Braddock Avenue Books: Let’s start at the end. The final story in your collection, “Unfinished Stories of Girls,” is also the title of the entire collection. Why did you decide to use this title for the book and why did you decide to put that story last?
Zobal Dent: That last story is drawn from a novel I’m working on in which a daughter of Italian-American immigrants struggles with various accounts she’s been given of her family’s movement through time and space. This story, a narrative thread of the novel, draws from a folktale called Gatti sotto il mare, or “cats under the sea.” It’s this disturbing tale of good sister versus bad sister, and in the end, of course, the “good girl” wins and the “bad girl” loses. As I worked with it, I thought of how a culture is comprised of and defined by so many received narratives. I wanted this particular character to question her mother’s tale, and interrupt it, and finally, retell it. Although hers is still an imperfect ending, I like how the story embodies much of my writing project—to recreate the world we once knew. I also like how the title puts focus on “girls,” a word with heavy and mixed connotations. My wonderful editor, Marc Estrin, questioned whether such a title would attract or repel readers. Ultimately, I decided that I was comfortable with that question.
BAB: Reading through the collection, it becomes clear that Maryland’s Eastern Shore was more than a simple setting. Rather, you use the location in such a way that it functions more like a character as it takes on a life of its own in each story. What motivated you to portray the region this way?
Catherine Zobal Dent: By now, I’ve lived elsewhere for more years than I inhabited the Eastern Shore, yet I lived there in very formative times: my childhood from five to eighteen; summers and breaks from college when I would return to my parents’ home; the year I turned twenty-four, from August to the following May, to recover from a hiking accident; and for a last time, when I was in my late twenties. Eudora Welty has written that “place is where [the writer] has roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.” I also grew out of my setting, and in my writing, my setting grows out of me. In fact, it was during my last sojourn in Talbot County that I started to be able to reflect on the place.
I returned to teach at the Catholic high school I had attended, the walls and halls that were in many ways the architecture of my identity. I struggled to gain an adult perspective as I ate, drank, and breathed the culture that I’d left and regained. When I left the Eastern Shore that last time—to attend graduate school at Binghamton University—I wrote from that place, trying to get to truths about how and why life is difficult and often painful. When I was teaching high school, two sisters died in a car accident one morning on their way to school. (As a teenager, I had been these girls’ babysitter.) Because I was a teacher, I was invited by a local political figure, Moonyene Jackson, to perform in her adaptation of Harriet Tubman’s life. (Harriet Tubman was born and enslaved just outside my grandmother’s hometown, Cambridge, yet my family almost never talked about racism.) While still a young teacher, I said goodbye to my brother, who left Maryland for real to move to China. (Once upon a time, we’d planned to leave together, but now he’d disappeared, and I was back.) These experiences and more—intellectual, emotional, personal, and public—are embodied in Unfinished Stories of Girls. To write, I tried to imagine answers to questions that I learned to ask on the Eastern Shore.
BAB: In quite a few of your stories, like “Half Life” or “The Hole At Backyard Park,” your characters have to deal with their lives going in directions that they probably never imagined, like going to prison or not seeing a twin sibling for a long period of time. What led you to explore these kinds of situations?
Zobal Dent: Fiction, both reading it and writing it, is where we can dwell on problems with no solutions. Betrayal. Despair. Nameless fears. In dwelling there, I try to gain perspective, which seems like one of the ways we can transcend our circumstances. We can imagine other points of view, other vantage points and situations, and in this movement, we unstick ourselves. In “Half Life,” for example, Amber is literally trapped—she is sentenced to prison, separated from her young daughter, for a period of time that seems endless. However, when she starts to know another person, Fran, whose sentence is much longer and grimmer, Amber gains perspective and also empathy. The ending of that story is comforting to me. In reaching out to someone else, we may find some solace in the darkness. Empathy is an antidote for depression. Exploring another person’s path may help you find your own way.
BAB: As a follow up to that last question, it seems that as the stories progress the characters become better at dealing and coping with the obstacles in their lives. Was this progression intentional or simply a reflection of the progression you experienced while writing and assembling this collection?
Zobal Dent: The order is intentional and not reflective of any chronology in my own life, so your former statement is more accurate. (Although the latter is not completely untrue; I have the sense of experiencing a progression over my life, thank god, as I made some mistakes when I was in my teens and twenties!; but who is to say?) So the collection starts with a suicide by a young woman whose mind is cluttered and confused. That first story asks readers to take responsibility, not only for others but also for their own minds. I was thinking of Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs” and how it ends with the question: “Would you think he was anybody like you?” I want readers to find themselves in all of the characters, so I started the collection with this story to suggest that relationship. Of course, one pleasure of reading is that we are not as trapped as the characters may be, but rather observing and perhaps growing. By the time we reach “Rise,” I’m hoping that readers feel Rachel’s sadness, her grief at losing the man who is as real to her as her own skin, and yet also her hopefulness at the idea that our daughters can rise.
BAB: In some of your stories there is a bit of narrator ambiguity. In the very first story, “At the Mouth,” the narrator says, “I’m not telling which one I am,” leaving the reader with uncertainty as to the narrator’s identity. Why did you decide to use an ambiguous narrator in some of your stories?
Zobal Dent: I’m a sucker for metafiction. And 1968-style postmodern ambiguity. I’m hoping that shifts in narration, character, and events will draw in readers, make them participate, lead them to question the nature of reality. I aspire to be “Thomas Pynchon meets Pussy Riot.” In the story “The Truth You Know,” the narrator turns out to be one of the characters she’s been describing, and then she turns into a door. But, cripey, I’m also a team player. These tensions within my own desires lead my stories to have multiple personalities. I’m still working out whether this is a disorder or a voice.