Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Megan Mayhew Bergman on the Tension Between Conviction and Practice

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise (Scribner), discusses her Southern roots, describes where she writes, and names some writers she's learned from.

What made you want to become a writer?

1.  I like storytelling, the license to entertain, and what I will call the “charm of the southern dinner table”—meaning he or she who tells the best stories holds the attention of friends and family. This person, in my case, was my father, who made faces, spoke with maximum inflection, injected humor into everything, and was not above picking up a fork and paddling with it, in order to give color to a story about his first white water rafting trip.

 2.  I love words. Many southern people I knew growing up understood how to harness the power of language—preachers, prolific swearers, cheerleaders, the guy at the Beacon Drive-In who yells your order (Chili Cheese A-Plenty!)—and this appeals to me: words you like the sound of, words that make you feel something.

3.  Sometimes I feel as though I will burst open with ideas, joy, sadness, anger. Writing is an outlet, a way to process what you know or believe to be true about the world. A story is, at times, a hypothesis, a question, an answer.

Where do you find inspiration?
Right now, I’m fascinated with the tension between conviction and practice—the way we (or, more, accurately, I) refuse to match our actions with what we furiously believe. I believe we have overpopulated the world and that the world would be better off without humans; I have two children. I recognize our dependence on foreign oil, and though I drive a Prius, I drive it all over town, day after day. I believe in living simply; I am an avid consumer.

Human righteousness and exceptionalism awe me, the way we often forget we belong to the animal kingdom, that we begin to believe we have transcended it, that simply being human is virtuous.
On a day-to-day basis, I am inspired by proximity to the natural world, by women making non-traditional choices about how they live their lives, by hope and failure.

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
I’ve always been afraid to call myself a writer, to put my work out in public. But I realized that I had so many friends in garage bands, and that I loved hearing them play, and they loved playing. So, in my mind, I was a garage-band-writer. I decided I would write and talk openly about it, I would work constantly at getting better, and that I would be okay if only a limited number of people took pleasure in my work. And then I would let myself dream about “making it.”

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
So many of them! A matricidal teenager; a hypermuscular female bodybuilder hellbent on revenge; a topless, feminist scooter gang intent on desexualizing the breast. A re-imagining of the last days of the last Carolina Parakeets in captivity—from their perspective. There may have been a talking swamp. Here’s hoping no drafts exist.

Manual labor
Where do you do most of your work? 
An old veterinary clinic on my property in Vermont, lined with ’70s veterinary manuals about chinchillas and goat husbandry. There are lots of spiders.

What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
From writer-teachers I had:
•  Amy Hempel—How to love the sound of sentences, make every word count, and write about what matters to you.
•  Bret Anthony Johnston—How to write the poetry of an ending.
•  Nick Montemarano—How to read voraciously while writing; ruthless self-editing.
•  George Singleton—How to be generous toward other writers and honor the complexity of the South.

From reading:
•  Beryl Markham—How to write stories about women that aren’t Rom-Coms, but feature intelligent, physically-active female protagonists.
•  Allan Gurganus—Everything he says here in this interview with Iowa Writers Workshop, particularly about putting texture on the page, and the need to stop being so puritanical about beauty.

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written?
“The Bear,” by William Faulkner, which is a perfect story/novella/chapter from Go Down, Moses. It’s sublime, organic, compelling, and character-driven while still at home in the natural world.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Lucia Perillo on the Poetry of Raymond Carver's Prose

In the 14th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Lucia Perillo, author of Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain (W. W. Norton), talks about what we talk about when we talk about Raymond Carver.

In my morning procrastination ritual the other day, as I put off working for yet another hour, I pulled down my Library of America
edition of the short stories of Raymond Carver, the black book with a stern blue ribbon to mark the reader’s place. In poking through the stories, I was reminded of how much I liked them, and I started thinking about why.

They are memorable, of course—like Flannery O’Connor’s stories, you notice that they fall easily into that “and then there’s the one about” mental retrieval system: the guy who smokes pot with the blind man, the fishermen who find the dead girl in the river. Flipping through the book, what struck me was how plain the exposition is, to the point of being almost banal. Why then do these stories lodge like thorns in the brain? 

