Sunday, February 21, 2010

Four Questions For Story Prize Finalist Wells Tower

Note: Story Prize finalists Wells Tower, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Victoria Patterson will read from their work and discuss it onstage on March 3 at The New School. At the end of evening we will announce the winner of the $20,000 top prize. Tickets are available from SmartTix.

How long was Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned in the making, and what were some of the obstacles you encountered along the way?
Soup to nuts, I guess the writing took about seven years, and I suppose the chief obstacle was the traditional one: the knotty problem of figuring out how to make readers care, in a short space, about people who don't exist. Another weird problem I had while I was writing the stories was that I was beginning a career in long-form magazine work at the time, which caused some problems with the fiction. For a large-ish magazine story, you go spend a few weeks reporting, generate a huge volume of notes and then cook the whole mess down to a handful of scenes and contextual arguments, etc. For a while, I was trying to do the same thing with short stories. I'd write huge, meandering drafts, sometimes upwards of a hundred pages, thinking I could somehow cook them down into something brief and meaningful. It never worked. For me, short stories have to begin by cramming a humble idea into a small space. If ruptures and herniations occur, so be it, but if I start by giving the story a lot of large, vague leeway, it usually turns into something dumb, bland and vile.

What do you like about the short story form? Is it the form that comes most naturally to you as a writer?
I respect the form for cutting us so little slack. Readers often approach a short story suspiciously.They know they're being asked to embark on a brief relationship, one that won't give them days or weeks of enagement, as a novel does. A "Why should I care about you? This is just a quick fling" sort of deal, which leaves us with the challenge of devising stories that matter much, and quickly, without contrivances or bad emotional syrups. You can't waste time or language in a short story. I like that rigor. Keeps you honest.

I don't know that it's a form that comes naturally to me. I still find it extraordinarily difficult. But it's been a great laboratory, a fine medium for an apprenticeship. Starting with short stories, I was able to make lots of useful mistakes in a short span of years. Unlike a novel, you can throw away a short story and it doesn't break your heart.

Is there someone you show your work to first? At what stage do you do this, and what kind of feedback are you looking for?
I often show work to my younger brother, Joe, who is a shrewd reader, and whom, because he is my brother, I trust not to stop being my friend if I show him something awful. Often, I don't show him, or anyone, drafts until I've done everything I can to them, and I need an impartial diagnosis of whether to continue the steeplechase or make for the glue factory.

What’s next for you?
A novel.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Some True Stories About The Story Prize

(L to R) Actresses Sonia Manzano, Jane Curtain, and Kate Burton
backstage at The Story Prize's inaugural event, Jan. 26, 2005

On March 3, The Story Prize will announce its sixth winner at the New School in New York City after finalists Daniyal Muenuddin, Victoria Patterson, and Wells Tower read from and discuss their work on-stage. In the meantime, here are some little known facts about the early days of the prize:

We almost called it The January Prize.
Julie Lindsey and I started to discuss creating a book award in April 2003, and one thing we had to figure out was what to call it. My plan was to announce our winner in January, because there were no other major book awards that month. So I suggested calling the award The January Prize. I thought the name had a nice ring to it. Fortunately, we settled on a more descriptive name. As it turned out, after the first two years we moved The Story Prize event to February, then last year pushed back into March. This has given us more time to read the books and to promote the prize. If we'd gone with The January Prize, we wouldn't have had that option.

Our first event was slated to be at the 92nd Street Y with Sherman Alexie hosting. 
When we announced The Story Prize in Jan. 2004, the press release said that the award ceremony was going to be at the 92nd Street Y with Sherman Alexie hosting. Instead, we ended up having it at Symphony Space, as part of the Selected Shorts program. Kathy Minton, the Directory of Literary Programs at Symphony Space, had gotten in touch with me after she received our press release. So Julie and I met with her and Artistic Director Isaiah Sheffer, and we agreed to have our award night as part of the Selected Shorts program. The big advantage for us was that it was a high-profile platform for the launch of The Story Prize, plus Symphony Space would handle all of the logistics. Sherman, who was doing us a favor by agreeing to host, didn't mind the change in plans.

Actors performed the finalists' stories, as part of Selected Shorts, at our inaugural event.
On Jan. 26, 2005, we had our first award event at Symphony Space as part of the Selected Shorts series. Jane Curtain performed "My Shape" by Joan Silber, Kate Burton read "Circus People" by Cathy Day, and Sonia Manzano (Maria on Sesame Street) read "The Book of Miracles" by Edwidge Danticat. (If you tune in to Selected Shorts on NPR, you might still hear these stories now and again.) At the end of the evening, Julie announced the winner, and Edwidge Danticat, pregnant with her first child, came up to the stage to accept The Story Prize.

