Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Kathleen Winter and the Scary Fat Boy Story

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kathleen Winter, author of The Freedom in American Songs (Biblioasis), discusses her alternative existence and her worst/best story idea.



If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I would be a street sweeper. Not with a machine, but with a broom and dustpan. I'd teach myself the Zen of sweeping leaves, dust, cigarette butts and the bits of foil from gum and chocolate bars into a nice, heavy shovel. I'd listen to all the sounds: conversations of passers-by, traffic, yelping dogs tied to lamp posts. When it rained I'd lean under a tea shop awning and smoke a cigarette while the drainpipes and gutters spilled over onto the shiny pavement.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I wear a red Superperson cape.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
A man once followed me off a bus with my book in his hand, ranting at me that I'd used his mother in my story about a woman who gets stuck in some Florida mangroves. He unwrapped a three-foot long section of actual mangrove root from a roll of newspaper under his arm and started thrashing me with it. Luckily a couple of cadets from the Quebec police force took him away.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had? 
I wrote a story (about a fat boy) so scary I had to burn it and get a witch friend to do incantations over the ashes.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction? 
I think maybe the fat boy story.
Food for thought?

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I go to the Y and sit in the sauna with all the naked women from Chinatown slapping themselves energetically with paper towels and yelling at the top of their lungs.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Get the edition of Strunk and White's Elements of Style illustrated by Maira Kalman and eat it.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work? 
Railyards and vetch and iron bridges and flattened grass where animals have slept. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Singing in Her Natural Register: Karen Russell’s Talk-Talk Talk

By Nick Fuller Googins
New York, NY, Oct. 8, 2014

Author (and prop master) Karen Russell
Karen Russell kicked off Columbia University’s 2014-2015 Creative Writing Lecture Series last Wednesday armed with a pair of props. “Ninety-nine percent of people have no issue using this kind of phone,” she said, holding her iPhone overhead. “Um, I can’t do it. I can’t hear or be heard. The shape of my face is either wrong, or when I smile I turn it off. And poor Adam, the first name in my phonebook, fifty times a day.”

The game changer, she explained, was the Talk-Talk, a bright pink cell phone plug-in made to resemble a land line handset that she found at a Portland, Oregon, gag store. Russell, a Columbia Writing Program alumna, showed off her Talk-Talk to the lucky hundred-or-so of us who’d crammed into an art-studio-turned-reading-space in Columbia’s Dodge Hall, accepted mini sandwiches and plastic cups of Vinho Verde from current MFA students, and avoided making eye-contact with the the unlucky hundred-or-so milling in a long line outside. In the front rows of the audience sat a few of Russell’s former instructors, including authors Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, and Alan Ziegler.
Kickin' it old school: A better fit

“Now talking on my phone feels like a game,” Russell said, holding her Talk-Talk to her ear. “It alleviates me of a certain kind of self-consciousness. It’s totally humiliating to bust out on the street, but I have to tell you, it makes it feel like play. It narcotizes, or anesthetizes one kind of self-consciousness so I can hear people more clearly and be understood.”

At this point Russell looked at her pink handset, its curled cord, and must have realized that she was well into her lecture and still on the subject of Talk-Talks. “I’m actually getting sponsorship money from them,” she said. “So I’m going to spend the next forty minutes doing demonstrations. Okay?”

We laughed, but then came the point to her prop, the crux of her “Talk-Talk Talk”: Karen Russell, a New Yorker “20 Under 40” wunderkind, the author of a novel that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and two short story collections, and a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, had once (not so long ago) felt very uncertain as to which direction to take her writing. While a student of Columbia’s Writing Program, she struggled to write what she felt compelled to, not what she felt she was supposed to. “One thing I felt really self conscious about was that I was writing stories. A lot of my peers were writing novels, and I felt like they were in these happy marriages and I was like, definitely not a guaranteed good time, but just some floozy. And I felt weird that all my stories tended to be from the point of view of these male adolescents. If they weren't effeminate, hyperverbal, bewildered boys, they were these stunted tomboy girls. That was my continuum. They tended to be in first person, and I felt really bad about that and maybe unduly mad. But in retrospect, those were the stories I knew how to make live. Those were the things I was genuinely preoccupied about.”

