Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Adam O'Riordan and the Impulse to Write Prose

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Adam O'Riordan, author of The Burning Ground (W.W. Norton & Company), discusses what led him from poetry to fiction and how he approaches his work.


What influenced you to a write short fiction?
Spending time in America—in New York and then Los Angeles—is what moved me from writing poetry, which is where I began, into writing prose. The plurality of the place, the patent sense of possibility, the promise of it and the way in which promises are broken there all conspired to make me into a writer of prose. And glad I am they did.

Describe your writing habits.
I try to write on the majority of working days, so three days writing in any given week will be a good week for me. If something is going well, I’ll write on weekends, too, both Saturday and Sunday. I usually write for around three hours and always in the morning, from about 9 a.m. after coffee until 12 p.m. when I start to want to eat lunch. If something is going really well, I’ll write again in the evening from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. or from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. For me, it’s about getting runs of days together. That’s when things start to happen.

Where do you do your best work?
SoCal beach: Running into ideas
Without exception, my clearest ideas have come to me while running along the stretch of sand from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica pier; the mixture of sunlight, sea air, the vast space out to sea and big crowds nearby on the boardwalk. Though these days, it is only an annual or biannual pleasure at best. Here in Manchester, England, where I live, I write between a number of places: my apartment in an old cotton mill in the center of the city, the Portico Library, and Central Library. More and more these days, I write in the lobby or the bar of the Principal Hotel, another grand Edwardian building from when the city was in its pomp—lots of space and friendly waiters and waitresses. I like to arrive early as the guests are finishing breakfast and be on the edge of that sleepy, pleasantly displaced and transient energy that always seems so full of potential.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written.
"The Dead" by James Joyce, the final story in his collection Dubliners. A story so full of rich life and sadness, so grounded in the detail and lived experience of a place, yet rising above and beyond it right out into the eternal.

Where does a story begin for you? 
With an urge, sometimes in the form of an image or a phrase, sometimes in the form of a voice, a voice that might be trying to work something out or arrive at some form of clarity about something, after which comes, on my part, a desire at first to hear it or, if it’s an image, see it as clearly as I can and then to elaborate on it, to invent and to embroider. To take a good look around the life that I’ve found.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I think it’s perhaps a question of density—at the end of the story when it’s done, I’ll be feeling denser or lighter depending on the kind of story it is. I suppose by the end I’m often feeling sadder too.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
Listening to music is often a good preparative; physical, mental, and spiritual in one. Philip Glass or Max Richter, things like William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops hitting that same note of trance-like melancholy over and over, which you notice and then don’t notice.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Little by little, day by day. A few minutes at a time at first, until it takes again and some sort of rhythm is rediscovered and you ride it for as long as you can until life usually intervenes and then it's back to getting going again.

Describe an idea that you want to write or return to that you haven’t quite figured out yet.
Autumn, 1934, a shy man, careworn and a little run to fat, somewhere in late middle age, named Wallace, is driving a Chevrolet Open Tourer he has rebuilt from scrap, from Caddo, Oklahoma, to the Great Lakes. He is looking for his father.

Describe your reading habits.
I try, whenever I can, to give an hour from any given day over to reading, usually in the late afternoon —and sometimes at night for twenty minutes or so I’ll read aloud or I will be read to—I think this is probably the most intimate form of luxury known to man.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Katherine Vaz on Taking Notes and Making Box Art

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Katherine Vaz, author of The Love Life of an Assistant Animator (Tailwinds Press), discusses the importance of jotting things down and also finding nonverbal means of expression.


When my father was dying, I moved from New York to my native California, the Bay Area, to be with him alongside my mother and five siblings. I ended up writing a story about him published recently in Guernica, and it reminded of the strange route I took to get it from my heart—and bones and nerves—onto pages.

As writers, we often cling to process and result. I use the Pomodoro Technique happily. But spelling things out in the throes of loss felt distasteful, even if I could have borne it; I needed to spend as much pure time with him as I could, though I also wanted to jot down what happened, knowing my foggy mind might obscure it later. I kept the sort of record Joan Didion talked about in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which to her could mean a box with flotsam tossed in. A magpie’s nest, I think she called it. My result was all shorthand:

choc Guin pur/38 m
DON’T LEAVE ME! 2X
confetti
LEMON/neon
ao lado!

And so on. Dropping these desiccated word-tablets in water later would yield: On St. Patrick’s Day, I fed him puréed chocolate Guinness cake, and it took thirty-eight minutes. When my mother and I left him in the special dining room for those requiring extra assistance, he yelled, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” His diagnosis of “aging brain” made me envision his comments as confetti. On a day he improved, the lemon tree in the yard dazzled me, because false hope made it—made everything—seem backlit in neon. When nurses asked what direction he wanted to go, he said, “Ao lado,” and I explained he meant “to the side” in his native Portuguese.
Shadow box: Writing the Lord's Prayer
on a Grain of Rice—A Kit

When he died, on a warm, September afternoon, we were all there as he slipped away, and my fragment was “crying not leave.” To trigger the remembrance of that morning, when he’d sobbed about not wanting to be done with the world.

