Thursday, July 29, 2010

Where Belle Boggs's Characters Come From

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Belle Boggs, author of Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press), talks about her characters' roots.

The stories in Mattaponi Queen take place almost entirely in two rural Virginia counties, and people from my hometown (of fewer than 100 people) have started wondering and guessing who is who, and asking my mother about it. “It’s fiction!” she says. “It’s made up!”

Away from home, too, I’ve been asked about my characters and where they come from, especially because so many of them seem so different from me. It’s hard to explain to a bookstore audience how I am in fact very much like the dutiful, practical Lila, or like George, the dreams-deferred carpenter-turned-custodian, or like Jeremy, a teenage boy in survival mode at a concert, but I’m sure that other short story writers can relate. I also think this feeling of connectedness comes from being a teacher (of everything from first grade to GED classes); teachers, like writers, are often empathetic outsiders who experience people’s quirks and character traits on an almost molecular level, while also imprinting their own.

But try telling that to people at a certain Middle Peninsula farmer’s market, where my mom sometimes sets up shop with copies of my book and the favors she’s made to go with it: jars of Mattaponi Queen preserves, bouquets of flowers in tin cans. In particular, people have wondered about Cutie Young, an old white woman who is cared for in her home by an African-American nurse, Loretta Johnson, who has come out of retirement in order to save up for a boat. Cutie’s home-care situation bears some resemblance to a local neighbor’s, but as a character she is more of an amalgamation of family members, particularly my grandmother and my great-aunt, who in fact went by the nickname Cutie. My great-aunt lived with her adult son (a Southern tradition), and would not let anyone in the house at the end of her life (another Southern tradition). And my grandmother, who is a New Yorker by birth but has lived in Tidewater for more than 60 years, is stubborn-minded and particular and, like Cutie, experienced the theft of some irreplaceable family silver a few years ago.

What I was not expecting, writing Cutie’s stories, was that my grandmother, Jeannie, would develop dementia and need the care of a nurse, or that my family would be drawn into the complex and very personal relationship that happens when you hire someone to take care of a family member in her home. We have just celebrated the first anniversary of Jeannie’s nurse, Ms. Joy Brinson, coming to work with her, but the celebration was of course bittersweet. Jeannie used to play the piano and correct your grammar and take you to the opera; now she sits in a chair with copies of The New Yorker in her lap and wonders where everybody is. She can no longer read The New Yorker, not even the cartoons, though she’s subscribed through 2013.

Ms. Joy (which is what my generation calls her) is just like her name sounds—bright and lovely and nurturing—and her relationship to Jeannie bears none of the prickliness of Loretta’s and Cutie’s. In fact, she knows a version of Jeannie that we never knew—she tells her freely, “I love you,” and Jeannie coos back something similar. But there is an invisibility at work there, too—the last time I visited, Ms. Joy told me that she worked for an entire day, trying to get Jeannie to remember her name. “What’s my name?” she kept saying. “You don’t know it? It’s Joy, remember. Say it, please. Say Joy.” Loretta would have never done that—she wouldn’t have cared—but she knew what it was like to be at once necessary and peripheral.

I signed Ms. Joy’s copy of my book last weekend, with great gratitude that she is part of our family and that Jeannie is a part of hers, but we didn’t talk about Loretta and Cutie, their story’s particular details. I don’t know how to tell her that Loretta is me, an outsider and a caretaker, just as Lila with her loneliness and George with his pride and Ronnie with her ambivalence are me, too.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Dawn Raffel's Ticket to Someplace New

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Dawn Raffel, author of Further Adventures in the Restless Universe (Dzanc Books), discusses, among other things, the influence of fairy tales on her work.

What book made you want to become a writer?
Can we start with the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson? I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to read and write stories, and fairy tales still fascinate me. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to land a brief teaching gig in Russia. My students were amused to see me lugging around volumes of Russian fairy tales. I swiped a few ideas from them for Further Adventures. “Mighty Breakers of the Sea” is the collection’s curve ball story; while everything else is set in the Midwest or Manhattan, this one is sort of a warped Russian fairy tale that is also informed by the lives of the tsars’ wives. The latter tended not to end so well.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
“The Air and Its Relatives” is seven pages but it took me years to find a way to get it on paper. I wanted to write about my father, who died suddenly without my having had a chance to say goodbye. I guess I was looking for a way to spend more time with him. In the story, I am a teenage bad driver taking us home from a visit to the planetarium in Chicago.

Most of what’s in the story didn’t happen—at least not in that order. Okay, I did flunk my driver’s test twice, but I never took out anyone’s taillights on the throughway. Still, the story is the closest I’ve come to capturing my father and my relationship with him, given that our view of our parents is always our own fiction. I pulled the story together with another device I lifted from Russian fairy tales: the repeated phrase “after a very long while, or maybe a short while.” That feels so true to me in terms of how memory works and how we experience the passage of time.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
A good short story collection should deliver the same thing a good novel or play or painting does: a ticket to someplace new. It should ask you to view some quarter of the world, of yourself, in a new way. It should challenge assumptions. It should linger.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Anthony Doerr: "The World Is So Fundamentally Interesting..."

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Anthony Doerr, author of Memory Wall (Scribner), discusses his propensity for revision and his enthusiasm for research. 
Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
A better way to ask that is to ask if I've ever written a sentence in one sitting and not revised it later! Indeed, stories routinely take me five or six months to write, working every day, weekends, too, and I'd be surprised if a single sentence has ever once survived wholly intact from the moment I've typed it out all the way to the finished story.

For me one of the chief pleasures of working on short stories is their manageable size compared with longer forms. Each time I return in the morning to the work—unless the story I'm writing is over, say, 10,000 words—I can read through everything I’ve written so far. And so, in that way, I can reenter the rhythm of the prose I’ve already laid out; I can reenter the feel and mood of the story. And as I read through, I’ll make changes the whole way. In that sense I’m in total agreement with Poe that a story offers a force of totality that cannot be approached by anything (novels, epic poems) that cannot be read in a single sitting.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
I am researching all the time. For me research is traveling, or studying snowflakes with a magnifying glass, or excavating my memories, or reading about violin makers on the Internet. Research is going to the World Center for Birds of Prey, as I did a couple of months ago, where a friend opened a steel cabinet, slid out the top drawer, and showed me a passenger pigeon with a paper tag tied around its left ankle: “Chicago Market, 1886.”

The world is so fundamentally interesting and it makes me fall in love with it a dozen times a day. Part of my goal as a writer is to say to a reader: Look at this life we’re living, look how enormous the scales of time are, look how incredibly old and marvelous this situation is we’ve lucked into. As I write, I tend to use imagination and research in tandem to buttress the lives of my characters. I look back through my journals, I look at photos in archives or on the Web, I read naturalists’ accounts, I talk to fishermen: anything that can help me evoke the places and lives I'm writing about.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Author Posts on TSP: So Far, So Very Good

We're at the halfway point of our entry period, having received 49 story collections as entries for The Story Prize as of the July 15 deadline for books published in the first half of 2010. The deadline for books published July through December is November 15.
Just some of the collections so far entered for The Story Prize
We're not nearly halfway through our ambitious plan to dedicate a post to each book, having run 18 posts so far. But we have several more lined up and promised. The form the posts have generally taken has either been a short essay by or a Q&A with the author. And we'll write our own posts about the books for which we don't get author contributions.

The aim of The Story Prize, of course, is to promote the short story form. Our efforts in past years have focused on the three books we choose as finalists each year and the six books our judges have chosen as winners. But we've always wanted to do more to promote our objective. We added a long list of other notable books the second year because more good collections come out each year than we can honor. But even our long list isn't long enough. So we decided to use this modest platform to shine the spotlight on every book we read and consider. Many of these books (I'd hazard to say most of them) get far less attention than they deserve.

I was, admittedly, reluctant to do this at first. I'm always concerned about remaining neutral, not wanting to reveal what we think of individual collections until we announce our finalists and long list in January. But neutrality hasn't turned out to be a problem with the posts. The introduction for each is short and straightforward; we're letting the authors' words speak for themselves rather than hype the books. And because we're posting about each one, we can remain evenhanded.

What has been surprising to me has been how consistently interesting these posts have been. Our contributors' insights into their own process, what interests them, and how their collections took shape reveal just how different and personal each writer's approach is. What they have in common is a sense of being attuned to the world and a desire to make something that reflects and amplifies their unique sensibilities.

Thanks to the thoughtful essays and answers the authors have provided, we're beginning to amass a good resource for readers, students, and writers interested in the short story form. We're only going to build on that in the months ahead. So stay tuned.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Justin Taylor: "It's the Little Details That Make Fiction Seem Real."

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Justin Taylor, author of Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever (Harper Perennial), talks process. 

