CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH JAMIE WITHERBY
Rappahannock Review Fiction Editors: Writing from a child’s point of view is never easy. What influenced you to choose Anna as your narrator? Did you always see this story from her perspective?
Jamie Witherby: I really enjoy using child or adolescent narrators because of their curiosity and objectivity. They’re often less burdened (or jaded) by their pasts, and I think they’re more receptive to what they’re seeing. For this story, I molded Anna into a narrator who would be old enough to be intellectually (albeit morbidly) curious about the body and able to assist her single mother with daily chores and childcare.
RR: “By the Interstate” draws out tension not just through the mystery of the dead body, but also from Anna and her mother’s interactions. What was it like exploring their relationship?
JW: Exploring the mother-daughter tension took a lot of balancing. I wanted to make sure the reader could see both sides of the same argument. It’s clear that Anna is harboring some resentment toward her mother for “allowing” their father to remain close and eventually hurt them. Most people would probably feel the same way, regardless of the mother’s good intentions. At the same time, her mother kept the father close so that they could have financial stability. When she finally does get the courage to leave him, he retaliates with violence. It’s not her fault, but of course she blames herself, so when Anna starts in on her, she goes into a stony silence. Again, most people would probably do the same.
RR: You mentioned in your biography that you have a passion for horror films. Are there any in particular that you drew inspiration from for this piece?
JW: I’m sure there are influences that I conjured up subconsciously, but I don’t recall a particular film coming to mind during the writing process. Actually, many of my pieces, this one included, draw inspiration from lyrics by Sam Beam, the musician behind Iron & Wine. The storytelling and imagery in his music is incredible. I’ll often become so attached to a line or an image in one of his songs that I’ll write a story around it, playing the same song over and over again while I do.
For “By the Interstate,” I gravitated toward a line from his song “Peace Beneath the City.” The opening lyric is “Here’s a prayer for the body buried by the interstate.” Once I had the line in mind, I built a narrative around the questions anyone would reasonably ask about a body buried by the interstate.
RR: “By the Interstate” is not your first publication that deals with death and unhealthy relationships. What prompts you to write about unsettling topics such as these?
JW: If I dive into the psychology behind it, I’m sure it has something to do with my lack of having to personally confront either of those topics during my childhood. But I grew up in a very small town (500 people), and I saw and heard about those uncomfortable relationships from my friends and neighbors. Most of my pieces take place in small towns and rural areas because of the weight death and discomfort carry in smaller populations. How these communities choose to deal (or not deal) with these topics is really gripping.
I’m also attracted to the unsettling topics addressed in horror movies because my degree in anthropology got me curious about what makes people uncomfortable. Not just scared, but that squirming-in-your-chair sort of distaste for what you’re viewing and experiencing. I think horror movies remind us that people are often most uncomfortable with basic human tendencies from an evolutionary perspective—pain, survival, sex, body parts and body products.
RR: Your stories are mostly character-driven, with a focus on complicated relationships. What is your favorite type of character?
JW: My favorite type of character is, unsurprisingly, one that makes people uncomfortable because of how human they are. I like characters who tell us their dark thoughts and shameful feelings because I think it’s how we normalize those human experiences. If you start talking about uncomfortable topics, they become destigmatized and start to strip away the shame we’ve assigned to them.
Complicated relationships seem to be the only ones that have an impact. Being human is just rough, but learning how to connect with each other through shared struggles and discomfort is how we create meaning. The best relationships I observe and have are complicated because people are willing to go into those uncomfortable regions together. That’s not an easy thing to do, but the relationships are better for it.
Jamie Witherby’s work in Issue 6.2: