Monday, September 30, 2013

Ethan Rutherford on Knowing When to Quit (and Not Quitting)

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Ethan Rutherford, author of The Peripatetic Coffin (Ecco Press), explores the "nightmare of uncertainty" that plagues writers.

We all have them, the shelved stories, the bottom-drawered novels, the ideas that seemed like a good idea at the time that, only after much energetic typing, reveal themselves to be bankrupt, or one-note, or simply not going anywhere interesting. Flat prose, entropic characterization, who knows what else. It’s heartbreaking, this failure, when it happens. But it’s part of the job. Some stories get the breath of life, other stories, no matter how much time and energy you spend on them, don’t. This is not such a big deal if you’ve only put a few weeks into something. It is a big deal if you’ve put in some diligent years. It’s the difference between deciding in the hangar that it doesn’t look like you can fit the wing on the plane, so let’s not really worry about taking off, and having what you thought was a well constructed plane re-route itself over the Atlantic and crash-land on the island of Total Depression. (They do serve drinks there, I know from experience, so at least there’s that.) 

Unreliable narrator: Conan the Barbarian
Part of being a writer is having the confidence and inner reserve to push through on projects even when everything (and, perhaps, everyone) is telling you it’s a bad idea. You need to have faith in yourself and an unshakable belief that the work you are doing has value, otherwise you’d stop. No one will be reading books in ten years! someone, usually a relative, says at a party. They’ll read THIS book, you say—to yourself, but also to the room, because now everyone is watching. But you also have to know when it’s time to whistle a project to the sideline. And the tension between when to push through on a project and when to set it aside is, for me, one of the hardest parts of being a writer. You think: Maybe if I just change the tense, that’ll solve the problem or maybe if I print this out, then write it again by hand, and then type it back into the computer, it’ll be better. I just read, here on this site, that “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” took George Saunders fourteen years to write. I love that story; I think it’s a masterpiece. Fourteen years well spent, if you ask me! I’ve been working on a story narrated by Conan the Barbarian for seven years. Sadly, I’m not kidding about that. I recently put it aside, probably for good. But maybe what that story really needs is another seven solid years of work?

A good friend of mine—a writer—told me recently that it was the novelist Diane Johnson who came up with what many people consider to be the most chilling scene in The Shining: the moment when Shelley Duvall sees that the big book her husband has been working on all winter consists of nothing but the phrase “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed over and over again. That’s the tipping point in the film, when terror, which is dread, gives way to horror, which is repulsion. It’s a brilliant addition—the scene is not in the book—and it did not come from Kubrick. It makes sense to me that it was a writer who came up with this nightmarish moment.  It is, in may ways, the nightmare of uncertainty that plagues most writers mid-project: that perhaps all our work is just typing, it’s not about anything, it’s not alive, but here we are, at seven hundred pages—proof of an unwell mind. Not a happy reveal at all. My wife, not a writer, has said: Your nightmare? Try my nightmare.

So what to do about this? How do you know when what you’re working on has lost its legs? I’ve asked all the writers I know, and I get mostly shrugs followed by a dead-eyed gaze that drifts toward the horizon, where the sun is rapidly extinguishing itself. I think of Tom Drury’s detective Milo Hahn, saying “Are you kidding me? There ain’t no answers, people.” And maybe there aren’t. But it is clear that part of learning to write is learning how to read your own work, knowing when to give it space, and learning to trust that whatever creative process you have will, eventually, deliver you somewhere interesting, see you through the crashed projects. And that it will be worth it, no matter how long it takes.   

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

George Saunders Talks Shop

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, George Saunders, author of Tenth of December (Random House), discusses thematic cling-ons, initiating tidbits, and reading velocity.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
Well, they don’t occur to me often enough, that’s for sure. For me it’s not so much about having an idea, per se, but rather about having a way to just get a few sentences cranked out, with as few “thematic cling-ons” (sorry, that’s a highly technical Creative Writing Workshop term) as possible. What I’m really trying to do is avoid having an idea, while still producing sentences, and managing to build some sort of tension. When I get “an idea,” that’s trouble. Because my ideas are like: Deconstruct the capitalist paradigm. Or: Do something that sort of parallels that one thing that happened that time, but is more dramatic.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
I can honestly say I’ve never done that. I’m not against it – but I think I automatically resist the “Oh, have I got a story for you” vibe—even if that voice is coming from me. Any story that I can think of in one chunk—before I write it, for example—generally doesn’t turn out very well. Because then the risk is, the story turns out just the way I planned. It says just what I intended it to. Which is dull, for the reader and the writer. What I like is to start out, tentatively, and as idea-free as possible—and then (closely watching the energy of the story), see where I end up. So, like I said above, the smaller the initiating tidbit (another technical Creative Writing workshop term), the better.