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
I don’t think so—or, if I did, it was something that I basically considered a failure, i.e. not worth revisiting. But I am a fairly quick writer—typer, anyway—and so it’s not uncommon for me to produce a whole first draft in one sitting, then come back the next day or whenever and start sifting through it, fix the truly boneheaded errors, and start to figure out which parts of the draft actually interest me, and which need to be jettisoned ASAP. Some of the shorter stories in my collection, “Tetris” for example, came out more or less "right" the first time. Even in that case, I spent a lot of time worrying the prose up, but in terms of what actually happens, it was basically written as it now appears. That's a rare exception.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
I research on an as-needed basis, and usually in medias res. For example, in the story “Weekend Away,” Rose drives from her home in Portland, Ore., to Cannon Beach, which is on the coast. Along the way, she picks up a hitchhiker. Now, I’ve spent a good deal of time in Portland, and actually visited Cannon Beach, but I didn’t know much about the area in between. So first I mapped out Rose’s route on Google Maps as though I were driving there myself. Then I read some things about the Sunset Highway, which is the road I learned she’d be driving on. I figured out where she’d have to pick her hitcher up (outside Staleys Junction) based on the length of time that I wanted them to spend together in the car.

A lot of what I learned about the Northwest coast never made it in, and I’m sure the good people of Oregon would have forgiven me if I’d just fudged, but I believe that it’s the little details that make fiction feel real—to the author as much as to the reader. Like the hitchhiker telling Rose that his mom has an antique store in Cannon Beach but that she actually lives in Tolovana Park. He doesn’t say that she lives there because it’s cheaper, but then, he wouldn’t have to—she'd figure as much. By the end of the story it’s not clear whether anything that the hitchhiker said was true, but if he did lie to Rose, they were convincing lies precisely because they realistically exploited her presumptions about him, which he would have been aware of when he told them. This is how effective fiction works—it makes you eager to be complicit in your own hoodwinking. Of course, this assumes that the hitchhiker really was lying; he could just as easily have been telling the truth.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
There’s one story in my collection—“Somewhere I Have Heard This Before”—that jumps about six years. You’re told in the first line that Stan, the main character, is eleven years old. A few pages later, Stan is seventeen, and this naturally means that a lot has changed for him (and the other characters) during the missing time. I was thinking of To the Lighthouse, and how Woolf sets aside a special chapter to cover two decades in the life of the Ramsay family and their summer house, and kills off a major character in a parenthetical aside. In a short story, of course, the main constraint is always space—all short stories fly economy class. My whole story runs less than 2,000 words, with the jump taking place about midway through. There's no section break; just a new paragraph which begins “When Stan was seventeen...”, as if the jump were as normal a detail as the color of a shirt or a door opening.

You know when you’re having a very normal conversation with someone, and then they slip in something outrageous? And you’re going “uh huh, yeah, uh huh,” and then a beat or two later, after you’ve already said “yeah, uh huh” to the crazy thing, your brain actually registers what your ears heard and you say, “Whoa, hold on. What was that last thing you said?” I wanted this moment in the story to read like that feeling.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Craig Morgan Teicher's Short Attention Span

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Craig Morgan Teicher, author of Cradle Book (BOA Editions), discusses his writing process.

What is your writing process like?
I write often. If I didn't, I think I'd be pretty hard to deal with. Most of the "creative" writing I do (I work as a kind of journalist) is poetry; Cradle Book was a project I got obsessed with for about a year. I love fiction, but started writing poems as a teenager because I realized quickly that I didn't have the attention span or patience to write fiction. The fables in Cradle Book are the closest I think I can get to fiction--they've got characters and little plots, but they also work a lot like poems, turning on phrases. Plus, they're short--the longest one is about 7 pages, which took a lot out of me! So, to write the pieces in Cradle Book, I sat down with a sketchbook--my favorite thing to start writing in--and tried to get from beginning to end of the fable in one sitting. Then there was lots of revising...

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?
I ask my wife to read most things I write, and I almost always ask her too soon--before I'm ready to hear that I haven't written a masterpiece.

What book made you want to become a writer?
Catcher in the Rye. Or maybe I just wanted to be Holden Caulfield and confused being him with being a writer.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
For Cradle Book, I read a lot of fables and folk tales, starting with the two books of fables W.S. Merwin published in the 1970s, then I went backward to Aesop and worked my way forward through all kinds of crazy stuff--it's amazing how wonderfully grim these kinds of stories are: bad for bedtime.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
Well, a couple of stories in Cradle Book kinda roll together all of time--there's lots of stuff about Gods and sentient rocks and things like that, so those stories start before time began and end after it ends. That's a pretty long time.

