The Single Sentence Is Supreme: A Conversation with Dantiel W. Moniz




I FIRST ENCOUNTERED Dantiel W. Moniz’s writing in an issue of McSweeney’s where both of our work appeared. From the first line of her story “Thicker Than Water,” I knew I found a new beloved writer. I became an admirer and an Instagram friend. I wanted to read more, and thankfully, not long after, I would be able to, because her debut collection of stories, Milk Blood Heat, was in the making. 

Moniz’s command of language is impressive. Her sentences are something I want to hold up to the light and study in detail to understand just how they do what they do. Her stories take us deep into the inner lives of tough women and girls navigating life’s many woundings. We see them in all the ways a person is: mean, tender, raw, hurting — full of wantings so big nothing can ever satisfy. I had a lot I wanted to know about how Moniz created this remarkable collection, which is yet another great work given to us in the midst of a pandemic. It’s a reminder to me of the enduring beauty of story and what, at its best, art can be.

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GENEVIEVE HUDSON: Many of your stories, like “Tongues,” “Milk Blood Heat,” and “Outside the Raft,” explore the inner lives of young girls. These girls are shrewd and self-determined. I got very attached to your narrators and did not want their stories to come to an end. Can you talk a bit about how you were able to develop such rich inner worlds in such a short space?

DANTIEL W. MONIZ: I think it’s easy to think of short stories as “snippets of a life,” something brief and not meant to be kept by design, but the magic in the short form is making possible the ability to imagine the life around the moment the writer chooses to show us. To be able to follow this one thread off the page and know that there was something before, and be able to hope there’s something after. These are full, breathing characters for me, and thinking of them that way, writing them that way, makes it easier for the slice the reader sees to feel living. Also, I know for me growing up, my inner life (though I wouldn’t have known to call it that then) was so much more nuanced and gritty and searching than most adults, shows, and books of that time were willing to give young girls credit for. I wanted to honor that, too.

While most of the narrators in this collection are young girls and women, Fred, the narrator of “The Loss of Heaven,” is an exception. I found Fred’s narrative voice to be so engaging, his character so convincingly flawed and tragic and sympathetic. What drew you to Fred’s story? Can you talk about what it was like to bring him to life?

This character is based on a real-life regular I used to have when I started bartending in the chain restaurant I worked in, at just shy of 19. This man was already a regular at the bar, but became exclusively my regular for around eight years, no matter which new restaurant I was working at. He was an older man whose wife had died some years earlier, and he frequented a lot of places. My night was Friday night. Clearly, he was lonely, and I think he projected some of that loneliness onto me. He fetishized me and got in the habit of dictating how he thought I should be in the world, as if what he thought was the only truth. It took a long time to shake him and the guilt I had from eventually doing so. 

This story came into being because I was curious about where that guilt came from, that obligation to appease him, though I didn’t owe him anything. I wondered what his life was like outside of those hours at the bar we spent together. I wondered what he was like. I don’t really believe in humans as monsters, but I do believe we can achieve monstrous acts, and I wanted to see what I wasn’t seeing about him.

You write gorgeous, embodied, and unsparing sentences that bring to life the inner lives of fierce and tender women. I lingered over your sentences. Studied them and their soft power. Can you speak a little about how you approach your sentences? How you make them ring true in the body?

Thank you!!! (If I had access to emojis, this is where I’d insert a couple of crying smileys.) I’m glad you bring up the body here. Increasingly over the last few years, and especially since March, it’s been an important topic for me to explore that the body isn’t an idea, not a concept, but a living, physical thing. Emotions are physical, too, appearing in that body, and if we’re paying attention, we can feel our pressure points, the places where they beat. I want my sentences to be felt as emotions. For me, the single sentence, the line, is supreme. I always go in thinking of not just what it means, but how it sounds, in my head and aloud. What’s the rhythm of it? The image? Nine times out of 10, if I’m trying to find the right word to portray something, I go with the word that sounds right, and when I look it up in the dictionary, it ends up being exactly what I meant.

Florida is alive in the background of your stories. You write place in a subtle way that reverberates across the pages. What was it like to write about modern-day Florida? How did you bring to life a landscape so familiar to you and yet make it read with such singularity and freshness?

Setting is actually an element that doesn’t come easily to me, I think because I’m always more in my head than I am anywhere else. But, Florida is definitely a place where the atmosphere feels physical. Like, you can feel the air on you, almost taste it. I wanted to capture the mood of that — heat becomes a secondary character throughout the book, the absence of it. And in writing Florida, I particularly wanted to pay attention to my hometown because it isn’t often written about or thought to be a literary place or a place that can inspire literature. I feel some ambiguity about my city, but there’s always gratitude for this place that shaped me, and I think one of the clearest acts of love is to be willing to look at someone or something honestly.

One theme that haunted most of your stories is that of lost possibility. In the title story, the protagonist faces an unexpected tragedy. Her future is forever changed because of it. Whatever she imagined for her life can no longer exist and yet she must go forward anyway. She, like many of your narrators, must reconcile a swift and life-altering loss. What was it like to explore shock and grief in this way? And what drew you to it?

