Erin Flanagan released her debut novel, Deer Season, in September 2021. Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “This is a standout novel of small-town life, powered by the characters’ consequential determination to protect their loved ones at any cost.” Flanagan is well-versed in small-town, Midwestern life: she’s lived in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Ohio, and her work focuses on the intricacies and eccentricities of the people living in these communities.
The author of two short story collections, The Usual Mistakes and It’s Not Going to Kill You, Flanagan has also held fellowships to The Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, MacDowell, The Sewanee Writers’ Conference, UCross, The Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in The Colorado Review, Cimarron Review, Prairie Schooner, Crazyhorse, Literary Hub, Split Lip Magazine, Fiction Writers Review, Catapult, and more. She is an English professor at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where she currently lives with her husband, daughter, two cats, two dogs, and what she refers to as “her friendly, caustic thoughts.”
Literary Mama senior editor Christina Consolino caught up with Flanagan to talk about the evolution of relationships, writing hard truths, and how raising children changes people.
Christina Consolino: The human condition, often showcased through relationships, is integral to every one of your stories. Choice magazine compared your “penetrating insights into the human condition” to the work of Eudora Welty. What is it about relationships and the human condition that draw you to them?
Erin Flanagan: First off, I need to send some flowers to Choice magazine for even including me in the same breath as Eudora Welty. And as for my interest in relationships, it’s funny to see how my views on things have changed over time. When I was younger, I assumed all relationships were permanent. My relationships for instance with my family—my parents would always be my parents; my sister would always be my sister—but the older I got the more I realized that even within those parameters, there was so much room for growth and change. I was perhaps fortunate to take permanency for granted as a kid, and then as I got older, I realized my friends would grow and change just as I did, the same for my family, and that relationships were a constant evolution. People would grow apart, then perhaps back together again, then who knew what. I’m fascinated by the ways people honor and hurt each other, whether they mean to or not, and what that all means.
CC: In “It’s Not Going to Kill You,” the first story in your second collection, you highlight the complexity of a mother-daughter relationship through the lens of grief. Both mom and daughter say at separate points and in very different tones, “It’s not going to kill you.” How did your own experiences with your mother inform the writing of that relationship or any of the relationships you write about?
EF: My mom would probably be horrified I’m admitting this, but that was one of the things she used to say to me all the time as a kid. I remember one time when one of our dogs hopped on the counter, and we ended up with paw prints in the brownies, but my mom cut them up and served them anyway. I was completely grossed out, but she said to me, “It’s not going to kill you,” and now, as a mom myself, I know I’ve served things at least that disgusting to my daughter. Five second rule? Try twenty-four hours in our house. I get it. She’d already made the brownies and didn’t want them to go to waste.
My relationship with my mom is a good example of that evolution between people. When I was a little kid, she called me her “little ray of sunshine,” and then the teen years hit, and I was very emo and wanted to paint my room black. By my twenties I was more stupid than rebellious, but it resulted in its share of trouble, and my thirties hit and suddenly I behaved like an adult-ass adult. I think it was a lot for her to absorb, and it took us a while to make that transition from parent/child to parent/child/and-now-also-friends. We’ve had to work at it, but we have lots in common, and I don’t think either of us would have been as satisfied if we’d just stayed in that one role. I wanted her to know all of me, and while I’m sure there were things she’d just as soon have not known, it was the best way I could figure for us to have an honest relationship. This holds over now with my daughter, who I’m trying to raise as honestly as I can so she sees me not only as a mom but as a person.
CC: You do not shy away from writing about hard truths, and in Deer Season, you showcase the hurtful bias humans have with respect to those with mental disabilities. What was your intention in crafting Hal Bullard, and do you think you succeeded? What do you want readers to learn from him?
EF: Hal appeared as he was to me from the get-go, so I don’t think I was intentionally crafting him so much as getting to know him. But there was one thing I knew I wanted to avoid when I was writing him, and that was turning him into any kind of puppet to the story, i.e., using him to reveal some wise-knowing truth about people. I am not a fan of stories where, for example, people with Alzheimer’s or children say just what the story needs said, or even in some troubling scenarios when characters of color are written as if they have special insights or mystical understandings without realizing it, such as the Magical Negro. Instead, I wanted to respect the inherent intelligence Hal had about his life and self, even if it might not be what others around him consider intelligent. I tried to think honestly about how people would treat him and how they would judge his value, both in good ways and bad ways. Even those who love him, like Alma, had complicated reactions to Hal rather than just respecting who he was. I hope readers will take from Hal that every person is of value and worthy of a good life.
CC: Speaking of Alma, a main character in Deer Season, she is “a woman who spoke her mind but didn’t suffer fools gladly.” She’s also at times gentle and motherly, and readers eventually learn that she experienced a series of miscarriages. Those losses impact Alma’s relationships with her intellectually disabled farmhand Hal, her husband Clyle, the townswomen, and the children she drives on the bus, and, although in the past, they echo the potential loss of Peggy Ahern, a missing teenager in the community. How do you balance writing about loss with not weighing down the reader?
