Bare trees stand on the bank of the river with a cloudy blue sky above and brown/green grasses on the bank below.
A view from Andrew Siegrist's home on the Cumberland River. (Photo courtesy of Siegrist.)

Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

I was telling a friend the other day about how, sometimes, when I see an old man eating in a restaurant alone, I have to go to the bathroom to cry. That reaction was perhaps inexplicable, but excusable, when I was a child. Now though, I’m a little ashamed to nurse pity so tenderly that it produces actual, physical weeping on behalf of some stranger just enjoying his steak and eggs.

Reading Andrew Siegrist’s forthcoming collection of stories, We Imagined It Was Rain, was a divine and heartbreaking trip to the diner of my own personal hell. Over biscuits and gravy, I saw a man trying to remember the way his ex-wife played the piano, a man in his funeral suit—finished waiting for his prodigal son, and another mourning the daughter who’d left through the bathroom window. 

Worst of all was the volunteer firefighter who “on Saturdays mailed letters to NASA, who never answered.” 

We Imagined It Was Rain, which won the 2020 C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, releases on October 12th. Enjoy my conversation with Andrew, about vulnerability and the ferry ride to the farm across the river, below. 

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: You recently became a father—I couldn’t help but notice that a father/child relationship features prominently in many of your collection’s stories. Is that a coincidence? Has this always been a dynamic you spend a lot of time thinking about?

Andrew Siegrist: Almost all of these stories were written before my daughter was born, but even before I was a father, the parent/child dynamic was something that I thought a lot about. So many of the stories and novels I love deal with the relationship between parents and their children. There’s a story by a writer named Lewis Nordan called Owls. In the story, the main character is recounting a memory of his father pulling over on the side of the road to watch a flock of owls swoop past their car. The memory turns out to be an invention of the son’s imagination. But it is a beautiful moment. I think that children have a capability for imagination that can sometimes become lost as we grow up, and that is definitely something I’m interested in when trying to write stories. To think about how children see the world and how adults see the world and the intersection of the two.

Siegrist holds a small baby in his arms with the Cumberland River behind him.
Andrew Siegrist holding his daughter on the banks of the Cumberland River. (Photo courtesy of Siegrist.)

DY: On that note, a lot of the fathers in your collection seem a little unhinged. In “Whittled Bone,” Russell’s grief over his daughter’s disappearance is visceral in part because of his inability to behave appropriately months after the incident. Is there a relationship here between delusion and the construction of a truly vulnerable masculine character?

AS: This is a really interesting question. Masculinity is something I think about a lot when trying to write a believable character. I’m not sure how to go about it in an honest way, but I feel that masculine characters are more relatable to me when they show their vulnerability. I’ve never set out to write delusional characters, but in thinking about your question, I know that in my own life I often react to traumatic situations by diverting from reality in some way. I think my characters might be the same. Hopefully, being vulnerable and masculine doesn’t necessarily require any type of delusion.

DY: Many of the stories feature some rendition of a local legend about a beautiful girl with eyelashes so long she could braid them. How were you thinking about folktales throughout the writing process? Why did you keep coming back to her?

AS: The girl with braided eyelashes came from a writing prompt in a workshop I was in my first year in college. It was one of the first images I ever wrote that I thought was actually interesting. It stuck with me for some reason and kept making its way back into my stories. When I first started writing I was heavily influenced by Gabriel Garcia Márquez and most of my early stories were poorly written attempts to copy his style. I think that the girl with braided eyes might be a remnant of my years trying to write magical realism. I also think that a collection of stories set in the same location will inevitably have common threads, common folklore. The people of this place are all from this place. They hear the same stories. Everyone experiences the place differently but there are certain things that run deep, that make their way into the veins of those who live there.

DY: Do you have a fuller depiction in your mind of the fictional Cleecey’s Ferry, Tennessee than the one a reader gains throughout the book?

AS: Cleecey’s Ferry is a fictional combination of two actual places I’ve spent a lot of my life in. One is a family farm outside of Nashville, Tennessee. It’s a rural community on the Cumberland river. As a child the only way to get to the farm was to take a ferry across the river. Our farm is on Cleeces Ferry Road, which is where I got the name for the fictional town in the book. The other place I based the book on is a town in the mountains of East Tennessee on Monteagle Mountain. It’s a small town on the Cumberland Plateau. In my head, the book is somehow set on the river in Middle Tennessee and at the same time in the mountains in East Tennessee. Both places are very important to me and what I write. None of my stories could exist without those two places.

DY: Lastly, what have you been reading and listening to lately?

This last year during Covid I have been going back and rereading and relistening to a lot of the artists I love. It must have something to do with the pandemic but I find myself taking books off the shelf that I know I love, and putting the same albums on again and again. I’ve been reading Paul Yoon, Anthony Doerr. My favorite writer is C.D. Wright. I’ll open a book of her poems to a random page and just read a couple of lines almost every day. Her writing is extremely inspiring to me. 

I’m listening to Iron and Wine, Valerie June, Nathaniel Rateliff.

What all of these artists have in common for me is they make me want to sit down and make something, to write. To think about words and try and put them on paper.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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