Monday, November 29, 2010

Danielle Evans on Stories That Won't Shut Up

In the 59th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Riverhead Books), dicusses what she aims for in a collection and her writing process.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
Several sleepless nights. There’s a frequently misattributed quotation that says the job of a writer is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Insofar as most people are comfortable in some ways, and afflicted in others, the best work does both—reassures us that we are seen, that we may, in our sadness and strangeness and suffering, be less alone than we thought we were, while simultaneously shocking us out of our complacency and reminding us that we are not the only people in the world, that the pattern of our individual lives is not the pattern for everyone. The stories that stick with me the most are the stories that unsettle me because you want to reach into the fictional world and do what should have been done, or because you have no idea what should have or could have been done. In terms of the actual form of a collection, I think the stories in a book should speak to each other without repeating each other. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say it’s the only form for a collection, but I like to think of a lot of my favorites as circular journeys—you end up where you started, but you’ve seen enough between the first page and the last page that your perspective on the point of origin is different—you are looking at different things, you are asking different questions, you are coming up with different answers.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I cook and bake, sporadically. I got through bouts of domesticity and then periods where I am on a first name basis with my local Thai food and pizza delivery people. I learned to cook and bake from my mother and grandmother. My grandmother does not believe in measuring cups. Sometimes I try to explain to people how to make her pie crust, but you can only get so close. There’s probably a decent, if corny, metaphor for reading and writing in there somewhere: You can explain to a point, but after that you have to feel it out for yourself. I also tend to experiment when I cook, which means that if some creative cooking project turns out especially well, I always have this fear that I’ll never be able to make it properly again, because I have no recollection of what went into it, or how much I used of each thing. I feel the same way about fiction, a lot of the time—I’m always going into it without a set plan, and I always have to overcome the panic of “Oh no, what if I’ve forgotten how to do this?” It’s why whenever possible, I write first drafts in a single sitting, so as not to lose sight of what I was trying to do.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
No. I came close with one story in my collection, “Harvest,” but I was 19 at the time, and didn’t know better. I was applying to MFA programs, and I had one story I felt good about, and two I felt OK about, and at the last minute I decided I couldn’t mail my Iowa application with those two stories I only felt OK about, so I had this brilliant idea that I’d replace them with two stories I would write in the 72 hours before the application was due. I’d had an idea for one of the two stories, and I wanted to write it anyway, so I thought I’d use the application as a deadline. I was at my mother’s house for a school break, and after expressing reasonable skepticism about the wisdom of this plan, she gave up, brought me a cup of tea, and left me alone to write. I got it done, and back in the city, mailed my application from the 24 hour post office, an hour before the postmark deadline elapsed. One of those stories I submitted was clumsy and awful, to the point that I’d like to break into Dey House and steal it from my application file if it’s still there, but the other was “Harvest.” It ended up being my first published story, and it was published pretty much as I wrote it—I think I added a paragraph on the first reread. I did a bit more tinkering in conversation with my editor, but there’s probably about a page worth of total difference between the story as it appears in my book and that first sleepless version.

As a writer without a terrible amount of discipline, I tend to trust certain forms of the euphoric moment. A lot of stories I’ve written in a single sitting have needed years of work—I now have a file of what I refer to as “the outlet mall of short fiction,” which consists of things that are written, but that I know are a bit “off” somehow. But the stories that were most insistent, that came to me not because I went looking for them but because they wouldn’t shut up until I sat down and wrote them from start to finish, always seem to me have an energy and a form to them that I don’t have to do as much work to create, even if I end up having to spend a lot of time revising the story.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
Sixteen years, in the story “Snakes.” It’s not a terribly long period of time for a short story, but it was somewhat unusual for me, as I tend to more often than not think of the short story as a vehicle for explaining how a single moment came to pass. It interested me to think about the pressure that the passage of time puts on the way we tell a story. I always knew, even before I knew how that story ended, that the retrospective voice mattered there, that part of the story, and part of the processing of the childhood trauma, was in how the narrator was or was not able to talk about it as an adult, in what she revealed and how long she took to reveal it. It’s one of the reasons the advice “show, don’t tell,” so often drives me crazy— it’s sometimes good advice, but misinterpreted, it can encourage some writers to remove all self-awareness on the part of a narrator, when part of a story, especially a first-person story, is who is telling you things, and what they are telling you and why.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Patrick Somerville on Coexisting in a State of Fracture and a State of Overall Cohesion

