Q&A with author Dantiel Moniz

The UW–Madison MFA alum will appear virtually on Wednesday night to discuss her debut story collection "Milk Blood Heat."
Dantiel Moniz Milk Blood Heat
Credit Grove Atlantic Publishing
Dantiel Moniz is the debut author of short story collection "Milk Blood Heat."

Dantiel Moniz’s debut story collection, “Milk Blood Heat” (Grove Atlantic) launched this month to rave critical reviews and “best of” picks — too many, in fact, to list here. And it’s no wonder. In exploring the complex inner lives of ordinary families in her home state of Florida, the author pulls no punches — and pulls the reader through with propulsive, gritty prose. It’s a quick read, the rhythmic sentences stitched together with scalding precision. But the themes and human ache embodied by a large cast of characters linger, even haunt.

Moniz holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Creative Writing Program, where she currently teaches virtually as this year’s Mendota Lecturer in Fiction. On Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m., as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival’s ongoing series, she will appear in conversation with fellow UW–Madison MFA alum Ladee Hubbard, author of “The Rib King.”

I burned through these stories, which leads me to suspect they took a long time to write. How and over what time span did you construct this collection, and were there any stories that gave you particular trouble — or, conversely, just spilled out?

The oldest story in this collection dates back to an undergraduate workshop I took in 2012. Obviously it’s much different now than it was as a seed, but that’s normal in all works. And the rest of these stories were written sometime between 2015 and 2019. Some of them took months or years to get right, some of them only days, it just depends. But even with the ones that spilled out “easily,” there’s a certain incubation period an idea has to have before I can write it. For example, the story “Exotics” I wrote in one sitting, over a couple of hours, but I had the first ideas for it several years earlier.

These stories felt linked to me in the sense that their characters tossed each other a handful of themes from one to the next — desire, motherhood, death, betrayal, gender, class systems, morality, control, identity, shame, the ways in which we use each other to figure it all out — is there something you find you’re always writing around, whether you realize it or not?

Thank you for getting all of that; this was exactly my intention. I do think of this collection as connected, and I hope in reading it, more people will broaden their understanding of what constitutes a link. I think I’m always kind of coming back to the idea of, “Am I good person?” And what does “good” mean and who gets to define that and is that definition conditional? I think so, and I think I’m always after putting the full spectrum of the human experience down on the page, because so often, we only allow others to be so narrowly themselves. We limit ourselves in this way too. I think people motivate my writing ⎯ why we are the way we are. Which means I’ll always have something to write about, lucky me.

In every story there seemed a moment when you went there. Has it always been easy for you to say things other people don’t, or was there some bravery at play here? Is there anything that scares you to write about for public gaze?

Absolutely not (re: easily going there), and we’ve all been conditioned to hide parts of ourselves by design, I think especially if you’re woman-identifying. There were several times in the writing of these stories where I hesitated and thought, can I say this? Am I allowed? And I’d have fear about being judged once the story was out in the world. But at the end of the day, I had to write what I was called to write. I think of it like this: if I’m thinking these things, feeling these things, other people probably are too, and that allows me to push past (most) fear, considering how normal and human any and all of this is, even when we can’t admit it.

Story after story, I felt I was instantly and fully embodying another person — a rare feat to pull off in a handful of pages and across a breadth of characters. Were these real people knocking around inside you? Or was it the questions that interested you, and the characters showed up to talk them through?

Often the latter, but both have been true. Sometimes I see situations, and then it’s like the characters just appear, like, “Yeah, let me try this one out.” So much of my creative process feels like uncovering a story, rather than outright creating. Like, I realize I have to be in service to the story, and it’s not all about what I want. There’s an important balance between those two things.

What was your experience of the MFA program at UW–Madison and how did it shape your writing? What drew you to it and what connections remain?

I started researching MFA programs in 2015 after I admitted to myself that I wanted to take my writing more seriously, and had the talk with my husband to discuss the logistics of that desire. I could only afford to apply to 10 schools (which was still so expensive and took us a couple of years to pay off on my credit card), and only fully funded programs outside of New York and California. UW–Madison alternates genres every year, so I was lucky it was a fiction year. Honestly, that’s how it made the list.

I contribute so much of the success I’ve found in my (very early) writing career from the two years I was enrolled in UW’s Creative Writing Program. They prepared us for what life would be like after we graduated, and helped facilitate connections with agents and other writers in the community. And no program can really teach you how to write, but they can give you time and money and other support for you to figure out how to write more like you ⎯ how to fine tune your own talent. And that’s what I got out of it. It was a special time for me.

I’m happy to have returned to UW–Madison as the current Mendota Lecturer in Fiction. I teach fiction workshop and can engage with students and return some of the care that was given to me. I love it.

What is your entry point to a story? Do you have to nail the beginning to move on? Be curious enough about the ending to make a start? Find some attraction you can’t shake? Do you start with an image? A question? A tension?

I think it has to be curiosity and obsession that drives me to finish a story, or to actually start writing it in the first place. I’m a visual thinker, so a lot of the times an image comes to me first, but it could be anything. An idea, a line of conversation I overhear, a look on someone’s face when they think no one’s watching. But there has to be a question pulsing underneath whatever it is that starts the seed. I usually know where I want to start and where I want to end, and I’m exploring my way through the middle to connect the two.

What does your daily writing practice look like now? What was your experience of publishing? How did you connect with your agent and did you submit to indies from the jump?

My daily practice doesn’t usually look like actually writing every day unless I’m in the thick of a project, but I do touch the work. My brain is kind of always humming with stories and making connections even subconsciously; while I’m reading, watching TV or movies, washing the dishes, taking a walk, being nosey with my neighbors ⎯ whatever. I consider all of that stuff as filling the well, and it helps me whenever I’m ready to return to the page.

I’m having a phenomenal publishing experience, to be honest. My entire team at Grove Atlantic has just been on it and so supportive of me and the book, and that all starts with my agent, Meredith Kaffel Simonoff. We met while I was in graduate school at UW and she’s been instrumental for opening doors in this world. When we were preparing for MBH’s submission, she put together a very careful, curated list because she wanted to find it a home that would appreciate the short form for what it was, without all the extra pressure of needing a novel to go with it. I trusted her throughout that process and she did exactly that in facilitating the deal with Grove. I feel extremely fortunate. And it’s just a huge plus to end up with independent publishers here and in the UK. Milk Blood Heat is a wholly indie baby.

This can’t be the debut book tour you envisioned. Is there anything that’s maybe surprisingly not-so-bad about launching in a pandemic?

I definitely hope I can one day do the whole multi-city tour ⎯ I love meeting people and experiencing new places. But I imagine this already stressful process is a lot less so without having to worry about making your flights or waking up in a new bed every day (though again, sign me up in the future). It’s also easy to just go upstairs and get on my laptop for each event and not have to stress about boarding our pets, and I imagine I might be reaching more readers than usual on a virtual tour, especially for short stories.

What may readers not realize about how they can best support your book and the work of other authors?

Pre-orders are so important for authors, and this goes double for debuts and writers marginalized in any way. It’s a signal to publishers that there’s interest in the book, and helps writers continue to bring their work to the public. Additionally, it’s so important for readers to order directly from independent bookstores when they can ⎯ it’s good for readers, writers, and the bookstores themselves, which often host events so readers can meet their favorite authors. It’s full circle, and critical to the health of the publishing industry.

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