H E A T H E R N E W T O N
i n t e r v i e w
COMP: Congratulations on the publication of McMullen Circle (Regal House, 2022), a finalist for the W.S Porter Prize. It’s an incredible achievement. Can you tell readers how you came to write the book? What about this complex cast of characters most intrigued you and kept you returning to the page?
Heather Newton: The first story I wrote (“The Walk”) was based on my husband’s memories of seeing Karl Wallenda tightrope walk across Tallulah Gorge in the summer of 1970. By the time I started the third story with this setting and characters I realized I was writing a collection, and began to use the stories as a repository for my own childhood memories of growing up in Raleigh, NC, in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It was the era of the idyllic “free-range childhood,” and yet even the most isolated communities couldn’t escape the turbulence of the time. I wanted to capture that and the McMullen School characters kept calling me back and offering me more opportunities to do so.
COMP: McMullen Circle is a linked short story collection, or a novel-in-stories, or a short story cycle. How would you define or describe the book’s relationship between form and genre? Were there books—we thought of Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid and William March’s Company K—that served as models or sparring partners?
Heather Newton: Whatever label you prefer, the form of interconnected stories offers two things in particular that caused me to choose it. First, closure. I wrote these stories over a period of ten years while I was also writing novels. Novels hang over one’s head for years and I inevitably get bogged down in the “muddle in the middle.” Writing stories gave me the satisfaction of finishing something and saved my sanity. I think (hope) readers also enjoy getting closure at the end of each story even as they follow the larger arc of the collection. The second experience that this form offers is that readers form one impression of a character which they then have to abandon when that character gets his or her own story. I like the way that invites the reader to revisit earlier stories and revise their perception of a character. For example, the five stories that precede “The Preferred Embodiment” present headmaster Richard Pierce as uptight, humorless and not likable, but in “The Preferred Embodiment” we see that he loves his young daughter deeply to the point that he is willing to appear ridiculous for her. That redemption challenges the reader’s earlier assumptions. I admire Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, for the way she unifies the stories with place, character and theme. I tried to do the same in McMullen Circle.
COMP: What does place mean to you as a writer and to McMullen Circle in particular? Why did you choose to fictionalize actual locations?
Heather Newton: Place plays an important role in most of my fiction, and I believe the secret to writing place well is to write about places you love. When a place has your heart, writing its sights, sounds, smells and tastes comes naturally. I inherited my love of North Georgia from my husband, who grew up in Tallulah Falls (his dad taught at Tallulah Falls School). His family moved away when he was eight, but he began going back as soon as he could drive himself, and now we own a home in Clayton. I changed a letter or two in the place names in McMullen Circle to signal to readers that I was fictionalizing and not attempting historical accuracy. For example, there may not have been a movie theater in Cornelia in 1969, but I placed one in the fictionalized Cordelia and subjected it to a firebombing. I wanted to give a flavor of the towns of North Georgia but free myself to invent any elements I felt the stories needed.
COMP: “The Preferred Embodiment” has a moving and deeply satisfying character arc. (We especially love how the falling sensation Richard “sometimes feels at night” returns.) One feels that the story must end that way, that no other conclusion is possible. But writing is, for most of us, a spectacularly inefficient enterprise—just a series of blunders and small discoveries. How do you know when a story’s working and when it’s finished?
Heather Newton: It can be hard to know when to “stick a fork” in a story and declare it finished, though I usually know from the outset the feeling I want to leave readers with at the end, even if I’m not quite sure how to achieve it. I was lucky to have written nine of these stories while taking an ongoing workshop with writer Tommy Hays, author of The Pleasure Was Mine, over a period of several semesters. The feedback from Tommy and the other students in the class was incredibly valuable and helped me revise the stories so that they came closer to having the impact I intended. I would encourage any writer to seek out trusted readers to help them know when a story is ready to send out into the world.