Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Judy Chicurel and the Atmospheric Aura

In the 67th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Judy Chicurel, author of If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go (Putnam), discusses real life inspiration for her stories.



If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I would have been a social worker with a private therapy practice. Years ago I had been accepted into an MSW program and was set to pursue it, but then I was offered a job at a Long Island newspaper and I chose that instead. Second choice: full-time lit professor at the college level, though those jobs are now exceedingly difficult to come by even with a Ph.D, which I don’t have, and publications. When I was freelancing, I used to read Tarot cards on the side to supplement my income, which was really fun and interesting. Sometimes even now, I’m a little envious when I pass one of those storefront psychic places in the city, with the requisite crystal ball on a small round table inside and the “palm reading special” sign in the window. I joke about that as a retirement gig and my husband never knows if I’m really kidding. I’d also love to be a vintner and live on a winery, in Napa or on the North Fork of Long Island.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I write everything longhand first, and I’ll often write the ending to a story or novel before anything else. I know how things will end before I know what else is going to happen, so I’ll write the last sentence, which frequently comes to me very clearly, and then develop the story around it.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
It’s probably the most frequently asked question about the book; “How much of this is based on real life?” I’d say it’s more emotional reality than anything else, and the atmospheric aura of the book resonates from the physical setting of the beach towns I lived in during the seventies and early eighties. They all had commonalities, chief among them a willingness to tolerate local eccentricities without harsh judgment. Those circumstances allowed you to meet some really interesting people and I tried to bring that across in writing this book, because I had such affection for those times and those places. I think you always tend to borrow from real life people and situations but the characters and circumstances in my stories are inventions of people who seemed to fit in those settings. For instance, years ago, I attended a party in the more upscale part of town and the hostess took us on a tour of the house; there was a room at the very top, a kind of enlarged widow’s walk, and she told us that during the 1920s or 30s a doctor had owned the house and performed abortions in this room. I was always struck by that story, and used it in this collection, about two girls going in search of an abortion and the doctor’s office is in a beautiful house by the beach, while they’re expecting a back-alley entrance on the seamy side of town. I’ve never had that particular experience, but that house was definitely the inspiration for the story.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
This is such a great question, but I honestly can’t think of one! Not because my story ideas are always so amazing, but I usually pursue the ideas that I have because I like them or love the character I’m developing. I’ve had story ideas that I think are fascinating but might be considered too controversial by editors or even the reading public. I have one short story, “The Whistle,” about the woman that Emmet Till allegedly whistled at, which resulted in his hanging death, that’s written almost like a monologue. I think editors, even actresses I knew when I was trying to arrange a reading, might be a little afraid of it.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your  satisfaction?
I’m worked on two of them on and off over the past several years, both with young immigrant boys at the nucleus. But the work is too new at this point to predict the outcome. What’s prevented me from really polishing them to a finish are time constraints, so perhaps you can ask me again in a year or so.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
It’s a story called, “Wonderland,” and I’ve spent some time trying to find the author’s name without success; I read it back in the late eighties, I believe, in one of the Best American Short Story anthologies, though I can’t remember the specific year. It was a story about two young boys whose mother goes off with a boyfriend for a month or so and leaves a note for the oldest telling him that they’re old enough to look after themselves for a few weeks. Which they aren’t. It was a great read and a moving story. The writer was skillful in painting a somewhat sympathetic portrait of the mother, and though she didn’t appear much in the story, you really felt her presence on the pages. The nuances of the older boy’s feelings about his mother—anger, fear, reluctant love—were very well drawn, particularly because he’s trying to be so tough and keep it together for his younger brother. I’ve actually spent time on and off over the years thinking of one scene where the brothers are walking home from the grocery store; I’ve envisioned different ways the story could have gone, the introduction of new characters, usually when I’m on one of my nocturnal walks around the neighborhood. Wish I could remember the writer’s name.

Where do you do most of your work?
I like to edit at home in our office/guest room and often write first drafts while out of the house. It sounds strange, but I can concentrate better sitting in a café or a library, and I’ve been quite prolific while riding the subway. People always balk at that, but for many years, the only real time I had to write was while traveling to and from work or to the city—we live in a more remote part of Brooklyn, the only advantage to this being that I can get a lot of writing done while traveling. I’ve written at our home in upstate New York as well; it’s a great writing retreat.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
Walk. I’m an avid walker; it helps me relax and sometimes things will just come to me, phrases I was searching for, story ideas, plot innovations. I especially love walking on beaches and am fortunate enough to live close to several. Once I hit the bricks—or the sand, in this case—I just feel freer, less constrained. I also like to work on two projects simultaneously; the obvious reason is that if you get stuck in one place you can move to the other. But I’ve also found that each project can serve as motivation for the other, and the advantage is that after being away from one project for a few days I start missing the characters and can’t wait to get back to them again.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
This is a response I actually wrote for another Q&A that I’ve edited a bit, but I do think it’s valid enough to give again: Find situations where you can get your work noticed by people who are willing to help you and where you can build a supportive community, whether it’s an MFA program or other type of writing environment. And I’m going back to advice given to me by a friend’s father years ago at an elementary school track meet: I was running a 50-yard dash and I came in second, and he told me afterwards, “You know, you would have come in first but you were too busy looking around to see who was ahead of you.” Don’t look around at where everyone else is or where you think you should be and neglect the writing in the process. Because everything begins with the writing.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
A sense of place often provides the impetus for my writing. I’ve always said I’m very character-driven, but lately, looking over my work, it’s more the physical spaces and settings that have formed the inspiration. I’ve also been inspired by the young people I’ve worked with; I recently left my job as a Development Director for a youth empowerment organization and I was feeling somewhat jaded about the current political and economic landscape; part of my job was reviewing current events for my research file and by the time I’d finish cruising the Web I’d be ready to pack it in. But the young women we served really helped pull me out of this psychic stagnation, just by observing their accomplishments. They just do it, you know? Without money, without the kind of backing middle and upper class kids receive; they pursue their choices, get to college, go after the career...they make you feel better just knowing they’re out there tackling life. I also belong to an organization, the New York Writers Coalition; we facilitate writing workshops in underserved communities and that’s been a source of inspiration as well. I’ve done workshops with cancer patients, cognitively disabled young adults, teens and tweens in Coney Island…populations I might never have spent this kind of time with if not for these workshops. And the writing is amazing. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

D.W. Wilson's Headspace Thing

In the 66th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, D.W. Wilson, author of Once You Break a Knuckle (Bloomsbury), explores alternative careers.



