Friday, December 2, 2011

Alethea Black's Nocturnal Habit

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, intern Phedra Deonarine interviews Alethea Black, author of I Knew You'd Be Lovely  (Broadway Books).

Phedra Deonarine: Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection
should be?

Alethea Black: An ideal collection would be one that surprises me and enlists my heart. I suppose I'm drawn to the same things in stories that attract me in people: charm, inventiveness, humor, compassion, intelligence. When I was first learning to write, collections by Lorrie Moore and Ralph Lombreglia moved me deeply. This year, I'm loving the new books by Jim Shepard and Steve Almond. My all-time greatest hits include Jesus' Son and The Things They Carried.

PD: Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?

AB: "Mollusk Makes a Comeback" It was one of the first stories I ever wrote, and it went through many, many drafts (and many bad titles, including "Doughnut Holes" and "Please Continue to Hold"). I don't save all the iterations of a story as I work—if I did, my desktop would be even more cluttered than it is—but the collected drafts of that story would almost be an archaeological record of someone learning how to write.

A story in the making: (L to R) dog, bone, dog
Conflict is the engine that keeps a story rolling—I sometimes tell aspiring writers that every story is about two dogs and one bone—yet "Mollusk" was a story about a woman in conflict with herself. Inner conflict is difficult to portray without committing any number of literary sins, and I struggled with a way to dramatize her paralysis and boredom without making the story itself boring and inert.

PD: What are you working on now?

AB: I'm still tweaking a short novel called The Key, even though it's officially finished and with my agent. (I think I've entered the editing phase Oscar Wilde described: "I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.") I also have notes for the next book, called The Lucky Brother, but I'm circling in the grass and have yet to lie down with it.

PD: Which writers were mentors to you as you worked on early versions of these

AB: I've had the most wonderful teachers, to whom I'll always be grateful: Lee K. Abbott, Alice Elliott Dark, David Gates, Joshua Henkin, Jeff Jackson, Thom Jones, and Meir Ribalow.

PD: What is your writing process like?

AB: I often write at night, in bed. I felt bad about writing in bed until I learned that Sid Mukherjee is also a bed-writer. I wish I could wean myself from the nocturnal schedule, but I suppose I should simply be grateful the work gets done. (I wrote about this habit recently) I have little method or ritual, and I confess I'm not a big self-disciplinarian. If I'm in the thick of a project, I might write all day for weeks, but there are also fallow weeks when I don't write at all.

PD: Were there any stories you wrote and wanted to include, but that didn’t make the cut for this volume?

AB: I have a triptych of short shorts that my editor and I briefly considered including, but we already had an Author's Notes appendix, telling the stories behind the stories; to have some sort of dim sum surprise as well felt too complicated. I'm now glad we didn't. I don't think flash fiction—my own, at least—provides as satisfying a narrative experience as longer stories. And I like to satisfy.