In August 2013, Big Fiction, published in hand-set type on a letterpress and dedicated to the long short story, the novella, issued its inaugural Knickerbocker Prize. Chosen by acclaimed novelist and short story writer Lauren Groff, the first prize novella, “Sandy and Wayne,” is a love story set in the Arkansas Ozarks on the interstate as it was built between Fayetteville and Fort Smith. Now in February of 2016, Dock Street Press in Seattle has published Sandy and Wayne: A Novella as a standalone book. Learn more about that at the Dock Street Press website.
Steve Yates will be reading and signing Sandy and Wayne at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Thursday, February 4 from 6-8 p.m. He’ll then head to his native Springfield, Missouri, and read and sign books at the Library Center, Saturday, February 6 from 2-4 p.m. and at the Barnes & Noble on Glenstone from 5-7 p.m. See more details at EVENTS.
The author of “Sandy and Wayne,” Steve Yates, is also the winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize in Fiction, and his collection Some Kinds of Love: Stories was published by University of Massachusetts Press in April 2013. He holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arkansas, and while in Fayetteville he worked three summers as a construction inspector and surveyor for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. Born and reared in Springfield, Missouri, Yates is the author of the novels Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press, 2010) and The Teeth of the Souls (Moon City Press 2015). He is currently assistant director/marketing director at University Press of Mississippi in Jackson. Editorial Intern Lauren Hohle earned an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree from the University of Redlands, in “Framing and Narrative: Creative Writing, Film, and Social Justice.” Her work has been published in The Dos Passos Review, and she is on pace to watch three hundred and twenty films this year. More information on the mission and history of Big Fiction resides at http://www.bigfictionmagazine.com.
Q: Your bio said that you worked inspecting highways. Was that experience the genesis of the story?
A: Of the nitty-gritty details, yes, absolutely. But not any of the love. For three summers in the University of Arkansas writing program I was a surveyor and construction inspector for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department. We were building interstate between Fayetteville and Fort Smith. It was mountainous, beautiful country, the heart of the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks. It was also filthy and hot and hard and mortally dangerous at times. I was honored to be accepted among the laborers, contractors, engineers, and inspectors who do that work. It’s a really majestic stretch of highway now. Without witnessing it built, you would never guess the lives and labor spent on every mile of it.
Q: I like that the characters don’t say much. Their relationship is more intuitive, built on a mutual understanding. Would you categorize this as a tough-guy / tough-gal romance?
A: Yeah, these people were tougher than I will ever manage being. Ten High at bedtime and Imodium for breakfast. And they have both been told some lies in love, and so are more apt to listen and wait to see actions. They also don’t say much because many of their interactions occur on a jobsite that’s loud when equipment is moving, and more or less professional even if it is out-of-doors. And they’re pretty exhausted at day’s end. I used to come home with red clay and lime dust in every pore and crevice, tired enough to weep. I would also add that, while there are chatterboxes and philosophers on highway jobs, the smartest people, the ones you really want around you when things get tight and dangerous, they’re Ozarks to the core. They speak by doing.
Q: Are the Sandys and Waynes of this world the intended audience?
A: In an interview, the living Ozarks writer I admire most in the world, Daniel Woodrell, said that more than once the kind of impoverished, often extralegal Ozarkers he writes about had at times stopped him and told him personally how much they appreciated being given a voice. Oh, my God! I would reckon that a Holy encounter, reader to writer. Burning bush Holy. I’m too clumsy and unknown and unimportant to think much at all about an audience. I just need to write well made, natural sentences that my characters could plausibly think and speak, and create stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A few people who read: That’s the best I can hope for right now.
Q: The story has romantic elements, but it is also largely about coping with loss. I was impressed by the delicate balance between what is conscious and what is unconscious for Sandy. We are so close to her point of view, yet we are placed in the position to know what she wants or feels before she does. Could you speak a little on what it was like to write that character?
A: Thanks so much for saying that. It means a lot. I thought I knew Sandy really well, after having been around someone like her on the job. But I know a character will take me through the whole story and that the story is alive when the predictable, the planned is quickly overturned. I really wanted the novella to feel like a long Country love song, a good Country love song, one with wit and turns, and even a self-referential awareness. A great Country music song—the poet Miller Williams once mused to me in all sincerity that there may be no higher calling than writing a great Country music song. I wasn’t smart enough to know everything he meant by that then. “Sandy and Wayne” might be my first humble answer back now.
Q: What drew you to the novella form?
A: Is there a higher calling in fiction than the long short story? “The Pedersen Kid,” “The Beggar Maid,” “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” “Old Mortality,” “A Simple Heart,” “Boule de Suif,” “Stationmaster Fallmerayer,” “The Bust of the Emperor,” “Ward 6,” “Peasants,” “The Steppe,” “A Boring Story,” “The Duel,” “Bartleby the Scrivener.” I’ll bet if I could trace every story that I knew was transformative to me, they would all be novellas. Thank God, Big Fiction is trying the mad experiment of giving the form a refined vehicle!
Q: Did the story take on this shape as you were writing it, or did you sit down knowing you were going to write a novella?
A: I knew it was going to be long. I knew there were several episodes that had to happen, knew that Sandy had to face a string of them to force her and Wayne into realizations. If I hit twenty-five double-spaced pages, and don’t feel I am through the beginning, middle, and end, then I need to make some decisions. I admire the novella enough to hope that I can try one, to give one back. “Sandy and Wayne” seemed the natural marriage of those two high callings—the novella, the good Country music song.
Q: Do you have a favorite novella?
A: I reread “Bartleby the Scrivener” at least once every year, and find it more revelatory, more gorgeously constructed, more keenly honed to the truth of the human heart and human work every time. “Ward 6” and “Stationmaster Fallmerayer,” too, are workplace stories in many ways. Depending on the time of year, and which of those three I am rereading, one of those is my favorite. Interesting that work is so key to each of them. Work and love and loss, that’s the heart of us. That and the fear of being alone when you need someone. I sure am glad you asked me these questions. Thank you, Lauren Hohle, and thanks, Big Fiction, for giving the novella such a handsome, new home.