Saturday, December 31, 2011

Shannon Cain Gets Swept Along by the Flow

In the 57th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Shannon Cain, author of The Necessity of Certain Behaviors (University of PIttsburgh Press), talks technical challenges, story order, inspiration, research, and convergence.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
I worked over the title story pretty hard. For a long while, the ending was different: the question of the absence of children and old people wasn’t given its due. I’d been resisting the very good advice of a fine teacher, who suggested I look at the piece through a more anthropological lens, specifically addressing what was up with everyone in the village being so young and robust. But for a few years I had a particular idea that the story wasn’t at all about family and community but about romantic relationships, sex, and escape. Turns out it was about all of those things. When I allowed myself to explore what had happened, after all, to the kids and oldsters, the ending came naturally and the whole thing just opened wide and settled into itself.

What is your writing process like? 
Erratic and undisciplined and chronically behind schedule. To tell you the truth, I’m a mess.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
Well, you always put the best one at the end, right? Seriously, it’s not that “Necessity” is the best (they’re all the best) but it seemed to resonate with a lot of people. And I liked it as a title for the collection. “This is How it Starts” seemed to demand to be placed first for obvious reasons, but also because it offers a straightforward introduction to the collection’s obsession with unconventional sexual and romantic behavior. Then there were a couple of stories from a male POV that I didn’t want to place side by side... and the rest was just a question of shuffling and puzzling then shuffling some more.

Nancy Drew, girl detective
What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
The Nancy Drew series. When I was about 10 years old I began my own Nancy Drew novel, but didn’t get very far because I couldn’t figure out how it would end. Imagine my relief, 25 years later, when I finally took my first writing workshop and learned you don’t need to know where a story is going before you begin it. This was revolutionary news to me. And as I kept writing, and learning, I learned it worked better for me when I even tried to resist this knowing. I often nibble around the edges of an idea for months before I dig into it, but when I find myself writing too much of the plot in my head, I turn my thoughts to something else. I don’t want to give my brain the opportunity to smooth the edges, remove the accidental directions and strange words and weird events that emerge when you’re being an explorer, swept along by the flow. In hindsight it’s clear the Nancy Drew stories were tightly plotted before the various Carolyn Keenes ever put a scene to paper. No surprise that I lost interest in the project. I’ve never been much of a planner.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
For “The Nigerian Princes,” I hung out on counterscammer websites. (Confession: the emails in that story aren’t my words but found art, a pirated and edited amalgamation of snippets from actual Nigerian scammers.) For “The Queer Zoo,” I spent hours with my nose in the encyclopedic Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, examining naughty pictures of same-sex animals getting it on. For “The Price is Right,” I watched reruns. For “Juniper Beach” I relied on my atlas, of course, and my personal experience as a young Auto Travel Counselor who spent her days assembling actual TripTiks. For “Cultivation,” well: I’ll just say that detailed instructions for growing marijuana aren’t so hard to find on the internet. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
Lately I’ve been writing a lot about Occupy Tucson, via online articles and blog posts and essays. For the past five years I’ve been working on a novel set in Tucson, where I’ve lived for 30 years. It’s a political story about land use and water and development (and sex and drugs, of course), set amidst the current economic meltdown. So my writings about the Occupy movement couldn’t be more relevant to my current literary expression. This convergence is pretty neat.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Stephanie Powell Watts' Unrequited Couch Love

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stephanie Watts Powell, author of We Are Taking Only What We Need (BkMk Press), discusses a story she wrote in one six hour sitting that took ten years to revise.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?
I wrote a draft of “Unassigned Territory” about fourteen years ago in one wonderful evening on one of the couch loves of my life. That couch was a beauty: deep red cotton, flecked with almost imperceptible surprises of blue and yellow, traditional strong rolled arms, firm padded body (not vulgar and overstuffed), real wood skeleton. A couch’s couch. I loved that couch from the day I saw him, needing new upholstery, shoved in the back of a dark Salvation Army like the runt of the litter, whimpering at a frequency only fellow couch people can hear, “love me, I am good.”

I snuggled into my couch and couldn’t stop writing this story. Before I realized it, time had ticked away and flown by and flashed and disappeared in all the ways time does when you are miserable and watching mindless television because no one you love will call and you can’t fake the enthusiasm to call them or when you are deliriously happy because the baby you weren’t supposed to be able to have won’t stop belly laughing at his bunny’s flopping ears. Or you are quiet, the world is quiet and there are no emergencies anywhere, just quiet, harmless people breathing the same cool air. OR when you have written something you suspect may be fantastic, so good, when you re-read it you cry your own fool self. In that one sitting on my beautiful couch, I had a seventeen page draft that I believed was a masterpiece. If you write, you know exactly the feeling I mean. That wonderful, full sensation that you, glorious you, did it and it is very right and every word clicks into place like a combination lock. Tick, tick, all done. Perfect. That happy-making draft took me about six hours. But the revision for “Unassigned Territory” took the next ten years—not every day or even every month, but a tickle on my back on a place I found impossible to reach for TEN YEARS.

It is an understatement to say that my first draft was not perfect. Let’s just say it wasn’t very good. In fact, if there are three words strung together that remain from that original draft, I would be shocked. Though I was wrong about the quality of that first draft, I knew there was something important I was trying hard to say. For me it is significant that the title has not changed in all the revisions. I suspect what I wanted to get across all those years ago had something to do with the desperation of the striving outsider. What is claimed? what is taken in a person? in a life? and what can you, if you have the courage or stupidity, claim for yourself? The girl I wanted to be, still want to be: included, safe and uncompromised, belonged if that is even the right use of the word, was always trying to have a say in that story. Can you live in this world without compromise? And, more to the point of my story, is faith in anything always a compromise?

