Changing Your Life and Examining the Spaces In-Between
Amber Caron on why she doesn’t romanticize physical labor in her short story collection "Call Up the Waters"
Reading the stories in Amber Caron’s riveting debut collection Call Up the Waters, feels a little bit like walking around your apartment looking at things through binoculars—destabilizing, the sensation of reaching for things that aren’t quite where you expect them to be.
Her characters are adrift, uncertain, often prickly as they try to get their bearings in circumstances that are uncomfortable physically and psychologically. They’re often women out in the wild, performing difficult physical labor, scrambling for equilibrium as nature and sometimes their own bad judgment knocks them down repeatedly. In one story, a woman gets in a fight with her boyfriend, and in a sort of game of chicken that doesn’t quite go the way she expects, she ends up moving from the city to rural New Hampshire to help train dogs for mushing. She finds herself in a poorly insulated cabin checking paws for ice balls, abscesses and inflamed toenails, chipping frozen dog shit with an ice pick, and this is just the beginning of her getting in over her head. In another story, a woman whose cabin was washed away by the river has to get her things back from her stalker, a man who teaches a class at the community college called Skulls and Teeth and is keeping an injured kestrel trapped in his bathroom.
The characters are so vivid, all on the verge of either a breakdown or a realization or both.
I spoke with Amber Caron over email about rural living, the power of walks, and why she doesn’t romanticize physical labor.
Katya Apekina: Can you tell me a little about your background? When did you start writing and why?
Amber Caron: I started writing because I loved reading. The experience of being immersed in another world, one that could be so vivid and yet so unlike any world I had experienced, all because of the way language was arranged on a page? Well, that to me felt like a very specific kind of magic, and I wanted to do that.
But I had no idea how anyone could be a writer. I just didn’t see that reflected back to me in my world, so it took me a long time to get here. I grew up in a small, working-class town in the northeast corner of Vermont. I didn’t know any writers. While my family fully supported my desire to go to college, they didn’t really know how to guide me once I got there. I thought I wanted to be a physical therapist—that sounded good and stable and lucrative—but I kept enrolling in literature and writing classes and that’s where I put my energy, eventually going on for an MA in English while I waited tables and taught composition courses. After that, I taught high school English for eight years, did some freelance editing and tutoring, taught in summer creative writing programs, worked at literary organizations, and I still took writing classes when I could, usually through adult education programs and community writing centers. And I was often in writing groups. I was in my 30s before I went back to school for my MFA and I went because I sensed I had kind of taken myself as far as I could in my writing. I needed more help! And I had wonderful mentors who, to this day, still offer guidance and wisdom through what has felt like a pretty slow and sometimes difficult process of getting to this first book. Recently, I had this funny experience when I was applying to attend a writing workshop and they had a fellowship category called the Still Emerging Fellowship, which was for any writer over 40 who didn’t have a book. At first I thought, “Oh, that’s nice of them.” And then I realized, “Oh wait, that’s me.”
KA: The characters in this story collection are often performing difficult physical labor outdoors in difficult conditions. It’s not romanticized but it seems like a way into understanding the world for many of the characters. What’s your own experience with difficult physical labor?
AC: I haven’t experienced the labor many of these characters are performing. But I grew up in a family where many people in my life worked physical jobs that took a toll on their bodies, often at an incredibly young age. So I’m talking electricians, factory workers, lifelong military, jobs that required totally absurd hours—night shifts, double shifts, on call for emergencies, that kind of thing. And so I knew one thing I didn’t want to do was romanticize the hard, physical labor in this book. But I also didn’t want to shut down the possibility that for some of these characters the work they do might be rewarding, important work for them. Others might find nothing beyond a paycheck. Some of them might hate the work but find a community of people they love to be around. Others might see their jobs as a stepping-stone to something else.
KA: There’s a lot of talk about the vast divide in this country between the rural and the urban—so many people exist exclusively in one space or the other and the characters in this book are often moving between the two, inhabiting different selves in each place. You’ve lived in both, can you talk a little bit about moving between the two. Do you feel there’s a certain code switching that you’ve had to do? Do you feel like a different “you” in the city vs. the country?
AC: I love this question. It’s something I think about a lot, but I don’t think I’d call what you’re pointing to code switching necessarily. I’ve been moving between urban and rural spaces most of my life. When I left Vermont, I craved the energy of the city, the buzz of it, all the people, the quick pace. I was energized by all of that. But then I also felt this pull to the quiet, rural spaces, the solitude it provided, the creative space that opened up for me when everything slows down.
