Thursday, September 29, 2011

Seth Fried Gets Stupid on His Own Terms

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Seth Fried, author of The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press), describes a few stories, seeks the unexpected, and engages in a frenetic process.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
Descriptions of stories are always pretty terrible. If I could fit the substance of a story into a few sentences, then I would make those sentences the story. But at the same time a description of a story seems like such a reasonable request, especially if you're a person who's looking for a new book and are wondering what to pick up. You're going to want some sense of what you're getting yourself into. So the way people often approach a story or collection of stories for the first time is through these really broad descriptions (jacket copy) in which the stories have been stripped of all their meaning and end up sounding more than a little dumb.

My solution to this problem is to describe my stories in the stupidest way possible. Because if they have to sound stupid, then I would prefer that they sound stupid on my terms. Keeping that in mind, here are descriptions of some of the stories in my book:

"Loeka Discovered"– Scientists find one mummy and it makes them happy. They find a second mummy and it makes them sad.

"Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre"– This story takes place at the Frost Mountain Picnic, where everyone is totally safe ... or are they?

"Life in the Harem"– Sex!

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
I like collections that live in a big creative universe. There are definitely lots of great collections in which all the stories are set in a small town in Iowa or something, collections that paint heartfelt portraits of specific places. Some of my favorite authors have written books that fit that description: Stuart Dybek, Rick Bass, Carson McCullers, Barry Hannah, Flannery O'Connor. Regional fiction is often brilliant and moving. It deserves critical recognition and a wide readership, and it frequently enjoys both. However, I can only read so much of that sort of thing before it starts to make me feel claustrophobic.

The collections I seek out more often are the ones in which it seems like anything could happen. When I'm reading a short story, I want to feel like at any moment all the characters could just suddenly be attacked by a pterodactyl. Because why not? With all the impossible things there are to express about what it's like to be a person, why limit yourself to the reality of a small town or your romantic notion of a particular region? Why shouldn't one of your stories have a scene in which the Earth splits in two or in which all the birds fall out of the sky or in which the long suffering housewife finally turns into a Sherman tank and just rolls away?

What is your writing process like?
For me, stories always begin with a sense of urgency. There is some sort of important thought that I'm trying to explain to myself. So my process is tangled and complicated, because my brain is tangled and complicated.

The thoughts we experience on a daily basis aren't as clear-cut as we pretend they are. Even something as seemingly simple as "I'm in a good mood..." is actually loaded with complexities that you could spend your whole life trying to unpack. Everything we think is a jumbled mess, and the most urgent, most important thoughts are often the messiest.

So the elements of my stories spring up out of that confusion. The generative stage of writing a story is a pretty frenetic process in which I'm just listening to myself as closely as possible and writing it all down. It's similar to the way my subconscious mind presents me with images and scenes in dreams in an attempt to make sense of the day's excitements and agitations. The only difference is that I'm awake, so I have a bit more control. I get to decide which elements resonate more or are funnier or are more affecting. Also, I can choose not to write a story about me showing up to the first day of school naked and also it turns out my childhood dog Freckles is teaching the class and I have to pee the whole time. That's one my subconscious is constantly pitching me.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Adam Ross on Orbiting and Repeating

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Adam Ross, author of Ladies and Gentlemen (Alfred A. Knopf) discusses his writing routine, the order of the stories in his collection, and other topics.
Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?
I really struggled with the endings of both “The Rest of It” and “The Suicide Room,” and even as I write this I have two better endings for both, my original endings, and serves as an important reminder: Beware of Afterthoughts.

What is your writing process like?
Schedule-wise, I’m a morning guy. I rise very early and, under optimal circumstances, write for three hours, take a break—eat something, exercise—then hit it again for a two-hour session, being sure to stop when I’m pistol hot. I try to go to bed thinking about where I’ll start in the morning. Sleeping on that problem tends to yield great results.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
There was discussion with my editor about starting with “Middleman”—the story with the youngest protagonist—and ending with “Futures,” who is the oldest, most fallen protagonist in the collection. I chose to begin with “Futures” because Applelow’s revelation, that doing good is the only thing we can control in life, is something that all the subsequent protagonists forget or struggle to recall in each subsequent story. The collection ends with the title story, which is a sort of “The Lady and the Tiger” bit of business but makes the reader analyze his or own feelings about the choice the protagonist is faced with at the end. In this way, the process of reading the collection sequentially reflects my own views about the limits of morality and art and the circular nature of life. As Detective Sheppard says in Mr. Peanut, “We orbit, we repeat.” So, too, do the characters in “Ladies and Gentlemen.”

