In this heartfelt and bracing debut, Ramona Reeves renders the complex lives of the people of Mobile, Alabama, in all their pursuits and struggles. It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories presents a memorable account of a community through the intimate lens of their relationships, addictions, longings, and fears. Reeves excellently sets the narrative as linked stories, carefully weaving together the past and the present conditions of their lives. It becomes nearly impossible to cut oneself away from all their history, which, undoubtedly, includes people they’ve loved and lost, people they choose to stick with or walk away from, and tendencies that are so ingrained it takes everything to resist and to evolve. It is perhaps this confinement and familiarity that makes the novel feel simultaneously as an elegant and flawed family reunion and also an enclosed space where one simply cannot get away. Not only does Reeves present the tension between the private and public lives of these characters, but she treats the strain of difficult relationships and the afflicted mind with such compassion that one quickly grows an abiding sense of empathy and hope—outcomes worth every page turn.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Thank you so much for speaking with me, Ramona. I must begin with Mobile! I know you grew up in the city but currently live in Texas. In the collection, you make the city come alive and lead the reader into its landscape through the lives of people I wish I could see and hug. What connects you to this town, and would you say your own feelings about the place evolved as you wrote the stories?
Thanks, Tryphena. It’s my pleasure to speak with you. I appreciate this question and thinking about what it means to be from a particular place. When I think of Mobile in general, I think about Mardi Gras, the coastline, hurricanes, Dauphin Island, 300-hundred-year-old trees, and the historic shifts I witnessed as a child in the late sixties related to the Civil Rights movement. I think about the French and Spanish who colonized the area in the early 1700s and the people who preceded them. I also think about the imprint of religion on the city.
Those pieces, and living with my mother, grandmother and great-grandmother until I was twelve, and then with my stepfather and mother until I went away to college have forever connected me to the city. It’s my hometown, and yet at this point in my life, the notion of home feels broader than a specific place. Maybe that stems from being a queer person from a place that hasn’t always been welcoming to LGBT people. And maybe it speaks to why I worked to bring a fresh perspective to Mobile.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the characters spend a lot of energy searching for connection and belonging. It could be I was working through my own feelings about acceptance and belonging in relation to the city. The book did become something of a love letter to the city, if an odd one, and was my way of claiming and embracing it.
As a short story writer, I have deep appreciation for novel-in-stories, partly because it’s an exciting style but also because, if I’m being honest, it’s rather daunting to create stories complete in themselves that also connect to each other. I’m curious—did you know these stories were going to be linked? And can you talk about what your writing process looked like and how you navigated moving through different time periods?
I began these stories during a course I took in my graduate creative program. I wrote the first few stories from prompts, and then let them sit for two or three years after finishing my program. I love linked collections like Olive Kitteridge as well as novels-told-in-stories like There, There. I distinguish between the two. To me, a linked collection may not have the propulsion or climax of a novel. Characters do recur in my collection, but I’d place it on the linked story continuum and describe it as having some features of a novel. But I’m certainly open to discussions about these definitions.
And thank you for saying I excelled at linking the stories. That’s wonderful to hear. It wasn’t easy, but the cool thing about this form is that I could look past a single story and imagine other events in characters’ lives. I did that during revision and thought about what stories I might tell. Using objects and thinking about technology helped me move through time in some cases. Some of it, too, is that I’m in my fifties, so I lived through those years, not that the stories are similar to my lived experience. But I did think intentionally about the years and gaps between stories as places where readers’ imaginations could roam.
I love that revision holds within it so many possibilities, if only one is willing to take the risk. You’ve described yourself as a late bloomer in the publishing world. Without fail, Toni Morrison immediately comes to mind for publishing Beloved at 40 years. I love how Ursula Le Guin calls writing a slow art, although there’s what appears to be increasing pressures and expectations for younger writers to be published quickly. Some days I wonder if I would lose the quiet triumph and private delight of simply having written in my pursuit of the next thing.
