Get To Know: Writer Angela Mitchell

Angela Mitchell is the current director of the St. Louis Writers Workshop. Her stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines, including Colorado Review, New South, Carve, Midwestern Gothic, storySouth and others.

 

Van Buren: What made you want to become a writer?

Mitchell: I always loved stories, whether they were written or simply told out loud. Books, too, were a great escape for me while growing up in a very rural place–I could explore other places and learn about other people. I adored family’s set of Encyclopedia Brittanica and could study volumes for days (because I was *that* kind of weird kid). Later, I started reading writers who were from places like my home and it helped me to see my world in a new way.

Van Buren: What inspires you to write?

Mitchell:  People. I love to people watch and I love to talk to strangers. Weirdly, people seem to feel comfortable with me pretty quickly and they’ll tell me things they really shouldn’t (I mean, I’m not a priest or a lawyer and I’m under no obligation to keep their secrets to myself). When I was growing up, my grandmother lived down the road and she, too, was the kind of person that people made confessions to and, though she would never have told their secrets out in public, she was plenty comfortable repeating them to other family members.

Sunday gossip sessions with my mom, grandmother, aunt and sisters were the best time! What I realize now about those times, when we’d talk and talk about so-and-so and what was going on in their lives, is that we were really just trying to figure it all out. And that’s what we’re doing when we write stories: we’re just trying to take a situation and the characters in it and better understand how they got there, what went wrong or what went right to deliver them to that moment in time. I’ve never stopped being curious about what makes people tick, so that’s what continues to drive me to write.

Van Buren: How do you select the names of your characters?

Mitchell:  Sometimes, I just make something up that suits me, rhythmically, or sometimes I pull something from my own family tree (I really believe people used to have more interesting names than they have now). I also like to keep notes when I visit graveyards and I jot down good names I find there, really unique ones. I watch road signs and street signs, too, when I’m traveling. A few years ago, I saw a roadside sign advertising a real estate agent named “Rebel Cook.” I haven’t used that name yet, but it struck me as a good one for a future character.

Van Buren: Are your characters based off real people or did they all come
entirely from your imagination?

Mitchell:  They are usually based off real people to start with, but then they become something else, something totally fictional.

Van Buren: Who is the most famous person you have ever met?

Mitchell: President Obama. My husband and I had the chance to meet him when he was visiting St. Louis for a fundraiser and we brought our two boys with us. Mr. Obama was polite to us, but he was really wonderful to my boys and asked them several questions (much to the annoyance of the people waiting behind us, who, incidentally, had tried their best to cut in line in front of us). It was so special to meet him and, sometimes, I can’t believe that I actually shook his hand. For as long as I live, I will never forget that.

Van Buren: If you could write about anyone fiction/nonfiction who would you write about?

Mitchell: This is a hard one. I think a really interesting project might be writing a story from the perspective of John the Baptist (probably one of the most interesting of biblical characters to me). Otherwise, in terms of nonfiction, I’m never much drawn to famous people from history. Everyday people–the invisible ones–interest me much more.

Van Buren: Are you working on anything new at the moment? 

Mitchell: I’ve been working on a novel for quite awhile and am pushing to get through this new draft of it before winter sets in (that’s a pretty lofty goal, though, because I’m a very, very slow writer). I also continue to tinker with a story collection that I’m sending out again. I’ve recently gained a new admiration for shorter fiction and non-fiction and I’m messing with a small piece that will be a little more experimental in form than anything I’ve ever done before.

Van Buren: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Mitchell: Don’t be afraid. Don’t worry about not getting it right and sounding stupid. No one has to see what you have written until you are ready. It can take a long, long time to learn how to write something good and, even then, you’ll have plenty of days when what you write isn’t so hot. Get up the next day and try again. But don’t be afraid of failing because failing is a part of the process–in writing and life. No one gets to be perfect, but being perfect was never the point.

Her story, “Animal Lovers,” was the winner of the 2009 Nelligan Prize from Colorado Review; it was given special mention in The Pushcart Prize XXXV, and listed as one of thirty “Distinguished Stories” in the inaugural issue of New Stories from the Midwest.

Angela holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, as well as an M.Ed. in Higher Education from the University of Arkansas, and a B.A. in English from the University of New Orleans.

In 2011,  Angela Mitchell was honored as a MasterMind recipient by the Riverfront Times for her work in the literary arts. Recently, she attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams Scholar.

A former college administrator, Mitchell has taught fiction writing classes through St. Louis Community College’s Department of Continuing Education and given lectures and readings at conferences and universities. In addition to writing and teaching, she is an associate fiction editor for december magazine.