An Interview with Ann Pancake

by JIM MINICK

Ann Pancake’s third book, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, is a collection full of amazing stories—from a college student spending the summer with her mentally-challenged uncle to a drug-addicted father sneaking out of his parents’ house with his young son, the child finding solace in the car as they listen to Bob Marley, the loud “Bob beat” propelling “blood through his veins” (278). The book’s eleven short stories and novellas are as varied as they are rich. Several take on different points of view to explore complex ambiguities, like in “Dog Song,” the recluse narrator wonders how the outside world views him as the tourist train “slow pull[s] for the sightseers to better see... [his] plopped Winnebagos and househole with some eighteen doghouses” (131). Other stories play out conflicts that involve several generations and the land they call home. For example in “Rockhounds,” the inevitability of tradition forces characters to act against their own best interests when it comes to leasing their land to the gas drillers. All of these stories take risks, like the mixing of two time periods in the end of “In Such Light,” or the use of second person in “Sab.” And all of them use imaginative and wonderful language, like in “Mouseskull” where the narrator “blows across” a rodent’s skull “to unstink it some” (71). Just as the writer describes one of her characters, Ann Pancake has learned “to listen without ears” (261) to her characters, their dreams and fears and hauntings. This imaginative work renders a beautiful book.

JIM MINICK. One of the most striking gifts of this book is the many, varied voices. How do you do this? How have you learned to make them distinct?

ANN PANCAKE. I work very intuitively, so I haven’t learned to make the voices distinct. They arrive distinct. I hear the voices in my head, then I capture in writing what I hear—I might hear five pages, or I might only hear five lines—and then I take what was given to me, listen carefully, continue to write, now a little more deliberately or consciously but always allegiant to the original voice, and slowly build a full story or novel character.

MINICK. Do you talk about a work-in-progress, or keep it quiet until you think a draft is complete? Why?

PANCAKE. I talk very little about a work-in-progress until I’m done, and I don’t show a work-in-progress to anyone until I have the piece as good as I can get it on my own. That usually means about ten drafts in. And I usually complete something in about 14 drafts. The not-talking-about-it is in part a defense against depleting my energy for the piece, against spending what I have for it by just tossing it around in the air. The not-asking-for-feedback is so I can hold tight to my own vision without interference. I trust that if you give a story enough time, it will make itself. MINICK. The last scene of “In Such Light” has this amazing use of time between two moments, the present action of exploring the old theater and the imagined future telling about this exploration. How did you come to this technique? How did you realize that’s what was needed?

PANCAKE. This novella is based on my relationship with my own uncle. As I relived that final scene in my mind as I wrote it—it is close to something that happened to me the summer I was 20—I naturally imagined telling my uncle about what I was experiencing because he and I constantly speculated on what was behind the walls and under the floors in that theater, the Keith Albee in Huntington. It didn’t come to me as a technique, but just how I was probably really thinking that afternoon in Huntington while one of the ushers showed us around the theater.

MINICK. What’s the fascination with bones?

PANCAKE. It’s hard for me to answer that and may be a better question for a reader or critic. I do recognize that bones appear again and again in this collection. A working title for the book was Bone Dowser, which was also the original title of the story “The Following.” I certainly didn’t intentionally put in all those bones. My best guess is that their recurrence has to do with my writing about places that are threatened or actively being destroyed, along with my commitment to imagining beyond that destruction. Bones mean death, but they are also a framework. Bones are, in a sense, what we start with.

MINICK. You take incredible risks throughout this book, both in style and subject matter. Like in “Sab,” the faith in trees and hills might be too “New-Agey” for some readers, yet you pull it off by making us believe in the characters and their loss. Any comments on this risk-taking?

PANCAKE. In general, I think if I didn’t take risks in my writing, I would get bored with the process. Regarding the faith in trees and hills in “Sab” and my faith in the natural world in many of the other stories: because the earth is under siege right now—and nowhere is this more apparent than in Appalachia—I feel compelled or even obligated to write fiction that imagines paradigms outside the dominant Western scientific paradigm I believe is no longer viable as a governing epistemology. The “faith” in “Sab” might seem New-Agey, but it’s actually what I understood as a child and what most earth-based people have understood for many, many millennia. It’s actually pretty Old Agey.

MINICK. Can you unpack the term “earth under siege?” When so many Americans seem to not really understand the impacts of their choices, it might help to pull that phrase apart. Under siege by whom? How? Results?

PANCAKE. We no longer have the luxury of seeing the earth and all objects not people as placed here for our use. (I should add that we also see certain people as placed here for our use, an assumption which must also end.) The earth carried us in this way for a long time, but our numbers and our desires are beyond what the earth (and the water systems, and the atmosphere) can continue to sustain. This is especially overt in Appalachia where extractive industries like coal have destroyed entire ecosystems in the past few decades. When the ecosystem goes down, the humans go down, too. They aren’t separate. As an Appalachian, I see the parts of our region that have been laid waste as sort of prophets. As harbingers of what the future will bring to other American regions if we continue current patterns of consumption. Those patterns of consumption are symptoms of an entire worldview that must be revised.

MINICK. I love “Old Agey” because it’s so true. I spent much of my childhood in both the sanctuary of the church and the sanctuary of the fields and woods. Yet I don’t see that happening as much in our present culture as we become more plugged in and urbanized and less able or interested in getting outside, or those outside places are no longer there. Do you agree? And if not, why? And if so, what gives you hope in this context?

PANCAKE. I see more of a polarization in our present culture: I see a lot of people becoming more plugged in, people who look away from the contemporary crisis in the natural world by hewing to virtual reality. But I also see a significant contingent who are turning towards the natural world, and turning towards it with the understanding that we must begin relating to it on very different terms. I meet these people often when I’m travelling and giving reading and talks about environmental issues. Happily, many of them are young.

I think I most have hope, to be honest, when I dislodge my anthropocentric perspective on life. If humans aren’t the most important beings on earth, then one can have more optimism about life a thousand years from now. I don’t know if humans will be around. I know other life forms will be.

MINICK. What makes you happy?

PANCAKE. Being in the woods.

JIM MINICK is the author of four books, the most recent, The Blueberry Years, a memoir that won the Best Nonfiction Book of the Year from Southern Independent Booksellers Association. His work has appeared in many publications including Oxford American, Shenandoah, Orion, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Sun. Currently, he is Assistant Professor at Georgia Regents University and Core Faculty in Converse College’s low-residency MFA program.