Amina Gautier is the winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for her short story collection At-Risk. Seventy-five of her stories have been published, appearing in Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, and Southern Reviewamong other places.
Her stories have won awards from the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, Zoetrope—All Story Fiction Contest, Glimmer Train Fiction Open, Jack Dyer Prize, William Richey Award, Danahy Prize, and Schlafly Microfiction Award as well as scholarships and fellowships from Breadloaf, Ucross, and Sewanee Writer’s Conference and a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Award.
Derek Alger: You’re still a Brooklyn girl at heart and you put the landscape of your childhood to good imaginative use with your collection of stories, At-Risk.
Amina Gautier: Absolutely. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. No matter where I live in the world, I’ll always be a New Yorker. That’s the great thing about being from somewhere; you’re *always* from there. I was born in Bed-Stuy and I grew up in Brownsville and East New York and those neighborhoods inspire and influence the landscapes of many of my stories. Many of the stories in At-Risk are set in Brookyn during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, which is the Brooklyn of my adolescence. It is a completely different Brooklyn than the one with which recent transplants to New York are familiar. The New York I grew up in would be unrecognizable to anyone who was not actually born and raised there. Setting and place or, if you will, landscape, are at the heart of good realistic fiction. Long before I started writing, I consumed stories the way a kid consumes potato chips; I couldn’t just read one. I loved the way the setting in Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” revealed more about Bertha Young than her dialogue did. I appreciated the attention to detail in James Joyce’s Dubliners. I saw the way Toni Cade Bambara invoked the streets of Harlem–public parks and fire hydrants and all–in her stories. When I first read Paule Marshall’s Browngirl, Brownstones, the way she described Crown Heights and downtown Brooklyn, especially Fulton Street, felt like coming home to me. It wasn’t the Brooklyn I knew. It was an earlier, older Brooklyn, a Brooklyn that still had trolleys, but I recognized it all the same. Whenever I’d be walking home from the grocery store and I would see the edges of trolley tracks poking up through the tarred streets, I’d think of her novel and the Brooklyn in which those tracks existed.
DA: I would suspect you have a lot of empathy enabling you to imagine being in other people’s shoes.
AG: Empathy is one of the mainstays of fiction writing. You have to care about real people first and bring that caring to the characters you create. Whenever I am out, I look around at people and wonder about their stories–who they are and how they came to be. What obstacles stood in their way, what they’ve overcome, what they fear, what they delight in, what they don’t want anyone else to know about them. I bring that same curiosity to my characters. I don’t create characters specifically to prove a thematic point, and I don’t create them merely to toss them away or bring violence upon them. You can always tell when a writer respects his or her characters and when a writer is just creating types. I have the same level of respect for them as I have for the people I encounter and interact with everyday. My characters are not cardboard. They’re deeply human and I hope that is something my readers can see.
DA: It must have been a pleasant surprise when At-Risk won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.
AG: It’s funny. I remember walking my manuscript to the post office on the very last day of the deadline to ensure that my manuscript was submitted on time. I handed the manuscript over to the clerk and asked it to be postmarked in front of me to make sure that I’d gotten the manuscript in under the deadline. So it was definitely wonderful news to learn that this manuscript which made it in under the gun was chosen as the winner of such a prestigious award. I didn’t have any foreknowledge, of course, but I did have a very good feeling about my manuscript. There was quite a bit of interest in At-Risk right around the time it won the Flannery O’Connor Award, so I was very hopeful about seeing the manuscript find a publishing home. I didn’t necessarily know it would win the award, but I was hopeful it would win…something. At-Risk was concurrently named a finalist in three other short story collection contests and there was a mid-western university press that had expressed interest as well. However, due to some personnel problems at that university press, I was never sent a contract for the manuscript (although I’d had informal communication of their intent to publish my book), so when University of Georgia Press contacted me to give me the Flannery O’Connor Award, my book was still free. After I accepted the Flannery O’Connor Award, another of the contests offered me a contract as well, but it was too late by then. I’m definitely happy. I think Georgia Press has done a wonderful job with the book. It’s lovely on the inside and out.
DA: You attended Nightingale-Bamford School.
AG: Yes, for two years. Prior to Nightingale, I’d been deemed “gifted,” which meant I scored off the charts on all of the aptitude tests administered. So, my elementary school experience was always a bit “non-traditional.” I’d frequently be sent to have reading and math classes with students one or more grades above me. So I’d be in first grade, but in the reading class with the third graders. Then I’d be in fourth grade in reading and math classes with six graders, etc. While in elementary school, I tested into an enrichment program, which placed me in a private all-girls school upon completion. That’s how I came to Nightingale. I stayed for two years, completing 7th and 8th grade and decided to go to boarding school for my high school education. I attended the Northfield Mt. Hermon School, which is a school that is near and dear to my heart. NMH seemed to have been made with me in mind. It was the perfect combination of structure and freedom. Students were given independence and freedom and we had the opportunity to learn as much as we wished. The school encourages working with one’s hands (they call it “workjob”) and celebrates community service, so our entire beings were educated, not just our brains, but our head, hands and heart. I loved it there. In addition to excelling academically and taking almost every AP course available, I kept a part-time job and immersed myself in extracurricular activities. I dee-jayed on a radio show, I worked on the yearbook, I wrote for the school paper, I acted and assistant directed in plays, I walked for good causes, I wrote letters for Amnesty International, I sang in gospel choir. I was given a chance to try my hand at anything I fancied.
DA: After high school, it was time to go west.
