Wednesday, November 30, 2011

David Galef Thinks Thematically

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, David Galef, author of My Date with Neanderthal Woman (Dzanc Books), tells of a story that took him three years to write, one that got reworked for a magazine, and one he practically wrote in a single sitting.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
In My Date with Neanderthal Woman, the story that caused me the biggest headache was “The Adjuster,” a long, over-eloquent narrative about an academic type, Berger Bergson, whose mission is to question the easy wisdom of aphorisms (see what I mean?). Unable to go beyond the premise and a few establishing scenes, I put down the story for three years and finally finished it when I realized where Bergson’s career would take him. I felt as if I had to invent everything for him, not just co-opt details from lives I knew.

If you’ve substantially reworked any of the stories that originally appeared in magazines, can you explain what you changed and why? 
The one most worked over was “All You Can Eat,” originally titled “Buffet.” The editor at Bull: Fiction for Men liked the piece, which was all of three pages, but made a number of improving suggestions. I followed them up, only to receive more comments, and because I valued the editorial feedback I was getting, I gamely addressed them all. This process occurred about five times. In the end, the whole storyline altered, including “in the end,” where the main character has a sort of nagging non-epiphany.

What is your writing process like? 
What with teaching, administering a creative writing program, and trying to be a good family member, I see my writing process these days as “Prepare some notes ahead of time, then grab whatever time you can at the keyboard. Repeat as necessary.”

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection? 
Because this collection is a mixture of conventional-length stories and a lot of short-shorts, the trick was to avoid both the short-long-short pattern, like unsuccessful Morse code; and also sequences of shorts, like beads on a string. Finally, I had to think thematically: what would best riff off what.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
I show my work to a few friends and try not to abuse the privilege. My wife, who’s a journalist and magazine editor, is excellent at telling me when something feels dated or just lacks a hook.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 
Seventeen different stories: seventeen different worlds. Otherwise, might as well read a novel.

What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
I read all over the place when I was growing up, and still do, but the books I most admired then were those with really fine “what if?” premises, anything from Roald Dahl to P. G. Wodehouse, or fantasy and science fiction by authors like Robert Heinlein or Ray Bradbury.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
I check facts as necessary, especially if I position a character in an air conditioning plant or have her working as a bartender, since I’ve never held down either of those jobs. And though I don’t love research the way some authors seem to, I try to go onsite, because you never know what’s going to turn up: the unsuccessfully disinfected odor from the soup kitchen, or the stack of business folders shoring up a flower pot in someone’s office.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
Well, I publish all over the map and call myself a shameless eclectic, but I’d be hard put to distinguish between my literary and non-literary endeavors. I do translation, poetry, literary criticism, and humor columns alongside my fiction and don’t think about whether they’re literary. It all just cross-pollinates my work.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
Yes, though that happens less and less as I grow older. Still, the title story of this collection, “My Date with Neanderthal Woman,” was written in one go and left virtually intact. The usual irony: it’s the one that’s had the most success, from publication in a Norton anthology to Spanish translation and being performed by a professional actor in Los Angeles.

Have you had a mentor, and who was it? 
Alas, no. Teachers, yes, including Joyce Carol Oates, Ivan Gold, and Stephen Koch. Maybe I’m just not the mentee type.

What’s the longest narrative time period you’ve ever contained in a short story? 
A lifetime, cradle to grave, though my character died young, at the age of 43. At the time, I thought that was fairly old.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Boo is Under the Blanket" by Lou Beach

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Lou Beach, author of 420 Characters (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), goes undercover with his dog.
© Issa Sharp
Boo is under the blanket. Boo is our brindle Chihuahua, bristly near the tail; the blanket is a faux leopard skin synthetic throw, unnaturally soft. Their patterns clash, a variegated mash-up. She hates the cold more than she hates the mailman and burrows under blankets and pillows and piles of laundry left on the bed to get warm. We cover her with an assortment of pooch blankets and towels and sweatshirts, or place her near the space heater, the wall vent.

Today the blanket has been patted into a mound around her, as one would pat a ball of dough for bread, and it resembles a small spotted igloo. Only Boo’s nose sticks out, shiny and moist, and I can see the side of her mouth, the gums pulled back to reveal a row of teeth as sharp and uniform as the cutting edge on a box of tin foil. Her cozy campsite is on the bed near the corner and I get down on my knees and stick my head into the opening, forcing her head back inside.

My head now blocks the light but for a few strands that stray in with me. Boo and I are in her dark little cave together, the side of my face touching her flank. I AM my face in here. She makes a funny little sound that I read as either annoyance or resignation or a cocktail of the two, but no warning growl comes from her so I relax for our visit. I read somewhere that a dog’s nose is one thousand times more sensitive than a human’s and I wonder if I have bad breath or if she smells the tuna melt I had an hour ago, or if what a human considers bad breath might in fact be like an air freshener or perfume to a canine.

I can smell her body and it’s not an unpleasant odor. She is a clean little dog, not prone to rubbing in dead stuff like our big dogs had done and there is a slightly warm and nutlike quality to her fur. I press my nose to her neck and inhale and push my face against her. She issues a low growl and I stop. Etiquette has been established, protocol defined, and we begin. 

I tell her how much I like her place, how comfortable it is and thank her for allowing me to visit (not mentioning that I had in fact barged in) and she exhales a little breath and I realize that she too had had some tuna melt a while ago. A bit of light reflects off her eye and I can tell she is looking at me. Dogs are always looking at their humans, reading moods and intentions and expressions, hoping for that lift of the brows that means “Walk” or the shifting in the chair that precedes going to the kitchen, that great temple of treasures.

I’m a little dizzy from lack of air but I keep talking to her, complimenting her on the décor, asking what she’s been reading and if her Pilates classes have strengthened her core, does the cat ever visit. I’m getting silly, but I’m easily amused and continue probing her about her financial situation, squirrels or rats (which is harder to catch?) and why she doesn’t like beagles. My glasses are fogging and I close my eyes. I hear the slight whistling breath that indicates Boo has fallen asleep and soon I nod off as well.

Someone kicks the bottom of my feet and I wake suddenly and jump up, the leopard skin throw on my head, a wacky kufiya. Boo leaps off the bed and runs down the hall. My wife stands before me, hands on hips, a look on her face that a dog can’t make. “You know,” she says “if you keep this up, you’re going to deprive your brain of oxygen to the point where your already tattered thinking will finally disintegrate. AND you’ll freak that poor little animal to where she’ll bite your nose off one of these days. You’re a grown man, stop fooling around.” She pulls the blanket from my head, drops it on the bed and follows Boo down the hall, into the kitchen.

