Monday, August 9, 2010

Becky Hagenston on Serial Killers, Naming Cats, and Half Magic

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Becky Hagenston, author of Strange Weather (Press 53), answers a few questions about her work.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
In “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow,” a couple of serial killers adopt a cat (he belonged to one of their victims) and then can’t decide what to name it. The protagonist has no qualms about killing people (or letting her creepy boyfriend kill them), but she feels very protective of this abandoned cat, and it’s very, very important to her that they come up with a name that suits him, so they can keep him.

This story, like many of my stories, is a combination of two ideas that didn’t work on their own. The first idea came about when my husband and I adopted a black cat and spent days trying to figure out what to call him: Should we name him after a person? A drink? A candy? But that would make a terribly boring story. The other idea was about serial killers—something I’d never tried before because it seemed like it would be too easy to lapse into clichés and gun battles and police chases. But when I put these ideas together—serial killers adopt a cat—it somehow worked. I also discovered that the fate of the cat and of the protagonist are tied together in ways she doesn’t fully understand until the end of the story.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Many years ago, I stayed up all night, buzzed on caffeine and inspiration, just scribbling away (not even using a computer), got a few hours of sleep, woke up and re-read what I’d written. And it was complete and total crap. It wasn’t even salvageable for parts.

I need to work in stages--slow but steady. I’m usually working on three or four things at once, all at different stages of completion. When I get stuck on revising, I’ll go back to something I’m still figuring out. When I get stuck on that, I’ll move on to copy-editing something that’s almost finished. The fastest I’ve ever written a successful story is probably two weeks. And I once started a story in 1994 and about 50 drafts later, in 2009, it was finally publishable. But I also know when it’s okay to give up on a story and move on to something else!

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work, and from whom?
I’m usually ready to give a story to my husband and my trusted-reader-friends after about four drafts. If I tell someone about a story before I’ve written it, I probably won’t write it. If I give someone a first draft of a story, I probably won’t finish it. If I’m feeling totally unsure of what I’m doing, and my trusted-reader-friend says, “I think this should happen instead,” I may just give up. I have to be completely stuck/almost happy with a story before I can give it to someone. I have to be certain of what I hope is happening—and then I need others to tell me if it actually is.

What book made you want to become a writer?
When I was about eight or nine, my mother gave me her old copy of Half Magic, by Edward Eager, about four siblings who find a magic coin that grants only half of a wish. It takes the children a while to figure this out, and some ridiculous, hilarious things happen while they do: They wish their cat could talk, and it talks nonstop for thirty seconds, then falls silent for thirty seconds, then talks nonstop for thirty seconds, etc. They hit upon the brilliant plan of wishing the cat would say Music, hoping it will only say Mew—but the cat starts screaming, “Sick sick sick!” That book just utterly delighted me—and I wanted to create that delight for myself. So my first stories were about children who discover magic things and try to figure out the rules. I read all of Edward Eager’s books over the course of a summer, then E. Nesbit’s—so maybe more important than making me want to write, Half Magic is the book that made me obsessed with reading. I re-read it every few years, and I still love it.