I am lucky because I had a professor there, Susan Kenney, who mentored me long after I had graduated from Colby. I took a couple of writing workshops with her my junior and senior years. After I graduated, I was working at a Victoria’s Secret in the Staten Island Mall. Susan sent me a manuscript I had handed in, and wrote: This is too good to throw away. Since then she’s mentored me for over ten years, read my work, and helped me apply for graduate school. I am incredibly grateful for everything she has done for me.
The voice in these stories is so distinctive. Is it Staten Island?
I mean, that’s the hope, right. I wanted to capture the voices of a diverse group of islanders to tell a story about this place that’s not often written about. At the same time, I tried to revisit key historical moments on the island. I wanted to provide a portrait of these people much in the same way that Chaucer does of medieval life in The Canterbury Tales.
Writers are often advised to write what they know. Are these characters drawn from your life? If so, how directly?
All of these characters are fictional. They’re not based on real people in my life, but the situations that they face living on the island are very real. I wanted to talk about the challenges of racism, gentrification, and addiction. I wanted to talk about how the ferry crash of 2003 seemed to me to signal the beginning of the opioid epidemic. I try very hard to make my characters feel and sound real, without directly basing them on people in real life.
Staten Island, Colby, Vanderbilt, Nebraska: What has driven you to pursue your writing?
I love writing, and I’ve been writing since I was a little girl. And at one point I just realized this is what I want to do with my life. So I went at it full force, even though it’s kind of a thankless profession.
In the story “Great Kills,” the narrator, Toni, observes: You can say whatever you want about people like me and Lisa, but what a lot of folks don’t realize is that when you’ve gone through the things that we’ve gone through, it makes you scrappy in ways that a lot of other people are not.
Are you scrappy? If so, have you had to be in order to become a writer?
As you probably already know, a writer’s life is full of rejection! So you kind of have to be persistent. In this way, I’ve been pretty scrappy, although I can’t promise that this is true for other areas of my life. But no matter where I was in my career, I tried to craft out space and time for me to write. I didn’t give up.