I sit on the edge of the bed and rub my eyes, then stand and rub my stomach. Maybe I should eat something, I think, but they are in the kitchen and I’m feeling a bit chagrined. I lie down and put the leopard skin blanket over my face, close my eyes and continue my story writing exercise, this time with an invisible dog.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Brian Doyle: Seeking the "Right Mix of Fury, Reasonable Nonsense, Rant, and Fantasy"

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Brian Doyle, author of Bin Laden's Bald Spot & Other Stories (Red Hen Press), discusses influences as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson, The King James Bible, and his children.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts?
Probably “Pinching Bernie,” a story about some Boston guys who know some guys going to Rome to kidnap His Eminence Bernard Cardinal Law, late of the Archdiocese of Boston, from where he is hiding out in a Vatican City church, to bring him back to Boston for their own quiet justice, which is not what you think. I really wanted the right tone for this – just enough possibility, rage, humor, punch in the heart – and I tinkered with it until I thought I had the right mix of fury, reasonable nonsense, rant, and fantasy. Rantasy.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?
When I think I am finished with a piece I show it to the woman who married me, who is the most glorious perfect First Reader of all time because she couldn’t care less about literary stuff and style and lyrical passages and shimmering tone and subtle craft and other muck like that; all she cares about is if there’s a good story there, fiction or not. The kiss of death from her is that’s nice, and the greatest compliment is o my god. I shoot for o my god. (Sentence of the day, so far.)

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
Worlds. Moments. A look through a crack in a door you never even imagined in the whole possible universe of doors. A suggestion of worlds way beyond not only this world but the world of the story – a great story gives you the impression that the world of the story is so real that the characters keep going past the end of the story and you only visited a moment. A punch in the heart. A glimmer of what if. A shiver of What It Is beneath the words we use for What It Is.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be?
Collections are uneven by nature; no one can write a great story every time out, not even a Mary Lavin or Flannery O’Connor; but there are some collections I read again and again for their quality, their joy and power even when they are sad, their unforgettability – Flannery, of course (maybe the finest female writer in American history, period, eh?), Julia Whitty’s A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga, Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation, Stevenson’s The Merry Men, Tim Winton’s The Turning, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, the Great Frog Hunt chapter of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. And the Old Testament, the greatest collection of lewd and bloody short stories ever, which is best to read in the King James Bible translation, all thorny and prickly and shouldery language o god I love it, although the Newer Book is better, the greatest quest novel ever. On the Dusty Road, by four guys who were better poets than Kerouac.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
Kon-Tiki afloat
E.B. White’s essays, especially One Man’s Meat – you mean Literature can be like talking? Cool! Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by Steinbeck, and Flannery’s stories – you mean Literature can be funny and real, not snuffy and confusing and top heavy with symbols of sex and death? Yessss. Kon-Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl – you mean you can write beautifully and entertainingly about fun stuff? It doesn’t have to be all neurosis and adultery like Updike? Robert Gibbings’ books – what, you can write like an angel about boats? and illustrate your own books? Cool! Jim Kjelgaard. Twain. A.J. Liebling. More than anyone else, Robert Louis Stevenson, who I think was the first writer who made me realize you could be funny, and interesting, and poignant, and angry, and delighted, and hilarious, and real, and you could imagine anything, and write with dash and verve and brio, it didn’t have to be Heavy Literature, it could be Wild Stories! Huge epiphany. I don’t think I ever really recovered from that.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I am a dad, a dad, and a dad, and being a dad has done more than anything else on this bruised and blessed earth to make me a better writer – having kids underfoot and loving them and roaring at them and listening to them made me pay attention a thousand times more, made me a thousand times more absorbed in the wrestle and stutter and song of language, shredded any ego and arrogance I might have been building up, made me attend to the power and immediacy of story, and lose all the snuffy sniffy artsy aspects of writing, and I was really looking forward to being fatuous and self-absorbed, too. What a bummer. I was even going to smoke a pipe.

“The Spirit of Literary Independence” at the Old American Can Factory, Nov. 22, 2011

By Patrick Thomas Henry
Traveling to the Gowanus district of Brooklyn in the midst of a torrential downpour is like setting foot in the rain-lashed environs of a gothic novel. An “atmospheric tumult,” to pilfer Emily Brontë’s description of the weather at Wuthering Heights, battered the F train and jostled rain-soaked passengers together as it squealed along its tracks toward Brooklyn. Outside the 4th Avenue-9th Street Station, the crowd dispersed, and I headed northward, in the direction of the Old American Can Factory at 3rd Avenue and 3rd Street for the “Spirit of Literary Independence” celebration.

I entered the Old American Can Factory and mounted the stairs to the building’s upper levels. I glanced down the high-ceilinged corridors when I reached each landing. These hallways were gated with flung-open, vault-style doors. The night’s event was in the Issue Project Room on the third storey. Since 2003, the Issue Project Room has sought to build a creative hub for Brooklyn, with an emphasis on experimental art forms.

The “Spirit of Literary Independence” event worked toward that mission, through inviting independent publishers to present several of their authors. The night’s format—a reception and short breaks between readers—encouraged attendees to mingle and chat with the evening’s participants, creating a more intimate atmosphere than the usual question-and-answer format of such events. The co-sponsors were Akashic Books, Archipelago Books, the journals Habitus and One Story, and Ugly Duckling Presse.

Author Irena Reyn reads from a work in progress
The readings illustrated what independent and small publishers offer readers and the literary community, including evocative and beautifully conjured short story collections. In addition, the readings served as reminders that small presses can offer us considered and deft translations of foreign literatures, such as Ross Benjamin’s translation of Joseph Roth’s Job (Archipelago Books). Independently published journals also offer authors an opportunity to present works in progress. Rachel Cantor (One Story author) and Irina Reyn (Habitus author) both shared such work and referred to the valuable relationships they've developed with their editors and readers.

 Small presses have the leeway to engage with darker, more violent, more graphic content that may concern the big houses. Lonely Christopher’s short story “Milk,” from his collection The Mechanics of Homosexual Intercourse (Akashic Books), evinced this through a detailed—and gory—scene where shooting a horse parallels the family’s tensions. These publishers also offer opportunities for works that, though self-contained, are not book-length projects; John Surowiecki’s narrative poetry, which draws from his personal experiences and sensitive considerations of those affected by the Vietnam War, appears as the chapbook Mr. Z., Mrs. Z., J.Z., S.Z. (Ugly Duckling Presse).