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?
I talk with my wife about conceptual stuff pre-drafting and will occasionally read her a strong paragraph to trick her into thinking everything’s going swimmingly. But I don’t seek feedback until a draft is complete and that’s from a wide group of readers. Three are former students; one is my agent; another is an old buddy from graduate school. There’s a former professor in there. Another is a professional writer. It gives me something like a consensus and, if I think there’s a problem somewhere, this committee usually pinpoints it.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be?
Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love is, to me, the ideal short story collection because there isn’t, in my opinion, a weak story in the bunch. Having said that I hate what I just said, because collections tend to be like albums and it’s a rare thing that a listener loves every song on a record, or a reader every story in the bunch. What I’m trying to say is that I’d happily re-read every story in that book ad infinitum, like I might a favorite novel.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
The first was actually a comic: John Byrne and Chris Claremont’s New X-Men. After that, it was Frank Herbert’s Dune series. Those stories took over my life, set me dreaming.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
This fall, I’ll once again be writing my column, Mondo Nashville, for our fair city’s alternative weekly, The Nashville Scene. It concerns local oddballs and oddities, the people, places, and things you’ve always wondered about but were too afraid to ask. It keeps me connected to the place where I live. How it will inform my future work is unknown, but I guarantee it somehow will, because I’ll meet lots of interesting people who’ll tell me their stories; and stories, in my experience, breed other stories.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
No, I’ve never avoided the revision stage, never had a story emerge from my brain as whole as Athena from Zeus’s skull, but I did write “The Suicide Room” in a single sitting, one of the very rare instances when it seemed as if was taking dictation from my imagination so fast I almost couldn’t keep up.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story?
“In the Basement” describes a character’s life from college through middle age. It’s a great question, by the way, and so I’ll refer readers to James Salter’s great short story “Twenty Minutes,” which describes a character’s whole life in a twenty-minute span.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Narrating 9/11: Crisis and Community in American Fiction

By Patrick Thomas Henry

Ten years later, the September 11, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, still cloud over the American imagination. The resonant images—the exhaust-black sky over the cindering, collapsing Twin Towers, or the plume of flame jetting from the Pentagon’s side, or the ash pit in Shanksville where the plane crashed—have metamorphosed into cultural touchstones, vividly re-evoking the tragedies. Pundits and politicians have analyzed and capitalized on the attacks, while America’s fiction writers, essayists, and poets have shouldered the Atlas-like task of re-witnessing these events and guiding us, as readers and human beings, through the devastation.

The news media instilled an unsettling reality—a sense of helpless paralysis—in those distanced from the sites. CNN, and other news agencies streamed the footage of the Towers disintegrating on a disturbing loop; newspapers were hardly better, centering the destruction of the iconic Towers on their front pages. In Elizabeth Strout’s novel-in-stories, Olive Kitteridge (2008), the eponymous character prepares to visit her son in New York and trembles from the psychological shock of observing—from a safe distance in Portland, Maine—the devastation:
. . . back when those planes ripped through the towers, Olive had sat in her bedroom and wept like a baby, not so much for this country but for the city itself, which had seemed to her to become suddenly no longer a foreign, hardened place, but as fragile as a class of kindergarten children, brave in their terror.
Strout’s effortless glide into Olive’s subconscious demonstrates a key intent of 9/11 writing as a genre: 9/11 narratives do not re-create the tragedy but process its vast scope into something that shapes a community of similarly spirited readers. Olive, a former teacher, likens New York’s inhabitants to kindergarten students valiantly grappling with something beyond their understandings. This pings a rare dent of sentiment into Strout’s ornery protagonist, and 9/11 transforms into a metaphor for how Olive might repair her relationship with her son.

