Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Alissa Nutting on Using Fear to Spur Creativity

In the 69th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alissa Nutting, author of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls (Starcherone Books), lays out her themes.

Describe one of the stories in your collection. 
Loneliness and the desire to be loved is one of the main themes throughout my collection. There’s a story about a somewhat lumpy, middle-aged female cargo transporter, alone in her ship day in and day out, whose mother is a mass murderer in a cryogenic prison capsule. The private correctional facility goes belly-up and the capsules are auctioned off as novelty items, and the transporter buys her mother to illegally defrost her (some 500 years before her mother’s sentence is up) in an attempt to earn her mother’s love. I’ve always been obsessed with fables and fairy tales—I remember reading, in one of my first books, the Native American legend of the little boy who picks up a rattlesnake because it promises not to bite him, and then of course it does. Even as a very young child I understood this to be an analogy for addiction, which has always been one of the primary struggles of my own life—I’m addicted to the feeling of being loved, to attention, to pretending, to lying, to possessions, to all extremes. This quality (and all the reasons, really, that we will act in ways that are counter-intuitive to our own well-being) is one of the primary seeds for my writing. The fact that we cannot help what we want is inexplicably soothing to me. It helps me refrain from judging myself, and others, so harshly.

What is your writing process like? 
Forgetting to shower, forgetting to not eat bags of Oreos, forgetting to not pick at the small bumpy scar on my right arm that I cannot stop picking at when I’m stuck for the perfect word. Making my husband wish he’d married an accountant, running around the house in my underwear to pop music in the hopes that adrenaline will make the next plot step manufacture in my head, mortal reliance on the thesaurus like it’s a dialysis machine, cuddling my Chihuahua until he growls at me, opening great novels and choosing a sentence to write a follow-up sentence to, feeling like I’m running out of time, making myself laugh and laugh and laugh until finally I can tilt my head and say actually, that is extremely sad and you might be a monster.

What books made you want to become a writer? 
I learned to read in a diaper before I’d mastered the art of basic vocal communication. Books and writing seemed to me like such a preferential way to communicate, and live. I’ve always been a little ashamed at the percentage of my daily life, even now, that is vicarious—reading, writing, and daydreaming consume at least 95% of my waking moments. My two favorite children’s books were The Wartville Wizard and Strega Nona, both of which include fabulist elements. I was so peeved at how non-magical the real world seemed, as opposed to what was possible in stories. I suppose I still am.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
I push myself to be in a state of perpetual fear. Fear seems to be one of the shortest pipelines to creativity, at least for myself. I’m always reading, watching, or looking at horrific things. It puts me in a state of unbalance that is best brought to equilibrium through writing. There is such terror and cruelty in the world; writing and humor are the only catharsis I’ve encountered that is even moderately effective. After I write, I feel like I just shaved my head after growing out my hair for seventy years. It’s a lightness I’ve never felt anywhere else. No drug, sunset, or success can replicate the feeling.

I also read. I’m competitive, and any good book makes me want to start writing. I have no filter, though, so I often get distracted around reading materials—I’ll read entire nutrition textbooks, shoe catalogues, studies on volcanic rock analysis, hair dye instructions in languages I do not know. Although I’ll often read up on specific things for the novel I’m writing now, some of my best research is just cultural osmosis. I try to absorb as much of what’s around me—the good the bad and the neutral—as possible.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Rob Roberge Aims to Create and People a Universe of His Own

In the 68th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Rob Roberge, author of Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen Press), discusses research, tax deductions, and his favorite authors.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
For me, a good collection creates a world unto itself. That is, I could see the characters in Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live all bumping into each other outside of the stories they appear in. The same is true of the early Hemingway pieces, or, say, Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The stories all have a similar tone, a world view that is imbedded in each individual story, but also in the overall book. This is true, of course, with all the linked collections (The Things They Carried, Knockemstiff, Jesus' Son, Monkeys) but also of the non-linked ones. Kafka has a universe he created. So does Angela Carter. A good book of stories becomes a universe of its own. Not a mimetic one of our world, but a creation of their world that comments on ours in some way. That’s what I look for, anyway.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
I was on a panel once and someone asked me if I did research. I said I didn’t. On the drive home, my wife Gayle said, “That is such a load of bullshit.”

I said, “I don’t do research.”

She said, “You get totally obsessed with something and then you buy twenty or thirty books on it.”

I told her that’s just being interested in a topic. But she had a point. In a way, I suppose, I do research. But, mostly I think of it as just writing. I suppose my years of drug addiction, too, were a form of research. I wonder if I could write all the money I spent on drugs off on next year’s taxes? 

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I play in a few bands…and music informs my writing quite a bit. I think in terms of sentences, in how language flows and how words can sometimes embrace each other or clang against each other. Sentences are a form of music for me. 

Who is your favorite living author and why? 
In a way, I suppose I’m my favorite. I wouldn’t spend countless hours working on anyone else’s shitty drafts, trying to make them good. Seriously? My favorite living author is Francois Camoin—who is incredible. He’s a writer who every time I turn another writer on to his work, they all say, “Why isn’t this guy famous?” Like Love, But Not Exactly and The End of the World is Los Angeles are two of the greatest collections published in the last 50 years. Camoin’s amazing. Why isn’t he more famous? I wish I knew. I would find some evidence of this being a just universe if he were. Probably tied with him is Darrell Spencer who writes some of the best sentences ever written. Lexicographers should check him out to see what great things can be done with all our words when you place them correctly.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Toni Jensen: How Months of Thought Led to a Story Written in an Afternoon

In the 67th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Toni Jensen, author of From the Hilltop (University of Nebraska Press), describes how a one of her stories came about.

