Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lee Upton on Obsession, Denial, and No-Guilt Naps

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Lee Upton, author of Visitations (Louisiana State University Press), answers a few questions.


When was the first time you wrote an explicit sex scene?
That hasn’t happened yet…. I have that to look forward to…if I become an entirely different person.

What emotional states interest you as a writer?
Obsession. For example: In Visitations, a woman in the story “A Stalker” says of her obsession with a man who had once loved her: “Being wanted—it was like a worm delivers a drug right into your bloodstream. Then you’re unwanted, but the worm wants more.”

Another emotional state that interests me: Denial. In another story in Visitations, “Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend,” a character attempts to numb her grief: “People paid too much attention to what passed for romantic love. It was sentimental, overwrought. Hyperbolic. In the end, it wasn’t profound. No, it was only regrettable, not tragic or even sad. Still, people shot each other in the head because of it.”

Are the stories in Visitations united in any way?
Yes. Many pivot, at some level, around the subject of books. About over-valuing a book and undervaluing one’s own experiences. Or undervaluing books. How myths and fairy tales and early childhood reading contour an entire adult life. Why it would be such a pleasure to join the world’s laziest book club. The crevices inside books from which we can pull fresh meaning.

What habit do you recommend for other writers?
Napping. I used to work full-time at a credit agency and struggled to stay awake. I worked my way up to eight cups of coffee a day, and I was still sleepy. I remember how desperately I didn’t want to be exhausted after work so that I could write. When the weekend arrived I was so tired that I fell asleep in the afternoon with my papers and books around me on the fold-out couch in my studio apartment. My exhaustion might have come from not only working hard and being bored while I worked, but from loneliness. Loneliness is exhausting.

The thing was, when I woke up from that first nap on my first Saturday of my first week at the credit agency, I began to write with great concentration—as if words had been assembling themselves while I slept. It was like that fairytale, a touchstone for so many writers who rely on the unconscious: “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” While the shoemaker sleeps the elves cobble shoes for him. Later I made friends, moved into a house with roommates, met others who wanted to be writers, and wept with gratitude for my new life. Those naps had helped me, but I no longer needed them as much.

Napping: sometimes a surreal experience
I’ve had children—and so like anyone else who has raised a child, I know about standing exhaustion and what a privilege it is to nap. Now, usually, I can’t nap often—because of other responsibilities. But a while back, after a series of small crises, I went to bed in the late morning and napped. After I woke up, within two hours, I napped again, and then I napped yet again. I napped so much that I dreamed I was napping. In the dream I kept telling myself “Wake Up! You’re napping too much!”

I hadn’t wanted to nap; I wanted to write instead. When at last I woke I experienced what I’d felt all those years ago: the softening of boundaries, the sense that I could easily slip through a portal into intense concentration. As if the elves had been cobbling for me. I need to find ways to nap more often.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I’m going to answer the question by asking another: How do I know when a story begins? I tend to write long fiction that needs to shrink. Often that requires deleting many pages of false beginnings and frumpy middles. When I find the true beginning I can work toward the true ending. One encloses the other, in embryonic form. There has to be a sense of movement too, a sense of the tactile. You know how a card shark can shuffle cards and the cards, splayed out, are then snapped back into one stack? That’s how it doesn’t feel, although I’d like it to feel, at the moment when a story is finished.

Where do you get your ideas?
Often I’ve heard this question referred to in terms of frustration—sometimes with a clever put down from the writer to the questioner.

Why does the question elicit such derision?

Because stories are not “ideas”? (Yet stories can’t escape ideas, and even slippery stories foster ideas.) Because there is no physical space from which the author retrieves stories? (Yet we speak of scene “building,” and aren’t we often indebted to spatial metaphors?) Or is it because some writers guard jealously their sources of inspiration? Or because the question might suggest that writing is merely a matter of finding a premise and, as such, the question downplays the diligence, discipline, intuition, and luck that writing a story requires?

But, really, the question is a compliment—you have ideas! Writing—it’s like nailing clouds. Where do you get your hammer?

I love the question even if it is largely unanswerable. It humbles us and elevates the craft. Here’s the best I can do: I get my ideas from missed connections, things that turn my stomach (oh rich source: shame, linking us all as social creatures), the chasm between what we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel, incongruities (especially comic incongruities), the urge to reflect the dignity of those who are ignored or neglected and treated unjustly, the wish to illuminate what might be called the inner life in a way that may have a bearing on a reader’s life. Moments of gratitude and love unearned but desperately needed. And, often, affection for the stories I grew up with and the urge to pay homage to their self-renewing, thorny, perennial mysteries.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tim Weed and the Ecstasy of Influence

In the 10th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Tim Weed, author of A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing (Green Writers Press), discusses eleven books that have inspired his writing.


