Where Stories Meet the Sea:
An Interview with Mary Akers
by Karin Cecile Davidson
Mary Akers is a writer who cares deeply for words, with a sense of how lining them up on the page precisely and thoughtfully creates voice, pushes boundaries, reveals the desires and dilemmas of her characters, and invites insight into physical and intuitive worlds. In her story collections, “Women Up on Blocks” and “Bones of an Inland Sea,” she traverses wide narrative territories—the entrapment of motherhood, the length of memory, the latticework of a dying coral reef, the emotional landscape of death, and the freeing depth of oceans. There is architecture and understanding in these stories, and thematic progressions that define and shape each collection.
In “Women Up on Blocks,” the unimaginable becomes quite clear: The overwhelmed mother who calms her Medusa-mind by dunking her head into the cold waters of a lake. The repetitive history of unwed mothers in the South, namely Appalachia, the land of pro-lifers, traveling preachers, titty bars, and Fundamentalist religion. The complicated contours of romance in geology and love. Self-mutilation in a house of mirrors. The sadness a daughter knows when she slips her bare feet inside the worn soles of her father’s shoes.
The stories of “Bones of an Inland Sea” are linked by theme and locked together via the characters’ relationships to each other. The collection begins with the tale of a 19th century shipwreck and ends with a futuristic rendering of island life for “the chosen,” both via perspectives of survival, both set in the Sargasso Sea. The stories are beautifully and carefully tied together, told from varying viewpoints of a family of characters and with incredible range of depth and delivery. From the aftermath of atomic testing in Bikini Atoll in “Like Snow, Only Grayer,” the tsunami that destroys much of Sumatra in “Christmas in Phuket,” and the acceptance a trip to the Sinai and the Red Sea brings in “What Lies Beneath,” the breadth of the collection is truly stunning.
In the end Cecie decided to keep her father’s old, black shoes, solid and utilitarian, scuffed to gray at the toe, rubber heels worn to an outward slant. As she held them she was reminded of dancing with her father—still mostly sober—holding hands, each ball of her foot resting on his instep, moving with his every move.
KARIN CECILE DAVIDSON: Mary, thanks so much for speaking with me about your story collections. Let’s start with “Women Up on Blocks.” These are stories about women and their families, overwhelmed and overtaken by situation and circumstance. Voice, memory, and emotional intensity blend beautifully here. “Evangeline” and “Still Life with Shoes” keep coming back to me in terms of voice and memory.
What brought you to discover the women of these stories?
MARY AKERS: Thank you, Karin. I’m honored. I knew plenty of Evangelines in my small town high school, among them a few young women who dropped out of school because they became pregnant. Intelligent young women with both promise and prospects. A telling detail for you: in the senior superlatives section of our yearbook, the “class couple” was already married by graduation, their newborn at our graduation ceremony. We all cooed over her in our caps and gowns. Roughly a month after graduation, I was bridesmaid for a good friend who was engaged but moved the wedding up because she had to. Honestly, Evangeline’s story surrounded me growing up. Not the unknown traveling preacher’s daughter aspect, but the rural, small-town life (one stoplight in the whole county) with few diversions for young couples other than “parking.” Pair that with a strong Christian upbringing that advocated abstinence (in the dark, in the back seat of a car, on a deserted back country road—I don’t think so) and it’s no wonder so many young women got into trouble.
I wanted to explore the issue of teen pregnancy in a personal way, and also to take on one of the most politically polarizing issues of our day—the right to life vs. the right to choose (even the language polarizes us). I was interested in presenting a story that simply told, without proselytizing for one side or the other, the story of one young girl’s difficult decision. As a writer, I’m not interested in telling readers what to think, but I do like to tell a story that gets them thinking. And sure enough, I’ve found that most people who read “Evangeline” think it’s espousing their personal point-of-view on the issue, a result that I find fascinating.
As for “Still Life with Shoes,” that’s probably the most autobiographical story in “Women Up on Blocks.” In general, I don’t do autobiographical stuff. I prefer the distance that comes with making things up whole cloth. But my grandmother (a journalism major in college in the 1930s) used to read my work and her comments were always some version of, “It’s good, but I don’t hear your voice when I read it. I want to hear your voice.” I read some great nonfiction around that time (“The Glass Castle,” “Bastard Out of Carolina”), trying to get at what my grandmother meant; then I tried to write a story that was close to my truth. I loved my father very much, but he was a troubled man, an alcoholic with big dreams—and a toxic combination of grandiosity and self-sabotaging insecurity when it came to pursuing them. He died suddenly, two months after the birth of my first child, and his four children (still finding their adult feet) all had to come together and figure out how to bury him. Because I was the youngest, I never lived with my father as a teenager (my parents divorced when I was 6). We never butted heads when he was drunk and I managed to continue idolizing him in a very childlike way for years, even as my brother and sisters told much different stories. I think he loved me in a special way, because of how blind I was to his faults, how much I tolerated his hours-long drunken soliloquies by phone, even though he said the same thing every time. It was a strange relationship, being the “golden child” of a deeply flawed man (made more complex by the fact that my older siblings never resented me), and I wanted to explore that. It felt dangerous, exposing my truth, my family in that way (though it was fiction, many would see the similarities), so it’s gratifying to hear that the voice rang true and resonated for you.