Oh compromise. Though my red couch was a deep love and a long-lasting one, I had a first and unforgettable. And in the way of these stories, this original couch-love was unrequited. I fell hard for an asymmetrical curving back, orange fur-covered beauty in the Goodwill in Raleigh, North Carolina. Fifty dollars, a lot of money for me in those days (in these days too, who am I kidding?) and I visited that Goodwill just to get a look at his sprawled, angled lusciousness. At the end of the week, when one of my jobs paid me the mere pittance that amounted to a week’s just-over-minimum wages, that couch would be in my own tiny, one bedroom apartment, with the occasional (thank God) cockroach so large the sight of it would take my breath. It has been twenty years since I went to that thrift store, consumed with the worry of how I would get that seven-footer in my Hyundai only to find an open spot where the body had been. The couch, MY COUCH had sold just the day before. I was crushed. Do you understand being crushed? When the body of you, a person, straight and complete becomes compacted into a mass, no blood flow, no errant thoughts, the opposite of hollow, a thick dead cube with useless systems, dead functions. Too much sentiment for a couch, I know, but I fell hard for this one. But what I am hoping to tell you is sometimes THE ONE isn’t really THE ONE. Though I imagined our glorious life together, that couch and I were not meant to be. This is not sour grapes talking. Sometimes you have to search like hell for the real true thing. Loving is so good, and like the soul song says, ain’t nothing like the real thing, but trying again, loving again, revising again and again and a-freaking-gain can sustain you too.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Cathy Stonehouse on Density, Space, and Silence

In the 55th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Cathy Stonehouse, author of Something About the Animal (Biblioasis), talks about how she put together her collection.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
For me, a good short story has density, which means that a lot happens between the lines. Space and silence in short fiction do a lot of work. In a collection, therefore, there needs to be sufficient space to absorb and appreciate the implications of each piece. I have tired of collections which pack too many stories in, or hit the same note too many times. Some stories that work powerfully alone lose impact when placed beside eight others that do pretty much the same thing. Equally, collections that read like literary portfolios, filled with as wide a range as possible of settings, voices, and forms—as if to demonstrate technical prowess—can feel manipulative and irritating. Personally I admire writers who offer up what they know and push it as far as they can even to the point of failure. Reportage from a front line I will never visit, which can take multiple forms.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
When assembling the stories for Something About the Animal I wanted the reader to experience them as a journey into a particular darkness and then out again. I knew I was expecting a lot of the reader, perhaps too much, but nevertheless this was where my narrative path led. I began to see the book as a linked whole, a series of suspension bridges from which the reader could survey an entire landscape and goggle at the canyons beneath. There was something magical about the way the stories linked territories and when placed one after the other made a bigger journey possible.

I am interested in how “the collection” is quite often an artificial or temporary structure. In this sense short fiction resembles poetry, a form that operates on both micro (individual poem) and macro (collection of poems) levels.

Finishing a book, knowing when it is done, is hard for me. Two of the shortest stories, “Ravenous Hours” and “Freak Waves,” were written at the very end of the editing process to fill what I perceived as gaps, stretches of terrain that required integration into the circuit. I was, however, aware my style was changing and began to feel one book blur into another: This was the time to stop or else the whole rest of the book would become obsolete!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Will Boast on Beautiful Musicians and Unlikely Dreams

In the 54th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Will Boast, author of Power Ballads (University of Iowa Press), explains why he thinks struggling musicians make good protagonists for short stories.

Since high school, an obsession with music—performing, recording, listening, talking about it endlessly with friends—has run right along in parallel to my more private obsession with reading and writing. The two pursuits intersected in the stories I wrote for my collection, Power Ballads. The accumulated force of all the rehearsals I’ve sat through, all the (largely unglamorous) gigs I’ve played, all the beautiful and frustrated musicians I’ve met, and all the unlikely dreams I’ve seen those musicians try to live out needed to find some kind of literary outlet. It wasn’t that I set out to write about music and musicians necessarily, more that the lives of the musicians I’ve known put them in interesting, precarious positions—artistically, financially, and emotionally—that began to suggest to me individual stories.

One of my favorite books of criticism on the short story is Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice. It’s not a scholarly work, nor does it make any claims to objectivity, but for me it compellingly describes what the short story is good at doing. In his introduction, O’Connor outlines his famous concept, the “submerged population group,” using it to describe the sorts of characters he finds in the early masters of the short tale: Gogol’s petty officials, Turgenev’s peasants, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Sherwood Anderson’s lonely, small-town dreamers. (More contemporary examples might be Denis Johnson’s junkies, Tim O’Brien’s soldiers, or Jhumpa Lahiri’s Indian immigrants.)

The novel, that most middle-class of art forms, has long been obsessed with social climbers and world-beaters, their triumphs, their downfalls, their second and third acts. O’Connor says that the short story concerns itself with a different sort of character: those who get swept to the side of society, who the larger world deems unworthy of having their lives told. Put another way, the main character in a novel stands out from the crowd. The characters in short stories are those most people walk by without even seeing. I very much like what O’Connor says about what the novel is good at:

The novel is bound to be a process of identification between the reader and the character…. One character at least in any novel must represent the reader in some aspect of his own conception of 
himself…. and this process of identification invariably leads to some concept of normality and to some relationship—hostile or friendly—with society as a whole.

He is, of course, saying that the novel needs a hero. Half-hero or quarter-hero or anti-hero, it doesn’t matter—the novel needs a central character the reader can see standing in for him- or herself. The reader of the short story, however, is asked to enter into a very different relationship with its characters. As O’Connor puts it, “The short story has never had a hero.”