In a manila envelope that held my scrawls on pieces of paper, on receipts or corners of pastry bags, I also placed a plastic ring off an orange-juice bottle, because while running on the Castro Valley High School track, I asked the universe to send me a hair bow or fastener, a sign that a prayer could be answered, and my lack of glasses produced a joke. I’d thought it was a ponytail tie.

But instead of hammering out sentences—writers can jump too swiftly into Getting This Done—I switched gears because I believe writers should explore directing their senses toward actions that plumb toward painful subjects, toward emotions that roar in protest if funneled too soon into the practical, obedient service of words. I’ve always done box-art, thanks to my adoration of Joseph Cornell and my father’s constant painting. He always delighted in a language of color.

Box-art deals in the blessed relief of abstractions, tints, and juxtaposed forms. In hours-long sessions, never pausing to “think,” I constructed nine boxes about my father. One is called “Writing the Lord’s Prayer on a Grain of Rice—A Kit,” and I have trouble even glancing at it because there’s a picture of him in his last week that nearly destroys me. But that’s one of the few concrete images in this series; the constructions are mostly instinctive and non-photographic. I moved with ease and fervor, producing collages and shadow boxes that magically held together.

And then I took a breath and wrote the story of my father’s death, called “Grief: A Coloring Book.”

Shadow box: Saudade
The artwork was not a sidetrack but a conduit to forcing my sorrow—how I miss him still!—to pool in a groundwater I could siphon upward, into words that connected to—expanded—those cryptic original notes. Writers do well to find off-center, nonverbal, active ways of letting reservoirs collect. His own practice of painting suggested my pathway; find whatever suits your own depth-work. I searched for items to fit the shadow boxes; I went out walking to find what might, for instance, symbolize his love of gardening. It is a lesson we forget at our desks: How vital it is to keep the blood flowing in our veins while we are yet alive; to stretch; to enjoy how non-narrative falls into place, whether with thread and glue or something else. After all, the world uses color and shape to infiltrate our sensibilities that proceed to color and shape our words.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Drawings on Juan Martinez's Office Door

In the third in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Juan Martinez, author of Best Worst American (Small Beer Press), talks about how he rewards himself for getting writing done by allowing himself to draw.



The goal is to cover the entirety of the office door with drawings, but there are rules, the most important of which is that I only get to draw on days I’ve revised or written. The other important rule is that I can only draw on Post-Its.

Also, I’m not allowed to draw anything that’s in any shape way or form related to what I’m writing. I did not know that was a rule until I drew something that was related to what I was writing and—the moment I was done doodling—the part of me in charge of these things knew I had crossed a line, and I crumpled that Post-It and tossed it into the blue “We Recycle” bin that the university supplied me with, and I drew this haunted pantsuit



which was not writing-related but 100% election-anxiety-related. I suppose a lot of the drawings are negotiating some anxiety or other. I drew this dude shortly before having to do a reading:



And I’ve noticed that a lot of my drawings attempt to mess with Chicago’s scale. I had never lived in anything as massive as Chicago before I moved here. So I put the Willis tower in a bag. I drew a blackbird that dwarfed the tower.



Those I can explain. I can also explain this cow:


I drew it on the day a cow broke free from a slaughterhouse and down a St. Louis street. Easy!

But I don’t know why I drew a giraffe driving a tank:


I’m pretty sure I meant to draw a goose driving the tank, and I messed up the neck and thought, Oh well, It’s a giraffe now. But even so. Why a goose? Why a tank?

And why did I want to re-do the Tischbein portrait of Goethe with Goethe as a handsome pig?


I love to draw. I’m not alone. Goethe himself was an inveterate sketcher, as I learned from the Italian Journey. We draw, all of us. You too, I suspect. We mostly draw or scrawl on the margins -- during meetings, maybe. Or maybe when taking notes or waiting for an appointment or as a final desperate measure to stave off boredom once our phone battery dies off and we’re still in the waiting room. We reward ourselves with these little creative acts. We all do it, I’m sure. And we all grow frustrated with our efforts, Goethe included: “I can see clearly what is good and what is even better, but as soon as I try to get it down, it somehow slips through my fingers and I capture, not the truth, but what I am in the habit of capturing.” Don’t we all? Goethe reminds himself of his steady improvement, however, of the power of practice.

The drawings on the office door do serve as a reminder and a tally. All art, all creative work, is built out of accretion and repetition. You do a little bit at a time. You write a scene. You tear a page and try something else. You see what sticks. You do your work for the day. It all adds up, you hope.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Henry Alley Finds Inspiration in His Archives

In the second in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Henry Alley, author of The Dahlia Field (Chelsea Station Editions), explores how going through his files feeds his creative process.


It is as though when beginning a piece, I need to take time off immediately and thrust myself onto the back roads of notebooks, old letters, post cards, family photographs, photostats of old newspapers and even phono albums, tapes, and CDs. I have often thought that a story is what happens when you are thinking about something else. After I start a piece, the main point is, I keep adding to the archive, because the distraction brings on those important, apparently irrelevant details and associated words, moods, and characters. 