EF: I did an interview yesterday where the reporter asked me if I was Alma, and I thought, I wish! I would love to speak my mind like she does! And I’m so glad she comes off as complicated. She’s a character I love dearly, and I was worried readers wouldn’t like her, and it’s thanks to some helpful comments from friends in early drafts that I learned to let her vulnerability come through. I think that’s a lot of what it takes to balance writing about loss: vulnerability. I’m hopeful readers will see it in Alma, Clyle, and Milo, who all get a chance to tell their side, and then translate that into reading other people’s actions as well, from Hal to Peggy’s parents, and so on.
As for how I balanced writing about loss and not having it consume the story, I tried to consider my own limitations writing about this topic. I was too scared to write too directly about loss, say from Peggy’s mom’s point of view when her daughter goes missing. I have a daughter who is 13 right now, and I don’t think I could have stared at that fear for 300 pages. I tried to find people who were connected to what was happening but not as directly. Milo, Peggy’s brother, is pretty close, obviously, but he’s also a child and doesn’t have that bone-deep understanding yet about loss when he finds out Peggy is gone. Plus, as a kid, he’s developmentally not as attuned to other people’s pain versus his personal experience. Alma has real fears about loss in the story in relation to Hal, but most of her losses are farther back, such as the miscarriages. This also offered me the opportunity to look at how loss can corrode a person.
CC: Like many women, Alma hides her vulnerabilities, sometimes choosing to portray indifference rather than allowing anyone to see how much she’s affected. And yet, Alma is strong, intelligent, wise, a person to emulate, really. If Alma had raised children of her own, would she have been a different person? Do you think raising children in general changes a person?
EF: I know it’s definitely changed me! I want to say it’s made me a better, more empathetic and open person, and I hope that’s true, but it’s also brought me smack-dab into contact with my selfish side, with my own fears of incompetence and failure. It was bad enough when I worried I was screwing up my own life, but someone else’s?
From the day my daughter was born, I’ve been humbled. And again, not by the generosity of the human spirit or any such bullshit but by my own foibles and ridiculousness. One of my favorite memories is when she was eighteen months old and just being insufferable. We’d been home alone too long, and she pissed me off, and I ran into another room and turned around in tears and flipped her the double bird. I flipped her off so hard I’m surprised I didn’t sprain a finger. And then I just started laughing at it all, like, what? She doesn’t even know what that means, never mind the absurdity of telling a toddler to fuck off. It’s still one of my favorite parenting moments. I actually told my daughter that story not too long ago, and she couldn’t stop laughing. She’s a good egg.
But as for Alma, I think she definitely would have been a different person if she’d had children. I don’t think you can go through something as life altering as raising a human and not be, but what I don’t know is if she would have been a better one. Different, for sure. I think most of the characters in the book are dealing with the fallout of life not turning out the way they hoped or anticipated. I think it’s human nature to look at the negatives of what you’ve got versus the positives, but really, it’s a balance. When I was growing up in a small town very similar to Gunthrum, I was stupid jealous over my friend, who had 28 pairs of jeans. I thought, man, if I had that many cute pairs of jeans, I’d be so popular! My mom pointed out that her dad had died in a worker’s comp situation, which was why they had so much money, so I had to look at the whole picture. “Twenty-eight pairs of jeans and a dead father” is still a saying in my house, reminding us to look at the whole picture.
CC: Authorship came before motherhood for you. How has motherhood impacted your perspective on writing, your writing process, and your writing in general?
EF: I don’t think I fully understood contradiction or loss before I had a kid. For instance, right before I got pregnant, I wrote a draft of a story called “Dog People,” about a woman who has a newborn, and sometimes that baby made her happy and sometimes it made her sad. I did not fully understand how as a mother I would want to scream, “Give me the baby!” / “Take this baby!” at the same time.
Like Alma, I would have been different if I hadn’t had my daughter and lucked into some great step-kids, or I would have been different if I’d had a family when I was younger, but I can’t imagine a scenario where I would feel luckier in my family than I do now.
CC: Teaching has been a part of your life for many years now. Teachers take pleasure in their students’ accomplishments in much the same way parents take pride in their children’s accomplishments. What are you proud of in what your students have done?
EF: I’m super proud of them for caring about writing and working at it. That might sound a bit all-encompassing, but I remember how hard it was to believe in myself when I started (It still is!), so when they’re willing to put in the hours and weeks and months on their stories because they care about them and think they’re important to who they are, I find it really touching. They do it because they’re excited about having something to say, or creating these weird worlds, or because it really brings them joy. There have been too many times when I’ve lost sight of these things and gotten bogged down by the publishing side or reviews or whatever, and I so appreciate that they remind me how rewarding writing can be. It’s hard work, but that, too, is its own kind of reward.
CC: What’s next on the horizon for you?
EF: My novel Blackout is coming out in fall 2022 with Thomas & Mercer. It’s about a newly sober mother who begins experiencing mysterious blackouts only to find a network of women suffering the same fate. I faced a lot of my parenting fears with this one—about how we pass on our own addictions and shortcomings and the fear our children won’t forgive our flaws. I hope when that book comes out, we’ll have the chance to talk again, because lady, I’m going to have a lot more to say about my fears!