In the 44th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light (Alfred A. Knopf), reveals how she thinks and works.
How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I get quite a few story ideas that never pan out, never become actual stories. I get them in the shower, in dreams, while I’m doing my hair, while I’m playing with my kids, sometimes while I’m cooking, and often when I’m reading newspapers or magazines, or books. The trick is their acutally becoming stories. Sometimes I begin writing a story and get stuck, then I try combining several of my story ideas. And sometimes after putting a half a story away for a while, it beckons me back and finally becomes a full story. But what triggers story ideas I’m never sure. It’s not something you can seek out, I think. You can just be curious and expose yourself to new experiences and hope the ideas come.
If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
Actually, I try to stay away from those types of proposals because I’m always afraid that person would sue me or say I stole their idea. If writers got a dime for every person who told them they had an idea that would make them rich, they would actually be rich.
What's your approach to organizing a collection?
I try to organize the stories in a way that makes sense to me and I hope will make sense to the readers. I imagine the reader as having a story herself or himself in the book. The reader is the character in the book who is trying to figure out the rest of the stories.
What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
I once tried to write a story about foreign missionaries who lead to a baby boom in a small Haitian town by providing support to Haitian pregnant women who are thinking of aborting their babies. Thanks to their program, all of the town’s women of child bearing age get pregnant so they can get the aid and it becomes a kind of epic disaster. This is partly based on a true story, but as hard as I tried I could not get it out of the zone of caricature into even satire.
What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction? I’m still working on and I’m afraid that revealing it out would kill it.
Where do you do most of your work?
In a small office I have at home, often in the middle of the night.
What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
As far as writing itself, time is always an obstacle. Finding time is always a challenge. Sometimes you have to ignore important things—you’re not always timely with that e-mail, two hour phone calls with friends are gone—just so you can find the time to do this work for which there is no clocking in or out, which in essence you are always doing, no matter what else is going on in your life.
In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
In film. I used to work in film and I think it is a very instructive medium for short story writers in terms of the economy of pacing and dialogue, etc... I sometimes like to think of my stories as short films.
What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
I’ve never gotten really bad writing advice. Or maybe I’ve just blocked it out. The best writing advice I ever got was from a writing teacher in college who told me never to expect my work to match the image in my mind. There are so many words in any language, she said, but the mind is infinite. You try to get as close as possible to the film in your head, knowing it will never be the same.