I recently had the chance to see Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich stand side-by-side on a stage and read from their collaboratively written story collection, The Classroom. They tag-teamed their way through “The Boy Who Arrives in a Box,” the book’s first story, taking turns reading the words that they’d composed together, transitioning with grace and trust and happiness. What was on display, I felt, was the special connection that it takes to write a daring book together.
In The Classroom, you’ll find a series of fabulist tales concerning teachers, students, parents, and kids. The stories have exciting, playful premises—a secret classroom beneath a classroom, bees who show up as students, a school for children who turn into white rabbits—and move from one fascinating moment of wonder to another. The book is rich in intelligence and compassion, in sorrow and joy.
I’ve known Diehl and Goodrich since they were star students at Susquehanna University. (Full disclosure: they were my students.) After graduating, they moved to Tucson, Arizona, where they live with a cadre of other extremely talented SU grads. Both have written stunning story collections of their own, on their own—Diehl’s Our Dreams Might Align, Goodrich’s Daughters of Monsters. The Classroom is their first collaboration.
Dana Diehl and Melissa Goodrich were kind enough to correspond with me over email. We talked about the process of writing collaboratively, the shared universe of The Classroom, and the relationship between fabulism and realism.
Joseph Scapellato (Rail): The Classroom is packed with lively, inventive fabulist stories centered on school-related communities: teachers who time travel, students who turn into animals, schools that float away into the sky. It’s also completely co-written by you both. Can you talk about where the stories in this collection came from, how/when you began to see them as belonging together, and how your shared vision of this project changed as you worked toward the final draft?
Dana Diehl: All of these stories began with a “what if?” question. What if there actually were secret rooms in schools? What if the school mascot came to life? What if the school flew away? What if you could program lessons into a student like you program software into a computer? We were inspired by the mythology that develops inside schools, and the “what if” questions that bored and imaginative students (and sometimes teachers) ask themselves and each other.
Melissa Goodrich: Also these stories came from how hard and weird it is to be in a classroom all of the time. Think of it: You’re born. You have like 4 early years, then school. Grade school, then middle school, then high school, college, grad school sometimes, and if you’re like Dana and me, you might stay in school even longer, as a teacher. It’s an odd place —to think I’ve been in a classroom for over two decades. Writing this book was a way to explore where we were, where we’d been, and also to escape. To imbue the real classrooms we worked in with a little more magic.
Diehl: The first story we wrote for this project was “The Classroom Beneath the Classroom.” I remember being delighted by how fun it was, how easy it was to work together. All of our stories (with one exception!) were written the same way. One of us would start a story, and then we would send it off to the other person as soon as we hit a wall. We’d send it back and forth until we agreed that we’d found an ending.
Goodrich: Very quickly, we knew we were building a book. It helped that we had a theme: all school stories. And it helped that each story we wrote was such a blast to write, that they got better and better, that each new story we finished meant we had to ask, “OK, what else could happen at school?” We made prompts for ourselves about school talent shows and kids with strange hobbies and animals in the room and running away from school and never being able to escape.
Diehl: We’d give each other assignments, like You add to this story, while I start this new one. We imagined the stories we wrote as all existing in the same world, even though the rules of each story varied. We were aware of filling gaps, trying not to be too repetitive, giving equal voice to students and parents and teachers.
Goodrich: This book was a place to put our joys and frustrations and fears and real feelings. I mean, how is a book you write not also a self-portrait? Except this book, it’s both of us, all of the time.
Rail: What you’re saying about the stories in this collection existing in the same world—can you touch on how you worked to achieve this splendid effect? How did you make stories as different as, say, “The 41st Bee,” in which a swarm of bees attends school, and “The Mascot,” in which a woman transforms into a mascot, feel as if they could be taking place down the block from one another?
Diehl: We wrote this book relatively quickly, over the course of a year and a half. If we’d taken longer, I think the stories might feel more distant from each other. Writing it so quickly meant that we were approaching each piece with the same insecurities, obsessions, fascinations. It gave the collection a unifying effect. In addition to this, we were usually working on more than one piece at a time. We’d each be starting a new piece while we were adding to or editing an older one. Sometimes we’d accidentally carry an image from one story over into another, but as we got further into the project, it became more intentional. To create a stronger link between the stories, during one of our very final edits, we actually looked for opportunities to subtly reference stories within other stories. It was fun finding ways to carry our favorite images or characters over into another classroom!
Rail: One of the things that I admire the most about The Classroom is the way that the stories, through fabulism, offer amazing insights on contemporary society, especially when it comes to the messiness of teaching and learning. For example, to me, “The Android Child,” the first story in the collection, hits home hard as a moving parable about over-parenting. I’d love to know how the process of writing this book affected the way that you see education/being a teacher, or learning/being a student, or being a parent/child—in our culture, right now?