Of course, mainstream publishers continue to print hundreds of powerful books a year, but small presses can explore literary terrain that may be foreign—or  seem unmarketable—to larger companies. And today’s small press titles can become literary classics in future decades. This isn’t just waxing poetic about the value of small presses: Literary milestones historically have their foundations in these humble origins. T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, for instance, was initially published in the journal The Criterion, and the poem’s initial appearance in book form was as a print run of 450 copies, produced by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.

When I left the Old American Can Factory, I felt waterproofed in the evening’s layers: energetic readings, warm company, and the comfort of a few Brooklyn Lagers. The balmy rain, which still fell in chilling reels, seemed a bit less gothic, a bit less discouraging, after an evening spent amid the vibrant spirit of literary independence.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ana Menendez: The 10,000 Easy Steps Toward Writing Mastery

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ana Menendez, author of Adios, Happy Homeland! (Black Cat), ponders the effort it takes to be a good writer.

Few artists emerge fully formed. Take painter Vincent van Gogh. Before he painted Starry Night, he drew Carpenter. This was at the beginning of his career, in 1880. Any classically trained artist will immediately note the problems: The proportions of the body are off, the head is flattened and the composition is not at all pleasing. It's a bad drawing.

Van Gogh wasn’t born a painter. He willed himself to become one. As a child, he didn't display any startling talent for figurative drawing. He became interested in painting mostly through the encouragement of his brother Theo, who was an art dealer. When Vincent did sit down to draw, he had no illusions about his abilities. In an early letter to his brother, he wrote:
Van Gogh's Carpenter
 . . . at the time when you spoke of my becoming a painter, I thought it very impractical and would not hear of it. What made me stop doubting was reading a clear book on perspective, Cassange's Guide to the ABC of Drawing: and a week later I drew the interior of a kitchen with stove, chair, table and window—in their places and on their legs—whereas before it had seemed to me that getting depth and the right perspective into a drawing was witchcraft or pure chance.
That’s how a lot of people view art: as witchcraft or pure chance. The working artist, though, knows that there is only one magic: work itself. And that’s what van Gogh discovered. After a few more failures, Vincent decided he needed some professional training in art techniques. He enrolled in an academy in Antwerp where he discovered the art of Peter Paul Rubens, as well as that of various Japanese artists. Both of these would influence his style. By early 1886, he had moved to Paris to live with his brother. Here Vincent dropped his somber palette and replaced it with the vibrant colors of his contemporaries. He studied the work of the impressionists and, in a kind of self-directed pedagogy, began to imitate their techniques.

Many people taught van Gogh how to draw. And then he took that knowledge into a wholly innovative direction. His mental decline looms large in the public imagination, but it would be a disservice to van Gogh to attribute his genius to illness. Few people appreciate how hard he worked.


Plutarch believed that three things must meet for the development of both art and morality: Natural ability, theory, and practice. By theory, he meant training. By practice, he meant working at one’s craft.
Now the foundation must be laid in training, and practice gives facility, but perfection is attained only by the junction of all three.... Natural ability without training is blind; and training without natural ability is defective and practice without both natural ability and training is imperfect.
What we call “talent” or “natural ability” is really intelligence. It’s what separates James Joyce from the rest of us. And, unfortunately, there’s nothing democratic about the way intelligence is parceled out. No one argues that intelligence or talent isn’t important. But even Plutarch didn’t believe that lack of natural ability should preclude anyone from pursuing a life in the arts.
But if anyone thinks that those who have not good natural ability cannot to some extent make up for the deficiencies of nature by right training and practice, let such a one know that he is very wide of the mark.... For good natural parts are impaired by sloth; while inferior ability is mended by training.... The wonderful efficacy and power of long and continuous labour you may see indeed every day in the world around you.... Ten thousand things teach the same truth: A soil naturally good becomes by neglect barren … on the other hand a soil exceedingly rough and sterile by being farmed well produces excellent crops.
“Perfection,” he concluded, “is only attained by practice.”

This idea was echoed by Leonardo daVinci who in his notebooks wrote: “Those who are in love with practice without knowledge are like the sailor who gets into a ship without rudder or compass and who never can be certain whether he is going. Practice must always be founded on sound theory.”

Kids playing soccer
Modern research supports the old notion of “practice makes perfect.” Take soccer. All the viewer sees, or thinks he sees, is natural ability. But it’s not so simple. Turns out that elite soccer players are more likely to have been born in the earlier months of the year than in the later months. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, who has studied the phenomenon has a theory. What makes a good soccer player seems to rest not on inborn talent but on practice. Those born in January and February are bigger and stronger compared with classmates born later in the same year. Because they’re ahead of the others, they play more. And because they play more, they’re more likely to become even better.

Ericsson has spawned a cottage industry of sorts with several authors, most famously Malcolm Gladwell, arguing that what we regard as genius is actually a more complicated amalgam of natural inclination, work and, in most cases, obsession. “The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimal level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise,” writes Gladwell in Outliers. “In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours.... It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to know to achieve true mastery. This is true even of people we think of as prodigies.”

The formulation of the 10,000 hour "rule" seems to come from a study done by Dr. Ericsson and colleagues and published in the Psychological Review in 1993. They looked at three groups of violinists at Berlin's Academy of Music: stars, solid performers, and those who could teach but not make it big. The “stars,” it turns out, had practiced the most: 10,000 hours by the age of 20, as opposed to 4,000 for those who would never make it big.

Yet many of us continue to cling to what Matthew Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft calls the “hippie theory of creativity,” the idea that “creativity is what happens when people are liberated from the constraints of conventionality."

“The truth, of course, is that creativity is a by-product of mastery of the sort that is cultivated through long practice,” Crawford writes. “It seems to be built up through submission (think a musician practicing scales, or Einstein learning tensor algebra).”


(L to R, top to bottom) Raymond Queneau 
Many seasoned writers produce excellent work by relying on inspiration, but they often fail to appreciate how much of that inspiration is actually knowledge and technique that has been so thoroughly absorbed as to become invisible, even to themselves. “The poet is never inspired because he is the master of that which appears to others as inspiration,” wrote Raymond Queneau, a founder of the French avant-garde group Oulipo

So how does one become a master of that which appears to others as inspiration? Start by following some rules. The easiest way is to study rules made by others—in other words, read. A lot.