I wrote “At the Powwow Hotel,” one of the stories in my collection, during one afternoon at Sugar Brown’s coffee shop in Lubbock, Texas. For months, I’d been holding two stories in my head—one about a moving cornfield and one about a West Texas family dealing with grief when a family member dies suddenly. For the cornfield story, I thought the narrative would track the cornfield and its followers as they moved. But this idea was too complicated for one story—too many settings and people for what I imagined to be a fairly short story. For the family story, I had an unusual amount of trouble deciding whose story it was going to be—the father’s, the mother’s, the son’s?

I was a graduate student at Texas Tech University then, and with the deadline of that night’s workshop looming, I sat down to write. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about writing was to write the things of which you’re the most afraid, the things you can imagine but would really rather not. I loved imagining a moving cornfield, but I’d really rather not imagine having a child, a happy family, and then having to leave them so suddenly, without time to prepare. I’d rather not imagine what happens after, either, to those who are left behind. But that’s how “At the Powwow Hotel” began—with me pushing past the fun of the cornfield to the grief of those characters, imagining what it would be like for the father and son who are left behind, what it would be like on that son’s next birthday.

I had thought a moving cornfield was enough occasion for a story. But, of course, without the emotional undercurrent—the real people and their real problems—a moving cornfield isn’t a story, is just a gimmick. The birthday was the occasion for the story. Once I understood the occasion, the story came fast. The other layers in it—the location, how the son Lester and the father Jack feel about being Native people in West Texas—came from my own experiences and so were right there at the surface, were an integral part of the whole.

I wrote the story that afternoon in just under four hours. It might have taken longer, but workshop was at 6 p.m., and I’m good with that sort of definitive deadline. The story still stands, almost word for word, as what I wrote that afternoon. Because the stories in the collection are linked, though, I later did change a few details so that characters from the other stories appear in this story as well. Otherwise, it’s as it was the day I wrote it.

The conventional wisdom about stories written fast is that they fall from the sky or heaven or some other wonderful place, that they’re “gifts.” But that’s not getting it quite right. To say they “fall,” implies the writer has little to do their existence; to say they’re gifts also implies the same—that they “arrive.” Fast stories are not gifts—they do not arrive by luck or magic or divine intervention.

When I sat down that afternoon and wrote “At the Powwow Hotel,” I had been writing the story in my head for months. I’d been thinking about its characters and setting, had been working through plot problems while washing dishes or walking the dogs. I also had been writing other stories at a furious pace—at least one a week—for months. Not all of those stories were good. Certainly, not all made it into my collection or into print elsewhere. But all helped me understand how stories work, how my stories work—all helped me be able to sit down and write that one fast, complete story.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why Ethel Rohan Believes a Story Should Deliver a Good Climax

In the 66th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ethel Rohan, author of Cut Through the Bone (Dark Sky Press), compares good story collections to good sex.

Describe one of the stories in your collection. 
One of my favorite stories in this collection is “Shatter,” which was originally published in FRiGG Magazine. The story follows how an unnamed woman is haunted by one everyday accident after another. Accidents where something, a bottle, jar, dish, falls from her hands and breaks.

“Shatter” is a story about addiction and dishonesty. How we mask and hide. This character is ashamed of her ugly needs, urges and failures. Her husband is complicit in the cycle.

Ultimately, “Shatter” and all the stories in this collection center on the struggles of the body and the spirit. On our yearning to be more than we are. I am nowhere in “Shatter” or in this book. I am everywhere in “Shatter” and in this book.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
Good short story collections should deliver an experience as close as possible to sex.

I want goosebumps on my mind. To hear and feel the rhythm, the beat. To have the experience build and pull back, build and pull back, build and pull back again and again and again until climax and delicious fade.

I want to want to hold the book afterwards, to feel grateful, opened, sated.

The best story collections deliver love.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Never. I have often received the gift of a complete story draft in one sitting, but I always revise. Sometimes the revision is tinkering, but more often than not it’s more akin to toil.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
I admire and envy writers who can cover sweeping time periods in their stories. My stories stretch moments more than time periods. I read stories that span years, decades, even generations, and marvel at how the writer accomplished such range. For whatever reasons, I’m less drawn to long narrative time periods and more caught-up in stretching the moments, the days, the now.

What book made you want to become a writer? 
I can’t say any book made me want to become a writer. The first book, which I first read as a teen and several times again as a young adult, that made me want to continue writing and reaching was Emily Brönte’s novel, Wuthering Heights. The passion in that novel, the beauty, brutality and brilliance.

I can also tell you the most recent titles I read which also made me want to continue writing and reaching:

Robin Black’s If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This 
Paula Bomer’s, Baby
Courtney Eldridge’s Unkempt
Barb Johnson’s More of This World or Maybe Another
Lori Ostlund’s The Bigness of the World
Laura van den Berg’s What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us 

As a teen, the praise I received from a few for my stories made me want to write. As an adult, my need for praise still pants and strains, but thankfully something much higher and honest draws me back to the page every time: The rewards of writing stories that surprise and humble me, that tear strips off me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

How Joyce Carol Oates Does It

In the 65th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Joyce Carol Oates, author of Sourland (Ecco Books), explains how she puts together a story collection and what her writing process is like.

Describe one of the stories in your collection. 
The first story is "Pumpkin-Head"—it is intended to frame the last, novella-length story "Sourland": Each is concerned with the nature of sudden loss, grief, and the "posthumous" life of the survivor. In the interior of the book is "Probate"—a story about a woman who has been a widow for just three days and who is beginning to come to grips with the permanence of her condition. "Pumpkin-Head" depicts the grieving woman who has become a sort of ghost haunting her own house, after her husband's death; "Sourland" brings the widow out of the confinement and comfort of the house, to a mountain preserve in Minnesota. (My story collections are arranged like narratives in themselves which is why I am describing not one but three stories that hold the volume together structurally. Another story about loss and grieving is "Uranus," near the end of the volume: Here, a woman is dreaming back to a time before her beloved husband died, and she has entered a dimension of being so disorienting to her, it is like "Uranus." The reader understands that the woman has lost her husband, but the woman herself doesn't—yet—seem to comprehend.)

