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.