series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Adam Gallari, author of We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now (Ampersand Books), discusses his writing process.
Have you had a mentor and who was it?
Yes. I was very, very lucky to meet Andrew Winer when I arrived at UC Riverside to pursue my MFA. He exudes professionalism, and I’m forever grateful that Andrew taught the first workshop I took in graduate school. He’s an imposing figure, about 6’4” with a stoic face and an almost Weimar Viennese air about him, and he’s incredibly meticulous about everything. During my first workshop session, he basically just sat there while I got picked apart by the rest of the class. I remember he nodded a few times, then, after everyone was getting ready to leave he came over to me and asked me to stay. I pretty much thought I was heading home, but he told me to disregard a lot of what was said, and that he was very much looking forward to working with me the next two years. Since then, I’ve been indebted to Andrew, to his approach to literature as an art form as well as his interest in my growth as both a writer and a person. If I ever got an “It's OK,” from him then I knew the piece had a chance in the real world. He’s one of the major reason’s this book exists.
What book made you want to become a writer?
Men Without Women by Hemingway had a profound effect on me when I first read it, though I don’t recall much of it now. I probably knew so little about the elements of craft and style that I can say it had little effect on me in a literary sense. But the feeling of knowledge and understanding contained therein struck me that I was being guided about by a human being (Hemingway) who didn’t necessarily understand anything but who was trying to figure it out through these people and these situations. That, more than anything else, really stuck with me. There’s a beautiful simplicity to Hemingway that masks how skillful a writer he really was. At his best, he’s almost a poet, and to read him aloud is to truly understand the ear he has for language. He’s anything but the “subject predicate object” writer that a lot of people, Nabokov included, claim him to be.
What, in your mind, makes a good short story collection?
I think that it’s hard to write a story collection that is truly successful, and nowadays there is a huge impetus on the collection as novel in parts, which really undermines what I believe a collection should be. A good story collection needs to be much tighter than a novel, which is unwieldy and can have dead moments, but a collection can’t take a story off, much less a moment off. In a way, each story should inform the next, and by the time you reach “Story Seven” you should be able to trace your way back through the first six to see how you’ve arrived there as well as have an inkling of whatever is going to come subsequently. There’s a trajectory to a good story collection that pushes you through it toward the denouement, and yet each story should allow you to linger in a specific place and moment. A truly good story collection could almost be compared to wandering Paris. You have Les Halles and Saint Germain and Montmartre individually, and they all have their own feel, identity, yet they are informed by the greater idea/ideal of what Paris in its entirety is. Take one of them away and you have a completely different Paris, with a different history and a different feel. Each piece of a collection is its own arrondissment where the people are of different classes, wealth and skill, but they are still all, ultimately, Parisian.
Who is your favorite living author and why?
Milan Kundera for two reasons. First, there is a weight that informs his work, one which is common to the writing of the Central Europeans, as they can deal with the heaviest, basest and most depressing aspects of humanity yet still imbue them with a sense of comedy that reminds you that sometimes all you can do is laugh. There is a depth to Kundera’s writing that intrigues me. Like Hemingway, I believe he writes less to tell a story and more to explore the ideas and notions of our experiences. The “Why” to the actions of our lives. I wish there was more of that in contemporary American fiction. The second reason I love Kundera is because his writing on writing and literature is incredible. He still believes in the conversation of letters, having an interactive relationship with the text and searching for the progressions through history to see how we have arrived at this present point. I’ve learned so much about the mental process of text and literary context from his work that I’m more indebted to him than anyone else, even if stylistically we’re miles apart.