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
Well, usually about a year before I finish the book, I start to get a pretty good idea of what’s going in there. There might be a couple of things still in-progress, but there usually comes a time when, looking out on to the horizon, I feel: Yes, those stories I’ve finished, plus, maybe, these two in a pipeline, represent a coherent artistic blop (yet another technical etc., etc.). So once I get all of those stories done, I take a deep breath and make an index card for each: Title, first line, last line. And then I start moving those around on the floor or a big table. The idea at that point is: Which order would propel a reader most effectively through this book? That is: How can I arrange these so that the reader finishes the book, and feels great when she does? And from there it becomes a bit of a logical puzzle. These two stories should (or shouldn’t) go one after the other; this story needs to go first; this would make a good closer, etc., etc. And this process is exactly equal, turns out, to trying to produce the most thematic power—somehow, if I arrange the stories to produce a nice reading velocity, they turn out, also, to be telling a sort of under-story—one that I wasn’t really aware of as I was writing the individual stories.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
Well, I wrote an unreadable 700-page book based loosely (not loosely enough, apparently) on a friend’s wedding in Mexico, which was called “La Boda de Eduardo,” which I think translates as “Ed’s Wedding.” So that would probably be it. The wit of the title says it all.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
That would be something top-secret I’m working on right now. Nice try, Larry!

Where do you do most of your work? 
I have a little former tool-shed about 100 feet from our house. No internet, no phone.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
Regina Spektor: "unpredictability and heart"
(Photo: Shervin Lainez)
I like to play guitar and have been doing this since I was a kid. I’ve recently started writing songs again. I really like to listen to music (not while I write, of course). Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of Regina Spektor. I think she’s brilliant. I love the unpredictability and heart of her songs, and I find listening to them very inspiring—a wonderful reminder that what we’re really doing in art is trying to make delight. I also love the songs of Rodney Crowell. He came to Syracuse last year and did a master-class on songwriting that I am still drawing on, for both songs and fiction. He has a great, open-hearted approach to writing, very generous—and he said a few incredible things about songwriting that really hit home for me. I learned so much about writing by just sitting there listening to him perform—mostly what I learned, or was reminded, is that we have to communicate. That’s at the heart of it.

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
I got two great pieces of writing advice while I was at Syracuse, one from Tobias Wolff and one from Douglas Unger. Both were more experiential—they weren’t one-liners. They were both very specific interactions that came at just the right time. Toby’s had to do with keeping the magic in one’s work, and Doug’s with dialogue writing.

I don’t think I’ve really ever gotten bad writing advice, except from myself.  It went like this: “Hey, you’re going to a wedding in Mexico? That would make a great NOVEL!”

Well, actually, there is one other bad piece of writing advice I might mention. It’s that dreadful old creative writing chestnut, “A coherent artistic blop must not consist solely of thematic cling-ons, unless one of these is also the initiating tidbit.” I just don’t buy that anymore.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
The biggest obstacle I’ve encountered (and one I am still encountering) is that I have a tendency to want to coast. That is, to show up in the morning and sort of go on auto-pilot, being very sure of myself and my project, without being willing to really dive in, change course, find some new energy in the story, reject what I think I know about it. That’s an ongoing challenge, I think. And not just in writing.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
Well, I wrote “Sticks” in one go, in about twenty minutes, at my desk, when I was working as a tech writer. Of course, it’s only about 400 words. And I was a super-fast typist in those days.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
It took me fourteen years to finish “The Semplica Girl Diaries.”  That is, unless I start revising it again.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Chinelo Okparanta Paints the Truth

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Chinelo Okparanta, author of Happiness, Like Water (Mariner Books), discusses how Nigeria inspired her to be a writer.