In order to accept that it was okay for her to write how she wanted, Russell said she had to seek out role-models, learn from them how to turn off (some) of the self-criticism and make writing fun again. She credits Carson McCullers, Italo Calvino, George Saunders, and Junot Diaz, among others, for doing just that: “opening all these doors” to her while she was an MFA student.

From Junot Diaz, and what Russell terms his "voicey I narrator," Russell learned that, “You can have [a character] who’s hyper-verbal on one plane but just such a dodo elsewhere, stunted emotionally or living in a blindspot.” Realizing that she was allowed to write in such a voice, Russell said, “felt just like a Talk-Talk.”

At first, Russell said, while studying at Columbia, she was embarrassed to be writing what she considered “these lame ventriloquies of the writers I loved.” But looking back on that time now, she sees it as only natural for the voices of others to creep up into the work of any writer. “Maybe it’s okay if your story contains audible and sub-audible and superficial and bedrock resemblances to other stories. Because how could it be otherwise? Of course your story is going to contain echoes and the shapeliness of other stories you read and loved. What else would you be extrapolating from? Those are the materials that live in you.” Russell suggested that writers shouldn’t beat themselves up when inspired by others. “Maybe there’s a happier way to be haunted by the people that influence you. Maybe there’s a happier relationship to have to all these voices where it makes sense if your voice on the page sounds a little bit like them, because it’s a synthesis. If you’ve been a reader your whole life, that’s just the spooky acoustics of the project.”

To demonstrate how those spooky acoustics inform her work, Russell quoted from Ben Marcus and Harold Bloom, then read the beginning of Calvino’s “The Dinosaurs,” a story she’d found radically instructional while developing her writing chops. “It was glorious to read this because it was like, Ah! You can be a goofball and you can still talk about annihilation and loss and you can crack some dumb jokes! You can have this kind of direct relationship with the reader.”

She then read from Saunders’s “Sea Oak,” and reflected upon a visit of his to Columbia while she’d been in the program: “I remember him saying that he’d had some similar issues—he’d been trying to write what he thought was literary and highbrow and eventually he realized he was playing against his strengths. He’s fantastic at dialogue, at writing these bizarre alternate spaces. Singing in his natural register was something that he discovered.”

Lastly, to bring her point home, she read the beginning of “Reeling from the Empire,” from her recent collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. When reviewing the story earlier that day, Russell said, “I was like, ‘Jesus, I really should send checks in the mail to Calvino’s estate, and Saunders.’” They’d helped her find what she calls her, “access point” into fiction, the mode of writing which comes most naturally and feels most fun. She described the feeling as one in which suddenly, “I sort of see how maybe I can access something that feels true to me that I really can’t do in other registers. I’d spent a lot of time singing outside of my natural octave. There’s something to be said for discovering in this program what is your access point, and it might be that you have to set it up so that it feels like a game.”

If Russell has turned writing into a game, it’s obviously one game that she excelled at even during her MFA years; by the time she graduated from Columbia in 2006 she’d already landed an agent and seen her work published in The New Yorker. The “game,” as she seems to have learned it, involves not only writing very, very well, but having confidence in what feels natural, even when what feels natural is very, very weird. Russell, at the beginning of her lecture, admitted that she’d thought twice about using her pink Talk-Talk as a prop. “I knew that this was an indefensibly dumb way to start the talk, but I thought: 'No, I’m going to do it anyway, I’m not going to ask anybody.' And I may have no other advice to give tonight, but I think that’s useful. In every case, with every story I’ve ever written, I always thought: 'This is indefensibly dumb.' But if you have an indefensibly dumb idea that you’re still—for reasons mysterious to you—really committed to, maybe go for it.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

Justin Taylor and the Unwriteable Idea

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Justin Taylor, author of Flings (Harper), discusses where he works and the intersection of real life and fiction in his writing. 