AG: Yes. After all of the freedom and academic stimulation at NMH, it was a no-brainer for me to go to Stanford. It was my first choice. I pretty much got in everywhere I applied and I turned down some schools that others might have preferred because of their Ivy-league status, but Stanford was what I wanted. Stanford is a place of independent thinkers and innovators. A place to turn dreams into reality. I applied to Stanford under the belief that it was the best university in the country and I attended it under that same belief and I still believe that Stanford is the best. It was certainly the only place for me. I loved and still love The Farm, as we call it. I did not spread myself as far and wide at Stanford as I did at NMH, because my studies kept me very busy. I earned a co-terminal degree in English Literature at Stanford, which is a program wherein you earn a bachelor and master’s degree simultaneously within five years. I did it in four. I also held down a couple of jobs, working in the gym, in the dining hall, reading books onto tape at the Disability Resource Center, filming for the Stanford Cable Network, and filming for Stanford Instructional Television Network. I also sang in Gospel Choir, and wrote for Intermission, the arts and culture portion of the Stanford Daily. I was pretty busy. I initially matriculated with an interest in film and I planned to be a writer/actor/singer/director. I wasn’t well-versed in my California geography and didn’t realize that I was in the wrong part of the state to study film.
Writing fiction took up the majority of my time. So I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. When I was an undergrad, we didn’t offer a minor in Creative Writing. We had a creative writing “emphasis,” which meant that after taking all of the required courses for the major, you took two foundational courses: Poetry and Poetics and The Development of the Short Story and then 3-4 workshops. Admission into the Intro workshop was by lottery and then admission into the intermediate and advanced workshops was by application. Students were selected and admitted on the strength of their manuscripts. So the program was both rigorous and competitive. At the Farm, only the best English undergrad went into creative writing. It wasn’t “dabbling” by any means. It was for serious students with aspirations to become writers, not for people who just wanted to try it out for fun. In addition to having teachers like Tobias Wolff and Kenneth Fields, we were also taught by former Stegner Fellows who had become Jones Lecturers, so I was also fortunate to have Samantha Chang, Keith Scribner, Ray Isle and Peter Rock as my teachers. I think a testament to the strength of the program can be seen in the fact that its training has made me able to establish myself as a young fiction writer with a prolific record of publication (I’ve got 75 short stories published now). All of my formal creative writing classes came from my undergraduate program in English at Stanford University. I left undergrad with more than a handful of stories which I then spent time revising and polishing. I saw my first story accepted for publication a few months after I graduated from Stanford. I don’t mean to imply that this is the norm; I worked very hard. I was both passionate and dedicated to my writing, but it is to say that I seemed to have received the same quality of instruction received by those who complete MFA’s, a degree which I did not obtain.
DA: Not a small achievement, you also earned a PhD.
AG: No. I earned a PhD in English Literature. After Stanford, I applied to grad school and earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. So I got my Ivy-league degree in the end and everyone was happy. Although I publish mostly fiction, I am actually a trained scholar.
DA: Just so folks don’t think you’re too intense, you do have a variety of other interests.
AG: I guess I am a bit intense, and something of a nerd. But I do have a life outside of reading and writing fiction! I love music and I love to sing. I have been collecting comic books since I was five years old. I love Archie comics. I am a big basketball fan.I love watching NBA ball and I am glued to the TV from late October to Mid-June watching ball (unless I’m at the game). I also have a thing for karate movies — I guess that comes from growing up watching Kung-Fu theater every Saturday. This makes me sound like a homebody, but I also love to get out and shake a tail feather and I frequently go salsa dancing. It’s great to do things that take your mind off of writing, because then you can come back fresh with new ideas.
DA: Okay major question about Archie comics, whom did you like better Betty or Veronica?
AG: Betty, hands down! I didn’t grow up in a time when little girls were being encouraged to wear heels from the moment they came out of the womb. In much of 1980’s media, women were portrayed as strong, capable and worthy for their own selves and beings, not solely for their looks. Besides seeing superhero girl cartoons like She-Ra, I also saw women working in sitcoms, like the mothers on The Hogan Family, The Cosby Show, Mr. Belvedere, and Growing Pains. Then I open my comic book and here’s Betty and she can not only do everything, but do everything well. Betty could fix Archie’s car (which he would then use to take Veronica out). She was the editor of the school paper. Somehow she was able to play on the basketball team, be an ice-skater and a cheerleader all at the same time. She was every bit as beautiful as Veronica. She was smart, one of the brightest kids at Riverdale High. She was well-mannered; she always helped at home with the chores. She didn’t have a lot of money, so she had to be innovative. She made many of her own clothes. And somehow she still had time to do community service and participate in town clean-ups etc. Compared to her, Veronica was shallow and selfish. As a kid, I didn’t really focus on the romantic triangle between the two of them and Archie so much as I was happy to see a girl be so accomplished and consider it to be absolutely normal. Betty wasn’t a bluestocking or a spinster. She could do everything, but she was portrayed as your normal average girl. I guess it’s safe to say that I looked to Betty the way nerdy and super smart boys looked to Peter Parker in their Spiderman comics. Here this kid who’s smart and nerdy but instead of being ostracized, gets to be a superhero and uses his knowledge of science — of chemistry and physics — to defeat foes and villains. That’s how I felt when I read about Betty in my Archie comics. Being in all of these gifted programs at an early age and being dubbed a genius at some things can sometimes throw a wrench into the progression of adolescence. You can be forced to mature early in some respects, and sometimes miss out on socializing with peers of your age and background. I definitely saw a correlation between myself and Betty, or maybe I should say I saw Betty as a model that made it clear that being multi-talented could be a good thing and that a woman didn’t need to limit herself in order to be accepted. Which was good for me, because I think that if I limited myself to one interest, one project, etc. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. If I’d ever had to only write one story at a time, it’s unlikely that I’d ever have been able to write the first one.
DA: I see you’re coming to New York City later this year.
AG: Yes, I’m always happy when I find opportunities to come home. I’ll be giving a reading at The New School on Thursday evening, November 29th.