As a child, we gathered around the candlelight when the electricity went out, listening to my mother’s folktales about talking fish, homemaking chickens, and fearful children. These were domestic stories, cultural stories, funny stories—the types of stories that served to entertain, but also to teach good from bad, right from wrong. They were set in Nigeria, or in some unnamed land that my child’s mind imagined to be in the depths of Nigeria. They were, each one of them, elaborate, chockfull of plot twists and surprises that rose to the level of miracles.

As an adult, when my mother’s storytelling became a thing of the past, I feasted my mind on a different kind of stories: written stories rather than oral ones. These stories were not limited to the domestic. There was something more to them than entertainment, and something that went beyond gaining instruction on right versus wrong. These were stories about Nigeria as well as stories about those nations outside of Nigeria. They were stories that spoke to a different sort of truth than my mother’s stories did. These stories were bold in the statements they made: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Antoine de St. Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, Voltaire’s Candide. Later, I would be introduced to even more writers: Anton Chekov, Leo Tolstoy, Alice Munro, Mariama Bâ, Marilynne Robinson, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Chopin, Kate O’Brien, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison. And even more Nigerian writers: Wole Soyinka, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Cyprian Ekwensi, Flora Nwapa, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Uwem Akpan.

As someone brought up by so many stories, it is unsurprising that I wound up a storyteller. Upon examination now of my own stories, I can see that they are in some ways an interesting combination of the oral and written tradition. Many of them could very well be spoken stories, which is not something I did intentionally. They also contain a sprinkling of folktales, or at least, tales within tales, which also speaks to the oral tradition. But of course, ultimately, mine are written stories. And, like my mother’s stories, many of them are set in Nigeria—and, why not? Nigeria is, after all, the reason I write. It is the country in which I learned to be. I write about Nigeria because Nigeria gave me my soul.

My stories paint the truth of the country, in my experience of it: a beautiful country from my memory of a time before-before. A country of gorgeous landscapes—white sand and gray sand and red sand, more than enough for many a child’s play. A country rich in natural resources, rich in intellect, rich in history, in culture, among other things. But it is also a country in which I still find myself immersed in darkness each time I return: a shortage of electricity, the same as when I was a child, though several decades have since passed. Now, we watch loved ones lying on hospital beds, in critical condition. And we watch as, right before our eyes, the power goes out; and we are aware that people will lose their lives as a result, and we are aware that many before them have lost their lives as a result. It is a country in which friends and family members continue to be victims of ritual kidnappings, and victims of armed robberies, and victims of religious deceit. It is a country in which women and children continue to be victims of domestic violence. A country in which the government is overrun with corruption.

Even though these are pathologies shared in varying degrees by all other countries, it saddens me more deeply where my own mother country is concerned. If I had the power to do so, I would change it. But we all know that change is hard. So for now, I have no choice but to continue watching and praying for the lights to come back on. And I know that there are many like me, watching and praying for the lights to come back too. I have no grand political agendas where my writing is concerned, but I do love my homeland, and sometimes it is easy to feel a profound sort of helplessness where certain aspects of it are concerned. And sometimes, in that state of helplessness, there’s not much else to do but write a story. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Elizabeth Cohen on What Her Stories Leave Out

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Elizabeth Cohen, author of The Hypothetical Girl (Other Press), discusses getting bitten by the story bug.

Please, admire me for what I left out:   

The man who loved his sister. The man who still lived with his mother (age 58) (“She is lovely, really!”). The man who had a crush on Ann Coulter. The man who told me he had ridden on the back of a whale.

The stories came and got me. I didn’t want to follow, I was actually quite embarrassed by their direction. “I am a poet,” I told them. “I am a journalist. Let me go.”

But they held fast and came on daily, nightly, until finally I was exhausted. I gave in. I sat down and wrote them. Then, there it was -- this book of fiction, The Hypothetical Girl.

I had spent over thirty years in the ballrooms of poetry. I’d been waltzing for what felt like my whole life with well-turned stanzas. Metaphors that pop up and soar. I’d lived to sink my teeth into a good piece of investigative journalism and run with it. Getting down with truth. Never did I think of myself as an actual author of fiction. But the stories came and snatched me cold, right from my bed, where they flew in. Nonstop, invasive birds. It was the aftermath of my marriage and I was dating online. The encounters I was having infected me with ideas for characters and situations and stories.