Goodrich: It reminded me it’s no easier being a student than a teacher, a parent than a child. Even though I’m 30 years old, and have taught for 7 years, a part of me still feels—like intrinsically, permanently—ike a 10-year-old kid. A student. A person who has parents to answer to. There’s this weird bridge that I thought I would cross when I hit a certain age, when I would 100% see the world through an adult’s eyes, and I haven’t crossed it yet. I’m standing in the middle of it. Writing this book reminded me I am always going to be a learner and a teacher, a writer and a reader, always going to be a wonderer, and the way I see education has been that way. I wanted my classrooms to be a place where we were pouring our wonder into each other. When we wrote poems or essays, when we read in class, I was trying to give them tools to access their most magic selves, which were always there. Teaching is about listening, about revising, about letting your students challenge you as much as you try to challenge them. I guess being a parent would be that way too.
Diehl: I currently have over 100 students between the ages of 6 and 9. It’s easy to get swept away by daily goals (Today, they must understand prepositions! Today, they must understand the causes of the Civil War!). It’s sometimes overwhelming to think of everything I need to teach them over the course of ten months, one day at a time. Writing this book reminded me to relax a little. It reminded me that a lesson can be led by curiosity and joy. It reminded me that my students and I mostly have the same anxieties, the same insecurities, the same fears.
Rail: To be a writer, we’re told, is to be solitary. Isolate—compose, revise—repeat. How does/doesn’t your method of co-writing complicate this element of the writing process?
Diehl: You’re never alone when you’re collaborating. Even when we were in our separate houses, working on these stories independently of each other, Melissa and I were still in each other’s heads. We wrote in our own style, but we also started (unconsciously, I think), writing like each other. When I felt stuck, I would sometimes ask myself, “Okay, how would Melissa write her way out of this? What would she have happen next?” When we exchanged stories, we wouldn’t just add to what was already there, we would play with each other’s scenes, we would tweak sentence structure, add a detail here, delete a detail there. Because of this, we started to forget who had written what. We developed a new voice, one that wasn’t Melissa or Dana, but both of us combined.
Goodrich: It was an expansion on the idea of “write for yourself first.” I was writing for Dana first. Sending a draft off to her was like waiting for her to open a Christmas present. I wanted to see her face. I wanted to see what she would do with it. Her instincts were so sharp and so exciting—she has a knack for deepening our characters where I sometimes like to race across the surface—and when I got a back draft, I was stunned. I would text her lines I loved as I was reading them. I wanted to give that feeling back to her.
Diehl: I feel like Melissa is one of the few people in the world that I can successfully collaborate with, and part of the reason is that she is so incredibly kind about my work. Because I felt so comfortable sharing my work with her, I was more open to taking risks with stories, experimenting, writing in ways I normally wouldn’t. I always had in the back of my mind, “If this is too weird or bad, Melissa will just fix it and it’ll be fine.”
Rail: Did it ever happen that one of you would begin to write in the style of the other? For example, Dana, did you ever read a line or a passage that Melissa wrote/revised, and think, “Wow, that’s very Diehlian”—and Melissa, did you ever think, “Wow, what Dana wrote is very Goodrich-esque”? And if this sort of thing happened, to what degree was the merging of your styles a conscious stylistic decision?
Diehl: Melissa and I already have similar sensibilities in writing—we both love vivid, strange details and fragments and sentences with a lot of “ands.” So, I think it was relatively easy for us to merge our two voices into one (maybe we should call this collaborative voice Diehlrichian? Goodiehlesque?). I definitely started to write more like Melissa as the project went on. Without even trying, I began to adopt her sentence structures and quirks. I was so entangled in her writing, and her in mine, that it happened naturally. Consciously, I knew that our voices had to convincingly merge for it to not feel disjointed, but I think a lot of the work happened on an unconscious level.
Goodrich: It definitely helped that we (a) both had similar writing styles and (b) both enjoyed being readers of each other’s works. So writing this closely together was like an intensive sharpening of our skills. I often found that I wanted to learn to unpack and deepen scenes the way Dana seemed to do so naturally. I would notice the way she was shaping the clay of our stories and, as collaborators, I wanted to help work towards that shape. And, honestly, I can tell you who started each story, but then…I really have no idea who wrote what sentence, who wrote the lines that make me laugh—I just assume all my favorite moments are Dana’s, because I love Dana’s writing.
Rail: All of the stories, with the exception of “The Mascot,” are in first person. What attracts you to writing in first person, and/or what attracted you to it in this collection? What can first person do—or what does it give you, as writers—that the other persons don’t?
Goodrich: Weirdly, I don’t really realize when I start a story in first person. It feels really, really natural to put on an “I” that is a character. It gets my blood in their blood right away. But part of the fun of writing in first person, in a collaborative book, is that it’s always an “us”—like I, Melissa, am the I for a while, and Dana is the I for a while. A few of our stories bled between an “I” and “we” sort of subconsciously because that’s what Dana and I were doing on every page. There was always an ‘us’ and sometimes a single self emerged.