In the 58th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Somerville, author of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (Featherproof Books), stakes out a place for short story collections.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
First and foremost, I think a good short story collection should deliver something that a novel can’t deliver, that television can’t deliver, and that film can’t deliver—it should justify its own existence by being able to get to emotions, meanings, and situations that are simply not attainable with visual mediums or a long-form story that follows the same characters for two, three, or four-hundred pages. For a form to be relevant, it has to fill a space and a want in the culture, it has to do something, even if that “doing” is providing a very specific and esoteric experience, and while the role of short stories in our culture and the economics of short stories have changed in the last 60-70 years, no doubt, I still feel as though there’s a place for them, and I feel—even more so—that there’s a place for collections of stories. Maybe even a need.

It’s funny, because if you were to step back and take a broad look at how our culture works, what a typical day looks like for a middle-class person, what the experience of a leisurely evening might be like for that same person, I sometimes feel as though novels make the least sense of all anymore, and that they’ve continued to be popular only because of inertia, or marketing, or their similarities to feature films. Good short story collections, though, even though they rarely sell or get read in the same way good novels sell and get read, do something that seems absolutely crucial me: they coexist in a state of being fractured and a state of overall cohesion. To me, that’s the perfect description of contemporary experience and of contemporary minds, too. It’s in our nature to create a cohesive self and move forward with a unified identity, or at least the illusion of one, but in truth most people’s days are broken into tiny parts that are both different and the same. Especially people like me, people who’ve allowed gadgetry and the internet to become crunched into their consciousnesses. And in the same way, collections of stories are broken up and unified simultaneously. It seems like it should work.

The point is only this: Good short story collections, whatever they’re about, always teach a weird lesson about the parts and the whole. They provide a good reminder that if you overvalue one, you lose the other, and vice versa. It’s so important, just to avoid insanity in the contemporary world—and by that I really do mean actually going fucking insane—to have the psychic flexibility to sometimes see forest, sometimes see trees. Good collections put readers in a state of seeing both forest and trees at the same time. It doesn’t last, because it can’t, but a good collection will get you into that state and let you glimpse it for a time. And grow.

What book made you want to become a writer?
Catch-22. And it's funny to answer that question right after I've gone on about collections of stories, because I think that while it was the humor in Catch-22 that captured my imagination when I was a teenager, what I went back to, and keep going back to, is the form of that book, how it's put together, why it's put together in the way that it's put together. It's a novel that you might be able to argue is a deeply disguised collection of linked stories; it's episodic, fractured, and nonlinear, and yet the reader moves forward, bit by bit, and slowly reconstructs the straight line of time. You circle back and you circle back, and the radius of the circle keeps expanding, but it’s the same circle. I wonder about Heller's experience of writing that book, about the convenience he afforded himself by building it in the way that he did. He got himself into a great position—he had this huge, epic story on his hands, but he could also sit down and sketch out a little incident, insert it, and not have to completely freak out about the bigger storyline. Because despite how complicated that book is, the bigger storyline is very simple: Make things more nuts. Make the crazy grow, and push it to the point, by the end, that no one can bear it any longer. Not the characters, not the readers. My God, I absolutely love that book.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Patty Somlo: On Getting to the Essence of the Subject

In the 57th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patty Somlo, author of From Here to There and Other Stories (Paraguas Books), on the fixation behind her book.

The images haunted me -- men who before succumbing to the awful desert heat left their pants, shirts and underwear folded in neat piles and whose bodies became so dehydrated the men’s fingerprints vanished. These were just two of the gruesome details I learned from reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s book, The Devil’s Highway, about the death of fourteen undocumented immigrants in the Sonora Desert, as they made their way to what they’d hoped would be a better life. I couldn’t shed the sorrow I felt for days. All I knew to do with that sadness was to write.

The first story was entitled, “One by One.” The story serves as a bridge between a place called “Here,” which is the name of the first section of my debut collection, From Here to There and Other Stories, and another place called “There,” the second part of the collection. “One by One” begins on the day when the men’s bodies are being transported through an Arizona town and the local Latino community comes out to honor them.