“But I am a poet,” I declared.

“Too bad,” said the stories.

“I am a journalist...”

 “So what?”

They were coming in. They had suitcases, bulging with details.

Admire me for what I left out: 

The man with a prosthetic arm who insisted on showing me all it could do over ginger chicken at Applebees. The man who drove a Hummer. No really, a military Hummer. We are talking camouflage.

Instead I stole details, the color of a shirt, the look of a face, an emotion that grows and shirks back quixotically.

I was and am fascinated by the way people court in this nether world, the ways it frees and constrains them. I was in love, not with love, or with a lover, but with the stories. The stories people tell about themselves. I had fallen into a rich stew of stories and I could not get out.

Please admire me for what I left out:
The man who almost choked another man to death (“He deserved it. Horrible man.”) The man who lived on beets. The man who would save the bees.

Admire me for respecting the whole cloth of the people I met. I stole the warp and weft of them, their patinas. They were so shiny I could not resist them. And in this way I found the poetry in the stories. I became the investigative journalist of love.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Sara Pritchard on Making Stories That Are Big on the Inside

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Sara Pritchard, author of Help Wanted: Female (Etruscan Press), compares stories to elaborate peep boxes.

The year is 1918. Roland is eight years old. He’s in his stocking feet, standing on a needlepoint footstool. He’s leaning forward, one palm on each side of a polished mahogany box the size of a breadbox, mounted on a pedestal. A bronze plaque on the box says, “Island of Despair.” Roland is looking in the peephole. In a ray of light, he spies a castaway washed up on a tropical beach. In the foreground: a shipwreck, pirates. In the jungle receding from the beach: parrots…cannibals!

The earliest peep boxes—or peepshows, as they were called—can be traced back to fifteenth century Europe. They were wooden boxes with a peephole and a light source, which depicted in three-dimensions scenes from fairytales, myths, Bible stories. Peep boxes were often carried from village to village by a narrator who told a story then invited the audience to pay a penny for a peep into the story box. “Step right up!” the storyteller would bark. “Right this way! Only one penny! See for yourself!”

Gradually, peepshows became more sophisticated, with changeable panels for backgrounds, puppet-like characters that could be manipulated with strings, multiple light sources and peepholes that could be opened and closed to afford different points of view, and often mirrors that distorted or a magnifying glass that expanded the perspective. Elaborate peepshows became popular curiosities in Victorian parlors. They were the predecessors of stereoscopes and Viewmasters, and applying the penny-a-peep strategy to the foolproof marketing triumvirate: cheap, private, and lewd, peepshows evolved into the live sex acts viewed from a discreet coin-operated booth, which the term conjures today.

Fast-forward forty years from Sopwith Camels and the Spanish influenza, from the parlor with the Robinson Crusoe peep box and my father in his stocking feet. It’s 1958, now I’m eight years old, and my father and I are building a peepshow out of a deep shoebox. We’ve covered the top and bottom of the box with wallpaper found in the attic, something with tiny pine boughs and pinecones. With tin snips and a can, my father fashions a light source on top—a spout like on the Morton’s salt, only bigger. He cuts a perfectly round peephole in one end of the shoebox.

Inside we build the scene, based on my favorite record: Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Sterling Holloway. I draw Peter with his pop gun and Sasha the bird, Sonia the duck, and Ivan the cat, and of course, the wolf with his big yellow teeth, fancy boots, and evil smile, that terrible wolf licking his chops while plucking a duck feather from his red vest. I trace their likenesses from a storybook and color them with great vividness and care, sharpening my crayons often so as to stay within the lines. These characters we paste onto balsa wood, and my father cuts them out carefully with an X-acto knife. We stand them up with handmade balsa wood supports modeled after the chipboard ones that come with paper dolls. For a long time, I have been collecting those Little Tree air fresheners that hang from the rearview mirror of my father’s Desoto, so the Russian forest is all taken care of, though populated with Colorado Blue Spruce.

