What I mean is that she very much was for me, when I met her in 2007 at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, where she showed us around the Bread Loaf campus and took us to the buildings in which we’d hold our initial workshops. Not only was Nina friendly and easy-going, but she proved knowledgeable and fair in her dealings with newcomers to the Mountain (like myself), and those returning Bread Loafers, most of whom already knew each other. So it should come as no surprise, then, that her fiction deals with individuals who are caught on the outsides of a culture, looking in. In her debut story collection, Cowboys and East Indians, McConigley’s characters are adopted East Indians living in Wyoming, or white Americans in India trying to obtain cheap acne medication, or children, recent emigrants to the U.S., awkwardly and hilariously confused about the racial slurs that permeate our culture. McConigley’s writing is truly American, and answers to any charges of American fiction’s insularity. We are—for the most part—a nation of immigrants and their ancestors, all of looking in on the each other and the other cultures of the world, trying to find our place in it.
Blurry Lines: An Interview with Nina McConigley
Jamie Iredell: In some of the other interviews you’ve already given, you talk about how some of the stories in Cowboys and East Indians have autobiographical elements to them. You’ve written some nonfiction, but primarily fiction. Where do you draw the line between fiction and reality, or does that even matter?
Nina McConigley: For me, I guess the line is a little blurry. Everything I have written has some element of autobiography. Growing up a minority in Wyoming informs such a large sense of who I am, and I think have always tried to make sense of the feelings of being an outsider that I grew up with. I think those themes – race, identity, being on the margins – inform so much of my thinking, and that then comes out in my work.
Also, hell, I have had a colorful growing up – I grew up around rig workers (my dad is a geologist), I was an avid 4-H kid, and we have met other Indian families in unusual circumstances. Sometimes I think life is stranger than fiction. And the great thing about being a fiction writer is you to revise history, you get to change and make a house out of bricks you already have. It’s very freeing.
JI: Is feeling like an outsider something that you still feel palpably now that you’re an adult? And, in particular, do you feel like an outsider in the world of contemporary American lit/publishing?
NM: I don’t feel like I am outsider now. I’m pretty comfortable with who I am. I still live in Wyoming, so I am certainly aware most times that I am the only person of color in the room. But outsider wouldn’t be the way I describe that feeling. I feel very invested and inside with this place.
You know, I don’t feel like an outsider in publishing. I certainly published with a small press – but I had a story collection – so that seemed like a good path. But I am aware I went to an MFA program and have been really fortunate to have had conferences like Bread Loaf and Sewanee in my writing life. But living in Wyoming, I physically feel far away from a lot of the literary world, and perhaps that is a good thing when writing. But Facebook and twitter make me feel like I am part of a writing/publishing conversation.
JI: Can you talk specifically about how important Bread Loaf and other writing communities have been for you and your writing life?
NM: Bread Loaf has been probably been the most important thing that happened in my writing life, in that, while I had a great community of writers around me during my MFA, I really met my tribe at Bread Loaf. My closest writing friends are from there, and many of us were waiters together. We have grown up as writers together. Bread Loaf really is kind of like summer camp for nerdy writers. Where else can you stay up till 3 am talking about the importance of a prologue in a book?
I also was very lucky to meet my agent there, in this way more relaxed setting — and to be friends with her years before I officially signed with her. I also have attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, which is also quite magical. I live in Wyoming, so post-MFA, it’s so good to be around other writers for an intensive time. I don’t have a community here, so I put so much value on conferences. Right now, I am crazy excited for AWP.
JI: How did you choose the arrangement of stories in Cowboys and East Indians?
NM: I knew I wanted the book to start with the first piece, which is my only piece of flash fiction in the book. The first line is “We were the wrong kind of Indians in Wyoming”– I felt that set the tone for the whole book. And I knew I wanted to end with the story “Curating Your Life” as that story is set in India, and is my nod to my favorite novel in the world, “Passage to India”. In that book, EM Forster ends on the note that a coming together of cultures can’t happen right now. And I was thinking about that in terms of order. I wanted to show that in some ways, I am not sure how things come together when you are bi-racial. The rest of the stories were a mix, but I knew those would be the bookends.
JI: What can you tell us about the novel you’re working on?
NM: The novel is set in Wyoming. Most of the action takes place in 1986. There is a murder, and the reader knows early on who did it, the why and what is more shadowy. It follows a large extended Indian family living together. It’s been really fun to revisit events of 1986 – the Challenger explosion, Halley’s comet, Hands Across America…I could go on.
Photo By: Nicholas Smit