Erica Plouffe Lazure is quick to explain that she is not a Southerner nor a Southern writer. But what exactly is a Southerner or a Southern writer today? Are such distinctions based on the accident of birth? On the range of time and experience? How do perspective, talent and empathy work into the equations? I’ve heard every side of these arguments over the years. All I know for certain is that regardless of the way she self-identifies, the stories in Erica Plouffe Lazure’s linked-story collection Proof of Me authentically center on a small square of land called Mewborn, North Carolina, a place born out of Erica’s lived experience as much as from her imagination. Erica was kind enough to answer some of my questions about putting these stories together, about her submission process, and about winning the prestigious New American Press Fiction Prize.
DL: How long did it take you to write the stories in Proof of Me? Can you talk about how some of these stories link together and how those links impacted the shaping of the collection?
EPL: The stories in Proof of Me go back from when I first started pursuing creative writing—as early as 2005. Some were completed and published right away; others sat as drafts that I’d revisit and revise from time to time. I always keep a folder of stories that are “workable” but as of yet incomplete, and as I set out to help round out the stories and voices in this collection, they were integral.
I enjoy the editing process, and believe that, especially when you’re feeling stuck with a particular story, setting it aside for a while and returning to it can help shake loose its arc, and get it into publishable shape. Combing through each story one by one can help you to see how they might all fit together. Initially, I had not set out to link the stories (geographically or otherwise) in earlier configurations of the collection, but in the early days of the pandemic, I decided to dust off the collection, print it out, and see how I might more consciously connect each story to the other. I’d already written several pieces about some of the characters (like the Weaver sisters, or Cassidy Penelope), and so those stories became natural anchors for the larger collection. From there, I reworked some of the other pieces to connect more organically to other characters in the collection, or found ways to tie back stories that were set outside of Mewborn to the town itself. If I hadn’t allowed myself the flexibility to change certain aspects of the stories as I’d initially envisioned them, I’m not sure the collection would have been as strong.
DL: These stories are set in a range of locations such as Nashville and Boston and as far away as India, but each story is centered emotionally around Mewborn, North Carolina. Was it helpful in your writing process to create your own Yoknapatawpha County?
EPL: Mewborn the town is very much an imagined community, a bit of a hybrid of the small city of Greenville, in Pitt County (where I’d lived for about eight years), certain parts of Eastern Carolina, and my own hometown in Massachusetts. The name Mewborn is taken from a small crossing close to Kinston, but I chose it because I liked the sound of the name, and did not want (like Faulkner, I would guess) to have to adhere to the actual historical particulars of Pitt County while crafting a fictional work. And yet, a strong sense of place—about a small town, about how families and neighbors live and function alongside each other, about how even those who leave their hometown are still tethered to it—is what I hope surfaces in this collection. And as I mentioned earlier, I hadn’t intended the stories to be linked when I first set out to write them, but the revision process enabled me to see how I was, in fact, writing of, or about, the same place all along. And I should note that, for the record, I am not from the South, nor do I claim to be a Southerner, but I am very much a student of its literature, and I had never written a word of fiction until I moved to North Carolina.
DL: Can you describe the time between writing and publishing these stories? How did you connect with New American Press? Were there many rejections along the way?
EPL: Since about 2009, I had submitted various versions of Proof of Me to book prize contests offered by smaller presses. I like to joke how I almost renamed the collection The Bridesmaid, because it had been a finalist or runner-up in at least a half-dozen or so competitions (including New American Press, which eventually took it). But I think my effort to substantially rework the collection to make it more directly linked, geographically and thematically, worked in my favor. Rejection is part and parcel of the publishing game, and at some point, you understand that it’s not because the work isn’t any good; it’s more of what fits with the vision of the press, and the aesthetic tastes of the contest judge (or editor). I haven’t really gone the agent route—the agents I’ve had conversations with were always asking about my novel (! Don’t ask !) and were not interested in story collections. I’ve found there is certainly an interest and demand for short stories, but I guess we story writers have more work to do in making a convincing case to big publishers.
DL: Do you have advice for writers who hope to publish story collections?
EPL: This is rather technical advice, but something that helped me to envision my collection AS a collection was printing it all out (1.5 spacing, double-sided) and then read it aloud and edit with a pen in hand. I would make notes of key objects, characters or themes in a notebook, and then look for spots where those objects (sewing machines, dice, cars) might show up in another story. In some cases, I realized that, with a name change and a shift in a few key details, a story that might not have been part of the collection could be transformed into another piece of the Mewborn puzzle.
As far as submitting your work, I suggest that you research the publisher first to make sure it will be a good fit. Some publishers will want you to chip in for paying for a publicist (and there goes your advance), others might not do much in terms of promotion, or expect you to do much of that work yourself. I suggest researching a few past winners of story collections prizes of publishers that you’re interested in, and see how their books fared (via reviews, or press interest, or readings). Smaller presses tend not to have big budgets for book launches, so be aware of that.
DL: What are you working on now?
EPL: I’ve been working on a collection of flash stories under the thematic title Desire Path. It’s a term often used by city planners and landscapers to describe a “footpath made through foliage or grass by repeated traffic, rather than laid out by design.” I plan to take this literal definition in a metaphorical direction, where each of my characters will aspire for something guided by their desires, instincts and travels, and endeavor to carve a path of their own making to attain it. It is slow-going, but I’m enjoying discovering how each story might bend toward (or even challenge!) the established theme.
Huge thanks to Erica Plouffe Lazure for speaking to me about her new book. Don’t forget to order Proof of Me now. Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll share a writing exercise from Erica based on one of her short stories. Make sure you never miss a post by subscribing here: