Tuesday, June 25, 2013

William Luvaas: How It All Starts

In the 10th in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, William Luvaas, author of Ashes Rain Down (Spuyten Duyvil), discusses what sparks his interest and his stories.

How does a story get started? It differs for each of us, of course. Mine begin with some spark—an image, phrase, place, person, or experi­ence—which falls into the tinder of ideas, themes, and subjects that interest me. Such sparks are fragile and ephemeral; I must get them down on paper before they vanish. There are stories that appear mysteriously, wellin­g up from the unconscious mind as if already written there. But most have a specific inception and grow out of it.

The initiating spark can be an image, say of ashes floating down from the sky, or Katherine Anne Porter’s glimpse of a girl through a window with an open book in her lap that “set up a commotion in my mind,” as she put it, and sparked her story “Flowering Judas.” In time, we develop an instinct for recognizing promising images.

Or a story may start with a phrase we find intriguing. I will set out blindly, having no idea where this initial phrase may lead me­­­, trusting it will lead me somewhere. A door is opened into the story and the words rush in. Take the phrase, “Lately, we have been plagued by flies...­.” The mind seizes upon this concept: Flies are symbolic of death and decay, plagues of them cannot be a good omen, this will not be a lighthearted story.

Places can be generative, as they were for Eudora Welty and William Faulkner. Setting suggests atmosphere, and together they suggest characters—as if our landscape comes ready peopled with them, a story line follows. Stories often­ grow from the soil in which they take root. In Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” a tenant farmer with a grudge against his landlord limps along a dirt road toward the land­owner’s mansion­, wearing an “ironlike black coat,” his profile like “something cut ruthlessly from tin.” He seems part and parcel of the Mississippi landscape.

Mendocino: The foggiest notion
My stories are often set in places where I am living. In Upstate New York, my characters were cold and isolated. Bad weather was deterministic in their lives, sometimes fatal. My stories set in Mendoci­no in Northern California are rain-soaked, characters move spectrally through fog rolling in off the Pacific, drifting through the redwoods. Living as I do now in Southern California’s high desert, I find dry Santa Ana winds blowing dust through my work, coyotes howl in the distance, the sun is white hot at midday, the sky endlessly blue. Forces of life and death chafe against one another, suggesting stark, dramatic story lines and rugged, feisty characters.

T­he elements affect both the inner and outer landscapes of my characters and symbolize conflicts in their lives. It’s an unconscious rather than a conscious influence, likely informed by my belief that nature and blind fate shape our lives more than we know. We haven’t half the control we believe we have. My characters are often in for a bumpy, unpredictable ride.

There is the influence of people we’ve known, our life experiences,­ and stories we have heard. While these may help initiate or inform a story, we ­shouldn’t be enslaved by them. Beginning writers often think it easier to retell a true-life narrative than to invent a new one. But such works often don’t come to life or the writer loses interest in them. Since he/she already kn­ows the outcome, there will be no joy in discovering it­. Fiction, after all, is fantasy (not necessarily lighthearted­) that mimics life. If we don’t allow our imagination to breathe, our story may well die of asphyxiation. Stories must find a life of their own.

Sometim­es I don’t at first recogni­ze the real events and people who creep into my work. They appear in altered guises, as people do in dreams. Experiences are improved upon, transformed, woven into other strands in the narrative. Characters taken from life change clothes and habits, take new lovers and jobs—only distantly related to the people they are modeled on­. They usually appear unbidden like volunteers in a garden.

All this to suggest that the found objects in our lives—places, events, people, poignant imag­ery—can feed the imagination and give birth to our stories. But only when mixed with creative fancy do they bring a story to life. There’s no predicting what will spark a story. It’s a mysterious­­ and individuated business. That girl sitting with a book in her lap might not mean anything to another writer, but she stirred up ideas already gestating in Porter’s mind, and the story sprang out of her as if from the head of Zeus.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Norman Lock's Subconscious Needs

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Norman Lock, author of Love Among the Particles (Bellevue Literary Press), discusses how and where he works.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I have had my share of what can—and will—befall nearly anyone: love, marriage, children, the adventures and tedium of a working life (now, in my retirement, finished except, of course, for the work done each day at the keyboard). Sufficient material is available in the recollection of people and events to prod a writer into storytelling—if the writer has chosen to record and reproduce the world as it is experienced in familiar or agreed-upon ways. But I chose otherwise and have eschewed realism and naturalism—fictions anchored (or mired) in psychological or sociological observation—in favor of an intellectual, albeit sensual, fantasy. The occasions for my stories, as well as my stage and radio plays, novels and prose poems, lie not in people I have known or stories I have been told—not in a biographical or autobiographical impulse—but rather in ideas, or sensations seemingly produced by causes other than phenomena, or impressions with strength to insist on a secret or concealed source, or even by what is remembered in the aftermath of dreams. Inasmuch as I am constantly seized by strange and willful forces, story ideas occur to a degree that would be alarming and dangerous if I had not learned to select the most promising and peremptory to develop. Life for me is elsewhere: on the page, among words assembled into shapely sentences. I am often troubled and sometimes shamed that this should be so.

What’s your approach to organizing a collection?
Most often, I write stories or prose poems with their final integration and compilation in view. In fact, the newest book, Love Among the Particles, may be my only story collection without a strong commonality of fictional place, cast of characters, and an emotional “weather” to bind the texts and make of them a seeming whole. A History of the Imagination (2004), Land of the Snow Men (2005), Grim Tales (2011), and Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions (2011) were published as novels or novellas in acknowledgment of their narrative unity. Why I should invariably multiply a first text—by a subconscious need to elaborate, to extend, to hold and squeeze dry a fruitful notion—into a suite or a book of linked fictions is a mystery to me.

I should say that Love Among the Particles, whose stories were written during a fifteen-year period (excepting “The Love of Stanley Marvel & Claire Moon,” finished in 1978 at the beginning of my fiction-making life)—do have a persistent thread of ideas and metaphysical investigation. They also have in common their length (they are, for me, lengthy and spacious texts) and an intended wish to “paraphrase” literary or cinematic presentations of cultural icons, such as the Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Hyde, the Wright brothers, and Death from Alberto Casella’s play. The conforming idea of the paraphrase did not survive, although the exploitation of genre fiction and its strategies for my own imaginative ends can be felt throughout the book.

Where do you do most of your work?
In my head and at my desk in our apartment in New Jersey, near Raritan Bay: a large and tonic body of salt water affording distant views of lower Manhattan, Staten Island, Brooklyn, and the Atlantic Inlet. It thrills me to have landed so near to what has been my principal element and predominant humor—water—and to be so companionable with New York City. And when I said, impertinently, that work is done in my head, I am in earnest. Always, I have written there—if not first, then during the writing as it proceeds along its subterranean (or submarine) ways. And I have always insisted that much of the work is accomplished in sleep. How else am I to explain waking to the solution to a narrative problem which nettled me the night before?

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?I
n paintings and in films that share my obsession with fable, fantasy, and the imaginative subversion of the “real.” There have been many painters and filmmakers whose work has—perhaps not influenced me, but confirmed me in my fabulist tendencies. To cite the most important to me (those I remember at this instant): Klee, Miró, Chagall, Henri Rousseau, Chirico, Cornell, Baselitz, Basquiat, and Diebenkorn, as well as the Fauve painters; and the directors Fellini, Cocteau, Buñuel, Kenji Mizoguchi, Bergman, Resnais, Chris Marker, and Tarkovsky.

What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
The worst piece of writing advice I was given was to write about what you know. For me, writing is not only storytelling but an act of exploration and a conscious decision to work my way beyond the limits of my own narrow experience—to discover what I did not know before (or, at least, to unearth what was buried in my unconsciousness). The best advice is found in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast where he recommends always saving something to go on the next day. I try—as difficult as it can be—to not exhaust the day’s impulse or content. To begin afresh the next day is so much easier than to begin the next day anew with nothing to build on.

What’s the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
I wrote much faster when I was young. The shorter stories in A History of the Imagination, for example, were written in a day; the lengthier ones, in a week or two. I cannot account for that speed and facility, unless they are—like other things one might mention—the prerogatives of a youthful mind and constitution.

What’s the longest time it has taken you to write a story?
“To Each According to His Sentence,” published in Love Among the Particles, was written over the course of two years. I mean to say that the first half was written in two weeks before I stalled or lost interest in favor of something else, only to take it up again and finish it two years later.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cary Holladay's Reluctant Art Form

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Cary Holladay, author of two collections published this year, Horse People (Louisiana State University Press) and The Deer in the Mirror (Ohio State University Press), relates a failed attempt at nest building.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
The Orvis catalogue offers a winsome item for birdlovers, a circlet of raffia, ribbons, and twine to serve as nesting materials. Inspired, I vow to make one myself and include strands of my own hair. I want a part of myself woven into backyard nests. For months, I save hair from the brush. Come springtime, I gather twigs and twist them into a loop. The unwieldy result is nothing like the prototype, but threaded throughout is my trump card: Orvis doesn’t have my hair. 

My husband guffaws. “It looks like a condors’ nest.”

“It’s not a nest, John,” I explain. “Just stuff birds can use.”

I hang the avian Home Depot from a cherry tree. Birds avoid it. Why? The ugliness, the human scent? Weeks pass, and it collapses. Rain pummels the wreckage. The hair spreads out on the grass, ghastly, as if I’ve been scalped. Finally, John helps me throw it away. 

Spring wraps us in sweet, raucous tumult. My disappointment lifts with the breeze. Pink azaleas remind me of the birthday cakes my mother’s mother, Julia Carlton Mitchell, used to make. On the June day when I turned five, she gave me the best cake of my life. It was decorated with tiny toy birds, its frosting tinted pale green. Ever since, I have remembered that enthralling cake. 

Her creativity, and that of other family members, shaped my writing. Like them, my protagonists are productive and resourceful. My father, George Holladay, constructed magnificent Christmas wreaths out of evergreen boughs. From scraps of wood, he built a doll’s house. My mother, Catharine “Tas” Holladay, wrote stories and articles. She played the piano; her beautiful rendition of “Blue Moon” is still with me. 

My two new books, Horse People and The Deer in the Mirror, are stories of Virginia, its people—my people—and their history, culture, folklore, and, ingenuity.

The chief protagonist in Horse People, Nelle Scott Fenton, is based on my father’s mother, Helen Warren Holladay. Her chief creation was a family of seven sons, and her own life, lived large, with foxhunts, a farm that she ran with her husband, and flower gardens of her own design.

The Deer in the Mirror includes a novella about a young woman who goes to Alaska during the 1898 Gold Rush and bewitches a notorious gangster. Her closest friend is a pet monkey. For its amusement, she mimics her lover’s posturing, his scowl. Mimicry is an art form I reluctantly admit to. As a child, I could adjust my voice and facial expression to copy classmates, neighbors, church people. My family rocked with laughter and begged for more, but I felt spooked by a knack that came out of nowhere. I can still do it, and it still creeps me out.

My artistic endeavors are generally things a 10-year-old could do: crocheted snowflakes dusted with silver glitter; sachets stuffed with pine needles. But I have a birthday coming, and it’s time for something big. I’ll try and re-create the marvelous, pale green, topped-with-birds cake that my grandmother made for me.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Susan Steinberg and the Story of the Twelve-Foot-High Chair

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Susan Steinberg, author of Spectacle (Graywolf Press), discusses a story a friend told her that later inspired a story of her own.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
It wasn’t my story, but a friend’s. He told me about the time he went to see ELO. He was fourteen and living in a small town in the South. The concert was at the Civic Center. It was in another city. It was a big deal going to another city, a big deal seeing ELO. It would have been a big deal to me. It wasn’t just about the music. There were rumors of a spaceship. There would be a light show. It was important to get up front, to get as high up as one could.  

