Monday, May 28, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday, Mr. Cheever

Yesterday—May 27—would have been John Cheever's 100th birthday, and I like to think that I have the day off form work for that reason. In fact, maybe Memorial Day should be an annual occasion to remember writers whose work is, well, memorable. After all, May is Short Story Month.

I would be remiss if I didn't also reiterate that this Thursday night, May 31, at the Center for Fiction, The Story Prize will be co-presenting a tribute to The Stories of John Cheever. Susan Minot will read from and discuss JC's "The Sorrows of Gin." Rick Moody will focus on "The Jewels of the Cabots." And Elizabeth Strout will read from "The Worm in the Apple." If you're going to be there (and I hope you are), I would highly recommend reading/re-reading these three stories.

The 92nd Street Y offered it's centennial tribute to John Cheever, with a focus on the man himself. With the exception of Michael Chabon's spirited reading of "The Enormous Radio," the program was almost entirely dedicated to the writer and not his work. Biographer Blake Bailey read excerpts that focused on Cheever grappling with his fame. Susan Cheever read from her father's diaries, admiring the gorgeous prose that permeated even work that wasn't written for publication. And Allan Gurganus, Cheever's former student and more, read the last few sentences of "Goodbye, My Brother," and spoke at length about personal encounters with his mentor.

I'm glad the 92nd Street Y did this. Now we can focus on the reason we even remember this man 100 years after his birth—his fiction and, in particular, his stories. Call me romantic, but I would be taking note of this occasion even if I'd never seen the photos of John Cheever's handsome, craggy face or heard recordings of his exaggerated patrician accent, or learned about his troubled family relationships and his personal demons. For most of us, the stories transcend the life.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Aimee Parkison's Two Minds

In the second in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Aimee Parkison, author of The Innocent Party (BOA Editions), talks about what inspires her.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner writes that the “fictional dream that will eventually fill the reader’s mind begins as a largely mysterious dream in the writer’s mind. Through the process of writing and endless revising, the writer makes available the order the reader sees. Discovering the meaning and communicating the meaning are for the writer one single act.”

Perhaps this explains why I find inspiration behind my eyelids before falling asleep. My mind reveals strange and beautiful things before I lose consciousness. Who knows what this means? In that moment when the unconscious mind takes over to let the conscious mind rest, images like paintings of people and places appear in flashes. Some of the flashes linger and start to stick to each other, connecting to make stories, dreams. Unfortunately, I sometimes forget them upon waking.

I write from two minds: the unconscious mind that finds surrealist truth in illogical images in the midst of disconnection and the conscious mind that longs for control and wants to make everything logical, creating meaning, even when there is none.

Years ago, I began a story by imagining a lonely woman who has an affair with the ghost of her lesbian lover, who committed suicide. “Dummy” is the only “ghost story” I’ve written so far, yet it’s shaped by reality and the conventions of contemporary literary fiction. In writing this “ghost story,” I learned something about life. I was able to answer questions I had been asking for a long time: Why do people commit suicide, and what happens to those left behind?  I’ve known people who have committed suicide—some of them in my own family—and these are the questions that remain.

This is what my stories are about—not the “damage” of living but what damage makes possible in the lives of survivors. In “Paints and Papers,” an alcoholic artist is attacked; a young boy hits him on the head with a lead pipe. The “damage” to the artist’s brain allows him to paint the world in new ways. Damage is like that—it changes our lives so that everything we see is suddenly altered.

The more I learn from my characters, the more something odd starts to happen. The guilty suddenly appear innocent, and the innocent appear somehow guilty. This is probably why I became a fiction writer—to gain some sort of control over everything that’s raging out of control. I’m a storyteller, attempting to communicate with the heart as well as with the mind.

My workspace is an extension of my life lived in rooms crowded with books near cats who like to sleep on books. When I first started writing, it felt like unlocking a secret door. I could go in whenever I wanted, but sometimes I could lose the key. This happens to all writers. We have to go back, to relearn what we thought we knew.

