Monday, July 21, 2014

Arna Bontemps Hemenway's Walk into the Otherworld

In the eleventh in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Arna Bontemps Hemenway, author of Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books), discusses the mental process of transportation that accompanies his physical trip to work.

A few years ago, in a New York Times Book Review article, the writer Douglas Coupland sought to describe a new genre of writing. These stories, he said, “cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.” It is a literature that “collapses time and space as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader's mind. It inserts the contemporary reader into other locations and times, while leaving no doubt that its viewpoint is relentlessly modern and speaks entirely of our extreme present."

I bring this up because it’s actually a pretty good description of my walk to my office, or rather, more specifically, the mental transportation I try to get my mind to go through while I walk to my office in order to be able to write when I get there.

On weekdays (which for me are writing days), I rise very early in the morning. This is key. I get in my car and drive through the dawn or pre-dawn (depending on the time of year). The early morning is a time when the whole world is possible, or made of possibility. Reality is more liquid and fungible for me at that hour, still half-asleep; it’s easier to will another world into existence when this one has less of a purchase on you.

Then I park my car, and I start to walk. I purposefully park a fair distance from wherever I’m going to write that day. It changes. Sometimes my office is my office, a room on the top floor of Baylor University’s English Department. But more often, my office for the day is out in the world, alone, preferably unnoticed, hidden in a corner of the library stacks, for instance. A window helps, especially if it’s raining.

Parallax view: A different perspective
The most important part, however, is the walk. Somewhat paradoxically, I find it easiest to slip into the fever dream of my own work when my brain is nominally distracted by the work of others; the music of composer Max Richter has been good for this, but audiobooks too, especially something that feels like its heart is somewhere near where I’m aiming. Anything that can keep me transported—crossing history, collapsing time and space, inserting my own empathy and sensibility and curiosity into a reality that is not Waco, Texas, and Arna Hemenway but that is an equally real present moment—long enough to launch me back into the unsteady sea of whatever fiction I’m working on that day.

This is, undeniably I think, pretty artsy-fartsy, weird, and unoriginal, at least on the surface. What news—in order to write fiction you have to be able to completely transport yourself into an entirely different time and place! But I think its simplicity as an act is part of what makes it so difficult to truly understand and practice. Because it’s not always pretty. Yes, in order to write what I write about I have to be able to leave behind the stress and fear of the quest for tenure, my dying father, my social anxiety, at times my depression, my struggles with faith, my inexplicably loneliness. But I also have to step out of the life of the person who, when he returns home from work, will get hug-tackled by my curly-haired almost three year old daughter, the person who gets to watch his beautiful wife laugh unexpectedly, the person who gets to hold his two month old baby and feel his son’s breath on his collarbone. For the morning anyway, you’re giving all that up, the good with the bad, and also taking on the world—the weight, the joy, the tragedy—of the people you’re writing about. Obvious, I guess, but elusive, and difficult. That all happens for me, if I’m lucky, on the walk.

One thing I like about that Coupland description is that it hints at the unchanging authorial presence behind these transportations. Because, of course, in leaving all that stuff behind, you leave nothing behind. Travel far enough, you meet yourself—this is somehow both David Mitchell and Nietzsche. Marilynne Robinson once told me to become intimately familiar with the landscape of my obsessions, presumably in order to write well. I don’t really know what that means, but I do know that on weeks when I manage to make that walk into the otherworld every working day, I feel more alive to my own real life than on weeks when I don’t. And that’s important because I think you ultimately want your (fictional) writing to be alive to the real world in the same way. Struggle and spectacular failure are a part of it, just as they are an important part in us making sense of the narrative we daily find ourselves an organizing intelligence of. Meaningful experience, in life as in fiction, is characterized by parallax. You’re not going to ever understand more than a sliver of what you’re doing.