If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I suppose in the best possible world where I wasn't writing, I would be a masked vigilante, not unlike Batman. It's in my blood: My old man's a (retired) Mountie and my grandfather was a town cop (so they say) and my sister works in the courts, and I had every intention of being a lawyer until about my third year in the University of Victoria's writing program, when after class one day my professor asked me if I'd applied to grad school yet.
  – No, I said.
  – You should, she said.
  – Okay, I said, and did.
Vigilante: Patroling the hood
Or I'd be doing Judo professionally, though I'm not sure that pays any better, and I never had the discipline to maintain the Grecian-God physique required to stay competitive. More realistically, I could probably pull wire for cash or make bank in, like, Fort McMurray doing my part to wreck the globe, or other miscellaneous construction (I lay a mean parquet floor) or I could teach, though the inescapable truth is that I've now spent my formative skill-learning years doing one thing. (This)

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
Well. I sing. Not in public and not with any success (I am flatter than some well-leveled hardwood) but late at night with my headphones on (noise-cancelling; I can hear nothing) I will belt out the lyrics to whatever bad eighties rock song happens to be blaring in my ears. It's one part an energy thing, since I work so late at night and will take any boost I can get, but it's also a headspace thing. I need music to write effectively. Something to do with syllable counting, maybe, the arrangement of Latinate versus Germanic words. I dunno, it's mysterious to me, too. Something to do with maintaining a certain rhythm in my prose.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
I suppose this depends on how you want to use the term “worst idea.” For instance: A few years ago I wrote an essay that is one part fascinating exegesis about voice in fiction and one part a verbatim recount of the first (not last) time my (now) wife declined to go on a date with me. I used her real name and for some reason a magazine published it. I think I had some grand plan that in the distant future when we were both middle aged and bored, I'd dust it off and show her and we'd have a good laugh and maybe rekindle our sex life, remembering how young and stupid we once were. Instead, she showed up by coincidence at the launch of the magazine that published it, so I took the only option available to me and necked five glasses of wine and spent the evening reciting the most embarrassing lines to her. You know, grab the dilemma by the horns and all that jazz. And now we're married! So perhaps there's a lesson there.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write constantly. Read deeply. Do your best not to despair but in moments of darkness know that every successful writer has shared that same darkness. As in all things, persistence beats resistance.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Heather A. Slomski Prepares Herself

In the 65th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Heather A. Slomski, author of The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons (University of Iowa Press), discusses a story she wishes she'd written and offers her advice.


What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
The story I wish I’d written is “Father’s Last Escape” by Bruno Schulz. For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s a very short story—barely five pages long—about a small family grieving for the loss of Father, who, prior to the story’s start, has been dying and returning to his family in different forms. The last time he returns, which the story chronicles, he does so as a crab or a large scorpion (the story doesn’t clarify further).

"Father's Last Escape": Returning as a scorpion
While the story is laced with dark humor (Uncle Charles comes to stay, for example, and as a result of his depression, he gets a strange pleasure out of trying to viciously step on Father), it is incredibly tender and sad. Schulz bestows upon Father-the-crab/scorpion such a convincing blend of crustacean/human attributes, and the combination of knowing that there is a kind and gentle man embodied in this crab/scorpion, of witnessing this “man’s” crablike behaviors (zigzagging across the floor at lightning speed; his desperate and futile attempts to right his position when turned on his back), and observing Joseph and Mother’s mixed feelings of Father in his latest form, is immensely moving. I still laugh out loud in a few key places while reading this story, though my laughter is not lighthearted or joyous, but the spent laughter of the bereaved.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
I do occasionally borrow characters or situations from real life, though less often than more, and so far I’ve gotten away with it. My work is fiction, not nonfiction, so anything “real” in my work has undergone a heavy process of fictionalization—not because I’m intent on hiding the truth, but because I’m not interested in writing nonfiction. I write to use my imagination, not to record things that have happened. If something “real” inspires my imagination, it does just that—inspires my imagination.

Ten pieces of writing and writing-life advice for aspiring writers:
1. À la Lorrie Moore: “First, try to be something, anything, else.”
2. If you come to the realization that you must write, prepare yourself for a life of continuous hard work and only sporadic payoffs.
3. Figure out how you can have people in your life but still spend a lot of time alone.
4. Learn to live frugally, even if/when you don’t have to; doing so will help you keep a clear mind.
5. Something I learned at a young age from my father: Never leave the house without something to read. You never know when you’re going to be stuck somewhere for ten minutes or three days.
6. Discover new writers (or writers who are new to you) on your own; don’t merely read the writers people tell you to read or the books everyone else is reading.
7. Write only to please yourself; do not write what you think others want to read.
8. If you get stuck on a piece of writing, walk away from it. Maybe for a short time, maybe for a long time, maybe forever. And start something else in the meantime.
9. Have a couple of hobbies—productive activities you can pursue when you need a break from writing and reading—but be careful of having too many. Writing and reading require a great deal of time.
10. Let other writers influence you, but don’t attempt to sound like them. Figure out who you are as a writer, and write to sound like yourself.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Donald Antrim's Very Once-Upon-a-Time Brand of Realism

By Nick Fuller Googins
New York, NY, Dec. 11, 2014


Dressed to the nines: Author Donald Antrim at NYU

Here's how Donald Antrim warms up a room:

“Alright, I’m just gonna read a story. So bear with me.”

The room was in the NYU Creative Writing Program’s West Village townhouse, decked out smartly for the holidays: wreath on the window, poinsettias on the mantel, heater humming in the background. Donald Antrim was decked out pretty smartly himself, wearing a sharp tweed coat, a chocolate brown vest, and a rich red tie, as though he’d perhaps moved on from his 2013 MacArthur “genius” award and retrained his sights on making the Best Dressed list. The story he’d selected to read was “The Emerald Light in the Air,” the final—and delightfully weirdest—story of his 2014 collection of the same title—narrated in his warm, hint-of-the-south accent.

“Emerald Light” begins modestly enough. Billy, a depressed, mildly-suicidal divorcé—who, like all of Antrim’s troubled male protagonists, has a past of substance-abuse issues and mental-health problems—is faced with a problem: His car has slid off the road and a storm is approaching. Rather than attempt to navigate the steep incline back to the road, Billy decides to drive his car up a nearby creek, deeper and deeper into the Appalachian woods, in search of an outlet. This is where “Emerald Light” takes an almost fairy-tale bend into the fantastic, making it, in some sense, the most Donald-Antrim-like story of his collection.