Soon after I finished “One by One,” I realized I wasn’t done. That’s why I started a second story, “The Fence.” I didn’t know at the time that “The Fence” would be the next piece in what was to become a series of stories, all featuring a poor Mexican farmer named Alejandro. In “The Fence,” Alejandro has walked from his tiny village, located a breath away from Guatemala, to the border between Mexico and the United States. Having dreamt all his life about the splendor he would find on the Other Side, Alejandro is stunned to see that the dry, dusty desert landscape on the fence’s American side doesn’t look a bit different from the land bordering the Mexican side.

When I finished “The Fence,” I realized that I still wasn’t done. I wanted to keep writing about this man and see where the stories might take me. I recalled an exhibit I’d seen many years before at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco of prints by the Japanese master Katsushika Hokusai. Included in the exhibit were Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji, wood-block prints of the iconic peak done in different seasons and weather, and from different locations. I realized then that I wanted to write about illegal immigration in the spirit of a Zen Buddhist artist, painting the same brush stroke again and again, to get to the essence of the subject.

Since finishing “One by One” and “The Fence,” I have written nine more “Alejandro Stories.” Four of the stories are included in From Here to There and Other Stories. What I’ve learned from this fixation on the emotional tinderbox of illegal immigration, and the reason I’m still drawn to the subject, is that the stories lead me to themes I never grow tired of exploring -- how one maintains hope in the face of great obstacles and disappointment; the harsh clash between reality and dreams; the arbitrary nature of borders between people, countries and consciousness; and the eternal search for a better life that buoys the human spirit.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Sefi Atta: Writing on the Cusp of Humor and Horror

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Sefi Atta, author of News from Home (Interlink Books), discusses writing, reading, and research.

What is your writing process like? 
My writing process begins before I start to write. I get to know my characters by daydreaming about them. When I begin to dream about them at night, I know they are fully formed. I usually have a vague idea of what they look like, but I must be clear about their voices in order to write. My first drafts of short stories take less than a week, then I revise for months afterward, even though my revisions are often minimal. I need time to revise and revise intermittently not continuously.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
It depends what the writer wants to achieve. I wanted News From Home to provide a perspective that was wide enough, so readers wouldn’t have a limited view of Nigeria. Also, a lot of news reports on Africa, here in the United States, appeal to the guilt and sympathy of readers. I didn’t want to write stories like that. Finally, I wrote on the cusp of humor and horror, which is how people live in Nigeria. They rely on humor to survive the difficulties they face. I hope readers will understand how extensive the Nigerian experience is.

What book made you want to become a writer?  
L’Etranger by Albert Camus. I read it when I was in boarding school in England and I read it in French, using a French-to-English dictionary. My French wasn’t very good, and even though I was Nigerian, I’d only ever studied books by English writers like Dickens and Shakespeare. I’d never studied Nigerian writers like Achebe and Soyinka. L’Etranger introduced me to a rhythm of writing that was suited to the world I came from. It was odd to have that experience as a foreign student in England and consequently the book had a huge impact on me.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
 I do a lot of research because my stories are based on reality. Research feeds my imagination. I run wild with it, but I’m terribly organized, perhaps because of my background as an accountant. I keep information in files, which I frequently revisit. It pains me to ignore most of my research to serve my stories. I researched the drug trade in Nigeria for my novel Swallow, only to find out I didn’t need any of it. It didn’t belong in the novel, which took a different turn because I couldn’t bear to write a formulaic novel. I was miserable, as I couldn’t share what I’d discovered in my research, but I later used some of it for “Last Trip,” a short story in News From Home. 

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? My title story “News From Home” takes place over several months. It is set in the United States and I use flashback to remind my narrator of the community she left in Nigeria, and to show why she quit nursing and ended up as a nanny.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tina May Hall and the Unfinished Projects

In the 55th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Tina May Hall, author of The Physics of Imaginary Objects (The University of Pittsburgh Press), runs through her attempts at self-expression outside of writing.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?

I buy cookbooks and look at the wonderful glazed and frosted and perfectly-browned things in them. Then I make a list and go to the store and buy baskets full of pork belly and saffron and kale that I take home and put in the refrigerator. Then I make myself a peanut butter and honey sandwich. Sometimes I go through a drive-thru on the way home from the grocery store. And all that lovely food sits in the dark of my icebox.

Seasonally, I festoon my house with appropriate items, pumpkins and gourds and Indian corn and several black construction paper bats and a string of orange lights most recently. And then I forget to turn on the lights and a wind storm knows down half the bats and they end up disintegrating in the neighbors’ yards, from which I have to retrieve them by the dead of night in an attempt to pretend it never happened at all, and a squirrel comes and drags off all the Indian corn and leaves the cobs in the street.