Maybe that’s what is attractive about first person in the first place. This idea that you are singular, exploring the self as much as the world you are in. First person keeps you in the body. For me it does.
Rail: Writers of fabulism are often asked: Why write fabulism? Writers of realism, it seems to me, are rarely asked: Why write realism? Why do you think this is? And what do you see as the relationship between fabulism and realism?
Diehl: I think realism is seen as the default genre. Every writer has heard the advice, “Write what you know,” at some point. I remember in high school, being exposed to the literary canon for the first time, and getting this idea in my head that to be taken seriously I should read and write realism. It wasn’t until my second year of undergrad that I even heard the term fabulism and was introduced to writers like George Saunders and Aimee Bender. They quickly became some of my favorite writers. I felt like they were using fabulism as a tool for accessing the real. They were taking the feelings we hold internally and turning them into external entities.
Goodrich: And something I realized about the realism I love is that they’re kind of doing the same work in reverse. If fabulism takes the magic and makes it real, makes it normal, I think excellent realism takes what’s normal and makes it magic. I’m thinking of collections like Danielle Evans Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which feel magic to me even though technically they’re not. I’m thinking of how a poem like W.S. Merwin’s “Separation” or Ada Limón’s “The Vulture and the Body” give me little heart palpitations. Sink in me like stones.
And what Dana said about the default—that’s true. I thought that genre writing was something to look down on, that it wasn’t as fully wrought or something. But—why? Fabulism feels like giving yourself permission to play. To dip in and out of genre and refuse to be defined. It’s a joy to access elements of fantasy and science fiction and poetry and realism—fabulism feels like stretchable fabric, just a little more liquid than “real.” It’s liberating. It is never one thing. It is as wild or as tamed as it likes.
Rail: To what extent was/wasn’t “write what you know” a principle that you employed in the writing of The Classroom? You noted above that this collection is, to some degree, a self-portrait.
Goodrich: Well, we know school better than almost anything. We know what it’s like to be the weird girl in class, and the frustrated teacher, what it’s like when a roomful of students wants to make the teacher cry. I often think of fabulism as a way to write emotional self-portraits—like what feelings am I working through, what fears and obsessions and concerns—and this collection certainly hits on that. I am a little like Ms. G in “The Classroom that Floats Away,” trying to hold down the classroom in all kind of chaos, with part of me feel like disappearing into the stratosphere. And Dana’s a little like Ms. Deal in “Spy Girl,” this teacher who is young and cool and bonds with students in a meaningful way. But also, I am the anxious girl who turns to rabbits. I am that fed-up teacher with 41 bees. I am the woman with an android son, not sure how to parent. I say ‘I am’ not to suggest that these are exact replicas of me or my experiences—but “that’s what it feels like”—I feel like that. I’ve felt like that.
Rail: What have you been reading that’s been knocking your socks off?
Diehl: A couple of months ago I read In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt, and absolutely loved it. I was actually a little bit mad after I read it, because I feel like Hunt had expressed a lot of the things I’ve been trying to say in my recent writing, and he did it better.
Goodrich: Ada Limón’s phenomenal The Carrying (2018) had me underlining on almost every page. I feel nourished daily by reading pieces from Wig Leaf and Jellyfish Review and Passages North and the amazing poetry prompts that Winter Tangerine puts out all April for poetry month. And I’ve been into the idea of re-reading favorite books recently, so on the docket are two of my favorites: Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle(2013) and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties (2017).
Rail: Is reading other authors at all part of your collaboration?
Goodrich: It wasn’t—but maybe it could be! I will say that Kelly Magee and Carol Guess, who collaboratively wrote With Animal, were incredible models for me—the first collaboratively collection I read and thought—DAMN, this book is good, and YES, I want to try this! I read it and then googled around to see if anyone had interviewed them about their process. And you know who had? The one and only Dana Diehl. The full interview can be found here.
Rail: What are you working on, together, next?
Diehl: Right now, I’m learning how to write on my own again! It’s a little lonely after sharing a page with Melissa for so long. I think that whether or not we collaborate again (and I hope we do), we will continue to be part of each other’s work. Melissa is one of my favorite sounding boards for my works in progress, and one of my very best, favorite editors. She is always going to be an influence on my writing!
Goodrich: It is a little lonely! But I feel so fortunate that Dana is a reader I trust, a reader I get to read, and it’s funny—I think we both mentioned that the stories we’re working on next have similar themes. But I love that! We’re still in the same universe. And I’m strongly in favor of collaborating again—maybe (dare we say it?) we’ll try our collaborative hands at a novel. Stay tuned.