I imagine me a daddy who’s young and handsome, dark-headed and dark-eyed, and sorty skinny-like. A tall drink of water. I know I favor him. I sure don’t take after nobody in this family. Sometimes I’ll catch Momma looking at me so hard she’ll about stare a hole in me, and then I know I’m a living reminder of her sin that won’t never go away.
DAVIDSON: To me, “Evangeline” steps outside the other stories of “Women Up on Blocks” in that the narrative voice plants us firmly in Appalachia. Named by her young, unwed mother, perhaps for her father, the evangelical preacher who “traveled around spreading God’s word and bringing lost souls to Jesus,” Evangeline—“Eve by the time all the trouble started”—finds herself in the same predicament before she even reaches tenth grade. We are transported into this world of family and origins by way of voice, a voice that leans hard into honesty and imagination and a serious trust in family and future.
How did you find your way to this voice?
AKERS: “Evangeline” was the first short story I ever thought of getting published. I’d written plenty of stories before that one, but something felt different about “Evangeline.” I think it was the voice, how it stayed with me. Prior to writing that story, I’d been working my way through the entire oeuvre of Lee Smith. Lee is from a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, near where I grew up, and the voices of her characters gave me this sudden, miraculous permission to tell a story with the sort of voices I knew intimately. I’d always been a reader—Dickens, Margaret Atwood, Bradbury, Poe, Plath—and those voices, although wonderful, didn’t speak like the people I grew up around, and so I didn’t imagine that writing could ever speak with that voice—until I read Lee Smith. Her work gave me permission to tell a certain kind of story in a certain kind of way—permission I’d never felt before. It put a long-held dream of publishing (emotionally) within reach. I imagine it might be similar to the jolt of recognition an African American might have reading Zora Neale Hurston or James Baldwin for the first time, or a Latino might feel reading Junot Díaz or Julia Alvarez, or a Caribbean writer might feel on discovering Edwidge Danticat or Jamaica Kincaid. I don’t want to sound simplistic, but the Appalachian voice wasn’t always heard or appreciated. I’d read the work of many southern writers, sure—Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner—and they came close, but (and I’m sure a northerner would argue this point) to my ear, a Mississippian voice is very different from a southern Appalachian voice.
One phrase that Lee Smith uses in her work really struck me, and that I used in Evangeline as an homage: “…even though I was in church every time they cracked the door.” That’s such a familiar line to me. I felt like I’d heard some variation a hundred times, but never seen it in print before. It was a crazy revelation and it gave me that permission to access Evangeline. In fact, her voice led me to write a Young Adult novel that tells her full story, titled “In The Shadow of the Buffalo” after Buffalo Mountain—where I grew up and Evangeline grows up as well.
DAVIDSON: “Bones of an Inland Sea” begins and ends with a shipwreck, and all of the stories brim with elements that have oceanic origins, whether fossils or constellations of coral, whether tributaries or sunken treasure.
Tell us about the importance of the oceans and marine biology in terms of subject and structure of this collection.
AKERS: Well, I don’t think I can explain the importance of the oceans in the collection without explaining the importance of the oceans to me.
You know how some previously foreign places just feel like home when you encounter them firsthand? When I was 25, I learned to SCUBA dive. Taking that first magical breath of underwater air made me feel like a fish, alive in a new skin, weightless, euphoric. I felt like I belonged beneath the waves; everything made sense there. The world closed in and all was quiet except for my breath through the regulator. But then, the closer I listened, the more I heard. Like a forest that seems deeply quiet and peaceful at first, the underwater world revealed a symphony of sounds when I listened closely. The crunch of a parrotfish chewing on hard coral. A school of (aptly named) grunts swimming past. The clicking of underwater volcanic vents releasing hot, sulphuric air; the music of whales; even the swish and crash of distant waves against the beach. When I recognized the depth of connections, the efficient undersea city that is a coral reef, I was hooked for life.
