Yemassee Interview: 7 Questions with Micah Dean Hicks

Micah Dean Hick's “The Bone Oven,” selected by Claire Vaye Watkins as runner-up in the 2017 Yemassee Fiction Contest, appeared in Issue 23.2.

1. Where are you from and where are you now? How does (or doesn’t) place influence your work?

I mostly grew up in rural, southwest Arkansas. I spent my childhood cutting down trees and setting things on fire, walking deep into the woods and finding abandoned barns or rusted cars all vine-wrapped and crumbling. A lot of time alone and in my own head. It felt like a myth.

That landscape is hugely important for my work. Even when my stories aren’t explicitly set in Arkansas, everything still has that wash of rural decay: rusted tin, brambles with their bleeding berries, and the heavy, sweet smell of honeysuckle vines rising up to swallow the world.

Often, setting is the first thing I know about a story. The rest comes harder and slower.

A year ago, I moved back to Arkansas for a teaching job. I’m further north now, right at the edge of the Ozarks. It’s a slightly different landscape than where I grew up, but I like it.

2. What’s your number one rule of writing?

In the last couple of years, it’s been, “Try it another way.” When I’m revising something, I go back through the story and ask myself, “What might have happened here instead?” I never want to get so attached to what is on the page that I can’t imagine what should be there instead.

My best revision strategy is to just throw a draft away and do it again differently. Sometimes I have to do that several times.

3. What is strangest about your writing process?

This may not be very strange, but I always write with an outline of some kind. It’s not anything formal or incredibly detailed, just a list of scenes. I don’t mind deviating from my outline when I’m drafting the story, but having something planned ahead of time keeps me from getting stuck.

4. Describe the lifespan of this piece: how did it start, how was it revised, how drastically did it change? What was the most difficult part of writing it?

I tried out several different endings. In the very first draft, both sisters and the dog climbed into the oven as the house burned down. They suffocated in the smoke, but the heat of the burning house lit the oven and brought them all back to life. But when they walked out of the ruined house in the morning, they saw that the fire has spread and burned down the forest. Fearing the fire had spread to the town, they left to find out what happened.

That ending didn’t feel sad enough to me. Nothing of any great consequence to the characters had happened by the end. So as I revised, I tried to dig more into the differences between the sisters, coming to this idea that the living sister might be jealous of the sister who had died and been resurrected.

I also love it when there are misunderstandings in stories. There’s something really sad about needing to be understood, needing empathy, and someone with the best of intentions can’t even do you that small kindness.

5. How does (or doesn’t) this piece fit in with your larger body of work?

This is part of a collection I’m writing now. Most of the stories are rural and magical, very influenced by fairy tales. I’m trying to lean into character and voice much more than I have in the past. A lot of the stories have small connections. Minor characters from one story might be protagonists in another, and images recur.

The burning house image from this story appears as a tableau inside a snow globe in another. And in one story, a curiosity seller has a brick fragment from a magical oven. I guess that goes back to setting. I wanted all of these stories to feel like they happened in the same world.

6. The editors were all enchanted by the treatment of death in this piece, much like sisters were drawn to the enlivening possibilities of it. When you find yourself writing about death, is it always this positive? Any thoughts about how writers can invigorate our understanding of universal themes?

With any story, writers are taking a bunch of worn-out themes and tropes and trying to present them in a way that feels new and honest. It’s vital for any piece of fiction, but even more so for magical stories. You can’t give a reader a sense of wonder if the story feels like something they’ve seen a hundred times before. A lot of this work happens before I ever sit down to write, when I’m still thinking through the story.

I want to throw out all the typical responses characters might have to a theme or trope and find something more interesting and complicated.

In general, I have a hard time thinking about theme unless it’s grounded in character emotion. That’s what I was trying to do in this story, anyway.

7. What’s your procrastination of choice?

I like to watch other people play video games on the Internet.

Micah Dean Hicks is a Calvino Prize-winning author of fabulist fiction. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, EPOCH, and Witness, among others. His story collection, Electricity and Other Dreams, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. He teaches creative writing at Arkansas Tech University.