This discussion of the fantastic versus the real garnered a great deal of attention in the post-reading Q&A, moderated by Darin Strauss, author and NYU Writing Program instructor. To those familiar with Antrim’s previous work, especially his novels, the Cheever-esque realism of his short fiction might seem strange. Hearing Antrim speak on the subject, it appears as though this brand of short story realism felt strange to him too, or, at the very least, difficult to produce.

“I had written stories when I was much younger, in the eighties,” he said, “and they were dead kinda things.” Only after switching over to novels, working in the fantastic, and then returning to stories was he able to bring life to his short fiction. “I saw the thing moving away from a more conceit-driven conceptual universe to a more concretely emotional universe,” he explained, “one that the author doesn’t have to always manage and always find the distinctive logic in. Writing that is maybe less reflexively funny, in other words less driven by a narrator’s or character’s attitudes, or a writer’s attitudes, and a little more naked, and a little more direct. Just the world.”

This isn’t to say that the sharp realist fiction that drives much of Emerald Light suddenly poured forth from Antrim. Far from it. “The whole thing is so slow really,” he said, sounding deflated, as if someone had just told him to immediately hail a cab, go home, and begin work on another collection. “Each of those stories takes a long time, a couple years.” The seven stories in Emerald Light took him seventeen years from start to finish. (In response to Darin Strauss’s question if he wrote the stories concurrently: “I’ve never really done a lot concurrently. Multitasking! Can anyone really do it?”)

But the story “Emerald Light” is striking, in part, because it’s not overtly fantastical. Billy, after driving up the creek for some time, ends up grounded, stuck in the middle of the woods, at which point he is met by a boy with a tattered umbrella who asks if he is the doctor. Billy, high and definitely not a doctor, answers yes, and follows the boy to a dilapidated shack in the mountainside woods where he is faced with “treating” the boy’s dying mother. These events are neither shockingly unbelievable nor entirely fantastical in themselves, yet the story has an undeniable fantastical bent so subtle that it makes it difficult to remember where exactly Antrim departed from the more-or-less strict realism of the story’s beginning. Speaking on this juncture, Antrim called it “a bit of a leap of faith, this idea that the language, as it were, of that trip up into the woods. I mean, it’s full of associations for us, it’s very once-upon-a-time. I think the idea was to see if you can, without manipulating conceit, just get close to that place where the realism and this other thing—possibly fantastic, possibly hallucinatory—come together and are adjacent. And if that’s possible, then it may be possible to then start to actually produce what amounts to magical events.”

It’s after comments like these that you see why the MacArthur folks anointed the man. It’s not just that Donald Antrim’s fiction is skillful; it’s that he’s clearly thought about what he’s writing. Thought about it a lot. Listening to him you get the feeling that his mind is functioning at a different speed than the rest of ours are, not necessarily faster (okay, yes, probably faster) but on a completely separate plane.

Oh, by the way, he wasn’t finished with that previous comment, he was only coming up for air.

Donald Antrim took a breath, then continued: “So through that trip up into the woods, there was nothing to do but just sort of describe it as a romantic journey and a kind of a dream, and then hope that the other side would exist. If the suspension of disbelief is into this realist thing, can it then obtain in relation to something that actually isn’t real? So that was kind of an experiment for me. Does that make sense?”

“Perfect sense!” one MFA student in the audience answered, either lying, or much more of a genius than I.

The last question of the night went to another MFA student. He wanted to talk not about the fantastical or the real but about Mary, an ancillary, off-screen character who gets about a dozen lines in total. From these dozen lines, we learn that she and Billy slept together back in high school, have since reconnected, and have plans to meet for dinner. The question, posed as only an MFA student can pose a question (as an MFA student, I’m allowed to say that), went like this: “I have to say I was particularly drawn to the character of Mary, and I was almost taken aback by the very brief mention of her having had an abortion. I wonder if you can talk about your decision to have that be part of her story, the way it was included, especially in that very scientific and contemporary terminology.”

To which Donald Antrim responded with his most direct, easily understood answer of the evening: “It was just a sense of the place that I remember. That old Appalachian world, it was right there. It wasn’t meant as any statement on Mary. I was just remembering from when I was kid, growing up on a farm at the foot of the mountains. Everybody got going early.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Aurelie Sheehan Sneaks up on Plot

In the 64th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Aurelie Sheehan, author of Demigods on Speedway (University of Arizona Press), details her tangles with plot.


Plot. What a nightmare! At least that’s the way it’s felt for much of my writing life. Early attempts at “putting plot into my stories” were like stuffing a turkey into a teacup or inserting pencils and rulers into cake.

I never had anything against plot in other people’s writing. I’ve always loved stories strong in plot. A good plot keeps me turning the pages. The prose has to be clean, the characters alive—but these elements alone won’t keep me reading into the wee hours. What needs to kick in is the what-happens-next reflex.

Alas, the what-happens-next reflex wasn’t occurring at my own writing desk. There, it wasn’t a reflex at all, more like the sound of electrical wires fritzing out. I comforted myself with proclamations. Writers into plot were like mechanics ginning up outlines stuffed with spy-craft and long-lost, wealthy relatives. But I did worry: Was I the stereotype on the other side of the spectrum, a pajama-clad watcher, forever not engaged with life?

Here are ways I’ve found to sneak up on the idea of plot and make it my own:

  1. I read Jane Austen and began to think plot could be fun, rather than a curse.
  2. I realized how profound cause and effect can be—that events and observations did not just hang out in a nether-cloud of time, but were irrevocably shaped by the when of the story. 
  3. I read Joan Silber on time in fiction (The Art of Time in Fiction). Time in fiction is different than plot in fiction, but they are related. And time felt organic to me in a way plot did not. 
  4. I decided, to heck with plot anyway. To some extent I decided this.
  5. I found ways around it. For instance, I wrote a book where place replaced time—where the characters live near each other and their stories form not a plot but a constellation (in this case, the portrait of a city). 
  6. I felt the tawdriness of shaping stories, the artifice that had felt artificial, melt away to reveal a kind of beauty.
  7. I realized my limitations as a plot person and became a person who plots in her own way. In other words, I redefined plot so I could write one, too. It was a way of finding plot in my own stories.
These things helped, and I feel better about plot now, mellower. If the story of me and Plot were to be written, it would be a very gentle narrative, where the girl begins hating Plot, she has a fight or two with Plot and she breaks Plot’s elbow, and Plot breaks her chin, and then eventually they just stop fighting and go into a kind of Tai Chi tea party that lasts until the end of time.

