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.