'The Office of Historical Corrections' and the Power of the Short Story

Posted by Cybil on November 1, 2020
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Danielle Evans was just 26 when she released her short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self in 2010, a multi-award-winning debut that won praise from the likes of Salman Rushdie and Roxane Gay. Now the Baltimore-based author returns with The Office of Historical Corrections, a novella and six stories that explore race, love, and loss; how the past can haunt and shape our present; and America’s fraught relationship with historical truth.
In her first book, many of Evans’ stories were centered on young women and teenage girls of color at “coming-of-age” junctures, pivotal moments of choice surrounding identity, race, and relationships. Her new work similarly highlights young, untethered characters, mostly Black and multiracial, who grapple with conflicting desires, an often hostile environment, or unbearable grief.

In each story, the characters confront the pressures of history, either via family trauma and its painful legacy or the equally complicated shared trauma of America’s past.
In Happily Ever After, Lyssa, a 30-year-old Black woman working in the gift shop of a replica Titanic, is given a “backdrop” role in a music video as she tries to process her mother’s death from cancer and navigate the daily racial inequities, large and small, that she faces. In Boys Go to Jupiter, a white college student must address the controversy caused when a picture of her wearing a Confederate flag bikini goes viral. And in Alcatraz, a daughter arranges for her mother to visit the jail where her grandfather served a sentence that continues to haunt her family.
The book is anchored by the titular novella about Cassie Jacobs, a Black academic employed at a government agency tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies amid a “contemporary crisis of truth.” Her job involves everything from pointing out the overheard mistakes of tourists to telling a bakery its Juneteenth cake is mislabeled. When she is sent to investigate confusion around an alleged hate crime in a 1930s Wisconsin “sundown town,” the historical mystery takes a terrifying twist, threatening her relationships, her life, and her very faith in the power of the truth.
As the nation is convulsed by racial-justice protests and facts are contested as never before, The Office of Historical Corrections is being hailed as “made for this era.” Evans, who teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University, talked to interviewer Catherine Elsworth about her inspirations for the collection, the power of the short story, and what’s next.

Goodreads: This collection seems so pertinent to the moment we're living in. Could you talk generally about how the stories came into being and whether you envisioned them as a whole as you were writing or if the overarching themes presented themselves afterward?

Danielle Evans: I hoped that at some point I would have another collection, but when I started working on the stories, I had been working on a longer project for a long time and so I wrote the first half of the book secretly and in hiding from my agent and editor, who I was supposed to be presenting a novel to.

I was writing these stories over ten years, writing them, holding on to and working on them, and letting go of them when they felt ready. At the point that I had three or four stories, I started to think about what might be the connection. And it seemed clear to me that they were in conversation, but it took me until the second to last story I wrote to see what felt like the actual thematic connection between the stories, which is that so many of them are about apology or correction or trying to revisit or make sense of the past or correct a record. Sometimes it's a literal question, sometimes a personal question.
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And then I finished the last piece of the collection, the novella The Office of Historical Corrections, which I didn't know belonged in the collection until I started working on it. But because I had already articulated what the collection was about, as I got into that part of it I was like, "Oh, this is clearly the last piece of that book, and it's not a novel, it's a novella." And everything clicked into place.

Then when I read it all together, it seemed also that there was an emotional tension in all of the stories, in a personal way, in a national way, which makes sense [if you consider] the period in which I was writing, about the ongoing tension between joy and hope. My mother passed away a few years ago, and she was very sick for a few years before that. And so I was writing these stories slowly and during a period of personal crisis, and then I feel like [when] they emerged we were in a prolonged national crisis.

GR: Many of the stories are about young women of color trying to find their way in the world, trying to resolve relationships with others or themselves, weighed down by the past as much as their present. Why do you think that's an area you return to?

DE: Part of what I’m maybe trying to write about in this collection, I'm interested in the question of choice; as a writer, I think a lot of the interest and tension in stories comes from agency. At the same time, as a writer who writes about a lot of structural forces, you don't want to make it so people have a choice about everything. So part of what I understood of the structural project of this book was thinking about the difference in shape sometimes between the active plot of our lives and the emotional plot of our lives.

A lot of the stories in my first book often took the same critical arc: There's a thing we're expecting and a dramatic event, and that's the crisis moment of the story, and there's a reaction to that.

Here I was interested in the moments in life that feel like, "There isn't a choice or the choices have been made." So the choices that drive the plot of the story [are] the active, everyday choices that we use to distract ourselves from whatever is actually emotionally bothersome or compelling. And so you have a gravity in the story that comes from a thing a person can't choose to do anything about, and then you have a plot that comes through all the things you're doing instead.

That plot shape seemed to work really well for people who find themselves at a point in their life where they've made a lot of choices, some of them without realizing those choices have been made. And so you find yourself childless and unpartnered in your 30s and say, "Oh, I guess I've made a decision." But they don't know when they made that decision. Or to be dealing with some kind of grief or trauma that is the weightiest thing in your life and makes everything else feel ephemeral.

