Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Creston Lea on Making Music, Making Guitars, and Making Stories

Lea's Wild Punch and a Creston guitar
In the ninth in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Creston Lea, author of Wild Punch (Turtle Point Press), writes about the relationship between guitars, music, and his stories.   

      I wrote the stories in my book, Wild Punch, over the course of sixteen years, during which time just about everything in my life changed. Among other things, I fell accidentally into making electric guitars for a living (www.crestonguitars.com). Guitar playing had always represented distraction, the false path, when I was younger and earnestly trying to write and write and write. But by my mid-twenties, I found myself playing fifty-plus shows a year with a bunch of different outfits, some ambitious, some lazy. Sooner or later, I started making guitars in my basement, and then in my garage, and then in the brick building I still occupy near the old barge canal and Superfund site in my adopted city of Burlington, Vermont. It took me a long time to make peace with myself, but eventually I faced up to the fact that I liked playing guitars, liked making guitars, and didn’t care any less about reading books and writing stories as a result. You can serve two masters, it seems.

Writing fiction and making electric guitars have nothing whatsoever to do with each other as far as I’m concerned. But I like music a lot, have always cared a little too much about it – something I could cling to, even early on when other kids were learning how to play sports or study. I’ll be 39 in December. I’ve written a lot of stories and played a lot of music but have never written a song. From my vantage, right next to music but having never written any of it, the shape of a song is intriguing and exciting to me and sometimes plays out in the shapes of my short stories.

I like those songs that depart from themselves entirely toward the end. Everybody likes the song “Seven And Seven Is” by Arthur Lee and Love, but how do you explain that quiet, guitar outtro – I suppose it’s a coda – after all the crashing and smashing of the song itself? Or the rousing, thematic, Memphis-y tail end of the otherwise quiet, painful, beautiful, live version of “Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” as sung by Nina Simone? That’s probably exit music for the singer herself – you can hear the surge of applause as she, a safe guess, comes out from the wings for another bow. But as a piece of music removed from the live taping, heard and not seen, it’s a change of direction that furthers everything that came before it.

“Who Knows Where The Time Goes?” was written by Sandy Denny, who died at 31 after falling down some stairs. She sang the 17th-century English ballad “Matty Groves” with Fairport Convention, the recorded version of which proceeds through the story of the song in a straightforward, quietly tense way. The story is good! A Lady seduces a young fellow at church while her husband is out in the far cornfields, bringing the yearlings home. The Lord catches wind of the affair and zips home, wakes them up, there’s a sword fight, young Matty Groves is killed and so is the cheating wife. The Lord calls for "a grave to put these lovers in. But bury my lady at the top for she was of noble kin." It sounds sort of Hobbity on the page, but listen: Adultery! Class warfare! Agrarian life! After four minutes of chorus-less music, the band takes off on an equally long, winding instrumental that bears nothing melodically to the sung verses—all the tension of the lyric and the steady, chugging arrangement that urged the story along with such restraint quickly explodes into a freewheeling fiddle-and-electric guitar escapade which, for all I know, is based on some other traditional English music. It’s different than what came before it but takes the listener deeper into the story by striking out in a new direction. That feels like life to me. A writing teacher once told me you may learn a lot from the funny pages. He referenced Little Lulu. I feel the same way about the music on the radio.

The linked stories in Wild Punch are my own look back at the place where I grew up on the Connecticut River, which divides New Hampshire and Vermont, and the people there. But the shape of the stories—where they start, where they go—is enormously informed by the music I was hearing at the time, none of which comes from northern New England except maybe for Dick Curless or Clarence White. It’s hard not to steal from the writers you love whether you mean to or not. But it feels less directly corrupt to take guidance from the music of Doug Sahm (specifically “She’s Huggin’ You, But She’s Lookin’ At Me”) which I do at least once in my book. I confess.

The top half of the front cover of Wild Punch shows a detail photograph of a guitar I made for a local musician a couple of years ago. He plays two hundred dates a year with it.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Candace Leigh Coulombe on Pirates, Context Clues, and Green Fairies

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Candace Leigh Coulombe, author of Second Grace, answers a few questions about how her self-published collection of stories came about.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
Without getting overly sentimental, it’s hard to pick one! But, “The Gulf of Aden” has a soft spot in my heart. It’s the story most recently written, so it still feels new. I think of it as “The Pirate Story,” which would have perhaps been a better name. I had read a newspaper article about the precautions some cruise lines were taking when sailing through the Gulf of Aden, and I wondered what would happen if they didn’t take any. In the story, a woman with newly acquired and fleeting wealth joins jaded upper-class passengers for a cruise through the troubled waters of the title. The ensuing adventure is not how she imagined the good life to be, but it gives the others good cocktail anecdotes for the cruises to come.

