in conversation with
Stacy Mattingly is coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Unlikely Angel. Her work has appeared in the Oxford American, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, EuropeNow, and elsewhere. In 2012, she launched the Sarajevo Writers' Workshop in Bosnia and Herzegovina and later helped lead the first Narrative Witness exchange (Caracas-Sarajevo) for the University of Iowa's International Writing Program. She has taught creative writing at Boston University, teaches at GrubStreet, and is an assistant professor at Berklee College of Music. Her recently finished first novel is set in the present-day Balkans.
Tom Simpson: What it was like to have Unlikely Angel (which you co-authored with Ashley Smith) have such a positive response and be adapted for the screen? How involved were you able to be with the adaptation?
Stacy Mattingly: I coauthored Unlikely Angel with Ashley Smith in 2005 and learned an enormous amount, as a human being and a writer, working on that project. Ashley had been held hostage in her apartment by a man who had just escaped an Atlanta courthouse, where he was on trial, and killed four people. We had to write an intense narrative very quickly, weaving threads from Ashley’s past into the difficult story of events, which were still recent. As a coauthor, I had to try to ingest a world and then help give it shape. Ten years later, Captive, a feature film based on the book, was released by Paramount Pictures; I wasn’t involved and found it interesting to see how others had translated into a different medium what I’d envisioned while we worked to write the narrative. For me, part of the experience of coauthoring was learning—or starting to learn—how to hold worlds in my imagination. Real worlds of people, relationships, stories, conflicts, losses, details, images, scenes, emotions. Writing fiction now, I find I have to use the same muscle. I recently completed a first novel, narrated by an American and set in the Balkans, and discovered the book is actually part of a larger world that includes, at present, new short stories and a second longer work. Actually, I’m not sure I am holding the world of these narratives. I’m more following trails as they open.
TS: Sarajevo looms large in your work—with the Sarajevo Writers' Workshop and in your novel. How did that connection with, and orientation toward, Sarajevo come about?
SM: I first visited Sarajevo in 2011 on a Leslie Epstein Global Fellowship from Boston University, where I did an MFA in fiction. I’d begun writing the novel, which takes place in the city, during a BU workshop led by Ha Jin. Once I arrived, I decided to start over. In 2012, I traveled to Sarajevo again and, at that time, gathered together a bilingual collective of poets and prose writers we called the Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop. Some of the writers had belonged to a spoken word group launched by an American poet I knew. Others were recommended by people who taught literature in the city. Still others were brought in by writers already interested. We held regular workshops in spots around town, drank a lot of coffee, and gave public readings.
Since then, our group has been involved in various literary endeavors. We published a bilingual package of work in H.O.W. Journal (online), with our Mirza Purić translating. Some of the writers led workshops for the US Embassy and at a local university. We collaborated with writers and photographers in Caracas, Venezuela, as I describe below, and we created a literary exchange with a collective of American writers I cofounded with poet L.S. McKee in Atlanta, Georgia. We called that collaboration “The Borders Project” and started it in 2015 as people fleeing conflict and hardship were being stopped at borders. Last year, the journal EuropeNow published the Borders work in English and in Mirza Purić’s English translation over six issues. Bosnian photographers participated, responding to our texts with images.
While several of our writers now live elsewhere, many of us continue to share work with each other, and I continue to learn from these friends. One of the Sarajevo poets has published a debut collection, two writers have started journals (NEMA and BONA), and our translator served as an editor-at-large for Asymptote and is a contributing editor at EuropeNow. A poet and a fiction writer were awarded residencies in Vienna, and one of them is doing an MFA in the US. Others are working on their own writing projects.
For my part, I’ve now finished my novel. At the heart of the book is a long-lived friendship between two women—an American narrator and a Croatian. The two share an apartment in Sarajevo, and their relationship comes under pressure over the course of the story, even as the city sustains pressures of its own.
TS: How has "narrative witness"—as an idea and commitment—shaped your work?
SM: In 2014, I had the honor of working with the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) to help facilitate a collaboration called Narrative Witness. That project, led by IWP’s then distance learning coordinator Susannah Shive, brought together writers and photographers in Sarajevo and Caracas. The Sarajevo Writers’ Workshop participated. Both cities had experienced unrest—in Venezuela, people had died. Apocalyptic flooding had struck the Balkans. Our aim was to give those participating a space to share their stories and build relationships across borders.
We held workshops online, thanks to the efforts of translators Mirza Purić, Mariela Matos Smith, and Daniel Narváez, who translated drafts from Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian / Montenegrin and Spanish into English so we could all read them and give feedback. Photographer Elizabeth D. Herman facilitated the photography workshop. Some writers chose to respond to images with texts, and a photographer responded to a nonfiction piece with images. IWP later hosted a multilingual publication of the body of work.
The project made such an impact on me. I felt I’d watched a community form as our group submitted work and responded to each other’s art. I experienced the way narratives cross borders, move people, and open doors to relationship and understanding. I noticed that certain themes showed up across the range of pieces, as if we were cross-pollinating. Fedosy Santaella of Caracas wrote a stirring essay called “Los Árboles de Sarajevo / The Trees of Sarajevo,” which seemed partly an effort to bridge the distance. The piece opens, in Smith’s English translation, “Sarajevo is so far from us. I will never go there, it is so far away. Maybe I should get myself a map and fold it in order to bring Caracas closer to Sarajevo. A poem by Montejo dreams of Iceland. I have taken to dreaming of Sarajevo.”
TS: Your association, as a writer, with Berklee College of Music is another kind of border-crossing. Tell us about that.
SM: I teach a course for incoming students, in the Liberal Arts department, and get to work in the classroom with very fine artists. Among other things, we are exploring artistic collaboration across art forms. I’ve collaborated a bit myself at public events with Berklee alumni. Earlier this year, for instance, a drummer/percussionist improvised rhythm and sound as I and a group of writers I belong to here in Boston read our pieces for an audience. Something about being in dialogue with other artists—whether a conversation in a course or an artistic dialogue in a venue, publication, or space—energizes me for my own work and makes me a more expansive person.
TS: What's next for you?
SM: I’m working on new fiction at present—as I mentioned, writing that has spun out of the world of the novel set in Sarajevo and that takes me back, in some cases, to my roots in Atlanta and my family’s roots in Mississippi. In terms of other work, some of us involved in The Borders Project would now like to publish those pieces in Bosnian / Croatian / Serbian / Montenegrin. And I’m looking for ways to support and collaborate with writers and artists I know, particularly those working in difficult environments, and to expand our community.