Collins serves up a collection for short attention spans
BY KRISTINA ROSEN
Writer and Lexington native Whitney Collins returned to her hometown 23 years ago after time spent in New England, North Carolina, and Chicago — never expecting to stay for the next few decades. She says, “Not thinking I would be here all that long and I have been here ever since.” Over the years she has watched this city continue to grow into a more culturally exciting place, and she thinks there’s been a noticeable shift. “For so many years Lexington was known for—and still is—the horse industry, basketball, bourbon.” But she now finds that “it is [also] known for music, visual arts, and the literary community.” She continues, “That to me is the most exciting part.”
Collins has worked as a contributing editor for The Weeklings, a book reviewer for Barnes & Noble, and an editorial board member of The Big Jewel. She’s also written for McSweeney’s, Salon, and Huffington Post.
Sitting across from Collins on a brisk spring morning in the Distillery District, she is celebrating her first standalone short story collection with a cup of unadulterated hot black coffee — no cream, no sugar. It’s immediately apparent why she would pick Kate McKinnon to play her in the movie version of her life. “Nobody makes me laugh harder than her,” she explains, before adding, “…But maybe it’s a vampire movie?”
She describes Big Bad, released in March, as “a collection of thirteen short stories that are about underdogs and lost souls.” The jacket promises it “serves up real-world predicaments in unremarkable places.”
It’s also served up a few awards for Collins. Big Bad won Sarabande Books’ 2019 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. She received a 2020 Pushcart Prize for her story “The Entertainer,” a 2020 Pushcart Special Mention for her story “The Pupil,” and her story, “Ricky,” won the 2020 American Short(er) Fiction Prize.
The eponymous story is a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood.” Each of the characters in all of the stories “must repeatedly choose to fight or flee the ‘big bad’ that dwells within us all.”
The collection is fiction, but Collins freely admits she “draws on generic experiences or crazy stories.” She plays the “What if” game with things she overhears or sees in real life — taking everyday situations and places (think motels, dormitories, tiki bars) and adding elements of suspense and gore.
Her favorite is “The Next,” written from the perspective of a mischievous seven-year-old. “That story encapsulates what I try to put in all of my stories,” which is “detail, dark humor, and some sadness.” She continues, “I like to surprise people with emotional depth, by pushing it with unexpected comedy.”
Asked about favorite Kentucky authors who’ve inspired her, Kentucky’s new poet laureate Crystal Wilkinson makes the list. Collins says, The Birds of Opulence is a book I read at Spalding. You can tell she is a poet in addition to being an amazing fiction writer. So few are amazing at both.”
In November 2016, Collins began writing Big Bad in 2016 while pursuing her MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. As part of her MFA program, she had to submit 30 pages of writing per month. When she graduated in November 2018, the compilation of these thirteen stories—plus a few more—was her graduating thesis. She submitted the full manuscript to Sarabande Books in Louisville, which specializes in short fiction.
Collins is almost done with her next collection of short stories.
Fielding the obvious question, “what about a novel?” she responds with a laugh and an eye roll, “Of course the publishing industry wants you to have the novel next.”
Given contemporary culture and our shortening attention spans, she says, “There is a lot of change happening in the literary world. More people are open to short stories.” She continues, “To me short stories lend themselves to episodic nature. I am hoping short stories become the new thing that everyone wants to write, to read.”
Big Bad was recommended among Publishers Weekly’s list of “Books for Short Attention Spans 2021.”
This article also appears on page 11 of the May 2021 print edition of ace magazine.
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