Once upon a time, I took art classes and actually imagined (albeit very briefly) wearing paint-daubed jeans and stilettos and living in Paris or Hoboken in some kind of grotty flat. And then I realized most high heels, especially the ones that look sexy and artistic at the same time, are impossible for me to walk in, much less run in while eluding any of the suspicious types who would no doubt populate my Parisian/Hobokenian neighborhood. And I brought home a painting I’d done in my college class on “Color and Design” to my mother who is an actual painter (though she wears cowboy boots and lives in the suburbs) and she looked at it carefully and held it at arm’s length and said in the kindest way possible, “This is not really something you would ever want to give anyone as a gift.” I still keep watercolors and pastels and clay around—my son and I make monsters and trucks and maps of our town with them. Turns out I can draw an awesome swamp thing atop a semi-truck while juggling three juice boxes and giving a toddler a piggyback ride.

Every once in a while I am overtaken by a strong conviction that I could make my own clothes. This is patently untrue and has been proven so many times over. I have a very old heavy sewing machine that I haul out and spend a few days remembering how to thread. The foot pedal sticks and often the machine just keeps sewing without me which makes for some postmodern seams. There is also a problem with the bobbin so that sometimes I’ll be sewing along happily for a long stretch and pick up the fabric to find out I was never really sewing at all.

All of which is to say that reading and writing are the only things I ever have been very good at finishing. I am the kind of person who, once she starts reading something, can’t stop in the middle, no matter how awful it is. I’ve read my way through countless regrettable books, tomes on railroads, the Twilight series, books that got onto my pile by accident; once, when I was thirteen, I made my way left to right through an entire library, although admittedly it was a very small library in a very small town with only one wall of books. And though I don’t finish every story I start writing, I am willing to spend years trying to do so. Writing is the one thing I have a lot of patience for; I have an abiding faith that the words will make it onto the page, into the right order, that all of the seams will eventually line up, the picture will come clear, the lights will blink on, and a story will gradually emerge, plump, shining, lovely to the eye.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Why Stephen O'Connor Likes To Get Himself Into a Jam

In the 54th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stephen O'Connor, author of Here Comes Another Lesson (Free Press), discusses his unorthodox approach to writing a story.

My favorite way to start a story is to get myself into a jam. I try to sit down at my computer with an utterly blank mind—that is with no idea of what I am going to write. As rapidly as I can, I jot down a sentence that is both surprising (to me, at least) and has some form of narrative potential. Then I try to follow the sentence with another that would seem profoundly incompatible with it, at least in a sane or coherent world. That’s the jam I like to be in, because then my challenge is to make this impossible world seem as natural and real as the world outside my window, and out of that challenge come all sorts of unexpected images and ideas.

One day, for example, I booted up my computer and wrote the following: “The new girl sat at the computer in the corner playing Ziggurat, Panic! and U-Turn.” It is obvious how the subject of this sentence came be sitting at a computer, but her name, that she was playing computer games, and the names of the games themselves just popped into my head unbidden. This could easily have turned into a story about a new girl at high school shyly biding her time in the computer lab—a fine story, perhaps, but not one I particularly wanted to write. So I leaned back in my chair and waited for words that would send the story off in an entirely unexpected direction. “This was in the pine-paneled section of the Labyrinth…” I wrote, and as soon as “Labyrinth” emerged behind my cursor, I knew there was going to be a Minotaur in the story, and so the rest of the sentence followed in a burst: “…which is where the Minotaur had been hanging out lately, mainly because he didn’t remember ever having been there before, and he liked sleeping on the pool table.” 

So there was my jam: How can I make a Minotaur, a Labyrinth, pine paneling and computer games all feel components of the same universe? And, of course, I also had some intriguing narrative challenges to contend with: The Minotaur of myth ate the hapless virgins deposited in his Labyrinth; would this Minotaur eat the new girl? Would she, in fact, turn out to be a virgin? Would that have any significance in their relationship?

Once I had these two sentences, the story—“Ziggurat” (the first in my new collection)—began to write itself, which is to say that the challenges comprised by these sentences turned out to be continuously inspiring. As I wrote, however, I tried again and again to get myself into jams, by taking the plot and even individual sentences off in directions I didn’t expect and wasn’t sure how to deal with.