Raymond Carver: A towering presence at Syracuse
In 1984, I went to Syracuse University (only because it was the only graduate school that accepted me) where Carver happened to be a towering and nearly silent presence in the English Department. I went as a poet and crossed paths with the great writer only occasionally, as he spent his time working in a house with a sign on the porch that turned visitors away. At that time he was trying to extricate himself from teaching but still he took over our poetry workshop whenever our professor was gone. People forget that the volume of his collected poems weighs about as much as his collected stories, and that he pursued both forms with equal diligence.

Carver’s being a poet gave him a facility with the metrical construction of his prose, and this is why, I think, the simple dialogue invades the mind with such force. Take these lines from “Why Don’t You Dance” (the one about the man who puts his furniture out on the lawn):

     The man came down the sidewalk with a sack from the market. He had sandwiches, beer, whiskey. He saw the car in the driveway and the girl on the bed. He saw the television going and the boy on the porch.
    “Hello,” the man said to the girl. “You found the bed. That’s good.”
    “Hello,” the girl said, and got up. “I was just trying it out.” She patted the bed. “It’s a pretty good bed.”
    “It’s a good bed,” the man said, and put down the sack and the whiskey.

The poet Carver surely planted the metrical firecrackers in this passage. There’s all the matched constructions (I’ll put what I hear as the accented syllables in capital letters): CAME down the SIDEwalk/SACK from the MARKet; CAR in the DRIVEway/GIRL on the BED.  There’s the two-beat phase, or spondee: THAT’S GOOD.  The phrase PRETty good BED becomes, in the man’s reiteration, another spondee:  It’s a GOOD BED.  And the spondee falls like a rock into the story’s pond.

This is why, throughout his oeuvre, the dialogue strikes us as so crisp, though it is forged from the simplest words. Carver’s sentences make use of a full metrical toolbox: inversion, repetition, and what Gerard Manley Hopkins called “sprung rhythm”—that is, the inclusion of more accented syllables than are naturally found in the language, in order to heighten the ordinary. And to control, through the writer’s eyes and tongue, our processing of it.

My favorite dialogue-exchange in the body of Carver’s work occurs not in a story but in the poem “What the Doctor Said.” It’s a hilarious piece, built mostly from dialogue, about a doctor’s telling a man that he’s dying of lung cancer. I’ll quote just the end, which is famous among Carverites:

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

The way I read that final line, it’s regular iambic, dah-DUM dah-DUM for five beats, and then a final spondee, SO STRONG (DUM-DUM).

With that double accent, the reader feels a little outrush of breath that can be painful, or audible, or both. When there’s a roomful of listeners you can even hear them going awhhh.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jen McConnell's Open, Unguarded Moments

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jen McConnell, author of Welcome, Anybody (Press 53), discusses ideas that trigger stories, the rare ones that have come easily, and those she more typically struggles with.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
Ideas come to me all the time. Too often sometimes. Once in a while they lead somewhere, end up somehow in a story. Most often though, I think, “Oh that would make a good story,” only to realize that there isn’t anything beyond that first thought.

I work full-time, I have kids. When I am focused on those, I am locked in. It’s the moments away – walking the dog by myself, in the shower, driving long distances listening to music, overhearing a conversation at the grocery store when I’m zoning out in the checkout line. Those occur when my mind is relaxed enough to let the synapses fire randomly (that’s what I imagine happening). And it is these open, unguarded moments when I’m most receptive to the ideas floating around. 

Often it’s a turn of phrase that starts the idea rolling. I’m working on a story now called “The Catastrophist,” which is a term a friend off-handedly called his grandmother. I love that phrase. And it was perfect for a story idea I’d had early after hearing a conversation on a street. All I heard was one guy say to the other, “it was a normal, awkward dinner party,” and that was all I needed. 

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
Thirty minutes. I didn't even know the story was brewing inside me, but I had spent a few days with a friend, and during the drive home the complete story came to the surface. 

