Monday, September 12, 2011

Adam Ross on Orbiting and Repeating

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen (Alfred A. Knopf) discusses his writing routine, the order of the stories in his collection, and other topics.
Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?
I really struggled with the endings of both “The Rest of It” and “The Suicide Room,” and even as I write this I have two better endings for both, my original endings, and serves as an important reminder: Beware of Afterthoughts.

What is your writing process like?
Schedule-wise, I’m a morning guy. I rise very early and, under optimal circumstances, write for three hours, take a break—eat something, exercise—then hit it again for a two-hour session, being sure to stop when I’m pistol hot. I try to go to bed thinking about where I’ll start in the morning. Sleeping on that problem tends to yield great results.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
There was discussion with my editor about starting with “Middleman”—the story with the youngest protagonist—and ending with “Futures,” who is the oldest, most fallen protagonist in the collection. I chose to begin with “Futures” because Applelow’s revelation, that doing good is the only thing we can control in life, is something that all the subsequent protagonists forget or struggle to recall in each subsequent story. The collection ends with the title story, which is a sort of “The Lady and the Tiger” bit of business but makes the reader analyze his or own feelings about the choice the protagonist is faced with at the end. In this way, the process of reading the collection sequentially reflects my own views about the limits of morality and art and the circular nature of life. As Detective Sheppard says in Mr. Peanut, “We orbit, we repeat.” So, too, do the characters in “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?
I talk with my wife about conceptual stuff pre-drafting and will occasionally read her a strong paragraph to trick her into thinking everything’s going swimmingly. But I don’t seek feedback until a draft is complete and that’s from a wide group of readers. Three are former students; one is my agent; another is an old buddy from graduate school. There’s a former professor in there. Another is a professional writer. It gives me something like a consensus and, if I think there’s a problem somewhere, this committee usually pinpoints it.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be?
Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love is, to me, the ideal short story collection because there isn’t, in my opinion, a weak story in the bunch. Having said that I hate what I just said, because collections tend to be like albums and it’s a rare thing that a listener loves every song on a record, or a reader every story in the bunch. What I’m trying to say is that I’d happily re-read every story in that book ad infinitum, like I might a favorite novel.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
The first was actually a comic: John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s New X-Men. After that, it was Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Those stories took over my life, set me dreaming.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
This fall, I’ll once again be writing my column, Mondo Nashville, for our fair city’s alternative weekly, The Nashville Scene. It concerns local oddballs and oddities, the people, places, and things you’ve always wondered about but were too afraid to ask. It keeps me connected to the place where I live. How it will inform my future work is unknown, but I guarantee it somehow will, because I’ll meet lots of interesting people who’ll tell me their stories; and stories, in my experience, breed other stories.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
No, I’ve never avoided the revision stage, never had a story emerge from my brain as whole as Athena from Zeus’s skull, but I did write “The Suicide Room” in a single sitting, one of the very rare instances when it seemed as if was taking dictation from my imagination so fast I almost couldn’t keep up.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
“In the Basement” describes a character’s life from college through middle age. It’s a great question, by the way, and so I’ll refer readers to James Salter’s great short story “Twenty Minutes,” which describes a character’s whole life in a twenty-minute span.