*This post is part of a series of blog posts highlighting award winning contributors in Scribendi’s 2014 issue.
Kelsey Mammen is author of the WRHC award-winning fiction piece “Red Dancers”, a story that chronicles one man’s rehabilitation and redemption through his involvement in a mustang training program at a state penitentiary. Kelsey, who lives and works about a thousand miles from our office in Albuquerque, was gracious enough to answer a few questions about “Red Dancers” and her creative process over email—her internet connection, she warned, was too unreliable for Skype and an email correspondence would better agree with her demanding schedule.
Luckily for us, where she might have taken a few days to craft her words, she opted instead for the purity of the quick response—within hours of sending my questions, she replied with what you see here. I offer them here in their original format in hopes that her responses will encourage a greater appreciation of her work and illumine the pathways of your own creative journey.
17 April 2014—
Q: ”Red Dancers” is set in Nevada, where you’re from. Do you consider Nevada home? Do you consider yourself a Nevadan writer? A Southwestern writer?
A: I consider Nevada home and always will. I was born and raised in Northern Nevada. There are things that ground me here, things that create, the “I’m home” feeling. The mountains tell me where I am no matter how many circles I spin. The dry smell of sage and dust mixed with the heat of summer drudges up memories of childhood trail rides. A sign staked outside a prison reads, “Horse Auction, this Saturday. Public welcome,” and inspires me to write a story.
Q: Your author bio reveals that you’re pursuing a certification in therapeutic horseback riding, a theme that finds its way into “Red Dancers”. Generally speaking, how much of your work is rooted in experience and how much is pure fiction?
A: Horses are my first and lifelong love. Many of my characters have horses in their lives, and though the stories may not be “about” horses, they are examples of my experiences coming to life in my fiction. “Red Dancers” contains much of my own experience. My grandfather is the brand inspector for the mustang auctions at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center and has been since the program started. I grew up hearing about the training program, but as a blonde, petite young woman I wasn’t allowed to accompany my grandfather to the prison. I only witnessed the auctions, so much of the story has to be pure fiction. As a distant but adoring spectator, I was able to bring the story of one prisoner and his mustang to the page in a way only achievable through fiction.
Q: One of the strengths of “Red Dancers” is its exploration of orthodox masculinity and of male relationships; Kelsey, you, seem so comfortable covering these themes that I originally mistook you for a male writer. What was it that inspired you to explore these themes? Did you find yourself channeling certain male figures in your life onto the page?
A: I am very close with my maternal grandfather and father, not only in my relationships with them but also in temperament. I’m not entirely sure what makes me so comfortable in the male psyche, but I think it has a lot to do with understanding my male characters as well as my female characters. As a female writer, I think that I was able to pull this story off because I knew the main character, Eugene, so well. He’s a composite of all the male energy in my life and I loved him before I wrote the first words. I also believe, that as a woman writer I have a natural curiosity for male themes. I want to understand them, explore them, and one of the ways I can do this is through writing. I’m enthralled with the idea of what it means to be “a man” in all different forms. And I’m interested in how men navigate the complicated relationships around them and what changes them and what doesn’t. I knew my character, and knowing him originated from my empathy for him.
Q: There is a clear “red” motif in this piece. Was that a conscious decision or more incidental? What does red mean in the context of this piece?
A: The red motif started as incidental and became somewhat intentional as I got further along. I didn’t realize how prominent it was until I finished the story and went looking for a title. I view red as a masculine color. It’s the color of blood, of life. Often times it’s paired with themes of war and masculinity. It’s a passionate and empowering color. “Seeing red” is an expression used to describe someone who is angry or aggressive. Bull fighters flaunt red capes. And if a man wants to romance a woman, he buys her red roses. In this story red symbolizes Eugene’s male empowerment. “Red Dancers” is a redemption story for Eugene, and the color red pulses in the background of his journey.
Q: Do you think Eugene leaves prison and goes to work on a ranch? What is it about life on a ranch that’s better for Eugene than life in the city?
A: What I imagined for Eugene at the end of the story is hope. There is hope that he will leave prison and find something to do. And, yes, in my own mind I imagine Eugene going to work for the man who buys his horse. In reality, Eugene’s life after prison could look very different.
Eugene as a character is the kind of person who does better on a ranch than in a city because in a city he feels confined, compressed, whereas on a ranch he has the land and horses to fill him up.
Q: Switching gears. I’d like to ask you a few questions about yourself and about your creative process. What was it that first turned you onto writing? Was it a book you read? A teacher, a sibling, or a parent? What was it that made you decide “I want to write”?
A: I didn’t write fiction before I went to college. I took a very beginning creative writing class, and thought, “I kind of like this. I have some stories in me. I just need to learn how to get them out.” In all honesty, it was this story, “Red Dancers” that inspired me to be a writer. It was the first story I wrote for my more advanced creative writing class, and my professor, Curtis Vickers, who is now my friend and mentor, pulled me aside after my workshop and basically said, “You’ve got it. This is good.” His feedback on a story so close to my heart is what made me decide, “I can do this thing. I can write.”
Q: Who are some of your favorite authors? Who are you reading now?
A: Right now I am reading Louise Erdrich’s “Love Medicine.” I’m fascinated with the grace she infuses into her Native American stories and characters. Her writing pulses with authenticity, which is always something I strive for in my own writing.
Some of my all time favorites: Annie Proulx, Alice Munro, Pam Houston, Cormac McCarthy, Willy Vlautin, and Zora Neale Hurston.
Q: How often do you write? Do you set apart time to write each day, or do you write best when inspiration strikes? Where do you get your best writing done? A study carrel, the library, a comfy chair?
A: I wish I could say I’m one of those dedicated writers who writes every day, nose to the grindstone, no matter what; but I’m not. Creativity builds up for me. I’ll get inspiration, and then the stories come to me in pieces. I’ll think of a scene while I’m cleaning horse stalls, I’ll hear a conversation between two characters while I’m driving. I write best when all these pieces start to come together and I can’t help but write. When it gets like that I can write anywhere.
My last story I wrote on a borrowed iPad in the back of a truck on the road from Colorado to Nevada. I wish I could write all my stories like that. Most often I write on my laptop at my desk in my apartment, which I try to make as inspiring a place as humanly possible.
Q: Laptop, tablet, or pen and paper? Why?
A: Again, when I need to write something, I write it on whatever is available. I prefer my laptop, because that’s where everything will end up anyway, but I’ve been known to write down a scene on paper, on my phone, or on a tablet.
Q: Who do you write for?
A: My characters.
Q: Lastly, where did you hear about Scribendi? Who or what was it that made you want to submit your work to us? Can you please submit again next year?
A: My undergraduate thesis was a short story collection. The director of my honors program, Dr. Tamara Valentine, advised me to submit one of the stories to Scribendi–I’m thankful for her advice. I will come up with a story that is worthy of submission next year, too. 🙂
I’m grateful to Scribendi for this opportunity.