Monday, July 19, 2010

How The Lindy Hop Set the Pulse for Megan Staffel's Lessons in Another Language

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Megan Staffel, author of Lessons in Another Language (Four Way Books), discusses the influence of dancing on her writing.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I’ve been learning the Lindy Hop, a partner dance from the years before World War Two, when couples danced to big bands in local dance halls in towns and cities across America. Even in my little town in western New York, there is a long, low wooden building next to a main road that was the dance hall. Every weekend it was filled with live music. The big bands that were traveling between Manhattan and Chicago would stop there on the weekends. Now it’s an auto junkyard.

The lindy hop originated in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem where the best dancers turned it into a visually stunning acrobatic form. Over the years, as it was adapted and translated by the general culture, the aerials were dropped and the dance was simplified into what we call swing. Both swing and Lindy Hop disappeared after the war, but now both have resurfaced, and once again, couples doing the Lindy fill the bars and dance spaces of American cities. Unlike swing, where the lead (typically the male) and the follow (typically the female) dance close and in unison, the lead and follow in the Lindy dance more independently. They come together and then move away, and that rubber band compression and expansion is the signature move. It’s a fluid move, but it’s not relaxed; there is a taut energy between the partners that’s further pressured by the eight count musical phrase. Really great Lindy dancers can accentuate this structure, the eight count measure, and dissolve it, so that it goes from being a pattern that limits expression to a pattern that creates expression. It makes me understand, on a physical level, that when opposites are brought together in a small, tightly controlled space in narrative, and a pattern is established that gets repeated, the result is a raw, explosive energy.

In the Lindy, the dancers have a relationship with the floor. That is, they’re not upright, they’re slightly bent. All of the movement happens in the lower body, in the hips, legs, and feet. The eight beat phrase imposes the boundaries. It creates the underlying pulse that everyone feels. That pulse has been the most challenging thing for me to learn, but as I try to bring it into my feet, I feel as though I am tapping into the very world I imagine in my fiction, one where there’s a thread of lightness and humor winding through the starker realities of life.

Different dances express different emotions. For instance, if the tango is about seduction, the fox trot about calm and order, then the Lindy Hop is about laughter. In my most recent collection, Lessons in Another Language, humor is present in even the darkest stories. That’s been the unexpected and welcome carryover from my dancing. It’s created a ripple or pulse of humor and lightness in my work. And it’s opened my eyes to that same quality in other writers.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
There has been a lot of focus lately on the linked story collection where characters and settings reappear and a narrative thread is established. But lately, I have been more interested in stories where the linkage comes about in a different, less obvious way, where the stories express a linkage in theme. In two really fine story collections, Michael Parker’s Don't Make Me Stop Now and Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes, humor is what articulates the level of desperation the characters feel. It is another example of the way opposites create energy. Compressed into the small space of a story, the character who is compelled to make light of an uncomfortable situation by turning it into a joke, makes the reader feel two things simultaneously, the sadness that pushes these particular lives out of kilter and the possibility for laughter. Here’s what I mean: In Parker’s “What Happens Next,” sixteen year old Charlie Yancey is compressed into the small space of the car with his dead grandmother, but really it’s a moment when he’s alone with his father and as he hears the familiar litany of disappointment, he knows what he will do next. With devastating calm, he turns the situation into the very thing that will inspire the most parental disapproval.

Like Yancey, the narrator in Eisenberg’s “The Flaw in the Design,” calmly steps into a role that is so reckless it’s breathtaking. Afterwards, when she returns to her very proper life, the reader tries to fit the two halves of her existence together, but they won’t mesh and that disparity informs everything. The stories in these collections are threaded with the absurd; this is the humor that links them.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Adam Gallari: A Good Story Collection Should Be Like Wandering Paris

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Adam Gallari, author of We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now (Ampersand Books), discusses his writing process.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
Yes. I was very, very lucky to meet Andrew Winer when I arrived at UC Riverside to pursue my MFA. He exudes professionalism, and I’m forever grateful that Andrew taught the first workshop I took in graduate school. He’s an imposing figure, about 6’4” with a stoic face and an almost Weimar Viennese air about him, and he’s incredibly meticulous about everything. During my first workshop session, he basically just sat there while I got picked apart by the rest of the class. I remember he nodded a few times, then, after everyone was getting ready to leave he came over to me and asked me to stay. I pretty much thought I was heading home, but he told me to disregard a lot of what was said, and that he was very much looking forward to working with me the next two years. Since then, I’ve been indebted to Andrew, to his approach to literature as an art form as well as his interest in my growth as both a writer and a person. If I ever got an “It's OK,” from him then I knew the piece had a chance in the real world. He’s one of the major reason’s this book exists.