With my decidedly marginal experiences in the music “industry” and under the influence of O’Connor and some of the story collections mentioned above, I knew what I did not want to write about: rock stars. In the last couple years, there have been some pretty successful novels on this subject. But, for whatever reason, the rock star—both the actual people and the cultural myth—has always bored and dismayed me. Perhaps because of the mediocrity of mainstream music. Perhaps because I hate being asked to follow fashions and pay homage to those who ride them. Perhaps because the narrative of the heroic individual who risks it all, gets everything they have ever desired, only to lose it all again, etc., etc.—that favorite narrative of the movies and VH1—seems so patently false to me. Perhaps because the stories of those who simply have to learn to live with their own lives seem so noble and true.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Alexander MacLeod: Let's Get Physical

In the 53rd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alexander MacLeod, author of Light Lifting (Biblioasis), discusses his efforts to "get into the zone," as athletes do, and write without over thinking.
A lot of the stories I wrote for Light Lifting centre on a single action or, sometimes, just one physical movement that holds the plot together and also threatens to tear it apart. I have a girl who dives off the roof of a Holiday Inn into the dark Detroit River at two in the morning, for example, and I have a pair of world class distance runners blasting down the backstretch of the most important 1500 they will ever race. There are some exhausted parents trying to stay up all night with a sick child, and there’s a work crew of guys who have to deal with that unique up and down grind that comes only from working with paving stone. I have a boy who decides he’s going to have to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a man who may or may not be some kind of sexual predator. In all these cases, I wanted the key movement of the story to be held in one ambiguous image or scene that could be felt as directly as it was imagined. I wanted the reader to experience the panic of the girl who is afraid of deep water or the surge of the runner who is about ready to get up on his toes and unleash his kick. I tried to describe what it’s like to have a blistering sunburn or to live through a car accident or to stand in line in the cold for hours. I wanted the reader to feel what the kid feels as he presses his lips against that man’s mouth.

Newton-John: Body Talk
In order to get close to the sensory core of those scenes, I knew that the writing would need to get out of the way as much as possible and almost disappear so that the intensity of the experience could carry the whole thing. I tried to do this lots of different ways, but I often found myself hemmed in by language and it was difficult to find the words to match up with the actions I wanted to capture. I did not want to internalize any of it, and I definitely wanted to avoid intellectualizing what was happening, but it was difficult, as Olivia Newton-John would say, to “hear the body talk.” How do you write sensation or transmit raw feeling when those things are precisely outside the normal range of the sign and signifier?

I used to be a pretty serious middle-distance runner and whenever my races went wrong—I mean really, really wrong—my coaches used to say: “You’re thinking too much. You need to let it go and just trust the rhythm. You know your body knows how to do this.” Sport and literature usually don’t seem to share much common ground, but I come back to that coaching advice all the time when I’m putting together my stories. If I feel like I’m pushing it too hard and thinking and worrying too much, I try to let go and feel my way through the scene.

Murakami: "Suffering is optional."
As Haruki Murakami teaches, writing and running are actually quite similar: Both require a weird individual discipline that can’t be faked and a person has to put in countless hours alone before there is any public significance to what they do. HM’s best line about running and writing—“Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”—feels just about perfect to me and I think it captures the idea that all aesthetic challenges must eventually come back to real-world practical concerns. Those athletes who hit the effortless three pointers, or fire one-timers into the top corner, or throw a baseball one hundred miles an hour may seem amazing to us, but for them, it’s all part of their routine and they are really just auto-piloting their bodies down roads they’ve travelled thousands of times before in isolation. If everything’s working right and the rhythm is on, I want my stories to feel like that. I want them to go into ‘the zone,’ into that strange place every athlete knows but doesn’t quite understand. I want the story to seem inevitable, as if every action is unfolding exactly the way it should.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Michael Martone on Form, Function, and Fourness

In the 52nd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Michael Martone, author of Four for a Quarter (FC2), lays out the structure of his collection.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
Arrangement is the story of this story collection. Some might label Four for a Quarter “experimental” fiction, but I never liked that designation. I think Chekhov’s coupling realistic techniques with Freudian ideas of depth of character was a very fruitful experiment. I wouldn’t call my fiction experiments, or I would, I guess, call it experimental in the way I would call every attempt to write fiction an experiment. Writing prose is always an experiment in arranging and/or rearranging the forms and content, words and sentences, styles and idioms of earlier fictions and nonfictions. I think of myself as a very old-fashioned formalist, writing fictions that foreground form. So, in this case, I didn’t write a set of stories and then arrange them afterward as much as I thought of the form of the book before I wrote it and then, wrote the individual pieces to complete the predestined formal structure. Form follows function? Function follows form? Hard for me to say at this point. 

There are 44 fictions here. The fictions are arranged in four sections. The first two sections each have 11 fictions. The third has 10 and the fourth 12. The idea for the book started with the old photo-booth photo-strips. I collect them. I have my students as a final project tell stories by means of a photo-booth photo-strip narrative. What I noticed is a pattern in the four shots. The first and second pictures are polite, staged, planned, arranged, but the third seems to be the anomaly. Mugged. Goofy. The crazy shot where self-consciousness (that one is having one’s picture taken) takes over, revealing the artifice of candid portraiture. It is an attack on the invisible fourth wall of transparent presentation. In the third shot, we break character. The fourth shot then is a kind of recovery. A desire to make sure there is “one good one” in the bunch. An attempt to recompose oneself. I wanted then for the overarching structure of the book to represent this syncopation. The book is a waltz as well as a march. The little skip also allows the author’s bio-note at the very end to be incorporated as the last fiction, another story, and not something that falls outside the “body” of the book.

Fantatsic fourmalism?
Each of those 44 fictions is divided into four parts. Many of the third parts of those four part fictions are also anomalous asides in the flow of the individual stories. But not all. And of course I should say that all of the fictions are also already about a four: the four winds, directions, humours, blood types, horsemen, gospels, questions, corners, Beatles, etc., etc., etc., etc. I do regard the four blurbs on the book’s back cover as a 45th fiction, and perhaps a ligature to the next book I am going to write. I asked my blurbers not to do a blurb but write a very brief story based on the number 4. I encouraged them not to read the book, all the better to help them write a story in the form of a blurb of an imaginary book. And the final story in the collection, “Contributor’s Note” is written not by me but by four other writers I asked to sit in.