I pulled over into a gas station along I-90 by Lake Erie. I pulled out my journal (with me at all times) and wrote the story from start to finish. Granted, it's a very short story, for me anyway. About 1,000 words. After it was published, I looked back at my journal and it's amazing to see how little changed from the first draft to the final. 

This has happened a few times, but that was the shortest. I wrote another story during a plane flight from east to west coast. That too had very few changes from the initial draft to the published piece. This is certainly a rare occurrence and I am grateful when it happens! It makes up for the majority of stories that I sweat and struggle over. 

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story? 
Years. My usual way of writing is to write the first draft and then revise and revise, then put it away for a while. Weeks. Months. Then when I look at it again, it either works—with a bit more revisionor it doesn't. If it doesn't, but I think there is something there not to give up on, I will rewrite the whole story. I've rewritten a story from third to first person (and vice versa), from a different character's point of view, from a different starting point. I even rewrote a 4,000 word short story into a poem. It isn't very good. 

Usually when I rewrite so much, I've lost the story I was originally trying to tell. So I try to get back to that original essence. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. I just let those ones go and chalk it up to improving my craft, not a waste of effort.  

What writer or writers have you learned the most from? 
Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, Julie Orringer, T.C. Boyle, Junoz Diaz, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Haruki Murakami. Their stories are all so alive in so many different ways. From all of these I have learned most about form. I can't learn voice or tone or stories from other writers, but I am able to look at how each of these amazing writers form their scenes, paragraphs, and sentences. How they weave a seamless plot, or write dialogue, or structure their sentences to tell the story in a way that best serves the story in a seemingly effortless way.  

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written? 
For a long time it was "Bigfoot Stole My Wife / I am Bigfoot" by Ron Carlson. This is just a perfect story. For the last year or so though, it has been "Donkey Get Greedy, Donkey Get Punched," by Steve Almond. It's a masterpiece.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Robley Wilson on Overcoming Praise

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Robley Wilson, author of Who Will Hear Your Secrets? (Johns Hopkins University Press), discusses inevitability, procrastination, Russian writers, and some of his favorite stories.

What made you want to become a writer?
I wonder if it wasn’t something like inevitability. My mother, who had only a high-school education, wrote a little poetry—actually, a lot of poetry, as I discovered after she died—and she encouraged everything I did with words. Writing seemed to come more easily to me than it did to my school friends, and my teachers probably over-praised me when I was in my teens. Too much praise isn’t a good thing, and it was years and years before I admitted to myself that I wasn’t such hot stuff.

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them? 
The worst obstacles are my own laziness and a serious habit of procrastination. 

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story? 
Everybody has a story or two they wrote in an afternoon, or dashed off overnight, or transcribed in the morning after dreaming it. My story “Terrible Kisses” was one of those.

What's the longest time it has taken you to write a story? 
Twenty years. I started “Crooked” in 1991, then came back to it every five years or so until it seemed complete. But even now, it’s unfinished; it wants to be a novel.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you, what were the circumstances?
A student once told me about a dream she’d had. She was sitting in a darkened movie theater, and when the lights came up at the end of the film she discovered an apple was in the seat next to her. In the dream, she thought: “How am I going to explain this apple to my mother?” She gave me permission to use her dream, and it became a story called “The Apple,” about the relationship between a neurotic woman and a real apple. 

What writer or writers have you learned the most from? 
We’ve all learned from the Russians, whether we know it or not, especially Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Maybe a little Pushkin. For me, the strongest American teachers have been Hawthorne and Henry James. Maybe a bit of Salinger.

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written?
I don't envy any other writer’s work in that way; it’s hard enough to write my own stories. But there are stories I admire excessively: Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover,” Andre Dubus’s “The Father,” William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force,” to name a few.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Jennifer Spiegel's Three Worst Stories—So Far

In the eleventh in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc Books) confesses to some failed efforts.

Oh, I’ve written a lot of bad stuff. Some was bad because I was too close to the material, failing to let the “trigger” or subject matter marinate or ferment: not enough psychic distance. Some was lousy because it was inauthentic: I didn’t know what I was talking about. Some sucked because I didn’t care. Playful prose, no passion. 

