Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Doug Dorst Chases Away His Inner Perfectionist

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Doug Dorst, author of The Surf Guru (Riverhead Books), talks about getting feedback from colleagues, doing research, and compulsively revising.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
I’ll look for feedback once I have a sense that the elements of the story (the beginning and the ending, the characters’ voices and arcs, the POV and tone) are well enough in place that, regardless of how well or how poorly I’ve executed the thing, my reader will understand what I’m shooting for and help me figure out how best to do it.

In the last few years, my wife has been my first reader, although I still lean heavily on my friends from grad school and other workshops. This is a point that I don’t think gets enough attention in the arguments about the pros and cons of MFA programs—that even if the workshops themselves aren’t going to help you (although they helped me tremendously), they’ll still offer you a great opportunity to build a long-lasting network of trusted readers/confidants/friends/co-conspirators who know how to read your stuff and can help you get your stories to succeed the way you want them to.

What book made you want to become a writer?
There have been many books that have inspired me to write, probably starting with The Phantom Tollbooth, which I fell in love with in fourth grade. More recently? T.C. Boyle’s World’s End is particularly close to my heart. I read it during my third year of law school, which wasn’t a very happy time, and I really responded to the joy I sensed in his language and in his storytelling. It wasn’t long after I finished it that I decided to blow off studying for exams, dig out some old stories, revise the hell out of them, and apply to writing programs.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
Remember when you were a kid and it was your job just to learn stuff? I loved that. The adult world tends not to allow us such luxuries. As a writer, though, I have a built-in excuse to dive down any rabbit-hole of knowledge that I stumble across because I might be able to make a story out of it. I love that.

A few of the stories in the collection were research-intensive. For “Twelve Portraits of Dr. Gachet,” I did a lot of reading about Van Gogh’s final months and used other sources to make sure I got the period details right. For “Dinaburg’s Cake,” I sat down with Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake in San Francisco, who very kindly answered all of my questions and showed me around her kitchen.

The two science stories—“Splitters” (plant taxonomy) and “Little Reptiles” (herpetology)—required a lot of research. In the latter case, it was the research that drove the story; I got on a reptile kick and learned all kinds of cool things, then sat down and riffed on some of the details about the critters that I found most fascinating. I had no idea, at the outset, where the story was going to go or what it was going to be. It took a while for the shape to present itself, but I had a lot of fun in the process.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
If you don’t count flashes-forward and -back, about a year (“Dinaburg’s Cake”). I’ve never written one of those whole-lifetime-in-a-story stories. I’d like to try it at some point; it seems like a good challenge, since my default position is to see stories in short sequences or in collages of moments.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
No, and I don’t expect to. I’m a compulsive reviser, for one thing. For another, I’ve found that the only way I can get a new story out in the first place is by telling my inner perfectionist to piss off and writing a really, really, really bad and rough first draft—so bad and so rough that there’s no way anyone could mistake it for a finished product.

The closest I’ve come was with “Jumping Jacks,” which (not coincidentally) is only a few pages long. Stephen Elliott had asked me if I wanted to contribute anything to an anthology of political fiction that he was putting together. I did want to, but I didn’t have anything suitable and the deadline was only a few days away. I wrote the first draft very quickly, did a few rounds of edits, then sent it off. I knew the piece still had some jagged edges, but I decided that those edges suited the story, which is more of a blast of emotion than a traditional Point-A-to-Point-B narrative. When it came time to polish up the stories for the collection, I left this one pretty much as-is.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Angie Chau Fills a Vacuum

In the 50th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Angie Chau, author of Quiet as They Come (Ig Publishing), runs through the writing process for one of her stories.

One of the stories in my collection, “A Map Back to the World and into Your Heart,” is about a man desperately trying to win his wife back. Once a philosophy professor in Vietnam, he is now unemployed because he pulled a knife on a co-worker for talking smack about his thirteen year old daughter. He's freshly fired from his post office job, and his wife, who formerly graced billboards in the old country, is now the breadwinner in the family. This role reversal has led to a distancing between the two and a diminished love life. She is now always complaining about the mess of their house, the domestic realm he is supposed to be responsible for. One day, in a foolhardy attempt to win back her affection, he buys a thousand dollar Kirby vacuum from a door-to-door salesman. He thinks this top of the line vacuum can clean it all up, make order of things, can suck away all the sadness, and disappointments and loneliness of their news lives. The thought of it is both funny and tragic. In the last scene, after she has stormed off, we find him shuffling these dust filters about on a table forming the shapes of constellations he once stared at as a young man, now looking for some glimmer of hope to follow.