My friend’s plan was to build a twelve-foot-high chair that he would sneak into the concert, in pieces, strapped to his body, under his clothes. He would work his way up to the stage, he would build the chair (imagine wooden legs that snap together), and he would climb to the top.

One detail I remember is that he wore a white three-piece suit to the concert, no shirt underneath. The other details I remember have to do with what it was to live in that small town with no bands ever coming through. And with what it was to be fourteen and living in that small town. There are other details I could tell you about that place. There are sadder stories to tell.

But what I think about most is that chair. The motivation behind it. The desire behind that.  

When I was fourteen, I had perfect plans for how to run away from home. I thought up ways to to sneak onto a train. Ways to steal a car. I would somehow get to a bigger city. My family would never find me. I would start a band there, become famous, live large.

When my friend told me his story, I wasn’t yet a writer. So there wasn’t much I could do with it. Other than just hold on to it. He wasn’t going to write it himself. He had other, more important, stories to deal with.   

And when I did write it, years later, I only used the image of the chair. In my story, the narrator is a girl. She’s in love with a basketball player. She’s at one of his games. She’s sitting up high on this chair she built and cheering for him. But really she’s only imagining this. Which seems like enough. 

There’s a difference between desire and desperation. Desire doesn’t need to be seen all the way through.

What I mean is, I never ran away from home. When the house reached a certain pitch, the nights I thought to pack my things, I just stayed where I was, listening to music in my small room, staring at the ceiling and thinking. 

And my friend did not build that chair. He thought about it for a long time though. He even collected scraps of wood. But the night of the concert, he stood in the crowd with some other kids, watched the show from there.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Candace Coulombe's Flash Fabulism

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Candace Leigh Coulombe, author of Secret Breakfast (Egg & Ink), discusses why she likes to think of her stories as fables.

You call your stories fables. What distinguishes a fable from a short story?
A fable is generally defined as a short story that illustrates a moral lesson, usually populated with woodland animals, mythical creatures, or anthropomorphized inanimate objects. While I don’t aim to have a pithy maxim or tidy bow at the end of each of my tales, I do prefer stories in which something actually has to happen; that is, some transformation must occur. And, in which the reader along with the characters is propelled to an unexpected yet inevitable conclusion.

In Secret Breakfast, half the tales are “fantastic.” These fourteen fables span the adventures of selkies, saints, lycanthropes, superheroes, and even a Ford Thunderbird. The other fourteen fables are “domestic,” spanning the adventures of mere humans, but still from a fabulist’s perspective.

Traditionally, whether as poetry or prose, there is a cadence to fables. I appreciate lyrical language and, to me, the assonance and sibilance are as important as the lesson. The fable also has a rich oral tradition. It’s a delicate balance between writing very short fiction in which every word is purposeful and writing the kind of story you can tell. There’s something enduring about a fable that’s romantic, though not sentimental.

What made you want to become a writer? 
I’ve always been a voracious reader. I’m particularly drawn to the short form: O. Henry, Dorothy Parker, Saki, Flannery O’Connor, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories. These tales are so set in the manners and morals of their times, and yet universal in matters of the heart.

While I might enjoy reading an existentialist like Camus or Kerouac, or a hard crime writer like Cain or Hammett, their tales show the universe disordered, mercy spare, and violence random. As a writer, I feel more kinship with Flannery O’Connor and Alfred Hitchcock – both Catholics. Her stories and his television program – while dark – are guided by grace. As O’Connor said, “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic.”

Though I do write a few allegories, most stories don’t reflect religious themes. For me, though, Catholicism inevitably informs my worldview. Each story ends in the way only it can.

What stories inspire you? 
There are a few I could read over and over again: “The Offshore Pirate” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “Teddy” by J.D. Salinger, and “Big Blonde” by Dorothy Parker. I also am drawn to the obituaries in The New York Times. So many fascinating true stories which don’t come to light until years after! Writing engaging fiction requires a commitment to the truth. It’s the truth in the details which allows the writer to craft a compelling lie. So, whether I’m writing about the gold rush or espionage or automats or chicken farms, I’m inspired by historical articles, photographs, and art that reflect the language and tone of the time and place.