What book made you want to become a writer?
Men Without Women by Hemingway had a profound effect on me when I first read it, though I don’t recall much of it now. I probably knew so little about the elements of craft and style that I can say it had little effect on me in a literary sense. But the feeling of knowledge and understanding contained therein struck me that I was being guided about by a human being (Hemingway) who didn’t necessarily understand anything but who was trying to figure it out through these people and these situations. That, more than anything else, really stuck with me. There’s a beautiful simplicity to Hemingway that masks how skillful a writer he really was. At his best, he’s almost a poet, and to read him aloud is to truly understand the ear he has for language. He’s anything but the “subject predicate object” writer that a lot of people, Nabokov included, claim him to be.

What, in your mind, makes a good short story collection?
I think that it’s hard to write a story collection that is truly successful, and nowadays there is a huge impetus on the collection as novel in parts, which really undermines what I believe a collection should be. A good story collection needs to be much tighter than a novel, which is unwieldy and can have dead moments, but a collection can’t take a story off, much less a moment off. In a way, each story should inform the next, and by the time you reach “Story Seven” you should be able to trace your way back through the first six to see how you’ve arrived there as well as have an inkling of whatever is going to come subsequently. There’s a trajectory to a good story collection that pushes you through it toward the denouement, and yet each story should allow you to linger in a specific place and moment. A truly good story collection could almost be compared to wandering Paris. You have Les Halles and Saint Germain and Montmartre individually, and they all have their own feel, identity, yet they are informed by the greater idea/ideal of what Paris in its entirety is. Take one of them away and you have a completely different Paris, with a different history and a different feel. Each piece of a collection is its own arrondissment where the people are of different classes, wealth and skill, but they are still all, ultimately, Parisian.

Who is your favorite living author and why?
Milan Kundera for two reasons. First, there is a weight that informs his work, one which is common to the writing of the Central Europeans, as they can deal with the heaviest, basest and most depressing aspects of humanity yet still imbue them with a sense of comedy that reminds you that sometimes all you can do is laugh. There is a depth to Kundera’s writing that intrigues me. Like Hemingway, I believe he writes less to tell a story and more to explore the ideas and notions of our experiences. The “Why” to the actions of our lives. I wish there was more of that in contemporary American fiction. The second reason I love Kundera is because his writing on writing and literature is incredible. He still believes in the conversation of letters, having an interactive relationship with the text and searching for the progressions through history to see how we have arrived at this present point. I’ve learned so much about the mental process of text and literary context from his work that I’m more indebted to him than anyone else, even if stylistically we’re miles apart.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Marisa Silver on Writing the Story "Pond"

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Marisa Silver, author of Alone with You (Simon & Schuster), tells how she wrote one of the stories in the book.

When I describe a story I’ve written, I somehow feel like I’m cheating, because, although I understand how the story functions after the fact, I certainly don’t have that experience of analytic clarity as I write it. When I write, I tend to be in a very sub-conscious, associative place in my mind. I do not think about issues of craft until the second or third drafts and I never consider meaning. When I burden the work with intention the story remains trapped within the confines of it’s little situation and doesn’t do what I think a story must do – resonate in ways that go beyond the specifics of the tale and take in a larger emotional universe.

When I write, I just imagine people in a situation, and then I try to dive deeply into those people to understand how they might behave. The more closely I know them, the more particular their behaviors will be, and the story, paradoxically, begins to reflect a wider world. But as I write, I’m just thinking about how someone’s acne-scarred skin feels under another’s hand, or about how the rain feels when it seeps into the bottom of someone’s holey sneakers, or what a person does with the wrapper of her chewing gum when she is sitting in church and has no pockets. I think about the little stuff and I maintain that myopic attitude for as long as I possibly can.

“Pond” opens on Julia, Burton, and their daughter, Martha, who is in her early twenties, who is mentally disabled, and who is pregnant. The image that came to me first was of Martha sitting in a baby pool in a yard, the huge swell of her pregnancy rising out of the water like the back of a whale. I asked myself how did this family get to this place? What’s been the experience of raising this girl? How has she affected her parents’ marriage, and what kind of tension is the immanent birth causing?