Here are my Top Three Narrative Calamities:

1.  We don’t like to talk about this in my family. We’re pretty embarrassed. Surely, it says something about us as people. Surely, there must be criminality in our genes. Surely, we must beat the children or embezzle funds or, minimally, drink. I’m talking about the time our beloved yellow Lab bit the head off a Siamese-mix kitten, her body left limp—cast off to the side, if you must know. Even as I wrote those words, I moaned aloud—the memory too gruesome and too heartbreaking to type my way through.

I was still living at home. We had just gotten a kitten: a fluffy little kitten we promptly named Sophie. For one day, Sophie was a star. She was adorable, clamoring around the velvet recliner, purring and frolicking like a bunny, an angel. Even Hemingway, our gentle giant pup, thought her special.

But then the dawn: Sophie innocently, dumbly, pitter-pattered over to Hemingway’s dog chow on the kitchen floor and sniffed it out. Hemingway, animal that he was (may he rest in peace), didn’t hesitate. With unanticipated fury, he growled, he snapped his jaw, and he bit her head off.

It wasn’t quite this way. The head was still attached. Pandemonium truly did ensue. My mother shrieked. My father picked up the broken body and Sophie, dying, defecated. I was the one appointed to drive to the animal hospital with my mom holding the ruined kitten in a towel. My mom wept the whole way. The beautiful, beautiful kitten would be put out of her misery when we arrived. The spasms would cease.

And Hemingway remained. For maybe nine more years. There were other cats. They all lived. He liked them, actually. At first, we struggled. Especially my dad. What were we to think of this dog, this monster, this cat killer? How were we to make sense of his snap dog-decision, that resort to sudden bloody violence? How could he still be our sweet pup? Should we get rid of him?

We kept Hemmy Bemmy Man, and—later that day—I knew I had to use this violence of Flannery O’Connor proportion and turn it into a stunning metaphor for beauty, innocence, and pain.  I wrote and wrote, incorporating it into a story about a woman with inoperable cancer.

All you need to know is this: It sucked.

Why? Psychic distance. Not only do I need a measure of objectivity, I also need that lapse in time in order to be free from what actually happened. I’m only able to manipulate and shape details—for a better aesthetic purpose—when time has passed.

Something missing
2.  “Following the Dead” was going to be about the Grateful Dead because my mom’s cousin, who I knew remotely but fondly, was a Dead Head at one time—and I had this strange, lurid obsession with groupies, which might be similar to my contemporary strange, lurid obsession with Renaissance Festivals. The whole thing sounded utterly fascinating. I started smoking a pipe, I put on my thinking cap, and I came up with a Grateful Dead scenario. That band name! Following around the Grateful Dead! Talk about another metaphor!

One problem: I never listened to them. I didn’t even really like them. They seemed a little smelly. I kinda liked my boys pretty. But then the coup d’état: someone let on that Jerry was missing a finger. I never knew! I had no freakin’ clue!

I abandoned ship. Obviously, my story would lack authenticity.

What writerly virtue do I prize most? Authenticity. It isn’t that I have to live it physically, but I need to grasp that world spiritually and mentally. If I don’t know about Jerry Garcia’s missing finger, I’m not fit for this story.

3.  “Scallop.” I called my fictional town Scallop. I think it was in Upstate New York. This was an assignment by a licensed counselor. Because I was in therapy. Yeah, I’m admitting that. I had been in this near-fatal car accident, which I never like to talk about, and I hated it. I said a lot of B.S. stuff. When she asked me to write her a story since I liked to write stories, I assumed she was patronizing me—but, hey, I thought, I’ll blow her @#%*ing mind with my literary awesomeness!

Friday night in Scallop
I don’t need therapy! I’m a badass writer!

What happened in the story? I don’t even remember. Something—no doubt—about a vivacious, badass woman ending up in a small town called Scallop, where they square-danced on Friday nights and preserved fruit and sh#t. I remember how the poor therapist said, “I don’t know what it means, but I know I like it.” Patronizing! I flew out of there, and burned “Scallop.”