What is your writing process like? 
My writing begins in so inchoate and scattered a way, it hardly seems like a "process" at all. Primarily I take notes—many notes—pages of notes. Ideas mesh with characters—characters confront one another, in the seemingly spontaneous creation of "plots." I think that character and setting are "plots"—the story is the total experience of what has happened to the protagonist. Through my lifetime of writing I've been variously interested in what might be called traditional—"storytelling"—stories and "conceptual" stories. Most fascinating to me are stories like "Pumpkin-Head," in which we sense that something profound has happened to both the widow and the young molecular biologist—but neither could probably have said what the experience was. This seems to me true to our lives, rather more than the shaped structure of the traditional short story which exudes a definite meaning, or the intellectually engaging "conceptual" story—in which characters are subordinate to the predominant idea.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
When I've worked on a story for some time, I set it aside for a while, reread it, revise it, and send it out. It's rare for me to ask for others' opinions—I don't have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way. (Though lately, since I've remarried, my husband asks to read my work; he's a neuroscientist, and a very sympathetic yet sharp-eyed reader. This has been slightly uncomfortable for me, but I am getting used to it by degrees.)

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
What a question! Any worthwhile book should "deliver" a complex experience, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. Diversity within an over-all, structural and thematic unity. This is the ideal story collection of which, for instance, James Joyce's Dubliners is exemplary.

What book made you want to become a writer? 
Lewis Carroll's wonderful Alice in Wonderland and Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass. Though in fact I was much too young to imagine being a "writer," immediately I began drawing and scribbling miniature novels of my own, featuring chickens and cats, since we lived on a small farm. I suppose I have not stopped.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
 Obviously, this depends upon the work of fiction. Most short stories of mine don't require research so much as meditation/contemplation. For a long novel like Blonde, which is an interior monologue by Norma Jeane Baker (who becomes "Marilyn Monroe"), I tried to do a minimum of research in order not to be overwhelmed by facts; it was a pleasure, however, to see all of Monroe's movies available on DVD, in chronological order.

If you dabble in any other forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
"Dabble" is a curious expression—actually I take my non-fiction writing (essays, reviews, plays, occasional poetry) as seriously as my fiction. The intellectual engagement of a lengthy review-essay, for the New York Review of Books, for instance, can be quite intense and even exhaustive—and exhausting. Memoirist writing is hardest of all—very emotionally draining. There never seems enough of what is real—what really happened; yet one can't have too much, for the fluidity of the prose will suffer.

Describe a technique you've learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression. 
 I've read so long and so much—I'm not sure how even to answer this. From Hemingway, years ago as a high school student, when I was first seriously experimenting with writing, I learned that drama is tightened by omission and obliquity; it is better to say too little than too much. Now, such writing is called "minimalism," but Hemingway's work hardly seems "minimal" since its subjects—mortality, death, courage, resignation—are so profound.

Who is your favorite living author and why? 
Favorite living writer! Very hard to answer— have many writer-friends—and some wonderful writer-friends (like John Updike) who died very recently. It would be like naming favorite siblings since I am so close to a number of these writers. And so I think I had better remain discreetly silent on this subject.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
Never—not even in high school! (This would be equivalent to throwing together a serious meal for a dinner party in five minutes. Not much fun, and why would one do it?)

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
This is an intriguing and unusual question! I have several stories, most recently one titled "Fossil-Figures," that take characters through their entire lifetimes—which would be, in this instance, about seventy or more years in the lives of two men, identical twins, whose spiritual beings are so closely bound together, the death of one is the death of the other. But most of the stories in Sourland take place within a very finite period of time, a few hours, or days at the most. In a finite period of time, an entire lifetime can be summoned. This is the hope, the challenge.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Nadine Gordimer: "Reading, Reading—the Only Way to Become a Writer"

In the 64th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Nadine Gordimer, author of Life Times: Stories 1952-2007 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)), talks about the importance of writers preserving their own vision.

What is your writing process like?
I write in the mornings. Might feel myself summoned, in a way I can't ignore, to read over, critically, at night, the morning's pages, but I'm not a night writer the way some are. You have to find the spell of hours, night or day, within the twenty-four, to be alone in with the word.The morning discipline came about through certain circumstances as a writer: We usually don't have offices with staff to protect us from interruption, distraction. I never have.

At what stage do you seek feedback on your work?
I do not seek, never have sought "feedback" on what I'm currently writing, whether a short story or the long absorption that is a novel. I tell young writers that it's a failure of your own vision—vision of what you are alone in exploring—to seek the inevitably different vision of others, who of course are mentally rewriting the story as they would have it. The man, Reinhold Cassirer, with whom I shared all the other part of my life, and my publisher, both of whom have always known there was a work in progress, if in different understanding, have always read the novel or story only when it was complete. I am the one who must see where there should be changes.

What book made you want to be a writer?
I didn't "want to be a writer." I just wrote from the age of nine. Reading, reading—the only way to become a writer, forget about creative writing courses—led me to use the wonder that is the written word in my urge of discovery that is life.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Yiyun Li on Writing Stories that Speak to Other Stories

In the 63rd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Yiyun Li, author of Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Random House), discusses how Irish author William Trevor's work serves as an inspiration for her own.

Describe one of the stories in your collection. 
The opening story of the collection, "Kindness," is a long story that was written to talk to William Trevor's novella, Nights at the Alexandra. "Nights at the Alexandra" is narrated by an older Irish man in a provincial town who has never married; "Kindness" is narrated by a middle-aged woman in Beijing who has chosen not only to stay single but also not to love anyone. I opened the story with three sentences that echoed the opening sentences of "Nights at the Alexandra," and while writing it, I imagined my narrator speaking to the narrator in Trevor's novella. Both characters stoically lead a solitary life, yet both are capable, and are proofs, of love and affection and loyalty. Their conversation would not have happened in reality, but I hope that by speaking to one person in mind, my narrator, in the end, speaks to many.

