Thursday, November 29, 2012

Mark Brazaitis on Influences, Conscious and Not

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Mark Brazaitis, author of The Incurables (University of Notre Dame Press), discusses the influences he—and others—have seen in his work.

I have never been good at detecting the influences on my writing. It’s not that I don’t accept that I have been influenced by other writers; it’s that I can’t recognize where and how I’ve been influenced.

Sometimes I feel like my older daughter did when she was three years old and went Trick-or-Treating as an apple. Upon opening their doors, people cooed, “What a cute tomato!”

“I am not a tomato!” she insisted.

I would like to think my writing is always dressed up to look like Mark Brazaitis (earthy if elegant, accessible if subtle). But sometimes I notice when I’ve put on another author’s gloves or scarf or basketball shoes. Or I think I do.

After reading my short story “Gemelas,” about Guatemalan twin girls and the parallel lives they live even after one of them dies, the poet Gillian Conoley said to me, “I detect a Kafka influence.” This stunned me. (I am not a tomato!) If anything, I was sure that in “Gemelas” I was guilty of swiping Gabriel García Márquez’s guayabera and Panama hat.

But without knowing my reading history, Gillian had discerned one of my favorite writers, someone I read obsessively when I was younger and still read (and teach) today. If I had been asked to list the authors who influenced “Gemelas,” however, Franz Kafka wouldn’t have appeared in my top 100. In retrospect, however, he should have been in my top five. (The story is dark, labyrinthine, fatalistic—Pandora would have nailed the influence instantly.) As for García Márquez, as much as I love him, the most “Gemelas” has in common with his great work is a Latin American setting.

A decade ago at the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, I read the opening of my novella “Bathwater.” A member of the audience approached me afterwards to say, “I heard an Edgar Allan Poe riff, a ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ vibe, in your story.” Like Poe’s narrator, I thought, you’re out of your mind. But when I reread “The Tell-Tale Heart” the next day, I nodded at its rhythmic similarities to passages in my novella. Prior to this, it had been years since I’d read Poe’s story, but his mad narrator evidently had been camping in my brain, waiting his chance to whisper into my words.

Reviewers of my books have been remarkably accurate in pinpointing my literary lineage. I was sure one reviewer missed the mark, however, when he detected a Raymond Chandler sway over my prose. Then I remembered the hard-boiled summer between my junior and senior years in college when I said hello to Farewell, My Lovely and every other Chandler novel I could find.

I could guess the literary influences behind the ten stories in The Incurables. Kafka might be on the scene of “The Bridge,” observing its mysterious, unnerving suicide epidemic. Jane Austen might have touched “This Man, This Woman, This Child, This Town” with her sense of courtship’s comic awkwardness, although by its end, she surely has given way to Richard Wright or Toni Morrison or William Faulkner. There’s a little of John Updike’s frankness about sex in the title story, but its ending jumps off the page and onto the screen. It’s Vertigo’s finale rewritten! Maybe!

I can state this with certainty: The biggest influence on my fiction is my life. In the case of The Incurables, I wish it were otherwise. The protagonists in my collection contend with mental illness—its humiliations, its paralyzing power, its rare moments of levity—as I have. In this, I—we—are not alone. In any given year, 14.8 million adults, or 6.7 percent of the U.S. population 18 and over, suffer from major depressive disorder. Other millions endure a range of mental illnesses, from bipolar disorder to schizophrenia. Ninety percent of people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness.

If I didn’t know mental illness up close and personal, I never would have written The Incurables; I certainly wouldn’t have felt free to write the stories the way I did, in equal portions of black humor and sympathy. If William Styron and Kay Redfield Jamison, the authors of extraordinary memoirs about their experiences with, respectively, clinical depression and bipolar disorder, provided me in their work the courage to write honestly and unsentimentally about mental illness, Nikolai Gogol and Samuel Beckett and Lorrie Moore gave me permission to use comedy to explore dark subjects.

Did the above authors actually influence the stories in The Incurables?

Your guess is as good as—no, it’s better than—mine.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Junot Díaz on the Importance of Silence in Fiction

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Junot Diaz, author of This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead Books), speaks about what isn't there.

© Nina Subin  
I've always been interested in how you write silences. How do you include or mark in a piece of fiction what isn’t said between the characters, the narrative that is missing even from the characters’ perceptions of the world. How do you as a storyteller account for traces of the erased, the denied or that flat out vanished? These are concerns that sit with me always when I write stories. I often begin my stories by first sketching their primal silence and then elaborating the story around that silence. Sometimes what's missing is pretty obvious to the reader: a character or a place that’s disappeared and that the characters do not wish to confront. But other times it’s far more cryptic, a silence that I keep to myself but whose resonances power the prose, work like a dark energy on the matter of the prose.

Haruki Murakami’s novels are rich with silences. So are the early Morrison books. And of course Cormac McCarthy leaves out a whole lot more than he puts in. (See Blood Meridian for a masterwork in lacuna studies.) If you haven’t read Terrence Holt’s In the Valley of the Kings please rush to do so. Another great master of elision; the collection's title story is a seminar on narrative gaps. Rushdie on the other hand is one of my favorite writers in the world, but he’s not all that awesome at silences. Or if he is I haven’t noticed; my failure. 

In my novel Oscar Wao the silences are many and intentionally so. The book is organized around various unrecoverable absences. One of the most obvious is of course Oscar de León himself. Some readers might not notice that for all of Oscar’s “presence” in the book he is never actually present. We always receive him through the mediation of the narrator, Yunior. We never hear directly from him, which is odd, no, consdering that he is a writer after all. All of Yunior’s narrative muscles hide the fact that Oscar is not there at all. And when one discovers that one should always ask: why? 

