How I Write: Cary Holladay
Published: March 9, 2010
|The wallpaper in Cary Holladay’s writing room features a design of early maps of Virginia—décor that reflects her writing interests. Holladay is intrigued by history and uses it often in her fiction, much of which is set in her home state of Virginia. Asked what she liked to write about, Holladay once told an interviewer: “Rural and suburban lives affected by nature, history, and the characters’ own passions. There’s something surreal in ordinary life. There’s room for that in a realistic story.” She renders her settings in rich, loving detail, and chronicles her characters’ daily lives in ways that illuminate their gentle eccentricities. Holladay has written three short-story collections and a novel, been published in many literary journals, won an O. Henry Prize, and seen her work often anthologized, including four times in New Stories From the South. She teaches at the University of Memphis.|
Credits: A novel, Mercury; a novella, A Fight In the Doctor’s Office; and three short-story collections, including The Palace of Wasted Footsteps.
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Why: I write as a way of exploring something electric. The characters’ emotions and desires give me clues that there is something powerful going on beneath the surface, and I write to find out what that is. Another reason I write is for the sheer enjoyment of being in another time and place.|
Routine: I try to write two pages a day at any time during the day when I can get the time. I actually prefer to write in the evening, but if I write in the morning, I know I’ve got it done and the rest of the day is free. There are days when I don’t write, but two pages a day is what I shoot for. You can make a career doing it that way, even though it doesn’t sound like very much.
Getting ideas: I look for a character in a situation with some tension, either of his or her own making or simply circumstance. You’ve got to have hardship and struggle to make a story. Then I ask, what does that person really want? Often what the character desires is what gives me a road map to the rest of the story. Aristotle said, “Man is his desire.” So if our desire defines us, how far are we willing to go to get what we really want? I think I knew this intuitively for a long time, but it wasn’t until I started teaching and had to articulate what I knew of the craft that it really sank in.
Writing regional and historical fiction: Much of my work is inspired by the history, culture and geography of central Virginia. Depicting another time and place authentically is a challenge and requires that you love the place. How did it smell back then? What sounds did the characters hear?
My new manuscript of short stories is set in Virginia in the counties of Orange and Culpeper. They cover a span of more than 200 years starting in 1745 and moving forward. It’s in no way a comprehensive approach to the history and people of that area, but it does show glimpses of a place over time. I love the history of any place. History for me goes hand in hand with fiction writing. I like to read a lot of it.
Influences: I have so many. Sometimes I’ve been powerfully influenced by the whole body of a person’s work, and sometimes an individual story can affect me so much that I’ll read it over and over. I love Eudora Welty’s stories, Katherine Anne Porter’s stories, and I’m still a great fan of Thomas Wolfe’s wonderful autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel. I’ve read the story “Fever” by John Edgar Wideman about 50 times and also “Home and Native Land” by Sean Virgo.
When you find something you really like, it’s worth any amount of time reading it, thinking about it, and pondering it. You have to read many, many books in order to be a writer. But you have to read deeply when it’s a work you admire.
Advice: Writing is something you have to do on your own. You have to take it seriously and be willing to be lonely while you do it. It’s an activity that requires a lot of humility and a lot of confidence. That is something I have to balance daily. But simply to live is an extraordinary experience, and when you write, you deliver chunks of experience to your readers.
Interview by Susan Agee, a writer in Cordova, Tenn.
(This article appears in the March 2010 issue of The Writer.)