Rhonda Browning-White on her first book: The Lightness of Water & Other Stories

Tell us a little about your book and the process of writing it. How long have you worked on the collection?
The nine stories in The Lightness of Water & Other Stories feature strong characters such as West Virginia miners, Florida bikers, Tennessee granny women, and Virginia professors, who grapple with—and sometimes overcome—harsh issues that many of us face; loneliness, loss, grief, and guilt. I began work on this collection during my studies at the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program. Some of the stories (in earlier form) were part of my creative thesis, while others are newer. Overall, the collection has taken about nine years to come together in its final form. The “10,000 Hours Rule” certainly held truth, for me, and I’m now looking forward to finding out what the next 10,000 hours of study will do for my writing. 

The+Lightness+of+Water+by+Rhonda+Browning+WhiteWhen and where can we find it?
Pre-orders ship from my publisher, Press 53, on September 15th, though the collection will be available everywhere on October 12, 2019.

Can you talk a little about what informs your writing? How do you start a new story?
Everything around me informs my writing. I’m a chronic eavesdropper, so anything you say can, and will, be used as fodder for my writing. My fiction is character-driven, and that’s where my stories start—with a character. The characters in my stories are often a montage of people I’ve seen or met or heard speak. Sometimes one small action, or one snippet of overheard dialogue, will be enough to get my brain churning, and then I’ll see someone who would be the perfect person to say that line, or there will be an awful event in which I could place that person and have them say that line, and then I’m down the rabbit hole to storyland.

How do you know you have enough stories worth collecting into a book-length manuscript? Can you talk a little bit about how you shaped this collection, the decisions that went into arranging the stories and selecting them?
It’s a tedious, technical decision: I count the pages. Seriously, when I reached around 150 pages of strong writing, and half of those stories (now more than half) were published in well-respected literary magazines, I felt ready to submit them as a collection.

Arranging the stories took a bit more thought. I always knew I wanted the stories “Bondservant,” and “The Big Empty” to be bookend stories for the collection. (They also appear as chapters one and four in my novel-in-progress.) I felt the title story, “The Lightness of Water,” should spearhead the center. After that, I arranged the rest by working toward a rollercoaster of emotions; one story ending on a hopeful note, followed by a story that’s a bit more fatalistic, followed by one with more humor, and so on.

Can you talk a little about how a sense of place informs your writing? Is place what inspires you as a writer?
I could argue that place is a character, as the land is a living being that breathes and moves and affects us as much as we affect it. Place and environment—what the land means to us, and what me mean to the land on which we live—is always either a strong presence, a shifting shadow, or an eerie echo in my stories. It’s always there, and it always informs the way in which my characters respond to whatever is happening to them. It’s a fictional reflection of the vein of truth that runs through each of us: We are where we are from. What inspiration is greater than that?

What’s it like publishing your first book? Did you learn anything with this first one that you that you think will benefit you in working on a second book?
It’s thrilling, it’s scary, and it’s a whole lot more work than I ever imagined it could be. I learned a lot about contracts. I was fortunate to receive two offers for my debut collection on the same day. It felt joyfully surreal, but then the reality of choosing—and possibly choosing incorrectly—set in, and I’ll admit that sapped a bit of the fun from the excitement. I relied on writers who are a lot smarter than I am (this is where networking is critical for new writers!), and I shared the two contracts with a few well-published authors who weighed in with their firsthand experiences. I quickly learned there’s no such thing as a “standard publishing contract,” as each was quite different. I researched terms that were strange to me; second serial rights, electronic rights, foreign licensing, and so on. I did more math than I’m ever comfortable doing, comparing percentages and net and gross figures. I considered logistics such as the geographical scope of influence of both publishers; how easily I could travel to their locations; what is the reach, impact, and success of their current authors; and what is the reputation of each press in the academic and writing communities at large? Equally important for me was the comfort level of talking with both publishers. To which publisher and editor could I best relate? Who responded rapidly and patiently to my questions? Who was most willing to negotiate contract terms? (Yes, you can negotiate with a small press!) It felt risky to question some of the articles in the contracts, and even riskier to ask for changes (I’m a newbie and fortunate to be here, so how dare I ask for these things!), but now I’m confident that I made the right choice for this particular point in my fledgling career. I feel better equipped as both a writer and as a businesswoman to handle my next book and publishing contract.

Who are you reading? What books might we find on your bedside table right now?I’ve just started The Land Breakers by John Ehle, touted to be the first non-stereotypical work of Appalachian literature. Next in the stack is The Last Girls by Lee Smith, whose strong female characters always inspire me. My current craft book is Screenplay by Syd Field. I fluctuate from immersive reading (reading work that relates to or may influence my current work-in-progress), to reading craft-of-writing books—much the same way we read in the Converse MFA program.

I also read a fair amount of poetry, because the rhythm and lyricism and focused lens of poetry gives my fiction a more resonant voice. May Darkness Restore, by Sean Sexton is proving to be a gorgeous braid of the life-and-death cycles of humans, animals, and the land we share, and I’m reading at least a couple of poems from his collection each night before bed. Glenis Redmond’s collection What My Hand Say is next up in my poetry stack.

What do you do when you aren’t writing?
When is a writer not writing? I feel like I’m creatively writing when I’m driving, or cleaning, or cooking, or simply staring out a window. Physically, I still work full-time, managing three primary care clinics and an urgent care, and I often encounter character-inspiration there. I sometimes speak to classrooms or writing groups or teach workshops. For fun, I enjoy staycationing in different areas of Florida on the weekends, as there’s always something to do here, and there’s a story every place I go. Which, again, means I’m always writing.

You completed your MFA in fiction at Converse College. Can you talk a little bit RBWHeadshotabout why you pursued the MFA and how your time in the Converse program impacted you as a writer?
My friend Chris Kuell told me that I was a very good storyteller, but a terrible writer. (Yes, we’re still friends!) I realized that, unless I took my writing seriously, no one else would. Committing to a low-residency program, leaving my family for weeks at a time, in addition to redirecting my focus to graduate work, felt selfish, but it was exactly what I needed as a writer and as a person. My husband and son supported my efforts and grew along with me.

The Converse MFA program provided direction, discipline, and encouraging support. It was tough—Converse puts the earn in earning an MFA—but in the best of ways. My writing grew measurably each week, and the skills I learned outside of writing (deep reading, critical thinking, networking, and public speaking, for example) go with me everywhere, even improving my work as a medical manager and a teacher. I’m still in touch almost daily with my Converse MFA family—and I do think of them as family. We support one another’s careers, critique each other’s work, commiserate and grow from our failures, and share our successes.

Finally, are you doing any readings or presentations to promote the new book? If so, where might readers find you?
Yes, the book tour planning is underway! Following a launch party in Port Orange, Florida on October 12th, I’ll be signing books at the Red Pig Brewery in Holly Hill, Florida on October 20th, then speaking and reading at the Other Words Conference at the University of Tampa on October 25thand 26th. My website’s Events page lists details on these and other book signings, readings, and workshops where I’ll be speaking in Florida, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. I’m (gleefully!) available for readings and workshops, and I’m happy to meet with book clubs or classrooms via Zoom, Facetime, Skype, or in person (schedule and location permitting) to discuss writing or read from my stories. Reach out to me via my website Read.Write.Live! at www.RhondaBrowningWhite.com. Interacting with readers and other writers is the most rewarding part of publication, and I’m thrilled to inspire and be inspired by our exchange of ideas!

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