Interview with Ramona Reeves: “The ability of fiction to produce empathy is one reason I read and write fiction.”

Ramona Reeves, an author hailing from Mobile, Alabama, is the winner of the 2022 Drue Heinz Literature Prize for her linked short story collection, It Falls Gently All Around and Other Stories, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in the fall.

After spending a decade in the Northeastern U.S., Ramona gained experience in various roles, including freelance writing, proofreading for a men’s fashion weekly, and working in production for publications like Food & Wine, Travel & Leisure, and Esquire. She later transitioned to technical editing and writing before relocating to Texas. After several years, Ramona pursued her MFA in fiction and has since returned to Texas, where she is currently working on completing a novel.

Throughout her career, Ramona has been an active member of the literary community. She has served on the board of A Room of Her Own (AROHO), participated as a moderator and panelist at conferences, taught college-level writing courses, and held the position of associate fiction editor for Kallisto Gaia Press.

With her stories and essays featured in various publications, including The Southampton Review, Pembroke, Bayou Magazine, New South, Superstition Review, and Texas Highways, Ramona has garnered accolades such as the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and attending the Community of Writers conference.

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Hi Ramona, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Can you discuss the characters of Babbie and Donnie and the ways in which they represent the struggles and aspirations of different classes in Mobile, Alabama?

Yes, and thank you for this question. Babbie and Donnie, the two main characters of my book, live on the margins of Mobile. Both are struggling to be seen as respectable and middle class. Babbie is an insider, born and raised in Mobile, and Donnie is an outsider who moved there as an adult. Both are aware that their lives are seen as subpar by several of the other characters and that they must overcome those perceptions to get ahead. They also must confront their pasts, something the more affluent characters often can choose to avoid.

How do you approach character development in your writing, and what elements do you consider when building a character?

Sometimes my characters begin by overhearing a phrase and asking myself about the person/character who might use that phrase. In revision, I look for clues in stories to dive deeper into character development. I may choose to put a secondary character and a main character in a tight physical space together to learn more about those characters under pressure, or I may give a character a physical flaw and explore how it changes them. Physical spaces and looking around a room, so to speak, in scenes also helps me build characters. For example, what objects does the character notice and why? 

Your writing explores the intersection of class and the South. Can you share your thoughts on why these themes are important to highlight in your work?

I think class is not an often-explored theme in U.S. literature, although class distinctions certainly exist here as they probably exist everywhere. Class is tied not only to finances but also to race, religion, expectations, and in many cases, to how characters are perceived. Babbie and Donnie are trying to achieve the American Dream, i.e., they want to be financially independent, own a home, and be perceived as middle class. This partly is motivated by their deep-seated shame about their mistakes.

The characters at the top of the echelon in my book don’t fare much better, though. They are unhappy and worried about maintaining their status. Their privilege often prevents them from examining issues, however. In other words, they can turn away from the problems of people in the lower classes. I think it’s important not only to look at these structures through characters but also to bring compassion to the page for each and every one. For me, if class or similar societal structures are addressed organically through characters, it is possible to write a story that produces empathy in readers, but not in a manipulative sense. The empathy is simply a byproduct of the story. The ability of fiction to produce empathy is one reason I read and write fiction. 

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How does your background in technical editing and writing influence your creative writing?

Technical editing/writing has sharpened my attention to sentences, word choices and forms, and by “forms” I mean structure. Technical editing/writing also requires thinking about audience and perspective as well as the questions an audience might have and whether those questions have been answered, so there’s overlap with my creative work. For me, the two worlds have worked quite well together. One is more analytical, the other more free-flowing. In that way, they don’t interfere with each other and may in fact create a balance.

Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?

At the moment, I typically work on my current writing project for about three hours, starting around 8 o’clock. From there, I begin the other work I do. If there’s time, I return to the writing project for an hour, usually around 5:00 p.m. I try to stick to a plan. For example, my goal at the moment is to revise five to ten pages of my novel, Monday through Saturday. Sometimes life intervenes, but I do my best to stick to that plan. This is my current routine, but it could change in the future. We all have tasks that we must do in life, and we have bills to pay. Plus it’s crucial to have a life and be there for other people. The main thing for me is to keep moving forward on my writing projects as much as possible.

How do you handle writer’s block or moments of creative difficulty in your writing process?

I don’t think I’ve experienced what I would call writer’s block, but I sometimes get distracted. When I find myself struggling with doing the work, I try to make a small change to shake things up. I might go to a coffee shop to write, or if I’m working on a new story, I might write longhand on a legal pad rather than compose on a computer. Little changes sometimes can make a difference.

If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?

This was a difficult question, but I’d say Jesmyn Ward.

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I’m currently reading A New Race of Men from Heaven by Chaitali Sen, which is great. Her language is pristine, and the settings and characters in her stories are unusual and engaging. Some recent reads I’ve loved are The Geography of First Kisses by Karin Cecile Davidson, Shutter by Ramona Emerson, and Light Skin Gone to Waste by Toni Ann Johnson.

What does your current writing workspace look like?

I write in a small room surrounded by bookshelves. My desk faces a window that allows me to see the tops of trees and listen to the calls of mourning doves.

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