'Saving' Trans Author Carter Sickels

Transgender author Carter Sickels is making waves in the literary community with his powerful storytelling that resists the temptation to make precious the hardships in rural Southern America.

BY Sunnivie Brydum

November 09 2012 7:00 AM ET

Carter Sickels made an impressive entry into the world of fiction with his heartfelt debut, The Evening Hour, a compelling exploration of the wreckage wrought upon rural Appalachia and its longtime residents by a harsh type of coal mining known as mountaintop removal. The Evening Hour has been widely praised, with many critics commending Sickels' power to create genuine, complex characters through stark, honest language.

Sickels' ability to create insightful, tender and profoundly human characters shines through in his short story "Saving," featured in The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard, now available through Topside Press. The characters in "Saving," a trans man and his cisgender girlfriend who travel to the rural south to pack away his dead grandmother's home, are flawed and messy, both finding themselves in a setting — and relationship — that no longer feels right. "Saving" holds its own against an impressive gathering of short fiction from 28 trans authors and emerges as one of the most honest and universal stories in The Collection. We caught up with Sickels, who identifies as a gay trans man, to pick his brain on character development, queer identity, and what he would have said to his younger self.

The Advocate: Both The Evening Hour and “Saving” create powerful landscapes set in rural southern America. Is that the environment you grew up in? Where were you born and raised?
Carter Sickels: I grew up in central Ohio, actually. My grandparents and most of my family are from southeastern Ohio, not far from West Virginia, where The Evening Hour takes place. Much of the culture and the socio-economic landscape in that part of Ohio is very similar to West Virginia.

You received a good deal of praise for your earnest portrayal of rural Appalachia in The Evening Hour, some critics saying you stripped away the rural romance that often clouds these stories. What drove you to write so honestly about this locale, decimated by mountaintop removal and corporate, economic, and social exploitation?
I initially thought I would set the novel in Ohio, but then I learned about mountaintop removal coal mining, and the novel grew from there. I visited West Virginia to learn more about MTR — I was living in New York at the time — and I met people who were fighting for their homes, their land. The extent to which MTR has devastated the Appalachian landscape, and ruined people’s homes and threatened their heritage, is shocking. I couldn’t get the place out of my head.

I wanted to write about West Virginia in an honest way, in a way that didn’t resort to easy stereotypes or generalizations, but also didn’t shy away from some of the harder, darker parts in rural America.

I must commend you on your staggering ability to create real, multidimensional characters in your writing. What is the key to connecting with readers through the creation of compelling, relatable characters?
Thank you. Characters usually come first to me, and then develop and grow through the writing and rewriting. In the case of Cole, in The Evening Hour, he’s complicated in the way he cares for so many people, yet he also steals from the people he loves, and sells drugs into a devastated community. I think if you’re creating compelling characters, then readers will connect, even if their own lives are extremely different. Maybe the character makes mistakes but has good intentions, which resonates for the reader, or maybe it’s the character’s vulnerability or shame that the reader can empathize and identify with —  all the contradictions and faults and moments of beauty and grace that make us human need to be present in fictional characters as well. 

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