I don’t know any serious writer who wasn’t first a serious reader. Reading grounds you in the history of your art. And different epochs and genres yield different rules. What we call realism—the narrator’s eye panning the scene like a camera—was essentially invented by Flaubert. Study a work like The Iliad and you’ll find very little of what passes in our modern style for scene-setting. The Greeks had different rules. Borges’ rules are different from Hemingway’s. Literary fiction has its own tricks, separate from those of, say, the detective novel. Take note of what you love. And then deconstruct it and study how it was put together.

You can also make up your own rules. That’s what the Oulipo group did: They worked with a series of constraints to stimulate their imaginations. Here again, the theme of submission. Or as Anthony Burgess put it: “You can’t write unless you’re willing to subordinate the creative impulse to the construction of a form.”

The point is to write and write and write. With humility and a spirit of submission. But without excuses. Without waiting for the fickle muse. Write past boredom and obligation. Write for thousands of hours. Hone the ability to do the same thing over and over again. And one day, mastery might appear—as if by magic.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Douglas Light: "A Good Story Provokes and Unsettles"

In the 34th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Douglas Light, author of Girls in Trouble (Univ. of Massachusetts Press), recounts his difficult journey to publication.

It took reams of failed writing before I finally produced my first published story. I recall one particularly awful piece I wrote while living in Seattle in the early 1990s. It involved a taxi ride, gridlock, and liquid laundry detergent. Thinking back on it sparks a flush of embarrassment, but it also evokes a vivid memory of that time. After a stretch of homelessness, I’d finally regained my footing, landing a job working the graveyard shift at a gas station. For $170 a month, I called a small area in a gutted warehouse my own. I survived on Slim Jims and Ring Dings I poached from my job. My days were inverted. The sun stood hard in the sky when I went to sleep. It was night when I woke to start my day. My dreams were filled with the clatter and thumps from the sweatshop on the floor above.

There was an exhilarating charge of terror about that time. I’d fought my way free from destitution, but it was still close, lapping away at the berm of security I struggled to create.

Rereading my stories, I find they all carry a story within the story. One is on the page and the other I hold in my heart. The second serves as a milestone for me. The memories are pushpins stabbed into the map of my life. The same holds true for stories and novels that have had an impact on me. They harken to specific moments in my life, one that is resurrected each time I reread the piece.

What exactly makes for a good story? A good story doesn’t provide answers, at least not in a 1 + 2 = 3 sort of way. If anything, it causes confusion. A good story provokes and unsettles. It creates a memory and remains with a person long after the last word is read.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Story Prize Judge Breon Mitchell: On Stories That Embody the Familiar and the New

Breon Mitchell, one of this year’s three judges for The Story Prize (along with Sherman Alexie and Louise Steinman), is Professor of Germanic Studies and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. Professor Mitchell also serves as the Director of Indiana University’s Lilly Library, a repository for rare books, manuscripts, and other special collections. His critical interests span the fields of literary translation, Anglo-German literary relations, visual and literary arts, and the works of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Franz Kafka. His distinguished and prolific career as a literary translator has led to widely lauded English language editions of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Heinrich Böll’s The Silent Angel, and Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, among others. Recently, Story Prize intern Patrick Thomas Henry spoke with Professor Mitchell on the topics of literary translation, world literature, and the emotional effect of the short story.

Patrick Thomas Henry: You’ve translated the work of many writers—including such figures as Siegfried Lenz, Franz Kafka, and Nobel laureates Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass—into English. Could you share how you arrived at a career in literary translation, and what drew you to these (and other) writers?

Breon Mitchell: My life as a literary translator began at the Jayhawk Café in Lawrence, Kansas, eating peach pie and drinking Pepsi, translating Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Death and the Fool into blank verse with a friend. We were second-year German college students, just back from a summer in Germany in 1961, alive with enthusiasm for Hofmannsthal’s glowing language and with his message to live life to the full before it simply passed us by. Our translation filled almost every evening that semester, and when we were finished we did what most would-be writers did at college—founded a literary magazine and published the passages we loved best, along with translations by any other German students foolhardy enough to lift their eyes above their abilities. Happily, we knew enough to include the German originals, although I can’t say we always knew quite enough about copyright laws.

A past incarnation of the Jayhawk Café
In the coming years, while teaching at Indiana University, I had the luxury of translating exactly what I wanted, by those authors I most admired, and I relished the feeling that I was playing at least some small part in our nation’s cultural life by introducing German writers to American readers.

PTH: What challenges do you encounter when translating fiction?

BM: It’s said that our brains are constructed in such a way that our minds tend either toward poetry or toward prose, both as writers and as translators. Fortunately, my brain seems to lean toward prose. I say “fortunately,” because translating poetry is one of the most difficult linguistic tasks in the world. (Hence the well-known definition, “poetry is what’s left out in translation.”)

The overall challenge of translating fiction is generally capturing the tone and style of the original. (Conveying the literal meaning of the text is simply a matter of knowing the source language sufficiently well.) Other special challenges are presented by such issues as the use of dialects, where the translator runs the risk of making a Bavarian from Munich sound like he’s from Brooklyn, with resulting cultural confusion; or by an author whose grammatical innovations, when rendered in English, make the translation sound strangely awkward. Specialized vocabularies, arcane snippets of local color, and hidden quotations from famous passages in German literature unknown to English-language readers tempt the editor and sometimes the translator toward footnotes, which may disturb as much as they enlighten. These are just a few of the challenges literary translators face on a daily basis—and they are what make translating so much fun.

PTH: “World literature” has always seemed, to me, as a generic course title for a class focusing on literature written in languages other than English. That being said, however, I feel that this term—“world literature”—has one prime, pedagogical function: These stories must contain some elements that allow the prose to affect readers across cultures, across nationalities. What qualities do you think a work of fiction requires in order to be “world literature” in this sense, that the prose appeals to readers across nations?

BM: A work of “world literature” is generally thought to display universal human values and emotions familiar to all readers, of whatever nation. But when publishers ask “Will this work travel across the ocean?” they simply mean, is it tied too closely to the country of origin to be understood easily by American readers. Günter Grass felt his novel The Tin Drum contained too much local color to be successful abroad, yet it became the first major post-WWII German novel to reach an international audience. In the final analysis, “world literature” consists of those works, regardless of their difficulty and special ties to one nation or another, that have found their way into the hearts and minds of readers of all nationalities. What we should also remember is that “world literature” could not exist without literary translation, and that the most of the great works that move us deeply are read in translation.

