Dawn Major interviews Janisse Ray, author of “The Woods of Fannin County”

Associate Editor of Southern Literary Review, Dawn Major originally met Southern author, poet, activist, Janisse Ray while Major was a graduate student attending the Etowah Valley MFA Creative Writing Program. Ray taught a nonfiction workshop then and was the keynote speaker for the graduating class.

Dawn Major

DM: I know you had some anxiety over publishing fiction for the first time. Honestly, I never realized you hadn’t, so when I saw you posting about being nervous, I was surprised. What were some of your struggles moving into the fictional world? And vice versa, what were some positives or surprises?

JR:  Dawn, thank you for doing such good thinking about this new novel. My struggles with fiction encompass enjoying the genre as a reader but possessing no knowledge of how to write it. I have always admired novelists, mostly because you all have to create your narratives straight out of your minds. As a nonfiction writer, the story was always handed to me; all I had to do was craft it. This novel was a great intro for me, because I was able to use a story that actually happened and then fictionalize it, meaning that entire scenes are fictionalized, of course, but the backbone of the story is truth.

DM: You tackled an extremely traumatic topic with this book. What kind of feedback have you received from your readers?

Janisse Ray

Janisse Ray

JR: I’ve been surprised by how painful some people find the book. I, on the other hand, consider the story to be incredibly hopeful, a story of resilience and survival. I write with the intention never to cause harm—no more wounds—only to bring about healing. And this is a very healing story for the children who were involved. Not to get too personal, but my husband and I adopted a beautiful girl eleven years ago, and she arrived to us with multiple complex traumas that had caused attachment disorder. We spent years focused on healing a person from complex trauma, and in the course of the work I have heard hundreds of trauma narratives. Perhaps all these true stories of terrible things that happened to children strengthened my immune system, as it were—maybe I was more steeled for this story. We also have to ask ourselves, What does a painful response to this book mean? Does it mean that we as a society are not really paying attention to the trauma that is happening all around us, even as we speak? Are we turning our heads and not really seeing? Have we kept these trauma narratives buried so long that we pretend they don’t exist?

 DM: I said in my review that you wrote a simple but complex story. How did you balance telling a story not your own, but inspired by true events, while also expressing yourself as an artist?

JR: The answer to this is craft. First I tell a story, then I work with it, crafting and crafting, until it feels artful to me.

DM: You heard this story years ago. Why did you wait to tell it now?

JR: Dawn, I began to write this book almost the minute I first heard the story. The writing took years, because (I suppose) I was processing the story, researching the pieces of it, interviewing more people, trying to authenticate it, and trying to figure out how to tell it so that nobody was harmed. Also during that time I was raising my own daughter.

DM: What made you decide to self-publish this time around? And are you happier with being in total control or will you go back to traditional publishing route?

JR: Oh, I love having expert assistance in making a book. I have worked with gifted people at fantastic presses—great editors, copyeditors, designers, and marketers. I’ve learned so much from them, and I am very grateful for this. Yes, I will return to the traditional publishing route when the opportunity arises. However, the book publishing world is in chaos, and I have found much of it to be dysfunctional, especially for a woman writer, so I’m experimenting with ways to make it work for the artist and for the reader.

DM: I understand that your main character, Bobby, is an amalgam of the children you interviewed. He passed away and you never spoke to him. What made you decide to write from his point of view rather than one of the individuals you interviewed?

JR: In a story this sticky, the chance is great to get something wrong or to offend. Legally, because in American one can’t libel the dead, it made more sense to have the main character be someone no longer alive. It also made sense because he was the oldest child and, at ten when he was taken to the cabin, would have remembered the most as an adult.

DM: Do you think it would have been possible to tell this story through nonfiction? What inspired you write a fictional biography instead?

JR: I don’t think I’d dare tell this as a nonfiction story. If I did, I would need to find and interview many more folks who belong to the extended family. All their names are changed in the book because I wasn’t interested in finding them. I simply wanted to show what happened to these eight children. The oldest child I interviewed was nine years old when she was taken to the shanty. The memory of even a nine-year-old is faulty. I would not dare trust that. Besides, fiction makes the story real.

 DM: I’ve noticed an uptick of your social media presence between publishing Red Lanterns, Wild Spectacle and now your latest, The Woods of Fannin County. Marketing can be daunting for authors. Love it or hate it? What is one piece of advice you would give to authors circumnavigating social media?

Janisse Ray

JR: I have never wanted to be a marketer. I want to be an artist. But the world of literature is shrinking so rapidly now that I can’t see any other way to make this work. Also, there’s so much to learn from being more radically visible to your readers—you are forced to consider other humans. My advice to authors these days is forget the old narratives about writers and writing, because almost none of them fit anymore.

DM: Now that you have entered the world of fiction, do you intend to write more fiction?

JR: Not with intention.

DM? You wrote your memoir, The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood and now a fictional biography, The Woods of Fannin County. You also offer a course on writing your childhood. Why should writers write about their childhood? What makes you so interested in this topic?

 JR: Childhood is such a potent, powerful time. We are beings in love with transformation—we believe in transformation—the idea of transformation gives us hope. And so much transformation happens during childhood: more than at any other time in our lives.

DM: Janisse, thank you from myself and from Southern Literary Review for this interview. We wish you the best for The Woods of Fannin County.

JR: Dawn, thank you again and again not simply for this interview and for giving me voice in your publication and thinking life, but thank you for all you do for writers, especially Southern writers. I’m at your service.

Want to know more about this book? You can sign up for this free event.

A Reading and Discussion: The Woods of Fannin County (a free event) Tickets, Thu, Dec 8, 2022 at 6:00 PM | Eventbrite

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