Ready, Plot? Come on, now. Ready?

Monday, December 22, 2014

David Gordon Talks to Himself

In the 63rd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, David Gordon, author of White Tiger on Snow Mountain (Little A/New Harvest), discusses a seemingly bad idea that ended up working out well.


If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
That is a terrifying question, the sort that makes me wake up in a cold sweat. In fact, I have never, even as a small child wanted to be anything else, except an astronaut or a spy/criminal—so perhaps I’d be on of those, most likely a secret undercover agent aboard the space station. Still, I’m afraid I’d be what I was for the long years before I found publishers for my work: Someone who worked at a random, low-paying job all day and wrote at night.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I probably have lots of odd habits, but the one I was reminded of recently was being repeatedly busted walking around and talking to myself. I’ve walked into streetlamps and been caught by an acquaintance standing on the corner and laughing for no reason. I suggested I was on the phone but she said, “No you had your hands in your pockets and you were just laughing.” When I lived on the ground floor in Soho, on a block full of shops, the workers told me they all wondered, “Who is that guy who paces up and down mumbling to himself all day?” 

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
This is the question I’m “skipping,” only because I already published an essay about this topic and don’t want to repeat myself. The short answer is, no and yes: I was not, in my mind, describing real life, but real live people were both angry and pleased about it anyway.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
The worst idea I ever had actually resulted in “White Tiger on Snow Mountain,” the title story of my collection. Luckily it was also one of the best title ideas I ever had, so that helped. But when I first thought—“I know, I’ll write about a guy who thinks he’s impotent and goes for acupuncture while also chatting anonymously with depraved and desperate women online,” I immediately decided: “Do not write that. Worst idea ever.” Then I thought, “Well, I will just make a few notes.” Then, “Just a first draft. No one ever needs to see it.” That first draft was like 70 pages, which I shaved down to about 45. Then: “Just show your best writer friend and if she says you’re disgusting just destroy it.” As it happens, she thought it was my best story. 

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction
Unsolved mystery: What's this cat thinking about?
Undercover agent aboard a space station is sounding pretty good at the moment, actually.

But the story I’ve thought of writing but never have is from the point of view of a cat. But not like a cartoonish, anthropomorphic cat or a children’s storybook cat or a fantasy cat—a real cat. Probably it comes from too much time sitting around, trying to write and looking at cats and wondering what they’re thinking. I look at dogs a lot too, but it is much easier to guess what they’re thinking. 

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
The answer to this is like a math puzzle: Either there are hundreds or none. Part of the oddness of being a writer is knowing that I can never be even a fraction as good as any of the greats who came before me yet still wake up each day in the belief that attacking that story about the cat who is really a secret agent aboard the space shuttle is the most important and urgent task in the world.

Where do you do most of your work?
At my desk in my warm home in my underwear surrounded by my books and looking at the view. I am a lucky man.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
Get up from that desk and walk around or lie down and stretch on the floor. In fact, (knock on wood), I have never had “writer’s block” in the strict sense of having no idea what to write about. I have had a project going, a story or poem or script or novel I was working on, every day since early childhood and always took it very seriously as a job. But if I am never “blocked” I am constantly “stuck.” That also seems to be an almost daily occurrence, and all I’ve learned over the years is to just keep showing up, as one does for one’s job, and eventually working it out. And that staring into space, reading, pacing, complaining, doodling and despairing are actually part of the process, count as “work” and seem to lead to the next day or week or month when it all unsticks and starts moving again.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
The clever move here would be to say “Quit writing and go to law school or join the Peace Corps or something,” knowing full well that real, natural-born writers are immune to advice and will ignore me anyway. But instead I will say all I really can: Read incessantly, learn grammar at least and, (unless you have financial support from family or something) learn some marketable skill. That was my big mistake. I couldn’t even bartend. I knew nothing but how to read and write, so I was doomed.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Assuming you mean culturally, I will say that music and film are absolutely as important to my life and nearly as influential to my work as books and there have been times in my life when I studied them just as obsessively, haunting record shops and jazz clubs or hanging around re-run cinemas and renting two videos a night. I am also fascinated with the visual arts, particularly painting, and find myself reading biographies and watching documentaries about painters more than writers these days. I think there is something about their process that I imagine is rather close to my own, though I was always jealous of my art and music friends for being able to make so much noise and mess.

But taking the question more broadly, anything might help, you can’t tell, so you have to be alert: Taking a walk, shopping, watching kids play, or dogs, or birds. Hearing your neighbors fight. Watching bits of bad TV when you can’t sleep. Nightmares. I love listening to people talk and have always hung out with non-writers who are great tale-tellers: old people, travelers, drinkers, cranks, criminals, liars. Even awful things that seem like a waste of time end up being topics you write about: getting stuck in an airport, working a dead-end job. Even grief teaches us if we are willing to learn. Like Henry James said, “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Not even loss, if you can help it.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Eliza Robertson Rocks

In the 62nd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Eliza Robertson, author of Wallflowers (Bloomsbury), considers alternative careers.


If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I have three answers for this question, or rather, I will interpret this question in three different ways. 

Interpretation #1: If I died tomorrow and could be reincarnated as another human being, what would I be? Answer: a dancer. I have danced recreationally for twelve years, but it’s not the same. I missed the back-bending, foot-breaking golden years, and I am not sure I have a natural talent for it anyway. I was born pigeon-toed, which is the opposite of what you want. 

Interpretation #2: If at 20 I did not join the University of Victoria’s creative writing program, what would I be? Answer: A lawyer. I studied political science for the first three years of my undergraduate with the hopes of writing the LSAT and going to law school. 