The result is marvelous. You can peep into the box and the entire story comes alive. With your little eye you can hear the oboes and bassoons and Sasha’s flute song, catch the wolf about to swallow poor Sonia, smell the evergreens—all of it in a Red Wing shoebox.

Samuel van Hoogstraten's "A Peepshow with
Views of the Interior of a Dutch House"
I don’t know what happened to the peep box that my father and I made so long ago, but here is a link to “A Peepshow with Views the Interior of a Dutch House,” created by the seventeenth century Dutch artist Samuel van Hoogstraten, which is part of the collection of the National Gallery in London. Scroll down to the video, which shows different views, with commentary, of van Hoogstraten’s extraordinary peepshow.

Van Hoogstraten, who studied with Rembrandt, was not only a master of realism, miniatures, and optical illusion, he exhibits an almost Escher-ish sense of perspective, a bending of space that achieves a depth of perception, a richness and fullness far beyond the boundaries of the small peep box itself. Everything inside, in miniature: rooms, furniture, paintings, mirror, people, dog. In the National Gallery video, Professor Philip Steadman (in the spiffy sport jacket) likens van Hoogstraten’s peepshow to Dr. Who’s Tardis: much bigger inside than out.

That’s how I think of short stories—not defined by length or word count but by what’s inside: the bigger, the better.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sarah Gerkensmeyer Learns to Tolerate Messes

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Sarah Gerkensmeyer, author of What You Are Now Enjoying (Autumn House Press), discusses the creative value of giving up control.

Today was laundry day at Little School. We call my youngest son’s daycare “Little School.” And on laundry day, his caregiver sets out a few piles of little clothing items (freshly laundered) for parents to sort through and claim.

Most days, my two-year-old son does not come home in the same clothes he was wearing that morning. He might come home swimming in a size 5 T-shirt. Or he might walk through the front door strutting proudly belly-first, those fat folds that he still has squishing out of a onesie that’s just a tad too small. We wash the clothing that isn’t ours and—when we eventually get around to sorting through our own massive pile of clean laundry (that’s an entirely separate essay, which I’m actually trying to write)—we send what doesn’t belong to us back to Little School with our son, to rejoin the communal mish-mash.

I don’t mind when Charlie comes home in someone else’s clothes. How could I mind when I don’t bother to label the tiny tags of his shirts and pants with his name? Why would I want him to come back home in the exact same outfit he was wearing that morning if that would mean no mud puddles? That would mean no creek stomping and no butt-scooting down grassy hills. No flinging paint during art time. No licking the peanut butter and jelly (his sole sustenance, it seems) clean off of a piece of bread. No water fights or pudding.

My son comes home in some other kid’s clothing because my caregiver loves him, no matter what mess he has managed to get himself into that day. The messes are good. They are encouraged. They are the best part.

I’ve been learning about messes in my writing. I’ve been learning to tolerate them and sometimes (when I’m lucky enough) to let them take control. I’ve been learning to let go of my plans, to some degree. This is what I want to learn about: the secret power of confusion and uncertainty and frustration. Sometimes there’s a magic moment when a story refuses to be about what you conceived it to be. It starts breaking rules and dancing weird jigs that you don’t know the moves to. It starts making a big ole mess. And we are lucky indeed when we can tolerate that mess enough to reach our hands in there with our eyes scrunched shut and feel for what there is to feel.

My stories, the ones that I fall in love with, do not come home in the same clothes that I sent them off wearing that morning. They come home wearing incongruous pairings of polygamous marriages and wine-stained teeth. They come home wearing Wonder Woman’s shiny red knee-high boots and the cracked, flaky skin of a childhood monster. They come home wearing homesickness and lust and breastfeeding mishaps and failing indoor waterparks and, quite often, a bit of wonder. So much of this I did not expect from them. Sometimes I have to squint to make sure I know who’s standing there before me, exploding to tell me about their day. But I love them, my stories. I love them no matter what. Not in spite of the messes they’ve gotten themselves into. Because of them.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Peter Orner Walks Around with It

