“Upping the Challenge”: An Interview with John Vanderslice

One of my favorite literary couples: Stephanie Vanderslice and John Vanderslice.
One of my favorite literary couples: Stephanie Vanderslice and John Vanderslice.

(A version of this interview was published in the November 2014 issue of The Practicing Writer.)

I met John Vanderslice many years ago through his wife, Stephanie, with whom I’d become acquainted through some AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) activities. In fact, I can still visualize John and Stephanie and their two [then-little] boys sitting at a nearby table in a Chicago coffee shop during the 2004 AWP conference. I’ve admired John’s writing and for many years have followed his blogging efforts as well. And today I’m here to sing the praises of John’s new book of linked short stories set on Nantucket, Massachusetts: Island Fog (Lavender Ink).

John Vanderslice teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Arkansas, where he also serves as associate editor of Toad Suck Review magazine. His fiction, poetry, essays, and one-act plays have appeared in Seattle Review, Laurel Review, Sou’wester, Crazyhorse, Southern Humanities Review, 1966, Exquisite Corpse, and dozens of other journals. He has also published short stories in several fiction anthologies, including Appalachian Voice, Redacted Story, Chick for a Day, The Best of the First Line: Editors Picks 2002-2006, and Tartts: Incisive Fiction from Emerging Writers. 

Please welcome John Vanderslice!

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): John, the most obvious connecting thread that weaves throughout ISLAND FOG is the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts, where the stories take place. How did this commonality emerge? Did you set out to write diverse stories–in temporal setting, character, and style–that all took place in one location? Or did you realize at some point that, among all your writings over time, you had created this cluster of work set there?

JOHN VANDERSLICE (JV): More the latter. With my wife and her family, I’ve visited Nantucket several times since the mid-90s. My early trips amounted to just soaking in the physical surroundings and the exotic quality of the place. For a boy from below the Mason-Dixon line, this tiny little island 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts, with its pronounced New England look and feel, and yet at the same time with visitors coming to it from all over the world, was just a revelation.

Eventually I realized that, as a fiction writer, I could and should write about the place. So on one trip, early in the “aughts,” I began a series of stories set on the island. Contemporary stories. Writing a book was the furthest thing on my mind. I just wanted to write some stories. And I did. Six in all, and I eventually published half of them. I thought I was done.

Many years later, on a 2011 trip, I realized that Nantucket, with its rich and abiding history, is the perfect locus for historical fiction. So I started a series of historical stories. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I could combine those stories with the earlier ones and make a complete Nantucket book.

ED: The opening story, “Guilty Look,” takes place back in 1795, and you note in the book’s front matter that it is rooted in a true incident: the Nantucket Bank robbery of that year. It also one of the two longest stories in the book (I’ve seen it described as a novella). How did you realize/know that “Guilty Look” would evolve into a short story (if a longish one) rather than, say, an historical novel?

JV: That’s a good question. Even though “Guilty Look” is the first story in the collection, it’s the last one I wrote. I knew by that point that I had a book of Nantucket stories on my hands, so it would never have occurred to me to try to start a Nantucket novel at the same time. Turned out, as happens so often when I write, that what I thought would be an average length piece became a lot longer as I started working through the event. But rather than stretch it out to novel length I decided to do a little creative curtailing of the real historical situation in order to adequately dramatize it in a long short story—and thus keep it for the collection.

ED: What was the biggest challenge–craft-wise–that you encountered in writing any of the stories in this book?

JV: As you yourself know so well, part of the joy of historical fiction is exploring a previous time period, getting to know it well enough that you can credibly use that period for a story. I kind of upped the challenge for myself by placing my historical stories in three different centuries. I spent a lot of time researching what names were popular during a given time period and what songs, what products would have been sold, what clothes worn, and what vehicles used, etc. All the different daily details that make up the body of a story. While this a pleasure—and absolutely necessary (you don’t want to make an embarrassing mistake)—it also took a lot of time. And I ran into some dead ends. For instance, I was unable to find where the exact street location of the Nantucket jail in the late 1700s, and I had to make that decision for myself. Maybe the greatest craft challenge though was to stay focused on my story in each story. To render details only as the story itself demanded, so that the fiction came across as just that, not a collection of historical facts. Since each story started in my head as an idea about a character in a given situation, not as an idea about a time period, this proved ultimately doable.

ED: Please tell us how you came to work with your publisher, Lavender Ink.

JV: I don’t have a sexy story! Once I had put my collection together, and realized how much I believed in it, I was determined to find a publisher, not just send queries to agents and hope things panned out.

So I researched every single small press publisher listed as open to fiction on the Poets and Writers database. It’s a fantastic database, an incredible resource. Lavender Ink (among several others) looked like a possible fit, so I sent them the manuscript and other information, per their guidelines. Many months later I got an email from Bill Lavender saying the press liked the book and was interested in publishing it.

IslandFogED: What is your biggest hope for ISLAND FOG as it meets readers?

JV: Of course my biggest hope is simply that readers find the book to be engrossing. But beyond that I hope readers are able to pick up on what a unique and beautiful place Nantucket is. It’s like nowhere else in this country. I can’t think of single place in America—even the Deep South—that feels so proud of and indebted to and simultaneous with its past. While the island changed from 1795 to 2005 in some obvious ways, on a deeper level, the level of identity, it has remained remarkably the same. I try to suggest that, that continuity, in many of the stories.

ED: Anything else you’d like us to know? Or parting advice to share?

JV: Oh, a couple things, I guess. The book has the title it does because the story “Island Fog”—bizarre though it is (or perhaps because it’s bizarre)—still ranks in my mind as the best thing I’ve ever done. And I’ve written a lot since! So I’m really happy that it carries the day as the title story of the collection. Second, I would urge anyone who has yet to visit Nantucket to do so pronto. And don’t just visit; don’t just grab a coffee and go shopping; or visit an auction. Instead, linger on a beach. Go for a long run. Bike out from central Nantucket to ‘Sconset. Walk through a rain shower. Study a sunset. Have a tangible physical experience. That’s what good fiction is built on, after all.

ED: Good advice—and I know that because I’ve had the good luck of visiting Nantucket a few times myself. Thanks, John!

To learn more about John Vanderslice and Island Fog, please visit johnvanderslicebooks.com. My thanks to John and Lavender Ink for the advance digital galley.