Claire Boyles is a writer, teacher, and former sustainable farmer. She received her MFA in creative writing from Colorado State University. Her fiction has appeared in Boulevard and the Kenyon Review. She lives in Loveland, Colorado.
Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
I discovered the concept of site fidelity, which is the tendency of certain species to return to the same places over and over during their lives, while researching the Gunnison Sage Grouse for “Ledgers,” the first story in the collection. Personally, I feel deeply connected to the various places I have lived—it’s a memory that seems to live in my senses more than my rational self, which feels like something closer to instinct than intention, and that’s certainly how I understand site fidelity in the animal world.
Whether or not all humans have such a visceral and maybe somewhat romanticized connection to the places they’ve lived, I don’t know, but once I realized that site fidelity was a central idea of the collection as a whole, it did take shape in my head as an overarching sort of metaphor for life during the climate catastrophe. The places in my book are places I know and love deeply, but whatever places readers may or may not feel similarly connected to, we cannot live without the land and water and other resources that we are destroying, that we have been knowingly, willfully destroying for years now.
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You can’t just outrun environmental destruction by moving around or moving away—I think I sent my characters back home or kept them embedded in their own communities partly because it was a way to explore family relationships over time and partly because the modern American West, which I love deeply, is so flawed and complicated.
Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book?
In 2008, my husband and I bought 20 acres near Gill, Colorado, and started a small-scale sustainable farm. I started writing a blog as a marketing tool, a way to tell the story of the farm to our customer base. But as the years went on, I felt more and more compelled to write about the political and philosophical reasons we farmed the way we did, and about the forces of global and national economy that felt impossible to navigate as a small farmer, and about the costs and fragility of the water infrastructure most agriculture in the West relies on, which is when the blog moved beyond marketing and more into a kind of researched memoir writing.
I started to think more about big picture food justice issues, and once I started reading and learning and working to try to address them on our farm, it became a bigger story in my head about the ways extraction industries and mindsets are connected to power, and how that power has been historically rooted in land theft and patriarchy and disregard for living things—human and otherwise—in the environment, and how impossible that was to square with what I felt was an ethical way to live.
I felt constrained by my own experience in the blog, so I wanted to start writing fiction as a way to tell stories that weren’t constrained by my own experiences. I checked out five years’ worth of the Best American Short Stories anthology from the public library and read them all, and then I wrote a version of “Man Camp,” which appears in my collection. I was accepted to the MFA program at Colorado State University a few years later, on my 40th birthday, which further helped me develop my writing voice—which I think is still developing, which I hope never stops developing.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
This excerpt, from “The Best Response To Fear,” is a bit of an outlier in the book in that it has a male protagonist, Bobby, who, along with his wife, Amy, has lost his job and his home in the Great Recession. This cascade of losses has led to a crisis of confidence, in which Bobby, for the first time in his life, starts to see everything in his life as fragile, as a potential loss—his marriage, his sense of belonging to society, his confidence.
I wrote it as a way to explore my own experience of the Great Recession. We bought our farm at the beginning of 2008, and when the market crashed in October of that year, we were instantly underwater—which made credit difficult to come by and the business difficult to run. By 2013, we sold the farm, just barely avoiding what seemed an inevitable bankruptcy and possible foreclosure.
We are grateful to have had a softer landing than we were expecting, especially considering that so many others fared so much worse. Still, that failure, and those losses, were hard to process for a long time. It was a lesson to me in the ways we are often asked to feel personally responsible for systemic failures that affect us, the ways we define ourselves in the context of capitalism, and the effort it takes to believe in who we are separate from those failures—and to rebuild a life in the face of all of that. This story is not autobiographical, but it does explore some of those feelings.
Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Really, I was just writing story by story for a long time, working to improve my craft and letting my imagination run wild. It wasn’t until I had finished six or seven stories that I started to see enough resonance of theme and continuity for a potential collection.
Once I saw that potential, then it was a new challenge (and often, a struggle) to make sure the stories were in conversation with each other and that they were building a coherent overall effect. I didn’t discover the idea of site fidelity as a title and an overall theme until I had revised the entire book three to four times.
It was almost as though I was writing in that direction before I realized it—it was a way for me to learn that the narrative has its own timeline, and it’s OK to just keep working and writing as I wait for the bigger story to reveal itself.
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What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
There were certainly challenges and surprises, but I want to say that the process of writing this book was overall one of delight. I was 36 years old when I wrote my first serious short story — discovering that I had it in me to create these characters and these worlds, and that it was fun and wonderful and life-affirming—it was like I had found an entirely new part of myself. Pursuing the MFA brought much more art and poetry and beauty into our family life as well—we took the kids to readings and events, a new part of our lives we value very deeply now.
Four of the stories in the collection center around three sisters—Ruth, Mano, and Sister Agnes Mary—who are loosely based on my own grandmother and great aunts. It was fun to both remember and invent them on the page, a way to thank them for who they were to me, even though they aren’t entirely themselves in my book.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
I worked on “Site Fidelity” for eight years, during which I was raising two kids, teaching public middle and high school full-time, and attending graduate classes two nights a week. So I wrote these stories under shady trees at track meets, in the snack bar of a strip-mall laser tag facility, sometimes in the car while waiting for band practice to end.
For a while, I got up at 5 a.m. and wrote before work, and I often came home and wrote in the hours after school when my husband was still at work and the kids were at after-school activities. It was difficult, but it felt easier than during COVID, when both kids were here in the house with me all the time. Now, I’m back in more of a daily routine, but I do think that being forced to write in weird and uncomfortable places was good training. If you want to be a writer, you have to figure out how you’re going to write, no matter how much an effort it takes.
Tell us about your next project.
I am working on a novel about a family with a small farm—it’s both autobiographical and not at all. I also co-wrote two movies that are part of the Hallmark Channel’s Christmas lineup this year: “Sister Swap: Christmas in the City” and “Sister Swap: A Hometown Holiday.” I’m excited to see those stories in the world as well!