Do you find writing flash fiction and short-short forms challenging?
My stories are each 1,000 to 2,500 words, or sometimes even fewer. I believe in the fierce economy of words and I endeavor craft rich stories which deserve a second or third read. I believe a very short form is a very good match for my very capricious nature. The wonderful thing about writing many very short stories is the ability to live vicariously through different eras and locales – to live in them so completely while writing and then to, with great caprice, abandon them just as completely to discover another that’s new.

As our daily lives become busier and more complex, short stories become even more readable, relevant, and valuable. I appreciate the opportunity to provide a complete story experience in just a few short pages. There’s a great satisfaction in reading a story beginning to end in as little as a coffee break. It’s very different than picking a novel, even the best one, up and down and up again. So, whether it’s through a smartphone app, PC, or my preferred dog-eared paperback (swollen and ruffled from being dropped in the tub), there is no better time for the short story than right now.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Alex M. Pruteanu's Guerilla Writing Tactics

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alex M. Pruteanu, author of Gears (Independent Talent Group), shares his approach to organizing a collection and his flexible approach to writing.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I am nearly finished writing a novel at this point, so all of my ideas and any new writing are focused on this particular book, but when I don’t have a behemoth of a project like a novel hoisted onto my shoulders, I tend to daydream of new ideas for short stories quite often. Most of my fiction is inspired by what happens (or doesn’t) in real life. Out of the mundane, the slowly eviscerating grind that is life, are born interesting stories about brave or not so brave people, of seemingly quiet or anonymous people with quiet, anonymous lives. The tricky part of generating ideas is culling down the list to something that has weight, import, humanity, and a certain level of profundity…and also: Does it make for a worthy story to be told? “Worthiness” is that intangible factor that good writers seem to have a nose for. Knowing what to write (not just how to write it) is immensely important to the sensibilities of a writer.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
Either I was being held hostage at the time and made to write that story, or someone had maliciously slipped an evil “mickey” into my otherwise perfect martini, thus obfuscating what little I still have left of my mind. I have often found that what other people suggest to me as being “good stories to write about” are not. At the risk of sounding selfish, I find most people’s ideas of stories for me to explore in fiction to be quite bland, boring, and devoid of the humor they think or claim exists. That being said, perhaps I ought to reconsider the company that I keep, for surely it has to be my own doing.

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
I think organizing a collection in a logical manner is extremely important for the reader. If the reader gives his/her trust to the writer of a collection, then the reader is owed a logical trip or adventure. I paid a lot of attention to flow and subject matter and even voice/tone when it came to organizing my own collection. It actually didn’t take me too long to find (what I think is) the perfect order to Gears, but I physically laid out a hard copy of each story onto the surface area of my small house (1,400 sq. ft.) and flipped and switched and re-arranged each piece as if it were a giant playing card being moved in a game.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
Any idea that aimed to emulate something Ernest Hemingway had written…or in his style, was frankly a disaster. What people don’t seem to understand is how difficult it is to write “simply” like he did. And so, throughout the years, I’ve learned to just let Hemingway live inside of me, and see what happens when I put down my own words, for I truly believe that any artist who makes an impression on another artist, becomes part of an inner fabric or a brotherhood/sisterhood, and in some way or another, an influence is born, assimilated, and hopefully carried on, further developed or evolved.

Where do you do most of your work?
I love this question so much. I write in a style I call “guerilla writing.” They are irregular sessions of writing bursts strung together around the obstacles of a regular, daily life: a day job, family responsibilities, etc. I write on anything and everything (computer, laptop, pen and paper, the “cloud,” and even iPhone from time to time), and I do most of my work wherever it lends itself to be done. I’ve written in quiet environments, at a desk by a window, in public restrooms, on my own couch, and less often at coffee shops. The idea of having a “studio” sounds attractive, but it’s not practical for my lifestyle. I don’t have a set schedule for writing, nor do I have a designated place. “Guerilla writing.” By any means (and with every means) necessary.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Laura Kasischke: On Childish Things

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Laura Kasischke, author of If a Stranger Approaches You (Sarabande Books), recalls a formative experience.

