Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Elisabeth Doyle on the Smallest of Moments

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Elisabeth Doyle, author of War Stories (Two Harbors Press), explains what she learned from reading Raymond Carver and her aim to combine the public and the private in her work.

What writer has most influenced your work? 
I suspect that I may not be unique in my choice of writers who have most influenced my work, but the answer for me is clear: Raymond Carver. I began writing seriously when I was in college—or at least, it was at that point that my writing began to mature. I wrote two or three stories during that period that received a good bit of attention, and one of them was awarded a university prize and published in a literary journal. Each of these stories revolved around “big” themes—my recollection is that one reflected an imagined rendering of the circumstances of my adoption as a young child—an entirely fictitious account of the circumstances of both my adopted and birth mothers. The other two stories also had larger, very defined themes and followed a more traditional story structure.

After writing those stories, I remember thinking: “What next?” Did every story have to revolve around a grand plot or event? If so, how could I possibly continue to generate or manufacture such events? I felt a great deal of pressure to continue to write a certain “kind” of story. Then I read Raymond Carver—I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon his collections, but I read them voraciously, each one. They were a gift, and changed everything for me in terms of my understanding of what a “story” could be.  From Carver, I learned that almost anything can be the foundation for or comprise a story. A walk to the grocery store, a chance encounter with a stranger on the sidewalk… I saw that there are stories everywhere, in the smallest of moments, the subtlest of interactions. This realization liberated me from traditional story conventions and traditional notions of what “makes” a story. I continued writing, but in a more natural voice, finding stories in the smaller, more intimate moments. This freedom from convention, and the intimacy of voice, was—in my mind—Raymond Carver’s great gift to writers and to literature.

What inspires you? 
I have always been something of a duality, deeply interested in and moved by the real-life events taking place in the world around me, and also deeply committed to art and creative expression, which often reflects the internal world. In the “real” world, there are certain topics and interests that have informed my life since I was a child, and about which I continue to read voraciously: the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust, and the war in Vietnam. In my fiction, these two sides of myself meet one another and come together, in stories that are deeply personal and which also touch upon a broader set of circumstances. (In War Stories, that “broader” set of circumstances is clear.) In a nutshell, then, I am inspired equally by external events in the world around me—including historical events—and my own life experiences. These two elements intertwine in my work, such that even in those stories that are related to seemingly outward events, such as war, the personal is always a factor; I use my own experiences to help me “find” the characters’ inner lives.