Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ted Gilley's Collision of Ideas

In the 71st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ted Gilley, author of Bliss (University of Nebraska Press), discusses process, feedback, and influences.

What is your writing process like?
Usually for a story to get started, two or more ideas need to collide; I seldom get started with a single idea. Two ideas colliding throws off sparks and leads (I think) to more interesting outcomes and to more stuff happening; gets my brain going, anyway. When I don't define a problem at the outset, I'm in trouble; I need to understand where the pain--or at least in one case, the pleasure—is located before I get going, or I'll just go around in circles. I then bang away until I hit a wall, which usually—not always—happens about halfway through, and then there's trouble. A story of mine can sit completely stalled for a long time, and it's dreadful. But occasionally you get a gift. For example, I once had a story come to me almost complete in a dream. I woke up, wrote down the first sentence of the story, and went back to sleep. In the following week, the story wrote itself. There's usually not that much fun involved, though.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?
At a late stage, and I need to be feeling pretty good about what I've got. My idea, lame though it may seem, is that if you don't know what you've got, you have more than one problem. I look for someone who is more or less disinterested in my story, fiction generally, or even in me. I don't look for another writer, and I definitely don't want a "here's what I would do" response. A smart, disinterested reader is all you need. I'm not interested in writing groups, so that's out. My wife Ivy is a good reader for me, and frequently points out things I hadn't thought to question.

What book made you want to become a writer? 
Happy New Year, Herbie and Other Stories, by Evan Hunter. This was Hunter's only story collection. He had just hit it big (or was about to) with The Blackboard Jungle, but I didn't know that. It was 1963, and I was thirteen. The strange thing was that I didn't seek the book out; I'd never heard of Evan Hunter. But this paperback with its evocative title was lying in my otherwise empty locker at the beginning of the school year. A bolt out of the blue! I devoured the unapproved, unrecommended, un-high-school stories. The title story has retained its power, though the rest of the collection looks less strong to me now. But at the time, I was bowled over by these somewhat gritty stories. It was as if I could feel Hunter working; in some intuitive way, I knew what he was doing, and I knew I could do it, too.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I play electric bass in a (mostly) jazz trio. Writing, of course, is solitary, whereas the music is definitely not just about me but about the other two guys. I have to listen as much as I play; I have to be moved, and at times I have to push. I have to surrender to the music—and I'm sure that sounds trite, but it's accurate. They say in AA that in order to win, you first have to give up. Playing jazz is something like that. Writing is something like that, too: You give up while holding on tight.

Who is your favorite living author and why?
Richard Ford. No writer I know of writes with all his senses up and running the way Ford does. Reading Independence Day is like living in Frank Bascombe's skin—and it's not always a pleasant experience. Ford spares no one, leaves nothing out, misses nothing, never fails to praise what is praiseworthy, and comes down hard when he must. But my question is, who said Leo Tolstoy was dead?

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Kind of. I wrote a very brief story (a thousand words) called "All Hallows' Eve" in about two hours and didn't do more than tinker with it afterward. However, the closing line bugged me for months, and finally I changed it. I think I changed one word in it, and then it clicked. So I guess I've flunked this question.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
The composer Alec Wilder was my mentor. He read my poems back when I first started writing, at about 25, and while he certainly sometimes liked what I was doing, he didn't throw praise around; that wasn't the point. But he encouraged me strongly, and more important, he treated me as an equal—and he was a pro, after all. I knew I was not his equal—far from it! But his words, and the way he lived, put the steel in me. We lived on different coasts but corresponded for several years. Wilder was a very old-fashioned gentleman but his work was up to the minute. He introduced me to some modern poets (on paper) as well as to writers like Cheever, John O'Hara, and Joyce Cary, the superb Irish novelist.