Let me say this about all that. I know you are shaking your head. You asked a simple question about arrangement and you get this complex obsession about “arrangement.” Some of those who like to use the appellation “experimental” do use it as a kind of code. We are meant to understand that here in these “fictions” the reader will find cleverness, tricks, games, and riddles but no real emotional content that the “traditional” epiphanic dramatic story is designed and constructed to animate and release. That is to say that this kind of over-realized fiction, fiction that wears its form on its sleeve, has no heart. Oh, that may be true! It quite possibly is true. This book, then, is constructed as just another kind of elaborate amusement, some sort of mechanical booth, say, that takes a series of snapshots of its subjects wearing many highly exaggerated and artificial masks. But I hope that in the book’s architecture and in that dilapidated analog arcade booth there is, yes, a beating heart, a heart of four (four!) chambers, that circulates an empathetic vitality within its conscious anatomical arrangements—a systolic/diastolic stutter, a dub DUB squared, a surprising fibrillation, and, at last, the dénouementic code blue, bluer than the bluest blue.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Diane Goodman: Food for Thought

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Diane Goodman, author of Party Girls (Autumn House Press), discusses how her work has evolved along with her personal and professional involvement with food.

When people ask me what my first book of short stories, The Genius of Hunger, is about, I say it’s about lonely women in grocery stores. I moved down to Miami 12 years ago, I didn’t know a soul, and I spent a lot of time by myself in the markets. I started writing about it, about this peculiar kind of loneliness taking place while I shopped for food, for something familiar and comforting. This book is, I think, also about the universal need for community and for communicating, and then the actual genius of these hungers—how they propel and compel us to fill them.

Once I got myself settled here, I opened a catering/personal chef business, and then something else remarkable occurred to me that created the foundation for my second story collection, The Plated Heart. Cooking, feeding people, is such an intimate, nurturing gesture, but I was doing it for strangers in their homes; I was a stranger in their homes. The dynamics that emerged from that conflict were endlessly interesting to me in terms of writing stories that examined what it was like to prepare and serve food in strangers’ homes—how much you saw of their lives, how little you actually wanted to know, how it seemed as though you were supposed to provide comfort and yet you were not because you were an employee. I was a hero if the meals/parties were a success, a villain if they were not, and much of the time a person whom they talked to and ordered around all day but never really saw.
A hero

But then I became a more accomplished caterer with a thicker skin and my focus shifted from the service perspective to the surprising fragility of my clients. In the world, they were rich and powerful; in their homes, they were insecure and frightened. The pressure they put on themselves to throw the perfect event, the personal issues that arose from merely wanting to throw a party, made me sympathetic to them and made me feel more powerful. My new book, Party Girls, still focuses on food, on cooking and serving and trying to please. But in this one, the focus is on the hostessestheir odd, kind of secret worldand on when a party is not just a party but a pressure cooker (pun intended) constantly threatening to explode.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Peter Markus: Kafka’s Axe for the Frozen Sea (or How I Came to Be the Writer I Have Come to Be)

In the 50th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Peter Markus, author of We Make Mud (Dzanc Books), compares reading a short story collection to listening to a record.

In college, I was drawn to two books of stories written by writers, both dead, whose origins, like mine, were decidedly of the Midwest: Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and The Nick Adams Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Both writers, both under the influence of another now-favorite of mine, Gertrude Stein, wrote about the particulars of small-town middle American landscapes in such a way that they seemed to give me permission to turn my own fictional attentions on my own small town backdrop that has, for anyone familiar with my work, a muddy river always running through it: a town and a river where boys—no, brothers—and sometimes men—most of them called Bob— spend the bulk of their time fishing for the river’s fish. 

But it was two other books at that time, too, by writers who at the time were both still alive and living, that really ran their nail of influence through me, their own river of words, mentor-works of fiction that made me want to write and to try to find a way to write the stories that would become my own, my own voice, my own particular landscape in the bigger landscape of American short fiction. The first of these two books was Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a book whose title alone, not so much its suggested subject matter—love and its failings—but the patterns of its lingual phrasing, its sense of stripped-down musicality and repetition, that made its way to my ears and eventually drove a nail right through to my writer’s heart. I remember opening up the Carver collection at random to find the story “Viewfinder,” a story that I teach at the beginning of every fiction workshop I now teach, a story about a man who has steel hooks for hands, a man who is in a way hand-less, and I remember the feeling that I was holding in my own hands stories whose sentences, like the characters themselves, had been stripped down to the rawest of bones.

Borders Book Shop, Ann Arbor, Mich.
A couple of years later, as I was about to graduate and leave Ann Arbor with the self-knowing that I was going to become, one way or another, a writer, I discovered that second of books that would change the way I not only wrote, but it changed the way that I experienced language both as a reader and a writer. That book, The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard, did violence to the way that I saw what a story was or what a story could be and the way that the sentence itself is the foundation and the source of fiction’s ultimate power. It’s a book that, as Kafka makes the bold point, was the axe that cut in half, that freed, the frozen sea inside of me.

