Friday, October 31, 2014

Elizabeth Eslami Embraces the Mess

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Elizabeth Eslami, author of Hibernate (Ohio State University Press), discusses the process of writing and the aftermath of publication.

If you build inside a garage, you tend to make a mess. An office is no different. Never mind the ergonomic chair or the ceramic frog with pencils sticking out of its mouth. When you publish a book, there’s sawdust everywhere. A lot of “no” from people whose refusal to believe in you matters, a lot of “no” from people whose refusal to believe doesn’t matter, not in the least. The mess of all the revisions you’ve made, all the books that have sprung to life while you’ve been waiting—books that have plopped right out of people, the exact way my mother once said one of our neighbors in South Carolina gave birth by accident, the kid dropped right out of her when she went to squat—this mess, which, by now, is three feet deep and spans the floor is the thing that is most surprising about publishing a book.

No one ever thinks of the mess.

What they’re thinking of is the end, when the edits have stopped and you’re drinking orange juice in your rented brown shoebox in Oregon and the dog is going nuts because the UPS man has come with a box of books. Author’s copies. A box of dreams, but that seems awfully romantic when you’ve got orange pulp in your teeth and the dog is up on the couch now, lunging at the window, which you’ve tried to break her of, but dammit if she doesn’t use that nose-smeared window to deter the UPS man, who is going to leave that box on the mat because he values his life.
UPS man: Here he comes

The first book, the first time, the first box—you weep. If you don’t have children, people wink and say the book is your child now, finally birthed into a world that smells of motor oil and paint thinner and grass clippings. Even without children, you imagine that writing a book and having a child are probably nothing alike. There’s no reason for the analogy, to make ink into blood or paper into flesh. The world is plenty big for distinct pains and pleasures.

Now you have published a book. To be read and ignored, shredded and praised, bought and sold and remaindered, ARCs found two years later, their half covers flapping open in used bookstores like someone’s desperate wave before you walk away. The one thing you never imagined in all those years of submitting and getting rejected and saying words like “mutual exclusivity policy” is that you wouldn’t be working on this book anymore.

But now you’re not. And you won’t ever again. You’ll talk about that story as the years go by, but that talk will begin to feel far away, as if your characters are friends from grade school whom you think of fondly, though you’re not quite sure what it was that endeared them to you, what you did together other than make bracelets out of clover and pull spitballs from each other’s hair. You shared minor trauma, you know that much, crotch falls off balance beams, bloody noses. Who are these people now?

You have new characters with the second book, ones you know you’ll one day say good-bye to. How will you know how to do it the second time around? Have you learned a single thing about how?
The second book, the second time, the second box—the UPS man leaves in your garage while you’re tending to a basement flooded with sewage. It’s a different rental this time, in Connecticut, where foxes sometimes creep up into the yard and put their ridiculously small paws against the rubber trashcans. Where everyone is afraid of high taxes and rabid raccoons and your neighbor cuts the grass with his shirt off, his belly a purple cabbage in the summer.

Here comes the UPS man, all the way up into the garage with your books. Author’s copies. The dog is too old to bark, to see much of anything.

That’s okay, because by now you embrace the mess. The impermanence of dreams, the fading smell of glue. By now you know how to use a shop vac to suck up gray water, which is the romantic name for water after you shower, which has flooded all those old notebooks where you wrote about wanting to publish your book. Gray water. You’ve learned that much, even if you haven’t learned what you’re supposed to do after you publish, how you’re supposed to say goodbye for the second time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Kyle Minor's Unwritten Time Travel Story

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Kyle Minor, author of Praying Drunk (Sarabande Books), lays out an elaborate fantasy that he couldn't work out as a story.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
I had a recurring and embarassingly self-centered fantasy about a special kind of time machine that would allow me to place the sum total of my by-adulthood life experience, knowledge, memory, muscle memory, and consciousness into my baby brain in the year 1976, not long after birth.