My mother was a teacher, and one day she brought home from school with her a pad of soft, pale-brown paper with wide pink lines. The sheets of it were short and wide. When I wrote on them, the fat words of my fat pencil looked shiny. I liked it, so I sat on my knees on the shag carpet of the living room at a coffee table and wrote.

There was a journey. A ship. Rough seas. That sort of thing. Animals aboard the ship. I was a passenger on it, and also the captain, and the story was told to no one and for no one but me, deep into the evening, interrupted only by supper, during which I was not made to speak because I’m thinking.

All of this astonished my parents—this concentration, this strangeness, this dedication—and suddenly they loved me.

But my story wasn’t for them. I wouldn’t even let them read it. Later, I would learn to write to be read, to be loved, to be noticed, to compete for grades and prizes and boys and men and publication. I’d be asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” and, foolishly, I’d answer. I’d buy certain kinds of clothes, date certain kinds of guys, stay up late. Go to Bread Loaf. Get an MFA. Send out my “work” in alphabetical batches so I could add to my résumé. That sort of thing.

But, that night I was a writer. I didn’t even need a pencil. I didn’t require that pad of paper. I was happy on my knees.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Where David S. Atkinson Gets His Ideas

In the third in a series of posts on 2013 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, David S. Atkinson, author of Bones Buried in the Dirt (River Otter Press), discusses the irregular flow of story ideas.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas? 
This very question once itself triggered a story of mine called "Ideas: Where to Get Them and What to Do When They Won’t Leave." In that story, a personified (bad) idea follows the narrator home from a conference and only leaves when the narrator pretends to be getting to work on "[s]omething along the epic line. Maybe three thousand pages of consciousness stream unformed dream logic babble with a hint of poetic inversion." It is one of my more bizarre stories, which I feel is the most fitting answer to this particular question.

After all, there is no regularity to when ideas for stories occur to me, or anything specific that typically triggers them. The timing seems to be utterly random and the causes perhaps even more so. All of a sudden, one is there. Some are just ideas, and nothing more comes of them. However, sometimes they arrive with an overpowering voltage and an element of marvel. Those are the ones I know I have no choice but to carry through.

Gravity defying?
One story bubbled around in my head for over twenty years, brought on by a brochure for a tourist attraction I'd seen on a long road trip in the Southwest as a kid. The attraction was some kind of optical illusion house where objects appeared to roll uphill. The concept fascinated me, and simultaneously disappointed me because I knew it wasn't real. I always wondered what it would have been like if it wasn't illusion, something marvelous and at the same time completely pointless. Then a few years back, for reasons that I cannot explain, my obsession over that brochure suddenly sprouted into my story "Cents of Wonder Rhymes With Orange."

Another story of mine, "Counter Spring," which was inspired by a conversation about Sharia Law's treatment of rape, came quicker. I imagined a world where avarice was virtue and merchants could only be believed if seconded by a customer (because, after all, the customer is always right) even before the conversation was over. Though, truth be told, it took me two years to finally get the story exactly right despite the fact that the idea was born almost instantly.

Still another, "The Pipe," was something of a mix between a period of years and an instant. For years, I'd been fascinated by an exposed pipe that extended over a creek in my hometown. My parents drove by that creek once in a while, but I'd never actually walked anywhere nearby. At each end, the pipe had these fan-like half circles of steel mesh. I suppose they were to keep kids from messing around on top. Regardless, I saw that pipe over and over again for years, and kept thinking about sneaking around the fans and walking around just because I obviously wasn't supposed to. Then, when a friend read a particularly bad story of mine (one I delusionally thought was Lovecraftian) and told me in no uncertain terms how horrible it was, I insisted I'd show her what I could really do. Suddenly the pipe, as well as the story that involved it, popped into my head.

My ideas come when they come. They are triggered by whatever triggers them. I just sit down to write and hope for the best. That's all I can do.