Falling into Memory: An Interview with Toni Mirosevich
Falling into memory, while still in the present moment, can be a great dive.
I first met Toni Mirosevich as a student in San Francisco State University’s creative writing MFA program. At the time, she was one academic school year away from retiring as a professor, two years away from having the title of professor emerita conferred upon her, and four years from being named Poet Laureate of the City of Pacifica, California, where she’s lived with her wife for the past 30 years. As a writing teacher, she was loose and funny and I never knew what was going to come out of her mouth next. She seemed to find something interesting wherever she turned her attention, whether it was a sentence in a student’s story that hinted at another layer of complexity or an observation made during a class discussion that never, ever lagged.
This is the same appealing voice of the narrator in the linked stories from Mirosevich’s most recent book, Spell Heaven (Counterpoint Press, 2022). Her book is remarkable not only for its language, which is rife with rhythm and free association that shows Mirosevich’s poetic roots, but also for its tenacious hope. Without knowing what she is seeking and always with a sense of vulnerability and risk, the narrator discovers a home among the outsiders, people on the margins of society who are often overlooked. These stories show what can happen in the most unlikely of places when we stay curious and open up to possibility, and through it all, the ocean as a metaphor does its magic on the reader. The water, always returning. The surface alternatingly reflecting and revealing. Constant movement towards and away. A feeling of depth.
I spoke with Mirosevich on a windswept walk along the Pacifica coastline. She spoke with all the dogs we encountered, greeting them by name: Frankie and Ollie, and the four-month old black-and-white puppy Olive, who sniffed at us while we perused books in the little free library next to the beach. “Have a good life, Olive!” Frankie and Ollie’s dogwalker said she wasn’t walking the dogs in the quarry these days. “There are so many coyotes.” Then she shared that she had a copy of Spell Heaven. She had gotten it from another neighbor, Karen, who was getting her house repainted. And the conversation flowed from there.
I began to understand how Mirosevich gathered a collection of stories inspired by the place we were now walking, a promenade on the crumbling edge of the West Coast, where all kinds of people from her seaside town come to fish, wander, and watch the waves roll in. Every walk, every chance encounter here, sets her writer’s mind on a new trajectory.
You see all kinds of people along the edge…. For a moment people with entirely different views and opinions are together in a moment of wonder.
Ann Guy: Parts of Spell Heaven made me cry. For example, in “The Morning News,” when Billy the lottery player dies and the narrator goes out and buys $5 worth of Scratchers.
Toni Mirosevich: What’s fascinating to me is that each person who has read the book has a different story they respond to. One person said, “Well, the narrator and her best friend in ‘The One-Second Sandwich’…” And then someone else said, “Oh, Tommy Bench…” I’m always surprised which stories a reader responds to. I think it says something about the reader. A connection or identification with a particular character or certain story line.
Ann Guy: Yes, I noticed the parts that I found most moving were when the narrator is feeling an unexpected sense of connection with another character. Maybe it’s speaking to the time right now when people are feeling disconnected from one another. Your book feels so encouraging.
Toni Mirosevich: The book came out during the pandemic, during a period of time that shed a certain type of light on the stories. If it had come out before the pandemic, readers might think it’s just stories about a strange woman taking a walk. But right now people are looking for any way to feel a little bit closer to another human being. Timing really does change the response.
Ann Guy: The other day in my writing group, someone wrote about a chance encounter and we talked afterward about how hard it feels sometimes to just meet someone’s eye and start a conversation. It’s a little scary, because you’re sticking your neck out a little bit. But almost every time you do it, you can find something who connects you to this complete stranger. There’s always something. Maybe underneath it all, we’re pretty much going through the same thing.
Toni Mirosevich: After dinner one day, I came down for a walk, and I saw a woman walking towards me with a big labradoodle. I’d never seen the dog before, so I’m looking at the dog and the woman said, “Well, hello!” And it was a woman who lives down our block. I hadn’t recognized her, didn’t know she had a dog. So we chatted. And then I took the walk and saw some people that I’ve never said hello to, but we still kind of gave each other “the nod.” Then I saw Shirley, who lives a couple doors up from the sea, coming out of her house, and she said, “I was up at the library and saw your book on the table.” And we had this really nice moment. And then I saw Teeda, a new person who moved here recently and she said, “Hey, what’s going on?” Those were three very small, human encounters. I can’t tell you how happy it made me.
Ann Guy: Maybe part of the reluctance for those of us who live in big cities is that we’re so crowded together. You want to give people space, to not to intrude on them.
