Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Teacher and writer Chella Courington was reared on Sand Mountain in the Appalachian South. She grew up with a love/hate relationship to the place she was born. Family and friendships were warm and turbulent, loving and violent. Wanting to escape her birthplace, though not the South particularly, she migrated to California in 2002 with another writer and two cats. Since then, her stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies.
Chella has published three chapbooks of fiction including Love Letter to Biology 250, and three of poetry including Girls & Women and Paper Covers Rock. Yearning and desire, living and dying are at the heart of much of her writing. Her flash novella, The Somewhat Sad Tale of the Pitcher and the Crow, is forthcoming from Pink.Girl.Ink. Press.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
Since I was about twelve years old, writing and reading have been my way of surviving. Adolescent years are difficult anywhere, and rural Alabama in the sixties was especially tough. By reading Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, I shut out the pain then wrote my own versions of the outsider. Words were the only place I felt comfort.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST BOOK OR CURRENT PROJECT?
My upcoming novella, The Somewhat Sad Tale of the Pitcher and the Crow, is a life in flashes. It tells of Adele and Tom, a writing couple now in California. Told from both points of view, the novella explores the increasing distance between two artists trying to occupy the same space: one writer’s success is another’s failure. But finally, the story is Adele’s as she struggles with relationship, self and aging. A woman born in the Appalachian South yet finding a home in California, she tries to understand who she is through the past and the present.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I write mostly at home on the bed. Since I was a kid, I’ve done much of my reading and writing on a mattress.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I like to write about an hour when I wake in the morning—that liminal space between sleeping and full consciousness when the earth is “awash with angels” as Richard Wilbur says. Some days (usually when I’m not teaching) the hour turns into the morning, and I’ve written and re-written. The nights, Monday through Thursday, are left for teaching,
WHAT IS YOUR WORK PROCESS?
My ideal is to show up at my laptop with a cup of coffee. My process differs from piece to piece, project to project. Sometimes a title or a word starts me writing. I love to frolic with words, check out their origins, and try them in different contexts. Usually the act of writing itself opens and uncovers character and situations I could not imagine without the act of composing. On good days I lose myself to the words, following their sound and staying in the moment.
WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?
Besides teaching and playing with words, I can’t imagine doing anything else.
WHO OR WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Living inspires me. A song lyric or monarch butterfly, shattered glass in the sun, fog hanging above the ocean, my ginger cat’s paw pushing my arm. What rouses me is all around. What I do is receive.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
Showing up to write when essays are stacked on the counter, waiting for a grade. I set my watch for an hour and begin clicking keys.
WHAT IS YOUR ARTISTIC VISION?
I want my work to attract readers. In the openness of the internet, the literary world appears to be thriving.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
I have so many favorites from Charlotte Bronte and Maguerite Duras to Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison, Lydia Davis and Elizabeth Alexander. The single most influential writer, however, is Virginia Woolf. When people ask who taught me to write, I say Woolf. Long before I understood the density of her words and their intricate layers, I heard the rhythms shift, watched images erupt and evolve. I was in the presence of a language that emerged from profound truths.
WHICH FEMALE AUTHORS WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Lydia Davis, author of can’t and won’t and The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.
Stacy Lynn Mar, who has written Deeper in Pink and Mannequin Rivals.
Sojourner Kincaide Rolle, author of Black Street, a collection of poems.
And Lisa Williams, who has written Letters to Virginia Woolf and two poetry chapbooks.
Thank you, Chella Courington!
— Nicole Melanson
And thank you, Meg Withers, for sending Chella this way! Read Meg Withers’ WordMothers interview here
* Author photo by Ted Chiles
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