Which books inspired you the most? Which authors have been your role models? I’ve been surprised by how difficult questions of influence are to answer. Even easy questions such as, “What was the best book you read in the past year?” may cause an embarrassingly long silence as I rack my brain. Putting together an accurate top-ten life list would probably take me a week of thumbing through overstuffed bookshelves—likely supplemented by visits to various online book outfits for memory-jogging summaries and reviews.

It’s just so hard to say. There are so many great works of fiction. It’s difficult to narrow the ones I’ve read down to a list of favorites—harder still to speculate about which authors have had the greatest influence over one’s work as a writer. I like the analogy of books as fossil fuel: lush vegetation trampled down in an ancient epoch only to bubble up years later in a spontaneous wellspring of newborn prose. Who can say whether that font of bubblin’ crude, that metamorphosed Texas tea, was once a royal palm or a tree fern?

Still, I’m going to give it a try. So here are eleven books that have most influenced me as a fiction writer (I tried for ten but just couldn’t squeeze 'em in):


Looking back on these books, and thinking about the reasons they have stuck in my mind, I think of irresistible characters, high stakes, and immersive storyworlds. I think of Tolkien’s wondrous Middle Earth, of LeGuin’s bold reimagining of human sexual dynamics, and of the unforgettable sunlit intimacy of Renault’s mythohistorical vision. I think of the limpid, merciless clarity of Paul Bowles’ exotic tales, and of the storytelling genius of Robert Stone and Edith Wharton: the relentlessness of her ratcheting tension and the pitiless journeys their protagonists must undertake. I think of the profoundly affirmative versions of human consciousnesses passing through rich sensory worlds painted by Jim Harrison, John Cheever, and Larry McMurtry. And, especially with Cormac McCarthy and Peter Carey, I think of the sublime possibilities of language. Its sheer, terrible beauty.

I note somewhat sheepishly, that only two of these books are story collections (three if you include novellas). The truth is, while as both a reader and a writer I love short fiction, I’ve been more influenced by novels, possibly because the form allows for a more profound immersion in the storyworld—or, if you prefer, for a more intense and long-lasting measure of escapism. I use the latter word intending none of the negative connotations often associated with it.

The poet David Baker once said that all poetry can be divided into two categories, the ironic and the ecstatic. If we assume a continuum rather than a dichotomy, I think the same can be said of fiction. The Greek origin of the word ecstasy is “ekstasis,” meaning “to be or stand outside oneself.” Ecstasy is transcendent, implying a state of trance, vision, or dream. Irony, on the other end of the continuum, is social, worldly, and rooted in the intellect. Irony is essential in literature of course, as an antidote to sentimentality. But for me, the best-remembered fiction—the work that sticks with me long after I’ve put it down—is to be found on the ecstatic end of the continuum. The kind of story where one forgets all about those black marks on the page and enters the narrative as one would enter a trance, a vision, or a dream.

At various times and in various ways, all of these authors have done that for me. It is a gift for which I owe them a lifetime of gratitude. And I hold out the cautious hope that I can, therefore, claim them as influences.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Describe Your Reading Habits: An Interview with Deb Olin Unferth

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Deb Olin Unferth, author of Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press), answers questions about what and how she reads.



Q:
Unferth: Well, I have a fairly complex system for reading. This may surprise you to learn, but I keep a list of every book I’ve read or listened to for thirteen years now. I also count every hour I read.

Q:
Unferth: No, alas, half-read books do not count as read books. If I read a few stories from a volume, I don’t get to list it as a book I’ve read. I have to read all the stories. If a book is incredibly long and I only make it three-quarters through, too bad for me. In December I am often hurrying through a few books I tossed aside months before in order to make my goal by the December 31 deadline.

Q:
Unferth: I never reach my annual goal. Or I should say I have never reached my annual goal. I may yet.

Q:
Unferth: Yes, well, I have other goals, rules, and suggested guidelines for reading too.

Q:
Unferth: A guideline is different from a rule in that I don’t absolutely have to follow it. There is some flexibility there. For example, I keep the books I’ve read separated from the ones I haven’t read. That part is a hard and fast rule. The guideline part is that if I haven’t read a book, it’s not supposed to go on my nice bookshelves in my office. It’s supposed to go out on one of the hallway bookshelves. But that part is merely a guideline, you see, because I do have books on my office shelves that I haven’t fully read, only I keep them on a different shelf. These are dictionaries, reference books.
Pictured: (left) an Unferth office bookshelf,
(right) a pile of rule-satisfying books

Q:
Unferth: Sure, some people read whole dictionaries.

Q:
Unferth: I do have a dictionary system, but that’s a different topic. Beyond our scope here.