Moral ambiguity changes the nature of “reality” in my book, The Innocent Party. In “Warnings,” a dyslexic teen runs away from home to have a love affair with a divorced sheriff, only to realize her attraction to the sheriff is connected to her missing father and her memories of murder. In her mind, a secret is born. That secret will always be part of her.

I wrote “Allison’s Idea” in a single night in college, after waking from a vivid dream I wrote in longhand. In that story, a group of lonely college girls go on the black market to buy children to keep as pets and learn a startling truth about people and animals. Readers who are parents often ask me about this story. They say it frightens them and that they’ll remember it for a long time. It also frightens me, even though I have no children of my own.

“Allison’s Idea” was birthed on a sleepless night, but the story was born—fully formed. My other stories are sometimes born without hands, missing faces or eyes, without legs. I have to perform a sort of triage to save them; my workspace becomes a narrative ICU to keep damaged, wounded, and unformed stories alive so they can grow and heal in revision.

The mind is a womb, but some stories are born too soon. How does one attempt to save them? Should they be saved?

The shortest time it has taken me to write a story is ten minutes. That story was a flash fiction – a poem disguised as a story disguised as a poem. My story “The Glass Girl” was like that—written fast in a flash of light that came out of a lot of darkness. Very few stories come so quickly, but when they come that way, as flashes, they are gifts.

The longest time it has ever taken me to write a story is ten years. That ten-year story was no better and no worse than the ten-minute story. It was just different—written from a different place, a different mood, and a different state of mind. It was a struggle, a battle rather than a pure flash of inspiration.

Even when I’m most alone, there’s always a sense of community while working, as I read to understand how to write. Brian Evenson, David Foster Wallace, Beth Nugent, Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Tobias Wolff, Amy Bloom, Charles Baxter, Lydia Davis, James Purdy, Joyce Carol Oates, and Raymond Carver are my favorite writers. When I first read David Foster Wallace’s “Little Expressionless Animals,” it was electrifying and opened my eyes to all sorts of possibilities about image, tone, mood, character, and narrative architecture. I remember wondering if a writer could get sued for some of the things that happen in a story. I remember wondering if it was risky to unlock the secret door, if that wasn’t what made the act of reading and writing worthwhile.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lysley Tenorio's Serendipitous Discoveries

In the first in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Lysley Tenorio, author of Monstress (Ecco), discusses his obsessions and his role models.
Remember that news story from a while back, the one about those inmates in the Philippines prison who (as a way of exercise and easing inmate violence), were forced to perform a choreographed dance routine to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? As someone drawn to odd, seemingly ludicrous stories from real news or obscure history, for me this kind of material is pure gold, rich in dramatic and comedic possibility and, thematically, in line with one of my obsessions—the reality created from the double-helix of Filipino and American cultures. A scenario in which prisoners must perform a “Thriller” dance routine provides, to quote John Barth, a perfect “ground situation” for a story, and as a plot-driven writer, it’s exciting to envision a sequence of events to build upon that ground.

Many of the stories in my book, Monstress, came to me this way, via serendipitous discovery of weird, almost unbelievable stories from real life: a group of Filipinos who plan an assault on the Beatles at the Manila International Airport (“Help”), a faith healer running scam psychic surgeries from a downtown hotel room (“Felix Starro”), an American-run leper colony on a little-known Philippine island (“The View From Culion”), the making of what some critics have called the worst movie of all time, a movie literally spliced together from a Filipino caveman picture and an American sci-fi B-movie  (“Monstress”). The too-strange-to-be-true collisions between different countries, cultures, and people—as a storyteller, that’s my inspiration.

And, quite often, my greatest obstacle.