What is your writing process like? 
The seeds of many stories in the new collection came from newspapers. But oftentimes news reports either don't give you enough or give you the wrong things, and when that happens, I feel compelled to write a story to understand the situation better. "House Fire" was inspired by a brief report on six retired women setting up a business as private investigators, but who the women really were seemed not to be the journalist's concern, so I set out to create six women to understand their past and present. "The Proprietress," similarly, started when I read reports about a woman who asked to have a baby with a husband on death row. The reports, like the journalist in the story, focused on things that were less fascinating to me, so I started writing to understand the woman, but the story took on a new direction and the woman became a minor character. In general, I think I choose situations that fascinate or intrigue or baffle me, and I make up a set of characters to live through those situations so I can understand them better.

Have you had a mentor and who was it? 
William Trevor has been an influential writer and mentor to me. Just as "Kindness" was written to talk to "Nights at Alexandra," I like to imagine many of my stories having conversations with his stories (and many stories in the collection were written in that way, with a specific story of Trevor's in mind to begin with). I was talking to a friend one time about how it felt odd to see the publication of a book because writing was such a private business. My friend said that I should imagine that my books are out in the world to make some space for other writers I would like to see published and read, and I think that is exactly what Trevor's kindness and generosity mean to me: that his books have made space for my books to exist.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Andrew Ervin: "Much of My Writing Process Happens off the Page"

In the 62nd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Andrew Ervin, author of Extraordinary Renditions (Coffee House Press), discusses his roundabout approach to writing fiction.
Author photo: Eddy Perez
I don’t write every day. I don’t even write every week. Not since grad school have I had the luxury of uninterrupted writing time, so my habits have adjusted to fit my schedule—a schedule that currently includes teaching a fiction-writing workshop and two freshman composition classes. It’s work I usually enjoy, don’t get me wrong, but there’s no denying that grading undergraduate ethnographies can eat into one’s writing time.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure I’d want it any other way. If I won the lottery, I’d still want to teach, but maybe not quite as much. My stories come to me gradually and they require my active participation in the world. They begin as a solitary image or puzzle piece or bit of dialogue. “All Happy Families” (which was in Chicago Noir on Akashic Books) derived from my interest in applying James Joyce’s uses of lists to the station names in James Brown’s rendition of “Night Train.” “The Phillie Phanatic(Fiction International) began as a neo-slave narrative set at a baseball stadium. Right now, I’m contemplating what to do with a big red ice chest full of freshly caught fish and human body parts.

Don’t ask.

These ideas will percolate sometimes for years, literally.

I don’t write my ideas down, preferring instead to let them steep and grow more concentrated. (Despite my compulsion to buy every notebook I see, I don’t keep a journal though, you know, I definitely should.) Eventually—a week later, a month, a decade—I’ll sit down and bang out an entire draft of the story, start to finish. A few months ago, I published a story that first occurred to me in the winter of 1993, during an undergraduate workshop with Madison Smartt Bell and Elizabeth Spires. Yes, I understand that it’s now 2010.

My first drafts are almost always in first person. Over the next few days, I’ll throw together three or four or five more drafts—sometimes complete overhauls—in which I roll them over to the third person. I can get pretty obsessive about it, writing all day and all night for however long it takes. The rest of my life falls to the wayside. Just ask my friends, who I never see, not until I’m satisfied with what I’ve written or I’m too sick of it not to care anymore.

At that point, I’d like to put the story down for a few weeks and ignore it. But that doesn’t always happen. In fact, it never does. I’ll invariably and impulsively send it off to a literary journal or my agent when what I should do is file it away and forget about it. Take a few months, then look at it with fresh eyes and revise it some more. Never happens.

I’m totally going to do that next time, though, I promise. This time I mean it.

Once a story is finished, I may not write another word for a long time. I’ll go back to spending quality time with my wife, seeing my friends, getting outdoors, playing World of Warcraft with my nephews. I suppose that makes me a kind of binge writer.

It’s an approach that serves me well for longer stories, like the three novellas that make up Extraordinary Renditions. It takes me so long to transition into actual writing that once I’m there I like to keep at it. To stay in character.

I wrote those stories in a different order than how they appear in the book. It started with the U.S. soldier Brutus, whose story “Brooking the Devil” now comes second. After that, I wrote “The Empty Chairs” and thought I had a complete book on my hands, one that mimicked in some oh-so brilliant way the narrative structure of Julius Caesar, which changes direction halfway through. An agent sent it out and among the rejections came the excellent suggestion to add a third novella. That became “14 Bagatelles,” which is probably my favorite of the three. (Shhh—don’t tell the others.)

I started writing it the spring of 2001, shortly after I’d quit a lucrative Internet job. And I was working on final edits up until the day the galleys went to the printers in the spring of 2010. Given my writing habits, it took me about nine years of actual on-again/off-again composition. But Brutus is a distant descendent of a character that first found me during that undergraduate fiction seminar in 1993, so the stories had been toiling around for much longer than that. Much of my writing process happens off the page.

I’m also careful about choosing what to read so that I can push my thoughts in different directions. Something as seemingly innocuous as a book-review assignment can throw off my thought process for weeks, but I do them anyway. I keep the complete thirteen-edition set of Frazer’s The Golden Bough next to my desk, and I consult it before starting every new fiction project.

What I’ve learned, if anything, is the need for even greater patience. I need to stop sending my work out before it’s ready—but maybe I need to concentrate more on my writing life and to work faster too. With some luck, my next book—a novel I’m calling Orwell on Jura—will be published in this decade. That would be nice. After that, I’ll begin writing a long novel-in-stories set in Philadelphia from 1600 to the present. I can already feel it taking shape.

Monday, December 6, 2010

How Eddie Chuculate Sets a Story in Motion

In the 61st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Eddie Chuculate, author of Cheyenne Madonna (Black Sparrow Books), talks about the inspiration he drew from a painting.