Readers seem to frequently ask whether a certain story is true to life or not. They like to know a writer’s process or a writer’s inspiration. I wanted to talk about this story to give a glimpse into the writing process, at least for this particular story.

First off, I wanted to write a story about the wacky things we do for love. I had an ex-boyfriend who toward the end of our relationship indeed bought one of these Kirby vacuums and perhaps with the same intent as Viet, the protagonist in the story. This was the seed of the story. To layer upon this, I wanted to write about that inclination to try to predict or deduce or guess at what your lover wants or doesn’t want, is aroused by or jealous of. I wanted to explore, how far does love go? How finite is it? Can somebody one day wake up and like a switch change and fall out of love with you? There is an element of this in the story as well. Quiet As They Come are linked short stories, and in a previous story we learned that Viet once killed a man to save his wife’s life. As a result, the question arises, given his sacrifice those years ago, how far does her loyalty stretch today?

Finally, as an aside, I was once a door-to-door Kirby vacuum sales girl. I was 17 years old and needed a job in order to save money to go live in Spain for a year. There was a want ad in the newspaper for telemarketers. I went to this random office in this industrial part of my hometown dressed in what I thought constituted “interview” clothes. I had on pantyhose, heels, a skirt, and a blouse. The general manager immediately said, “No, you’re too professional and mature to just be a telemarketer.” He opened a door to a rumbling room where a bunch of teenage girls were in a bullpen with headsets on. Their job was to offer “free” carpet cleaning appointments for people. When the person agreed, then the sales team would arrive. The free carpet cleaning was a thinly disguised attempt to simply get someone into your home so to make a pitch. The general manager told me that as a sales girl, I could make two to five times a telemarketer’s pay. As training, I had to shadow this guy who had a handlebar mustache. His station wagon had bullet holes through the roof and I rode with him from pitch to pitch. He gave me advice like, “You should really grow your nails and paint them red. Your customers will like it. It looks classy.”

Needless to say, I didn’t last long. After my first solo attempt ended up with me spitting out the lines I had learned by heart, while tears streamed down my cheeks, to an empty living room because the client was busy blow drying her hair in the bathroom, I was done with vacuum sales. However, that experience was where I got the technical part down for the Kirby sales pitch in the story. The moral of that story is that, for a writer, everything is ripe for the picking. The job is collaging experiences together in a way that both resonates and somehow makes sense out of this wildly messy thing we call life. Sometimes, I think perhaps the only reason I ever had that terrible two-week job that particular summer was so I could write this story.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Meet the Judges for The Story Prize: Marie du Vaure, John Freeman, Jayne Anne Phillips

We're proud to announce that this year's judges for The Story Prize are bookseller Marie du Vaure, Granta editor John Freeman, and author Jayne Anne Phillips. We've had great groups of judges in the past*, and this year's judges, I believe, extend this tradition.

Our formula is simple. Each year we have one writer as a judge. We alternate between a bookseller and a librarian. And the third judge is from another category—editors, critics, bloggers, etc. What this has done for us, I believe, is connect us more closely to the community that supports short story collections.

Here's how the process works: Julie Lindsey, Founder of The Story Prize, and I read all of the books entered for The Story Prize and choose three as finalists in early January. We send copies of each to the judges as soon as we've confirmed our choices. The judges then have about six weeks to read the books and inform me of their first and second choices. In the event each judge favors a different book (which hasn't happened yet), we use the second choice as a tie-breaker.

The judges' participation validates our efforts and adds another dimension to The Story Prize. And we appreciate the willingness of these very busy and accomplished people to be part of our efforts to promote short fiction.

*Past judges of The Story Prize
2009/10 Author A.M. Homes, librarian Bill Kelly, and blogger Carolyn Kellogg
2008/9 Editor/author Daniel Menaker, bookseller Rick Simonson, and author/One Story editor Hannah Tinti
2007/8 Author/critic David Gates, librarian Patricia Groh, and author/editor Meghan O'Rourke
2006/7 Author Edwidge Danticat, blogger Ron Hogan, and bookseller Mitchell Kaplan
2005/6 Author Andrea Barrett, librarian Nancy Pearl, and critic James Wood
2004/5 Author Dan Chaon, bookseller Ann Christophersen, and A Public Space editor Brigid Hughes

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Linda LeGarde Grover on Listening and Learning

In the 49th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Linda LeGarde Grover, author of The Dance Boots (University of Georgia Press), talks about a tradition of storytelling.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.The first story is called “The Dance Boots” and was the last written. The narrator, Artense, receives a telephone call from her Aunt Shirley, who then begins to tell her niece stories about their family. In this contemporary continuation of Ojibwe oral tradition a worldview and history are passed from one generation to another. Over twenty years of listening and learning from Aunt Shirley, Artense absorbs the collective story that she will one day pass to the generation that follows her own.

