—Arshia Simkin, The Underline
If you’re a fan of short story collections, and especially if you enjoy reading local authors such as Belle Boggs and Jill McCorkle, you may have already come across Joanna Pearson’s work. Pearson’s novel, Bright and Tender Dark, which has been blurbed as a “prismatic literary mystery” and which is about the aftermath of a murder on a college campus, will be released in June 2024. Pearson is also the author of two acclaimed short story collections: the 2021 Now You Know It All, which won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the 2019 Every Human Love, which was a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Awards.
Fiction isn’t the only genre—or field—Pearson has mastered: she received her MFA in poetry and is also a practicing doctor with a degree from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In addition to her writing and medical career, Pearson is also a mother of two. I recently had the pleasure of a virtual sit-down with her to ask her about the journey to writing her inaugural novel; the haunting presence of the uncanny in her writing; and what she hopes readers will take away from her novel.
Pearson said that she had always been drawn to writing, and was perhaps drawn to poetry in the first place, because it was what she had time for at that point in her life; later, as she was finishing up her medical residency and after her first daughter was born, she had some time open up during which she turned to short stories. Initially, she was hesitant: “I hadn’t really felt ‘allowed’ to try to write [short stories]—I figured there were secrets—and I might not know what I was doing,” Pearson said. Since then, her fiction has appeared in numerous selective anthologies, including the 2023 Best American Short Stories.
Pearson said that she feels a special connection to North Carolina, not only because many of her stories take place there but because it was where she first received a formal education in writing as an undergrad at UNC. “I think of myself as a North Carolina writer. I think that sense of place is pretty heavily important as a source of inspiration and a source of tensions I like to explore,” Pearson said. “I love the sense of being in a place where there is a literary scene…I love all the bookstores—Flyleaf in particular: they’ve been so, so sweet and encouraging. I love the Chapel Hill Public Library: I get like a billion books there.”
I asked Pearson about the presence of the uncanny in her work—or as a Rumpus interview put it—about the “rupturing of reality” that occurs in so many of her stories. She said: “We’re all kind of searching for something and there’s this sort of hunger for connection with other people but also a hunger for something transcendent…But then we live in this world that has all of these kind of terrifying things and horrors and I think sometimes—particularly in art—it’s almost better to face those things obliquely…it’s almost more effective…” She pointed to Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” as a quintessential example of this blurring of the supernatural and psychological: you don’t know for sure if it’s a ghost story or if it’s all in the protagonist’s head, or something in between, and ultimately it doesn’t really matter because it’s about “real human things,” she said. This liminal space “feels like a productive place to make fiction—when you’re on those edges,” Pearson concluded.
Pearson’s forthcoming novel—Bright and Tender Dark engages with this in-between space. The premise of the novel is simple—twenty years after a woman’s college roommate was murdered, she stumbles upon on a letter that casts doubt on the person who was imprisoned for that murder—but the depth of its thematic exploration is anything but: the novel explores and interrogates the mythologizing that occurs after a tragic and sensationalized death such as that of a young college student. The novel takes place in Chapel Hill and alternates between 1999, when the protagonist herself is in college, and 2019, when she receives the letter; and it is a multi-perspective take on the aftermath of this murder.
Pearson’s aim is for her readers to walk away from her novel feeling deeply—“even if it’s for a moment—even if it’s for a tiny moment,” she said. She explained: “Just the other day, I re-read an Edward P. Jones story…and I was like ‘oh my god.’ It was almost unbearably beautiful…he’s such a genius of human feeling and sometimes I’ll read like ‘cool’ fiction and it’s kind of cool but it’s psychologically inert, and his—it’s beating, it’s pulsing. Almost—when you’re done reading it, it’s like someone kicked you in the gut, but in a good way.”