Linked Stories Offer Canvas for Creativity
An exclusive Authorlink interview
By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris
by Julie Hensley
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Julie Hensley credits the start of her writing career to her mother, a librarian who would bring home grocery bags full of books for her to read. By age ten, she was reading the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens and being drawn into the narratives. She would go on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from Arizona State University and publish two books of poetry, The Language of Horses and Viable, and Landfall, a set of linked stories that won The Ohio State University’s Nonfiction/Fiction Collection Prize and was published this year.
Landfall centers on people living in the fictional Appalachian town of Conrad’s Fork, Kentucky over a period of time that runs from 1965 to 2008. The story follows the lives and loves of the townspeople as well as the evolution of the region as industries decline. The collection is framed by an opening and closing story regarding a family secret.
|“When I looked, I started to see familial and community connections that I hadn’t seen before. “|
“I was three stories into the writing when I realized this was a cycle. It was my professor, Melissa Pritchard, who said, ‘There may be connections between these stories that you aren’t recognizing,’ said Hensley. “When I looked, I started to see familial and community connections that I hadn’t seen before.”
Looking at the stories as connected opened up the writing process for Hensley. “This changed what the book could do. I could build in echoed images and a cohesion of dictions.”
While linked stories can be a barrier to readers seeking a more cohesive narrative, Hensley believes they offer a range of artistic choices in terms of point of view, symbolism and the space between stories.
Hensley observed that Landfall has more of a geographic center than a character center. The stories show a range of characters with the town, which was based on her hometown of Elkton, Virginia, as a common link.
“Linked stories really show how place and community shape people,” she noted.
“It’s the paces that I put my characters through that teaches me who they are . . .”
Hensley, who writes across genres, said ideas definitely come to her as distinctly a story or a poem. When writing fiction, she follows the advice of Stephan King that while characters drive fiction the best way to learn about a character is to put them in a situation.
“It’s the paces that I put my characters through that teaches me who they are,” said Hensley. The stories include characters finding and leaving lovers, moving to new places, and longing for different lives. A family secret runs through the narrative.
“It was hard to find the time to stay in the chair long enough for good writing to happen..”
““I am interested in the idea that secrets can be passed from generation to generation without being exposed and that they shape the decisions we make.”
The first story, Bread Pudding, hints at a secret with its opening lines:
The story ends with a death and an impending birth.
The collection is an example of persistence and the value of thoughtful revision. Hensley wrote the first story that would become part of the collection when she was twenty-one. A version of the stories made up her MFA thesis a decade before the collection was published. She worked on the stories while writing poems and stories, raising children, and teaching. The collection was a runner up for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction three times before winning the Non/Fiction Collection Prize from The Ohio State University Press.
“The great challenge was making myself write. My husband, R. Dean Johnson, is a writer and I had infant children. It was hard to find the time to stay in the chair long enough for good writing to happen. Once a year I would allow myself a writing residency or vacation of two weeks.”
She suggests that writers create a writing plan for themselves. Hensley said while MFA programs provide a mentor, peer critiques and deadlines, writers can create the same system for themselves through a writer’s group.
Hensley is currently working on a braided narrative of three generations of women tentatively titled The Recklessness of Water.
|About the Author|
Julie Hensley is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University and the author of the story collection Landfall and two books of poetry, Viable and The Language of Horses.
|About Regular Contributor|
Ellen Birkett Morris
|Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.|
This post was written by Ellen Birkett Morris