Q:
Unferth: Yes, I count audiobooks as books I’ve read, though they don’t go on a shelf, but I am nervous about it. I had never thought much about it until my colleague, Lisa Olstein, pointed out to me that I do not read the audiobooks, but rather they are read to me. It was a good point, and disturbing, but I have not stopped counting them.

Q:
Unferth: Yes, I did say that I also count the number of hours I read. And I count the number of hours I write. And the number of hours I exercise, do school work, volunteer, clean, and several other activities. I keep it all arranged in Word docs and I keep printouts on my desk in a folder. I review it every day.

Q: 
Unferth: Correct. Every day I read over how many hours I’ve read since 2004.

Q:
Unferth: Correct. And how many hours I’ve cleaned.

Q:
Unferth: In all recorded categories I’ve gotten a little worse as I’ve grown older.

Q: 
Unferth: Well, I feel a bit foolish to reveal all the rules on my list of rules for reading. I will say that I have two rules designed to keep me from reading more than 25% white men. That percentage has lowered by about 5% per year for many years. Other rules have to do with when books are written (it’s easy to be too contemporary top-heavy), what kind of books they are (I have several categories and subcategories here), and rereads (I require myself to reread a certain number of books each year—I believe there’s value in it).

Q:
Unferth: Absolutely it’s confusing. I spend a significant amount of time arranging piles of books and figuring out which requirements they fill.

Q:
Unferth: No, not enough time that it warrants its own category but enough time that I sometimes feel like I should be getting “credit” for it in some category or other, though I’m not sure which.

Q:
Unferth: Don’t be cute. There is no “waste of time” category. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Siel Ju and the Suitable State of Mind

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Siel Ju, author of Cake Time (Red Hen Press), discusses her writing and reading habits.



What influenced you to become a writer?
I feel like my becoming a writer has happened through a series of serendipitous accidents—and perhaps some laziness. For example, I decided on English writing as my major simply because I had the most AP credits in that subject going into college. Then I decided to go to grad school mainly because learning seemed preferable to working a "regular job"—and I applied to writing programs since that was what my major was in.

Of course writing is something I've done and enjoyed since I was young age—which explains to some extent why I had the AP credits and how I got into grad school. But honestly, when I look back not only on this but most other aspects of my life, chance and circumstance seem to have played a bigger role than anything else.

Describe your writing habits.
My habits vary quite a bit depending on what else is going on in my life. Right now, with promoting Cake Time while also considering a day job shift, I write fiction just an hour a day, between 1 pm to 2 pm. I used to think I wrote my best fiction first thing in the morning and so for many years always tried to write then—but I've chilled out on that a bit. Hopefully my writing hasn't suffered; I'm not the best judge of it at this point.

The only real constant with my writing habit is the sense that I could and should be writing more, and faster too. I feel I spend about as much time worrying about my writing than as I do actually writing—but I'm working on changing that.

Where do you do your best work?
I feel I'm most focused at home, when I write in silence—but this is something else I'm trying to chill out about a bit. I'm kind of at the point where I feel that if I'm less rigid about what I believe to be the perfect, most conducive circumstances of my writing (the where, when, how, with whom, etc.), I'll be more apt to write whenever and wherever more easily and joyfully.

That said, I do most of my writing at home, alone, in silence.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
I have a whole semi-elaborate morning routine. First, I  journal for about 45 minutes—with a green smoothie, then coffee, and then either a smoothie bowl or oatmeal. Then I mediate for 15 minutes (I recommend the Headspace app!). Then I do some type of movement—lately, yoga—to get the blood moving. After that, I can sit down to write.
Morning routine: Drink of green

I'm actually not sure that these practices are specifically about getting into a state of mind to write. Even if I didn't write, I'm pretty sure I'd need to do these things to be in a suitable state of mind to live.

Describe your reading habits.
Thinking about my reading habits brings up a lot of emotions for me; I do enough of it that I go through periods where I actually worry my excessive reading is a sign of something, I don't know, bad. Reading's such a calming activity—and one that feels vaguely productive, too, while being simple and easy—so I find it very addictive. I'm often tempted to read instead of write, which is a real issue, if you're working on a novel.

Right now, I'm more or less a full time writer—and once in a while, all I'll do in terms of "work" in a day is read—then I'll go out to socialize in the evening. Those are the days when I worry a bit about what exactly I'm doing with my life. The days are fun, but a bit unanchored, basically.

Other times I feel like all the reading's fine. I mean, what else am I going to do with the time I get to spend at home? Watch TV? Raise kids?! Reading seems a lot more rewarding and pleasurable. I keep a reading journal of sorts on Instagram, and I'm part of a handful of book clubs ,and I love all of it.