On Thursday at 5:30 p.m., English majors, professors and others with literary interests gathered in the Wendell Will Room of the Stockwell-Mudd Library to attend the annual Albion College Reading Series.
The 2018 Reading Series hosted three poetry writers, but this year, Albion College welcomed two prose writers to read passages from their works. Fiction writer Justine McNulty read a passage from her 2019 short story collection “Sweet Rot.” Following McNulty was Dawn Davies who read from her 2018 essay collection, “Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces.”
Justine McNulty, who was an English professor at Albion last year, presented her first full length published book, “Sweet Rot.” The first story of the collection, “The Things We Know to be True,” was written in 2008.
Aside from this story and a few others, the bulk of the stories come from her master’s thesis written in 2014. “Sweet Rot’s” first draft was not complete until 2017, and Finishing Line Press agreed to publish her book in April of 2018. Since publication, the book has received widely positive reviews.
“It is still somewhat hard to believe it’s real, in a way. It was something I was working toward for so long and the publishing process is, of course, a long one, so now that it’s out in the world. It’s still a little surreal,” McNulty said.
In this case, “long” meant submitting “Only in Pieces” to over 50 magazines and sending “Sweet Rot” to nearly 100 publishing houses.
“Send your story to 10, 20, 30 places,” McNulty said. “Don’t stare at your email waiting for that one journal to get back to you before you send it to another. Be confident in your work and that someone will see its worth, because someone always will.”
“Sweet Rot” examines youth, belonging and mortality through the lens of the natural world,” McNulty said over email on Nov. 8. “Each story, whether in the forests of Kentucky or the shores of New England, focuses on questions of place, purpose and finding meaning through interactions and communications with animals and nature.”
For this event, McNulty debated between reading “Only in Pieces” and “Tiny Little Teeth.”
“Only in Pieces,” written in 2009, tells the story of a woman living on the coast of New England and the large eyeball she found on the beach. The woman carried the eyeball around her community in the hopes that someone else would see it the eye as she saw it: Beautiful and fascinating.
“Tiny Little Teeth” tells the story of a young teenage girl who encounters unsettling situations and the uncertainty of her place in the world as she helps her grandmother deliver feathered and gutted waterfowl and give away a taxidermy fox.
“I think they tackle two of my main focuses: Purpose/place of the self, the strange, uncomfortable space between childhood and adulthood – quite well,” McNulty said via email. “They also both deal heavily with animals, which is a huge part of the collection.”
In the end, McNulty chose to read “Tiny Little Teeth” to the group of 30 who attended the event.
Dawn Davies, who flew here from Florida, read from her collection of essays, “Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces.”
“The pieces factor in because you kinda find Easter eggs and little hints of future essays,” said Davies. “They all kinda connect in very tiny ways if you look for it. There are connections there. It kinda mimics how life is.”
“Mothers of Sparta” stems from her master’s thesis, but it began in 2012 during grad school when she was unable to get into her desired fiction class and so had to settle for a nonfiction course. She decided that she loved it after the very first class. The collection, which is her very first publication, was sold in 2016 and released in 2018.
Her second book is already finished and will soon be ready to send to her publisher. Her third book is also half completed.
“I’m not in the same head space,” said Davies. “So, when I read this, it’s like looking through an old photo book.”
As is common for memoirs, the figurative photo book is made up of Davies and those she interacts with. But even though she writes nonfiction, she acknowledges that her memory is not perfect, so every line is not completely accurate to reality. Even Davies within the book is not a perfect copy of her true self.
“You do become a character,” Davies said. “And one of the things that I do as a writer is to make sure that I delineate between me as a person and me as a character. I create a persona that is an artistic representation of me as a person.”
Despite having full control of how she presents herself to the world, Davies does not shy away from her own flaws and less-glamours moments.
“There’s nothing perfect about anything I write about myself. The flaws are out there, and even to the point of being very visceral and physical,” Davies said.
Evidence of her “visceral” descriptions was clear in the essay she read on Thursday. “Games I play” describes the experience of being pregnant in a marriage that she wasn’t sure was going to work out. The pregnancy includes the annoyance of constant vomiting and incessant questions from strangers about the baby.
Anything, including pleasant and unpleasant everyday moments, can be made into a nonfiction story capable of entertaining.
“I also tell writers to imitate other writers, not when writing to publish, but when they are practicing,” Davies said. “Find stuff that they like, discern what they like about what the writer is doing. Be able to identify elements that speak to you and be able to translate that.”