Where do you do most of your work?
The vast majority of my work is done at home. I have never had a problem with distraction or work/life separation. When the writing is going well a work/life separation is the last thing you want—or the last thing I want. The writing is the thing I would always rather be doing. I also like to read my work aloud which you can’t (or shouldn’t) do in a public setting. When I was younger I used to work in coffee shops, which I rarely do anymore, but when I was younger I had a lot more time on my hands in general, so I still probably did about the same amount of work at home. I have a shared office at the Pratt Institute that I use sometimes. Over the summer it was especially glorious because the A/C was free and nobody else was around. Now that school’s back in session there are my students, my colleagues, their students—all lovely people and it’s a great school, but again, not the kind of place you’d go to spend two hours road-testing the dialogue in a sex scene (or whatever). 

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
Saint Augustine: Hipster of Hippo
There’s a wonderful line in Book X of Augustine’s Confessions: “Some memories pour out to crowd the mind and, when one is searching and asking for something quite different, leap forward into the centre as if saying ‘Surely we are what you want?’” That line has stuck with me since I first read it, six or seven years ago; I come back to it all of the time. Several of the stories in Flings originated as attempts to explore that idea, to hear the memories when they petitioned for attention, and give myself over to them and let them crowd my mind. So these stories deliberately court the autobiographical in a certain way, but at the same time they reject the standard autobiographical imperative of seeing oneself as the protagonist, or even of including oneself at all. And of course in the end these stories were subjected to the same manipulations, distortions, and what-if-ing as anything else. Once a given person or event has been translated into words, aestheticized, revised, edited, perhaps made composite, and certainly integrated into a world of imaginary people, places, and things, I don’t think it’s fair—to life or to me—to continue to think of these things as belonging to the order of the real, though hopefully they still feel true, if that makes sense.

Despite all of which—and here we come to the second part of the question—yeah, sometimes people do encounter themselves/their experiences in my work, usually in some kind of funhouse mirror distortion, which I imagine can be quite jarring. If it’s people I’m close to, I give them a heads up when the thing is coming out—not permission to sit down and write it,  mind you, but fair warning that it’s entering the world. Usually, they’re pleased, sometimes even excited. It can be very validating to know that someone took you seriously enough to imagine your inner life for themselves, though of course there’s a perilously thin line between making people feel visible and making them feel exposed. I try to be very straight with people about the difference between “what I think happened” and “what I ended up writing about.” Most are willing to accept the distortions/revisions as not merely as par for the course, but part of the fun. If it’s people I’m no longer close to—or was never close to in the first place—then I just go ahead with it, and hope that if the person in question ever encounters the work, they’ll take it the way it was intended: as a testament to the impression they made on me, and not an attempt at judgment, slander, or revenge. I mean unless it is those things.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
This is a great question, and as it happens I have a very specific answer. I can see it in my mind right now, but I can’t bear to give it away. I will say that it’s been with me for many years, and that the story “The New Life” from my first collection and “Adon Olam” in Flings were both attempts to write it, as were a few very early and aborted versions of what became “Mike’s Song” (also in Flings). The culvert below the road where the narrator goes in “Adon Olam” is a crucial image that constitutes one part of it, but that’s as close as I’ve been able to come. And weirdly those are some of my favorite of my own stories, so there must be something powerful and generative about this ongoing failure. Perhaps the unwriteable idea is a kind of goose that lays golden eggs. I’m almost scared to ever get it right now, but I guess there’s small enough risk of that, so I’ll probably keep trying.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kathy Page Encounters Other Places

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kathy Page, author of Paradise & Elsewhere (Biblioasis), discusses how travel has informed her writing. 