In early drafts, I’m often whisked away by the absurd incongruities of these scenarios; I’m like a ringmaster barely managing a twenty-ring circus, or a tourist with a camera slung around his neck, gawking at all the strange sights, snapping picture after picture. This is actually the fun part of writing, indulging the surface-level topsy-turviness of these scenarios and plots. But there’s a danger in getting too caught up in these quirks; the allure of a ridiculous situation, the wild ride of a twisty plot, can obscure the real job at hand, which is to create, explore, and develop characters whose lives are made even more complex by the circumstances of these outlandish scenarios. What kind of person plans an attack on the Beatles? What faith healer travels from the Philippines to America, searching for Filipinos to dupe? What drives these people to such a desperate point, that their extreme circumstances and outrageous behaviors become the norm? For me, that’s the challenge of these stories—trying to transform the peculiar and the uncanny into the everyday and ordinary. Only then can I begin to develop and understand my characters, their lives that pre-exist page one, the forces that energize and paralyze them, and what they truly stand to gain and lose by the end of the story. Now that Monstress is out in the world, I can only hope I’ve come close achieving that, to creating a bond of empathy between my characters and any potential readers I’m lucky enough to have.

Obviously, there were failures along the way, and I think of one in particular, a story called, “We Too Are One,” which I’d based on some of the more outrageous Filipino variety programs I’d seen on TV.  The two characters were a brother and sister duo named BoyBoy and Chablis, the Donny and Marie of the Philippines. The story was told from the first person point of view but without ever making clear to the reader which sibling was narrating. I liked the scenario a lot (who knew that writing about silver sequined costumes and matching thigh-high platform boots could be so much fun?), and the idea of the non-specified speaker seemed to address the theme of inextricably linked identities, an impossibility of separation. Yet for all the fun circumstances and neat thematics, I couldn’t understand the characters. Draft after draft, BoyBoy and Chablis were set pieces, caricatures unable to transcend their own comedy. I can think of a dozen stories that failed in the same way, but I’ve finally learned to let them go, and to appreciate the eight stories in Monstress that did make the cut. Hopefully, they got the job done.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have role models. George Saunders is a genius at luring a reader with the whimsical and the absurd, then keeping you for the long haul, until his characters finally break your heart. Same goes for Steven Millhauser, Jim Shepard, and Karen Russell, whose story, “Accident Brief” about young boys who must “sing down” an avalanche (it makes perfect sense when you read it, trust me) is one of the strangest and most moving stories I’ve ever read. These writers possess that gift of alchemy, of transforming the weird into the emotionally familiar, and giving us unforgettable and fully realized characters in the process. They set the bar high for writers like me, and even if I never get there, every draft is worth the effort.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Short Story Month: Minot, Moody, and Strout Read Cheever at The Center for Fiction on May 31

May is National Short Story Month, and this year (for once) The Story Prize has something planned. Thanks to New York's Center for Fiction, we're going to be co-presenting a reading to celebrate The Stories of John Cheever, a collection you'll find on the shelves of many passionate readers and writers of short fiction.

Why a Cheever reading now? Because he will have been 100 on May 27. John Cheever, the man, has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, with the release of his diaries and a highly-regarded biography by Blake Bailey. In fact, the 92nd Street Y is having an event on May 17 with Bailey, Michael Chabon, and writers and offspring Ben and Susan Cheever. So when The Center for Fiction's Executive Director, Noreen Tomassi, and I discussed having an event there, we decided to put the focus on what is probably Cheever's greatest legacy—his short stories.

(L to R) Susan Minot, Rick Moody, and Elizabeth Strout
On May 31, at 7 p.m., at The Center for Fiction, authors Susan Minot, Rick Moody, and Elizabeth Strout will each read from and discuss a Cheever story. Minot's choice is "The Sorrows of Gin," Moody will read from "The Jewels of the Cabots," and Strout will focus on "The Worm in the Apple"—all interesting selections from among an oeuvre that includes "Goodbye, My Brother," "The Enormous Radio," "The Five-Forty-Eight," "Reunion," and "The Swimmer."

Susan Minot, Rick Moody, and Elizabeth Strout each have New England roots—as did Cheever. And the work of all three has affinities with his. I'm expecting a memorable and fitting tribute to a great writer with a continuing and widespread influence on other writers—a nice way, we hope, to close out a month celebrating the story form.