PTH: As a judge, what qualities are you looking for in the three short story collections that will be finalists for The Story Prize?

BM: Samuel Beckett once said that most people could only enjoy a text if it reminded them of something else they had read. We enjoy hearing echoes of earlier texts in a new one, like musical motifs borrowed from compositions of another age. Yet we also set a high value on originality—we want to be surprised, not just by a turn of events, but by some element we may never have encountered before. We like the sense of comfort a short story provides by serving as one link in the long and complex history of the genre, while at the same time we wish to be jolted, even if gently, out of the groove of our expectations.

As a judge, I hope to be open to both the lure of tradition and the delights of innovation. It is impossible to predict reactions to a new text; that’s what makes reading so pleasurable and why I look forward so to the final three short story collections. Will I be swept away by the sheer excellence of the writing, will I be moved, or frightened, or uplifted? Will my emotions be aroused—will my mind be engaged at some deeper level? I’m certain of one thing—the problem will not be finding stories that meet my standards of quality. The problem will be choosing among them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Greg Hrbek on Writing in an Unreal Vein

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Greg Hrbek, author of Destroy All Monsters (Bison Books), discusses the inspiration for his book.

I don’t have a notebook filled with ideas. I don’t get that many—at least not many worthy of dramatization. My first book was a novel; and I was worried back then that I’d never come up with enough ideas to sustain a writing life. So I’m surprised I wrote the ten stories in this collection. The way I did it was by finding a fundamental concern that I could explore from different angles, which turned out to be parenthood. Only one of the stories approaches this subject realistically. The rest are, to varying degrees, unreal.

I never thought I’d write “fantastic” stuff. I read The Canon in college and pretty much nothing else. The book that changed how I wanted to write was a novel by Scott Bradfield called The History of Luminous Motion. The oldest story in my collection, “Green World” (about a boy on death row in some kind of alternate universe America), was inspired by that novel, which only later did I realize must have been inspired by Steven Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse.

Of all contemporary story writers writing in an unreal vein (two of my favorites are Judy Budnitz and Shelley Jackson), Millhauser was the guiding light for this collection. I don’t think there is another living writer who achieves, on the page, a truer sense of flotation between reality and dream. It seems to me you have to go back to Kafka to find such perfectly-struck balance. So my hope is that I wrote some stories which, like little pieces of glass, reflect some of that brilliance.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Scott Nadelson on Stepping Forward into the Unknown

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Scott Nadelson, author of Aftermath (Hawthorne Books), discusses some of the thinking behind the title story in his collection.

Sometime during the summer of 2005, while working on a new story, I wrote lines of dialogue that surprised me. “The world died a long time before you were born,” a father tells his daughter and son-in-law, who are shocked and saddened by a recent bombing in Iraq, and even more important, deeply shaken by the slow rupture of their marriage. “There’s no point crying about it,” the father adds.

The lines are meant to be comic and act mostly to reveal the father’s cynicism, narcissism, and desperate need for attention. But when I wrote them, they also opened up something for me that I hadn’t expected, pointing me to explore an aspect of life that most amazes and baffles me: how we carry the burden of horrific events, of great disappointments, of suffering and grief, and yet continue to pursue our desires, strive toward normality and even happiness, and accommodate ourselves to the possibility of failure.

Despite the father’s subsequent words about Hiroshima and Auschwitz, the world hasn’t died; it continues to spin its cycles of tragedy and joy, of struggle and contentment, and the best the daughter and son-in-law can do is lean into the headwind and step forward into the unknown.

The story, which wasn’t yet named, eventually became the title piece of my new collection, Aftermath. And though it wasn’t planned this way, it now strikes me as a strangely appropriate accident that the book was published within a few days of the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. For a decade we’d been living in the aftermath of inconceivable horror and sadness and shock, and certainly those events and the horror and sadness and struggle they have since sparked were present in my mind as I wrote the stories in this book, even though I rarely addressed them directly.

The world should have died, but it didn’t; we should have given up our striving but we haven’t. Our resilience in the face of suffering, our stubbornness in the face of failure, our stupidity and blindness in the face of repeated mistakes—all of these things continue to amaze and baffle me, but in writing these stories I came to see them not as an exception or aberration but as the essence of our being, our very lifeblood.

In one important way, the father in my story was right: We’ve been living in the aftermath for far longer than the few hours following a bomb attack, the few months following a break-up, or the few years following a global tragedy. We’ve been living there all along, and its challenges and obstacles, its gloom and hints of light, have given us our strength, our stubbornness, and occasionally our wisdom. “None of this really matters,” the father says later in the story, referring both to world events and to his daughter’s marriage. But whether he’s right or not, his daughter and son-in-law go on living as if every thing they do, every word they say, matters more than the last.

The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow captured this resilience as well as anyone, in a poem from 1873, an excerpt of which became one of the two epigraphs to my collection:

When the summer fields are mown, 
When the birds are fledged and flown, 
And the dry leaves strew the path; 
With the falling of the snow, 
With the cawing of the crow, 
Once again the fields we mow
And gather in the aftermath.

The other epigraph comes from Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Dunn, in 2003:

It's over. It's time for loss to build its tower in the yard 
where you are merely a spectator now. 
Admit you'd like to find something 
discarded or damaged, even gone, 
and lift it back into the world.

This book was my attempt to lift something damaged back into the world.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Story Prize Judge Louise Steinman: "Reading Is Crucial to My Life"

Story Prize intern Phedra Deonoarine recently caught up with Louise Steinman, one of this year’s three judges for The Story Prize (along with Sherman Alexie and Breon Micthell). Steinman is the curator of the award-winning ALOUD reading/conversation series for the Los Angeles Public Library, and co-director of the Los Angeles Institute for Humanities at USC. She is the author of the memoir The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War — selection of several all-city reads programs and The Knowing Body: The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance. Her articles and reviews are published widely and her essays have been anthologized, most recently in The Devil's Punchbowl: A Cultural & Geographic Map of California Today. She is also a contributing editor at The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Phedra Deonarine: What led you to your role as a curator for the ALOUD reading and conversation series at the Los Angeles Public Library?

