Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Patricia Henley on the Rational Part of the Writing Process

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patrica Henley, author of Other Heartbreaks (Engine Books), talks about her approach to writing and what she looks for in a short story collection

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
Three of the stories in Other Heartbreaks are linked. They were extracted from a novel I wrote in the mid-oughts. I wanted the stories linked, but I wanted them to work as stand-alone pieces. Each one needed a small narrative arc that finished well. “Emma Compartmentalizes in Ireland” required the most re-writes. Echoes of what happens to Emma over time in the novel needed to happen in a short time-span. Emma’s story is sort of a hero’s journey. And Emma has to choose or not choose the wisdom of a crone who presents her with new opportunities for growth. This sort of problem solving is one thing I love about writing – the rational part of the process. There was also the challenge of erasure with the novel material – how much may be erased while still infusing it with the richness of life, the implication of a world off the page?

What is your writing process like? 
I start many stories, like a painter keeping a sketchbook. It might take years for a short story to gain momentum and beckon to be finished. “Kaput” was begun five or six years ago with the news of a shocking event at the back-to-land community where I lived for a few years in the seventies. I kept trying to make the story fit into that era. This past spring while traveling on the Yucatan Peninsula, I saw that the characters were now ex-pats, living in Mexico. With so much time having elapsed between the events and telling, I was able to use that distanced remembering narrator voice. How the past informs the present is always fascinating to me. When that new layer was added, the story came together quickly. At last! Patience is required to make a memorable story.

I am reminded of “Our Story Begins” by Tobias Wolff. The young writer in the story realizes that writing is bit like moving through fog. You see only a little in front of you, but you have to proceed. Eventually a little more is revealed.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
A good short story collection gives me perspective about what it means to be human. It might make me laugh or it might break my heart. It makes me curious about the lives of the characters. Strictly to myself, like a back-fence gossip, I become an active participant in the making of the fiction beyond the small, often misunderstood, moments in the lives of the characters, the meaning sometimes still murky for them. I like a story that suggests an entire life before and after. And I love being transported ever so briefly to another place. I just finished reading a terrific long story by Rob Davidson set on Carriacou, from his new collection, The Farther Shore. The economy with which he brings the place alive is something to behold.

What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
 I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn once a year between the ages of eight and fourteen. It had something in common with The Secret Gardenanother book I read over and over as a girl. Both novels have strong girl protagonists who go up against adversity and triumph.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
 I research places and settings. “Kaput” was easier to write for having been in Puerto Morelos in March. The wind, the French-Canadian toddlers on the beach, blues night at the Chinese restaurant – all were gifts given me by the place. The linked stories in Other Heartbreaks were researched in Pilsen, a Latino neighborhood in Chicago. Pilsen has been a port of entry for immigrants to America for a very long time. I like to think that my Czech ancestors might have lived there when it was home to Eastern Europeans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A Dominican friend made arrangements for me to stay with the friars at the Dominican priory in Pilsen while researching the neighborhood. They were wonderful hosts, giving me a roof over my head and meals but also telling me stories of the neighborhood and introducing me to locals. I had not been to Mass in a while, but I went and was enchanted by the offering of the infants after Sunday Mass at San Pio. That appears in “Ephemera.”