Even back in high school I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist. I chose William and Mary because of their wonderful graduate school, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. Instead, I met clay, fell in love a different way, and became a potter, but I never lost the desire for the sea. In the mid-1990s, I worked at a study-abroad marine ecology school in the Turks and Caicos Islands. In the late 1990s, I co-founded a similar school in Dominica—The Institute for Tropical Marine Ecology—and we ran that school for ten years. I worked as an administrator/student liaison, and I loved sitting in on classes and going on dives. I absorbed a lot and adored every minute of it. Writing about the various aspects of the ocean—in all its complexity—makes me happy, keeps at least a toe immersed in that world of marine biology and The Life I Didn’t Lead.
DAVIDSON: Allegiance to the characters, their relationships, their ages and narrative arcs, allows the stories in “Bones of an Inland Sea” to travel forward and backward in time. There is much to manage and track.
Would you agree that the temporal and architectural elements of a linked story collection are similar to those of a novel, in terms of following the characters and weaving together storylines?
AKERS: Yes, definitely, with the caveat that the linking be character-based. Some linked collections are linked by place, some by subject or theme, some by style or era or event. There are so many ways to link a collection—and most successful ones utilize several linkages. I used to argue that my first collection was “linked” because the stories were all by the same author. That’s tongue-in-cheek, but also has some truth. My publisher and I talked about calling “Bones” a “Novel in Stories,” but I decided I didn’t want to expend future energies defending that moniker. I know this happens—writer friends have made that choice and faced those consequences—and I wasn’t interested in defending that choice since I wasn’t entirely sure myself the difference between a novel in stories and a linked collection. Genres are fluid and we see what we want to see when we read. There have been a number of popular, prize-winning “novels” published in the last ten years that clearly started as story collections, and they could easily have been marketed as such, but the publishers chose to call them novels because short story collections don’t sell. It seems sort of disingenuous, but I guess it’s just clever marketing. Honestly, how a publisher labels a book does affect every aspect of its future—from where it is placed in the bookstore and in the library, to how it is marketed. For books, placement is everything. That’s another discussion entirely—how decisions on the production end have major repercussions on the sales and distribution end—but we’ll save that one for the next book.
It was beautiful,” said Quinn softly. “Like the awe of seeing God… You know, I still hear the clicking crackle of that damn Geiger counter. If we went out on deck it went crazy. We wore gas masks, couldn’t swim in the ocean, caught giant, silver tunas we couldn’t eat… it was a fouled-up world.
DAVIDSON: “Like Snow, Only Grayer” moves between Leslie’s story—her marriage ending and life as a single mom beginning on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands for almost a year of reef impact research—and the historical reports of the U.S. military’s mid-century atomic testing in the same area. History here serves as warning. This story and many others in “Bones of an Inland Sea” serve as protective witness for the environment, especially the oceans and ocean life.
Would you talk in detail about your environmental focus here and in the other stories?
AKERS: I’m glad that aspect came across. Honestly, I don’t understand why any one person is called an environmentalist over someone else. I call myself one, but really, aren’t we all environmentalists? It’s not as if our existence is somehow separate from the natural world. We all rely on the environment for food, clothing, and shelter. We all breathe air and drink water. We’re all environmentalists. Some of us are doing our best to be low impact, and some of us are into consuming as much as humanly possible. But here’s the thing: we can’t really afford to “leave the problem to someone else.” We’re all a part of the problem and likewise the solution.
For millennia, we’ve seesawed back and forth between honoring the natural world (the Native American model of cooperation) and exploiting it (the American pioneer philosophy of God-granted dominion over nature with a corresponding responsibility to harness and use it). Lately, I’ve encountered a lot of wonderful young people who are back-to-landers, sustainability connoisseurs, tiny-footprint aficionados, and just plain lovers of the natural world, so I’m hopeful the seesaw is headed back in a cooperative direction. For all our sakes.
DAVIDSON: Sunken treasure from your stories. Would you rather gold bars and doubloons, a pocket watch inscribed with love, or a moment on the beach with children and drip sand castles?
AKERS: I’ll take Drip Castles for a thousand, please. Really, though, I do love the ocean. It’s just that I’d rather be under it than on it. I’m not the best seafarer. I get seasick easily. On a boat dive, I’m the first person in the water, even if I have to hang out at the surface and wait twenty minutes for everyone else. I also get carsick on mountain roads but I adore the mountains. I’m like the enthusiastic skydiver who’s afraid of heights. Give me the full, extreme experience, and I’m fine. Take me only halfway there, and I get the shakes.
