INTERVIEW WITH EMILY CHOATE
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: We love the beautiful and vivid setting in “The Mouth on Her,” which plays a significant role in the relationship between the characters. How did your own traveling influence the setting or the creation of the setting and its role in the story?
Emily Choate: Two years ago, I married a single dad who lives a few minutes from these rural Tennessee farmlands. I had lived a child-free, somewhat vagabond existence for years—rooted in some ways, but always itching for the road. I hold a deep kinship with women whose lives have been shaped by a route of discovery that caught them by surprise. A route forged by the desire for transcendence and transformation. My own road-dog life gave that to me. I recognized that quality in Rhonna’s path through the Midwest and, in nascent form, in Orli’s curiosity about the farmland around her. Orli is entranced by the places that her mother has described in stories, and I tried to bring this sparkling sense of scope and mystery into those passages.
RR: Orli has debilitating allergies which affect every aspect of her and her mother’s lives, and to an extent, other characters’ lives too. Did the story start with a character who has severe allergies, or did the allergies come after?
EC: Years ago, a very close friend of mine—a sister, really—told me a story of her early life in a remote Ohio farm town. Her allergy to crop dust was so vicious that the local crop-dusting pilot would call her house and warn her parents to shelter her indoors when he was set to fly over. My friend is a formidable storyteller, and the images she spun that night at the bar never left me. Already, that seed idea contained a pastoral kind of beauty sliced with the surreal dangers that our own bodies can create for us. I began to imagine a tiny girl in a tiny house in a giant field. A tiny girl whose body was something like a grenade.
RR: Orli’s age and her relationship with her mother is left vague. How did you decide how much to leave unsaid about the characters?
EC: Volatile childhood health dangers can sometimes instill the strange combination of extra responsibility and heightened protectiveness from grown-ups. Orli’s voice encompasses that paradox. She’s young enough for a loose tooth, but her mortality is a hovering daily presence. She’s somewhat removed from her peers. I do see both Orli and Rhonna as young for their chronological ages, but perhaps they are also a bit unstuck from time. I thought Orli’s voice should reflect that. Their life together is an insular, improvised one, and though Orli’s frame of reference about the outside world is limited, her imaginative frame of reference is vast. To her, Rhonna and she are everything at once—mother-daughter, best friends, twin sisters. But then sometimes Orli can only glimpse her mother’s complicated grown-up life from the child’s side. So she tries to fill in the gaps.
RR: Orli’s mother is such an expressive and vivid character. Although this is fiction, was she based on someone in your life or was she developed as an idealized youthful, fun mother figure?
EC: From the start, Orli’s mother, Rhonna, seemed intimately familiar to me. She possesses such longing, such fight, such capacity for self-sabotage, such curiosity about what powers she might be able to wield. Rhonna sprang from certain eras of the lives of women I’ve known, including mine, but once the details of her Midwestern sojourn emerged—her attempts to find transcendent catharsis on the freezing shores of the Great Lakes or in the thrashed mosh pits of basement clubs—she became herself alone. I suspect I’m not finished writing her story yet.
RR: You have done work in nearly every aspect of writing—from editing, to reviews, to writing, to teaching, and more. Is there a part of the writing profession you liked best?
EC: I really have no self-concept that doesn’t hold writing at its core. That’s been true since I was small—by Orli’s age, for sure. So, for me, that pursuit is always central. But of all the para-writing roles I’ve played, editing is the one that I find most compelling and energizing. I feel a sense of mission when I read our fiction submissions at Peauxdunque Review or when I trade ideas with the rest of our brilliant staff. As all of you Rappahannock folks know, putting together a literary journal is a complex but inherently hopeful endeavor. Contributing to that kind of shared vision means a great deal to me.
Emily Choate’s work in Issue 8.2: