By Blake Blackmon
Image by Aslan Chalom
Tucked in the historic district of Columbus sits a house where history and the arts collide. Once the childhood home of Carson McCullers, the Smith-Mccullers home continues to breathe life into the arts with The Marguerite and Lamar Smith Fellowship for writers. The fellowship itself is named in honor of McCuller’s parents and was inspired by her experience at the Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in Vermont. The Fellowship has hosted writers and musicians since 2006 offering them the greatest gift available to these crafts: time and space. The fellowship begins each fall in September, and this year it looks a bit different. I had the honor of speaking with the current fellow, Christine Vines, about her experience so far, moving to a new city in the wake of a pandemic, and continuing to create and find inspiration in the current state of the world. Oh, and writing her very first novel!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is this your first time in Columbus?
Yes, it is, and it’s amazing to show up to this house. It’s so different from the way I’ve experienced any other city—this window into someone else’s life, someone I admire. Just walking around this space and writing here, it's surreal.
Have you been finding it difficult to write with everything going on in the world right now?
This is actually the most conducive writing environment I could imagine. For one, just having time and space to yourself is such a huge gift. It's hard to come by in the arts so I definitely don't take it for granted. The whole time I’ve been here I’ve felt bolstered by both the faith the Carson McCullers Center has put in me and by the legacy of Carson McCullers that I'm surrounded by when I wake up. It's an amazing combination.
Do you have a particular writing routine that you try to stick to?
Pretty much just a normal 9-5 or 9-6 workday. I wake up and take a book out to the back patio and I do some reading for an hour or so. I find that my morning reading hour is really important to me no matter what I’m reading at the time. Hopefully, I'm deep in a book that I love. But sometimes I’m trudging through a book that I'm not that into but I'm curious about. That hour is so important because I get to notice myself reacting to what's on the page and that helps prepare me to write. I can ease myself into the fictional landscape by noting the things that I value or connect to/ don’t connect to.
Then I come back into the office and I write for the whole day here. Usually, I start writing around 10 a.m. (shout out to my friend, the writer Piyali Bhattacharya, who keeps me honest—our schedules are pretty aligned right now, so we’ve been checking in to make sure we’re both at our desks on time) and then I write as long as I can until evening.
My writing here has been really consistent and generative. I’m deep enough into this novel right now that I have momentum. It feels like something I don't want to squander and I feel excited to get up and start working on it. It definitely hasn't felt that way at every stage of this book, but right now it does and I feel really grateful for that.
What’s it like creatively to switch gears from writing short stories to writing a novel?
I started this book in 2015 and up until then I had been writing short stories exclusively. There's a lot more endurance involved with a novel, of course. There are such long periods of time when you don't feel accomplished. Every time I finish a new draft I hardly let myself feel accomplished because I know another draft is coming after that one. It's less gratifying in that sense. I don't get as much short term satisfaction. I think what makes up for that is the characters in a novel wind up following you city to city and year to year. They grow with you, really. These characters feel very much a part of my life, and that offers this cool, bizarre intimacy that makes the writing process that much more layered.
Have you been writing the novel chronologically?
The novel alternates between two primary perspectives and I did write each of the perspectives chronologically. I had to write one of them all the way through first before switching gears and going back to write the second. I then wove them together and I've been working on that braided version for a few years now.
Do you outline before you begin writing? What does that process look like for you?
I would call what I did a reverse outline, which is something I also ask my students to do. You start by getting down a draft of a thing and then go back and outline what you’ve already written. It's amazing how helpful that can be. I started making my reverse outline when I was about a hundred pages in. I began writing the book with a very rough, in my head, sense of the arc and trajectory of the story, and when I got deep enough into it that I couldn’t hold it all in my head anymore, I reverse outlined it. I wrote out everything I’d done and then was able to take stock of the moments that didn't make sense and where the shape conflicted with the shape I wanted it to take. It makes it a little easier to see these moments when you bullet point the thing. It was also a helpful order to do it in because initially, I wanted to be able to write more freely and take the story wherever I wanted to. I think I would have felt bound in by an outline had I started with one, but because I was outlining what I'd already done, it just felt like keeping track of where the novel was going.
What are you reading currently and what writers inspire you?
Right now, I am loving reading Carson McCullers. It feels really special to read her novels here, and I love her work. Some of the themes she’s dealing with in her work come up in my own book and it feels like a really special connection.
I’m getting tripped up trying to list writers that inspire me because there are so many. It’s probably easier to talk about books I’ve loved recently. Some favorites from the last year or so are “Writers and Lovers” by Lily King and “Normal People” by Sally Rooney. I also loved Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half.”
I mostly read fiction and within that, a bit of everything. I really enjoy magical realism. I would say half of the short stories I write are magical realism and half are realism. The novel I’m working on is realism. I love creative nonfiction too. I’m trying to read more poetry lately, and that’s been a real joy. Oh, but a few specific writers that have inspired me are Jennifer Egan and Jamie Quatro, and Aimee Bender. Toni Morrison, definitely. George Saunders was really formative for me. Maggie Nelson, too. I really admire the nuance in her work, the fullness she manages so economically.
How and where have you been finding creative inspiration these days? Does that differ from how you would typically find inspiration?
This house! It feels full of creative inspiration. I used to run a reading series in New York and I took a lot of inspiration from being around the work of other people, and this house feels like the physical manifestation of that. Also, I'm reading “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” right now and it feels like a really special experience to be able to read that here and to be with her and her work in that way. It’s a huge creative inspiration.
It was definitely more of a struggle to find creative inspiration right before I got here. Things were very chaotic and I was moving out of an apartment and staying with family. There were so many moving parts and obviously so many terrible things happening in the world. It’s been a difficult year for everyone in one way or another. And it was hard for me to be as fully present in the work as necessary. Being here feels like the most refreshing, energizing thing possible for my writing. It really is a dream. ◾️
Vines will be giving a virtual reading through the McCuller’s Center on October 28th. Stay tuned for more information.
Read some of Vines' previous work here:
Algren Award runner-up: "Lizard Lover"