Kellie Wells

recorded in Tuscaloosa, AL

 

A Poetics For Bullies by Stanley Elkin

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Kellie Wells

My name is Kellie Wells and I live in, actually, Northport, Alabama, which is a part of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I got here by way of St. Louis, Missouri, where I was before. I was teaching at Washington University, and now, I’m teaching at University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and I came here to be part of the writing program.


The Knox Writers’ House

Where are you from originally?


Wells

I grew up in Kansas City. I grew in a small town that’s part of Kansas City that’s called Turner, Kansas.


KWH

What’s it like to live as a writer in Tuscaloosa?


Wells

Well I’ve only been here for a few months, but so far it’s pretty good. [Laughs.] I have this theory that the South is the place were a new avant-garde is going to rise, so I came here in anticipation of that. [Laughs.]


KWH

Why do you suspect that?


Wells

Well, this program itself has a reputation and affection for innovative writing, which is one of the things that attracted me to it in the first place. It embraces it, it encourages it, and it doesn’t necessarily do so at the expense of other kinds of writing, more conventional, more traditional kinds of writing. It doesn’t feel the need to negate something in order to be what it is. That appeals to me. So, because of the kinds of writers not only who teach here at the moment, but also the kinds of writers who end up going through this program and then going somewhere else, I thought, this is a place where, for whatever reason, strange things in writing have license to happen


KWH


Do you think it’s this program specifically, or is there something about Tuscaloosa, or something about the South that encourages that?


Wells

Well, I think the southern grotesque story, southern literature itself, has a history of embracing, at least character-wise, the not typical. I think that’s a part of it. Although before I lived in St. Louis, I lived in Georgia. I lived in Milledgeville, Georgia, where Flannery O’Connor is from, and I was there for three years. So, I have some experiences living in the South, even though I’m not from here. And I think Kansas, actually, lots of the Midwest, but maybe Kansas and Nebraska in particular are kind of influenced by the South, in observable ways. It’s also a decidedly Midwestern place.


KWH

A lot of people we met in Kansas thought of it as part of the South


Wells

I think that’s true. I think there’s something to that. It’s a kind of… I have to think about what I’m prepared to claim today. [Laughs.] It’ll be different tomorrow, but it’s a southern influence that’s been, I don’t want to say this in a negative way, but it’s been kind of flattened out by the ethos and the landscape. Let’s put it that way. The way that I experience being a Kansan—let’s make it personal—there wasn’t as much room for drawing attention to yourself in the way that here it can be a kind of virtue, certainly for storytellers.


KWH

Here…?


Wells

Here in the South. In Tuscaloosa.


KWH

We tried to ask people we met in the Midwest if they thought there was a contemporary Midwestern voice, and we’re trying to do the same thing here. Maybe you can speak to both, since you’re of two places?


Wells

A contemporary Midwestern voice? Well, I know a lot of writers, or I know some writers, I guess, Midwestern-identified writers, writers from the Midwest who write against a certain kind of heartland notion. A notion of the Midwest as a place, but also as a literature. I don’t know if you’ve yet met with Michael Martone, but he has an anthology of stories called Not Normal, Illinois and it’s all stories written by Midwestern writers that aren’t typically Midwestern. And most of them are formal experiments of one stripe or another. It’s a collection that argues for the idea that there’s plenty of experimentation and flamboyance of one sort or another going on in Midwestern fiction. It exists as an antithesis to the idea that if there is a contemporary Midwestern, American voice, it’s got this buttoned up, ginghamed look to it.