Tell us about one of the stories in your collection.
The story, "Galveston Bay, 1826," shows a party of Cheyenne Indians journeying to see the ocean for the first time. The story is based on an actual event, told to me by friends. My first attempt at writing it was in an abandoned novel, where one character merely told the story to another. After I put the story down for a year or two, I returned to it, this time dramatizing and imagining the events. It created a world of its own.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? After I think it's finished, I don't mind letting fellow writer friends who I know will give me an honest, objective evaluation, read it. I try to refrain from letting friends or relatives read it, who invariably give you the standard "I think it's great" reaction, especially if they think they are in it. But that's not to fault them, as they aren't writers or critics and probably just don't want to hurt your feelings if they think it's bad.

What kind of research do you do?
I hardly do any any extensive book-related research. When I wrote "Galveston Bay, 1826" I checked out a pile of books from the library, but took them back after confirming that a certain tribe of Indians lived along the Galveston Bay coast at a certain time. I realized that if I buried myself in research about the tribe and time period, it could squelch my imagination.

Describe a technique you've learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression.
Prairie Fire by Blackbear Bosin
The opening of my story, "Galveston Bay, 1826," was influenced by a painting, "Prairie Fire," by the Comanche-Kiowa painter and sculptor Blackbear Bosin. I had always greatly admired this painting, and when I began my story, used his image of Indians on horseback riding along the fringes of a fire, which was chasing away animals as it progressed. This is a technique that can help fire the imagination and set a story in motion. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Kate Bernheimer Tells a Tale About Telling Tales

In the 60th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Kate Bernheimer, author of Horse, Flower, Bird (Coffee House Press), offers an original story.

This story is based on a haunting Russian fairy tale called “How a Husband Weaned His Wife from Fairy Tales.” The traditional version ends with the wife being beaten and beaten until she no longer has a need for these magical stories. My version, written in honor of The Story Prize, is an ode to storytelling, as are the stories in Horse, Flower, Bird.

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales

There was once a mother whose only child loved fairy tales above all else and accepted as dolls only those who could tell stories.  Of course the child suffered loss because of this, as there were not so many dolls that could perform such  a remarkable task. And her mother suffered as well: when she went to the department store on birthdays or Christmas, she often left empty-handed, and disappointed her only child who asked for more and more stories.  Bad stories or good. She wanted more fairy tales—that’s all she ever wanted, she said. She was insatiable. 

By her eighteenth birthday the child had only two dolls: one who told wonderful stories and one who told very bad stories indeed.  Still, the child was very good-natured and told her mother, one cold winter evening, that even two dolls, one who could tell wonderful stories and one who could tell terrible stories, were far better than none and their household had more fairy tales than more impoverished homes, where perhaps no storytelling dolls ever had lived.  And then she hugged her mother and kissed her goodnight. 

That very same night, at a very late hour and (of course) a wee bit of vodka, the mother wondered how she might wean her daughter from fairy tales. One day, every girl must grow up, after all.  There was a knock on the door.  There stood a witch doll, shivering with cold, and she asked the mother for shelter.  The girl’s mother said, “Can you tell stories? My daughter does not allow any dolls in the house that cannot tell stories.” The witch doll saw that she had no choice; she was a rag doll and she had tiny icicles dangling off of her rag-limbs.  She was almost frozen to death. She said “I can.”  “And will you tell them a long time?” “All night.”

So far, so good.  The mother let the witch doll in, and set her in a tiny rocking chair right by the fire, where her cotton stuffing nicely and evenly warmed.  The mother gently woke up her daughter, and said “There is a witch doll here, who has promised to tell stories all night long, on the condition that your other dolls do not argue, or interrupt.” The daughter woke up her dolls—the one that could tell good stories and the one that could tell bad stories—and brought them to the living room and sat near the hearth.  The mother had laid out all manner of goodies for all of them to eat: lollipops with chocolate tucked inside their miniature globes; jelly beans; and buttered toast.   The witch doll said, “Yes, I will tell stories, but there must be no interruptions—or I will tell no more stories to you.”  The mother, the daughter, and the two dolls ate their snacks and went back to bed. 

The witch doll began: ‘An owl flew by a garden, sat on a tree trunk, and drank some water. An owl flew into a garden, sat on  a tree trunk, and drank some  water. An owl flew by a garden, sat on a tree trunk, and drank some water.’ Over and over again, the witch doll repeated this sentence.  The good doll listened and said from her little doll bed: ‘That’s a beautiful story, but I’m afraid your audience might become tired of it. I’m not tired of it, of course, I think it’s lovely, but—’ And the bad doll shouted from bed, ‘That’s not even a story!’

The witch doll gazed coldly into the fire. ‘Doll One, you’ve interrupted me. I told you not to interrupt. And Doll Two, you have argued. That was only the beginning. I was going to change it later.’ The witch flew out of a window with the two dolls in her hands.  She dropped the dolls into the frozen pond: down into a teeny hole that had been made by a rabbit. And there in ice water they drowned.

The mother saw this from her bed. She rushed over to her darling, beloved, lone daughter, who had been blissfully sleeping—dreaming the whole thing just like a character might in an old storybook. Her mother knelt down, clasped her child’s warm hands into her own, and silently pleaded with her: ‘Your dolls were told not to interrupt, and never to argue, and now look what’s happened! We won’t get any more fairy tales!’ And she hugged her and hugged her, to offer some comfort. The child never asked for a talking doll ever again, and the witch doll flew around the world over and over again, for a household that might more quietly listen to her. She’s still flying today, alone up there in a very cold wind.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Danielle Evans on Stories That Won't Shut Up