I told this section from the point of view of Julia, who is fiercely protective of her daughter and who has done the lion’s share of getting her through the gauntlet of her life. Burton enters the scene, and the simple fact of him entering, that he can come and go without Martha at his side, that part of his day exists apart from the family, suggested to me that he might be someone who prefers to live on the surface so that he can, in effect, slip in and out of the family life emotionally and physically. I followed this and decided that he has a history of affairs which Julia knows about. So I began to understand that a certain accommodation has been made between the husband and the wife. Throughout the scene, Martha behaves like a four year old – her mental age – and tension comes from the disjuncture between her innocent behavior and the glaring fact that she is physically a woman. The section ends with the birth of the child. It’s a very physical scene. There’s a lot of touching and a sense of bodies that are at once sexual and not. That felt confusing and right.

When I write, I think a lot about the negative space of a story, what is unsaid or un-dramatized. When I thought about what should happen next in the story, I immediately jumped two years into the future, when Julia, Martha, and two year old Gary are sitting next to another body of water – a duck pond this time. Having a baby near a body of water is dangerous, so there was that to play with, as well as the fact that I needed to think about how this uneasy relationship would manifest – Julia (now the grandmother, too) behaves as both mother to her daughter and also, in some ways, mother to her grandson. Martha, now a mother, asserts her independence as a mother and also behaves like a four year old might around a baby, alternately playful and bored. Burton did not appear to me in this scene and so it occurred to me that maybe the marriage had fallen apart.

In this section, a duck dies in the pond. I don’t know why, but it does. I just thought, there's a duck, and it’s lying in a funny way, and it’s dead. And the fact of the duck dying creates this central argument between Martha and Julia that seems to be about more than the duck. It seems to be about truth and denial and some kind of struggle between Martha and her mother for leadership. I let the argument play out but didn’t try to come up with any conclusions because I’m generally opposed to conclusions.

The next section takes place when Gary is nine years old. Martha, Gary, and now Burton are on a trip to the mountains and are playing by a river. Julia isn’t in the scene; it’s Burton’s time with the kids. I thought about the way Gary and Martha would function as mother and son now that Gary has surpassed his mother’s mental abilities. But as I wrote the scene, I realized that it was less about Gary and Martha than it was about Burton and that the scene needed to be told from his point of view. He was the mystery to me and I created a circumstance that allowed him to behave in ways that revealed him both to me and to himself. The last lines of the story came as a surprise to me because I did not really understand what the center of his emotional struggle was until I wrote it. When I wrote the line, I knew fully who he was, and I felt a lot of empathy for him, even though, in the story, he has contemplated and nearly done an unforgiveable thing.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Brian Joseph Davis on Family Jewels and Really Saying Something

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Brian Joseph Davis, author of Ronald Reagan, My Father (ECW Press), answers a few questions about his work.   

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
In “The Gift of the 12th Congressional District of Michigan” it’s just before the 1980 election and a broke, right-wing campaign manager is trying to keep his job by stealing his late father’s genital jewelry. I know that sounds absolutely insane but the scenario is based on a true story, in the same way Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home” came from a true story.

When I wrote my story, I really wanted to challenge myself not to go for easy satire, and I hope I didn’t, but if a reader wants to dig and find out the kernel of truth that started it, it won’t be too difficult. And if they don’t, I think it’s still a successful story.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
That’s pretty subjective and maybe dependent on the conditions the stories were created under. Some might want a story collection to be a fake novel.  Other people may like genre and form hopping. You can argue for both. The stories in Ronald Reagan, My Father started life in lit journals, commissions, theatre works. Some might say it’s a dog’s breakfast, but dogs seem happy enough. 

Ultimately what a reader wants from either approach is a voice. Patton Oswalt once described the middle-of-road comics that fill up open mike nights as “funny, but not really saying anything.”

Put another way, when I interviewed the British author Toby Litt, he said the most important quality for him was for someone to have a sensibility when writing.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
Having done a fair bit of work as a media artist and collaborating on theatre projects, I always try to hear a story told out loud as I write. Even my two most experimental works in the collection, “Voice Over” and “Johnny,” both of which came out of performance monologues, manage to tell stories, if you let them.

Probably even more than that, my work on the short fiction site Joyland— reading submissions, working with writers—has taught me more about writing in the last year than anything else. Too much, some days.