I think one of the patterns in the book—and this isn’t something I was aware of as I was writing, but one of those things you notice only when you step back and look at all the stories together—is that many of the characters expect their lives will change in some major way if they just get out of their current situation—moving from the country to a city, or a city to the country, or out of one job and into another, for example. And sometimes their lives do change in pretty significant ways, but usually not in the way they expect or hope. So I’m interested in that gap too—that space between what they think will happen if they make this change and what actually happens, and, more importantly, how they respond. But I’m also kind of endlessly interested in which parts of my characters’ lives follow them or haunt them or refuse to be ignored just because they may have moved from a rural town to a giant city, or vice versa. I wonder a lot about what fuels each character to make these decisions. In other words, are they moving toward something they want or are they moving away from something that they want to escape?
KA: In your title story, “Call up the Waters”, the narrator’s mother becomes obsessed with finding underground water sources using some methods that were somewhere between magic and science. Can you talk a little more about that? What are you thinking about water?
AC: Water is kind of everywhere in the book—heavy rains, floods, snowstorms, rivers, oceans, all that—but in some of the stories, the title story included, there’s a lack of water. I was thinking a lot about what’s beneath our feet after reading Robert Macfarlane’s great book, Underland, and in the West, of course, a lot of people are thinking about shrinking rivers and water allocation, and I also happened to grow up very close to the headquarters of the American Society of Dowsers. So I think all of those things were maybe swirling around in my head and bumping up against each other and I was just playing with language, trying things out on the page, and at one point the mother made this really bold claim that she could find the water and I was like, really? How? Let’s see. It’s interesting—when people read that story, they always ask me if what the mother is doing is real, if she can really find water that way. I always resist answering because it doesn’t matter if I think it’s real; it matters to me that the mother thinks it’s real. It matters to me that she is trying to find it and that the children are watching her very carefully.
KA: One thing I admired is how I often felt reading the stories, including the title story, where I am not entirely sure of the character’s sanity or reliability. There’s this very nice reticence on your part to judge or clarify early on. I would sort of sit in the uncertainty of not knowing if the character’s mother, for example, really could find water in this way or not. I was open to it going in either direction. Is this something you were conscious of when writing? Did you want the reader to experience the same uncertainty that the children did?
AC: I’m honestly kind of relieved you felt that uncertainty, because that’s the uncertainty the kids feel too. They aren’t sure if their mother can do the thing she claims she can do—they’re open to either possibility as well. And I think I knew early on in writing Call Up the Waters that I needed to be especially careful with the mother’s character. I knew it would be easy to cast judgment on her, and I feel a responsibility to resist judgment of my characters. I just don’t think it makes for good storytelling and when I see it happening in stories I read—when I sense the author is kind of laughing at or making fun of a character or judging her for a decision—I feel myself start to distrust the story. So my approach while writing and revising that story was to pay very careful attention to the children and to their experience—the mix of awe and wonder and fear and hope and confusion they felt as they watched their mother.
KA: What do you think the media gets wrong or right about rural living?
AC: Oh, goodness. That’s a big question. What I want to say about this is that I think art has an opportunity to embrace nuance and complexity in a way that a lot of media can’t or won’t.
KA: As a kid, I really struggled with nature. It was so slow and seemed so boring, but it’s funny because as I’ve gotten older nature seems so dramatic! I guess it’s about learning how to see it. How does time and space for observation inform your fiction?
AC: It allows me to focus on the specifics of an environment rather than resort to generalities. Like you, I was kind of bored by nature as a kid, probably because I was around it so much, but also because I kind of thought a bird was a bird was a bird. But I feel compelled to name things specifically–not a bird but a lazuli bunting. Or a warbling vireo. Or a violet green swallow. And suddenly they’re so much more interesting to me.
But also, just being out on the trails, away from my computer, away from my work, away from email, and all of those things, can be really important for my fiction. I think a lot of writers talk about this, but walking and writing tend to go hand in hand for me. Like if I get stuck on something in a story and can’t figure out where to go with it I’ll leave it for a few hours and go on a walk or on a hike. Some writers I know take the problem with them and think about it while they walk. For me, I just try to forget it, focus on something else, and sometimes I return to the work and will see a way forward that is so obvious. I don’t really understand it. But I trust it.