I remember how The Ice at the Bottom of the World found its way to me, much like a fish that leapt up out of the river and slapped me in the face as if to say, Hey, look over here! I’d read a review of it in The New York Times Book Review, a review that talked about Richard’s hard-scrabble characters, fathers and sons, sailors newly home from sea, drunken uncles—get the picture?— stories, too, that, like both Hemingway and Anderson, had driving behind them and anchoring them to the page a strong sense of place (Mark Richard’s place being the American south). I surrendered from my tight fist a twenty dollar bill to the bald but bearded bookseller at the Ann Arbor Borders Books—the headquarter store of the now sunken chain—the sort of frivolous purchase that I rarely ever participated in back then when I was a lowly English major whose first job out of college would be working for five bucks under the table at a used bookstore in Detroit. I took The Ice at the Bottom of the World back home with me to my one-room efficiency on North Ingalls Street with the hope of spending the day with a book that I believed would speak and sing to me.

A day later I was back at Borders to ask for my money back. As I told the bookseller who asked why I was returning the book: “This book,” I sneered, “is unreadable!” The problem, needless to say, wasn’t the book, wasn’t the author, wasn’t the stories themselves. The problem was that I, as its reader, didn’t know how to read a writer whose stories demanded that they be read on their own terms: under their own lingual conditions. I wasn’t ready to read a book that was written not so much in English or the English that I was comfortably familiar with. No, this was a book written in one writer’s singular vision and reinvention of what language can become when we speak it and shape the particulars of our speech onto the page.

A few years later I picked up the book again, this time from a used bookstore for two bucks, but this time I was ready for, I was open to, its rhythms and recursive ways of sentencing a work of fiction. Richard forced me, in the words of the great poet Jack Gilbert, to “unlearn the constellations to see the stars.” I learned, in short, to read Mark Richard the way that Mark Richard demanded to be read: one word, one sound, at a time, taking it slow, savoring every beat, every syllabic bite. It changed the way I read and the way that I wrote and the way that I now write: one word, one sound, at a time. It’s my hope that the mud that I’m now making, with my own words, might also be read, and eaten, in much the same way. I hope you enjoy the taste.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Laura Boudreau on Tenuous and Tangential Connections Between Stories

In the 49th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Laura Boudreau, author of Suitable Precautions (Biblioasis Press), offers a conceptual definition of short story collections.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
There’s an Isaac Bashevis Singer story called “Disguised” that has influenced the way I think about the nature and function of short story collections.

The story is about Temerl, a young bride who is abandoned by her husband. This causes her tremendous problems, particularly because Jewish law doesn’t allow her to remarry unless she obtains a divorce. So, Temerl sets out on a search for her missing husband, and there’s a line or two when Singer writes:
“She gained the kind of knowledge that comes from staying at inns and listening to all sorts of talk... Temerl learned how vast the world was and how odd people could be. Each human being had his own desires, his own calculations, and sometimes his or her own madness.”
I always thought those lines could serve as a conceptual definition of the short story collection — that perhaps we might think of the stories as travelers, brought together by chance or fate or circumstance, but connected, all the same. Although I understand the appeal of linked stories, and the pleasure of that logic, I am more attracted to a collection in which stories’ bonds are tenuous and tangential. In my own book, the stories are wildly different from each other. One story, “Strange Pilgrims,” is about a woman finding a fortune hidden in the attic of her new house; it’s plot-driven, detective-like. Another story, “Falling in Love,” is a series of images, of feelings, and confusions about those feelings. It’s almost a prose poem. I think that what ties the stories together is my voice, my way of looking at the world. And as a reader, that’s what I want — a way to look through the author’s eyes.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be? 
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver, is about as good as it gets for me. In that one slim volume, there’s something electric and dark that takes on a life of its own. I think Carver’s much-imitated style of colloquial narration is one that contemporary writers can take for granted, or read as ironic or affected, but this particular collection still seems radical to me. I think it has something to do with the fact that the pared-backness of the stories doesn’t seem overly engineered or arrogant; you as a reader don’t feel manipulated. You’re allowed to come to the stories on your own terms, and you leave them that way, too. There’s something very demanding — and potentially alienating — about that kind of collection, but Carver shows the pay-off can be huge.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
The process reminded me of making an old-fashioned mix-tape. I needed to figure out what sounded good beside each other, making sure I alternated fast and slow, long and short, without being too predictable or prescriptive about it. The pauses in between needed to feel right.

Or maybe it was more like making a seating chart for a dinner party: if the stories are personalities, who is going to get along with each other but not get bored? Actually, one of my stories, “Monkfish,” is about a dinner party, and the hostess has a rule: “boy girl boy girl, no spouses beside each other.” That’s probably as good a framework as any.

I opened the collection with a short piece that’s part invitation to the reader, part throwing down of the artistic gauntlet. I end with a piece that has more of a novel vibe, in that it’s an exploration of a family across generations. The first word of the book is “Try” and the last word is “love.” I like to think that’s indicative of the arc of the collection.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Maureen F. McHugh and the Earthquake Kit

In the 48th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Maureen F. McHugh, author of After the Apocalypse (Small Beer Press), tries to figure something out.

When I was first starting out people always said, ‘Write what you know.’

Seriously, no one is interested in what I know. I’m not interested in what I know. Unless someone has done something truly, seriously, oh my god amazing, trust me on this. It’s like going to a party and talking too much. Even if someone has done something truly, gloriously amazing, like cloned the first human baby, chances are that a lot of it is about getting grants and doing the same thing over and over with pipettes and petri dishes and yelling at post docs and people really only want to hear the fun parts.

I find that the stories I like best to read and the stories that people like best of mine are the stories where I’m trying to figure something out. Usually what I am trying to figure out is something that bothers me and often it doesn’t actually have an answer.

After I wrote all the stories in my collection, After the Apocalypse, I moved to Los Angeles. After the Apocalypse might be described best as ‘oh my god I’m fifty and the economy sucks and what is going to happen?’ (except that one of the stories has zombies in it. I’m not really that nervous about zombies.) I am anxious about the future because big chunks of it (it is becoming more and more difficult for me to avoid this knowledge) are out of my control. After I moved to Los Angeles, I realized that I had written a book about bad things happening and I didn’t have an earthquake kit. This could be embarrassing—Writer of Apocalyptic Fiction Unprepared For Earthquake. This is exactly the kind of thing I am trying to figure out in my writing. What can I be prepared for and what is basically out of my control and how awful is what is out of my control going to be?