Louise Steinman: Many things! I studied literature at Reed College, wrote my thesis on poet Robert Creeley. The Beat poet Lew Welch was a mentor. Took a slow bus to Naropa Institute (Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics) in 1976-- studied (and later performed) with Meredith Monk. For ten years I co-directed a performance company, SO&SO&SO&SO, based in Portland, Ore. I explored my own family stories through a theater of images and movement. My first book, The Knowing Body, is subtitled “The Artist as Storyteller in Contemporary Performance.” My graduate degree is in interdisciplinary arts. I'm interested in thinkers and writers and visionaries of all kinds.

And then there’s the element of luck. The Library Foundation of Los Angeles was looking for someone to create and produce public programs back in 1993, when the (rebuilt) Los Angeles Central Library reopened after a series of disastrous arson fires. I was in the right place at the right time; though in the beginning, I didn’t think I’d last six weeks.

That was eighteen years ago this fall and now we’ve presented over 1,000 free programs.

PD: How does you work as a writer relate to your work as a curator?

LS: My own work as a writer frequently explores memory and reconciliation. That interest is reflected in some of my choices for ALOUD. We recently hosted Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist. That same week she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Last week we presented Karl Marlantes, author of the great Vietnam war novel Matterhorn. His crucial new book is called What It is Like to Go to War. My own memoir, The Souvenir: A Daughter Discovers Her Father’s War, was an investigation into my father’s experience in the Pacific War and how it shaped our family life in Culver City, Calif., in the fifties. Marlantes writes about how we need “ceremony and counseling to help returning veterans move from the infinite back to the finite.” I’m concerned with the issues our returning vets now face. I’ve led writing workshops for veterans at the library. As Marlantes notes, by writing a story, one can take oneself by surprise, get past the usual defenses.

Reading is crucial to my life as a writer and also as a curator. My idea of heaven as a kid was to take a book and climb the neighbor’s Chinese elm and hang out there reading for hours. Reading is also part of my job. I’ll spend a day reading Alexandra Fuller before I interview her; or immerse myself in the work of poet Adam Zagajewski or Joan Didion before writing my introductions. It’s tonic for my own writing.

PD: The Web site for the ALOUD series offers a wealth of author podcasts. Which ones stand out for you and why?

A recent ALOUD program with Alexandra Fuller
and Louise Steinman
LS: The program on "The Short Story and the Art of Unknowing," with Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Yiyun Limoderated by Bridghe Mullinsis excellent. Carlos Fuentes is another good onehis grasp of world literature is so wonderful. I loved the program with poet Jane Hirshfield and physicist Sean Carroll on "The Nature of Observation" because they're each both canny and open about the differences and possible overlaps in how they view the phenomenal world. Our recent program with Anita Hill on the 20th anniversary of the Clarence Thomas hearings was very moving. Howard Rodman's interview of John Sayles makes for great listening. Danzy Senza and Attica Locke talking about "Navigating History: Truth in Fiction" was excellent and Michael Silverblatt's conversation with Marilynne Robinson unfolds in surprising ways. If you listen to the Isabel Allende podcast you'll hear her erotic dream about Antonio Banderas in a tortilla. (There's guacamole involved as well.)

PD: What are you hoping for from the three short story collections that will
 be the finalists for The Story Prize? 

LS: I love that feeling of being so deep in a story that you don't want it to end. I love when I enter a world that is familiar and yet strange. I love when I love a sentence or a paragraph so much I have to wake my husband up in the middle of the night and read it to him. 
I love when a story haunts me for days on end.

Joseph McElroy Asks: What Can Happen?

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Joseph McElroy, author of Night Soul and Other Stories (Dalkey Archive Press), ponders where a story can take the writer and the reader.
What can happen? my stories ask, as I ask of my life and yours. Not only what did happen, but mainly: What can happen? A story about a boomerang thrower in Paris, or a story about a father and his infant son in his crib in the dark making sounds that the father begins to make sense of during three successive desert nights. What can happen? Sometimes I’ll read just the beginning of a story to an audience and ask where it could go from there. But the writer is mainly invisible, and the story stands on its own between the reader and the writer and would have to be about both if we could only know, but stands on its own and belongs to the reader and in the great differences among the stories in my book Night Soul might even sometimes suggest to you the reader how to read it.

A bark canoe, its structure, maybe its own special language, and what the boat unfolds of its materials and purposes when it needs to be repaired, because construction and repair are not so different—and the people who have used and will use the canoe—and the lake and its shore day and night, and the sky and what is in the sky. Maybe an aura we would trace around a good story, this one different from any other. Not magic, even if we like that dreamy word. Uncaused miracle? Really only our surprise and new strength discovering what we didn’t know we knew. If how it was done is largely concealed, that might not be a bad thing. The writer isn’t always clear how the story got made. So many vague intimations, even like changes Robert Frost grants the making of a poem that happen unexpectedly in the middle as if some other self stumbled on a turning point. Words that open a new path. What I intended changes; the ending often remains as it was, while the way to get there is shifting as I write.

Making and following a path may be the same thing. What gets me going? A jolt in the memory that becomes imagination. Maybe often the most ordinary materials, gathered, are somehow more than the sum of their parts. A very young kid from a Muslim family in Brooklyn befriended by an out-of-work poet—two nomads. How did I come to write it? Honestly not sure. Two quite separate memories colliding by chance recognize each other. You make it up out of what you know, Hemingway says.  The story itself is what we read. Or should read. The reader longs for something. I have a theory that like a detouring postponement readers sometimes have this anxious need to turn away from the actual words, the story, the thought, the odd life of it, to something else; for how could we ever speak of the thing itself, follow out its curious path for the path’s sake? Though that’s what we’re meant to do. A character in a story lives as you or I do by being inherently one yet several, by being a possibility. Everyone I meet is a message. In my story “The Campaign Trail,” two candidates for a Presidential nomination, a black man, a white woman, unexpectedly (or did someone plan it?) meet and spend the night together on a wild tract of land—land, it comes to me, annexed by the Nation from its northern neighbor: What happens? Danger where they camp, what  they learn—and who and what else is here?  A wild animal, later a wild person. What happened to bring them all here? What can happen?

If the story turns upon a coincidence, put it in early to merge with the reader’s gathering sense of everything in the story. If there’s a change in how a character sees things—isn’t that what stories are about?—let it grow, best it be so clear it gets mysteriously absorbed into our love of experience itself.

