Mandeliene Smith – not Madeline, more on that in a moment – has had a long career leading up to her debut collection. It was worth the wait because the stories that inhabit Rutting Season offer an honest and varied look into the everyday lives of her characters.
She twists and turns her way through the highlights and low moments with such grace and determination. It’s easy to forget you’re reading a short story as you turn from page to page due to her precise tone and mood. What makes this short story collection stand out is how she manages to keep a thematic undertone throughout each story – not one feels out of place – but also keeps every page fresh.
I corresponded with Smith regarding how her personal history and experiences led to a near perfect debut collection.
I love names and the history of names. Yours stood out to me instantly. When I google “Mandeliene” by itself, you still show up for pages. Is it a family name or is there a story behind it?
Mandeliene is an old family name—from my maternal grandmother and her grandmother before her, although my great grandmother was apparently called “Mack” for short, not Mandy as I am. I’m not sure where it originally came from, since it’s not spelled the way it would be in French or German, which is where that part of the family originated. I’m guessing there was a spelling error somewhere along the line, but now the name is engraved on headstones, inked on birth certificates, etc., so we’re sort of stuck with it. When I was a kid, I found my name mortifying, of course. Why couldn’t my parents have named me Amanda? Or, better yet, Jennifer? All the normal girls were named Jennifer, or so it seemed to me.
Can you tell me a little about your background and what led to Rutting Season being your debut work?
I grew up in the city of New Haven, CT, but my family spent most weekends and nearly the entire summer at an old farm in Chester, MA, so I had a kind of split life—half urban, half rural—which I think comes through in the stories. In fact, I think the whole collection probably springs from my childhood in one way or another. The humor, and the theme of loss, are both a legacy from my father, who died when I was ten, and the preoccupation with instinct and animals comes from my mom, who has always been deeply engaged with the world of nature. So maybe what led to Rutting Season being my debut work was just that it was the book I had to write before I could move on and write other things.
Your stories seemingly feature the average and the everyday. Yet, you find beauty in the small moments of these lives of these characters. What draws you to observing and telling these types of stories?
I think what interests me is the question of what makes us do what we do. So often, it seems to me, the forces that shape our actions are things within ourselves that we don’t understand or aren’t even aware of. I once heard an interview with the neuroscientist David Eagleman in which he described the human brain as a collection of rival “neural populations” that duke it out to control our behavior. That idea makes a lot of sense to me, so maybe that’s why I tend to focus on the “small moments,” as you put it: since most of my stories are efforts to examine those inner drivers, the everyday holds a lot of interest for me.
A lot of people have commented on the range of characters in the book, which was surprising to me since all the stories derive from fragments of my own experience
You cover such a wide variety of characters. A young girl in school, a redneck with a shotgun, a family on a farm. They all feel different and sound original from one another. How much time does it take to inhabit these people? How do you go about crafting such unique voices?
A lot of people have commented on the range of characters in the book, which was surprising to me since all the stories derive from fragments of my own experience, and I don’t think of that as particularly wide-ranging. On the other hand, I’ve bumped up against a number of different social worlds in the course of my life—I think maybe we all do—and that has always sort of electrified me. That people have such divergent views and experiences of the world both disturbs and fascinates me, especially their differing views of what is “good” or “right.” Maybe because of this I’ve always had a certain compulsion to try to look through other people’s eyes, so that might have affected my choice of subject matter. To answer your question about the characters’ voices, they either come to me or they don’t. If I can’t hear the way they think, I can’t write about them, so the writing and the voice are one and the same for me, really.
A standout for me was the final story in the collection: “Animals.” Can you tell me more about the background of the story? How it was conceived, the process, and finalizing it? Was there a purpose of having it end the collection?
The idea for “Animals” had been in my mind for a while, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it work until I read “Lust,” a wonderful story by Susan Minot that is written as a sort of list. That idea, of approaching the story as a list, finally gave me a way to organize it. The subject matter comes from my childhood, specifically the summers we spent on that old farm. My mother has always been a great lover of animals and we had a quite a few—dogs, cats, horses. We loved our animals and spent much of our childhood caring for them, but we also killed animals, and we also ate them. This story was an exploration of that cognitive dissonance. It was also an effort to evoke the larger dilemma of being human—the fact that, despite our intelligence and ability to empathize, we are animals and therefore inextricably enmeshed in the vast hunger game of the planet. To me, that was one of the themes of the collection as a whole, so it felt right to end with the narrator of “Animals” holding the bird in her hand, once again confronted with her complicity in that web of predator and prey. I’m indebted to my agent, Rob McQuilkin, for coming up with the idea of ending the collection with that story.
I often find writers with collections love all of their stories, but one stands out personally for them. Do you have a gem in this collection? What makes it stand out for you?
I don’t have a favorite, really. I can’t even really see the stories objectively, they are too mixed up with what I remember about the process of creating them. Some, like “Animals” and “Rutting Season,” came quickly but others were difficult and almost unbearably slow. Writing “The Someday Cat,” for instance, was like trying to figure out an escape room wearing a blindfold and shackles. I guess my feeling about all the stories at this point is one of gratitude and relief: I’m grateful that I had the chance to write them, and I’m relieved they’re off my desk and out in the world.
One thing I heard friends talking about and some websites commenting on was the gorgeous cover of the collection. What does the cover capture in terms of the collection? Why choose to represent that?
I’m so glad to hear that. The cover is the work of Grace Han, who somehow managed to capture the spirit of the book and make it look beautiful, too. The image of the bird sitting on a hand echoes the last paragraph of the last story in the book, (“Animals”). The image itself is from an Audubon print, which could have looked merely decorative or pretty, but by making the hand ghostly and tilting the image just so, Han gave it a strange, slightly off-kilter feel, which I think is perfect for these stories.
Moving forward, where do you hope to take your writing? More stories? A novel? Is there any topics or themes you hope to explore?
I’m working on an historical novel about a 19th century farm girl who becomes convinced that God is calling her to preach. I’m not exactly sure what drew me to that story—I often don’t quite know why I’m writing something until it’s finished—but it combines a bunch of things that interest me: the question of what is “good” and what it means to be redeemed, and also the double-edged sword of industrialization, which both shredded the bonds of community and opened up new opportunities for women. I think there is also something about the main character’s struggle to find her public voice that I want to explore. The prejudices that were explicit back then—that women shouldn’t speak in public, for instance—are still alive in our culture now, it seems to me. They’re just hidden or disguised as something else (that particular woman is a liar, or a slut or a crook, etc.). It’s been interesting to write about a woman going out of bounds in a time when those prohibitions were right out in the open.