So, most of the time, I try not to think about any of this too much. My writing habit is to walk to wherever I am going to write, to try to make something happen along the way, and hope, in the end, that it will work.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Deborah Levy and the Essential Obstinacy

In the tenth in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Deborah Levy, author of Black Vodka (Bloomsbury USA), talks about finding inspiration in paintings and in animals.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
The visual arts continue to be a major inspiration—so much is said with form; from the blast of Matisse and Cezanne, to the surreal narratives of Dorothea Tanning—or the intricate installations of Ilya and Emilia Kabakov who fuse everyday life with mystery and yearning. In this sense I can say that whatever the art form (theatre, film, poetry, fiction, etc), I am always onside with John Cheever who told us that short stories for him were about concepts, dreams, apprehensions, and intuition. 

Woman with Red Cloth 
Anne Rothenstein
I have recently come across the engaging work of the painter Anne Rothenstein. I am intrigued by her preoccupied and fierce sculptural female figures. I make up all sorts of stories for them but I know they don’t really need me to do this. 

I was a Fellow at the Royal College of Art in London, where I taught writing. I always admired the imagination, courage, and essential obstinacy of my students. What I like is that if you are a visual artist and you take no risks at all, you are nothing, you are irrelevant—you might as well just chalk up imitations of old masters on the side walk and hope a few kind people throw coins in to your upturned hat. It would be exciting if this kind of daring and curiosity were valued in mainstream literature too. Is it possible that we are only now becoming contemporaries of James Joyce? Does it matter?

These are genuine questions. I am interested in human consciousness and how we express it. I always want to be entertained enough by any sort of art to look more closely at the world. 

I am also inspired by the beauty and mystery of animals, these amazingly designed creatures with whom we share our planet; their eyes and breath and how we communicate with them. I admit I like the furry ones best and don’t mind at all on vacation when the street cats in Greece sit on my feet in a taverna on the beach.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Doretta Lau Does the Work

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Doretta Lau, author of How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (Nightwood Editions), discusses how she works and where she finds inspiration.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
When I was four, I wanted to be a baseball player. Even then I had a tenuous grasp on reality. I never thought of it as a career path reserved for men.

Last week, a friend asked me what other profession I'd want to have, and I said I'd like to write for television because I watch so much TV. I may as well put my expertise to good use. He said, that's still writing. I said, I guess so.

I like inventing characters, so I imagine in some alternate reality I'm an actor.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
For my story collection, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, I created a file detailing the birthdates of my characters in order to determine the corresponding zodiac signs in both western and Chinese astrology.

For a complicated story that didn't make it into the collection, I mapped out ten mixtapes that were made in the world of that narrative over ten years and listened to them while writing. There's also an unfinished story on my laptop that's accompanied by a tarot card spread.

As I was completing my book, I consulted a friend who does tarot readings to determine whether to deliver a story collection to my publisher or to rewrite the manuscript as a novel. She told me that I was asking the wrong question and that instead I should focus on themes. For a while every morning while I was doing rewrites, I stared at an index card where I'd written, "Choose a theme. Like a cut."

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
Real life is too good not to mine for fiction, but I'm not the kind of writer who recreates a situation in its entirety. I tend to distill funny moments and rework them to best serve the story. I prefer invention to reportage.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
I don't think there are bad ideas in fiction, only poor execution.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
For months, I was working on a zombie apocalypse story set at a conference at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, but none of the sentences functioned to my satisfaction. In the story, the pathogen is spread by ideas, so the attendees of the conference are putting themselves at risk by convening to share knowledge. Meanwhile, there is a whole movement of people pushing for immunization against ideas, which creates a whole new set of problems.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
"Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice" by Nam Le. It touches on all the issues I struggle with when writing fiction, while delving into powerful emotional terrain. The final paragraph kills me.