We revamped our program to put the emphasis on the authors.
Although Selected Shorts was a prestigious partner for us, we decided to have our event elsewhere for several reasons. The main one was that we felt that the authors should be a bigger part of the event. The audience had caught only a fleeting glimpse of finalists Joan Silber and Cathy Day, who came up on stage and gave a wave to the audience after the performances of their stories. We wanted an event that featured the authors, not actors reading their work. We settled on our present format—author readings paired with on-stage interviews—and spent a few months checking out venues throughout Manhattan before someone steered us toward The New School. Robert Polito, Director of the Writing Program, graciously offered to host the event. This year's program, on March 3, will be our fifth at The New School's Tishman Auditorium, with the same format we've been using since 2006.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Daniyal Mueenuddin on the Experiences That Shaped His Writing

(Note: Daniyal Mueenuddin is a finalist for The Story Prize, along with Victoria Patterson and Wells Tower. All three authors will read from their work and discuss it onstage on March 3 at The New School. At the end of evening we will announce the winner of the prize. Tickets are available from SmartTix.)

For many years I have run a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab. Most of the stories in this book have their origins in my experiences there, and many were written there. Half-Pakistani and half-American, I have spent equal amounts of time in each country, and so, knowing both cultures well and belonging to both, I equally belong to neither, look at both with an outsider’s eye. These stories are written from that place in between, written to help both me and my reader bridge the gap.

My father was a graduate of Oxford, a member first of the Indian and then after Partition of the Pakistani civil service – and, most fundamentally, a land owner of the old Punjabi feudal class. My American mother, a reporter with the Washington Post, met my father in Washington, where he was negotiating a treaty. She was twenty seven years younger than him. They married and soon after – in 1960 – moved back to Pakistan.

We lived in Lahore, where I attended the American School until I was thirteen, my classmates the children of westernized Pakistanis or of the few foreigners pursuing their oblique lives in this marginal place. My family spent most vacations on the farm that I now manage, where I ran free day and night with the children of the village, was in and out of their houses, ate with them, explored with them, swam with them. In Lahore I was closer to the old servant who brought me up than to anyone else – thirty years after his death I still wear the bracelet he gave me when I went off to school in America. Because I was a child, the servants and the villagers were not guarded against me, unaware that I was watching; and therefore I learned the rhythms and details of their lives in a way that I never could as a grownup. I heard the women in the village calling to each other over their common walls, walked out with the boys when they took their buffaloes to be watered at the canal. These people, their gestures and intonations as I observed them in my childhood, appear throughout the stories in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.

At thirteen I was packed off to boarding school in Massachusetts. Five years of full-dress dinners, Latin grammar, lacrosse, and daily chapel, lacquered me to a glossy Boston-Episcopalian sheen, so that by the time I arrived at Dartmouth College I more or less passed as an American. There I wrote poetry, protested against apartheid, sweated it out in the library stacks – and popped out after four years with – a degree in English literature, a debased currency. My aging father had been sending increasingly pressing letters, telling me I must return to Pakistan and take care of the family property, and so, after reflection, I complied.

My father, just turned eighty, had suffered a long series of heart-attacks. As his illness progressed, for years he had been losing control of his lands to the managers, who sent less and less money to Lahore each quarter, as they became increasingly confident that he could no longer visit the farm. In his calm and perfectly rational manner, my father explained to me soon after I returned that, if I wanted the land, I would have to go fight for it – that otherwise it would be lost.

On arrival at the farm I went through the books with the accountants, walked the lands, met with revenue officials, trying to get some sense of what we owned, what we produced, what we spent. The place was a total disaster. There were no maps, no deeds, no titles. The accountants had wound the books into an impenetrable ball. The managers were all from the same extended family, and were unified against me. I returned to Lahore five weeks later, shell-shocked, hungry for company, but hardened, sunburned, and at least now aware of the scale of the problem. I decided to stay and fight it out.

For the next seven years I lived more or less uninterruptedly at the farm. It was a tense and yet intensely happy time, long days walking across the lands, or sitting in hot rooms poring over ledgers – and then, against that, the early mornings, when I wrote poetry, looking out from the window of my study to the garden my mother had planted. In the evening I wrote letters and read endlessly, ordering crates of books from Blackwells in Oxford, who had supplied my mother’s books in the nineteen sixties.

My father died soon after my return from college, and I lost his backing, the influence he still had wielded – but I stayed afloat. Gradually I learned about the crops, about selling and buying, about fertilizer, diesel engines, the qualities of soil, the depths and shallows of the local politics, the depravity of the police. I learned to be a hard negotiator, to manage the farm rigorously, to form alliances, to deflect threats. These were very different lessons than the ones I learned as a child, much harder lessons, and equally valuable to the stories that I would be writing.

By the sixth year, I felt I had to get away and spend time in the West again. I applied to law school, got in to Yale, and spent three lively years there, my concerns far removed from Pakistan. After graduation I took a job at one of the large New York law firms.