The problem: the machinations of craft are necessary but not sufficient for literary awesomeness. The spark, the passion, the talent, the divine grace: If it’s not there, the story is D.O.A.

I have plenty more narrative disasters, but I’ll hold back.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Stephanie Reents' Bad Cat Stories

In the tenth in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stephanie Reents, author of This Kissing List (Hogarth Press), discusses her (so far) futile efforts at writing a story about cats.

For many years (I should be specific here – at least ten) I have been trying to write a story about cats. This is one of the worst ideas I have ever pursued, and yet, because I have been blessed with some exceptional cats as companions (Luke, Tasha, Snowball, Clementine, Delancey, Dakota, and now Lenny), I haven’t stopped trying.

Haruki Murakami is also one of my favorite writers, and he’s brilliant when it comes to cats. One of his characters reads the minds of cats; another harvests their souls (see Kafka on the Shore). The first section in The Wind-up Bird Chronicles seems to turn on a single question: What happened to the narrator’s cat?  (Never mind the nameless woman who keeps calling and trying to entice the narrator into having phone sex as he cooks spaghetti or listens to opera.)

I started my first cat story (“Cats I Have Known”) just before I began a fellowship at Stanford. I remember sitting in my new apartment, scrawling page after page about cats. The story had no purpose, but I imagined that its wandering pointlessness might seem avant-garde or at least charming. Alas. Perhaps I invested days in this story because I missed my own cat, Dakota, whom I’d shipped off to my parents because of the difficulty of finding a pet-friendly share. In graduate school, I’d written a poem about Dakota. It was about how cats were like children, beloved, spoiled, and anthropomorphized until children came along, and then cats were cats, banished back into felinehood.

Unfortunately, the poem reminded the professor of a cat he’d had in graduate school. “Eloise was in heat,” he began. He was the kind of poetry professor who liked to tell stories from his personal life only tangentially related to class. They were often about sex. “Yowled all day and night,” he continued.  “She was an indoor cat, you know, so I decided to give Eloise a little relief. I took her into my office and masturbated her with the eraser end of a pencil. From then on, we couldn’t be in the same room.”

This should have taught me that writing about cats can be risky, and yet I tried again several years later.  My next feline fiction (“Lying With Cats”) dealt with a recovering alcoholic who discovers a van full of cats parked in New York City’s Chinatown. The cats’ owner—a slightly deranged man who steals cats from suburban neighborhoods—convinces the narrator that she might be cured of her addictions if she takes the cats (much like taking the waters) and crawls into the back of the van with them. Sadly, the cats just pounce on her, scratching and biting her, and she realizes that the only person who can save her is, of course, herself.

The last cat story I attempted (“Ghost Cat, Real Mice”) chronicled a woman’s life through her cat’s misadventures. On the final page, after the cat gets hit by a car and dies and mice invade the woman’s apartment, the woman dreams the cat comes back, but as a ghost: “A ghost cat chasing real mice.  Remembering the dream the next morning, she laughs – since dreams usually create the illusion of return, and her dream has only reaffirmed the cat’s permanent departure. It is strange, though: From this day on, the mice are gone, too.” I wanted to include it in my collection, The Kissing List, but my editor ixnayed the idea. (“Maybe it’s because I’m more of a dog person,” she said kindly.)  My writing group suggested that the piece would be improved by narrating it from the animal’s perspective.

Why do I keep trying to write about cats? Is it because I am a crazy cat lady? (I have always limited myself to just one whiskered creature at a time.) My last cat, Dakota, was important to me. She moved with me from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Tucson, from San Francisco to Lancaster, PA. She survived pit bull attacks, cross country drives, airplane trips, and my own youthful recklessness. She was an excellent companion, and one of the most consistent things during my itinerant 20s and 30s.   Maybe I keep writing cat stories to try to convey how important animals can be.

