Ann Pancake grew up in Romney and Summersville, West Virginia. Her first collection of short stories, Given Ground, won the Bakeless award. Her other books include the novel Strange as This Weather Has Been and Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley: Novellas and Stories. She has received a Whiting Award, NEA fellowship, Pushcart Prize, and creative writing fellowships from the states of Washington, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Excerpt from “Staying Open: An Interview with Ann Pancake”
MATSUEDA: The latest edition in the Ms. Aligned series consists of writing by women about the childhoods of males. Your story “Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley” is a captivating, inspiring tale of a boy who has a speech impediment that prevents him from correctly pronouncing words—including his name—but who possesses the magical qualities of childhood: he knows how to play and imagine, and he has a strong desire to grow and learn. Though he lives amid dreary circumstances, including the drug life of his father, he has a fierce light inside him. Can you tell us what inspired you to tell this boy’s story—and to open the world he lives in to our eyes?
PANCAKE: I was inspired to write this story because the boy and his father are closely based on my nephew and my brother. To be honest, I think writing the story was an attempt to work through my own trauma of helplessly watching my nephew undergo his trauma.
Initially, I tried to write the story from the first-person point of view of an adult who was more or less me. After many failed drafts of that version, I was rereading Faulkner’s Light in August, one of the scenes where Joe Christmas is a little boy. The voice and the emotion of that scene moved me to try the story of my nephew from his point of view as a four-year-old.
Beyond the specific and intimate story of my nephew, I wanted also to open to readers the world of so many children in Appalachia who are innocent victims of the opioid epidemic. I now teach at West Virginia University, where I have students who were those children and who are now, nevertheless, making amazing lives for themselves. I notice that some of these former victims have amplified powers of empathy, intuition, and insight because of their experiences.
I wrote the story in around 2007 when my nephew was six and I was looking back on his life when he was four. My nephew is now 18. He’s become one of the former victims I describe above: his life is still not at all easy, but he has amplified powers of empathy, intuition and insight.