Unusually enough, Atlanta/Baltimore imprint Publishing Genius Press is releasing, almost simultaneously, books from two Valley authors, Mike Young and novelist Christy Crutchfield. Both are graduates of the UMass-Amherst MFA Program for Poets and Writers. Crutchfield’s novel, How to Catch a Coyote, is the story of a dysfunctional family in an imaginary North Carolina town. Though its prose is often straightforward, it’s also deeply evocative, and the structure—with jumps in time and perspective—makes for a heady and surprising ride.
Is it coincidence that you and Mike Young, both Massachusetts writers, have books coming out almost simultaneously from Publishing Genius, a non-Mass. press?
Actually, if you look at the catalogue, you’ll see even more Mass.-based or formerly Mass.-based writers, like Rachel B. Glaser, Gabe Durham, and Madeline ffitch. It’s not a coincidence. Part of it, I think, is that there is a certain aesthetic that we have in common, since we all attended the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass-Amherst. While Mike and I don’t cover the same subjects and our tone is very different, there’s an attention to language that I think you’ll find in the work of most UMass grads, and I think that’s something [editor] Adam [Robinson] appreciates.
Your novel’s set in North Carolina—what is your connection to N.C. and the South? I was born and raised in Atlanta, which is a different kind of South, but still very much the South. I don’t think I really embraced being a Southerner until I moved to the Valley, though. Then, I suddenly wanted to explore the world I missed in my writing. I also spent a lot of time in North Carolina as a kid, and I went to college at Elon University, which is in Burlington, North Carolina (well, technically in Elon, N.C.). Most of the students at Elon didn’t leave campus except to go to the chain restaurants, but I became incredibly interested in the town. It used to be a successful mill town until most of the work was shipped overseas, similar to many towns in the Valley. There was really nothing in Burlington when I lived there. It served as a bedroom community for the middle class, and the local friends I made knew they had to get out soon or they’d be stuck there. And right next door was this small liberal arts college comprised almost entirely of transplants.
I based the town of Lafayette, which is not an actual town in N.C., loosely on Burlington.
How did the novel come about?
The novel started as a short story many years ago. I was still living in Atlanta at the time, and my friend told me about her neighborhood’s coyote problem. I didn’t know coyotes were native to Atlanta, but I found out they’re in every state. I had been exploring a story from the point of view of a 9-year-old boy whose sister runs away because of sexual assault in the family, and the coyotes were what the story needed. The boy could focus his fear on them instead of on a situation he didn’t quite understand.
A couple years later, when I was in grad school, I started to explore the characters and the situation further, and I started writing the novel, which became my thesis.
You write from some very different perspectives in the book—was that difficult? Was it something you thought much about?
Writing from different perspectives was probably the most enjoyable part for me. I write fiction because I love to get into other people’s heads. It’s fun to play a part. I’m interested in voice, and I’m especially interested in getting into the heads of unlikable people, people who do the wrong thing. Probably the hardest character for me to write was the mother, Maryanne. While she’s not the worst character in the book, she makes some awful and selfish choices. And I needed to find a way to keep her from being a complete monster. It took me a while and a lot of scrapped chapters to get her right.
Why did you decide to stay in the Valley?
I fell in love with the Valley before I even moved here. I had just gone to an open house for Emerson’s MFA, and it just didn’t feel right for me. The next day, I looked at UMass and knew this is where I wanted to be. What I love about the area is that there are mountains, farms, lakes, and passion for the local community all around you. But there’s also so much culture. You can probably go to a reading every night of the week. Our bookstores have real poetry sections. You don’t have to leave town to go to shows. I live in Easthampton now and am so impressed with the town’s commitment to the arts. I recently I joined the coordinating committee of Easthampton City Arts, which has been really rewarding. I still think I’m going to die every time I drive in the snow, but the fall makes it worth it.•