Earthquake. The Big One. Definitely out of my control. Moving to Los Angeles, in my control and maybe incredibly stupid, but already done. Getting together some candles, some batteries, and five gallons of water? Something a moron could do. Then, of course, I worried about where I had stored the water because the water is in plastic jugs and what if the house falls on them and ruptures the jugs? But thanks to writing this collection I at least have an earthquake kit which is an unexpected benefit of writing.

(I was in the grocery store in August and they had back-to-school earthquake kits. Sometimes the problem with being a writer is that reality is so much stranger. Who would make that up? Back to school earthquake kits have those single serve lunch box Jello™ packs in them, among other things. I suppose because pudding snacks would be too tempting to break into before the earthquake.)

Life-like doll
I don’t always know what it is that I don’t know the answer to. I often start a story with two strands—for instance I saw a documentary on television about something called Reborns, which are incredibly life-like infant dolls sold to adult women. I was worrying about what I would do if I had to get a job besides writing (I obsessively note those signs on fast food restaurants that say they’re hiring.) The story that came out of those two things is called “Useless Things” and when I started it I had no idea what it was going to be about.

I would not actually recommend this as a way to write. It means a lot of beginnings go nowhere and a lot of stories get about three-fourths of the way done and then chunks have to be thrown out and re-jiggered. I’ve tried outlining but once I write the outline I already know what’s going to happen. Then I’m already bored. I don’t mind revising, which is mainly about making sure that other people can read the story and feel something or even understand what is going on. But if I’m not finding out something when I’m composing, then the story feels lifeless.

I suppose my next collection could be called Why Don’t I Eat Less and Exercise More but that’s not about questioning so much as it is self-loathing, and frankly, who wants to read that?

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Elissa Schappell on the Continuing Conversation

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Elissa Schappell, author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls (Simon & Schuster), tells why she put her collection together the way she did, describes a painful writing experience, and names the books and writers that inspire her.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
Arranging the stories in the collection was a challenge for me because, unlike a traditional story collection, I wanted the book to have an arc of sorts and thus read more like a traditional novel with the first and last stories serving as bookends. I also wanted the stories to move back and forth in time, overlapping directly or obliquely, so you’d see the character from several different perspectives and distances. So you could see how, say, the experience of being labeled a slut in high school would inform your identity, reverberating, even twenty-five years later when you’re a grown woman and mother. The ways in which we exist only in the imagination or memory of others and how at odds this perception is with reality. My hope is that as the stories progress, each revealing a new side of a character through another lens, the reader will be challenged to confront their preconceived notions of who these women are. Perhaps question the judgments they’ve passed on these women earlier and consider why they were inclined to do so.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Once. It’s called, "Try An Outline" and it’s from Use Me.

I knew that there would have to be a story in the book where the father dies. And I hated it. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want it to be all sentimental, then-a-golden-ladder-of-sunlight-reached-down-into-the-hospital-room. I wanted it to feel authentic. I was angry at the universe, angry with my father, and confused. I felt like child. Now were I a girl, faced with writing a difficult paper, my father would have helped me. He’d have said, as he always did, “Make an outline.” This always bothered me to no end. I didn’t want to make a freaking outline. I wanted him to help me write this paper on Of Mice and Men.

As it would happen, the day I sat down to write the story, feeling reluctant, angry and full of doubt, I heard his voice in my head: “Try making an outline,” he said. As ever, this pissed me off. “Really,” I thought. “You really think that’s going to help me get through this? An outline? Sure. Right. Fine. You want an outline so bad, well here it is.”

And so it went. It was the most painful writing experience of my life. I was shaking and sobbing, completely rattled. Anytime I started to slow down, or thought, “I can’t do this, I’ve got to stop,” I’d tell myself, “No. Just keep going. Go down. Go down, touch the bottom and then, when you come up, it won’t hurt as much."

For the next five hours I sat and wrote it, and when I was done, I got up, went to the loo and vomited.

Later when I read it, there were parts I didn’t even remember writing, parts I scarcely recognized.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
I don’t think I ever wanted to be a writer. I’ve just always been one. At this point in my life, I have no other marketable skills, at all. So, I suppose I’m stuck with it.

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV, so I read a lot and wrote a lot in my notebooks. I loved all of Salinger, especially Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories. Although later, I’d carry a copy of Raise High the Roof Beams, Carpenter because I liked that, despite the experience of being there [editor's note: *spoiler alert*] when Seymour kills himself in “A Good Day for Bananafish,” I could go back, across this bridge of other books and visit him. The conversation continued. The idea that a book could do that, continue the conversation, is what spurred me to write my first book, Use Me, which is about, in part, the relationship between a daughter and her father who is dying of cancer.

As an adult, Amy Hempel and Lorrie Moore gave me permission to take my world and the characters that populated it seriously. To write in my voice, to realize a story needn’t be long to be deep. Length doesn’t equal strength. I own all their books—multiple copies of some—the ones most lined and worn are Amy’s Reasons to Live and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, and Lorrie’s Self-Help and Birds of America.