I’ve been writing most of my life but decided to truly dedicate myself to it in my early forties. I sometimes wonder where I would be if I’d made that decision in my twenties. I don’t know, honestly, if age matters in fiction. I’ve read incredibly brilliant writers in their twenties and incredibly brilliant writers in their seventies. I guess for me, and I can only speak to my situation, the timing of my debut book feels right because I’m still alive. Ha! Plus I’ve lived long enough to know writing is what sustains me. Don’t get me wrong; publishing in general and publishing a book is thrilling, a dream, but I know I need to keep writing and being surprised by what characters do. And I love the joy I feel that comes from having written a really good sentence—the “private delight,” as you call it. That’s a lovely way to describe the feeling of having written or figured out part of a story.
Speaking of delights, let’s turn to the other end of matters: despair and displeasure. I hope this doesn’t sound strange, but to me, what seemed compelling in It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories is this thick blanket of misfortune and loss that shrouds the characters in one moment or the other. Can you share your thoughts on exploring the depths of the human condition and what, if anything, was important to you as you portrayed their quiet afflictions and deep fears?
Doesn’t sound strange at all. Perhaps the way stories play out is connected to how I learned to write stories, which is basically that a character wants something at the beginning of a story and they don’t get it at the end; instead, they get something else they may or may not have wanted or they have a moment of reckoning. That’s oversimplifying it, but in Babbie’s case, I think it’s extremely difficult to rise from poverty, especially without support or education. And in Donnie’s, substance abuse plagues his progress, which seems very real to me. Having said that, to hope in the face of difficulties feels very human, and I wanted to show both characters—given the tools they possess— trying their best to improve and move forward. It was important to me to bring compassion to each character’s story, even if I didn’t let some of them off the hook in the end.
There is one scene in the story “The Right Side of the Dash” I keep returning to. You present an intimate glimpse into how Fay responds to the death of J.D. She thinks she hears and sees him and these sightings, which you describe as “the product of grief,” are at once both painful and beautiful. We also observed a similar distress with Donnie’s alcohol addiction and how he grapples with his existence. How do you build and relay the interiority of your characters with such a range of complex and gripping emotions?
Thank you again for saying I managed to pull off that feat. Honestly, I worked hard to uncover those moments. I revised some stories as many as twenty times. I think one was revised closer to thirty. One of my mentors in Austin, novelist S. Kirk Walsh, encouraged me is to find ways to dive deeper into interior moments. When I’m inside a character’s thoughts, sometimes it helps me to think “and then” after I’ve written a sentence, the idea being that there’s more to uncover. Learning to look around the room (which I’m still learning to do), is another technique that’s helped me dive deeper into a character’s psyche. Maybe there’s an object or another element in the scene that can mirror the character’s thoughts.
There were so many characters whose lives I was deeply moved by, but there’s something striking and unforgettable about Donnie and Babbie and this unsteady world you carve out for them. How did you choose them to center this collection? And what do you find most memorable or difficult about developing and writing these characters?
Donnie and Babbie both emerged during the course I took in graduate school. I initially thought there would be one main character, but then Donnie appeared. Something about him tugged at me. Maybe it was his misguided efforts or his bad choices and how he always seemed to come up short in comparison to his brother. As for Babbie, I wrote the story about her and Rowan first. I was hooked from the first moment I met her. She wants so badly to be respected and loved, but she’s also made bad choices in addition to the fact that she’s not willing to compromise her own authenticity to please anyone else. What you see is what you get with Babbie.
What I found most interesting about writing them was exploring them independently and bringing them together only when a story required it. I suppose you could think of it like a Venn diagram where the separate lives are as large or larger than the overlapping part. I think within couples, each person spends a great deal of time in their own head and often has a separate workplace. There may be a past marriage or relationships, separate friendships. So much about each person factors into the relationship. As for difficulties, continuing to find new ways to dive more deeply into characters was the hardest part. As with a relationship, characters usually reveal themselves slowly to me. Thanks so much for your great questions and for reading It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories.
It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories
By Ramona Reeves
University of Pittsburgh Press
Published October 04, 2022
One to buy ASAP. Thank you!