What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Leaving home: I put it this way because citing “travel” as an influence  might suggest a Chatwinesque writer who has traversed vast countries on foot, lived with Amazon peoples, or sailed to Tahiti. Far from it: for a twenty-first century, first-world person, I’m less travelled than most, and none of my journeys have been exotic or intrepid.  Even so, the relatively few places I have visited—and the relationships and states of mind that  travelling involves—have had a profound effect on my work. The influence shows most clearly in the stories collected in Paradise & Elsewhere, a book populated with travellers of various kinds and also with communities responding to the arrival of strangers.

When I set out, my feelings are ambivalent. I want to see the world but also find it very hard to leave home. At a rough count, I’ve had about six homes. I stay in the same area for years, decades at a time, wrenching myself away when it finally becomes necessary for one practical reason or another. Fourteen years ago, I emigrated from London, England, to Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, and although I’m happy here, I’m also still recovering from the move. Wherever I live, I set up a home office and spend a great deal of time in my locality walking, observing, absorbing the place. I become familiar with the people and the animals, the weather patterns and soundscapes.  I plant a garden and see what grows. My attachment to where I live is one reason why encountering other places, even within my own country, has such a powerful impact. I think of them as someone else’s home.

Particularly acute and wonderful is that first encounter with a new place, both people and land: the way someone else’s everyday can be so vivid and particular, and a simple thing such as catching a pike, preparing it for supper and eating it towards midnight, the sun still just shy of the horizon, can feel utterly transcendent. Over and over again, travel proves how nothing need be exactly the way it is, that history is both a work in progress and an argument, that change is constant, and anything is possible… Once I am on the road, each place (with notable exceptions) is hard to leave. I want another day, week, or month. I want to know what it is like to live where I am merely visiting.

Just visiting: The Gulf of Bothnia
That fish supper on a rocky island in the Gulf of Bothnia was a simple thing. I was an invited guest: one first-world, European person holidaying with another, a colleague becoming a friend, and her extended family. It was a stage in a relationship that developed over several years. We were on relatively equal footing. The Finns spoke English fluently; I had only a few words of their language, but since Finnish is known to be fiendishly difficult, mastering it for a brief visit would not be a reasonable expectation. My hosts were as free to travel as I was; our cultural differences were mutually interesting. One of the things a traveller does is make and tell stories, and later, I celebrated that day in an essay called “The Pike’s Heart.”

Yet often it’s more complicated. A glance at the history of exploration and trade serves as a reminder of the darker sides to travel. Paradise & Elsewhere opens with a pair of tourists who fail to understand the nature of their economic relationship with the community they’re passing through. In other stories, travellers strike bargains, are treated to elaborate and contradictory accounts of the meaning of  archaeological sites, are taken in, expelled, turned to stone and (in a separate story) stoned to death; in one case, a woman welcomed and bedded by her host later finds herself kept prisoner, though she does finally escape.

Travel frequently involves us in multiple imbalances of power, and confronts both traveller and hosts with choices as to how to  deal with a person who seems in some way distinct from them. Ordinary life does this, too, of course, but travel brings these tensions to the foreground. The arrival of the stranger at the gate or on the shore is the end of one journey and the beginning of another. It’s the encounter between self and other, the place where we fight, negotiate, or fall in love, and discover how doing so will change us. It’s the place where stories begin.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Karin Lin-Greenberg: Notes of a Failed Cartoonist

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Karin Lin-Greenberg, author of Faulty Predictions (University of Georgia Press), tells how a serious of unsatisfying jobs—and a stab at cartooning—led her back to writing. 



After college, I moved into my parents’ basement in New Jersey and spent hours each day searching for a job. I went on many interviews in Manhattan, mostly for jobs in publishing. I’d been an English major with a creative writing concentration, and I hoped to find a job that would utilize my reading and writing skills. I don’t remember much about these interviews except a) I didn’t get offered any jobs in publishing, and b) when asked how I liked the women’s college I’d graduated from I used the word “empowering” a lot.