In this fantasy, I didn't have any noble aims. I didn't mean to use my future knowledge to bring about world peace or ward off disaster or alert people to soon-arriving trouble (with one exception, about which more in a minute), on the theory that people are going to be self-destructive one way or another, and, besides, most of us know that the thing we're about to do is going to undo us, but we do it anyway, because we want to do it, consequences be damned.

For about two years I tried to write a story out of this awful time machine idea. I developed very specific plans, most of them involving the entertainment industry, which I'd reach good and early by practicing the piano and the violin every waking hour as soon as I was big enough to pick up either. Around age four, I'd set up a concert, call all the television stations in Palm Beach County, beg them for their tapes afterwards, send the tapes to the Johnny Carson show, try to get booked the same night as John Lennon. Timing would be imperative, because I'd mean not only to get Lennon's attention, but also to avert his death.

And, here's the thing: I'd know all these great songs, and it wouldn't be plagiarism, would it, to write songs that would otherwise exist in the future but which in present time hadn't yet been written?

In the Green Room at The Tonight Show, John Lennon would stop by to see the curiosity, the freak show, maybe be kind to the child in person but have a perverse laugh later at my expense. But when he got in there, I'd say: "Wait a minute. Listen to my song. Then I'd hit him with something great, then another, then another. Then he'd say, let's go on together, you and me. Let's do these songs."

Johnny would wave us over to his chair. He'd ask how long we'd been playing together, and Lennon would say about two hours, but isn't this the beginning of something good? This is like a thing I remember a long time ago in Liverpool, with a kid named Paul.

John Lennon: Imagine
We'd start writing together, after that. He'd sign me to his publishing company, and set me up with my parents in an apartment in Manhattan. At some point in early December I'd throw a temper-tantrum, demand we immediately fly to Paris and record, explain this urgency was the central thing in my life, tell him I was dying, whatever it might take to get him out of New York before December 8, get him away from the Dakota Hotel and the evil that lurked just outside.

You can imagine the rest. First the songs, then the records, then TV, movies, a life of making things not terribly different in kind from the life I have now, but very different in terms of access and means and scope and duration. Instead of spending my childhood at the fundamentalist Christian school that was founded in large part to keep the white kids away from the black kids, and instead of spending my weekends at the Southern Baptist Church where the traveling preachers played Beatles records backwards and suggested they be burned, and instead of spending my nights staring out the window at the sky, hoping it wouldn't turn red, that Christ wouldn't return with the sword, command the graves be ripped open, leave so many of us behind to face the reign of terror by the eastern European Anti-Christ, while the U.N. helicopters chased us over the mountains as we fled the guillotine—a thing I'd seen more than once in movies projected in 16mm on New Year's Eve in the church Fellowship Hall, while sitting at tables filled with turkey stuffing and homemade banana pudding . . . Instead of all that, I'd spend my childhood fighting to complicate those stories, and making music, and learning to draw and animate and fill up real life with an imaginary and hyper-real version of life I could create and invent with all my waking hours and days and weeks and months and years, and generally throwing up my middle finger at the specter of death, even though, then as now, it would have been coming, it would have been everywhere.

It was a terrible story because it was an implausible story, and it wasn't an implausible story because of the time machine only. It was an implausible story because it was a wish-fulfillment fantasy, another fruitless run at coming to terms less than complicatedly with what William Styron called "the unfinished business of childhood."

It was my mother, a person who had never before encouraged me to write anything other than wish-fulfillment fantasies, who finally helped make things clear. I told her about my time machine story, the music lessons and the television tapes and The Tonight Show and John Lennon.

"Your time machine would never work out the way you wanted it to work out," she said.

"Why?" I said.

"Because I wouldn't have let you do any of those things," she said.

"Why not?" I said.

"Because I don't believe that any of those things are good things," she said. "The music, the movies, the television, the transgressive stories. The things you want are wrong, and people shouldn't want them."

If I had decided, then, to write the time machine story honestly, then maybe I was one beat away. Maybe she had given me my ending. For the first time, something in the story made the story true.

But I didn't want to write the story anymore, because by then it had become yet another iteration, another version, of the story I had already spent ten years and two books telling, the ever-wallowing in the grievances of childhood, in the desire to do it all again, make it better this time. As I thought about her words, their harsh closure, I began to feel a small and growing freedom. There would be no changing the past, and the only thing left to stretch out into was the future.