I think that’s maybe why some of the stories feel like there’s this untethering, that people are in some ways both grounded by something that's very important and also disconnected from everyday life because the gravity of that would eat up your everyday life if you let it.

GR: The issue of race connects all the stories, and you highlight the inequities built into the fabric of your characters’ lives, such as when Lyssa goes to the doctor with her sick mother prepared to ask for “whatever medicine they didn’t bother trying on Black women.” Can you talk about that?

DE: Yes, I think that's part of how I understand character. I am interested in character as having the capacity for contradiction and tension. One of the most compelling things to me about fiction is that a character has layers, and those layers are created by the distance between the public self and the private self. That's true of all characters, but it's true when you're writing women or people of color that those layers are also affected by the social demands that people perform.

So I'm always aware of that when I'm writing a character. Even if the plot of the story isn't racism or misogyny, I'm aware that to be a Black person in the world, to be a woman in the world, is to be aware of yourself, as if to have that double consciousness, to have a sense of the external gaze, with a sense of not just who you feel like today, but how other people are seeing you, and how you have to be seen in order to be heard or to get whatever treatment or goal that you are working toward.

I'm always thinking, Who does this character have to perform for? Who is this character afraid of? Who does the character need to convince of something? And that, for me, always adds those extra layers.

GR: Can you talk about Boys Go to Jupiter, in which college student Claire, who is also bereaved, tries to defend a viral picture of her wearing a Confederate flag bikini? Was this one of your more recent stories?

DE: Not really. I wrote the first draft in 2013, and it was published originally in 2017 and then reprinted in Best American Short Stories in 2018. It's one of those things where it seems alarmingly topical, but it also seemed alarmingly topical in 2017. It seemed alarmingly topical in between me writing it and publishing it, which is part of why I held on to it. Hopefully at some point it will not feel topical.

When I originally started talking about the character Claire in that story, I thought of her as one of four characters in a novel I had planned. But when I sat down to write, I started with Claire's voice and I was interested in her as the intersection of a lot of my different interests. That sense of performance that she's been engaged in, which obviously has lots of layers. Also that question of innocence, of a refusal to remember things, and the intersection of that as a lack of accountability but also as an actual grief, the way that both trauma and grief and also the refusal to recognize your own role in events can freeze time. It seemed clear to me at that point that I didn't need all the other voices.

[After I wrote it], I held it for a while because I wasn't sure what to do with it. It only was accepted by The Sewanee Review in 2017. And I’d just finished all my edits when the protests at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville happened, and I thought, "Oh, everyone's going to think this is some immediate ripped-from-the-headlines story."

So one of the things I did was try to make sure that it was tethered to a particular decade so that people would know that it wasn't meant to be a real-time reaction.

GR: Tell us about the novella that gives the book its title. Did it begin as a novel or was it a story that became longer?

DE: That was the last thing I wrote for this collection. I had just hit a wall with the long-term novel that I was working on. I talked to an editor and said, “I think it should be let go, but I will bring you back either my next story collection or a new novel that I have this idea for, whichever comes first." And then very quickly I realized as I went to work on this new novel that it was very much of a piece with my old project.

The earlier book had been about a historian who was trying to write a history textbook, but I realized it would be more interesting to have her actively confronting the problem of history, the weight of it, and how we remember it. So I found a way to turn my historian book into the detective story that I'd always wanted to write.

At first I did map it out as a novel, and then as I started to write what I thought was the first chapter, I realized that a lot of what I had planned for the novel started to feel like detours. I do think I still have story writer instincts where, if something can be compressed, I want to compress it. I want things to be dense and as packed as possible.

I also realized pretty quickly that it was in conversation with all of these other stories, as literal exploration of history and as exploration of family and personal history. It was in some way a deconstructed version of the book I'd been trying to write all along. That gave me the freedom to make it as long as it needed to be but no longer because I wasn't trying to push it into a novel and I wasn't trying to compress it to a short story. It could just go into the book where I felt like it already had a home. So I gave it the room I thought it needed for world-building, but I didn't worry about how long it was other than how long I thought it needed to be for the sake of the story.

GR: The public office for history is described as a public service like 311 to correct the “contemporary crisis of truth.” Where did that idea come from?

DE: So, I've been telling a running joke for years where I was like, "Could I just pay five extra tax dollars a year to have people correct this misinformation?" And people would see it on social media and be like, "Yes, please, let's make this happen." Then I realized that on some level it seemed like a wonderful solution to the lack of information and lack of engagement with American history. But on some other level it can actually be terrifying, like someone who corrects you in public and tells you when you had your facts wrong.

So I wanted to think about both the interesting potential of that, of the ways in which we could as a country, as a culture, think about history, think about truth, think about what it would mean to be a public historian in a way that I think that a lot of academics are trying to figure out how to be in this moment.

And at the same time, I wanted to think about what the limitations of that would be and the challenges of conceiving of an institution whose job it is to fix what is a cultural problem.

GR: The novella tackles white supremacy, and Cassie describes the constant pressure she feels as a Black person in America to “audition for my life,” a pressure shared by many of the book’s characters and one that has come to the fore of national consciousness this year in the wake of police killings of Black people and ensuing racial-justice protests. How has it been living through this year, seeing the escalating focus on and anger surrounding issues that have been key to your writing since the beginning?