After months of interviews, I was offered a job. The job ad was vague, but it asked for someone with “strong writing skills.” I went to a dark basement in Brooklyn where there were several televisions with headphones attached and a keyboard in front of each screen. The job was to write closed captioning for videos. The man running the operation said, “It’s not difficult.” The phone rang. He excused himself and gestured for me to take his seat in front of the video he’d been captioning before my arrival. There was pornography on the screen. The man finished his conversation, looked at the television, and said, “Sorry. I shouldn’t have left it running.”

“Do you caption a lot of this?” I asked.

“Yeah.” He shrugged. “There’s dialogue.” He paused then said, “Do you want the job?” He hadn’t asked any interview questions.

“No, thank you,” I said. To turn down this offer after months of unsuccessful job hunting seemed foolish, but this wasn’t really a writing job. I thought they should have advertised for “strong hearing skills.” I went home and did not tell anyone I’d turned down a job.

A few weeks later, I had another interview. I’d given up on publishing and writing jobs—and the idea of being any sort of writer—and had applied to be a counselor at a non-profit that helped low-income high school students with the college application process. The director of HR looked at my résumé and said, “We have an opening for a grant writer. You’d be a good fit because of your English major.” She described the position, but I wasn’t listening. All I heard was the word “writer,” and the fact that I wouldn’t be transcribing dialogue in pornographic movies was enough for me to accept the job offer. I would soon learn the job was more about fundraising than writing.

On my first day of work, the Director of Development announced she was quitting. The Assistant Director of Development, who was left to train me, decided she’d rather spend time jogging and shopping. Each morning she changed into running gear, left, and returned hours later sweaty, toting shopping bags. The only other person in the office, the secretary, complained incessantly. One afternoon, she opened a window and flung a box of addressed, stamped envelopes—with pleas for donations inside—into the garden two stories below. I spent hours outside collecting envelopes. The secretary learned that our health insurance covered therapy, so a few afternoons a week, she went to therapy, which she said she needed because of the job. Often, I was alone in the office, and I could hear the counselors—the job I’d initially applied for—laughing with high schoolers down the hall. I was only a few months out of college, and already the working world felt dismal.

I wanted to be doing something else, something creative and fulfilling. In high school and college I’d drawn cartoons for the school newspapers. I’d never harbored serious thoughts about doing it for a living, but desperate for an escape, I spent much of my time in the Development Office researching how to be a professional cartoonist. At work, I fiddled with a letter addressed to potential donors, but my mind was on cartoon ideas. At home at night I drew. I knew becoming a syndicated cartoonist was a long shot, but the fantasy kept me going in those months.

I learned how to prepare my work for submission, and I sent my cartoons to the major syndicates. Soon, the rejections came in. One day a rejection arrived with a handwritten note on it: “Nice writing—the art needs a lot of hard work.” Nice writing, I kept thinking. I told myself that maybe this note was a sign, a message. I put too much stock in that scribbled note, but I was twenty-two, confused about what I should be doing with my life, and maybe I just needed a push to pursue writing seriously. Plus, was it any more ridiculous to want to be a fiction writer than a syndicated cartoonist? The odds, once I started looking into it, seemed fairly similar, just as slim.

Soon after I got that note, I quit the grant writing job, found a more gratifying job teaching adult basic education, registered for continuing education writing classes, and started studying for the GREs. The next fall, I applied to graduate school for writing. Maybe I’d be a cartoonist today if I hadn’t gotten that note about my writing, but I doubt it. I think I would have found my way back to writing eventually.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Michael Blumenthal's Unusual Habit

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Michael Blumenthal, author of The Greatest Jewish-American Lover in Hungarian History (Etruscan Press), discusses what he'd do if he weren't a writer and the risks of borrowing from real life. 


