In the 12th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Robley Wilson, author of Who Will Hear Your Secrets? (Johns Hopkins University Press), discusses inevitability, procrastination, Russian writers, and some of his favorite stories.
What made you want to become a writer?
I wonder if it wasn’t something like inevitability. My mother, who had only a high-school education, wrote a little poetry—actually, a lot of poetry, as I discovered after she died—and she encouraged everything I did with words. Writing seemed to come more easily to me than it did to my school friends, and my teachers probably over-praised me when I was in my teens. Too much praise isn’t a good thing, and it was years and years before I admitted to myself that I wasn’t such hot stuff.
What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
The worst obstacles are my own laziness and a serious habit of procrastination.
What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
Everybody has a story or two they wrote in an afternoon, or dashed off overnight, or transcribed in the morning after dreaming it. My story “Terrible Kisses” was one of those.
What's the longest time it has taken you to write a story?
Twenty years. I started “Crooked” in 1991, then came back to it every five years or so until it seemed complete. But even now, it’s unfinished; it wants to be a novel.
If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you, what were the circumstances?
A student once told me about a dream she’d had. She was sitting in a darkened movie theater, and when the lights came up at the end of the film she discovered an apple was in the seat next to her. In the dream, she thought: “How am I going to explain this apple to my mother?” She gave me permission to use her dream, and it became a story called “The Apple,” about the relationship between a neurotic woman and a real apple.
What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
We’ve all learned from the Russians, whether we know it or not, especially Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Maybe a little Pushkin. For me, the strongest American teachers have been Hawthorne and Henry James. Maybe a bit of Salinger.
What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written?
I don't envy any other writer’s work in that way; it’s hard enough to write my own stories. But there are stories I admire excessively: Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover,” Andre Dubus’s “The Father,” William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force,” to name a few.