There was anger and desire and awkwardness in these stories; these women were going into dark places. Their stories were honest in a way I couldn’t be in life, or on the page, and they were using humor as a vehicle to deliver the truth. They made me smarter about the world and myself. They were writing sentences so perfect they demanded re-reading and memorizing. They were able to give up something of themselves without drawing attention to themselves as writers, or ever lapsing into sentimentality. Still, there was always the sense that some part of the story was written with a bone. The humor and sadness, the terrain was familiar to me, so reading them felt a bit like discovering my pack. Although they were bigger and faster and cleverer than me, even if I never made it to the front, I could be a writer, and I wasn’t alone anymore.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Anne Leigh Parrish and the Big Reveal

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Anne Leigh Parrish, author of All the Roads That Lead From Home (Press 53), describes how she works and who has influenced her writing.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
Without a doubt, the lead story, "Surrogate." I had this idea of a house split in half – into two apartments, that share a common wall and basement. One half is occupied by a couple. The wife is grieving for her dead father. A neighbor moves in, an old man. He's a widower. What connects them is the piano on his side of the apartment. He's a retired music teacher, and the piano had belonged to the young woman's father. It was on her side until she couldn't stand seeing it every day, and moved it next door. She waits for the tenant to lift the lid and play. When he finally does, she feels a needed release. In time I changed it all around so that the woman's grief was for a lost child, and the surrogate wasn't an old man at a piano, but a little girl with a fiery spirit and a lawn ornament, a crude Madonna, about three or four feet tall, which the little girl breaks by accident. I thought that was more immediate and plausible than the original idea.

What is your writing process like?
The starting point for me is the moment of revelation – the big reveal, if you will. What is that moment about? And whom does it involve? Next, I like to focus on setting – a house, a rocky island, a road running through an overgrown field of grass. Characters come next, their peculiar traits and failings, what makes them charming, sweet, or infuriating. Many of my stories are between two people—spouses, lovers, a parent and her child. That balance and tension drives the plot, whatever it may be. After I think I have a fairly solid piece, I put it away long enough to come back with fresh eyes, ready to edit and uncover what I really need to get in front of the reader for maximum impact.

What do you think a short story collection should deliver?
A broad spectrum of mood and sensibility. And a variety of settings and situations. I refer always to Alice Munro, who can give us an old farm wife or a young woman who's lost her children. She writes in the present day, a generation ago, or even further back, to World War I. Her characters are schemers, losers, silent sufferers, doggedly loyal spouses and siblings, or slippery, sketchy people out for personal gain. She gives us rural Canada with its small-town mores, or the perversions of wealthy city-dwellers. She weaves important social issues like abortion, adultery, and abuse through ordinary lives that have gone terribly awry. I think she's fabulous, and wish to follow firmly in her footsteps.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Yes. Many years ago I wrote what I consider to be my "break-out" story – the first one where I thought I really sounded like myself. It was called "Among The Trees," about a young woman consumed by an anxious depression that causes her to overspend on her credit cards and conceal the fact from her husband. There was a lot of black humor in it, despite its rather heavy nature, and I actually laughed aloud while writing it. It never found a publisher, but it did get some attention, particularly from Mike Curtis, Fiction Editor at The Atlantic, which may have kept him interested in reading more of my work over time.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
Mike Curtis at The Atlantic read everything I wrote over an eight-year period. I'm afraid I truly taxed his patience! Yet he was always even-tempered, pleasant, and to the point. In one paragraph he could identify where my story succeeded, and more often than not, where it fell short. I learned a great deal from him. He was good enough to write a back-cover blurb for my first collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home.

What was the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
I covered one woman's life from a very young age to when she's roughly middle-aged. This required the action to jump ahead at certain points, condensing years into a line or two. The story ran around fifty-two hundred words, which I think is about right for a project like that. Anything much shorter would have been awkward, and possible lost the thread altogether.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Amina Gautier on Giving Readers Freedom of Choice

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Amina Gautier, author of At-Risk (University of Georgia Press), compares reading a short story collection to listening to a record.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
At-Risk features ten stories that are roughly divided between telling the stories of the adolescents and teenagers who “make it” and the ones who do not. Given this rather clear demarcation, I could have very easily arranged the stories in alternating fashion. I chose not to do this, finding it too easy and too insulting to the reader, too much like shoving something down the readers’ throats. Readers of literary fiction are far too savvy for any such manipulation. I wanted the reader to have the same freedom of choice I enjoy when I read the short story collections of others. What I chose to do was provide a “frame” for the collection by using the two stories in the collection with recurring characters as bookends for the other eight stories. In “The Ease of Living,” the readers see the return of Kiki and Stephen, two boys the readers meet in “Yearn,” a story whose action takes place four years earlier.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
I cannot attribute the desire to complete books but to individual stories. Although there are too many stories to acknowledge, there are two clear standouts. Reading Toni Cade Bambara’s “Gorilla, My Love” at an early age showed me a narrator who looked like me and expanded my thinking by showing me that that which was familiar to me could indeed be the subject of great literature. Secondly, when I was a sophomore at Stanford, my creative writing instructor generously gave me a copy of Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago with the suggestion that I read “Pet Milk.” When I did—when I read that story—everything began to feel right. I’d already decided that I wanted to be a writer, but reading that story, which had the most beautiful transitions I’d ever beheld, showed me where the bar was and how much work was ahead of me, showed me just how much attention and care each individual sentence of every story I would ever write would demand from me.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
As a writer, I have never made demands upon the short story collections I read. Never asked them to change their ways for me, pretend to be something that they are not, or masquerade themselves as novels-in-stories (an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one). Freedom and independence are gifts that the good short story collection gives. I have always approached short story collections the same way I used to approach record albums and CDs, the same way I now approach downloaded songs on my MP3 player. I jump in wherever I like, immerse myself and wade through the selections in whatever order I please. Just as I never played a 33⅓ rpm record album from first song to last, I have never read a short story collection that way, preferring to let the titles or the opening paragraphs woo me into starting with one story rather than another. I have never been interested in reading collections where the stories are all about the same thing (e.g., boys with dogs, or mothers who grieve over boys with dogs, etc.). Furthermore, I’ve never been interested in reading linked short stories, knowing that if I’d wanted to stay with the same characters for two hundred odd pages, I would have picked up a novel instead.

