Shannon McLeod’s Short Story Collection “Nature Trail Stories” Provides Natural Spaces for People to Reflect and Integrate Their Past and Present Selves
Via sharp observations and attempts at connection, the characters in Shannon McLeod’s Nature Trail Stories offer insights on their surroundings and the people around them. As one woman reflects, “Any place can be scenic, depending upon the scenes in your head.” This mindset could be expanded to all the short stories in the collection, as they reveal the world through the characters’ varied outlooks, from an art gallery employee awaiting the next person to walk in to a woman coping with heartbreak.
In the same story from which the above quote originated, titled “Human Song,” the narrator and their boyfriend receive advice to go see the snails and sing to them to lure them out of their shells. At the beach:
I sing George Michael, then Spice Girls, then the Beatles.
“If they’re not coming out for Ringo, there’s nothing that’ll do it,” says Caleb. I’ve begun to feel this way about him, too. That nothing I can possibly do will bring him back to me.
Maybe the snails are more accessible than fellow humans. Nature becomes an antidote to the failings of relationships and to the desire for a bond.
The loneliness and longing that envelop these characters even as they engage with other people—friends, strangers, coworkers, family members, and significant others—thread throughout the collection and are almost inextricable from the dialogue and settings. The story, “After Leaving,” dives into the grim, though in this case necessary, moments following a breakup in which memories flash through the narrator’s mind wherever she goes. While seeking something for dinner, she observes that:
Downtown, the trees lining the streets are turning orange. There’s a sweet scent of decay in the air. I’ve always liked autumn best. He used to say it’s because I’m a melancholy woman. The same reason I find sad songs the most beautiful.
She cannot help but think of her ex—and mourn him—even when she deliberately ended things. Even alone, she cannot get away, but the view starts to look up when, “Then I think, this nothing will eventually be filled with something better.” The pain may eventually bear fruit.
These stories are sparse, some only three pages long and many four or five pages long, but the first-person narration immediately draws the reader into seeing the world through the characters’ minds, in which the characters mull deeply over what they have done or will do. Some of the stories are acerbic like a mother responding to her son’s criticism of her one-sided interaction with the radio by saying:
“I don’t need someone to answer for me to talk. I talk to you, don’t I?” That was one of my usual replies and Marshall would usually smirk.
The characters find themselves in situations that they wish were different or over after they have started. When one character chooses an action to take and encounters disapproval, she also decides, “…but I no longer care.” Ultimately, the characters overcome perceptions and others’ opinions and instead, go their own direction.
McLeod is an educator in Virginia and an alum of the University of Michigan. We recently spoke to her about her new book, new job, and next book.
Q: When we talked last time (about two years ago already!), the interview was about your novella, Whimsy. What have you been up to since our last interview?
A: Since then, I’ve worked in different genres. I wrote a psychological suspense novel that’s on submission with editors now, and I wrote a middle-grade novel that’s with my agent. I always find experimentation in writing inspiring, so it was fun to try writing for a variety of audiences.
Q: You are a public school teacher, which we chatted about last time. Are you still teaching creative writing, and if so, how has it been influencing your writing?
A: Another change in my life since we last spoke is my day job. I’m now working as a reading specialist at an elementary school in the same school district where I once taught high school English. So now I work exclusively with students who have reading difficulties. While I no longer teach creative writing formally, I started facilitating a writing group at my local library. I find that inspiring because I get to connect with a variety of writers, talk shop, and hear their work.
Q: What is your writing regimen? How has it evolved?
A: I don’t have much of a regimen these days. What I find most fun about the short story form is that I can pick it up when I have an idea and get a whole draft down in a short amount of time. I find it difficult to step away from a draft too long without the voice changing. With flash fiction and shorter stories, that’s not so much an issue if you’re able to get the ideas and the voice out in one go.
I’m starting to work on a new novel, though, so I’ll try to create a stricter daily writing schedule once I’m on summer break. That’s my best time for drafting longer works like novels. During the school year, I find it hard to keep focus on a longer project because you have to have your mind in the project consistently for it to feel cohesive.
Q: Nature Trail Stories is your third published book. How was writing it different from your last book?
A: This book was quite different from Whimsy because I got to inhabit a dynamic cast of characters in an array of settings and situations. That’s part of what’s fun about short story collections. While these stories are linked thematically, I didn’t have to adhere to a consistent form, voice, or plot from one to the next. I got to experiment with some interesting structures, as well.
Q: In a book that is called Nature Trail Stories, how did you approach nature? One of the book’s blurbs mentions nature going beyond a setting and becoming a character. How do you see nature as a character?
A: To me, being in nature—especially walking nature trails—is an opportunity to reflect and process the past. That’s the role nature plays in a lot of these stories: It provides a space for the characters to integrate their past and present selves, so it gives opportunities for flashbacks and woven timelines, which I enjoy in narratives. So I guess nature is the character that instigates a lot of the conflict—it’s the pot stirrer!
Q: In the first story, the narrator visits owls housed at a nature center. As the story concludes, “I return to my car. I turn on the ignition, but only to get the heat going. I’ll wait here for a bit longer, I think. I’m waiting for something to happen to me, something to reveal myself.” Do you think all of these characters in Nature Trail Stories are waiting, and why?
A: I think so, to some degree at least. Some characters are more active in changing their own lives, but all of them struggle with some kind of discontent, something they are waiting to change in hopes of reaching a more authentic and fulfilling life.
Q: The characters must at some point decide what to do with their urges and desires. Often they do what they want. At the end of the book in the longest story called “Easier to Convince,” the narrator realizes, “It’s not so uncommon, I remind myself, this feeling of having anticipated a getaway only to arrive and start counting down the hours until I can go home.” You convey so much in the characters’ brief narrations. Would you describe how you write? Do you write and edit down your stories, or write them at around the length they end up being and fine-tune the wording, or something else?
A: When I draft, I do my best to try to tune out my inner editor and just get it all on the page. It’s usually not until I have a full draft that I realize the parts that are unnecessary, so I usually cut it down in the revision process. I rely pretty heavily on my writing critique partners to help me see what’s unclear and needs to be expanded, though sometimes it’s easy for me to see after I’ve stepped away from a draft for a bit and then re-read it with fresh eyes.
Q: We talked about this last time, but I love this question. What has been on your nightstand to read lately?
A: Right now, I have The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, Pleasure Activism by adrienne marie brown, and Big Swiss by Jen Beagin.
Q: With a novella and story collection published, what is next on the horizon for you?
A: Right now, I’m diving into an expanded version of the last story in the collection, “Easier to Convince.” I’m hoping to see the characters in various stages in their lives and turn it into a novel in four parts. That’s the plan, anyways. But these things rarely go as planned.
Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.