How I got an idea—I mean a situation…don’t necessarily trust the writer talking about that stuff; or how long it took. Or where I wrote it—in New York, the one about Paris; in New Hampshire the one about the end of the world; but I do believe that for all we know of spontaneity, my small victories are "won in revision," as Donald Barthelme, one of our great originals, used to say. Swift or slow, seamless, intricate, even, one of them, fragmented, I hope the reader remakes the story as the story adds, I hope, to the reader.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Katherine Karlin and the Complicated Conception

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Katherine Karlin, author of Send Me Work (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press), lays out the background of one of the stories in her collection.  
One of the stories in the collection, “The Severac Sound,” has a particularly complicated genesis. I aborted my first few attempts. When the story finally flew, though, it flew; I wrote the draft in a week and later fiddled with it only minimally.

My best friend Jonathan is an oboist, and I’d always been interested in writing about his trade. I traveled with his orchestra to Europe, Japan, South America, and different points in the U.S., making myself helpful by schlepping the luggage and doing the laundry. But I spent most of my time sightseeing the great cities of the world, while Jonathan rehearsed, concertized, and made reeds. Always with the reed-making. God knows how many nights I spent lying on some hotel bed or another, reading, or maybe watching Lou Grant in Finnish, while Jonathan whittled a sliver of cane bound to a metal shaper. It was the reed-making that fascinated me most; there is something quaint and artisanal about it, like cobbling, and the miniature contraptions that he carries in his leather traveling-case—the knives, the whetstone, the spools of thread, and the tiny guillotine—nobly resist technological upgrades.

When an oboe master who had been pivotal in his development was dying, Jonathan asked me if I wanted to travel with him to California, where he could say his last good-bye. Of course I went along, even though I didn’t know the man. I spent the day in a museum while Jonathan went to pay his respects in the morning, and a colleague of his replaced him in the afternoon. In the evening the three of us reconnoitered at our hotel. The two oboists, grown men whom I had known since we were all teens, spoke softly in the corner of the darkening room about the teacher they’d loved, and something about the scene struck me as moving and significant.

But the story stalled. Two nice boys bid their teacher good-bye. So what? No matter what I tried it was sticky as cotton candy.

A few years later my father died, and I was sucked into a vortex of emotion. I missed him, sure—but bereavement was only part of it. I was angry, too, remorseful, and, more than anything, depressed that I had forever missed my shot at winning Most Favored Daughter status. For a few weeks I walked through tar. Once, on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh, I found myself wishing that the sidewalk would open up and pull me under, because that would be easier than taking another step, and at that moment I thought, “Okay, jerk, these feelings are not pure, and they may not be honorable, but they’re grief, and it’s kind of interesting, and if you pull your head out of your ass you might find a way to write about it.”

So I went home and started writing “The Severac Sound.” That was a Monday. I finished on a Friday. And it didn’t turn out to be the story about two nice boys but a man and a woman with an undying rivalry. And it was about the extinction of the men of my father’s generation, who had been through Depression and war and bore their misfortune with self-effacing dignity.

Most of the stories in Send Me Work are pulled from my own experiences in the less rarefied worlds of oil refineries, shipyards, and print shops. The orchestra milieu of “The Severac Sound” is an exception, although the workmanlike chores of the oboist are not that far removed from those of the rail worker or welder. I guess I “researched” this story, although I conducted research in the most passive way, absorbing Jonathan’s grumbles as he scraped away at his cane, one decade after the next. But what I learned most from writing “The Severac Sound” is that random vectors of ideas will strike you at your most vulnerable, and if you can tidy them up into a bundle them you might end up with a story.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Laura Furman on Balancing the Twin Demands of Truth and Fiction

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Laura Furman, author of The Mother Who Stayed (Free Press), reveals the tripartite structure of her collection and the difficulties she had incorporating found diaries into her work. 
My collection, The Mother Who Stayed, is organized in three trios. The stories were written over a decade or so, and their arrangement in trios came about through my love of chamber music.

My intention was for each story in the trios to be viable as a work to be read alone. In combination with the other two stories in its trio, the individual story should gain resonance, deepen emotion, and produce a more complicated engagement with the reader.

In music, a theme is introduced and varied.

The second movement is often adagio, slower and sadder; it introduces its own themes and concerns while echoing those of the first movement.

The third movement replicates and complicates. The resolution of the final movement doesn’t solve the problems or cancel the emotions raised by all three movements. Rather, it finds a place for those emotions and complications to rest. The third movement is also about remembering the previous movements. In many ways, it’s like the ending of a short story.

While I was writing the collection, I wasn’t thinking about the arrangement of the stories but of individual stories and the problems they were presenting. For a long time, I struggled enjoyably with a set of nineteenth-century diaries that figure in the final trio.

In the early 1970s, I lived in upstate New York, and in my house I found the diaries of a farm wife from the years 1874-1902. About twenty years later, I finally read the diaries and started researching who the woman was, where her farm had been, and what her life was like. While I was reading about cheese factories and hired girls—and slowly getting to know the diarist, her family and community—I was also trying to use the diaries in fiction and finding it terribly difficult. The more I wrote, the more my desire grew to be faithful to the record this modest, unknown woman had left behind. Being faithful to a historical document isn’t the best way to make fiction come alive, a difficulty I find in many books of historical fiction when I feel a shift in tone from narrative to research report.

Years into the project, I was at Yaddo. In the isolation and quiet I found there, I felt myself come almost to the end of my rope.

The years I’d spent were wasted, precious time wasted on this life gone by. How could I balance the twin demands of truth and fiction? I had many pages of manuscript, boxes of different versions, and not a word was right.

Once again, I turned to the diaries, by this time in electronic files on my computer, no longer fourteen musty little notebooks. Then I closed those files and began to write from memory. I didn’t try to write a story. I just wanted to write the life I’d puzzled over for so long. A few times, I went back and retrieved a phrase I liked. One became a title—“The Blue Birds Came Today,” the middle story of the final trio in The Mother Who Stayed.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Stacey Levine on Stories That Engage Many Muscles

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stacey Levine, author of The Girl with Brown Fur (Starcherone Books), discusses finding inspiration in a David Lynch film, making soup, and the guidance she received from a butoh dancer. 
Describe one of the stories in your collection. 
My story “Parthenogenetic Grandmother" was inspired by a David Lynch short--it’s a visually breathtaking film that has always stayed with me. In my story, a 21-year-old woman meets her grandmother for the first time via a quasi-supernatural occurrence in which the old woman is born in a forest. With this, the young woman ponders other family members, the current state of her family relationships, and the requirement of her own independence. The grandmother soon reveals herself to be not-so loving or well behaved and the story describes their power struggle.

