Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Doug Dorst Chases Away His Inner Perfectionist

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Doug Dorst, author of The Surf Guru (Riverhead Books), talks about getting feedback from colleagues, doing research, and compulsively revising.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
I’ll look for feedback once I have a sense that the elements of the story (the beginning and the ending, the characters’ voices and arcs, the POV and tone) are well enough in place that, regardless of how well or how poorly I’ve executed the thing, my reader will understand what I’m shooting for and help me figure out how best to do it.

In the last few years, my wife has been my first reader, although I still lean heavily on my friends from grad school and other workshops. This is a point that I don’t think gets enough attention in the arguments about the pros and cons of MFA programs—that even if the workshops themselves aren’t going to help you (although they helped me tremendously), they’ll still offer you a great opportunity to build a long-lasting network of trusted readers/confidants/friends/co-conspirators who know how to read your stuff and can help you get your stories to succeed the way you want them to.

What book made you want to become a writer?
There have been many books that have inspired me to write, probably starting with The Phantom Tollbooth, which I fell in love with in fourth grade. More recently? T.C. Boyle’s World’s End is particularly close to my heart. I read it during my third year of law school, which wasn’t a very happy time, and I really responded to the joy I sensed in his language and in his storytelling. It wasn’t long after I finished it that I decided to blow off studying for exams, dig out some old stories, revise the hell out of them, and apply to writing programs.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
Remember when you were a kid and it was your job just to learn stuff? I loved that. The adult world tends not to allow us such luxuries. As a writer, though, I have a built-in excuse to dive down any rabbit-hole of knowledge that I stumble across because I might be able to make a story out of it. I love that.

A few of the stories in the collection were research-intensive. For “Twelve Portraits of Dr. Gachet,” I did a lot of reading about Van Gogh’s final months and used other sources to make sure I got the period details right. For “Dinaburg’s Cake,” I sat down with Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake in San Francisco, who very kindly answered all of my questions and showed me around her kitchen.

The two science stories—“Splitters” (plant taxonomy) and “Little Reptiles” (herpetology)—required a lot of research. In the latter case, it was the research that drove the story; I got on a reptile kick and learned all kinds of cool things, then sat down and riffed on some of the details about the critters that I found most fascinating. I had no idea, at the outset, where the story was going to go or what it was going to be. It took a while for the shape to present itself, but I had a lot of fun in the process.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
If you don’t count flashes-forward and -back, about a year (“Dinaburg’s Cake”). I’ve never written one of those whole-lifetime-in-a-story stories. I’d like to try it at some point; it seems like a good challenge, since my default position is to see stories in short sequences or in collages of moments.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
No, and I don’t expect to. I’m a compulsive reviser, for one thing. For another, I’ve found that the only way I can get a new story out in the first place is by telling my inner perfectionist to piss off and writing a really, really, really bad and rough first draft—so bad and so rough that there’s no way anyone could mistake it for a finished product.

The closest I’ve come was with “Jumping Jacks,” which (not coincidentally) is only a few pages long. Stephen Elliott had asked me if I wanted to contribute anything to an anthology of political fiction that he was putting together. I did want to, but I didn’t have anything suitable and the deadline was only a few days away. I wrote the first draft very quickly, did a few rounds of edits, then sent it off. I knew the piece still had some jagged edges, but I decided that those edges suited the story, which is more of a blast of emotion than a traditional Point-A-to-Point-B narrative. When it came time to polish up the stories for the collection, I left this one pretty much as-is.