The Writing Seminars department is nationally renowned for its stellar program and professors. Although some of those prominent in the department are on the older side, there is a constant flow of younger talent coming through the ranks. Nobody is a more emphatic example of this than Assistant Professor Danielle Evans, who just released her third book, The Office of Historical Corrections, and was recently profiled by the New York Times.
On Nov. 12, Evans did her first three public readings (all on Zoom) of her newest collection of short stories. The first of these was for Hopkins staff and students. Evans read the first story from her new book, titled “Happily Ever After,” and then answered questions submitted by students in the Zoom chat, which were curated by the host of the event, Kate Keleher, a Writing Seminars instructor.
The event started with introductory remarks by Katharine Noel, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate studies for the Writing Seminars. Noel spoke about how three years ago, long before the 2020 normalization of Zoom events, she had brought Evans in virtually to speak to her class while Evans was still teaching at the University of Wisconsin. It was the first time she’d ever done such a thing, and she explained that it had been a smashing success because of how wonderful Evans is.
Noel explained that in her mind, some of the best tension in fiction comes from when what the reader wants for a character differs from what the character wants for herself, which is exactly the kind of tension that Evans’ fiction excels in creating. It is Evans’ incredible talent that allows her to write stories with such drama while still making those same stories enjoyable to read, the same talent that made Roxane Gay call Evans the “finest short story writer working today.”
Before beginning her reading, Evans clarified that, despite its title, the story would not end “Happily Ever After.” The story’s protagonist is a Black woman named Lyssa, who works in a landlocked state in the gift shop of a large-scale — but not to scale — recreation of the Titanic.
Racial tensions are a theme throughout the story. The protagonist is told by her colleague that she isn’t allowed to play the princess at the frequent children’s birthday parties on the boat because there are “no Black princesses.” Lyssa dresses up for meetings with her mother’s doctors, worrying that if she looks normal, they will not tell her all the information she wants to know about her mother’s condition and cancer treatment.
The story follows Lyssa through several events in her life in a non-chronological order. For example, she is asked to be an extra for a music video shot on the ship and then sleeps with the director of the video. She allows the director not to use protection, telling him she has had her ovaries removed, but that is a lie. She is scheduled to have them removed because her mother died of ovarian cancer, but Lyssa keeps pushing off the appointment.
We also find out about Lyssa’s ex-boyfriend, a bartender named Travis whom she was dating when her mother was diagnosed. Travis had tried to help Lyssa’s mother by getting medication, but was instead accused of stealing. The story ends with Lyssa single and alone after her mother’s passing.
After she finished reading her story, Evans spoke about her history as a writer and answered questions from the audience. When asked about advice she’d give her past self, she laughed.
“If my past self knew what she was doing, my second book would never have gotten done,” she said. “I maybe lost a couple of years after that first book because it made me want my first drafts to be better, which isn’t a thing you really have control over.”
Evans also discussed how she never tries to make her writing “topical.” Some things she writes feel timely in the moment when published but were, in truth, written years before, so trying to write about current events can just feel like a waste of effort.
“There isn’t a point in time where medical racism couldn’t be topical,” she said. “It’s just a question of whether or not it happens to be in the news any given week. So that’s not a reason not to write about it.”
When asked about her success in writing, Evans laughed.
“Seventy-five percent of getting something to be good is being very deliberate and particular about your intentions on the page,” she said. “But the other 25 percent of it is being an idiot about your intentions and having no idea what you’re doing!”
Evans spoke on several occasions about the arranging of a collection of short stories and how important it can be to determine what stories fit where in a collection. She loves the short story form (as discussed in the New York Times article linked above) and mentioned that she particularly enjoys being able to address the same question several times in the same book, as well as how she has the freedom to use the different stories to offer different answers to that question. She doesn’t have a favorite piece she’s written, she explained, because being a short story author enables her to be fickle with what she likes and dislikes.
Evans answered many other questions, ranging from whether or not she reads reviews of her own work (an emphatic no) to how she revises stories (it depends) to how she determines when the pacing of a story needs to be slowed down or sped up (again, it depends).
Overall, she spoke for the majority of the hour-long event, and it was wonderful the entire time. Evans is an incredible writer and an invigorating speaker, and it was a true pleasure to listen to her read her excellent work and speak her mind about what being a writer is like for her. The event was recorded, so I recommend trying to find a copy if you missed it, and I highly recommend giving one of her books a try or even taking a class of hers if you can!