In the 59th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead Books), dicusses what she aims for in a collection and her writing process.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
Several sleepless nights. There’s a frequently misattributed quotation that says the job of a writer is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Insofar as most people are comfortable in some ways, and afflicted in others, the best work does both—reassures us that we are seen, that we may, in our sadness and strangeness and suffering, be less alone than we thought we were, while simultaneously shocking us out of our complacency and reminding us that we are not the only people in the world, that the pattern of our individual lives is not the pattern for everyone. The stories that stick with me the most are the stories that unsettle me because you want to reach into the fictional world and do what should have been done, or because you have no idea what should have or could have been done. In terms of the actual form of a collection, I think the stories in a book should speak to each other without repeating each other. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say it’s the only form for a collection, but I like to think of a lot of my favorites as circular journeys—you end up where you started, but you’ve seen enough between the first page and the last page that your perspective on the point of origin is different—you are looking at different things, you are asking different questions, you are coming up with different answers.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I cook and bake, sporadically. I got through bouts of domesticity and then periods where I am on a first name basis with my local Thai food and pizza delivery people. I learned to cook and bake from my mother and grandmother. My grandmother does not believe in measuring cups. Sometimes I try to explain to people how to make her pie crust, but you can only get so close. There’s probably a decent, if corny, metaphor for reading and writing in there somewhere: You can explain to a point, but after that you have to feel it out for yourself. I also tend to experiment when I cook, which means that if some creative cooking project turns out especially well, I always have this fear that I’ll never be able to make it properly again, because I have no recollection of what went into it, or how much I used of each thing. I feel the same way about fiction, a lot of the time—I’m always going into it without a set plan, and I always have to overcome the panic of “Oh no, what if I’ve forgotten how to do this?” It’s why whenever possible, I write first drafts in a single sitting, so as not to lose sight of what I was trying to do.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
No. I came close with one story in my collection, “Harvest,” but I was 19 at the time, and didn’t know better. I was applying to MFA programs, and I had one story I felt good about, and two I felt OK about, and at the last minute I decided I couldn’t mail my Iowa application with those two stories I only felt OK about, so I had this brilliant idea that I’d replace them with two stories I would write in the 72 hours before the application was due. I’d had an idea for one of the two stories, and I wanted to write it anyway, so I thought I’d use the application as a deadline. I was at my mother’s house for a school break, and after expressing reasonable skepticism about the wisdom of this plan, she gave up, brought me a cup of tea, and left me alone to write. I got it done, and back in the city, mailed my application from the 24 hour post office, an hour before the postmark deadline elapsed. One of those stories I submitted was clumsy and awful, to the point that I’d like to break into Dey House and steal it from my application file if it’s still there, but the other was “Harvest.” It ended up being my first published story, and it was published pretty much as I wrote it—I think I added a paragraph on the first reread. I did a bit more tinkering in conversation with my editor, but there’s probably about a page worth of total difference between the story as it appears in my book and that first sleepless version.

As a writer without a terrible amount of discipline, I tend to trust certain forms of the euphoric moment. A lot of stories I’ve written in a single sitting have needed years of work—I now have a file of what I refer to as “the outlet mall of short fiction,” which consists of things that are written, but that I know are a bit “off” somehow. But the stories that were most insistent, that came to me not because I went looking for them but because they wouldn’t shut up until I sat down and wrote them from start to finish, always seem to me have an energy and a form to them that I don’t have to do as much work to create, even if I end up having to spend a lot of time revising the story.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
Sixteen years, in the story “Snakes.” It’s not a terribly long period of time for a short story, but it was somewhat unusual for me, as I tend to more often than not think of the short story as a vehicle for explaining how a single moment came to pass. It interested me to think about the pressure that the passage of time puts on the way we tell a story. I always knew, even before I knew how that story ended, that the retrospective voice mattered there, that part of the story, and part of the processing of the childhood trauma, was in how the narrator was or was not able to talk about it as an adult, in what she revealed and how long she took to reveal it. It’s one of the reasons the advice “show, don’t tell,” so often drives me crazy— it’s sometimes good advice, but misinterpreted, it can encourage some writers to remove all self-awareness on the part of a narrator, when part of a story, especially a first-person story, is who is telling you things, and what they are telling you and why.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Patrick Somerville on Coexisting in a State of Fracture and a State of Overall Cohesion

In the 58th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Somerville, author of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (Featherproof Books), stakes out a place for short story collections.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
First and foremost, I think a good short story collection should deliver something that a novel can’t deliver, that television can’t deliver, and that film can’t deliver—it should justify its own existence by being able to get to emotions, meanings, and situations that are simply not attainable with visual mediums or a long-form story that follows the same characters for two, three, or four-hundred pages. For a form to be relevant, it has to fill a space and a want in the culture, it has to do something, even if that “doing” is providing a very specific and esoteric experience, and while the role of short stories in our culture and the economics of short stories have changed in the last 60-70 years, no doubt, I still feel as though there’s a place for them, and I feel—even more so—that there’s a place for collections of stories. Maybe even a need.

It’s funny, because if you were to step back and take a broad look at how our culture works, what a typical day looks like for a middle-class person, what the experience of a leisurely evening might be like for that same person, I sometimes feel as though novels make the least sense of all anymore, and that they’ve continued to be popular only because of inertia, or marketing, or their similarities to feature films. Good short story collections, though, even though they rarely sell or get read in the same way good novels sell and get read, do something that seems absolutely crucial me: they coexist in a state of being fractured and a state of overall cohesion. To me, that’s the perfect description of contemporary experience and of contemporary minds, too. It’s in our nature to create a cohesive self and move forward with a unified identity, or at least the illusion of one, but in truth most people’s days are broken into tiny parts that are both different and the same. Especially people like me, people who’ve allowed gadgetry and the internet to become crunched into their consciousnesses. And in the same way, collections of stories are broken up and unified simultaneously. It seems like it should work.

The point is only this: Good short story collections, whatever they’re about, always teach a weird lesson about the parts and the whole. They provide a good reminder that if you overvalue one, you lose the other, and vice versa. It’s so important, just to avoid insanity in the contemporary world—and by that I really do mean actually going fucking insane—to have the psychic flexibility to sometimes see forest, sometimes see trees. Good collections put readers in a state of seeing both forest and trees at the same time. It doesn’t last, because it can’t, but a good collection will get you into that state and let you glimpse it for a time. And grow.

