Thursday, November 3, 2011

Stacey Levine on Stories That Engage Many Muscles

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stacey Levine, author of The Girl with Brown Fur (Starcherone Books), discusses finding inspiration in a David Lynch film, making soup, and the guidance she received from a butoh dancer. 
Describe one of the stories in your collection. 
My story “Parthenogenetic Grandmother" was inspired by a David Lynch short--it’s a visually breathtaking film that has always stayed with me. In my story, a 21-year-old woman meets her grandmother for the first time via a quasi-supernatural occurrence in which the old woman is born in a forest. With this, the young woman ponders other family members, the current state of her family relationships, and the requirement of her own independence. The grandmother soon reveals herself to be not-so loving or well behaved and the story describes their power struggle.

What is your writing process like?
Like many writers, I worry about how to fill up rafts of pages. So I don’t create whole first drafts; instead, I keep files of notes, lines, and small scenes, then slowly expand these into longer scenes, which I eventually link and impose with the story’s conflicts, tensions, and stakes. In short, I move from small to large.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
A friend said I should pay attention to creating a strong first and last line for the book, which was a great idea. 

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
Everyone’s working and scrambling all the time, so I usually ask editors when the work is mostly done.
What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
Many muscles should be engaged. The stories should have structures and sequences, whether ultralight or more conventional, an attention to original language, and a sense of humanity, poetry, and mystery. The work should approach the moments that are almost impossible to articulate.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and Lispector’s Family Ties.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
For the story “Parthenogenetic Grandmother,” I read a psychoanalytic case study, from which I pulled and paraphrased some lines. For the story “And You Are?” I paraphrased some of Heraclitus’ Fragments which were resonant for me, and I collaged them into the story. For a few years, I had a part time job transcribing a neurologist’s clinical and surgical notes. Some of the doctor’s summative patient histories were fascinating and also comical to the ear. I compiled lots of these in a hyperbolic way in “The Kidney Problem.” Maybe the best research, though, is everyday life.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I like to cook. There’s that impulse to transform feeling into language or soup.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
Who would do that? An eighth grader! :)

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
When I was really young in Eugene, Oregon, a butoh dancer took a group of aspiring musicians, dancers, and writer friends under his wing. I was one of them. There was no schedule to our lives; we would just hang around. The butoh dancer would say things to me like: “You must write every day, even if you are exhausted. You should observe animals--it’s better to watch rabbits than to go to classes at school. You must eat everything on your plate to show respect for your food, just as you respect your own body, art, and the written word.” It was a bit pugnacious even at the time, but valuable. His remarks caused me to muster some discipline.