Interpretation #3: If right now I did not write what would I be doing? This might be the nearest to the original question. Answer: I would work in a fun open-plan office with bowls of candy and bean bag chairs and walls you could write ideas on. I don’t know what the company would be, but it would involve an OK salary, witty coworkers and benefits, I hope. (Really — I would like this anyway, even as a full-time-ish writer.) OR I would work in film production. I don’t know what I would do in film production, but I feel at home on set, and I think I would like to speak into a headset or walkie talkie.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
It has come to my attention that I rock from side to side. The first time I noticed, I was working at the beautiful Bibliothèque d’Etude et du Patrimoine in Toulouse, where I lived at the time. I suppose we are hyperaware of our behaviour in public spaces, because only then did I realize that I was shifting back and forth on the chair. I stopped. I didn’t want the French to think I was a psycho. The next day I caught myself rocking at home and did not stop. I figure it helps maintain a prose rhythm.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
Normally I do not borrow characters from real life, except once I wrote about a hostile housemate. The story itself is not autobiographical, but certainly I recycled some of her mannerisms. She has not confronted me about it. It wouldn’t be the worst thing. I portrayed her sympathetically in the end, I think.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
When I was in a second year workshop at UVic, I submitted a story about a sword swallower, which was written in the form of a how-to guide. (The title was “How to Swallow a Sword,” I think.) It was basically a dramatized eHow set at a circus with a snake charmer and lobster boy who made puns about sea life. Oh, and the narrator was incestuous and “sword swallowing” became a metaphor for seducing his niece. I tried to take on too much, I think. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sean Ennis Puts in the Time

In the 61st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Sean Ennis, author of Chase Us (Little A/New Harvest), talks about borrowing from real life and setting himself up to be lucky.


If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I was a Philosophy major in college so I didn’t have a clear career path.

The last job I left before pursuing writing seriously was with the City of Philadelphia. I was a “management trainee,” which meant I did a lot of high level photocopying, and took minutes at meetings I didn’t understand. The pay was really good, and would increase, regularly, so long as I didn’t, like, carve a swastika into my desk, or pull my pants down in front of the mayor’s wife when she occasionally visited. Men in crumpled khakis would often corner me in the elevator and say, “You could be me in twenty years.” This was terrifying. But my father, a city employee himself, told me that if I didn’t find anything else to do, he would make me quit that job within a year—a bit of advice I’ve always been grateful for. Still, every once in a while, I do imagine what would have happened if I stayed on board. I mean, I had a Palm Pilot (remember those?).

I recently tore my Achilles tendon and have started physical therapy. My PT is the happiest person I’ve met in years. He bobs among us injured with exercise demands and hums along to the Top Forty radio blaring in the training room. Someone asks him about Twitter and he says he only follows other PTs and pastors. From overheard chatter, it sounds like he and his wife just adopted a very sick little girl from Africa. He heals people. I’d like to do that. Like lots of writers, I teach writing, and it’s often hard to know whether there’s progress with my students. But my foot is less purple, and I’m getting closer and closer to picking up a marble with my toes. What a cool job.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
All the time. It’s unclear to me how else I would generate story. But there’s rarely a one-to-one connection though—events get exaggerated and compressed, characters are often mash-ups of a few people I’ve met, and personality traits are blown up or deflated as seems appropriate.

I’ve never really had a negative experience with this. It took my mother a little bit of time to distance herself from anytime I wrote about a mother. But that makes sense. I think my friends get a kick out of seeing themselves occasionally in my fiction. And I have sympathy—it’s not easy to be in a relationship with a writer who might be mining you for material. But I think a responsible fiction writer doesn’t just copy and paste people or events onto the page. Still, the real world is usually more interesting than pure imagination.

For me, this is one of the less reported on benefits of being a writer: the opportunity to transform crappy real life events into art. When something catastrophic, or tragic, or even just downright irritating is happening, I pretty quickly start taking notes. This might be an unhealthy response to real life events, but it does provide new fodder for story-telling.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
I love this question, and I wish I had a great example, but I don’t. It’s certainly not because I haven’t had terrible ideas, but they’re bad because they’re boring (and so probably not worth reporting on here). Most of my stories worth abandoning have to do with people who are trapped, or even just extremely bored. These are really difficult plots to move forward, even if the first few pages might be interesting. My worst ideas have no legitimate engine to push them forward.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
For writing in general, I’d just assert that the work gets better when you put the time in. Forget mystical issues of “talent” or “inspiration.” Writing effective fiction is much more like hitting a 90 mph fastball or cooking the perfect omelet, than convening with some muse—practice, practice, practice. Your worst idea is instructive, and your best ideas usually come while you are already writing. As far as I can tell, there is no third party, no spirit guide, no secret knowledge that some writers have access to while others don’t.

For publishing, I think the real virtues are patience and persistence. This isn’t sexy advice, but most publishing successes I’ve had have come from the piece finding itself in the right place at the right time in a way I never could have predicted. So, submit the work you’re done with, go to the literary events that you can drive to and/or afford, and accept that luck, as in most people’s careers, has something to do with your success. But of course, there are ways to set yourself up to be lucky.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Peter LaSalle Considers John Cheever Across the River

In the 60th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Peter LaSalle, author of What I Found Out About Her (University of Notre Dame Press), recalls the time he almost met a literary idol.


Every short story writer surely has his or her pantheon of masters of the genre.

For me, there's Borges and Hemingway and Maupassant (trained by no less a mentor than Flaubert, and amazing to think how Maupassant could accomplish so much in such a small space—I personally say it's tough to find any writing in the entirety of world literature to match the sheer craft afoot in "The Necklace" or "Boule de Suif").

And there's also been—equally a favorite and the subject of what I have to tell here—John Cheever.

Like many aspiring writers fresh out of college, I was stuck in a job that had little to do with writing. True, I was supposedly working with words as a reporter for the Providence daily newspaper, but those words were far removed from what I really wanted to write. And what I really wanted to write, often my model early on, was fiction like that of John Cheever, his startling short stories. They were seemingly about lost city dwellers or lost suburbanites, while they also approached something much larger and airier than that. Intimate, rendered in a prose effortlessly lyrical, they moved toward valid transcendence in gems like "O Youth and Beauty!" and "Goodbye, My Brother." I read Cheever, I imitated him in stories I wrote when young, and I read him some more.

Which makes what did happen quite painful, I suppose, but important and even revelatory, too, an incident back in 1970 that has always stuck with me.

You see, good friends of mine from college in Boston were marrying in Albany, and a bunch of us in our old undergrad group drove or flew in from various parts of the country to attend the June wedding. Afterwards we planned to keep the impromptu reunion going for a while and spend a few days at the longtime family summer place of my college roommate at Thousand Islands there in upstate New York. It was seldom used now, so we would have the entire house to ourselves, a grand old operation from an elegant era long gone by, sprawling yet ramshackle and located on its very own island on the St. Lawrence River. With cars left on the mainland, our shuttling back and forth for groceries and such was done via a little white-and-blue Boston Whaler powered by a happily buzzing outboard motor. We weren't even a full year past graduation—guys and girls, swimming and enjoying the extended meals we slapped together in the antiquated kitchen, then talking late into the night.

