Saturday, July 20, 2013

Jean Ryan and the Abandoned Story

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jean Ryan, author of Survival Skills (Ashland Creek Press), explains why she had to back away from a story idea she had.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
My story ideas occur spasmodically. I wish they arrived in a more reliable fashion.

Most of the stories in Survival Skills were inspired by something I had read or a show I had seen. Often I will notice similarities between disparate objects or situations, and as I begin to make connections between them, a story is born. “Migration” issued from the real story of a Toulouse goose that lived in a park in Los Angeles and became smitten with one of the visitors. “Waiting for Annie” followed a special I had seen on coma, the “silent epidemic.” Improved emergency response techniques and sophisticated life support machines are keeping more and more lives in this eerie state of suspension. Especially intriguing to me is the mind’s ability to make connections by itself, to persist without the complement of consciousness. “Paradise” emerged from a program I had watched about intelligence in birds, parrots in particular. One bird had acquired a prodigious vocabulary and this stirred my imagination. I thought it would be fun to work this creature into a story, to use him in fact as a main character. In order to create conflict, the parrot in this tale is malicious as well as brilliant. The extravagance of Palm Springs, its artificial overlay, seemed an apt parallel to the various indulgences that Max enjoyed in his man-made abode.

If you’ve ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
“Looks for Life” is based on a co-worker’s account of a devastating accident that befell his friend. This man had borrowed my co-worker’s Corvette and wound up crashing into a building. His injuries were significant, including facial trauma. The man’s parents were wealthy and thus able to procure a gifted plastic surgeon who gave his patient a new face, a much more handsome visage than the previous version. Ultimately the young man lost his humility as well as his girlfriend. I decided to cast a woman in this role and explore the personality changes she might undergo as a consequence of sudden beauty.

Spider monkey: Grievous plight
What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?
This question is interesting for the ways it can be interpreted. When I consider my worst story idea, the one that comes to mind is what I think of as the spider monkey story. I read an article one day about spider monkey rescue in Central America, and I thought, what a dramatic setting for a story: the cloud forests of Costa Rica, and what a captivating subject: the perilous lives of spider monkeys in the 21st century. I wanted to work in a romance, a volunteer who so admires the strength and commitment of one of the staffers—a woman far more capable than herself—that she winds up falling in love with her. So far so good. But as I delved deeper into the research, the more appalled I became by the plight of monkeys and what we are doing to their habitat. Mute with grief, I had to abandon the story.

What’s the best story idea you’ve had that you’ve never been able to write to your satisfaction?
The answer to this question is the same as the answer to the question above. A thicker-skinned author could have tackled this subject and produced a beautiful and compelling story. We all have our limits, and sometimes skill is beside the point.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
Finding a publisher ranks high on this list. Despite shrinking attention spans in this information age, people are still inclined to buy a novel over a book of short stories. Publishers know this, so few of them will consider short story collections. Fortunately, I discovered Ashland Creek Press, and they’ve been wonderful. I would like to think that as more people embrace the various digital platforms, with single stories more widely available, this genre will have a revival.

Rejection is another hazard. Because a writer puts her deepest thoughts on paper, there is a personal component that makes rejections especially keen. In the beginning of my writing career, rejections came like a blow to the gut, but as they accumulated they lost their power to offend and became simply part of the business. When I receive a rejection, I treat it like data, logging it into my submission tracker and sending the piece to another publisher, usually on the same day.