Sunday, December 11, 2011

Amina Gautier on Giving Readers Freedom of Choice

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Amina Gautier, author of At-Risk (University of Georgia Press), compares reading a short story collection to listening to a record.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
At-Risk features ten stories that are roughly divided between telling the stories of the adolescents and teenagers who “make it” and the ones who do not. Given this rather clear demarcation, I could have very easily arranged the stories in alternating fashion. I chose not to do this, finding it too easy and too insulting to the reader, too much like shoving something down the readers’ throats. Readers of literary fiction are far too savvy for any such manipulation. I wanted the reader to have the same freedom of choice I enjoy when I read the short story collections of others. What I chose to do was provide a “frame” for the collection by using the two stories in the collection with recurring characters as bookends for the other eight stories. In “The Ease of Living,” the readers see the return of Kiki and Stephen, two boys the readers meet in “Yearn,” a story whose action takes place four years earlier.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
I cannot attribute the desire to complete books but to individual stories. Although there are too many stories to acknowledge, there are two clear standouts. Reading Toni Cade Bambara’s “Gorilla, My Love” at an early age showed me a narrator who looked like me and expanded my thinking by showing me that that which was familiar to me could indeed be the subject of great literature. Secondly, when I was a sophomore at Stanford, my creative writing instructor generously gave me a copy of Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago with the suggestion that I read “Pet Milk.” When I did—when I read that story—everything began to feel right. I’d already decided that I wanted to be a writer, but reading that story, which had the most beautiful transitions I’d ever beheld, showed me where the bar was and how much work was ahead of me, showed me just how much attention and care each individual sentence of every story I would ever write would demand from me.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
As a writer, I have never made demands upon the short story collections I read. Never asked them to change their ways for me, pretend to be something that they are not, or masquerade themselves as novels-in-stories (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one). Freedom and independence are gifts that the good short story collection gives. I have always approached short story collections the same way I used to approach record albums and CDs, the same way I now approach downloaded songs on my MP3 player. I jump in wherever I like, immerse myself and wade through the selections in whatever order I please. Just as I never played a 33⅓ rpm record album from first song to last, I have never read a short story collection that way, preferring to let the titles or the opening paragraphs woo me into starting with one story rather than another. I have never been interested in reading collections where the stories are all about the same thing (e.g., boys with dogs, or mothers who grieve over boys with dogs, etc.). Furthermore, I’ve never been interested in reading linked short stories, knowing that if I’d wanted to stay with the same characters for two hundred odd pages, I would have picked up a novel instead.

For me, a good short story collection offers the reader the freedom to choose where to begin while simultaneously assuring the reader that he or she will be pleased no matter where he or she finds him or herself. If the reader begins with the third story rather than the first, he or she should never feel as if he or she has entered the movie house midway through the film and wonder what has been missed. A good short story collection should be tricky; each story should convince the reader to spare time from her busy schedule, then make her regret she has not more hours in her day. A good short story collection should make the reader regret his working hours, should make him want to hurry home just so he can read his book and make his dinner, then—once he is home—it should make him stir the pot with one hand and turn the page with the other. It should make him burn his dinner.