Note: Story Prize finalists Wells Tower, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Victoria Patterson will read from their work and discuss it onstage on March 3 at The New School. At the end of evening we will announce the winner of the $20,000 top prize. Tickets are available from SmartTix.
How long was Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned in the making, and what were some of the obstacles you encountered along the way?
Soup to nuts, I guess the writing took about seven years, and I suppose the chief obstacle was the traditional one: the knotty problem of figuring out how to make readers care, in a short space, about people who don't exist. Another weird problem I had while I was writing the stories was that I was beginning a career in long-form magazine work at the time, which caused some problems with the fiction. For a large-ish magazine story, you go spend a few weeks reporting, generate a huge volume of notes and then cook the whole mess down to a handful of scenes and contextual arguments, etc. For a while, I was trying to do the same thing with short stories. I'd write huge, meandering drafts, sometimes upwards of a hundred pages, thinking I could somehow cook them down into something brief and meaningful. It never worked. For me, short stories have to begin by cramming a humble idea into a small space. If ruptures and herniations occur, so be it, but if I start by giving the story a lot of large, vague leeway, it usually turns into something dumb, bland and vile.
What do you like about the short story form? Is it the form that comes most naturally to you as a writer?
I respect the form for cutting us so little slack. Readers often approach a short story suspiciously.They know they're being asked to embark on a brief relationship, one that won't give them days or weeks of enagement, as a novel does. A "Why should I care about you? This is just a quick fling" sort of deal, which leaves us with the challenge of devising stories that matter much, and quickly, without contrivances or bad emotional syrups. You can't waste time or language in a short story. I like that rigor. Keeps you honest.
I don't know that it's a form that comes naturally to me. I still find it extraordinarily difficult. But it's been a great laboratory, a fine medium for an apprenticeship. Starting with short stories, I was able to make lots of useful mistakes in a short span of years. Unlike a novel, you can throw away a short story and it doesn't break your heart.
Is there someone you show your work to first? At what stage do you do this, and what kind of feedback are you looking for?
I often show work to my younger brother, Joe, who is a shrewd reader, and whom, because he is my brother, I trust not to stop being my friend if I show him something awful. Often, I don't show him, or anyone, drafts until I've done everything I can to them, and I need an impartial diagnosis of whether to continue the steeplechase or make for the glue factory.
What’s next for you?