It’s also the job of writers, I think, to take improbable, tired, or even just plain old atrociously bad ideas and try to make them work—to write surprisingly moving fiction about subjects, people, ideas, and even little animals that most of us breeze by (or find distasteful or try to avoid, etc., etc.) in real life. And though I haven’t succeeded yet, this is why I still have my claws in cat tales.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Alix Ohlin Gathers Wool

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alix Ohlin, author of Signs and Wonders (Vintage), reveals the source of one of her stories and expresses her preference for working anywhere but at a desk.

What made you want to become a writer?

I never really wanted to be anything else. I grew up reading, and the world of books was always where I felt the most at home, so it made sense that I’d try to find my own place there. 

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
My biggest obstacle is always self-doubt, the voice in my head saying this is no good. The only way I’ve found to overcome it is to write a lot and often. It seems to take the pressure off—if what I write today is not good, then I know there’s always tomorrow, and the day after that.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
A day. A couple of my stories (like “Simple Exercises for the Beginning Student,” from my first collection) have appeared complete in my head, and it felt like all I had to do was write them down.  I hasten to add that this doesn’t happen very often.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
Ten years. I wrote a draft of my story “Edgewater” and set it aside, then came back to it a decade later and tried again.

It's a long story...
If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
I usually hate it when somebody says to me “this would make a great story!” I just automatically rebel against being told what to do. But one day I was getting my hair cut and the hairdresser started telling me this long story about one of his other clients, a woman who was just about to divorce her husband when he became extremely ill, so she had to stick around and take care of him. And the whole experience, though it was tragic, made her happier in the end. It was an elaborate, twisty story—my hairdresser is a long-winded man with a real talent for anecdote—and very dramatic and moving. At one point we were both choked up. I changed the details, but the overall arc became the title story of Signs and Wonders. So be careful what you tell your hairdressers. They may not keep it to themselves.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
It’s hard to pick just one, as so many of them are terrible. I’d say my worst ideas tend to be stories that are meant to be written by other writers and aren’t moldable to my voice or strengths. This year I tried to write a story inspired by Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, because I love that book, but what’s lyrical and mysterious in his prose became muddied and pretentious in mine.

Where do you do most of your work?  
I hate desks. I write on the couch or in bed or very occasionally at the dining room table. I get a lot of ideas when I’m not at a workspace (i.e., in the shower, on a plane), and I like to let them live in my head for a while before I write them down. I once read an interview with Alice Munro in which she talked about idleness and woolgathering—sitting around the house in her robe and slippers—as a crucial component of her work. I’ve taken this to heart, perhaps excessively so.

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written?
Probably Jean Stafford’s “Children Are Bored on Sunday,” which I have read a thousand times. It’s about a woman named Emma whose life in New York has gone seriously awry. She goes to the Metropolitan Museum and forges a tentative, alcoholic alliance with an acquaintance named Alfred Eisenburg, who’s also a mess. The story is so acutely observed, pitiless and yet heartbreaking. In particular there is this sentence toward the end: “To her own heart, which was shaped exactly like a valentine, there came a wing-like palpitation, a delicate exigency.” I’ve puzzled and marveled over that sentence for years. The words sound uplifting, but they come at a moment of downfall for the character.  And I love that her heart is shaped exactly like a valentine, which is both funny and sad. The whole sentence is complicated and mysterious and beautiful—everything I aspire to in writing.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Johanna Skibsrud's Simple Requirements

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Johanna Skibsrud, author of This Will Be Difficult to Explain (W.W. Norton), discusses origins, inspiration, ideas, and obstacles.

What made you want to become a writer? 
Being read to as a child. I became aware very early on, thanks to my mother, of the infinite—and very real—possibilities that fiction offered. Later, when I started to write poems and stories of my own—and again, due to the sympathy and support offered by my parents and teachers—I had the privilege of feeling that my attempts were worthwhile. That my writing communicated something beyond the simple arrangement of the words on the page. Just the hint of that possibility—and its reward—was enough encouragement for me to keep on trying.

What writer or writers have you learned the most from? 
In order of appearance (in my life): Virginia Woolf, Knut Hamsun, Vladimir Nabokov, Carson McCullers. These writers have acted not so much as influences but as revelations. Each of them opened up for me, at different stages of my own development, whole new realms of possibility for writing.