Toni Mirosevich: So for a million reasons you don’t make that leap. Even if it’s a small leap, a nod of the head. Then you end up feeling even more lonely and isolated. The other thing about the book is that it’s set by the sea in a community of people who feel like outsiders to the Bay Area scene. I know the sea because I grew up in a fishing family and spent a lot of time among fishing people when I was a kid. These people are familiar to me. And also unknown. I don’t know them, but they’re familiar. At the beginning of the book I quote a line from a C.D. Wright poem: “You will wake in a dear yet unfamiliar place.” That is where the stories are located. In this dear yet unfamiliar place.
Ann Guy: Your book is a constellation of stories linked by proximity to the sea, by a repeating cast of characters, and by the same narrator. Do you think these stories of connection could only happen here, where land meets water, on the margins of geography, demographics, and society? Where worlds are overlapping?
Toni Mirosevich: Overlapping worlds. That’s a great way to characterize the stories. And yes, much of it relates to the sea which always brings about such an expansive feeling. I think just being on the periphery of that expansive view can cause people to open up. You see all kinds of people along the edge. People with whom I might not share the same politics. They’re looking out at the sea with that kind of faraway look, and I feel connected to them. Where else would I encounter them? I wouldn’t be at a rightwing rally, and a similar realization occurs to the narrator in the story, “As If You and I Agree.” She sees two Trumpites having a heated conversation by the sea, dismisses them, then notices that they stop talking when they see a whale breaching offshore. She too has stopped walking, in awe of that sight. For a moment people with entirely different views and opinions are together in a moment of wonder.
Ann Guy: You’re having a shared experience.
Toni Mirosevich: Yes, parallel play. I will see people just standing, staring, and a whale comes and everybody has the same reaction. We’re all connected. And things fall away here. Go down the coast, all those apartment buildings are falling away. Things are crumbling away.
Ann Guy: That phrase falling away is interesting. Inhibitions may be falling away in this place too.
Writing the stories deepened my relationship to this place and the people.
Toni Mirosevich: And assumptions are crumbling. Structures are falling away. What keeps us separate might be falling away.
Ann Guy: Earlier this year, I came to this beach to meet some friends, and I saw three dolphins surfing the waves. I’d never seen that from land. I’m not someone who waltzes up to strangers much, but because of the dolphins, I was at the railing and whenever someone walked by, I called out, “There are dolphins!” I felt like I was about two years old.
Toni Mirosevich: You broke through your isolation, when you might not have said hello to them, and they broke through theirs.
Look, here’s Mori Point, which is rolling away. It continues to fall and fall and it’s beautiful. There is a great quote by W.G. Sebald from The Rings of Saturn where the narrator goes up to a cliff overlooking the sea and notices that sand martins have dug their nesting holes in the top layer of dirt. There’s this line: “I was thus standing on perforated ground, as it were, which might have given way at any moment.” Being by the sea is like that for me, as if, at any moment, I fall into a memory of standing by the sea I knew as a child. Falling into memory, while still in the present moment, can be a great dive.
Ann Guy: It’s a perfect place for you to be writing.
Toni Mirosevich: Yes. Luckily, I’ve always lived on the sea. Once I lived in Torrance, down in L.A., and I withered.
Ann Guy: Did writing these stories change the way you saw this place? Did it change your relationship to the town and to the people who inspired the stories? Did it change how you felt about them?
Toni Mirosevich: When we first moved here, our neighborhood was pretty scary. Lots of gang activity, a hot car ring, a murder. And as a queer couple we didn’t feel very welcome. But over time, it became beautiful to me. Really. Writing the stories deepened my relationship to this place and the people. It helped me see that there are still a million stories to tell. For example, I went to local tire repair shop because I got a nail in my tire. It was the third nail in a matter of months. The same shop owner has been there forever. His father owned it, and I think someday he’ll hand it over to his sons. The shop is full of stuff; tires, rims, shocks. I see that there’s this jar on his counter. In the jar are all of these nails and bits, and he says, “This is what I’ve taken out of tires.” A glass jar full of all of these things that made flat tires. And it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen. Ever. Then I start thinking metaphorically. If you look back on your life, how many flat tires have you had? What kind of bad decision, or this person died, or something happened to you that “flattened” you or your spirit? That jar is emblematic of a history. Then he says, “Every one of these pieces has a story. Here’s a shard of pottery. My guess is that the guy put his coffee cup on top of his car and took off. And when he came back, his tire hit the shard.” He’s imagined a story for every piece in that jar. I’m not looking for these stories, but look at that. That’s a story.
Ann Guy: I assumed that at the end of doing the book, you must have felt emptied, but it’s the opposite for you.