What is your writing process like? I try to keep an open mind and heart for when it is time to write. I have written while watching TV, I have written while listening to Broadway show tunes on my headphones. When the time is right it is right, so I try to pay attention. It’s beyond my own decision, perhaps; I haven’t yet tried deciding to sit at the desk and write a piece of fiction. The fiction seems to make its own decisions.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? For my own collection I thought that the stories needed to link. Ojibwe traditional storytelling links people and spirits, time and place, events and consequences. This creates what I have heard called a “big picture” view of the world past, present and to come. My own collection is small contribution to the story of Ojibwe survival.

What book made you want to become a writer? Pocahontas, by the D’aulaires. My first grade teacher read us the story and showed us the pictures. I then checked the book out of the school library many times. I saw the book through the eyes of an American Indian child and felt the sense of storytelling as a means of educating in that indirect way of the Ojibwe. I could talk here about the questions of historical accuracy and biased presentation in that book, but what I chose to look at was the story of a girl and her father, of courage and even happiness in the face of awesome and tragic historical events. I think that the characters in “The Dance Boots” exhibit those same traits as well as their grounding in family and community strengths.

What kind of research do you do? My dissertation was on the effects of boarding school education on American Indian (mostly Ojibwe) individuals and families. I have continued that research and focus much of my work today on families, on Ojibwe traditional teaching and learning, and on Ojibwe epistemology in literature.

What, if any, non-literary forms of expression do you practice?
I sew aprons from old patterns. It’s a way of understanding other people; most aprons I make have a person in mind, whether it ends up going to her or not. The women I know are models, unaware and unintentional, who sometimes receive an apron as a gift.

Who is your favorite living author, and why?There are many: The Erdrich sisters, Amy Tan, and Diane Wilson all write about the strength of ordinary people living ordinary lives in extraordinary times (perhaps all times are extraordinary for some people). And I have read Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go several times, probably because of the same. Strength does not always equate with survival.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Jeff Parker's Writing Process: Bad Sentence, Boring Sentence, Okay Sentence

In the 48th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jeff Parker, author of The Taste of Penny (Dzanc Books), dabbles in answering questions about his work.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
A good short story collection should deliver the mail, two magazines (one, an extremely good issue of one to which I subscribe and another mistakenly addressed that I otherwise would never have read), a package from someone I love who rarely if ever sends me anything, bills of course (there must always be bills), and—what’s the loneliest you’ve ever been in your life? What’s the most excited you’ve ever been in your life? Could it deliver a couple envelopes of that also?

What is your writing process like?
Bad sentence. Boring sentence. Okay sentence. Where is this going? Oh that reminds me of a conversation I copied down in my notes file one day. That was a good conversation. Let me see if I can find it. Damn. Can’t find it. I’ll try and recreate it. No, that’s bullshit. Where is this going again? I need something to happen. Nothing’s happening here. I am not smart enough to write one of those stories in which people just think interestingly all the way through. Didn’t I once see a blind man come into a café and start reading a book and then right after that a deaf man come in and pop in some headphones? Could I actually have seen that? Who cares, let’s have that happen. Bad sentence. Boring sentence. Okay sentence. Now this is really a mess. I know. Convert the whole thing into a theme park designed to look like a coffee shop with actors pretending to have handicaps. No, copying George Saunders again. When in doubt, repetition. Repeat words, sentences, scenes, structures. Hope for rhythm. But it has to stay interesting. Rhythm will not be enough. Is this interesting? To who? That’s a good question. I guess to that non-existent someone I imagine reading this stuff. This actually seems probably kind of boring for that person. But maybe it’s okay if it’s boring for a little while. Sprinkle in some death? No, that’s bullshit. That death is totally unbelievable. Bad sentence. Boring sentence. Okay sentence. Come on, quit dicking around. Bad sentence. Boring sentence. Okay sentence. That’s cool. Where did that come from? I can work with that. Bad sentence. Boring sentence. Okay sentence. Just finish the thing, and it is what it is. Cut bad sentences. Cut boring sentences. Cut approximately the last page and half, because you always overwrite the story by about a page and a half.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
Man bites off tongue fighting girlfriend’s lover. Man goes to live on prairie dog farm where he befriends animal rights terrorist on the lam. Man’s tongue grows back.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I dabble in expressing myself through checking email. It informs my work by keeping me from doing it. Sometimes I check email so well that I sit with all my email accounts open in multiple windows in front of me, going back and forth clicking refresh on each window in anticipation of someone, anyone, who may be trying to communicate with me at any given moment. It informs my work also by making me wonder what is wrong with me.