Where do you do most of your work?
At home, wherever that may be at the moment. I'm writing this at a desk in a room I've rented for a month in Toronto, where I'm conducting research for my next book. I like being able to do laundry and clean the bathroom between blocks of work. In grad school I wrote a lot sitting or lying in bed, but that caused terrible insomnia.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I used to fret about this quite a bit to the point of fear and exhaustion, but now I go for a walk or a run or I read a short story. I find it helps if I can't figure out a language puzzle in my own work to see how other people have approached and defeated a similar problem.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
It took me ten years to finish and publish my book. If a career in writing is something you want, you just have to write and pile up the rejections until the acceptances come. Also, read as much as possible and buy books by contemporary authors. I think of writing as a conversation with other writers. I guess it boils down to: Do the work.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Music, art and film figure greatly into my landscape. Lately, I've been writing to White Lung's Deep Fantasy, The-Dream's Royalty: The Prequel, and Tanya Tagaq's Animism. I'm thinking about Theodore Wan's art because he's a character in a story I'm working on right now. Bette Davis, Bruce Lee, Oscar Wilde, and David Maysles also appear in this narrative. I really liked Bruce LaBruce's film Gerontophilia; I found it so emotionally satisfying, while being funny and strange.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Kelly Cherry Makes a List

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kelly Cherry, author of A Kind of Dream (Terrace Books), discusses her interest in linked stories.

My first husband borrowed something I'd written and showed it to his friend. "Is she," he asked the friend, "talented enough for me to marry her?" As you might guess, the marriage didn't last, and when it ended, I felt I had lost five years of writing time (the marriage plus recovering from the divorce). I published a first book of poems with a small press and a first novel with Viking. Then I found myself thinking about what else I wanted to write.

I made a list. I thought of it as my bookshelf.

Not every book title I had on that list came to fruition, and editors changed a few of my titles despite my protests. But in between writing books on the list, other titles revealed themselves, as if they'd been lying behind some other book on the shelf.

This was not compulsive. I never felt I couldn't make room for another book, and at least twice I had to acknowledge that a book had failed, or, rather, I had failed the book, and I dumped it. But I had a lot of ideas. They are all around us, you know. All you have to do is reach up for one and it drops into your hand.

Publishers are not so plentiful and after a while, I no longer had an agent, so I couldn't submit to the big houses. My work was better, but I was older, which meant, to publishers, not new. Instead of novels, I took to writing linked stories, or novels-in-stories, a form I love. I've written a trilogy of linked stories. I call it "A Divine Comedy," which is what the ex-wife of a main character says when she describes the off-Broadway play she has written about him. "It's such a divine comedy!" she chirps.

To some degree, writing linked stories is like making a collage. Pieces need to be usefully shaped and carefully placed. It is also, and more, like orchestrating a symphony, as is a novel: Characters and events need to enter and leave quite like various instruments or instrumental sections.

I was born into a family of musicians. My late younger sister used to tell me that my poetry is my music, and I admit I liked to hear her say that. But I think that different genres require different musics because their fundamental elements differ: the sentence for the story, the scene for the novel, the paragraph for the essay, and the line for poetry. (I recognize that other people have other views, so I won't try to push mine here.)

Ludwig van Beethoven
The biggest influence on my work is not a literary figure, although there are a number of literary figures, past and present, who have influenced me or sent me in this direction or that; it is Beethoven, especially in his late string quartets and piano sonatas. I feel I've learned a great deal from him, and if I'm not Beethoven, it's not Beethoven's fault.

My second husband (much nicer than the first!) and I recently discussed what books might have been within our compass to write if only we'd thought of them before their authors did, if only we were capable of writing them: what books we'd read that we felt closest to and, maybe, almost able to write. I chose The Magic Mountain and Grace Paley's stories. Where stories are concerned, on another day I might have picked "A Still Moment" by Eudora Welty or Chekhov's "The Kiss." I suggested Heart of Darkness for him, and he smiled.

About stories I want to say this: The wonderful fictionist Fred Busch may have been correct when he said that short stories are about death; that is, about their endings. Lorrie Moore may be right when she says the ending of a story should subvert what came before. Russian absurdists may have been right when they dreamed up preposterous, and often hilarious, plots. But I think Fred Busch wrote the endings that came to him. I think Moore has looked at her work and noticed that she tends to subvert the beginnings of them. And I think Russian absurdists knew very well what it was like to live under an absurd regime. The doing comes first, theory after. Never trust a theory too far. What counts is the doing.

