12.2 | Interview

Jess Marinaro

An Interview With Kristen Gentry

Kristen Gentry is an award winning fiction writer whose work has been published by journals such as Crab Orchard Review, Jabberwock Review, Electric Literature, among others. She is an alumni of both VONA and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Mama Said is her debut short story collection.

Gandy Dancer: Mama Said is an exploration of the love, joy, and resilience of a Black family in Louisville, Kentucky. What were your motivations in choosing Louisville as a setting?

Kristen Gentry: Initially, the stories were set in Louisville simply by default—it was the place I knew best—and, to be honest, the setting description was pretty paltry. When I met editor Liz Van Hoose at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, she advised me to highlight Louisville as a setting because it’s not often featured in books. With her advice, I developed Louisville as the setting and it became a prominent element in the book. I wrote the bulk of the collection while living in Rochester, New York. Being away from home sharpened my clarity about how Louisville is distinct. It also revealed how my knowledge of the city and its people differs from popular media portrayals and stereotypes.

GD: The characters in Mama Said are almost all connected by family ties. What are some of the challenges that come with writing family dynamics? How often does a fiction writer have to reach into their own experience, and how does that influence the finished product?

KG: I think one of my biggest challenges with writing family dynamics is not overloading the present moments with the characters’ backstories and relationships. It’s important to let readers know the history that the current conflict rests upon, but it can be hard to balance that history and maintain the plot’s forward momentum.

How often a writer feels it necessary to reach into their own experience is going to depend on the writer and the stories they want to tell. I did so often for the stories in Mama Said. I wasn’t always pulling and recounting actual events in the fiction, though there are nuggets of true life woven into some of the stories. My mother did actually tell me she wished she could drive off of a bridge, as Claudia tells JayLynn in the title story, and my family had a horrible Thanksgiving when my aunts ate all of the chitlins but contributed nothing and my mother was supposed to show up but didn’t as events play out in “A Satisfying Meal.” However, I made a lot of stuff up, too, because it’s fiction. Nigel and the Thompsons are completely fictional. So are Melissa and Beverly. My goal in writing is to capture an emotional truth in the story, and that emotional truth doesn’t have to originate from true events.

GD: There are a lot of characters in this collection, all of whom feel vibrant, alive, and grounded in their own experience. As you wrote, did these characters develop together as a family/community unit, or was it easier to consider each character more separately at first?

KG: I always imagined JayLynn, Angel, and Zaria within the context of their family. “Grown Folks’ Business” was the first story I wrote in the collection. In that story, readers are introduced to Angel. She and her conflict become known through the juxtaposition of her voice and her parts of the story set against the voices of her mother, Maxine, and Aunt Sandy. “A Satisfying Meal” is the second story I wrote for the collection. JayLynn is the protagonist in that story, but she’s set against the large cast of her family. Family shapes the daughters in such an integral way; I mirrored that shaping in the writing and development of their characters.

GD: The title, Mama Said, speaks to the thematic significance of motherhood that is a consistent throughline across these stories. The daughters are torn between emulation or rejection of their mothers, such as Angel’s imitation of her mother in “Animal Kingdom.” She notes, “Maxine rested in her mouth, a second tongue she couldn’t speak yet but echoed in her laugh” (191). Can you talk about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships in this story, in which Angel has two contrasting mother figures?

KG: Angel is old enough to recognize that her mother is flawed. Maxine is reckless and suffers from addiction. But Angel also sees her mother’s redeeming traits. She knows that Maxine is not the villain Aunt Sandy often paints her to be. Maxine is beautiful, funny, and simply fun to be around. This is everything that Angel wants to be, the inheritance she feels she’s due as Maxine’s daughter, though Angel begins to understand that it can be difficult to separate the redeeming traits from the flaws. Maxine’s recklessness is what sometimes makes her funny or fun to be around, but it also played a role in creating her drug habit. Her beauty attracts danger and men that could do her harm. Drugs change people, and I feel that many children of addicts are often negotiating between their parent on drugs versus the parent as they knew them before the addiction and/or who they imagine they could become clean of the drugs. It feels like the parent is constantly flipping and changing, flashing redeeming traits and flaws, because they are. Really, we all are, but drugs create extremes.

GD: Female friendship, especially Black female friendship, is an important element in many of these stories. How does friendship united by both gender and race—such as friendship between Black women—differ from other kinship or family ties in this collection?

KG: Black female friendship outside of blood ties is most prominent in “Animal Kingdom” and “In Her Image.” The biggest difference I see playing out in the friendships in both of these stories is the freedom from those family ties. That freedom gives the character an opportunity to shape who she wants to become rather than feeling burdened or bound by the narrative of who she is within her family. In “Animal Kingdom,” Angel is with Kayla and Jade, away from Aunt Sandy’s judgment. She’s free—and encouraged by Jade—to explore a freer, wilder self that is not unlike the behavior she imagines of a younger Maxine. In “In Her Image,” Stella teaches Claudia how to pray and manifest a life full of romantic love and domestic bliss, unlike her mother Jean’s lonely single life. Friendships for Angel and Claudia offer support and a chance to reinvent themselves.

GD: All the unique perspectives the readers get as we move through the collection culminate with the final story “Everything You Could Ever Want.” Within this story, JayLynn finds a moment of connection with her often distant mother, “‘Come here baby,’ she says so quietly that you aren’t sure the words are real, that you haven’t imagined them or the jasmine scent of her…Your mother is here” (268). How did you decide that this story made the most sense to place at the end?

KG: The overarching narrative of the collection is driven by JayLynn’s desire for Claudia to be clean, to be present, to be the mother she used to be before depression and addiction. Actually, that’s the hope for all of the daughters. “Everything You Could Ever Want” seems like a natural end because it presents a culminating crisis moment and resolution for that desire.

GD: There are so many important moments in these stories that stuck with me, and will continue to stick with me after reading. What are some of the moments that stick with you the most after writing this collection? What do you hope readers will carry with them from Mama Said?

KG: The final image of Claudia sitting alone in “In Her Image,” thinking of her mother, Jean, haunts me. As does Nigel pleading with JayLynn to tell Claudia what has happened in “Everything You Could Ever Want.” JayLynn’s intense fear of not messing up Claudia’s sobriety or sullying her happiness is actually what clings in that story. It’s incredibly heartbreaking that JayLynn’s afraid to even attempt to get what she wants the most, which is her mother’s comfort and support. But that story’s ending also stays with me, and that lingering is much more positive.

After reading Mama Said, I hope readers carry a sense of being understood and a greater understanding of the complexities of addiction; it is not simply “a personal problem.”