Throughout May and June, we’re highlighting each of the 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipients on our blog. Applications for the 2015 Oregon Literary Fellowships are online now. Applications are due in our office by Friday, June 27, 2014. For more information about how to apply, contact Susan Denning at susan@literary-arts.org.

Sarah Marshall of Portland is a 2014 Oregon Literary Fellowship recipient in Fiction.

Bio: Sarah Marshall grew up in rural Oregon and earned an MFA in fiction at Portland State University, where she currently teaches. She is at work on a collection about a family in the fictional town of Rose, Oregon, excerpts from which have recently appeared in The Collagist, Flyway, and Harpur Palate.

Q&A 

What are your sources of inspiration? 

I’m constantly inspired by the natural world–by its beauty, and its brutality. I love the fact that nature is able to intrude so readily on the city of Portland: that you can’t walk many blocks without finding some tenacious yet lovely weeds poking through the sidewalk, or that people so actively give their lawns over to flowers, gardens, trees, and habitats. We’re a relatively young city, and maybe it’s for that reason that we’re embedded in the natural world the way other cities are embedded in a visible history. It’s a difficult choice, but I would choose nature any day.

How would you describe your creative process? 

I think I have certain fixations that I can’t help exploring in all areas of my life, and if I write about a subject or event, I won’t be able to stop thinking and talking about it until I’ve completed a story (or essay, or poem, as the case may be). I don’t write every day. If I’m actively working on a project I do like to stay with it every day, but if I’m still thinking about or planning a piece, I give it some time to develop on its own, but stay engaged with its ideas. Not long ago I wrote a story about a woman seeking to curry favor with a powerful man, and turned to biographies of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn for inspiration. The story itself had a contemporary setting, but anything that allows you to better understand human behaviors and desires will make you a better writer–even if your own stories don’t leave the world of today.

What is most exciting about receiving a fellowship? 

Simply being chosen for the honor is a wonderful thrill. But a few months down the line, the most sustaining pleasure of the experience has been the knowledge that I’ve joined such a wonderful company of fellow recipients, past and present, and that my work was chosen not just for its own merits, but as a representative of our state’s great literary tradition.

What are you currently working on? 

A story collection tentatively titled “Dogskin,” which I could most simply (and perhaps most confusingly) describe as revisionist fairy tales set in rural Oregon. I’m also at work on a book of narrative nonfiction about the true crime genre, and also write essays, poetry, and in any and all other genres that will have me.

What advice do you have for future applicants? 

Send material that best represents your concerns as a writer: your goals, your obsessions, your enduring interests. And don’t (ever) play it safe. There is too much safe writing in the world. Be daring, be dirty, be present, be genre–be what you have to be to say what you have to say. I was the “weird girl” when I was growing up (as I suspect many writers once were) and have on many occasions been the “weird girl” in workshop, but my work, when it was successful, said what I wanted it to say, not what I thought a short story should. If you are alive and present in your work, your reader will notice. And if it is selected for a publication or a fellowship, the honor will feel infinitely richer.

Sample Work

Skinning

Josephine wakes up as they fall into silence, slips herself out of bed one limb at a time and goes downstairs. She walks outside in Colt’s rubber boots, down the front steps—three sound and one half-rotted, ready to let itself break into two pieces or many more, and it will give out under her some morning but not yet—and into the yard. She walks past the dogs’ cages and along the fence that hides the house from the lot, and the highway beyond. There is silence enough to hear a car coming a long way off, and headlights come as pinpricks through the lattice of the chainlink and the tangle of the vines. Josephine walks up to the fence, then turns and leans against it, feeling the cold of the metal and the cold of the air, air that has touched other people’s hands, other people’s lips, air that has been breathed in and breathed out, warmed by bodies she will never touch, and fallen cold again.