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written?   
“The Track Meet” by Delmore Schwartz.

Where do you do most of your work? 
We’re moving next month so I’ll have a brand new room to write in soon. It’s at the back of the house, with a big window that looks out onto a small cactus garden. Where I write is very important to me, and it was a big consideration when we were looking for a new place to live. But really, my requirements are fairly simple. Natural light and a door that closes.

Where do you find inspiration?
I think inspiration comes from combining the simplest and most particular details of everyday life with bigger questions about the world, and our place within it. For me, an idea strikes when for whatever combination of reasons a certain concrete moment in a life or a relationship seems, suddenly, to be asking one of those big questions.  Then—even if very briefly—offering some suggestion of reply.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
Sometimes two or three in a day, one after another. Other times, whole months will go by without a single idea. That’s usually because I’m working on something else: poetry, or a novel. If I turn my attention back to the short story form—either through reading, or through my own efforts—the ideas come back, too. They’re everywhere. It’s just a matter of noticing them.

A Lofty Accomplishment
If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
When I was nine years old my sister—two years older—suggested that a good story would be about Siamese twins who have to undergo a separation operation. I wrote that story and entered it into a National short story competition for kids where it won first place. It was later published in book form and tucked into the seat pockets of Air Canada flights—my first published story.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
Approximately 9 hours.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
Approximately 9 years.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
I don’t think I’ll tell you, because I keep thinking about it and am not totally convinced that—if I come up with the right way to do it—it might not also be my best. 

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
Knowing where a story ends. The struggle for me is to find the balance between the initial impulse with which a story began and a potentially endless revision process.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

K.R. Sands on Breaking Free of the Emotionally Controlled Voice

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, K.R. Sands, author of Boy of Bone (Siman Media Works) discusses getting a late start as a fiction writer.

When people ask why I waited until I was nearly sixty years old to begin writing fiction, I usually flip back “If it was good enough for Daniel Defoe, it’s good enough for me.” Defoe, like me, spent his middle years writing nonfiction, although I freely admit that his pamphlet “The Shortest Way with the Dissenters” is a lot funnier than my scholarly articles. Defoe, like me, was nearly sixty when he began publishing fiction: first Robinson Crusoe (not a bad start!), followed by eight more novels within the next five years.

I’m not sure what possessed Defoe to switch from nonfiction to fiction. But I do know what possessed me to do it: I was incredibly tired of the emotionally controlled nonfiction voice. I had taught university writing courses for nearly four decades. Regardless of the name of the course (composition, expository writing, technical writing, business writing, whatever), the voice I taught my students to write was always the same: calm, logical, open-minded, authoritative, mature, blah, blah. And of course I wrote in the same voice for my own nonfiction projects. This voice was particularly important for my two history books on demon possession in Elizabethan England because many people were so suspicious of the subject (“Do you really believe in demons?”) that they doubted my authority before they even cracked open the books. (My answer to that question was “If I wrote a biography of Napoleon, would you ask me if I was really an imperialist?”)

Between the teaching and the writing, I got very good at the calm, logical, open-minded, authoritative, mature voice. I could whip out whole paragraphs of it in mere minutes. I could knock off a chapter of it during my lunch break. In the tub. During commercials. Waiting at red lights. In my sleep. (Truly—at least twice that I can remember!)

I never consciously thought about getting away from this voice. I’d written it forever, earning paychecks and prizes along the way. It was just the thing I did. But then something terrible happened: My wonderful brother John was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I’d seen cancer deaths before, and I knew it was all down to waiting. But I didn’t feel I could stand the wait for this one—and I didn’t see how I could help John stand it. I rocked in a dark corner for a few weeks. My daily talks with him ran along the lines of “How are you feeling today?” and “Any news?” and other unhelpful bromides. The talks were excruciating for both of us.

