April Murphy: I discovered your writing when “One Thousand Kittens” was a finalist for Cutbank’s Montana Nonfiction Prize in 2011, and then went on the hunt for more essays from your unpublished collection Ambition Towards Love. What I found surprised me.
Some essays of yours, like “Proxy” and “Somewhat Organic” are what I think about as being kind of traditional memoirs, but then there are essays like “Shades of Gray” and “Another Lesbian Space Fantasy” that seem to break out of old ways of thinking about the CNF genre – blending the imagination and a sense of magic without the same authentic and honest (and charming!) voice that characterizes your longer work. Can you talk a little bit about these different forms your writing takes?
Catherine Lucille Sharpe: I am certain that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is important, for reader and writer alike. It must be important; people get quite upset when they discover that the writer has cheated–stepping outside the bounds of “literal truth” to copulate with fiction. But why don’t people get upset when nonfiction parades around as fiction? I am guilty of this.
The Ambition Towards Love collection deliberately flows back and forth between fiction and nonfiction. Whatever the genre, I continue to circle the same ole boring human stuff–love, loss, more love, more loss, lies, less love, gain, a little more loss, joy, heroism, duplicity, frailty, failure, growth, shrinkage, doubt, love again, loss again, truth, etc.. The usual.
As a writer and self-avowed nutpouch, I’ve clearly been trying to sort one or two things out on the page–the mere two dimensions of the page seem so much more manageable than the infinite dimensions of my head and heart.
I know that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is important to me because I take the trouble to know the difference line by line, paragraph by paragraph. In my nonfiction, I might forsake a perfectly good “real” detail, simply because it does not add to the meaning of the story, or what I want to emphasize in the story. And guess what! I might include that same detail in a short fiction because it creates ambiguity–one of the best ways to make fiction seem just as true and confusing and unknowable as real life.
The decision to approach an idea through fiction or nonfiction profoundly affects my writing process, even when there are thematic congruities. I’ve noticed how the struggle to craft readable fiction has improved my nonfiction writing, in both predictable and surprising ways.
Predictably, being forced to dredge up a believable character is good practice for bringing your Great Aunt Susan to life for the nonfiction reader. She’s the one who always sucks the knuckle of her pinky finger so that she can twirl her wedding ring. It doesn’t fit on her ring finger anymore, and anyway Uncle Frank’s dead, so it d