This is how it begins…

"Sugar was freckling in the sun. Even after two weeks at sea, she still didn’t resemble her bronzed shipmates. They were uniformly tanned, drawn taut, bleached, waxed, capped, and shellacked. Their bodies made unnatural angles as their linen shirts and dresses billowed in the breeze. Sugar wore the requisite oversized sunglasses of their class. With her name, she could be one of them. Cricket, Tinsley, Muffy, Sugar. It was either a socialite’s name or a stripper’s. You just had to take the context clues. She had never been able to live up to one or down to the other until recently. "

Like many of the stories in Second Grace, “The Gulf of Aden” speaks to class aspiration. Culture, socio-economics, and gender play roles in my characters’ opportunities and desires to have a second chance. The stories cross genres: horror, historical fiction, romance, suspense, drama, comedy, fantasy, and even political satire. But, they’re told in the only aching, and hopefully literary, way I know how to tell them. And, they’re each 2,500 words or much less.

What is your writing process like? 
I wish I was one of those writers who couldn’t wait to get cracking every morning. Usually, I’m not as fond of writing as I am fond of having written. When I have an idea, I try to work out the potential problems before even sitting down. There are the practical matters, such as story length, location, object, and genre; there’s the theme; and there’s the inspiration. I really appreciate having a “green fairy” in the form of a painting, song, or poem to thread through the tale. I hope that I write a pleasurable read which, upon further reading or reflection, unravels deeper meaning. I love the challenge of communicating complex themes in lush language, despite the fierce economy of words. That being said, I’ll write a story over two days, give or take. Thanks to modern computers, I edit as I go, and once I’m done, I’m done. I’m sure it’s an anathema to English teachers everywhere, but I read it through for grammar and continuity, and that’s about it.

What book made you want to become a writer? 
A desire to create my own endings made me want to be a writer. Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers made me want to write short stories.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
The telling is in the details. I research books and news accounts and such to inform my sense of regionalism and sense of era. With historical fiction, I aim for accuracy even when the narrative veers quite fantastical. I particularly like using archives of The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Describe a technique you've learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression.
I like to cook. I don’t know that I’m particularly gifted at it. But, I like putting on a flowered apron and doing my best impression of domesticity. What food has taught me about fiction is that everything must be purposeful. I want a riot of color and scent and flavor. Nothing should wasted, nothing forgotten. A good story should be a sensory experience, like a good dish. And a good collection, a meal – everything thoughtfully, lovingly prepared.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Alyson Hagy on Ignoble Americans, Eavesdropping, and Learning to See Layers

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alyson Hagy, author of Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf Press), answers a few questions about her work. 

Describe one of the stories in your collection.   
“Brief Lives of the Trainmen” is probably one of the wildest stories I’ve ever tried to assemble.  It’s one of those pieces that came to me—or at me—when I wasn’t looking, kind of like a wicked fast ball. I was deep in the stacks of the University of Wyoming library searching for an old medical dictionary. I found it. But I saw there were some books on railroads nearby, so I pulled them, too. They were odd, regional volumes, the sort of thing that would make a transportation historian’s heart thump. But I was drawn to them for some reason. I carried them home.

It turns out a couple of the books were about small-gauge railroads in Idaho, the lines that were built to support the gold and silver mines there. And some of the source material came from interviews with first generation rail workers. The stories these men told were awkwardly recorded. Most of them were mere fragments. But I started to wonder about how those men (and women) lived together as they were building rail lines. Then I dug up a single photograph of a work train. That was enough to seal the deal. Who wouldn’t want to write about a group of wildly different people crowded onto a train modified to include spaces like bunk cars, shower cars, tool cars, dining cars, museum cars?

The coup de grace came when one of my English department colleagues made a crack about Plutarch’s Short Lives of the Noble Greeks at a department meeting. I’d never read Plutarch. I headed back to the library.  I only took me a few seconds to realize that Plutarch’s use of the short biographical profile was just the structural kick in the pants I needed. I guess I was on a quest to document the lives of ignoble Americans as they scratched their way across the West. I just hadn’t known it. All of the anecdotes in the story—the way some men changed their identities once a month so the law couldn’t catch up to them, the wastrel behavior of Civil War veterans, the bigoted treatment of the Chinese—come from those flimsy little books published in Idaho. I also had a rollicking time trying to track down enough slang from the late 19th century to make the story sound authentic. I think of “Brief Lives of the Trainmen” as my homage to the dynamic, yet fragile, communities assembled by human beings as they do physical work together.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?  
Honest answer: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor. I’ve always been a reader, but being a writer never occurred to me until I read O’Connor and Welty and Katherine Anne Porter in college. O’Connor knew how to make literature out of the contradictions, passions, and hypocrisies of the rural South. Better yet, she knew how to record the way rural folk talk. My first reading of O’Connor came into me via my ears and my belly more than through my eyes.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?   
I’m the academic equivalent of a yard sale junkie. I wander around the edges of people’s lives and activities just as I wander through the stacks of the library, always looking, never quite sure what I’ll find. I pick up cast-off objects and tales. I eavesdrop, eavesdrop, eavesdrop. And I tend to ask people who know how to do things—like shoe horses, or fly ultralight aircraft, or design weather balloons—questions until they want to strangle me. I am an advocate of the impromptu interview, coffee or beer optional.