When I was a child, my parents gave me a box Kodak camera. I still have the album I kept during that time, from about 1952 to about 1956.  In it, there is a snapshot of the Liberty Theatre in Yakima, Washington.  I took it while I was on one of my father's trips he made as a shoe salesman. In looking at the photo, I remembered seeing It Came from Outer Space at the time, even though the marquee featured another film. Eventually I found the newspaper ads for the film, which I clearly recalled from 1953—Xenomorphs from Another World. There was the thrill of having a boulder come out of the screen and into the row just in front of me. The movie was in 3-D, and was well acted and well made, and the plot, in my mind, began to parallel the one I had in mind for the story. I started to see that the distance-remembering narrator carried with him the sense of being alien to the world of standard male expectations and that the brother of his stepfather had been consumed by them. The narrator finds a reconciliation by switching from his actual father, who has gone mad with the militarism of the times, as well as the scars of World War II, to his new stepfather, who was once harsh and has learned how to be tender.

All this came up while I was doing research during the course of the story, "Girl on Ice," which is in my collection, The Dahlia Field. Once again I found the most important sleuthing happened in the midst of composition. It was like being on a treasure hunt. Eventually, the poster of the film of 1953 led me to look at certain newspapers in that era, ultimately pointing to the work of combat photographer Al Chang, who took the visionary photo of one soldier comforting another during the Korean War, which appears in the collection The Family of Man. The inexpressible tenderness and compassion caught in that photograph also became a kind of road map for how the narrator could work himself out of his conflict with his father and with the American macho that was part of his upbringing.
Korean War photo by Al Chang
One seed from an archive has led to other stories and in one particular case, a novel. I have all my saved letters—those I received and wrote myself—all organized in trays in my study, each tray spanning one to three years. When I was sorting through them one day, I found a letter from my mother written in 1964, when my father had had his first heart attack and was recovering in the hospital. He had been there some time. The letter was in response to my question about what she was doing—in other words how her days went. With decades separating me from that time, I found myself reading with great fascination the description of the life of a woman who had been engulfed for years in the concerns of others but now had something of a private world of her own—sleeping late, writing letters, helping out at the family shoe store, having dinner with friends, doing book-keeping, all while, of course, visiting my father. The recovery, after thirty years, of this disclosure of a realm of a woman newly out on her own prompted me to write my last novel, People Who Work, whose heroine finds, under similar circumstances, a sense of psychic and vocational direction in the late 1960s, as paralleled by her son, who is doing the same by struggling in school and coming out as a gay man. This letter thus inspired me to write about my favorite subject, which permeates The Dahlia Field as well—people who are just getting on their feet, no matter what their age.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sofia Samatar’s Ten Favorite "Quotes" About Writing

In the first in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Sofia Samatar, author of Tender (Small Beer Press), shares some pearls of wisdom.


“For me, it all begins with a notebook: it is the well I dip into for that first clear, cool drink.”
~ Rita Dove

“A writer looking for subject inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”
~ Annie Dillard

“As in everything, so in writing I am almost afraid of going too far. What can this be? Why? I restrain myself, as if I were tugging at the reins of a horse which might suddenly bolt and drag me who knows where. I protect myself. Why? For what? For what purpose am I saving myself?”
~ Clarice Lispector

“And why don't you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.”
~ Hélène Cixous

“I shall not finish my poem.
What I have written is so sweet
The flies are beginning to torment me.”
~ Hafez

“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft—nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”
~ Herman Melville

“I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My desire for perfection should prevent me from ever finishing anything; it should prevent me even from starting... This book represents my cowardice.”
~ Fernando Pessoa

“I write only for my shadow projected by the lamp onto the wall. I need to introduce myself to it.”
~ Sadeq Hedayat

“Writing is my health.”
~ Sylvia Plath

“Of course there is no more beautiful fate for a story than for it to disappear...”
~ Franz Kafka

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Video: The Story Prize Event on March 8 at The New School with Finalists Anna Noyes and Helen Maryles Shankman and Winner Rick Bass

Here's the video of The Story Prize event on March 8 at The New School. That night, the three finalists—Rick Bass, Anna Noyes, and Helen Maryles Shankman—read from and discussed their work on-stage. And at the culmination of the event, we announced the winner for books published in 2016: Rick Bass's For a Little While.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

(Real) News About The Story Prize Event

Finalists Rick Bass, Helen Maryles Shankman, and Anna Noyes
(photo @ Beowulf Sheehan)
Here are links to some of the news coverage that The Story Prize event on March 8 at The New School has garnered—none of it fake.

The San Francisco Chronicle
Library Journal
Poets & Writers
Publishers Weekly
Associated Press

That night, we announced Rick Bass's For a Little While as the winner for books published in 2016. He received $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl. The other two finalists, Anna Noyes for Goodnight, Beautiful Women and Helen Maryles Shankman for They Were Like Family to Me, each received $5,000.