Then I spotted an ad for a continuing education course in writing short fiction, and things began to happen very fast. I took the course, turned out to have a knack, hired the teacher as my writing coach, published a bunch of stories in magazines, and said yes when a publisher offered to make a collection out of them. This was all well and good, but the biggest benefit was that my brother and I had something else to talk about for his final nine months: fiction. We read and discussed stories by Max Apple and Aimee Bender. John made suggestions for improvements to my draft stories. We talked about the handouts for my course. Our daily conversations improved a thousand percent.
It was only after John’s death that I realized why I had glommed on to writing fiction so desperately: because I didn’t have to use that damned emotionally controlled voice! Instead, I wrote voices for a young woman who doubts the value of her work in a vivisection lab . . . for a mixed-race boy struggling with his prejudice against a Native American man . . . for a doctor overwhelmed with erotic love for a medical device . . . for a Civil War surgeon hiding the identity of a female soldier . . . for a tired Marie Curie as she smokes a cigarette with Marcel Duchamp. These voices were anxious, angry, heartbroken, frustrated, self-deluded, manipulative—and they sounded far more believable to me than the nonfiction voice I’d been writing for decades.

So I finally understand the art-as-therapy-for-grief idea. Maybe Defoe’s switch from nonfiction to fiction had something to do with his huge debt load, his nasty stint in the pillory, and his imprisonment. I hope the switch worked for him. It seems to be working for me.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Andrew Malan Milward's Lightning-Strike Moment

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Andrew Malan Milward, author of The Agriculture Hall of Fame (University of Massachusetts Press) tells how he fell out of love with basketball and in love with writing fiction.

I never wrote fiction in high school. I read a bit—Beats mostly—and composed my share of angsty teen poems and songs, most of which began something along the lines of: “My heart, wrapped in barbed wire, wants only to love.” But mostly I was concerned with playing basketball, which was what I went to college to do. I was a pretty unremarkable student—and an absolutely horrific test taker—and despite my interest in English I didn’t place out of the remedial Comp class.

So there I was my freshman year, slogging through Comp with the rest of the academic preterite, when a strange thing happened. Through a mix-up at the registrar I found myself in a senior-level Post-Vietnam fiction class. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I’d never read much contemporary literature in high school and as a result I’d formed the bizarrely elitist opinion that anything good had to be old. I practically wore a monocle. (I was the absolute weirdo on the team bus, reading Kafka as my teammates blasted Tupac over the speakers, trying to get fired up for the game—I was kind of a team novelty). You can imagine what a barrel of laughs I was to hang out with. Anyway, it was in this class, that I never should have been in, that I was first exposed to writers like Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Joyce Carol Oates, and Andre Dubus. It’s inadequate to say the experience was revelatory. It was a lightning-strike/knock-me-on-my-ass kind of moment where I knew exactly what I wanted to do with a clarity that was kind of frightening.

The professor was an old baller—he’d grown up in NYC, had played against Lew Alcindor and Jim Carroll—and perhaps because of this he tolerated me. I began to seek him out after class, in office hours, and by appointment, and we’d talk about basketball and literature. Finally I worked up the nerve to ask him if he’d mind reading something I’d written and to my surprise he agreed. So began the period when I’d show up with a few pages of O’Brien rip-off and he’d read it thoughtfully, critique it, and somehow summon the grace to encourage me to keep at it. It was an amazing act of generosity and I don’t know if I’d be a writer today if he’d said what would have been most convenient for him: “I’m busy, kid—aren’t you late for practice?”

This coincided, or more likely precipitated, the period when I was falling out of love with basketball. I was burned out, spent, tired of having every minute of every day, in season or not, planned by assistant coaches. And there was writing and reading. So I quit the team right before the start of my sophomore season and got to experience college like a normal student. I remember leaving class one day and being amazed that I didn’t have to run off to workout or to a team meeting. I could just go home. What a strange feeling that was. I responded to this newfound freedom by smoking a massive amount of pot, during which time I mostly thought about all the great things I’d write while I was high, but when that grew tiresome I actually did begin to write. I transferred schools and was fortunate to have more teachers who read my crappy stories and told me to keep at it. And so I do.