After a little hiatus we’re back with West Virginia short story writer Natalie Sypolt.
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
I’m Natalie Sypolt. I live in Preston County, West Virginia and I teach at Pierpont Community & Technical College. I also run the high school portion of the West Virginia Writers Workshop, held each summer at WVU. I write primarily short fiction set in Appalachia.
What is it about West Virginia (or Appalachia more generally) that makes it such good fodder for stories? Is it because it’s home or something else?
I think for me I write about West Virginia and Appalachia because it is what I know, what is in my heart. Any place can be fodder for story. I also think it is important to write about this region–to show the stories and lives of people who may not get the spotlight much (or who get it only for certain, usually unfortunate and sometimes completely wrong, reasons). No one ever asks why a story is set in NYC or LA. Those just seem like natural choices. WV is a natural choice for me, and when I talk to young writers, I try to get them to see that they can tell an important story and set it here, where they know. They don’t have to set their work in a metropolitan city for it to be taken seriously.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
My first book, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, is out in November from WVU Press. It is a collection of short stories. All are set in West Virginia. I am currently completing my second book, which is a collection of linked stories, also mostly set in West Virginia.
Which story in The Sound of Holding Your Breath is your favorite or means the most to you? Why?
I don’t know that I can really name a “favorite”. I do really feel close to “My Brothers and Me”. I wrote that story all in one setting after a summer of local news stories involving domestic violence and partner murder/suicides. It felt important and necessary. I also really love the last story in the collection, “Stalking the White Deer”, because I wrote it at Hindman and then had the story published in Appalachian Heritage, which had always been a goal publication.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
I primarily write fiction. I’ve always been a great reader, since I was a child, and I think I first started writing as a way to enter into the stories I loved.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
Honestly, process is not something I think a lot about in my own work. Most writers I know do, and I respect that a lot, but for me I don’t have a set “process” that I follow every time I write a story. Usually, I will have thought about the story—or at least the start of a story—for a long time before I ever put words to paper. If I’m writing a short story, I most love to write it all in one setting so that the voice and energy stay the same. I often will start by writing by hand—a couple paragraphs or a page or so—and then switch over to a computer once I’ve gotten started.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
I don’t know that I can name a favorite character.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
I love research, so I guess nothing would ever seem too weird to me. Most of my stories, though, are pretty realistic and set here, in the world that I best know. One of my more recent stories, though (not in this current book) does take place partially in Ireland. I knew I wanted to have the main character visit the Cliffs of Mohr and that she’d had a situation that involved a loved one attempting suicide. When I’d been at the Cliffs a year before, I had wondered if people came there to kill themselves—a morbid thought, yes, but it is ridiculously easy to reach the edge. So, when writing this story, I did a little research on this and discovered that the Cliffs of Mohr is close to the top of this list of suicide locations in Ireland. I then fell down a depressing rabbit hole of research that did end up in the story.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
Oh, boy. Well, a lot of things. I think the most important thing I learned after making myself miserable in grad school is that my voice is just as important as anyone else’s. Just because someone talks louder doesn’t mean that they’re right, especially when it comes to my writing. I learned to trust myself more, and to worry about what other people thought a little less.
Do you have your work read by beta readers or others before it becomes final? How do you handle that feedback while trying to “worry what other people thought a little less”?
It depends. Sometimes I will send a story to my friend Melissa, who I went to graduate school with. We’re very good readers for one another and I trust her explicitly. (She, by the way, is embarking on a year long road trip in which she will visit all 50 states in a camper van–follow her at EdgyontheRoad.com.). More often, though, I don’t show anyone. That’s a bad answer, and I should do more workshopping, but I just don’t. I’ve learned to trust myself, and that has to be enough for now. I would not mind having a writer’s group someday, though.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
Well, I would maybe not have to work quite as much, which would be nice. Having some structured time is good, though, and nothing really structures time as much as having a job.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
This is a great question for me because I love talking about books. Within the last couple of years I have discovered the novels of William Gay. I had read some of his short fiction in school but had no idea how great his novels are. They are dark and creepy, but also have this beating heart of humanity. I also read We Have Always Lived at the Castle by Shirley Jackson (who is best known for “The Lottery”) and was totally blown away. So, so good. As for contemporary writers that I am in love with right now: I really enjoy the work of Michele Young-Stone who writes these magical realism stories that I could never write but love to read and think about. I also liked Silas House’s latest novel, Southernmost.
What do you think your next project will be?
As I said, I’m finishing the first draft of my linked collection. I have also started writing a novel set in West Virginia and loosely based on a family story that my grandfather told me.
Why did you decide to make your second book a collection of linked stories? How has the need to link them together made writing them different from the stories in your current book?
In my head, everything is already connected. That’s how my brain works. Even though my current book isn’t called a linked collection, I imagine all those people inhabiting the same world, living as neighbors or family members. I think that the idea for the linked stories started several years ago when Melissa and I decided we were going to write linked collection together–she’d write one story, and then I’d write one to respond to it. That idea didn’t really work out, but I just kept going with the same characters. I also found that it was easier to write when I sat down to work or when I went to a writer’s retreat if I already had a project underway. I could just enter back into the project with a new story.
Learn more about Natalie at her website.