Fiction writer Pamela Carter Joern peeks into rural lives without flinching. And yet there is almost always grace present. In her latest, In Reach, a collection of stories centered in the rural outpost of Reach, Nebraska, characters struggle with accepting truths and finding connection, but they try, and sometimes succeed, and sometimes just let it be as best they can.
Joern joins the Mother of All Book Clubs this Thursday, first for a casual conversation with readers at Pittsburgh Blue (5:30 p.m.), then in a public conversation at Barnes & Noble, Galleria (7 p.m.). Here she answers five of our burning questions that just couldn’t wait.
JuiceBox: To say you’ve been with these characters for a long time is an understatement. One of the stories here was published 13 years ago. What has it been like for you to sit with this work for so long, and to now see them out in the world?
Pamela Carter Joern: It’s a bit like sending your child to kindergarten; you’re proud, relieved that they’ve reached this milestone of independence, and anxious that they be treated kindly. I did love hanging out with my characters in these stories, and now that they’re launched, I can’t do that in quite the same way. At the same time, it’s gratifying to watch other people meeting them and relating to them. It’s a bittersweet and mixed experience, like a lot of life.
JB: Your stories are centered in one place but span families, generations, decades. People show up in each other’s stories. How did you keep it—and them—all straight?
PCJ: I didn’t conceive of these stories as a book for quite a long time. I had a small group of Nebraska stories that I had worked on as part of my master’s thesis. Then, I wrote a few more. Eventually, it occurred to me that if I kept at it, I might some day have enough for a book. Some of the paired stories came about because a minor character in a previous story intrigued me. In one case, that process worked in reverse. I wanted the reader to have the experience of a community, where you might encounter someone you’ve met before and see them in a new light.
JB: This book has been compared to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio in its loosely structured stories about characters in a particular place. Did that book influence you at all? How does In Reach differ from Winesburg, Ohio?
PCJ: Oh, wow, I read Winesburg, Ohio in college. Let’s just say that was a while ago. I have a vague recollection that the emotional sensibility had to do with loneliness and isolation in a small town, and that’s certainly true of my characters. Place matters, in both books. I wanted my readers to have a palpable sense of the town of Reach. I can’t speak to more of Anderson’s book, but in my stories, each character has a moment of connection or recognition, often small and coming about in a surprising way.
JB: Speaking of comparisons: There is a strong sense of place in all of your books (that place, obviously, is Nebraska). But you’ve lived in Minneapolis for a long time. How do the two places compare?
PCJ: I grew up in a small town in rural Nebraska, in the western panhandle, almost to the Wyoming border. My books are set in that western landscape, remote, rugged, and still a bit wild. Once, probably March or November, when we were driving across that barren landscape, my husband said, “How do people survive out here?” And I answered, “Integrity and stubbornness.”
Minnesota has its rugged and wild places in the north woods. A friend of mine who is a native Minnesotan once said she feels untethered on the prairie, as if she could fly off into space. I think the woods are beautiful and who could not love the North Shore, but too many trees and I feel claustrophobic.
My house has high ceilings, big windows, and open spaces. A friend here once gave me some unsolicited advice about how I could make it cozier. Nestled and cozy vs. space and freedom; there must be something to that. I like breathing room and being able to stand on the land and see all the way to the horizon. My characters are caught in that tension, as I suppose I am—craving both solitude and connection, wanting independence and also to belong.
Of course, Minneapolis is a city, with all the diversity and clamor that involves, as opposed to small town and rural life. Yet, people are people everywhere, with similar longings and contradictions.
JB: You have a wonderful list of “Why write” on your website. Can you give us a short list of “why read”?
People read for all kinds of reasons—fun, entertainment, escape, information, to travel to places and times we can’t physically go. I’m a fan of all of it, but here’s a not-so-short list of why we read literary work:
1. To develop a tolerance for ambiguity.
2. To deepen our inner life.
3. To make meaning of the ordinary.
4. To learn to pay attention and develop an appreciation for mystery, nuance, metaphor, and beauty.
5. To encourage the imagination.
6. To broaden our perspective.
5. To practice empathy and learn compassion. This is the grandmother of all: 1 through 6 are steps toward this!
If you truly want a short-short-list, then this:
1. To encourage the imagination, which leads to
2. Practicing empathy, which leads to
3. Developing compassion.