The time had come to find a new subject.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Halina Duraj's Ruthless Story-Brain

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Halina Duraj, author of The Family Cannon (Augury Books), discusses how she unintentionally appropriated someone else's story.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it? 
I wrote the title story of my collection, The Family Cannon, in graduate school at the University of Utah. My story was about two neighbors in a property dispute; I’d been working on it for months, but I knew it lacked the punch it needed in the middle. A few nights before it was due, I sat down to work on it and delighted myself by putting a cannon in it. I congratulated myself on inventing this detail, which fit my story so well, adding exactly the heightened drama it needed and emphasizing the theme of family story telling, the family “canon,” emerging across all of the stories I was working on at the time.

The workshop went well, but afterward, a friend and fellow student asked if he could talk to me for a minute. He told me he hadn’t been planning on using the cannon anecdote he’d told me recently in one of his own stories, but he would have appreciated it if I’d asked him if I could have it. You know, writer-to-writer courtesy, he’d said. I had no idea what he was talking about. And then I did. Suddenly, I remembered vividly that he’d had told me the story a couple of weeks earlier—we’d been out to drinks with a group of other students. Maybe somebody had asked me what I was working on, and I said something about neighbors, and my friend told the anecdote about two neighbors sharing a property line on some land in Colorado. One neighbor was so angry about something the other neighbor had done that he situated a cannon, a real, working cannon, in his yard and aimed it at the offending neighbor’s house. I remembered laughing, and thinking about the anecdote’s resonance with my own story. But by the time I’d sat down to work on the story a few days later, I’d completely forgotten my friend’s anecdote—I’d forgotten that my friend had told it, and I’d forgotten that it ever existed outside of my own brain.
Cannon: A beautiful image

I had wondered, as I wrote the cannon into my story, where it had come from. I’d been so pleased with myself when I invented it. Oh, the muse, I’d thought. She does come through sometimes.

When my friend confronted me, I was appalled at myself, and totally mortified. I apologized sincerely and repeatedly and with horror. My friend was gracious, and remains so to this day. I’d like to think it wasn’t me, forgetting what I’d heard so my writer-self could invent and create rather than remember and steal, but I can’t deny it: It was me.

When my shame burned off, I marveled a little at my mind’s chutzpah, how it interpolated that anecdote so effectively that I believed it to be my very own. It could have been my own story, and I must have recognized that immediately—as the words were coming out of my friend’s mouth, my subconscious was already rewriting them, already changing this and adjusting that, a tuck here, a pinch there, so that it fit my characters.

The experience taught me how much of writing is beyond my control, how a different operator is at the helm of my story-brain. If I hadn’t forgotten that that story belonged to my friend, I don’t think I would have felt brave enough to use it; I doubt I would have even considered asking permission. I don’t even like to ask someone to pass the mustard if it’s at the other end of the table. Whoever’s in charge of my story-brain bypassed my inhibitions in service of the story I was writing. I’m grateful, I guess, though embarrassed still, at my story-brain’s ruthlessness, and I wonder, from time to time, whether I’ll ever say something interesting enough to qualify for theft by someone else’s story-brain, amnesiac or not.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Meet The Story Prize Judges: Arsen Kashkashian, Noreen Tomassi, and Laura van den Berg

We're pleased to announce our judges for 2014: Arsen Kashkashian, bookseller at the Boulder Book Store in Colorado; Noreen Tomassi, Executive Director of The Center for Fiction in New York; and award-winning author Laura van den Berg. They will choose the winner of The Story Prize from among the three books we choose as finalists. This is our eleventh slate of judges and, since our inception, we have included participants from a variety of fields associated with short fiction: writers, editors, booksellers, librarians, critics, journalists, and academics.

We also have a firm date for The Story Prize event, at which we'll announce the winner that Arsen, Noreen, and Laura will choose: March 4, 2015, at the auditorium at The New School. As always, the event is open to the public. We'll have more information when we announce our three finalists in January.

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.