachia is the subject of nearly all of your published fiction. Yet the Pacific Northwest has been your home for decades. Tell us about place, distance, closeness, longing, and/or mourning as it relates to your creative process.

AP: Yes, I did need to leave West Virginia to gain the perspective I needed to write well about it, and I think plain old homesickness also helped me! I do, as you mention, return to West Virginia at least twice a year, physically, and I return there mentally, psychically, every time I write. I moved back for a year while researching and writing my novel. But, as you say, I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for almost twenty years, as well as in a number of other places. 

I have always had a conflicted relationship with West Virginia. There is a darkness in West Virginia. On the one hand, that has fueled my art, and on the other hand, it’s made it hard for me to live there. Some of that darkness is in the political structure of the place and some is in the culture. The darkness that has hurt me most is twofold: the addiction and mental illness in certain family members; and my lifelong witnessing of the environmental devastation of the West Virginia. These things–addiction, mental illness, environmental devastation–are in my opinion interconnected in important and complex ways.     

I’m in my 50’s now, and in the past few years, I’ve found ways to live with those darknesses without permitting them to darken me. I know it’s time for me to move back to West Virginia. I’m in the process of figuring out how to do that right now.    

KS: Please share a “tiny moment” with us–that’s the phrase I use for a moment/experience/millisecond in time that has stayed with you for years. This should be a true story from real life–a flash nonfiction of your own. If you can, try to share what the “before” and “after” were like for you, as you render this memorable moment and why you think it has stayed with you for so long.

AP: Oh, this is a great question.  (You should compile an anthology of these!)  I have so many myself. 

Let’s say the first morning I woke up in Kurume, Japan. I’d arrived the night before, in the dark, after flying all the way from Washington, DC, for my first real job after college. The farthest I’d been from West Virginia at that point was a football game in Texas where I traveled with the WVU marching band, and I’d never been on a commercial flight. This was 1986. No Internet. A cross-continental phone call was a enormous undertaking. I came into that country completely raw. Eyes closed. I woke up that morning in a two-room apartment belonging to the aunt of a new co-worker, and I looked out the window, and I saw an elderly woman riding a bicycle–I had never seen that in West Virginia–and all those tiled roofs and narrow streets, and the world fell open for me. I was exhilarated, and I was scared out of my mind. 

The Japanese taught me how to see, how to pay attention, what is worth paying attention to. Living so far from Appalachia taught me that West Virginia was one of those things worth paying attention to. 

KS: Let’s end by celebrating the work of another author. Tell us about a book(s) that recently rocked your world and why.

AP: The Long Weeping, a collection of essays by Jessie Van Eerden which will be published in November.  Jessie is a West Virginia writer of tremendous gifts, and she writes about Appalachia beautifully, honestly, fearlessly.  She writes out of what she has seen and lived instead of writing out of tired conventional “comfortable” perceptions of Appalachia. (“Comfortable” for people who aren’t living hard realities in Appalachia.) This book is about poverty and love and spirit and pain.  It’s original and true in all the senses of that word. And I’ll add a plug for her novel Glorybound, which is just as stunning and just as brave.

  • Kelly

    I appreciate this interview. Thank both of you for sharing. I’m loving your writing style Ann! Brave word combinations capturing both the language and feel of this area. I’m a physician from New York who has been doing home visits in western North Carolina for over 14 years. You capture my experience with these families beautifully; like Katie says, their heightened senses in a setting of cultural, economic, workplace and environmental hardship. I can’t wait to share this book -I know so many other people who will appreciate it for the same reason. Each chapter I read makes me feel like I’m in conversation with a room full of friends… and I hope we can all make life a little safer here so people can heal .

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