Re-building families from the ground up recurs throughout 9/11 narratives, including novels such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007). A portion of DeLillo’s novel was published as a short story entitled “Still-Life” in the April 9, 2007, edition of The New Yorker; the excerpt tracks Keith and Lianne, an estranged couple, as they resume their domestic routine after Keith narrowly escapes the carnage at Ground Zero. We learn, as Keith rekindles a relationship with his and Lianne’s son Justin, that the collapse has founded in Keith a desire to better understand his world, even as terrible possibilities lurk in the unknown:
Keith as well was going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection . . . drawing things out of time and memory into some dim space that bears his collected experience. . . . Something is always happening, even on the quietest days and deep into the night, if you stand awhile and look.
DeLillo reminds us, though, that this vigilance is meant to counteract paranoia, to re-forge those ties that matter most. Notably, the section of “Still-Life” containing the above quotation concludes with Justin snapping Keith from his reverie with the statement, “We go home now.”

9/11 narratives shift readers from cataclysm to fostering communities by propelling us from terrified stasis into tentative yet meaningful activity. This often occurs through fragmented narratives moving between multiple points of view. Strout displaces Olive’s reaction by placing her trip to New York after the attacks, and DeLillo’s work exhibits these tendencies as the novel reacts to 9/11 in the following days. Perhaps one of the most splintered 9/11 stories, Deborah Eisenberg’s “Twilight of the Superheroes” ping-pongs between a post-9/11 New York, the pointless paranoia of Y2K, and an array of homes and art galleries. This frequently reminds the reader of art’s import in coping with any suffering. Eisenberg’s story generates momentum, urging her characters forward and reminding her readers in the concluding clause—“and then the children turned the page”—that better futures await the next generation.

9/11 writings—a genre too broad to fully describe in this brief piece—do not commemorate disaster, but memorialize how to persevere. If the genre possesses a shortcoming, it is that the lessons of 9/11 fiction extend beyond New York’s city limits. (I write this as a long-time resident of central Pennsylvania, one who was astutely aware of how the crash in Shanksville transformed the region overnight.) Regardless, no guides were better suited to the task of re-imagining America than our favorite stories of the past decade. Fiction, particularly in catastrophe’s wake, brings us together as thinking and emoting human beings in a way that nothing else does.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Phillip Sterling on the "Well-Chosen Absence of Words"

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Phillip Sterling, author of In Which Brief Stories Are Told (Wayne State University Press) compares writing stories to writing poetry.

In writing a short story, I hold to the doctrine that Less Is More. The less we know about a character or the events that transpire, the more we must rely on what we are told. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy long breathy novellas or even long breathy sentences. To be sure, there is a certain pleasure in immersing ourselves in a deep, warm tub of description: We can relax and luxuriate and not have to pay close attention to every element. But if, instead, the element is limited, even scarce, then we’re likely to be more attentive to what we do have, in hopes of not losing out. We feel pleasure just the same, but it’s quicker, more momentary. And more intense. The kind of pleasure I have found in many poems.          

Poets, I think, read with more attentiveness—with more caution and suspicion—than the average fictionist. They have been trained to do so, not only to question everything they find in a poem but also to consider what they don’t. And while the final line in a good poem is often compared to a door swinging closed with satisfying click, the brevity of most poems tends to leave many people feeling like they’ve been left on the wrong side of the portal. There is often some confusion, some uncertainty. Whatever sense of satisfaction one might have is accompanied by a feeling of intrigue, of questions left unanswered. For that reason, we often reenter the poem and take another look around, hoping to find what we’ve missed.

My interest in very short fiction stems in part from my training as a reader (and then writer) of poetry. I’m intrigued by the well-chosen word, of course, but even more so by the well-chosen absence of words, the space in which a poem hangs. In the visual arts, sculpture in particular, such otherness beyond form is called “negative space” (a term I’ve always considered a kind of tautology). In a short narrative, it’s what we’re not being told.

What-we-don’t-know is often purposeful in dramatic narrative or mystery writing. It’s a way of sustaining interest and intrigue; it’s a formal and structural consideration (the primary method of playwriting, I suspect). We realize a certain satisfaction when, at the end, everything is revealed to us.