One afternoon, the others set off in the Boston Whaler to bring some supplies from the mainland over to friends of my roommate's parents at a similar big summer house on a nearby island, but I took a pass on the idea. I guess I saw this little vacation from rushing out of the newsroom to cover yet another tangled car crash, let's say, as a time to rest up, free of the drudgery of newspaper work. Plus, I was maybe a bit hung over from too much Utica Club beer that accompanied all the good talk the night before, and I wanted to just relax that sunny, leafily brilliant June day, probably reading, certainly napping as well. When the contingent returned a few hours later, I met them at the dock. I asked how the afternoon had gone; a lovely girl named Sandra in her swimsuit there in the boat looked up from under a Red Sox cap and said they had fun visiting the friends of my roommate's parents, had even met a famous writer:

"John Carter, I think his name was," she said, "a nice man and a house guest there."

"Not Carter." My college roommate, tying up the boat, corrected her. "It's something like that, with a 'C,' and apparently a short story writer, named John . . ."

"Cheever?" I offered hesitatingly, and my roommate confirmed it.

Cheever: So close and yet so far
I seem to remember—or maybe simply picture—me lingering on the dock after the others, sunburned and noisy, headed up the slope of the shaggy lawn to the house, as I stood there alone, looking out over the shimmering blue water to the wooded island across the way and thinking still more, now with self-recrimination: "Man, I could have met John Cheever, and there I was, lazily sleeping away the afternoon."

Anyway, here's the jump I wish to make, to perhaps bring this all full circle. Yes, I felt disappointment then, but sometimes the scene also does come pleasantly back to mind lately whenever I look at a blank page and begin a new short story. There's always that possibility, a fresh chance, and maybe this time the words themselves will produce a rare story indeed, granting I'm never to be even vaguely included in that hallowed group of my short story masters, of course. And with the sentences accumulating, the narrative moving along almost like a buzzing Boston Whaler with its blunt, wave-splashing bow tirelessly cutting through the water, the story will take me to a place where I just might tap into at least a small measure of the magic that any of those heroes of mine so often and very beautifully tapped into.

All of which is to say, there's John Cheever beckoning across water, also Borges and Maupassant, even the mustached, dimpled, darkly handsome young Hemingway there.

The whole gang, writers who with others have made the genre the special entity it is, which, for better or worse, has led me to neglect trying to write the Great American Novel (though I've published a couple of hopefully reasonably decent ones) and devote what has passed for a pretty long literary career to what ultimately interests meah, the short story!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Amina Gautier Says: "Remember Who You Were"

In the 59th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Amina Gautier, author of Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press), discusses her life-long love of reading.



If I could give one piece of advice to another writer, it would be this: Remember who you were before you became a published Writer.

Before I ever had a short story published or a book published and became a Writer, I was just a girl who loved to read. While growing up in Brooklyn, I had two homes and two lives. From Friday to Sunday, I lived in East New York, in an apartment full of people. There I lived with my mother, grandmother, uncle, and male cousin, and we were a family of five. On the weekends, I lived with noise and activity, and very little time to think. During the week, I lived in Brownsville, with my grandmother’s older sister. My great-aunt was forty-four years my senior; she did not know how to play dolls; and she still had a hi-fi stereo system capable of playing eight tracks—in short, to me she was as old as old could get. But, in her home, there was quiet and the time and the freedom to read. Every night, after she went to bed, I would perch on a kitchen counter and read. The light in the small space of our kitchen was the strongest, brightest light in the apartment. I would hoist myself onto the kitchen counter and nestle in the space between the refrigerator and the sink and there I would read for hour, lost to the page. The mosquitoes—attracted by the light—that came in through the opened living room window and bit my legs to bloodiness didn’t bother me. The warmth radiating from the refrigerator’s back coils went unnoticed. The cramps, neck cricks, numbness and tingles that come from sitting in one position too long? They were as nothing to me so long as I had the words, the book, the pages to turn.

Before I ever became a Writer, I was a reader enchanted and seduced by what the words on the page could do, in love with the way a short story or novel could reach inside of me and spread itself across my soul. I had been warned that there were consequences that came from reading. Frederick Douglass’s masters warned that it could make a disadvantaged person discontented. Parents and guardians warned that it could cause one to strain one’s eyes and wear glasses for the rest of one’s life. It could pull you from your friends. If you did it before going to bed, your brain would be too active and it would make you lose sleep. But what are such threats in the face of such an irresistible lure?

And now—lucky me—I am a Writer. Which means that not only do I have the honor and privilege of attempting to write books that will do for other readers the same things books first did for me, but also that I get paid to read. Like many published writers, I am tasked with reading the fledgling work of students for the purpose of commenting and grading, reading published collections and novels for the purpose of conducting interviews or writing book reviews, and reading unpublished manuscripts submitted for various contests, journals, prizes, and residencies for the purpose of assessing, evaluating, and ranking. And then, of course, there is my own writing. There are deadlines; there are rejections; there are rewrites and editors’ comments; there are changes I did not approve or wish I could go back and make. There are payments in contributor’s copies and promises never fulfilled. There are bad reviews; no reviews and any number of writing-life-related distractions that can threaten my joy with tedium. It’s easy for one to forget why one loves writing or why one started and how one even got here in the first place.

Dear Writer,

Permit me to refresh your memory. Here is how you got here:

Books: You gotta love 'em
Before you became a Writer, you were a Reader, a lover of good and fine books. Once upon a time, you read books that moved you, that took over your mind and ruined your day for whatever else it was that you had planned. You read books that made your brain stand up, applaud and beg for more. You read books that made you believe that writing was something secret and magic and wonderful. (How does that magician do it?). You memorized your favorite lines, recited them aloud in public and in private, used them to impress teachers and crushes. You snuck flashlights under the cover in defiance of calls for lights out and time for bed (You book-loving insurgent, you!). You took chances with your life by reading while walking, bumping into people or stepping off of curbs into oncoming traffic. You folded beloved books into your back pocket to keep them around just in case of emergencies. You loved books the way a child first loves its mother—joyfully, unquestioningly, simply, fully, and without judgment.

Remember?
Remember.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Catherine Browder and the Unmet Mentors

In the 58th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Catherine Browder, author of Now We Can All Go Home (BkMk Books), discusses how great writers have inspired her.


I’m a “late bloomer.” I was 29 and teaching in Japan when I decided to write fiction. While walking to my suburban Osaka train station, I had the thought: This is what I want to do with my life. Besides, not only did I suddenly have the “luxury of time,” but the need: Writing was a way of preserving a sense of my own language, and myself. There were no “writing teachers” except books. Gratefully, we expats took advantage of the British consulate in Kyoto to check out novels, as well as the cheap English language paperbacks at Kinokuniya Bookstore… Odd, that in Japan I discovered Joyce Carol Oats, Grace Paley, Doris Lessing.

