Erica Plouffe Lazure isn’t a Southerner by birth—but, she says, the South and its tradition of writers are what turned her from a journalist into a fiction writer.

Proof of Me, Lazure’s new, North Carolina–based short story collection, won the New American Fiction Prize and praise from authors like Jill McCorkle and David Gates.

Each section of the book is organized around a verb that is also a noun. Record, stitch, vacuum, and a few other words each get their own set of stories that are loosely connected to the word; each story, in turn, is connected to the semi-fictional town of Mewborn, NC.

The overlapping geography and characters turn the collection into an intimate study of a small-town community. There actually is a real Mewborn (which, as Jill McCorkle pointed out, conjures up the idea of newborn kittens), but it’s just a crossroads between Greenville and Kinston. This reference gives this collection fantastic flexibility: the town feels real, but it could be just about anywhere in North Carolina.

In a recent Zoom-based event hosted by Birch Bark Editing, McCorkle and Plouffe Lazure read stories back to back, and McCorkle praised the individuality of the interconnected characters and the tangible details of Mewborn.

There are a few quiet stories, but many involve something dangerous, like a drummer falling through a window on Nashville’s Broadway, or deadly, as when an alcoholic father freezes to death in the snow. Even with all of that drama, these stories feel real because many of the most poignant or flammable pieces of them are steeped in real experiences. Plouffe Lazure pulls story points and mechanics out of her own experiences as a reporter here and in New England: preparations for a demolition derby, a fatal welding accident, a symphony of trout mating calls, making the neighbors angry by mowing during church hours. That veracity, she says, comes from “a lifetime of paying attention.”

INDY WEEK: So why here? Why are most of your stories connected to North Carolina?

PLOUFFE LAZURE: I don’t claim to be a Southerner at all. But a lot of my introduction to literature is very much steeped in the Southern tradition—William Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Jill McCorkle, Mark Richard, for example. Those writers really helped with transitioning from being a reader of fiction to becoming a writer of fiction. I’m used to being a reporter! If someone didn’t say something, it didn’t happen.

We all live in the United States, but also there’s some definite cultural differences and adjustments. And so I think whenever you travel anywhere, live anywhere that’s a little bit different, you’re gonna start being attuned to those differences. You know, if you’re an artist or a writer, you’re gonna want to get that down and get that sense of difference. If I just never went to North Carolina and spent my life as a newspaper reporter in Massachusetts, I’m not sure if I ever would have shifted into fiction.

I loved how careful you were to interweave everything. Where on the line between short story collection and novel do you feel like this collection falls?

I wouldn’t ever pin the term novel on this collection, but they’re certainly geographically and thematically linked. The characters you see in the beginning of the book do show up a little bit here and there. You get a sense of life’s arc, but it’s all told in patchwork, like in little pieces. I think the stories are certainly linked, and I think if anything, the geography of the imagined town of Mewborn brings everybody together in a way. If there is a novel element, it’s the novel of a community in a certain era.

I enjoyed untangling the stories—I think the interconnectedness of it really emphasizes the themes of home.

Yeah, the home element. I mean, you can see that with the Cassidy Penelope and Juniper pieces. Those young women definitely aren’t at home in the spaces they’re supposed to be calling home for a range of reasons. Some of them are good reasons. Some of them are less than good.

I think a couple of the themes are “How do we find a sense of home?” and “How do we make peace with people we’re supposed to love?” Sometimes you’re like, “Oh, this is my sister. I am supposed to love her, but how does that happen?” How do you make peace with somebody who you may not always feel completely in sync with? So there are all these people we’re supposed to love. That sometimes doesn’t come through how we treat each other, how we talk to each other, the choices we make. I think that feels like a very real thing that happens every day.

I feel like the section markers added to that domesticity too. Where did you find these quotes?

Oh, yeah. All the little drawings I do myself. I was really trying to think about an operating object for each story, but then for each section. One of the epigrams is from a Reader’s Digest sewing book. So the very front of the book has that, and then I was like, “What if I did that with each of the sections?” Like some kind of instructional guide that could be read on different levels. You can make anything you want with a sewing machine. It’s on you to stitch the story together the way you want it to get together.

There’s a constellation of geography and themes and people, and there are so many different ways to look at the connections here.

That was my hope! I am kind of a scavenger. Someone called me a very effective curator. It’s a very nice way of saying packrat. I like vintage shops, I like old things, and I love the potential for storytelling for those older things. And I love to draw, and I love music. So this book is a work of fiction, but in many ways, I feel myself in the book.

I feel like there’s no way to escape that completely.

Whatever your personal preoccupations are, they’re definitely going to show up in a way that you don’t necessarily maybe want them to? But it’s all going to be on the page no matter what.

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