If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I would be, very happily, a primate zoologist. Even at this very moment, I would gladly trade every word I've ever written for a few years among the bonobos. My literary hero, on that front, is Frans de Waal.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I only write when I genuinely feel that I have something meaningful and interesting to say. From what I can tell, that is a truly unusual habit.
Bonobo: The road not taken

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
Yes, all the time, and I have also been frequently confronted about it. Years ago, when I published my "Harvard novel," a dear friend and former colleague, on whom I had modeled what I felt to be the most lovable character in the entire book, almost divorced me, and sent me, via Fed Ex, a nasty epistle informing me that he would not, under any circumstances, be coming to my book party. He has since long, and repeatedly, forgiven me, and expressed his admiration for the book. More recently, my wife—upon reading the galleys of my recent collection of short stories—insisted that I would forever lose a pair of friends on a situation of whose one of the stories (in which virtually everything—from setting, to occupations, to language, to ending—is radically altered) is modeled. I'm hoping, and assuming, they will never read it, but that still remains to be seen.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
I once had the idea of writing a story based on a protagonist who was obsessed by rectal and other sexual odors. A bad idea, to say the least.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
I've never written a play—the only genre in which I haven't published. But some years ago I had an idea for a play based upon two characters who meet in a psychoanalyst's waiting room, and whose relationship leads the analyst himself to examine his past and certain still-undealt-with traumas in his romantic relationships. I, indeed, did spend months working on the play, only to discover, as I had long suspected, that I am not a playwright. Yet another of what Auden would have called a brilliant idea, badly executed. Always best to know the limitations of one's gift.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
Philip Roth's "Defender of the Faith," Flannery O'Connor's "The Lame Shall Enter First," and James Salter's "Last Night." All three utterly brilliant in different ways: the first hilarious; the second and third utterly tragic.

Where do you do most of your work?
At a desk facing my study window, either in my house in West Virginia or my summer house in Hungary. When I was starting out as a poet taking dictation directly from the gods, I did most of my work at my "office" in Montrose Park in D.C.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I stop writing and do something else. Preferably, I take a long walk... in fact, many long walks. Or fantasize about being a primate zoologist.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
If you hope to write for posterity, avoid the Creative Writing Industry at all costs. If the scope of your ambition ends with a Creative Writing job, a bunch of younger lovers, fifteen minutes of fame, and a fine education in flattery, networking, false praise and sycophantry, such a program may be the place for you, and there are plenty to choose from. The best Creative Writing teachers in the world are right up there on your bookshelf, or in the library, and they don't charge a bloody thing. They won't, however, alas, be able to write you a letter of reference, or get you a job.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
The magnificence of nature. The beauty and mystery of existence. The complexities of trying to love and live decently and with kindness. The challenges of generosity. The disturbances of lust. The pains and travails besetting myself and my friends. The affections and cruelties of animals. And, of course, the idea of death... and the reality of it. And of pain.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Francesca Marciano's Ten Writing Mantras

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Francesca Marciano, author of The Other Language (Pantheon), offers writing advice. 


You’ve heard it a hundred times already, but a mantra is a mantra because it needs to be repeated, so here we go.

1. Get to work early in the day when the world is quiet and your mind is fresh.

2. Walk a lot. Ideas will pop to the surface like gnocchi in boiling water.

3. Hatch your story, like a hen hatches an egg. Get to the desk only when you know where you are heading.

4. Read a LOT of good books. Don’t be afraid of being influenced, or intimidated by other people’s talent.

5. Stuck? Walk some more. Eventually the gnocchi will pop up with the right solution.

6. Trust yourself. Don’t let other people read your work too soon.

7. Think of the work as building a bridge. A brick a day, and you’ll eventually get across.

8. Don’t panic: your first draft will be terrible. Everyone’s first draft is embarrassing.

9. When you show the work to people you trust, be prepared to listen to criticism and comments you may not agree with. You need to be strong and humble at the same time.

10. Rewrite, de-clutter, polish, like an obsessive housewife, till the page shines.