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Cary Holladay's Reluctant Art Form

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Cary Holladay, author of two collections published this year, Horse People (Louisiana State University Press) and The Deer in the Mirror (Ohio State University Press), relates a failed attempt at nest building.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?

The Orvis catalogue offers a winsome item for birdlovers, a circlet of raffia, ribbons, and twine to serve as nesting materials. Inspired, I vow to make one myself and include strands of my own hair. I want a part of myself woven into backyard nests. For months, I save hair from the brush. Come springtime, I gather twigs and twist them into a loop. The unwieldy result is nothing like the prototype, but threaded throughout is my trump card: Orvis doesn’t have my hair. 

My husband guffaws. “It looks like a condors’ nest.”

“It’s not a nest, John,” I explain. “Just stuff birds can use.”

I hang the avian Home Depot from a cherry tree. Birds avoid it. Why? The ugliness, the human scent? Weeks pass, and it collapses. Rain pummels the wreckage. The hair spreads out on the grass, ghastly, as if I’ve been scalped. Finally, John helps me throw it away. 

Spring wraps us in sweet, raucous tumult. My disappointment lifts with the breeze. Pink azaleas remind me of the birthday cakes my mother’s mother, Julia Carlton Mitchell, used to make. On the June day when I turned five, she gave me the best cake of my life. It was decorated with tiny toy birds, its frosting tinted pale green. Ever since, I have remembered that enthralling cake. 

Her creativity, and that of other family members, shaped my writing. Like them, my protagonists are productive and resourceful. My father, George Holladay, constructed magnificent Christmas wreaths out of evergreen boughs. From scraps of wood, he built a doll’s house. My mother, Catharine “Tas” Holladay, wrote stories and articles. She played the piano; her beautiful rendition of “Blue Moon” is still with me. 

My two new books, Horse People and The Deer in the Mirror, are stories of Virginia, its people—my people—and their history, culture, folklore, and, ingenuity.

The chief protagonist in Horse People, Nelle Scott Fenton, is based on my father’s mother, Helen Warren Holladay. Her chief creation was a family of seven sons, and her own life, lived large, with foxhunts, a farm that she ran with her husband, and flower gardens of her own design.

The Deer in the Mirror includes a novella about a young woman who goes to Alaska during the 1898 Gold Rush and bewitches a notorious gangster. Her closest friend is a pet monkey. For its amusement, she mimics her lover’s posturing, his scowl. Mimicry is an art form I reluctantly admit to. As a child, I could adjust my voice and facial expression to copy classmates, neighbors, church people. My family rocked with laughter and begged for more, but I felt spooked by a knack that came out of nowhere. I can still do it, and it still creeps me out.

My artistic endeavors are generally things a 10-year-old could do: crocheted snowflakes dusted with silver glitter; sachets stuffed with pine needles. But I have a birthday coming, and it’s time for something big. I’ll try and re-create the marvelous, pale green, topped-with-birds cake that my grandmother made for me.

"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing. "
Kingsley Amis

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Fast fact about writing

Where, and by whom writing was first developed remains unknown, but scholars place the beginning of writing at 6,000