On Thursday April 12, fiction author Diane Simmons visited several English classes and ended her day in Sturges Auditorium to discuss her work with students. English professor Rachel Hall assigned Simmons’ collection of short stories Little America for her Senior Reading and Short Fiction courses and the majority of her classes were in attendance.
Simmons began her talk by explaining the origins of some of the themes and characters in her collection. “I would drive all around the West and end up sleeping in truck stops,” Simmons said.
While many authors might shy away from their troubles and failures, Simmons tackled them head on. “After moving from the West to New York, I ended up writing a ‘New York novel,’” Simmons said. “Unfortunately, it ended up being too cliché.” She said that the experience taught her that she needed to stick to her roots.
Even though her “New York novel” failed, the investment of time and energy wasn’t completely wasted. “I wrote this whole backstory for the character of the novel that I never intended to publish,” Simmons said. “After the novel collapsed, I used the backstory as a start for my short story collection.” These short stories eventually became the award-winning Little America.
After answering questions from students and providing insight on creative writing, there was a staged reading of Simmons’ short stories. In “Holy Sisters” and most of the tales in Little America, a female protagonist narrates her own adventures. Simmons read the lines and narration of protagonist Billie.
Three creative writing majors joined Simmons on stage. Senior David Alliger read the dialogue for several different Mexican men, senior Amanda Himmelmann read for the character Toola – a naïve American traveler who lost her glasses – and senior Alanna Smith played a cranky old woman with a shotgun.
“Holy Sisters” follows Billie as she aimlessly drives around Mexico. She has a brief run-in with police officers (possibly drug lords) who are convinced that she is smuggling drugs in her stolen car. She then meets Toola, who is too blind to get back to America alone, and she agrees to help her.
Because the material originated in her own mind, Simmons knew exactly how to read the story and where to place proper emphasis.
The story itself is darkly humorous. Simmons added her own wickedly funny commentary from time to time. After reading the line, “Everything is getting brown and ugly so we must be getting close to Texas,” Simmons jokingly told the audience that she wrote that line for George Bush.
Between the talk and the staged reading, Simmons proved to be an insightful author willing to open up about her experiences in order to inspire others.