What book made you want to become a writer?
Catch-22. And it's funny to answer that question right after I've gone on about collections of stories, because I think that while it was the humor in Catch-22 that captured my imagination when I was a teenager, what I went back to, and keep going back to, is the form of that book, how it's put together, why it's put together in the way that it's put together. It's a novel that you might be able to argue is a deeply disguised collection of linked stories; it's episodic, fractured, and nonlinear, and yet the reader moves forward, bit by bit, and slowly reconstructs the straight line of time. You circle back and you circle back, and the radius of the circle keeps expanding, but it’s the same circle. I wonder about Heller's experience of writing that book, about the convenience he afforded himself by building it in the way that he did. He got himself into a great position—he had this huge, epic story on his hands, but he could also sit down and sketch out a little incident, insert it, and not have to completely freak out about the bigger storyline. Because despite how complicated that book is, the bigger storyline is very simple: Make things more nuts. Make the crazy grow, and push it to the point, by the end, that no one can bear it any longer. Not the characters, not the readers. My God, I absolutely love that book.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Patty Somlo: On Getting to the Essence of the Subject

In the 57th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patty Somlo, author of From Here to There and Other Stories (Paraguas Books), on the fixation behind her book.

The images haunted me -- men who before succumbing to the awful desert heat left their pants, shirts and underwear folded in neat piles and whose bodies became so dehydrated the men’s fingerprints vanished. These were just two of the gruesome details I learned from reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s book, The Devil’s Highway, about the death of fourteen undocumented immigrants in the Sonora Desert, as they made their way to what they’d hoped would be a better life. I couldn’t shed the sorrow I felt for days. All I knew to do with that sadness was to write.

The first story was entitled, “One by One.” The story serves as a bridge between a place called “Here,” which is the name of the first section of my debut collection, From Here to There and Other Stories, and another place called “There,” the second part of the collection. “One by One” begins on the day when the men’s bodies are being transported through an Arizona town and the local Latino community comes out to honor them.

Soon after I finished “One by One,” I realized I wasn’t done. That’s why I started a second story, “The Fence.” I didn’t know at the time that “The Fence” would be the next piece in what was to become a series of stories, all featuring a poor Mexican farmer named Alejandro. In “The Fence,” Alejandro has walked from his tiny village, located a breath away from Guatemala, to the border between Mexico and the United States. Having dreamt all his life about the splendor he would find on the Other Side, Alejandro is stunned to see that the dry, dusty desert landscape on the fence’s American side doesn’t look a bit different from the land bordering the Mexican side.

When I finished “The Fence,” I realized that I still wasn’t done. I wanted to keep writing about this man and see where the stories might take me. I recalled an exhibit I’d seen many years before at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco of prints by the Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai. Included in the exhibit were Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, wood-block prints of the iconic peak done in different seasons and weather, and from different locations. I realized then that I wanted to write about illegal immigration in the spirit of a Zen Buddhist artist, painting the same brush stroke again and again, to get to the essence of the subject.

Since finishing “One by One” and “The Fence,” I have written nine more “Alejandro Stories.” Four of the stories are included in From Here to There and Other Stories. What I’ve learned from this fixation on the emotional tinderbox of illegal immigration, and the reason I’m still drawn to the subject, is that the stories lead me to themes I never grow tired of exploring -- how one maintains hope in the face of great obstacles and disappointment; the harsh clash between reality and dreams; the arbitrary nature of borders between people, countries and consciousness; and the eternal search for a better life that buoys the human spirit.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sefi Atta: Writing on the Cusp of Humor and Horror

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Sefi Atta, author of News from Home (Interlink Books), discusses writing, reading, and research.

What is your writing process like? 
My writing process begins before I start to write. I get to know my characters by daydreaming about them. When I begin to dream about them at night, I know they are fully formed. I usually have a vague idea of what they look like, but I must be clear about their voices in order to write. My first drafts of short stories take less than a week, then I revise for months afterward, even though my revisions are often minimal. I need time to revise and revise intermittently not continuously.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
It depends what the writer wants to achieve. I wanted News From Home to provide a perspective that was wide enough, so readers wouldn’t have a limited view of Nigeria. Also, a lot of news reports on Africa, here in the United States, appeal to the guilt and sympathy of readers. I didn’t want to write stories like that. Finally, I wrote on the cusp of humor and horror, which is how people live in Nigeria. They rely on humor to survive the difficulties they face. I hope readers will understand how extensive the Nigerian experience is.

What book made you want to become a writer?  
L’Etranger by Albert Camus. I read it when I was in boarding school in England and I read it in French, using a French-to-English dictionary. My French wasn’t very good, and even though I was Nigerian, I’d only ever studied books by English writers like Dickens and Shakespeare. I’d never studied Nigerian writers like Achebe and Soyinka. L’Etranger introduced me to a rhythm of writing that was suited to the world I came from. It was odd to have that experience as a foreign student in England and consequently the book had a huge impact on me.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
 I do a lot of research because my stories are based on reality. Research feeds my imagination. I run wild with it, but I’m terribly organized, perhaps because of my background as an accountant. I keep information in files, which I frequently revisit. It pains me to ignore most of my research to serve my stories. I researched the drug trade in Nigeria for my novel Swallow, only to find out I didn’t need any of it. It didn’t belong in the novel, which took a different turn because I couldn’t bear to write a formulaic novel. I was miserable, as I couldn’t share what I’d discovered in my research, but I later used some of it for “Last Trip,” a short story in News From Home. 

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? My title story “News From Home” takes place over several months. It is set in the United States and I use flashback to remind my narrator of the community she left in Nigeria, and to show why she quit nursing and ended up as a nanny.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tina May Hall and the Unfinished Projects

In the 55th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Tina May Hall, author of The Physics of Imaginary Objects (The University of Pittsburgh Press), runs through her attempts at self-expression outside of writing.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?

