Monday, July 18, 2011

Erika Dreifus Opens Strong

In the 10th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Erika Dreifus, author of Quiet Americans (Last Light Studio), explains how she put together her collection.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in  your collection? 
I'd learned along the way that it is wise to open a collection with a particularly strong story, so I placed what I (and several trusted others) considered to be one of my "best" stories first. I was also guided by a roughly chronological thread. The first three stories are set before or during World War II (the first story extends to the immediate postwar era), and the last three stories take place in the first several years of 21st century. The middle story—the fourth of the seven—happens to be set pretty much at a midpoint, in 1972.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
I need a full draft, that's for sure. I have five or six writer friends I turn to most often for initial feedback, but I don't necessarily share all new work with everyone in that group. I try to be mindful of what's happening in everyone's lives—sometimes, it's just not the right time to ask one or another person for this immense favor—and some readers seem better suited to particular manuscripts than others.

Then, too, if I'm writing a story that is inspired not by something I've personally experienced or overheard or read about, but rather by an incident or situation I've gleaned from the life of a friend or family member, I typically send a draft to that friend or family member first. I'm working on a story right that falls into this category. It's much easier—less "scary"—to send something out to fellow writers for a critique. I can tell that I'm delaying the inevitable need to email this story to the person who should see it next.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
I love the response that one of your previous blog contributors. Charles Baxter, gave to this question: "Interesting characters, intriguing situations, beautiful sentences. Hauntings."

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
Two that I like to mention are Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I read first as a preteen, and La vie devant soi, by Romain Gary, which I was fortunately assigned during a college semester in France.  (The latter was published under the name Emile Ajar and translated by Ralph Manheim as The Life Before Us:  ("Madame Rosa"). It's probably signficant that as different as they are, both of these books feature young protagonists who aspire to be writers.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
I earned a PhD in history, so it's not surprising that I'm quite fond of research, especially document-based research. The kinds of research that I've pursued have changed over time. As recently as the mid-1990s, when I was beginning to write fiction, the Internet wasn't the resource that it is today. Academic researchers simply had to spend great chunks of time in libraries and archives, and I'm so grateful for those research experiences. It was in an overseas archive, in fact, that I came across the documents that inspired by first (albeit still unpublished) novel. And one of the best things about living in Cambridge, Mass., as long as I did was my access to the Harvard University libraries. That said, I'm equally grateful for the online databases and other resources that help me locate everything from historical newspaper articles to full bibliographies on the subjects in which my fiction is grounded.
Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Never. What's that like?

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
The second story in Quiet Americans, "Matrilineal Descent," which appeared first in TriQuarterly, takes the reader from 1888 through World War One, with a final flash-forward to 1940. That's probably the longest span I've covered in a single story.