I find this sort of writing thrilling in the way that a good jazz solo is thrilling. What I love most in jazz is when the soloist takes the underlying melody all the way to the edge of noise—and maybe even a bit farther—without actually tumbling into cacophonous incoherence. When I listen to such a solo in a club, I am always asking anxiously at every new turn, “Is he going to do it? Is he going to pull this off?” And I feel an almost ecstatic gratitude when the soloist steps back from the edge of noise and gives me a new sort of music I have never imagined before. I want to do something almost identical for myself and for my reader when I write. I want to cross over to a place where my stories and my language seem on the verge of devolving into nonsense and then return with some new way of making sense of this lunatic world and/or our anarchic hearts.

That is my hope, at least… But as to whether I am actually capable of fulfilling it—well, that is something I can never know.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Barry Gifford's First and Last Statement on Writing

In the 53rd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Barry Gifford, author of Sad Stories of the Death of Kings (Seven Stories Press), takes aim at literature and lying.

Somehow, I managed to avoid using my creative and compositional skills, such as they have been and may be, in two of the three most obvious platforms for lying: the newspaper business and the advertising business. Instead, I took aim at literature, which Marcel Proust categorized as the finest kind of lying. I’ll never know, of course, if anything I’ve written in this pursuit will have endured, which is just as well. Due to my efforts, I’ve at least had the satisfaction of having been able, for the most part, to stay out of the poorhouse (otherwise known as jail), the nuthouse and the schoolhouse. (Many great books, however, have been written in prisons and insane asylums, so I may have missed out on something; to my knowledge, none have issued forth from the academy, only occasionally despite it.) Of the film business, in which I have periodically toiled, I can only say that truth never has been favorably considered, either as a requirement or a goal. This is not to say that a modicum of veracity or, even more rare, meaning does not slither out from between the cracks now and then. As to the practice of transient judgment known popularly and inaccurately as criticism, it is a category that makes lying, even for ignoble reasons, look good.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Amelia Gray's Experiments with Canvas and Paint

In the 52nd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Amelia Gray, author of Museum of the Weird (FC2), discusses what she leaves out of stories and her fascination with labor statistics.

Describe one of the stories in your collection. My story "Babies" is about a woman who gives birth to a baby overnight, without knowing she was pregnant. She feels mixed about the idea but warms up to it, as does her boyfriend. The next morning she has another baby, and they're surprised but adaptable. In the coming days there are more and more babies, and that is the end of the story.

The story is written in the style of a fable, and is silent on some otherwise important details like whether or not the woman has health insurance, or what her parents might think, or if she's ever wanted a baby or has a history with babies, etc. I think it's interesting to play with leaving details out in short stories, to let the reader fill them in unconsciously or keep them blank. In a short story you can experiment a lot with the canvas and the paint and still make something recognizable.

What is your writing process like? I get up in the morning and write, working on something I'd been working on the day before. Some stories happen all at once later in the day or at night. I wrote "Babies" in about half an hour, sitting on my bed with my laptop propped up against the green wall in a house I lived in between 2006 and 2007. For shorter stories, the generative process is usually shorter and the revision process is long. "Vultures" is the earliest story, which I wrote over the course of 3-4 months in 2005 and revised heavily for about a year after that.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? Research is some fun. I write marketing copy for a living, which requires me to spend most of the day on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website. Because of this, I know that there were 3,280 floral designers employed in Texas in 2009, and that they earned mean annual wages of $22,750 that year. There are 50 people employed as travel guides in Texas, they earned $36,440 in 2009.

As a writer, research is a good way to get out of one's head a little, but moderation is important. I remember reading somewhere that Joyce Carol Oates was very interested in a serial killer in Tucson, my hometown. She was interested enough to turn the event into her story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" but she mentioned in an interview about it that she only read the account of the actual events just one time in a magazine article and put it away. Her impulse was to not get too wrapped up in the facts of the case, and that was a smart impulse that lead to a good story.

My own stories will sometimes grow from research I've done online, but again, too close a focus makes it more of a fascinated retelling of facts than a piece of art. Maybe someday I'll write a good story using the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? No, I'm obsessed with revision. I'll go back and revise stories I wrote years ago, things that will probably never be published. I revise mentally on stage at readings. The fact that good writing can always get better makes it a puzzle. It can become a compulsion in the same way that eating your own hair is a compulsion, and it's one with a more satisfying outcome than a mass of indigestible material in your gut.