Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Charles Baxter A's Some Q's

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Charles Baxter, author of Gryphon: New and Selected Stories (Pantheon Books), answers questions about his writing process and identifies some ideal story collections.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?
"Harmony of the World": I had to research the life of Paul Hindemith to write the story, and the process also required that I learn something about the life of Johannes Kepler; finally, I had to include musical notation in the story.

What is your writing process like?
It's haphazard. Usually I daydream my way through a story so that I have some sense of what the story will be once I sit down to write it. But sometimes I've tried to improvise an entire story from scratch, like a jazz improvisation. "Westland" was like that.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
This book is a New and Selected, so the order follows a chronological pattern, up to and including the new stories. There is, I hope, an inner logic as well.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
I used to ask my friends and fellow-writers for quite a bit of feedback, but now that I'm older, I don't need quite as much of that as I once did. You get to be your own harshest critic. However, I never asked anyone for criticism or suggestions unless I had put the story through at least several drafts.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
Interesting characters, intriguing situations, beautiful sentences. Hauntings.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be?  
John Cheever's Collected Stories and James Joyce's Dubliners and Katherine Anne Porter's Pale Horse, Pale Rider.  No explanation from me about these great books should be necessary. More recently: Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
Books I read in high school by J. R. Salamanca and Davis Grubb.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
 If the materials are arcane and esoteric, I try to read up on them.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I'm a published poet and critic. The poetry ideally creates a particular sensitivity to language, and (also, ideally) the criticism creates a sensitivity to form.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
No. I can't imagine what that would be like, it's so distant from my own practice.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
Alvin Greenberg, my teacher at Macalester College, and a fine short story writer in his own right. 

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
About twenty years, in "Harmony of the World."