But the most significant influence during those overseas years was Katherine Mansfield. After reading her novellas, "Prelude" and "At the Bay," I marveled that you could tell a story this way. I was smitten. Later I learned to what extent she was an innovator—with her child narrators, her meandering and multiple points of view filled with the sensual details of New Zealand, and her canny psychological insights. Much later I discovered how much she’d been influenced by Chekhov. But at the time I wanted to be like her, write like her. So began a period of shameless imitation. If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” then I was guilty of it. Poor dead Katherine: the object of my scrutiny and my love.

(I take comfort in the fact the traditional Chinese landscape painters spent years imitating their masters.)

In his memoir, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, Norman Mailer recounts a visit he made to Nelson Algren’s writing class in Chicago. Mailer writes how dismayed he was at one student’s work, which struck him as “bad Hemingway.” Algren was unconcerned, explaining to an indignant Mailer that imitation was part of the process and would pass. A serious writer, Algren opined, will tire of imitating when he’s established his own voice. 

Reading the passage brought to mind my Mansfield years, and I realized to what extent these admired writers (dead and alive) are teaching us how to write. They are our "unmet mentors;" and our own writing is part of a continuing conversation we have with them. In the last few years I’ve sensed this conversation, and mentor-hood, while reading (sometimes for the first time) the works of Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Willa Cather, and Charles Dickens. Try asking yourself: Who are my unmet mentors?

Fast forward to 2006. For two years, as a university teacher of fiction, I was re-immersed in the stories of Chekhov, even the plays. I attended an impressive university production of Three Sisters. For weeks after the performance the plight of the Prozorov family haunted me, especially the youngest daughter. What now for Irina? I needed to find out. Yet the form this inquiry would take struck me from the onset as narrative, not dramatic. I would discover their future lives in fiction—on the page, not on the stage. From Irina, I went on to her sisters and finally her brother. And so began the book, Now We Can All Go Home.
Anton Chekhov: Doubly Innovative

Like his fictional characters, many of Chekhov’s dramatic characters are so compelling, and flawed, it’s hard to say good-bye when the curtain comes down. And so I moved on to Uncle Vanya. Besides, Chekhov ends his plays in the middle of things—we keep waiting for another scene or some sort of resolution. We forget he was an innovator in drama as well as short fiction. He introduced realism with a light touch, where natural sounds and pauses could be heard, and actors didn’t declaim.

Finally, I turned to Dr. Dorn of The Seagull, the only contented man in Chekhov: the ideal narrator.

With each new character it was necessary to reread the play. A new reading, a new discovery. And so the dialogue with my "unmet mentor" continued for five years, traveling through many revisions. The project allowed me to live in the two worlds I feel most at home: short fiction and drama—Chekhov’s worlds. The challenge wasn’t to sound or write like Chekhov. No, the challenge was to imagine a future life for nine characters beloved by many and in so doing, honor them and their creator.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A.L. Kennedy Gets Out of the Way

In the 57th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, A.L. Kennedy, author of All the Rage (Little A/New Harvest), discusses her writing habits.




If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I would be unemployable. I'd be a very grumpy waitress, or stacking shelves in a DIY store or something. It would be ugly.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I don't like to write serious prose unless I'm barefoot.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
It's largely a myth that serious writers are forever borrowing people from life. People from life fit the real world—they do less well in imagined worlds. And I'd rather have my friends as friends and my family private.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
If I get an idea I'm glad—I wouldn't ever treat it as if it wasn't any good. It's possible to produce a good piece from any idea—it's possible to screw up any idea with bad writing. It's all in how you tell it.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
It's my job to write stories—when I get an idea, I write it. If I thought I had really exciting idea, I would always write it. I don't have anything hanging around that I haven't written, beyond the ones in the queue that I haven't got to yet.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
I don't wish I'd written other people's stories. The joy of  them is that someone else produced them and I can enjoy them. Anyone else—including me—would have produced something different.

Where do you do most of your work?
I travel a lot, so I write pretty much everywhere. Trains and hotel rooms are especially good. I do have a study at home, but I'm rarely at home.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I go for a walk, or watch a movie, or cook a big batch of food. Then, when my head isn't tired, it can see the story properly.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write. Remember it's not about you - it's about the story and the reader. Get out of the way.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Everything that I do and everything that I see, everything I read, everywhere I go. Life.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Shelly Lowenkopf's Good News and Bad News

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Shelly Lowenkopf, author of Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out at Night (White Whisker Books), explores the upside and downside of having a book accepted for publication.


In what may be the oldest joke in publishing, an aspiring writer learns from his or her literary agent, “There’s good news, and then there’s bad news. The good news is, you’re going to be published.”

At this point, the aspiring writer wonders what downside could impact this extraordinary event. “Ah, the bad news,” the agent says. “The bad news is, you’re going to be published.”

Of course the irony is lost on the aspiring writer, who now has visions of transition from aspiring to emerging. After some long, arduous sessions, the writer has performed chiropractic on the original concept, adjusting, twisting, and reshaping it to the point where an agent has agreed to represent it, provided the following matters are resolved. Thus the writer learns of editorial notes.

But what could go wrong now? What could turn the good news into bad news, now, of all times, when the contract has been signed, and the publisher’s check for the advance against royalties has cleared the bank?

What, indeed?

The aspiring-now-emerging author is soon to meet the editor who, in fact, is taking a risk to her own emerging career. The meeting is in the form of a memorandum, either snail mail or pdf file, by no means something as terse and business-like as a mere email. The eager author reads it, then telephones the agent.

 “Why,” the author asks, “would they take my novel on if there is so much wrong with it?”

“Ah,” the agent says. “I see you received your editor’s notes.”

“This is like—"  the author says, “—like going to a doctor to have a splinter removed, then being diagnosed with stage III cancer.”

“Could we please,” the agent, all patience, says, “dispense with the metaphor and get on with the work? Oh, and by the way, welcome to the club. When you’re finished with the editor’s notes, you’ll be a writer.”

Several myths shatter in this imaginary scenario, which is not so much imaginary as it is a compression of my own experiences as an editor, with authority to contract titles, for general trade, mass market, literary, and scholarly book publishers.

