Books A Conversation With PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 Author Maud Streep
“You can fall in love with a place in a way that’s just as made-up and selective as how you fall in love with a person.”
On August 21, Catapult published PEN America Best Debut Short Stories 2018 , the second edition of an anthology celebrating outstanding new fiction writers published by literary magazines around the world. In the upcoming weeks, we’ll feature Q&As with the contributors, whose stories were selected for PEN’s Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and for the anthology by judges Jodi Angel, Lesley Nneka Arimah, and Alexandra Kleeman. “The Crazies” is about a young couple whose lives are changed on an elk- hunting trip in Montana.
Maud Streep is from Nyack, New York, and lives in Brooklyn. A 2017 NYC Emerging Writers Fellow at the Center for Fiction, she has received scholarships and fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Lighthouse Works, VCCA, Djerassi, and Yaddo. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana.
I met Jake working at a ghost town in western Montana the summer I turned twenty-two. I had just graduated from Yale and was “doing something different.” Jake played a cowboy, and my best friend Liza and I played whores. We leaned over wooden balconies to holler at the tourists, our white cotton chemises pulled low over corset-hoisted boobs. Every day at noon and four, Jake broke up a gunfight in the street while Liza and I fanned our jaded faces. We bunked in a long-stay motel at the edge of town and spent our nights drinking in our rooms, on the roof, in the parking lot out back. I’d sit by Jake and feel the space between us go live.
One night we hit an emergency: Liza ran out of cigarettes. Jake had bummed too many the night before. I told him I would come along for the ride. We were still in our work clothes, so after I’d backed him up against the door of his truck, and after he’d helped me into its bed, it took some concentration to lose the chaps and stays. And then, naked behind the gas station in the light-stained August twilight, free from all that, I thought: I could wear this sweat forever.
Catapult: Where did you find the idea for this story?
Maud Streep: The short version is that I’d spent most of my life on the East Coast and then I moved to Montana. The long version: On my drive out, I learned from some family friends over near Big Timber that several years earlier, a fire had devastated a chunk of their property and taken with it a whole archive of family heirlooms. And then within the first couple weeks of my arrival, ash flakes the size of dimes started floating out of red skies. Before that, I’d never even known that a thing called fire season existed—I thought wildfires were freak events. The whole time I lived there, I thought a lot about the mythologized West, and about a certain kind of literary canon of the West, and about my own specific Montana myths. You can fall in love with a place in a way that’s just as made-up and selective as how you fall in love with a person.
The narrator of “The Crazies” speaks with authority about her experiences camping, hunting, wildfires, and living in Montana. Where did you learn about these topics, and how did you settle on this setting?
Well, the setting is the story to me—that’s what got me going. And in terms of camping, hunting, etc., that was a combination of my own experiences and research.
The editor, Will Allison, talks about the “halo glow” of your story’s early pages—how innocent and carefree Jake and the narrator’s relationship feels in the beginning. Was it difficult to make the decision to separate them at the end, or did that feel inevitable to you as the story went on?
It seemed inevitable from the beginning, to be honest, and like a kinder outcome for the two of them than staying together.
The PEN American Best Debut Short Stories was published during one of the worst wildfire seasons in history. Do you hope your story will have a dialogue with the present, and if so, how?
I’m interested in how human actions impact the environment around us—both in terms of small daily actions and in terms of bigger historical choices—and in the reverse: how what’s going on in the environment impacts our human actions. And I do think the story is engaged with those ideas, though I didn’t write it as any kind of stern lecture or anything. But if the story gets people thinking about wildfires and what’s caused the situation to get so bad, then so much the better, because it’s only going to get worse. Cheerful!
How long did it take you to write this story?
Five years, give or take.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
It’s been a kick in the pants, something to get me moving when I’m dragging my writing feet. It gave me an immediate feeling of connection to the wider reading and writing world instead of just living in my brain. Plus, now I have all these new writers to follow. I’m tremendously grateful.
What are you working on now?
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
The recommendations of friends; literary magazines; book reviews.