Who is your favorite living author and why?
It’s sad that I can’t answer Kurt Vonnegut any longer, but he was a writer I came back to in my thirties and discovered completely new things. Who could I try that next with? Pynchon? Roth? I’m going to go track down a copy of The Breast now.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Jim Knipfel on Truthful Impressions and the Importance of a Good Soundtrack

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jim Knipfel, author of These Children Who Come at You with Knives (Simon & Schuster), answers a couple of questions about what first inspired him and how he works.

What book made you want to become a writer?
Growing up, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being an avid reader in a small Midwestern town. There weren’t many bookstores, and the public library—at the time anyway—was subpar. So I read whatever I could get my hands on. Non-fiction, mostly: science, history, news magazines, the encyclopedia.

About the time I was 12, a tiny used bookstore opened in a local strip mall, so that’s where I began hanging out. The selection wasn’t great, but I found an occasional accidental prize. One day I came across a tattered hardcover edition of Henry Miller’s Black Spring. It cost me fifty cents.

I knew very little about Miller at the time. I recognized the name, and knew he was controversial, that he was supposed to write dirty books. Being 12, that was enough for me.

Now, up to this point I’d been reading mostly in order to learn things. Hard facts. Then I opened Black Spring and began reading the opening piece, “The Fourteenth Ward.” By the end of the first page I was drunkenly giddy—I was physically excited by what could be done with words. I’d never read anything like it before. The words themselves were simple, but they flowed with a rhythm that was both beautiful and tough. There were no facts here, just impressions, but those impressions were as truthful as anything I’d read in a science book. Plus he cursed. For the very first time I read something that made me think “I can do this.”

It would be another decade or more before I did anything about that impulse, and even then I fell into writing as accidentally as I had stumbled upon Henry Miller.

Despite that initial, youthful reaction, I never have been able to write like Miler, but I still owe him a debt of gratitude, and that tattered copy of Black Spring still sits in a place of honor on my shelf.

What is your writing process like?
I was a journalist for many years. As opposed to books, when you write for newspapers you’re often dealing with deadlines measured in hours—even minutes—instead of weeks. You learn to write fast and clean, knowing you can’t worry too much about niceties like “revisions.” That carried over when I started writing the books. To this day I prefer to write in marathon style—I set aside a block of time, and let everything else fall by the wayside for the moment. I get up at six, have a couple cups of cold coffee and a couple smokes, then sit down at the machine and type straight through, eight or ten hours a day, first page to last, until I’m finished. Working that way, I can usually have a first draft in two weeks or less. The rest is cosmetics.

That’s the way it works with the novels and memoirs, anyway. These Children Who Come at You With Knives was a different case, seeing as it was a collection of stories and not a singular whole. So in this instance, I wrote a story a day and concentrated on that story for however long it took to finish it. If it took three hours, I stopped after those three hours. If it took ten, I wrote for ten.

There are a few other little quirks that have developed over the years. I may do months of research before typing the first word, but usually not. And in most cases whatever research I have done is completely ignored once the typing starts. It’s better, I’ve found, to go into stories like these cold, with as little prepping as possible. Fewer constraints that way.

Most important of all, though, is the soundtrack. Each book has it’s own. A single piece of music, a single album I listen to exclusively for however long it takes me to write the book. It sets the tone and creates an atmosphere within the apartment. It’s almost a conditioned response or a form of hypnotism; as soon as I hear that particular music, I enter the world of that book. That’s why it’s so important to choose the right one. As in a movie, the wrong soundtrack can throw everything off. Knowing that, it often takes me longer to choose a soundtrack than it does to write the book itself.

In the past I’ve used Philip Glass, The Residents, Dick Dale, Fats Waller, and Max Steiner’s score to the original King Kong. In the case of These Children…, the soundtrack was Bobby Beausoleil’s electronic piece, "Lucifer Rising," which was directly associated with the book on several levels. It worked quite well.

Once a book’s finished, I can never listen to that music again.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Al Riske on the Precarious Writing Process

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Al Riske, author of Precarious (Luminis Books), discusses his writing process. 

For the most part, the writing process remains a mystery to me, even though I've been doing this for a long time now. My first story was published when I was 10 years old. On a mimeograph machine. By my fourth-grade teacher. (Everyone in the class got a copy, and I signed each one.) I've written a lot of stories since then, including the fifteen in Precarious, but the process is never the same.

That first story was in response to an assignment: Write a story about anything you like. I wrote about a baseball game with an unlikely ending. (I had cast my two best friends as the captains of opposing teams and couldn't decide which should win, so I had an escaped elephant interrupt the proceedings.)