Describe a technique you’ve learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression.  
I’m lucky enough to sometimes teach a class in book art with a printmaker. I’ve learned to “see” layers and layering differently as I’ve watched Mark and the students work on monotypes or intaglio or whatever. They use line and color in the way I wish I could use words. I have also learned to appreciate the narrative tensions that you can create with collage. I think of the story “Oil & Gas” as a kind of verbal collage, a riff on the many mixed voices that speak in the American West these days.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Brad Watson on Aliens, Critical Reticence, and Writerly Vices and Virtues

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Brad Watson, author of Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (W.W. Norton) answers a few questions a bout how his book came together.

Describe one of the stories in Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives.
In the title story, a teenage couple (17 yrs. old) elopes and, with the girl pregnant, set up in an attic apartment a block from the local mental hospital. The night they tell their parents about the elopement, they're visited (very late) by a man and woman wearing mental hospital pajamas, who have broken in somehow and who claim to be aliens from another planet inhabiting the bodies of the mental patients. This is a darkly comic scene. After the narrator says they look familiar, they explain that the bodies they're in used to be a movie theater hostess and a homicide cop, institutionalized for drugs and depression, respectively. Before they leave, they ask the narrator -- the young man -- if they can have the baby when it's born, so that they can "take care of it." After this visit, things become very strange for the young couple and before long their plan to be married and keep their child falls apart.

I won't reveal more of the plot, but I will say that, as far as I'm concerned, there are aliens walking around inhabiting the bodies of people in these stories, messing with their lives for experimental (and, possibly, entertainment) purposes. Several critics have written about "a couple from the local mental institution who may or may not be aliens from another planet." I don't understand their reticence. Are they embarrassed for me that I would do a little playfully dark genre mixing in here?

What is your writing process like?
Get to it as early as possible in the morning, before I can think too much about the size or apparent impossibility of the task sitting there unfinished. If a novel or story is being stubborn with me that day (that is, if my brain is being stubborn or obtuse concerning that story), I don't push or hack at it too long; better to work on something else -- fiction, nonfiction, even poetry (though I'm no good at it aside from the occasional individually decent line) until my mind loosens up and lets the original story or novel back in. I always have several things in progress and can't seem to take a more methodical approach: finish this before you even think about starting that, lash yourself to this mast and ride out the storm, etc.

When I try that more "disciplined" approach I just end up writing a lot of bad prose that clutters the pages and my sense of what really ought to be on the page, instead. Better to let my mind work on it on its own for a while as I write decent pages on something else. Progress is made, even if it zigzags a lot along the way. If I didn't have several things going at once, I'd spend a lot more time just sitting there sighing, wanting to drink before five. So this is my writerly vice turned attempt-at-virtue.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your writing?
Certainly not until a first draft is finished and ideally not until I think it's fairly polished (at least two and maybe several drafts) but I'm uncertain (because I'm so close to it, yet still unable to establish enough critical distance to be certain) about the level of quality there.

Do you do research?
Depends on the story or novel, of course. Sometimes, as with "Alamo Plaza" in this collection, the research is simply into my own memory of a place, or asking questions of others who remember the place. I found a picture of that particular motel on the Internet. For the title story, I looked up popular notions of potential future space travel and possible forms of alien life that were floating around in the 1960s and early 1970s. For my novel, The Heaven of Mercury, I read a good bit of local history about my hometown and the Alabama gulf coast, mostly anecdotal. Also I gathered stories from my grandmother and other relatives about life in the 1920s and '30s.

For a novel I'm working on now, I'm reading books and old newspaper articles about the desegregation of public schools in Mississippi in 1970. I'm taking a more methodical approach to this research than I have other work in the past because that information is more germane to the plot than research has been for my past work.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Quest for Good Questions

So far we've featured five books entered for The Story Prize this year on this blog. And we could have as many as 80 more of these entries to go. Some authors might not choose to participate, in which case we'll write something about their books. Others will contribute short essays. But a good many posts will probably be in the question and answer format. So we've decided to add more questions to the mix and give those authors a choice of which they'd like to answer. And we'd like you to help.