You might think, then, that my experiences would preclude the phone calls or emails to my agent when, as a writer, I’m on the receiving end of editorial notes, or that I even get editorial notes. Go ahead—think that. But you’d be wrong. To set the record straight, I would not want to publish with a house that did not give notes and suggestions. This statement is made with the memory of a call I once made to my agent where I said, in a bowdlerized version, “They want me to spell out—to freaking explain—what the reader will all ready know.”

Agents being agents, mine said to me in reply to my outburst, “Maybe if you got through in time, we could meet for dinner.”

Yet another myth for shattering, this one being that writing is a lonely, solitary business, one screenwriters and dramatists retreat to after such traumatic experiences as a producer once wanting me to write in a part for his girlfriend’s Golden Retriever.
Golden Retriever: Bit part?

“Not the brightest dog in dogdom,” I said. The producer smiled.

 “You’ll understand when you see my girlfriend.”

When I’m doing the thing I most enjoy, which is telling stories, I’m grateful for the occasional hours I get alone, with no interruptions, no deadlines, no suggestions. If I’m lucky, I might get in as much as an hour before some character doesn’t see his or her part the way I do, or some editor, often my own inner editor, takes exception to a word choice or a line or, sometimes, an entire paragraph. “You call that story? You call that dialogue?”

I’m often delighted to learn my literary agent has a full plate at work, because then I won’t have to listen to her telling me about an editor she knows who’d be perfect for the novel we’ve been discussing. When an old sales manager pal from earlier publishing days reminds me to keep my ear to the ground, I try to make light of the situation by telling him, if I do keep my ear to the ground, all I’ll hear is the D Train to Yankee Stadium. But I know what he means. He means, listen to the public.

The good news is, I hear the public; the bad news is, I hear the public too much, drowning out my own. I have, in fact, spent the past several years trying not to listen to the public for marching orders, rather to listen to it for ideas.

“Good,” your sales manager buddy, whose name is Fred, and who has on occasion, given you blurbs for your books, says. “You got to move beyond midlist.”

 He means I have to work my way closer to the front pages of the publisher’s catalogue. He means well; I know that, and I love him for it. Another writer we both know well has listened to the public and as a result, her books are frequently on The New York Times bestseller lists.

My literary agent has never welcomed me to the club or told me I was a writer now; she took me on because she assumed I already was in the club, which, for her, means I write at least two thousand words a day.

Fred’s and my friend who hits The New York Times Best Seller list once attended lectures I gave at a writers’ conference, and I once saw her, her back so messed up, that she had to sprawl across the width of her bed in order to reach her laptop, down on the floor, to get in her pages. I have a blurb from her on a previous book of mine.

There’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is, you’re getting published. The bad news is, you’re not alone. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Christian Winn and the Search for Meaning

In the 55th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Christian Winn, author of Naked Me (Dock Street Press), shares a story from his collection that exemplifies quest.



I’ve written stories for a long time—expansive narratives, and short narratives, and many in between, about who and how I am in this world, and (hopefully) about who and how we all are—but I didn’t know precisely, in actual words, just how to define this elemental need and practice for many years. What did it all mean?

Hemingway, or Twain, or some wise screenwriter in early Hollywood said if you are going to write, then your highest goal is: “A good story, well told.”

Flannery O’Connor proclaimed: "A story is a complete dramatic action—and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is meaning that derives from the whole presented experience."

Meaning. Meaning. Meaning?

The meaning came to me most profoundly with these words from Tim O’Brien: “Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

The remembering makes it now… There’s meaning in that, for me.

I wrote this short-short story below, “Molly Ringwald,” which has ultimately ended up in my collection, Naked Me, about that search for meaning—in time, in lives, in pop culture icons, in my sister and all that life years ago. Thanks, Mr. O’Brien, for letting me understand further just why I wrote this short piece, and why I still love that I did. Thank you all for writing the stories you do, and thanks to the Story Prize for championing this highest endeavor of our search for meaning. Here’s to finding the stories.

Molly Ringwald


Twenty-five years later I’m watching Pretty In Pink on Christmas afternoon while my sister sleeps on the suede couch behind me, our parents gone off to church, her daughter in a side room talking to her new American Doll. It’s raining hard all over So Cal, and the season seems remotely complete—with me here alone, again, and now the television singing and whispering, disappearing the years as I sit up close eating red M&M’s understanding scene by scene that I will never get over Molly Ringwald, or those OMD cassettes, or that fat spray-paint graffiti head shouting at Duckie while he’s down and wading in his love for Molly beside TRAX, the Smiths record store. I mean, the way she bites her lip, and sneers at James Spader in his white linen sport coat. The way she’s smart and precious and a little too thick at the ankles—I love her, too, Duckie, I fucking love her. We’re all still in the middle of it, those Psych Furs and New Order songs and Harry Dean Stanton waving surrender, surrender, I gave my life for you—it’s what you wanted for breakfast, right? 

Somehow I got lost in all that Midwest urbania, lost in the dim hopes of big hair and the tiptoe prom dance where the Pogues played the purest future on a three-string mandolin and nothing was easy, but dying was impossible, and I was with you Molly, walking the looming echo of the high school midway and running hallways past the locker bays where Duckie drew blood for you, Molly, because he couldn’t imagine his future self without you, and we, all of us, couldn’t imagine anything but the joy of the bell ring and the next slow-dance.

Here, the knuckled palm trees sway across the sliding glass, and ocean clouds build towers above the canyons. My sister snores against embroidered silk pillows, and I remember how she wore imitation pearls and checkered Vans and her hair like Molly’s that one year—lopsided and coifed—and I wonder if she ever thinks how I hugged her one morning, told her she was cool, which meant that I loved her, wanted a perfect, kind life for her. I didn’t yet know this was impossible. I wanted it though, more even than Andrew McCarthy does for Molly, who he takes to that shit party where everyone is shirtless, and drinking scotch despite the fact they’re in high school, and Molly’s upset because she doesn’t drink like a rich kid. Molly frowns that round red mouth. Molly tosses insults and takes a stand. And my sister rolls over, ignoring my niece’s back-room whimper, waking only to point at the television and smile above the pile of used ribbons glinting in our dim afternoon. Years fold. And I don’t recognize how the one life became the other. Or, what happened to Molly’s mother? And did Harry Dean ever get that job? What happened to the way we once loved all this bolo-tie menace and our pony-hair shoes?

And fuck, John Hughes is dead, and he left his cities full of taffeta, left his houses’ back doors wide, where someone like me might stumble in to steal his creepers and dance like 1986, live forever on clove cigarettes and mopey antiheroes, and Molly.

But that was only Christmas. It rained all week.