As for what I hope to do? I hope to complete my bookshelf. There are at least two more books of short stories on it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

John Henry Fleming's Writing Tips for the Tip Averse Writer

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, John Henry Fleming, author of Songs for the Deaf (Burrow Press), suggests writing both for a potential audience of aliens and for oneself.

Writing tips are like fresh raspberries—so beautiful and enticing on the grocery store shelf, so moldy the next day. That’s my experience anyway. Still, they can give you a way of thinking about your work, a charge that gets you from one synapse to the next and keeps the words flowing. I offer advice in that spirit, hoping you’ll refute every statement with your own stories.

  1. Write like it’s true. Even when you’re faking it and have no idea what you’re talking about, pick out the one or two things that are true and make the story about those things.  
  2. If you’re playing around, write like playing around is important to you. If you pull it off, playing around will be important to the reader, too.
  3. Write jagged. If things are interesting enough, the reader will make connections and supply meanings for you. If things aren’t interesting enough, no amount of explaining will fix that.
  4. Still, it’s best to keep the story under the frustration curve, best pictured as the arc of a book as it flies across the room toward the garbage can.
  5. Write like your story will be the only one to survive the apocalypse. Your small post-apocalyptic audience will want to know what things were like. And don’t assume they aren’t aliens.
  6. Write like no one cares what you write. Be honest, it’s not such a stretch. The truth is, most people don’t care what you write, probably even most of the people you know. That fact is depressing only if you’re writing for the wrong reasons. If you’re writing for the right reasons, it’s liberating.
  7. Just write. Forget everything else. The antidote to not writing is to write. The antidote to not feeling inspired is not expecting to.
  8. Stop repeating yourself. Try new things—new forms, new character types, new styles and tones. You’re never going to do that one thing perfectly, so stop trying and move on.
  9. Don’t be afraid to smash up your story and assemble something new from the pieces.
  10. Don’t ever forget that you’re writing for an audience, but think of yourself the first member of that audience; write things you want to read.
  11. Write each work like it’s your last. It could be; you never know.  
  12. Above all, be interesting. Henry James said so, and he was right.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Don't Call It a Comeback

Over at The Quivering Pen blog, David Abrams has published his extensive and knowledgeable Great Big Roundup of 2014 Short Story Collections, as well as an addendum to that list, which together cite more than sixty short story collections. And Abrams has something interesting to say about each one of them. Even more short story collections have been or will be published in 2014—probably well over a hundred altogether. And you'll see posts on this blog from authors whose books we will be considering for The Story Prize throughout the year.

Please, please, please don't say that the short story is enjoying a renaissance or anything along those lines. It isn't. This is consistent with the output I've seen over ten years of reading story collections for The Story Prize. Just because someone is only noticing it now doesn't mean it's only happening now. The short story comeback piece is one of two no one should ever write again, in my opinion. Nor should it be the preamble to a review by a reviewer who clearly hasn't been keeping up.

The other piece that I hope to never see again is the one on the death of the short story. It hasn't happened, and isn't going to happen, because writers will always be interested in exploring the many artistic and storytelling possibilities inherent in the form. Period. Established writers will continue to write stories or return to them. And emerging writers will start out writing them—and in many cases will continue to do so throughout their careers.

Two other angles that are equally dubious are taking potshots at MFA programs and bemoaning what someone might perceive to be a dominant style (past or present). Writing students aren't tabla rosas subject to the imposition of a particular style or approach. Most have already established their own approaches and are in a studio program to gain time to write and to hone their skills. And no one style has predominated in the past hundred years or more, despite perception. Examples to the contrary abound.