Much later, when I started to get serious about writing, stories came to me in different ways. I didn't have to write them, and yet I did. Looking back, it seems almost as if I had no choice. The ideas never came easily to me. Well, never and always. I couldn't turn out a story at will. I couldn't just decide to write one. But then a story, or the beginnings of a story, would suddenly take shape in my mind. It was easy if I wasn't trying. The story might be inspired by a photograph in a magazine, a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation overhead at lunch. Or it could come, seemingly out of nowhere, in the form of a first sentence.

I almost never know where I’m going with a story. In fact, most of the time, I’m not even conscious of why I’m writing it, unless it's simply to find out what will happen. Invariably I get stuck and don't know. Have no clue. Can't figure it out. The remedy is usually a long walk, a hot bath, or a good night's sleep. In extreme cases I've been forced to leave a story half finished for years, as was the case with both "Taken," which was inspired by a photograph, and "Dance Naked," which was inspired by a true story.

The phrase “inspired by a true story” should always be regarded with suspicion because you never know how much is true. Very little, in this case. But years ago, as a newspaper reporter, I had the chance to cover a murder trial and that’s where I got the idea for “Dance Naked” — two guys fighting over one woman and how ugly that can get. But it’s a much different story than the one I covered. I made up 99.9% of it. And it doesn’t end the way I thought it would.

In some ways, I think, my process is probably similar to what an actor goes through to get into character, drawing upon his own memories and emotions in order to empathize with the person he's portraying—only I get to play all the parts: The hero, the villain, the man, the woman, the faithful friend. On the page, I get to act out lives unlike my own. Not that I consciously think of it as acting. My process is largely unconscious, and a lot of my best stuff comes to me as I'm waking up in the morning, as if from a dream. It's just there and I don't know where it came from.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Johnny Townsend on the Journey from Self-Hatred to Self-Acceptance

In the 10th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Johnny Townsend, author of The Abominable Gayman, offers an essay that explains the title and background of his self-published short story collection.

“I could jump off this ferry into the Mediterranean, and everyone would think I slipped in the storm. Mom and Dad might be sad I’d died, but at least they’d never know the terrible truth about me.” Those were my thoughts as I left Sardinia and headed for the mainland of Italy back in February of 1981, shortly after I began my two-year mission to Italy. I spent those two years trying desperately to purge the homosexuality out of my soul by dedicating myself to God with all my heart.

But there were problems. My mission leaders told me I could baptize 500 people a month if I had faith. Yet no missionary in our entire mission baptized more than a handful of converts during the whole time they were there. Were we all faithless sinners? Or were the leaders saying things that simply weren’t true?

We went door to door telling people how happy they could be if they just became Mormon. And yet I knew from talking to the other missionaries that I wasn’t the only miserable person there. What was going on? These were supposed to be “the best two years” of our lives. And I found myself dreading church meetings and despising the rule to stop people on the street to ask them “the Golden Questions” so they’d invite us to their homes where we could indoctrinate them.

And yet, in retrospect, while these were definitely not the happiest years of my life, they were in fact probably the “best.” They gave me an opportunity to think for myself rather than blindly continue following others. They let me see the world outside of Mormondom and outside of America. The dissonance I felt was unsettling, but I felt more alive than I ever had before.

Then I fell in love, and the world changed for me forever. My Italian missionary companion would hold my hand, put his head on my shoulder, and kiss me goodnight. It turned out he was completely straight, but I learned that affection between men was a good thing. That revelation changed my life.

Shortly after I returned to my hometown of New Orleans, I started taking writing workshops, and missionary stories began gushing out of me. I spent the next 28 years revising and refining them, while also writing dozens of other Mormon stories as well.

I heard a good friend say in Priesthood meeting one Sunday, “I hope they don’t find a cure for AIDS until all the gays are dead.” After I came out, a friend called to tell me my presence had made her so uneasy at a church social that after I left, she had to call the bishop to come cast out the evil spirit I had brought. Church members told me over and over how they “hated the sin but loved the sinner,” but when good friends I’d known for years would see me and cross the chapel so they could avoid shaking my hand, I didn’t feel very loved.

I was excommunicated from the LDS Church, and though I have many issues with the organization in addition to their harsh position against gays, I am forever grateful for those two years I served as a missionary. “The Abominable Gayman” tells the story of my journey from self-hatred to acceptance, and of the friendships made along the way, which endure to this day.