For me, a good short story collection offers the reader the freedom to choose where to begin while simultaneously assuring the reader that he or she will be pleased no matter where he or she finds him or herself. If the reader begins with the third story rather than the first, he or she should never feel as if he or she has entered the movie house midway through the film and wonder what has been missed. A good short story collection should be tricky; each story should convince the reader to spare time from her busy schedule, then make her regret she has not more hours in her day. A good short story collection should make the reader regret his working hours, should make him want to hurry home just so he can read his book and make his dinner, then—once he is home—it should make him stir the pot with one hand and turn the page with the other. It should make him burn his dinner.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Pamela Ryder: The Story of the First Line of a Story

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Pamela Ryder, author of A Tendency to Be Gone (Dzanc Books), finds a starting point.

If a have a first line, I have a story. But that first line never comes sitting at a keyboard. It usually happens outdoors, triggered by a glimpse of something most mundane that becomes odd—becomes luminous for me—with language. The first line of "Three Men" happened while I was standing in the yard and looking up at the contractor on the roof. He had said my little house was falling apart, top to bottom, and he kicked down a shingle. “He is kicking down shingles,” I said to myself aloud, to hear the words and have them ready for the moment when I would sit down at my desk to begin. And I kept the sentence into the present tense, as I frequently do, to give it a sense of immediacy. The repetition of the short “i” sound in “kicking” and “shingles” clinched it for me, as did the man’s position on the roof. His being up there gave the story form, and it was just a matter of keeping to the form as I went along making the story, carrying the language of the rot and decay from the roof right down to into the cellar and further, into the very earth.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Dagoberto Gilb: "The Small Is Large, Strength Is Economy, Simplicity, Not Verbosity"

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Dagoberto Gilb, author of Before the End, After the Beginning (Grove Press), riffs on his influences and how he works.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
Drafts? Technical problems? Me? No, though not quite, I’m almost perfect. Really, if there are 10 words in a sentence, I try maybe 90 of the 100 possible combinations before I move on. One tech problem I have is the shift key. Not exactly the shift key, but the fact that there is pressure to hit the shift key and another, with the other hand, at the same time. (Kidding? Kind of not.)

What is your writing process like? 
At this point of my life it’s more what this life would be without the keyboard. Two and a half years ago I would have said that most of my writing was in notebooks. Thousands of pages accumulated. Two and a half years ago I lost the use of my handwriting, so now I am back learning my writing process again.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
I had one arrangement, an editor another. I do know that the oddest story, "please, thank you," was placed first by me because it sort of set the stage for the rest of the stories, both as the collection’s public theme goes and the personal importance the book had to me. Also because I think it’s a strong, unique fiction, aware as I am that I am not supposed to assert such positive critical opinions of my own work. It’s just that the story almost had nothing to do with me, my own experience of life, or wouldn’t have before.

If you've substantially reworked any of the stories that originally appeared in magazines, can you explain what you changed and why?
I added two sentences, at the end, to one story in the collection, "Why Kiki Was Late to Lunch" (published it in The Threepenny Review). When the ARC of the collection went out, I wished I could have an insert page with the new graph. I thought the story, which I liked fine, improved tenfold.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?  
On occasion I let a couple longtime friends read, but generally I don’t have that. I send to mags, a couple of editors for yes or no judgments, though it does seem the minute I punch Send, I see little errors. Now that I think about it, these stories didn’t see too many magazines, and the few that were published hit fast.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
Delivered: Tacos
I want to say tacos con un chile picoso but it may be that I’m hungry. I think short fiction is closer to poetry than to novels:  The small is large, strength is economy, simplicity, not verbosity. What I like about short fiction is what I don’t like about the so-called "big" books: The art is with the ordinary, common, unobserved, unimportant, the quiet, the mystical—not the sweeping, the grandiose, the epic, and all the "big is better" that can go with that.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be?  
The most perfect story collection ever is by Juan Rulfo, El llano en llamas, translated in the U.S. as The Burning Plain. Set in Northern Mexico, it captures both the land and life of the characters there, and vice versa, the people captured in the land. I believe that place is a central "character" in great fiction, and that idea is exemplified by Rulfo’s work.

What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
Here’s where I always want to list the greatest writers of all time so that, once this sticks to the Internet, my name's Google-linked to them. Though it is also somewhat true. I studied philosophy and religion in college, I like myth (studied briefly with Joseph Campbell), and I read Plato, Chuang-tzu, the Heart Sutra, Descartes, Spinoza, al-Ghazali, and then came Beckett, Doestoyevsky, Rulfo, Singer, Chekhov…and so on until me!

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
Very little for my fiction. Not to say I work out of memory alone, but I already write from and about a community it seems this country knows little about.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
Now that I don’t handwrite, I’m confused. In my young adult years my "research" was simply my employment, which is to say jobs, which I had to have to pay rent and bills for my children and wife. Sixteeen years in the construction trades, which usually went for eleven, six days a week until a job ended and I was laid off and wrote as many stories as I could until a new job appeared. Phase two has been teaching. That took some adjustment, I concede. For me, it halts incoming experience and ideas, since my stories come from participation in life, not only my opinions.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
If "one sitting" means like in say 8 or even 12 hours straight, then no. But, sadly, most I stay with until I finish, or it finishes me. I’m monomaniacal.

Have you had a mentor and who was it? 
Nope. Just books I’ve loved.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
Good question…for a researcher. I guess it’s true that, with me, I find short fiction should be a contained, even restrictive, amount of time as it is of characters and objects and concerns. In this new collection of mine, one story, "To Document," shoots ahead twenty-five years to end. See, I even think that sounds bad. I say it works in that story, for a particular reason, but it’s not usually what a short story can or wants to do.