Monday, January 2, 2012

Melinda Moustakis Goes Fishing

In the 58th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Melinda Moustakis, author of Bear Down, Bear North (University of Georgia Press), runs through her writing process and how she put together her collection.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 

I’d say that the story "Some Other Animal" was a beast to write. It’s one of the quieter stories in the collection and I usually start a story with a dramatic bang of a first line, or write with a hard-hitting voice, and this one is in third person limited. And the whole story is about restraint, about grieving, about the muffled onslaught of snow in winter. I felt as if I was trying to write it while blindfolded because I wasn’t relying on the usual tricks. "Some Other Animal" went through a long, piecemeal, revision process over three years. I think one of the last sections I wrote was the beginning section introducing the main character. Before finding these two opening paragraphs, I had arranged all of the sections in various orders in an attempt to find a way to keep tension because the pace is more of a slow dissolving, a melting. I asked over and over, “How do I get the reader to keep reading?” And this story went through so many titles, until I sat down and reread it and looked for any phrase or line that could work as a title and focused on this line of dialogue: "They'd make it to the arctic if a bear or some other animal didn't get them first." Finding the title, along with the wise suggestion given to me at a writer’s conference of “More dead moose! More blood!” helped guide me to the final draft.

What is your writing process like? 
I am usually writing toward an image that I can’t shake off. Or the rhythm of a voice takes over my brain. And I have to wait for this to happen. I’m not one of those people who write every day and I don’t write pages and pages and then go back and cut large sections. The thought of having to cut large sections makes me cringe. If the words are going on the page, they’re going to be as close as I can get them to the final draft at that time. When I revise, it’s finagling a word here or there, or moving sections and thinking about structure, adding sections. Some people relish the revision process. I dread it. So I do everything I can to avoid a lot of revision, although, stories often have a mind of their own and don’t cooperate. A teacher of mine once said, “The story is smarter than you are.” I’ve been thinking about this advice quite a lot recently while attempting to write a novel.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
I had a lot of help with the arrangement. Sometimes you need a fresh set of eyes to look at your work and find new connections. Nancy Zafris, editor of the Flannery O’Connor Award Series at UGA Press, spent a lot of time thinking about the order of the stories with me. She was the one who suggested I put the short short "Trigger" as the first story in the collection, a thematic preface that introduces the Alaskan wilderness and the themes of hunting, violence, and the burden of inheritance to the reader. Since the stories are linked, and certain characters reappear, I knew I had to space out the generations of this homesteading family. I also had to arrange all the different points of view—first person, first person plural, second person, third limited, and omniscient. Then I also had to think about structure in the stories. I was told that I needed to create a map for readers and show them how to read the collection, how to read the more experimental stories that use modular fiction. The book begins with the short-short, one module, and builds on this idea of modules throughout the book, with the most challenging story in terms of structure and its dark subject—"Point MacKenzie"—being placed near the middle.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
Most of my research is of the scientific kind. Checking on facts about wildlife and bugs and trees. I enjoy finding small, strange scientific details that I can include in my work.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I think fishing counts in this category. I do some of my best listening, gathering, and thinking on the river when I go up to Alaska to fish with my uncle. I have a weakness for fishing stories and I’d say their structure informs my work—the tension of the line literally being informed by the tension of what might be on the end of the fishing line.

Have you had a mentor and who was it? 
I’ve been extremely fortunate and had many fantastic mentors and writing teachers over the years: Susann Cokal, Pam Houston, Lucy Corin, Stuart Dybek, Kellie Wells, and Jaimy Gordon.