She moves away from the fence and down the sloping path, past Colt’s spot and into the thick of the woods. They are his trees, but he never walks through them, never goes outside at night except to exchange one room for another, to go to the trailer or the car or the garage. Going into the woods, the branches pulling at her nightgown and catching in her hair, Josephine wonders if Colt is afraid: of the dark, of the loning, of what is his. If he doesn’t come here, she thinks, and if she does, then who is to say what belongs to him, and what to her?

She touches the trunk of each tree she passes, and steals each minute of the night.

 

She walks past the farm buildings and into the field, where nothing grows and nothing eats. If it were here own land, really her own, she would do something like this with it. People have been living here for at least a thousand years, she thinks, has often thought, and pictures picture show Indians, arrowheads, flat-faced babies in pappooses. A thousand years, or longer—no one ever told her how long. For all that time the land has had to do something: yield up water or gold or good dirt, flush fat deer from its forests and let fur fall from what could not be eaten, push forth berries and blossoms who would let their juices be sucked dry by fumbling tongues and their pollen be picked at by bees.

Now, Josephine would let it be left alone for a while, to its own useless devices. Let its grasses grow toothed and tall, and its songbirds smother.

 

The fog cups the field, sometimes giving you spaces to see through, sometimes flat as a father’s palm. No matter where you stand, it will seem clear close around you, and grow milky at the gate, the cow ladder, the line of trees, only where you want to see, and only clear when you reach it.

 

Walking back to the house, Josephine startles something huge and dark from its tree. It falls straight to the ground, then catches itself, fits the air into its wings, and flies low and fast over the tall grass, searching. It lifts itself over a half-fallen fence and keeps moving up, lighting on a new tree amid a clamor of branches. There are no leaves. The light is seeping across the land and Josephine can make out the bird’s dark shape, and thinks if she looked where it was looking she would see what it sees: dark shining eyes, pink feet, fleshly tails and fat bellies ready to be torn.

She has learned things since she came here, things that can keep a man alive. If you can find no meat, you can eat rock lichen and deer velvet, chew spruce needles, birch bark, the leather in your shoes. Never drink water from a hole that plants will not grow around. Ice can be as dirty as water, even if it has been frozen for a long time. Buttercups are pretty but poison. Cup your hands against a riverbank and trout will swim right in.

Nights, Colt tells her these things: recites survival like a boy from another place would his prayers. Are you listening? he asks, gripping her shoulders, ready to feel her answer instead of hear it.

Josephine nods. She is always listening. But it has been a season of dogs whining and quieting, of their master coming and going, of a child’s beginning—oh, there is no room for hunger in this meat body now—and in all that time she has not gone beyond the chainlink, into the spaces where the air remembers itself, remembers it can move away, and slips into the windows of cars and the mouths of impatient children, and goes where they go, unmasking.

If you are starving and catch a mouse, Colt told her last night, the fat is bound up in its guts, and so you must swallow them all. The skin will slip off easy, but only if you can make a cut at the neck. As he speaks he moves her hands along her body, feeling the slip of her own skin against her, the places that would take him to meat.

But out in the field that morning Josephine thinks: If you can make one small cut, why not cut the rest—why not cut it all to pieces, once the knife is in your hand, and then go to work on yourself? And once you began, how could you stop?

This is what she will not ask. She walks through the tall grass and over the fence and slips as quiet as she can toward the owl, and is close enough to see what matters—the wide liquid eyes and drooping wings and mournful white face, mouthless and pitying—before it leaves her again.

Judge’s Comments

By Brian Evenson, fiction judge, on the piece “Petal”

There’s nothing quite like fiction about ghostly children, and “Petal” is a particularly haunting tale. Marshall has a real ability to give us just enough details to provoke our imagination without overdetermining it, giving the story an uncanny and eerie quality. The writing itself is incredibly palpable, beautifully rendered line by line. This is exceptionally well-written fiction, with real emotional and psychological depth crammed into a very small space.

 

Brian Evenson, fiction judge

Oregon Literary Fellowship Spotlight: Sarah Marshall