Our society has a really hard time honoring the full spectrum of human emotions. Like, we’ll allow grief (and other states labeled as “negative”) for only a certain amount of time, and only if displayed in a certain, narrow way, and I think that’s unhelpful and only perpetuates stigma. On an individual level, I think this avoidance has more to do with how uncomfortable most of us are with our own feelings, rather than an agenda to deny people their humanity — though systemically, that definitely can be the case. For this collection, I really wanted to linger in uncomfortable feelings and emotions, but in a way that illustrates how common they are, how okay. I don’t think of these stories as purely grief stories, only showcasing loss of possibility or hope. I see hope and grief as, maybe not exact opposites, but hinged upon longing, and I wanted to illuminate the necessity of both.

Toward the end of “Outside The Raft,” the narrator says, “How suddenly I knew that all things must die. I didn’t know how to apologize for wanting to save my own life.” This powerful revelation is one that echoes not just across this story but many in this collection. Can you speak to this idea a little (that one must never apologize for wanting to save their own life) and its reverberation?

Obviously, survival is a strong drive in all living things (even if our minds sometimes want to go against that, our bodies do not), and that moment is true for the character in “Raft,” but even if one cannot (or should not) apologize for wanting to be alive, I do think it’s important for one to reflect on how their living affects someone else’s. Life is so precious. All the moments wherein anything happens belong to the living. I hope that comes across clearly in these stories.

One thing I noticed while reading these stories was that most of the endings closed with a strong concrete action: a young girl being held by her best friend’s mother, a narrator speaking a line to an octopus as it devours its food behind the glass, a puppy walking up behind Billie, barking. This created a powerful effect on me as a reader. How do you think of endings?

Usually, when a story takes hold of me, I can see the beginnings and endings most clearly, and I write through the connection. I think ending in action goes back to my wanting the lives of these characters to continue off the page, for that possibility of something more to stay with a reader. In a couple of cases, for example with the story “Snow,” my first readers might say something like: Are you sure it ends here? Are you sure there isn’t anything else? In general, it seems people think a lot of short stories end abruptly, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s sometimes indicative of a reluctance to leave the world of that story just yet. And it’s okay to feel that way, that’s a compliment to me, but I also feel like, “Okay, this is all I’m going to give you and the rest is up to you.” So I guess I think of them as windows into what’s next, rather than absolute outcomes.

What is your writing process like? I am fascinated by process and ritual, by those little things that writers do when they want to get to work. Do you have any creative rituals that you would like to share?

I really wish I was an everyday writer; even when I have the time to be, I’m often not. But I do like to claim thinking and reading and even watching shows to dissect the writing behind the scenes as a part of my process. Even if only mentally, I do touch the work every day. But when I’m heavy into a project I write every day for several hours, and my prime time to start is at 2:00 p.m. I prefer to write in coffee shops, with my headphones on playing binaural beats and the faint coffeehouse playlist in the back. I like the activity of bodies around me. Obviously, that kind of writing hasn’t been possible during the pandemic, but I try to replicate it. Music on speaker throughout the apartment, headphones on, coffee or tea, and I light a candle. All throughout the writing of this collection, if I worked at home, I had to have a candle.

What artists make up your canon? Who are your creative influences, those whose work you return to in order to gain inspiration or study craft?

So many! And anytime I’m asked a question like this, my mind goes immediately blank, like I’ve never known anything at all. It’s awful. But, for a fact, I wouldn’t be creating the kind of work I am now without having discovered White Oleander in my high school library when I was 14, or without having read The Color Purple for the second time after a 10-year gap shortly after Mike Brown’s death. I consider my work in conversation with Antonya Nelson and Toni Morrison and Jeffrey Eugenides and Julie Orringer. And my contemporaries are doing astounding work: C Pam Zhang, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Leni Zumas. I feel so lucky to have all this endless inspiration.

The last year has been full of prolonged tragedy and grief. How has that been for your creative process? For you as a writer? I know some have been unable to come to the page during this time, while others find themselves writing even more in the midst of it. Would you be willing to share your experience?

I’ve definitely been in a fallow period since March, what with the pandemic and police murders and the general instability and corruption of the United States government. I’ve been working on a novel for an eternity and last May finally started the second draft, but that was interrupted by edits for the story collection and a teaching position I held, which was fine. I had a couple of residencies lined up for 2020, and I knew I’d be able to get back into the work. Then of course everything shut down in March, so they were postponed. It’s been hard not to be hard on myself for not writing all these months, but I’m trying to allow understanding and grace. Sometimes, we just can’t be productive. Sometimes we shouldn’t be. Like, it’s wild that I’m having to remind myself of this, but also so symptomatic of the capitalist mindset ingrained in us. Some hopeful news, though: lately, I can feel the work tugging at me, and I know I’ll return to it. The work is there when you want it. I hope other creatives know that and can be easy on themselves.

If you were going to suggest a reading list for this time, what would be some books that you would include?

I found it hard to read during these pandemic months. I maybe got through one or two books a month and I’m only just beginning to slide my way back into reading. But what little I was able to focus on really had to grip me, and these books did that: Severance by Ling Ma; Writers & Lovers by Lily King; Luster by Raven Leilani; Fuckface by Leah Hampton; Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. And I’m looking forward to reading these: Lakewood by Megan Giddings; The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans; The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton; and The Wild Fox of Yemen by Threa Almontaser.

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Genevieve Hudson is the author of the novel Boys of Alabama and the story collection Pretend We Live Here.

 

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