Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dagoberto Gilb: "The Small Is Large, Strength Is Economy, Simplicity, Not Verbosity"

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Dagoberto Gilb, author of Before the End, After the Beginning (Grove Press), riffs on his influences and how he works.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
Drafts? Technical problems? Me? No, though not quite, I’m almost perfect. Really, if there are 10 words in a sentence, I try maybe 90 of the 100 possible combinations before I move on. One tech problem I have is the shift key. Not exactly the shift key, but the fact that there is pressure to hit the shift key and another, with the other hand, at the same time. (Kidding? Kind of not.)

What is your writing process like? 
At this point of my life it’s more what this life would be without the keyboard. Two and a half years ago I would have said that most of my writing was in notebooks. Thousands of pages accumulated. Two and a half years ago I lost the use of my handwriting, so now I am back learning my writing process again.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
I had one arrangement, an editor another. I do know that the oddest story, "please, thank you," was placed first by me because it sort of set the stage for the rest of the stories, both as the collection’s public theme goes and the personal importance the book had to me. Also because I think it’s a strong, unique fiction, aware as I am that I am not supposed to assert such positive critical opinions of my own work. It’s just that the story almost had nothing to do with me, my own experience of life, or wouldn’t have before.

If you've substantially reworked any of the stories that originally appeared in magazines, can you explain what you changed and why?
I added two sentences, at the end, to one story in the collection, "Why Kiki Was Late to Lunch" (published it in The Threepenny Review). When the ARC of the collection went out, I wished I could have an insert page with the new graph. I thought the story, which I liked fine, improved tenfold.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?  
On occasion I let a couple longtime friends read, but generally I don’t have that. I send to mags, a couple of editors for yes or no judgments, though it does seem the minute I punch Send, I see little errors. Now that I think about it, these stories didn’t see too many magazines, and the few that were published hit fast.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
Delivered: Tacos
I want to say tacos con un chile picoso but it may be that I’m hungry. I think short fiction is closer to poetry than to novels:  The small is large, strength is economy, simplicity, not verbosity. What I like about short fiction is what I don’t like about the so-called "big" books: The art is with the ordinary, common, unobserved, unimportant, the quiet, the mystical—not the sweeping, the grandiose, the epic, and all the "big is better" that can go with that.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be?  
The most perfect story collection ever is by Juan Rulfo, El llano en llamas, translated in the U.S. as The Burning Plain. Set in Northern Mexico, it captures both the land and life of the characters there, and vice versa, the people captured in the land. I believe that place is a central "character" in great fiction, and that idea is exemplified by Rulfo’s work.

What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
Here’s where I always want to list the greatest writers of all time so that, once this sticks to the Internet, my name's Google-linked to them. Though it is also somewhat true. I studied philosophy and religion in college, I like myth (studied briefly with Joseph Campbell), and I read Plato, Chuang-tzu, the Heart Sutra, Descartes, Spinoza, al-Ghazali, and then came Beckett, Doestoyevsky, Rulfo, Singer, Chekhov…and so on until me!

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
Very little for my fiction. Not to say I work out of memory alone, but I already write from and about a community it seems this country knows little about.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
Now that I don’t handwrite, I’m confused. In my young adult years my "research" was simply my employment, which is to say jobs, which I had to have to pay rent and bills for my children and wife. Sixteeen years in the construction trades, which usually went for eleven, six days a week until a job ended and I was laid off and wrote as many stories as I could until a new job appeared. Phase two has been teaching. That took some adjustment, I concede. For me, it halts incoming experience and ideas, since my stories come from participation in life, not only my opinions.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
If "one sitting" means like in say 8 or even 12 hours straight, then no. But, sadly, most I stay with until I finish, or it finishes me. I’m monomaniacal.

Have you had a mentor and who was it? 
Nope. Just books I’ve loved.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
Good question…for a researcher. I guess it’s true that, with me, I find short fiction should be a contained, even restrictive, amount of time as it is of characters and objects and concerns. In this new collection of mine, one story, "To Document," shoots ahead twenty-five years to end. See, I even think that sounds bad. I say it works in that story, for a particular reason, but it’s not usually what a short story can or wants to do.