Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Valerie Laken's Technical Challenge

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Valerie Laken, author of Separate Kingdoms (Harper Perennial), lays out what she thinks makes for a good story collection and tells how she went about writing a story told from two perspectives simultaneously.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
A good story collection isn’t anything as tidy as a box of chocolates; it’s more like a variety pack of fireworks. Sure, you recognize them all as fireworks, made at the same factory with similar techniques, and they essentially just shoot into the sky as you would expect. Even though you know they are made to explode, the explosions still thrill and shock you a little. Yet they leave their most powerful impression not at that moment of bursting but in the aftermath, as the burning shards fall toward you and then disappear. When you close your eyes, you can see their silhouettes.

But in addition to that variety there should be some common ground, a larger overall impression that the stories work collectively to create. A good story collection may have greater and lesser stories, but each story will be essential to the overall impression. Common threads, however slender, should run from one story to another. One story might extend, reinterpret or contradict the circumstances or thematic implications of another, so that the unity of impression each story creates becomes challenged, supplemented, complicated by the impressions of the stories surrounding it. Ideally, if you read a story in the context of its collection, it will leave a different impression than if you read it on its own. Otherwise, what’s the point of putting the stories together at all? This can’t be just an exercise of vanity or convenience.

Which story in your collection posed the most technical problems?
The title story, which is structured in two columns of scenes that run simultaneously and unbroken by section breaks, posed the most technical challenges of any story I’ve written so far. It’s set in a small home on a single night when a family of three tries to cope with an industrial accident that has left the father maimed, volatile, and very isolated. The father’s perspective fills one column while the son’s fills the other. When they hear the same noises or come together in scene, those lines have to synch up in time side by side on the page. This meant that if I added or subtracted a line from one column, I had to adjust the other accordingly – and these adjustments went on through every revision and every typesetting.

This may seem a silly way to go about writing a story, but to me the form was essential to the story and ideas I wanted to convey. We all know that two characters will experience and narrate the same events in very different ways; it doesn’t take a two-columned story to show that. What I wanted to do was lay bare the isolation inherent in the fact that we may never view even small aspects of the world in precisely the same way as anyone else. And even when we do share true moments of common perspective, other factors often conspire to keep us from realizing it.

It seems to me that language, art, culture, and intimacy have been our typical means of piercing that isolation and connecting us with others. Yet in our time technological devices have altered, and some might say degraded, those means of connection. Though they’re often thrilling and useful, our TVs and computers, video games and smartphones have splintered our experience of time and space, tempting and distracting us with escape hatches from every face-to-face interaction. Worst of all, they make ordinary real-time life seem awfully dull in comparison to the dazzling worlds we find on our little screens.

Proust said it was the writer’s job to tell the truth about time. It seemed to me that it might take a splintered story to tell the truth about how we are living in this time.