What is your writing process like?
Like many writers, I worry about how to fill up rafts of pages. So I don’t create whole first drafts; instead, I keep files of notes, lines, and small scenes, then slowly expand these into longer scenes, which I eventually link and impose with the story’s conflicts, tensions, and stakes. In short, I move from small to large.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
A friend said I should pay attention to creating a strong first and last line for the book, which was a great idea. 

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
Everyone’s working and scrambling all the time, so I usually ask editors when the work is mostly done.
What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
Many muscles should be engaged. The stories should have structures and sequences, whether ultralight or more conventional, an attention to original language, and a sense of humanity, poetry, and mystery. The work should approach the moments that are almost impossible to articulate.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers and Lispector’s Family Ties.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
For the story “Parthenogenetic Grandmother,” I read a psychoanalytic case study, from which I pulled and paraphrased some lines. For the story “And You Are?” I paraphrased some of Heraclitus’ Fragments which were resonant for me, and I collaged them into the story. For a few years, I had a part time job transcribing a neurologist’s clinical and surgical notes. Some of the doctor’s summative patient histories were fascinating and also comical to the ear. I compiled lots of these in a hyperbolic way in “The Kidney Problem.” Maybe the best research, though, is everyday life.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I like to cook. There’s that impulse to transform feeling into language or soup.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
Who would do that? An eighth grader! :)

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
When I was really young in Eugene, Oregon, a butoh dancer took a group of aspiring musicians, dancers, and writer friends under his wing. I was one of them. There was no schedule to our lives; we would just hang around. The butoh dancer would say things to me like: “You must write every day, even if you are exhausted. You should observe animals--it’s better to watch rabbits than to go to classes at school. You must eat everything on your plate to show respect for your food, just as you respect your own body, art, and the written word.” It was a bit pugnacious even at the time, but valuable. His remarks caused me to muster some discipline.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Stuart Nadler on Seeing Stories in a Different Light

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stuart Nadler, author of The Book of Life (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay Books), discusses his writing process, and identifies his ideal story collections and the books that made him want to be a writer. 

What is your writing process like? 

I write very early in the morning. I like to have my work done by noon so that I have the rest of the day to read. Of course, this is a wish. Increasingly, whatever plans I set up for my work are ruined. Life intrudes. Groceries need to be bought. Driveways need to be shoveled. I tend to write quickly. On the whole, I’m a macro-writer, to borrow Zadie Smith’s term: When my drafts are done, they’re mostly where I want them to be, aside from some small tinkering. I usually don’t begin working until I have a good idea of where I’m going. I don’t like to commit an outline to paper. For whatever reason, that always throws me off. But keeping an outline in my head seems to serve the same purpose without causing any real trouble. I revise while I work, going sentence to sentence, making sure every word is working, questioning every decision. Then I go paragraph to paragraph, doing the same thing. In short fiction, I spend a lot of time making sure the transitions between sections are doing what I want them to. In long fiction, I do the same thing with a chapter break.

Because I write so often in the morning, when the story gets close to being finished, I like to spend a few days working on it late in the afternoon. Reading at different times of day is like looking a painting in different light. Everything is different. Then, if I have the time, I like to put the work away for a month or so. Just until I can’t remember what it was I wrote. There’s a process of memorization that occurs when people write. You know the paragraph before you actually read it. That deep familiarity makes having any healthy, honest perspective impossible. Usually, when I pull the story out after a month, the soft spots and the weaknesses are glaringly obvious. After that I try to make my final touches. Then I let it go. Of course, that’s the hardest part.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be?  
There are a few. Ethan Canin’s Emperor of the Air. Alice Munro’s Open Secrets. Anne Beattie’s Secrets and Surprises. James Alan McPherson’s Elbow Room. Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. More than a great, well crafted short story, I love a terrific collection, one that shows the writer’s range, their quirks, their preoccupations. I love a story collection that obsesses over the same questions, like the young, struggling transplants in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreters of Maladies, or the shoemakers and matchmakers in Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel. And I love writers like Jim Shepard or Steven Millhauser whose every story is different from the next, whose every new project is whole new world.

Have you had a mentor and who was it? 
I was lucky enough to have Ethan Canin as a mentor. I’d read his work a few years before I went to Iowa and had the great fortune to study with him. He’s a terrific writer, of course, but even more, he’s a great, generous teacher. All but two of the stories in The Book of Life, were ones that he read in their earliest versions. The best gift he gave me, though, was confidence. The writing life is filled with so much doubt—every decision, every paragraph—and to know that a writer I admired thought I was doing something right meant a great deal to me.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I play music. When I was young, I played in bands. But now, I just play alone—guitar, banjo—mostly with the doors closed, mostly on my couch, alone. Like a lot of people who take up the guitar in their early teens, I had the rock star dream, but I’ve let it go. Now it relaxes me. It’s the perfect antidote to a long, difficult day of writing. The guitar doesn’t know if you’ve slacked off on your novel, or if all you’ve done is rewrite the same few sentences over and over.

Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems? 
The fourth story in my collection, "Catherine and Henry," took me almost six years to finish. It was the last story I wrote before I went off to the Writers’ Workshop, and the very last story I worked on before we sent the book off to be printed. Part of the difficulty was that I was writing from two distinct points of view, and that I didn’t want those points of view to focus in on the same action. It took me a very long time to get the voice down for each character, and when I finally thought I’d gotten Catherine’s voice down, for instance, I’d realize that Henry’s voice seemed too stiff, or too relaxed. The ending also gave me fits. It’s a long story as it is, forty-something pages. But at the end, when the deadline kept getting near, I wrote very long versions of the story, drawing out every possible detail, refusing to make choices. In an odd way, letting the story go like that allowed me to go back and prune it down to where it is now.

What book or books made you want to become a writer? 
When I was young, I loved adventure stories—Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And I had a great child-size version of The Count of Monte Cristo that I loved. It had a picture on every other page. I’m sure it was heavily sanitized, but I loved it. When I got older, there were certain books: Gatsby, Lolita, Franny and Zooey. Goodbye, Columbus was a big one. I remember reading Purple America at the beach my senior year in college, loving the language, and thinking that I needed to try to write. Wonder Boys had the same effect on me. It was a such a fun book, a book about loving books! By that point, I think, I was already trying to go for it.