We talked with contributor Carrie Moore about her story “Surfacing,” which is featured in our Fall 2021 issue. Moore is in her second year as a fiction fellow at the Michener Center for Writers, and she has received a Tennessee Williams Scholarship from the Sewanee Writers' Conference, a fellowship from the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies, and the 2021 Keene Prize in Literature at the University of Texas at Austin. In this interview, Moore discusses character and scene construction, how the body stores memory, and the importance of writing into narratives of trauma.
—Hayden Dunbar, Editorial Assistant
SR: I’m drawn to the ways you bring your story’s subjects into focus, adding detail until your readers understand exactly who they are. What are your strategies for character building and how does it translate onto the page? Another way to put this might be, when did you first meet Grace, and what did you discover about her first?
CM: Thank you. From my perspective, character is the most important element of fiction, and I start stories by first trying to figure out a central character’s desires, as well as their fears. Often, I think those two elements speak to each other on the page: What does this person want and what are the consequences if they don’t get it? In other words, what is at stake? Over the years, I’ve found that it helps to also ask these questions of secondary characters, since these characters’ motivations can either help or hinder the protagonist along the compressed journey they’re taking in any given short story. In “Surfacing,” Grace’s desires to return to her childhood home in order to heal her body conflict with her husband’s desire for a more physical relationship, as well as with Natalie’s desire to find a private place of her own. Grace even has conflicting desires within herself; at times, she has an antagonistic relationship with her own body, which creates more tension in the story.
When it comes to adding detail, I’m deeply committed to the act of revision, and I sometimes joke with my writing partners that I’m a bit of a serial reviser. I complete multiple drafts by hand in a journal, early in the morning, month after month, and only in later stages do I transcribe those pages into a laptop. This practice allows for sentences to change often and for the accumulation of detail and backstory across several drafts. When I first met Grace, she was a professor of photography on a north Georgia campus, struggling to process her repressed memories through her grayscale photographs. She always wanted to better understand her memories and to help others through their own traumas, but as I became better aware of her fears, I felt that I could put more pressure on her. For instance, what if her art didn’t aid her in remembering but was instead directly affected by the gaps in her memory? If she doesn’t understand the full narrative history of her body, how does that affect the way she moves in it? And of course, as a result of these questions, the piece radically differs from where it began.
SR: Memory is the first word of “Surfacing,” and it is central to much of the story. You walk us through Grace’s memories—first of one of her childhood homes, then of Dev and Olivia, and ultimately Grace’s revelatory memory at the story’s conclusion. What led you to make memory and recall key components of your story? How did you find your way to incorporating these multiple layers of temporal distance in “Surfacing?”
CM: Somewhere along the near-endless process of drafting this story, I became fascinated by the body and how it stores memory. I’m part of a writing group originally based in the tree-laden suburbs of Menlo Park, California—though we’re scattered all over now and mainly meet on Zoom—and we’d often have conversations around the dining room table, sharing accounts of specific memory and emotional releases during yoga classes or massages, as if the images and sounds and textures of the past were bound up in muscle knots or compressed joints, just waiting to be released. The science is still developing on this, but in “Surfacing,” I wanted Grace to hold so much inside her body. So much that her mind can’t access without some external stimulus. So much that affects the way her body moves.
Because Grace has to unearth her past narratives, I structured the story to have a circular feel, the reader accumulating more information as the piece progresses. At the beginning of the story, Grace sits in Dev’s truck, willingly remembering her past, and by the end, she’s experienced so much that she has an involuntary memory—though one that’s very much needed in order for her to make sense of her life and begin to move forward.
Incorporating all of this backstory was deeply challenging. At one point, this story was forty-three pages, offering the reader longer scenes of Grace’s childhood and eventual marriage. I compressed many of these scenes into paragraphs, brief lines of dialogue that could nevertheless reveal the color of an interaction. I put each paragraph in double columns in a Word document, going line by line and cutting until the paragraph on the right side was shorter and tighter than the paragraph on the left. In the end, I wanted each element of backstory to feel like a quick flash, like a small whale that rose to the story’s surface before submerging again.
SR: The body is also a critical image in this story; both Grace and Natalie inhabit their bodies in complicated ways that are at once physical, emotional, and revelatory by the story’s end. What drew you to center these experiences in the story? Is there a particular reason you felt compelled to write about (or into) this topic?
CM: The story’s most difficult elements are based in experiences that I’ve had with other Black women. Namely that feeling of being in a room with beloved friends, a room where you all are laughing or maybe dancing or maybe sitting cross-legged on the floor breaking apart donuts with your fingers—and inevitably someone goes, “There’s something I have to tell you guys, something that’s been on my mind.” And behind your friend’s brightness and joy and beauty, there’s this deep secret she’s been holding on to, that she can barely speak about because the shame is overwhelming. I think most people would agree that such stories—stories of abuse and sexual violence—would be difficult to hear on their own. You wouldn’t even wish them on your worst enemy, not to mention someone you love. And yet, what’s more heartbreaking is when another woman listens with empathy and compassion and then offers up her own similar story—in some cases a story that is pretty much identical. Eventually, you end up being in so many rooms where so many stories overlap. You end up witnessing the same wounds over and over again, becoming less surprised by the exact shade of the blood than by the way it repeats.
When it comes to Grace and Natalie, I wanted to write into those overlapping narratives. Quite literally, each character makes an appearance in the other’s bedroom, and their rooms mirror each other in the neighborhood landscape. At the end of the story, when Grace decides to act on what she knows, I was writing into my own sense of helplessness, that sense of wanting to acknowledge painful events that have already transpired and to stop them from happening again. And in the meantime, we are still working out our own traumas. Trying to help someone else brings up memories you haven’t sorted out in yourself, what you haven’t been able to face. Aside from whatever else they might have in common when it comes to loving art and wanting romance, the core of Grace and Natalie’s relationship is this twinned experience revealed late in the story—an experience deeply tied to how their bodies move through the world, who cares for them and who doesn’t.