Interview with Patty Somlo

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Featured Author, Patty Somlo.

Below is an interview with our featured author, Patty Somlo, where she discusses the role of place and the natural world from her earliest experiences to her daily writing life. Check out her recent collection of short stories, The First to Disappear, at the link below the interview. Thanks to Patty from all of us at KHQ!

How has place influenced your work?

I would have to say that place is one of the most important, if not the most important, influence on my work. I grew up in a military family that moved every year or two. Living this way as a child, I learned that attachments to people were fragile. I made friends and before I knew it, I had to say goodbye to them. One of the ways I compensated was to attach myself to the places that we lived, and in particular, the natural world.

I write, in part, to go back to the places I lived or have visited and enjoy them again. Because I continued moving around as an adult, as well as traveling a great deal, I am keenly sensitive to the details of place and tend to soak them up, so I can re-create what I have seen in prose.

Place plays a central role in my work, both fiction and nonfiction, to the extent that it sometimes becomes a character. Often when I visit a place, especially in the mountains or on the coast, I am inspired to write a short story or a creative nonfiction piece that has the area as the setting. For instance, a story in my first book, From Here to There and Other Stories, that deals with both the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in Washington and the complicated relationship loggers and their families have to the environment, “Something About Trees,” was inspired by a time when I stayed for a few days in a cabin on Silver Lake not far from Mt. St. Helens. My husband and I owned a cabin for a number of years on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington, which is a stormy, beautiful and sparsely populated place. I have written numerous stories and essays based there, including “Rain Shadow,” which appeared in Kudzu House Quarterly. My most recent book, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace, is an exploration of place and the search for home.

Part of the reason I write is to explore my relationship to various places, and thereby uncover the tone and essence of those areas. In my adult life, I have found myself living in many African American neighborhoods that are beginning to gentrify. This experience led me to write the interconnected stories in my next book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, forthcoming later this year from Cherry Castle Publishing. All of the stories are centered on a neighborhood, whose streets surround Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard.

How does the natural world figure in your writing? The environment? Do you distinguish between the two?

The natural world is central to my writing. I spend as much time as possible outdoors — walking, hiking and kayaking — so this gets reflected in my writing.

In some of my creative nonfiction, I explore the sense of home I feel in the natural world. In my short stories, characters are often interacting with the natural world. For instance, in “The Neighbor,” which appears in my second book, The First to Disappear, Joseph Maboso, a refugee from the Congo living in the United States who has lost most of his family in wars there, begins to heal, after he discovers the joys of gardening. The title story of that book talks about the relationship between the apples grown in the orchards of Eastern Washington and the undocumented Mexican workers who for years have tended and picked them.

I do distinguish between the natural world and the environment. When I think of the environment, I am aware of all the threats to it from climate change, clearcutting, overfishing and pollution. While the natural world often figures in my writing as a healing force, I address the environment in relation to what the threats are doing to it. Much of my fiction can be classified as magical realist and the genre really lends itself to writing about environmental problems in an accessible way. I began my writing career as a journalist, focusing on social issues. Writers who start out as reporters and then switch to fiction often address societal and global concerns in their writing, and this is what I try to do as well.

One of the short story writers I most admire is the late Argentinian writer, Julio Cortazar. What I feel he did in his stories was look at something bad or absurd in life and take it one step further, into the realm of the magical but still real. That is what I try to do in response to the environmental crises we face today. In my stories, I make sure to connect people with their environments. For instance, in my story, “The Island,” which appeared in my first book, a Christian and Muslim woman bond over the loss of an island to rising sea levels they have both enjoyed looking at from their back yards. The story, “Dots,” from The First to Disappear, describes how life changes for some African villagers, including exposure to a strange new disease, when monkeys leave the forest as a result of habitat loss.  

What is the first ecological experience you can remember?

My family moved to Hawaii when I was five. We lived on the Island of Oahu for three years, longer than any other place during my childhood. My father would occasionally drive up the Pali Highway from Honolulu, down to the Windward Coast, where we rented a cabin on the beach. The waves on the Windward Coast were often huge and I learned to bodysurf there, making sure to catch the wave at the exact right moment, so it would rush me into the shore. If I knew I didn’t have time to catch the wave, I would quickly dive under it. That experience cemented my love of the ocean and also my respect for its power. It also gave birth to my need to spend time outdoors, along with a comfort I experience there that I still don’t find any place else.

In addition to riding the waves on the Windward Coast, the drive over the Pali left a profound impression on me. Sometimes, we would stop on the way, at the Nuʻuanu Pali Lookout, where in 1795 King Kamehameha stood and shoved his enemies, the forces of Oahu’s ruling chief Kalanikupule, over the cliff, and take in the lush views of the green Koolau cliffs and the Windward Coast beyond. In my essay, “The Old Pali Road,” that appears in Even When Trapped Behind Clouds, I write about the experience of going back to the Pali decades later, and finding the original road we travelled closed off, with the concrete cracked and bleached and weeds growing up over it.

What experiences have shaped you as a writer?

The experience that has shaped me most as a writer is being an outsider. Growing up in a military family and moving around all the time, I was always the new kid in school, standing outside of things, looking in. Like many military families, mine lived on Air Force bases at times, and at other times, in small towns. When we lived in those small towns, the kids I went to school with had all been in the town their entire lives, as had their parents and grandparents. Because my family traveled a great deal, my parents grew up in a city, Cleveland, Ohio, and my father’s parents were immigrants, I felt more worldly than the civilian kids I went to school with, and therefore, different. This experience turned me into an observer, as well as a person who enjoyed being alone – both important qualities for a writer.

A second, and equally important, experience that also resulted from my military brat upbringing is that I grew up in a multicultural and multiracial environment. The military was, and is even more so today, much more diverse than American society as a whole. I had friends of all different races and many mixed-race friends, especially mixed Asian/African American. Times I lived in a small town and went to school there, I was keenly aware of how segregated housing was and that kids of different races really didn’t hang out together. The experience led me to be concerned about racism and social justice, and this is something that comes up frequently in my writing. My characters are often of different races, religions and cultures. In my stories, I like to explore some of the flashpoints of intolerance in this country.

About the Author

Patty Somlo’s most recent books are The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), a Finalist in the 2016 International Book Awards and a Finalist in the 2016 Best Book Awards, and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing). Her fourth book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, will be published by Cherry Castle Publishing in 2017. She has received four Pushcart Prize nominations, been nominated for storySouth Million Writers Award and had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays 2014. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, and Sheepshead Review, and in numerous anthologies. “If She Were a Butterfly” was previously published in the anthology, Dove Tales (Writing for Peace), and in Somlo’s collection, The First to Disappear.

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