The big publishers have done a very good job of supporting short fiction. I speak to agents and editors who truly have a passion for short fiction. But the support commercial publishers can offer to short story collections does have practical limits. While some story collections have made the best-seller lists (Junot Diaz, George Saunders, and Lorrie Moore, to name a few), most won't break into the black. Commercial publishers are supporting the form because they are supporting authors they are committed to and because they know it's smart to get in on the ground floor of potentially great writing careers. What has been a particular boon to the form has been the support of both established independent publishers and small presses, old and new, which together help publish and promote a great many other deserving books each year.

Whether you like short fiction or not (another tired reviewing approach is the "I generally don't like short story collections but I like this book" approach), it's not going anywhere. Anyone who follows the form knows this, and anyone who doesn't should inform him or herself before resorting to sweeping generalizations and tired observations about the so-called state of short fiction. The story is bigger than any of us.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Molly Antopol Embraces Solitude

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Molly Antopol, author of The UnAmericans (W.W. Norton) discusses her writing habits and how her family history has inspired her.

Where do you do most of your work?
I write on days I don’t teach, and always at home—because I love having my dog at my feet while I work, and she’s not allowed in coffee shops or libraries. I get my best work done in the mornings, before the day fills up with obligations, and I don’t have any particular rituals aside from coffee—no magic pen or lucky hat or anything like that. The only rule is to turn off the phone and block the Internet—I have a terrible addiction to the Internet, and I’ll go off to research one tiny detail and three hours later come up for air having read ten articles about something totally unrelated to my book, like the history of pasta. So I keep the Internet turned off and, as I write, I make a list of all the things I need to look up when I’m finished working. It becomes a kind of treat to go through the list when I’m done. Then I go on a run. I find that when I make myself focus on one specific problem I’m struggling with in my story when I’m running, I’m able to untangle things much more easily. Though I probably look insane, jogging through the streets, talking to myself.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I’m not sure I’m at a place yet in my writing career to offer up advice, but I do often tell my students that once writing became central to my life, it was really important to embrace the solitude that came along with it. Even when things are incredibly hard, I find comfort sitting alone in a room, trying to shape a narrative that makes sense of—and sometimes even controls—the most painful parts of life.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
My family. My relatives are among the best storytellers I know, and as a kid, I always knew that when it was my turn to talk at the dinner table, I’d better have something interesting to say. I grew up hearing my family’s stories, many of them about their involvement in the communist party. I heard so many tales of tapped lines and dinnertime visits from the FBI, and many of the stories in my collection grew out of my desire to understand what it might have been like for my mother and her siblings to have grown up under such intense surveillance, knowing that their most intimate moments were being recorded and catalogued.

My story collection took me ten years to write, and during the first year, two things happened that helped shape the book. The first had to do with Antopol, the Belarusian village my relatives came from, which was virtually destroyed during World War II. My family could find humor in even the darkest parts of their history, but Antopol was a topic no one went near. I was living in Israel then and wound up at a party in Haifa, where I met a woman from Antopol who remembered my family. It was incredible, sitting in the kitchen and hearing stories about relatives I’d known so little about that they’d always seemed almost mythical to me. At the end of the night, the woman told me about an oral history book of the village, an enormous tome written in Yiddish, Hebrew, and English. It was right when I finished reading it that I began working on my collection.

The second thing that happened that year was that my family gained access to my grandfather’s FBI files. I didn’t know him well—sadly, he died when I was a kid. The reports followed him across the years and across the country, starting in the 1930s, when he first joined the Party in New York and began organizing at a cardboard box factory. In the files, I was able to see exactly what the FBI was looking for, but nothing else. They showed nothing of what being watched does to a person psychologically and emotionally. They showed nothing of the devastating impacts that one person’s efforts to improve the world can have on the people closest to them. And they showed nothing of the pain that led my grandfather to leave the Party, and how heartbreaking it was for him to learn of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin—for him to realize that the movement he’d dedicated his life to was so flawed and corrupt. Since the files left all this out, I found myself addressing these questions in my stories instead.