Information left out for the sake of brevity, however, is different. The intent is more poetic. What-we-don’t-know we don’t know throughout—there is no resolution—which may not be so much the result of manipulation on the part of the writer but of the lack of knowledge on the part of the narrator herself.          

Fiction—and very short fiction in particular—has many of the same purposes as poetry, not the least of which is “to teach and to delight.” Parables, fables, allegories, romances—whether in poetic form or prose—are meant to feed us the chalky knowledge of our human condition, but in a way that tastes like gingerbread (or Jolly Ranchers candy). Such stories are obvious and purposeful, and we come away feeling satisfied for that reason. Yet, at times, not unlike poetry (which occasionally buckles to the peer pressure of its cousin Philosophy), fiction will not have answers. It will raise a few quick questions and then send us on our way. 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Daniel Orozco on Swoony Exhilaration and the Shuddery Jangle of Expectation

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Daniel Orozco, author of Orientation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) discusses his efforts to avoid "research rapture"  and the experience of reading a good collection, among other topics.

What is your writing process like?
I’m very slow. I noodle and putter. I need four hours to get an hour of good work done. I’m a morning writer. When I’m working on a project I need to go to it every day for at least a few hours. I try to get started before 8 a.m., after coffee. If I don’t get started by then, then I never will and the day is usually shot. My most focused and disciplined work happens when I’m revising, when I’m working over a scene or a descriptive passage. I can do that for hours and hours. But generating material, coming up with that first draft--that is hell for me. I hate about 80% of the writing process, but 20% of it I really love, and that’s what keeps me going back.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
For “Shakers,” by way of example, two books were invaluable: John McPhee’s Assembling California, a geologic biography of the state; and Bruce Bolt’s magisterial book on all things seismological, Earthquakes. These were foundational sources. I also had several maps of California I referred to: a map of fault lines, a road map, and a topographical map. Looking at these helped me figure out the arc of the story, the “journey” that the omniscient narrator takes all across the state. And I looked up lots of details online: the kinds of snakes in Death Valley, what geophones and seismometers actually look like, stuff like that. E.L. Doctorow has said: Do as much research to convince your reader that you know everything about the subject, then stop. (The stopping is important. There’s a phenomenon called “research rapture,” wherein one lingers in the pleasures of story research in order to put off the actual writing of the story.) This is the kind of work that has to be done for a story like “Shakers.” But I research all stories I write. Dramas must unfold in a particularized world, a world that looks/smells/feels real and true. So even the most mundane settings demand research—a brand name, a species of potted plant, a breed of dog, the right word to describe the color of the sky at a particular time of day, etc. Whatever you’re writing, and whether you’re making them up or not, you have to get the details right.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
There’s a pedantic answer to this question--each story must stand alone as dramatic narrative, yet in the aggregate reveal some unified worldview via a uniquely recognizable prose style, blah blah blah--and all that gets nowhere near the experience of reading. So, I think a good collection should deliver, simultaneously, a swoony exhilaration upon finishing one story and a shuddery jangle of expectation just before beginning the next one. For me the best collections elicit emotional responses which occur not just within each story but between them, in the real-world gap between narrative worlds. That’s where the short stories become a collection.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
Many years ago, I read a novel by T. C. Boyle called Water Music. It’s a faux-historical epic-slash-romp about an 18th century Scottish explorer, and I was completely taken with it. The level of historical detail in it was mind-boggling, and every chapter ended with a cliff-hanger, and brimmed with words I’d never heard of, like glabrous, and crepitate. And steatopygous. (I still have a handwritten sheet of all the words I looked up.) It was an audacious and thrilling read. I’ve loved and admired many books since then, but this one affected me way before the notion of becoming a writer was ever on my radar. (To want to “become a writer” seemed to me such an act of hubris. What arrogance!) I don’t believe reading Water Music instilled any conscious desire to write. But I do remember the pleasure of its creation—the fun of writing it—seeming to somehow rise off the page. I like to think that did something to me? In some kind of deep, sub-writerly way?