DE: It's extremely alarming. I do think that question of auditioning to be central to my understanding of this moment. But there are a lot of people, not all of who would consider themselves white supremacists or part of any group, who think it is a proper condition for people of color to be always auditioning and making a case for their lives or their presence in a particular space. That just seems like the way that things work.

And so, their reaction to any overreach or abuse is, "Well, you should have done something differently" or "You should have been the right kind of person or the police wouldn't have killed you. You should have shown you were the right kind of person and then your voting rights wouldn't be in question."

So to be in 2020 and thinking there are going to be armed people showing up at polling places to make sure that people in cities can’t exercise democracy is horrifying. But it's not, to me at least, surprising; I was raised by people who always prepared me for this possibility. So maybe one of the biggest gulfs of this moment is that I am as afraid as anybody else, but I am not surprised. In some ways I feel like I was more hurt by the people who, when things started to look bad said, "Oh, you're all overreacting" than I am by the people who are actually the biggest villains in the story, because I always knew who they were, right?

I always knew who wanted to take my rights away. It's the people whose passivity let it happen, who ignored the signs until it was too late, who I feel more betrayed by.

GR: Going back to the beginning of your career, what first drew you to short stories?

DE: I’ve always loved the short story. I love how much can happen in a relatively short period of time. I think that what a short story captures well is perhaps the thing I'm most interested in capturing, which is how one thing can stay with us for a long time. It's giving you a close-up of a thing that's happening, and you get to the end and understand how it's going to play out or put pressure on the future in interesting ways.
And I love that about the form. I love that it gives you a capacity that if you're reading a collection in particular, the whole is written in the sum of its parts. That you're getting to see a writer answer the same question in all kinds of different ways. There's something interesting created in the way that you see the writer build on the themes that they're developing, but also complicate them and show you that they can do something else. And so I really love a collection.

As a younger writer, I cared more about how the book would be received and I worried about being pinned to a single voice, of having people assume that everything I wrote was autobiographical or that any particular voice I wrote was the voice of young Black women, and so I wanted a book that had lots of different characters, lots of different voices so that I could evade that kind of reductive reading.

I think happily now it's a richer culture in terms of the landscape of publishing. It's less likely for someone to read a book and say, "Oh yes, this is the one book by a Black woman I've read this year." I also think that I’m slightly more ornery at 35 than I was at 25, so I'm less anxious about that. But I still love the idea that you can, it's almost like a magic trick, you can change costumes throughout the book. You can get people to see you as one kind of thing and then create a new illusion. And the sum of all of that, for me, is a delightful experience when I'm reading a collection by a writer that I love.

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GR: Who are some of your favorite short story writers?

DE: Recently I just taught Laura van den Berg’s I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, which is a really brilliant collection.

In terms of all-time people who I think about, especially in terms of the question of structure and how to handle movement in time, I love Alice Munro and Edward P. Jones. They are people whose management of time and memory have been really instructive to me.

I also really love the Victor LaValle collection Slapboxing with Jesus.

I think it's a great moment for other Black short story writers. So Rion Scott's collection that came out last year, The World Doesn’t Require You, and Jamel Brinkley's A Lucky Man.

Also, Asali Solomon and Nafissa Thompson-Spires.

GR: Do you have any interesting writing habits, such as when or how you write?

DE: I used to go to coffee shops. No, unfortunately, I think left to my own devices, if I didn't have to be a person in any other way, I would be entirely vampiric and I would write only from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. and sleep all day.

Unfortunately life is not conducive to that, so I've learned to occasionally write in daylight.

But I think that every story for me is its own process. I try to write a first draft in as close to one sitting as possible. Sometimes the closest possible is several days, sometimes the closest possible is a year. When I get very lucky, as close as possible might be one day, but then the draft is a mess [and] I have to spend a long time fixing it. And then I revise very slowly. So I try to draft quickly and revise slowly, but what quick and slow look like or how long the particular shape of that process is, is very different for every story. I don't have a particular routine. I write when I feel something is urgent, and then I let it sit until I feel like it's done.

GR: Has this year been good for you, writing-wise, given the amount of alone time?

DE: Not really. I had just about adjusted to the disruption of normal life and thought, "OK, well at least I'll have the summer. I can't do anything else, so I’ll write." And then all of the protests started happening. My next book, a novel, is about celebrity, and it involves an act of police violence that happens early on, and I felt like I didn't know how to write at that moment without being responsive to the day-to-day news.

When you're writing about something, even if it feels like it's going to be topical, you want to feel like you're complicating that question, or introducing something to the question, not just responding. And it felt impossible not to feel responsive and almost voyeuristic. I felt like I couldn't do what I needed to do on that book right then.

So, we'll see. I have bits and pieces. I have good pages; they're just not necessarily connected in any kind of way. But I am excited to get back to the thing that I'm working on and to have, hopefully, better answers to the questions that flummoxed me.


Danielle Evans’ The Office of Historical Corrections will be available in the U.S. on November 10. Don’t forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

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