Toni Mirosevich: Because things keep dropping into my path. I take a walk and see different people all the time. And it helps to not feel so encumbered with your daily worries that you can be open to noticing them. I’m a very fortunate person as now I have the time to open to whatever kind of interesting thing is going to drop into my lap today. And I also know there are so many who aren’t this fortunate, who are working hard jobs and don’t have time each day to head to the sea.
Ann Guy: You’ve got space for things to come in.
Toni Mirosevich: Exactly. They always say that with short stories, you need to have something else come into the story. Something unexpected. Well, something comes into my story all the time, because I’m outside. The book is all outside.
Ann Guy: You’re right. There are very few inside stories in your collection. One scene is in the narrator’s little office at the university, and a colleague she’s renamed “Napoleon” barges in on her. Even when the narrator is home, she’s running outside to prop boards up against the tree or chalking up the sidewalk. She’s not really happy inside the house or the office. The whole book is outside.
Toni Mirosevich: When I was young and my father would come in from the sea, from fishing, I would go down to the dock with him. I would be outside on the dock with all of those fishermen. I was always outside in the neighborhood and by the forest. Even all of my jobs before teaching were outside. I was out driving trucks, out installing attic insulation and windows. With the teaching, the outside happened with the students’ writing. Your stories brought us outside of the classroom; what you all wrote about took us to different worlds. But all day long I was physically inside that building.
Ann Guy: Your class was so much fun. You didn’t try to give a rigid lecture about subtext or anything.
Toni Mirosevich: The American Society on Aging just published a new creative nonfiction story of mine in Generations Today. In the piece, I’m driving to Monterey, my car is malfunctioning so I have to slow down. I just hate that I have to slow down, because it doesn’t give me time to stop and see all the places I used to live. Instead, I have to look at the bay. What a drag. I want to do other things. Then I see the cormorants flying by. They are flying over the ocean in a line, line after line, and the shadow of each cormorant is below the birds. It’s the subtext! A line of subtext visible on the surface of the sea. The subtext is everywhere.
In that piece I talk about something that happened the day before in a class I was teaching. I showed a scene from Wayne Wang’s film Smoke. Harvey Keitel is a smoke shop owner, and he asks William Hurt, a writer with writer’s block whose wife has just died, to look at his “art project.” Every day Keitel stands across the street and takes the same photograph of his shop, then puts that day’s photo in a book. Hurt starts looking through the photo book and says, well, it’s the same picture. Keitel replies, slow down my friend. You’re never gonna get it. Each day the light is different, the people walking across the street are different. Then Hurt looks again and sees a picture of his wife walking across the sidewalk in front of the shop. It’s an extraordinary scene.
So it was outside that the classroom lesson about subtext ended up. Slow down or you’re never going to get it: the lesson and revelation happen outside.
Maybe this book is all about the outside. I didn’t realize it until today. Every morning I randomly select a card from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s card game, Oblique Strategies, to begin the day. The idea is that you select a card from the deck and apply it to whatever creative dilemma you may be facing. One of my favorite cards? “Go outside. Shut the door.”
Ann Guy: If you could write one more story to add to the collection and make it come true—the way the narrator in “Kite Man” makes the man crouching in the garden in the horoscope come alive or the fishing boat captain caught in a storm in the book the reader sets aside becomes real—what would happen in that story? Who would be in it? Who would go away and who would come back?
Toni Mirosevich: Certain people who inspired those stories have passed. So I think there might be some new characters. Permit Guy is still around. And there are new people. There’s a guy named Bill—who we called Jack for a long time—who used to own a tavern by SF General. He loves our dogs, always crosses the street to give them a treat. Bill has got a story. Every time we chat, we hear a little bit more. He used to deliver newspapers down to Carmel for the Chronicle. He’s such a great, full-hearted character. Then there’s this woman named Mary who is turning 80. She was a nurse who moved to the Haight-Ashbury from Ireland in the ‘60s. I’d love to base a character on her story. And the other day, a man we call Hollywood Superstar, a Russian man, almost ran over my wife as he was backing out of a parking space. Whenever he sees our dogs, he says, “Hollywood Superstar!” You have never met a sweeter guy. From Yalta. Then there are the young people. Teeda and her husband. Cathy and Colleen, a wonderful couple, both teachers. There are all these people!
Ann Guy: You wouldn’t add a story where everyone comes back. You would go forward.
Toni Mirosevich: Yes.
Ann Guy: That says something.
Toni Mirosevich: There are just a lot of interesting people.
Learn more about Tori Mirosevich at ToniMirosevich.com.
Header photo by Willyam Bradberry, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Ann Guy by Sita Venkataraman.