Here are ten questions we've come up with so far:

  • Describe one of the stories in your collection.
  • What is your writing process like?
  • At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? (i.e. a friend? colleague? relative?)
  • What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
  • What book made you want to become a writer?
  • What kind of research, if any, do you do?
  • If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
  • Describe a technique you've learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression.
  • What are the advantages or disadvantages of living at a remove from New York (i.e., the center of the publishing business)? (for those in the hinterlands)
  • Who is your favorite living author and why?

We'd welcome any good questions. If you'd like to suggest any, you can send them to info@thestoryprize.org. If an author chooses to answer one of your questions, we'll send you a short story collection of your choice from 2009.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Keith Lee Morris' Call It What You Want: Inspired by the Id and ID

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Keith Lee Morris, author of Call It What You Want (Tin House) answers a few questions about how his book came together. 

How long did it take you to write Call It What You Want, and how did the book take shape?
I started out with the idea that I was going to publish an entire collection of stories based on dreams. I figured . . . what . . . maybe 50 or so would do it? It would be called 50 Dreams. Crazily enough, I did manage to finish about 40 or so, many of them no longer than a few pages. My working mode was this: I would dream something at night, then when I woke up (often in the middle of the night), I would just start free writing based on some small detail from the dream and try to get it turned in the direction of a narrative. That was pretty much the whole program, other than that I also wanted the stories to retain the feel of dreams—a kind of dream logic that the stories adhered to. 

 At any rate, eventually a bunch of more realistic stories started to insinuate themselves—I was writing some things like “Testimony” that I felt good about, and I started to talk myself into including them. So the finished product is really a movement from stories that draw the reader into a fictional world that resembles the real world as we commonly think of it into a world that seems more like the world of dreams. Stories in the middle of the collection have a foot in both worlds, I think, and then toward the end (“My Roommate Kevin Is Awesome,” e.g.) they get pretty absurd, and then finally they take a swing back the other way, in part. The final story, “The Culvert,” is for me a kind of “down the rabbit hole” story; it’s about a father who can’t get over the death of his son and then finds his son in an unexpected way, in an unexpected place that may or may not be real—the point is that to the father it doesn’t matter. Call it dream, call it reality, it’s the reconnection to the son that matters. That’s where the title comes from. That and the fact that we really couldn’t figure out what to call it, so I told my editor at Tin House, Tony Perez, to call it whatever the hell he wanted to. Then we decided that was a pretty good title.

Are the stories connected in terms of content?
A lot of them take place in Idaho*, where most of my fiction is set. A lot of them involve characters struggling along in the cultural margins—those are the characters I tend to find most interesting and maybe the ones I know best. My wife says I make too big a deal of being from Idaho, like I use that for a default excuse to explain all my shortcomings (my lack of fashion sense, my inability to determine the proper utensils to use when I go out to dinner, my tendency to blurt out things that make me sound like an asshole or an idiot), but I AM from Idaho. My best friends are still my friends from Idaho. That’s my point of reference. Nowadays I work with colleagues who grew up on the East Coast and went to Ivy League schools and I generally have no idea what they’re talking about. It’s not that I don’t find them interesting, it’s just that I wouldn’t have a clue how to begin writing about them.

What is your writing process like?
Really really really really really haphazard. I go weeks, months, years without writing much of anything. Then I’ll get obsessed with a project and finish it rather quickly. And there’s not much rhyme or reason—or at least not much consistency—when it comes to my approach to writing fiction. I usually have an idea that I’ll start working from, and that idea is usually a combination of character, plot, and theme, and I usually have a sense of whether I’m beginning work on a short story of something longer, but after that initial stage things go haywire. Here’s one thing I believe strongly when it comes to my own work (I don’t pretend that it should apply to someone else)—the material should dictate the process, not the other way around. In other words, every piece of fiction for me is different, and therefore each piece of fiction deserves its own approach. I disagree with people who say that it’s the fiction writer’s job to find his or her own “voice”—each individual story has its own voice. The “voice” belongs to the story, not the author. It’s my job to find the correct voice with which to tell the story.

What do you like about the short story form?
Probably the same things other people say. The gratification (if there is any) is more immediate than with a novel. There’s a purity of line sometimes with a short story, a feeling that you’ve found one particular musical phrase (of a sort) and held it. Novels are messier, almost always. It’s nice sometimes to feel that the emphasis is on a concentrated effect rather than a larger scope, bigger palette. That said, I really do prefer working on novels most of the time—I like being in for the long haul.

*Idaho's postal abbreviation is ID.