Sitting in my office on the forty second floor of a black skyscraper in Manhattan, looking out over the East river, I gradually developed confidence in the stories I had lived through during those years on the farm. I realized that I was in a unique position to write these stories for a Western audience – stories about the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities. I resigned from the law firm, returned to Pakistan, and began writing the stories that make up this book.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Four Questions For Story Prize Finalist Victoria Patterson

Note: Story Prize finalists Victoria Patterson, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Wells Towers will read from their work and discuss it onstage on March 3 at The New School. At the end of evening we will announce the winner of the $20,000 top prize. Tickets are available from SmartTix.

How long was Drift in the making, and what were some of the obstacles you encountered along the way?
The stories had been germinating since high school, and I’ve been keeping journals since the 2nd grade, I have stacks of them. It took me years and years to learn to capture details—to be almost predatory in my observations. So I was learning how to write, mostly through journal writing, learning about the subtleties of plot, setting, tone, and dialogue, and developing my voice, with Drift in mind. And grad school was helpful and productive for me. Also, I read and read. I studied writers, studied their sentences. I longingly stared at their author photographs, willed them to help me, tried to channel their talents. I underlined and pored over their books, copied passages, all in my efforts at transmutation. I listened to books on CD, for rhythm. (I still do all of these things.) Drift finally started taking form on paper, and from there, it took seven to eight years. Two of those years were spent working with my editor, Anjali Singh. She taught me a lot about writing, and about my work—gracefully pointing out flaws, pushing me to write deeper, challenging me. She somehow made me want to please her without being overtly praising. She’s an amazing editor.

As far as obstacles, I had this sense of persecution, and it comes back sometimes. (Joyce Carol Oates gives the advice to writers: “Don’t expect to be treated justly by the world. Don’t even expect to be treated mercifully.”) I have to remind myself that I’m not special because I’m a writer, that a lot of people work as hard as I do, even more so, with fewer rewards and more obstacles. But during those many years, it sometimes seemed that everyone and everything was conspiring against me, to keep me from writing: Finances, Time, Rejections, Family, and Peers (capitalized because they were so big in my head, and in that order of magnitude). These seeming obstacles (imagined or real) furthered my resolve. I was dogged and stubborn and dedicated and I had a lot of support—but it was more like I didn’t have a choice. At some point, I knew I would write no matter how many rejections and whether I tasted publication, and this helped. Writing is a great risk for me, so it’s frightening, and the most debilitating obstacles are internal; and the true rewards are internal. One of the most satisfying parts is my need to write—the having something that needs to be written, not from anyone else but from me—and then writing it, getting the story to the page, no matter how long it takes. When I finished Drift, it was like a death. I might not have felt so persecuted all those years had I known that having those narratives inside me essentially overshadow all those obstacles was/is quite a thing—that burning desire to work, that driving purpose. And now, when a story wants to be written—when I feel its need for me to form it into life—for me, that’s one of the most rewarding and exciting and addictive parts of writing. But I have to be willing to drudge as well.

What do you like about the short story form? Is it the form that comes most naturally to you?
I love the short story form, probably because I love reading short stories: William Trevor, Anton Chekhov, John Cheever, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, Richard Yates, Edwidge Danticat, Rohinton Mistry, Antonya Nelson, V.S. Naipaul, Lorrie Moore, Sherwood Anderson—all of these writers and more. I’m drawn to the short story, to its unique ability to contain a distinct, tenacious mood and vision, and then, with its conclusion, to open it up—larger and deeper. I love that each sentence builds on the other, builds momentum and draws toward the conclusion; that there’s nothing superfluous; that a ten-page short story can dig into me and unsettle me as much or more than a thousand-page novel.

I’ve written both short stories and novels, and for me neither one comes naturally. I’ve heard it expressed that like lovers in the night, all literary forms are essentially the same, and I do believe that good writing draws on the same skills. But I prefer writing short stories because, at this point, I’m more confident writing stories. And purely from practicality, I can put stories away and let them gestate and begin other stories and then later, take the old ones out, fiddle with them again. I don’t have to be locked down to the same characters, the same novel, for years.

Is there someone you show your work to first? At what stage do you do this, and what kind of feedback are you looking for?

I feel for my husband because he listens to me read my work over and over, and God help him if he falls asleep. He’s a tough critic, and I usually wait until I have something good before I read to him because I don’t want to be criticized. But I read to him because I need to be criticized. Also, hearing the work out loud (not just in a room by myself) helps.

I’m fortunate to have a writers’ group with writers that I trust, respect, and admire: Danzy Senna, Veronica Gonzalez, and Dana Johnson. We’re supportive of each other—but honest. I can bring my work to them at any stage, and I know that I won’t get eviscerated. If anything, they’ll make my head ring with more ideas and possibilities.

What’s next for you?
I have a novel coming out with Counterpoint Press in February 2011, with Jack Shoemaker as my editor. Already, I’m learning from him. I’m thrilled at the opportunity.

I’ve been writing short stories, and I want to write more short stories.