I also like the area where land and sea meet—the littoral zone. It’s endlessly fascinating and a really tough place to eke out a living, too. Because of the tides, it’s sometimes underwater, sometimes not. If it’s in an estuary, sometimes it’s salty, sometimes it’s fresh. You’ve got to be really flexible to make your home in the littoral zone. Barnacles, snails, sea urchins, crabs—all creatures comfortable in both zones, allegiant to neither. I get it. Sometimes I’m a potter, sometimes a writer, sometimes a diver, sometimes a mountain climber, sometimes a mother, sometimes a lover. I admire people who can go deeply into the study of one thing for years and years. In my mind, I’m that person. In reality, I’m the dabbler who is thrilled by learning new things, mastering new techniques, endlessly fascinated by the connections that exist between everything and everyone on this great, green earth. In our modern world, we extol the expert, the deep studier, but we need the generalist, too, the person who can skim across the surface and find the common threads. (And yes, nothing illustrates that concept better than a mixed metaphor.)
I’ve always been captivated by the space where worlds collide. I think my fiction bears that out. The believers vs. the non-believers, new-agers vs. salt-of-the-earth country folk, love of children vs. longing for freedom, societal norms vs. desires of the heart. The space where collision occurs is a transformative space. No one comes away unscathed, unaltered.
The trunk of a palm tree spins to the surface beside her. She moves away and bumps her head on a bicycle tire, trash wound through its spokes. Busted lumber and bright-colored cushions pop up all around. To her left, the body of a woman rises to the surface. Leslie gasps and inhales a mouthful of seawater… There is a young child floating with her, tied to her waist by a flowery fabric; the baby stares at Leslie, eyes wide and wild.
DAVIDSON: “Christmas in Phuket” reintroduces us to Leslie—remarried, her family at home, having Christmas without her—while she continues her coral reef research, this time in Thailand. In this piece, underwater and post-tsunami scenes are intensely detailed, rich with imagery, beyond belief and deeply imagined. The “baby girl” Mai adds a brilliant turn to this story, allowing Leslie to care for a fellow survivor, just as she longs for home and family, now more sacred than ever.
John Dufresne in his book “Is Life Like This?” revisits John Gardner’s take on the fiction writer’s process: “You look. You see. You see clearly, meaning you see the details, the nuances.” And of course, you write it down. Would you say that, in writing passages like those of the aftermath of the tsunami, you are engaged in this way, in seeing the whole picture via the character’s perspective, or in an even more dramatic way?
AKERS: Honestly? I don’t know. But I do know I couldn’t not write about that horrific event. It wasn’t a case of co-opting the drama. There are plenty of dramatic events in the world to write about. This was a case of me needing to write my way out of the shock I felt. This giant, devastating wave came out of nowhere, in the age of cell phones, so hundreds of people filmed it even as they were going through it, giving the rest of the world firsthand access to the terror and horror. And not only that, the massive, indiscriminate killer was my beloved sea, one of the places I felt most at home, causing a howl of collective pain and grief. I had trouble fathoming the before-and-after devastation, the definite line of disaster, the tragic loss of so many lives in an instant, the majority of them children who had been living that morning and were dead that afternoon.
I am often inspired to write by something I don’t understand. I write as a way to inch closer to understanding, to make peace, if possible, with the world the way it is. Peace, on paper, with a trail others can follow.
DAVIDSON: And finally, I understand you have a novel in the wings. Any hints for us? And along with your wonderful work as editor-in-chief at R.kv.r.y. Quarterly, what are you delving into at present?
AKERS: Karin, I’ve enjoyed this interview so much. I do have a novel that is currently being shopped around by my wonderful agent Zöe Sandler. It’s a speculative novel, set in a near-future world in which environmental contaminants have caused the men to feminize (happening already in frogs and fish—animals on the front lines of aquatic, estrogenic contamination). In this not-so-distant world, the states have divided along political lines, and the way the different factions deal with the problem of declining fertility says a lot about each of them. The main characters are Sylvia, a Blue Elite researcher, and Samson, her Red Plebe, still-fertile subject who is kept and harvested for his valuable sperm. An attack on New Blue City releases them both into the wild Adirondack Mountains to fend for themselves. Eventually, they meet up and work together to survive, but Samson has no idea that Sylvia was responsible for his captivity. Oh, and to further complicate things, Sylvia experimented with the products of her lab and she’s pregnant.
As for my current project, I’m revising an omniscient novel (the island as narrator), set at a marine ecology school in the Turks and Caicos Islands, inspired by the time I spent working and living there. An Anne Morrow Lindbergh quote from her book “Gift of the Sea” sums up the novel’s theme quite nicely: “I believe we are all islands. Islands, in a common sea.”
Photo credit: “Mary Akers” by Len Pratt.
Karin Cecile Davidson, Interviews Editor