I buy cookbooks and look at the wonderful glazed and frosted and perfectly-browned things in them. Then I make a list and go to the store and buy baskets full of pork belly and saffron and kale that I take home and put in the refrigerator. Then I make myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Sometimes I go through a drive-thru on the way home from the grocery store. And all that lovely food sits in the dark of my icebox.

Seasonally, I festoon my house with appropriate items, pumpkins and gourds and Indian corn and several black construction paper bats and a string of orange lights most recently. And then I forget to turn on the lights and a wind storm knows down half the bats and they end up disintegrating in the neighbors’ yards, from which I have to retrieve them by the dead of night in an attempt to pretend it never happened at all, and a squirrel comes and drags off all the Indian corn and leaves the cobs in the street.

Once upon a time, I took art classes and actually imagined (albeit very briefly) wearing paint-daubed jeans and stilettos and living in Paris or Hoboken in some kind of grotty flat. And then I realized most high heels, especially the ones that look sexy and artistic at the same time, are impossible for me to walk in, much less run in while eluding any of the suspicious types who would no doubt populate my Parisian/Hobokenian neighborhood. And I brought home a painting I’d done in my college class on “Color and Design” to my mother who is an actual painter (though she wears cowboy boots and lives in the suburbs) and she looked at it carefully and held it at arm’s length and said in the kindest way possible, “This is not really something you would ever want to give anyone as a gift.” I still keep watercolors and pastels and clay around—my son and I make monsters and trucks and maps of our town with them. Turns out I can draw an awesome swamp thing atop a semi-truck while juggling three juice boxes and giving a toddler a piggyback ride.

Every once in a while I am overtaken by a strong conviction that I could make my own clothes. This is patently untrue and has been proven so many times over. I have a very old heavy sewing machine that I haul out and spend a few days remembering how to thread. The foot pedal sticks and often the machine just keeps sewing without me which makes for some postmodern seams. There is also a problem with the bobbin so that sometimes I’ll be sewing along happily for a long stretch and pick up the fabric to find out I was never really sewing at all.

All of which is to say that reading and writing are the only things I ever have been very good at finishing. I am the kind of person who, once she starts reading something, can’t stop in the middle, no matter how awful it is. I’ve read my way through countless regrettable books, tomes on railroads, the Twilight series, books that got onto my pile by accident; once, when I was thirteen, I made my way left to right through an entire library, although admittedly it was a very small library in a very small town with only one wall of books. And though I don’t finish every story I start writing, I am willing to spend years trying to do so. Writing is the one thing I have a lot of patience for; I have an abiding faith that the words will make it onto the page, into the right order, that all of the seams will eventually line up, the picture will come clear, the lights will blink on, and a story will gradually emerge, plump, shining, lovely to the eye.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Stephen O'Connor Likes To Get Himself Into a Jam

In the 54th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stephen O'Connor, author of Here Comes Another Lesson (Free Press), discusses his unorthodox approach to writing a story.

My favorite way to start a story is to get myself into a jam. I try to sit down at my computer with an utterly blank mind—that is with no idea of what I am going to write. As rapidly as I can, I jot down a sentence that is both surprising (to me, at least) and has some form of narrative potential. Then I try to follow the sentence with another that would seem profoundly incompatible with it, at least in a sane or coherent world. That’s the jam I like to be in, because then my challenge is to make this impossible world seem as natural and real as the world outside my window, and out of that challenge come all sorts of unexpected images and ideas.

One day, for example, I booted up my computer and wrote the following: “The new girl sat at the computer in the corner playing Ziggurat, Panic! and U-Turn.” It is obvious how the subject of this sentence came be sitting at a computer, but her name, that she was playing computer games, and the names of the games themselves just popped into my head unbidden. This could easily have turned into a story about a new girl at high school shyly biding her time in the computer lab—a fine story, perhaps, but not one I particularly wanted to write. So I leaned back in my chair and waited for words that would send the story off in an entirely unexpected direction. “This was in the pine-paneled section of the Labyrinth…” I wrote, and as soon as “Labyrinth” emerged behind my cursor, I knew there was going to be a Minotaur in the story, and so the rest of the sentence followed in a burst: “…which is where the Minotaur had been hanging out lately, mainly because he didn’t remember ever having been there before, and he liked sleeping on the pool table.” 

So there was my jam: How can I make a Minotaur, a Labyrinth, pine paneling and computer games all feel components of the same universe? And, of course, I also had some intriguing narrative challenges to contend with: The Minotaur of myth ate the hapless virgins deposited in his Labyrinth; would this Minotaur eat the new girl? Would she, in fact, turn out to be a virgin? Would that have any significance in their relationship?

Once I had these two sentences, the story—“Ziggurat” (the first in my new collection)—began to write itself, which is to say that the challenges comprised by these sentences turned out to be continuously inspiring. As I wrote, however, I tried again and again to get myself into jams, by taking the plot and even individual sentences off in directions I didn’t expect and wasn’t sure how to deal with.

I find this sort of writing thrilling in the way that a good jazz solo is thrilling. What I love most in jazz is when the soloist takes the underlying melody all the way to the edge of noise—and maybe even a bit farther—without actually tumbling into cacophonous incoherence. When I listen to such a solo in a club, I am always asking anxiously at every new turn, “Is he going to do it? Is he going to pull this off?” And I feel an almost ecstatic gratitude when the soloist steps back from the edge of noise and gives me a new sort of music I have never imagined before. I want to do something almost identical for myself and for my reader when I write. I want to cross over to a place where my stories and my language seem on the verge of devolving into nonsense and then return with some new way of making sense of this lunatic world and/or our anarchic hearts.

That is my hope, at least… But as to whether I am actually capable of fulfilling it—well, that is something I can never know.