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Peter Orner, author of Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Little, Brown), discusses where he gets his ideas, how he organzies a collection, and the best and worst advice he's received, among other things.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I often can't keep track of ideas I have for stories. I spend a lot of time running from new story ideas because they distract from stories I'm actually trying to write at any given moment. This said, my idea of a story is pretty elastic. Or plastic? A gesture remembered after many years is a story. A fading sign on a building, you know the ones that are revealed when they are tearing an adjacent building down? That's a story. Three stories occurred to me just in the past couple of hours - I've got them here in a notebook (a notebook I am always losing):

  1. A memory of trying to swim the length of a pool underwater as a kid. The feeling I used to get when I was just about to the other side and about to explode from lack of air. 
  2. A woman meeting her sister after twelve years of not speaking to her. There was no rift, she just, as people do, or used to be able to do before the age of incessant communication, drifted away. Now they meet and find that the silences between them say more than anything they could possibly say to catch up. 
  3. An old man remembers his grandmother describing her own mother's face and wonders about his great-grandmother's mother. What was her face like?

What triggers these ideas? I think just walking around, that's where I get most my ideas. Walking by a pool led to the first, an easy one. The second one came from seeing two women at a table in a cafe sitting silent and staring at each other without talking for at least ten minutes. After a while I started keeping track. It was a beautiful thing to watch, that unusual silence. The third one, I've got no idea where it came from exactly, but I've always wondered about the fact that many of us—this is true in my family—have no passed on knowledge that goes back more than three generations. So my old man in this story I have not written wonders how we can lose the faces of people that are so essential to our own existence. Our mother's mother, we can know through our mother, but what about our mother's mother's mother? Her too we might have some stories about. But what about our mother's mother's mother's mother? How can the face of someone this important vanish so completely?

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
I'd love to say I've tried this, but when people bring stories like this, I often find that, for me, they are the exact sorts of stories that don't make good stories. A good story sneaks up on the teller in less overt ways.

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
I agonize over the way a collection is organized. Collections are very strange animals and the art of putting one together is something that obsesses me. A story collection is one organism that is made up of parts, all of which, in one way, or another, must stand on their own. But they stand taller, better, when next to their compadres. I know the method to my madness isn't always evident, but I sweat for months, even years, over what story should go before, and what after, another. I do my best to arrange them so that very disparate stories speak to one another. Its like putting together a family, a weird one, as weird as any ordinary family actually is. It has to feel entirely natural that they come together, but at the same time, you think, how the hell are these people actually related? Like any family. At Thanksgiving.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
A story about a guy who finds a large cache of very tall dildos (the size of brooms) in a closet he should not have been opening. It happened, which is why I can never make it into a decent story, but I haven't given up trying. I should, however.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
Just thinking about this question hurts because there are so many.

Where do you do most of your work?
In my garage where a feral cat I've named Joe sometimes comes to visit me. Joe's a girl. She sleeps under my green lamp.

Inspiration: Paul Klee line drawing
In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
Painting, as well as drawings, particularly line drawings. Amazing how an artist can get so much life, how much power, into a single jagged line. I do my best to emulate this in my stories as much as a possibly can. I love Paul Klee's weird little drawings. He has one that he did while in the army. He made a little forest out of some numbers on some kind of invoice. Music. Where to start? This morning it was Sly and the Family Stone, "It's A Family Affair," which I played over and over for my three year-old.

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
The best advice was no advice. Andre Dubus used to tell me, just walk around with it, get up and walk around with it. Not a day goes by when I don't think about this and do it. I get up from the desk, go out of the garage, and walk around. The worst advice was more needs to happen in your stories.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
Chronic self-doubt. Inventing characters who aren't me has allowed me to escape myself. I'm very grateful for these folks for letting me be them instead of me, if this makes any sense.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
There's a goofy story called "Shoe Story" about two guys sitting in a hamburger place when a woman in an apartment above starts arguing with her boyfriend. She ends up throwing her shoes at him and the shoes fly out the window and land in the street. The two guys in the hamburger place look at the shoes. I wrote it in one draft on the subway in Boston, between stops. Nothing like that's ever happened to me since.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
I've got a tiny story about Mary Todd Lincoln in a hotel in Chicago years after her husband's murder. The story used to be ten pages. It's now a half page. I wrote the earliest draft of the story eight years ago. This is kind of the norm with me. Stories in early drafts are a ususally lot longer, often by many pages than the finished ones. I cut and I cut.