Then there’s the silence at the heart of Yunior’s character—he is the protagonist of sorts of all three of my books—a silence which defines so much of what he is and what he bears witness to and why he connects with the women and people that he connects with. A silence he has yet to confront. 

We live in a culture whose expression baseline is the over-confessional mode. The compulsive over-confessional mode. We’ve all gotten so damn loud and you don’t need David Foster Wallace to tell you that. At times it feels like too much information is no longer an exception but the order of the day. One of my favorite stories in the world is an Octavia Butler tale where the narrator suffers from a malady that in its final stages compels its victims to tear themselves apart; when the disease takes over they start digging into their flesh with their own fingers, tearing themselves open as if to get at something. When I think of how compulsive many people in our culture are with their over-sharing, that story is never far. At a cultural level we’re that story’s children, suffer the same malady, tearing ourselves open for others' delectation or just because we’ve been told that’s the best way to get attention. I’m sure there are plenty of other reasons, but in such a climate silence for many people is not even a possible strategy; for me it is the substance out of which I carve my narratives. I often fragment my books because in the game of articulating the narrative pieces a reader can begin to suss out through that deliberative process what is missing; they begin to slowly form a picture of the book’s absences. This for me is one of my secret joys: I read for the silences. Or to put it more ridiculously: I may come for the story but I stay for the silences. 

Friday, November 23, 2012

Kurt Rheinheimer's Side of the Mountain

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Kurt Rheinheimer, author of Finding Grace (Press 53), tells how a sense of place has always been essential to his work.

The thing that made me become a writer has remained the primary source of inspiration for stories ever since.

This was tenth grade, and the assignment when we returned to school was the classic “what I did on my summer vacation.”

I liked the teacher, but I didn't really have much to tell about my summer vacation. Except this one thing, from when my friend Dave got to go with us on a camping trip. The camping trip itself—with my mother and brothers and sister along—wasn't all that much to write about, I didn't think, but I kept thinking about this one place Dave and I went one evening after supper: up the side of the mountain a ways, where there didn't seem to be a real trail and while the sun was going down pretty fast, on the other side of the mountain. It got a little spooky after a time, and after a little more time, as darkness gathered, it got scary enough that Dave and I decided we were lost. This even though we knew that once we walked back downhill on the mountainside, things would become clear again and we would find the big, lighted campground. 

But for a little while, as we shared the candy Dave had brought along, we pretended the place had swallowed us up and we were lost. 

A real Life Saver™
The paper I turned in after that summer was called “The Day My Life Was Actually Saved by a Life Saver.” It was kind of a wiseguy piece, as I remember. And I remember being very pleased as I wrote it—feeling real excitement over what I was pretty much making up. 

When I got the paper back, I felt even better. Mrs. Davies gave me an F. I was an honor-roll, mostly-A’s, dorky of guy, but also had the wiseguy aspect going, and so I was pleased as I could be with the totally flunking grade. I took it home and bragged about it. Well, I was also pleased with what she had written below the F. Something to the effect that this is very good, Kurt, and it made me laugh, but you did not follow the assignment, and so you get the F. 

It was that excitement—getting a strongly positive reaction and also an F for something I had written—that made me think I could be a writer. Not that I knew then that I wanted to. But that maybe I could. And get that sort of jittery feeling again while I was writing something down. And then maybe have somebody read it and say stuff to me about it the way Mrs. Davies had about the Life Saver piece. 

And so it has gone for more decades than I care to talk about: Find a place, Kurt, that gives you some kind of emotional reaction, and you have a chance—not a sure thing by any means, but a chance—to write something other people will read and react to. 

Of course it took at least one of those decades to realize that most of the stories that worked for me—that got completed, got submitted, got accepted and published—nearly always began with the description of a place. And that the most pleasing of those—those that maybe won a prize or got republished in an anthology or collection—then had a character walk into that place and somehow, through the unfolding of the story, came to somehow embody that place. 

I think the oh-so-threatened boys on the mountainside were the first ones. 

Over the years, the two strongest veins for such place/character lucky days have been the place where I grew up and other places out on the land that I knew as a young person and saw again later in drastically altered states. 

The little peninsula where I grew up presents image after image of things like the cove, the ballfield, the Seamaster aircraft, the woods; and with so many of those images, there is an emotion that comes from within the twelve-year-old boy who loved them, an emotion that can lead to a story. Sometimes he walks into the scene, sometimes one of his parents or siblings. 

The places that have changed elsewhere—places where an interstate now rides high above formerly rural land, or where a tall bridge crosses a small, black-flow river far below, say—seem to invite more dangerous and unknown characters, as if the setting is commensurate with the person who enters it. 

Many decades after she was my teacher, Mrs. Davies wrote me a note about a story that appeared in a literary journal. She remembered the boy she’d given the F. But not nearly as poignantly and significantly, I suspect, as the boy remembered her. 

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Karen Brown on the Spaces Stories Inhabit

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Karen Brown, author of Little Sinners (University of Nebraska Press), traces the sources of some of her ideas.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas? 
My much-perused copy of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, its pages stained from spilled wine, its pencil underlines, reinforces my belief that stories are built around place. “A house that has been experienced is not an inert box,” Bachelard claims. Rooms, attics, cubbyholes, and closets—the places that we inhabit and dream—are for me, intimate spaces that stories inhabit. I simply have to find my way in.

Sometimes, this path is cleared in my sleep, and ideas for stories occur as dreams, but not dreams. In them I visit my first boyfriend, long dead, and we meet outside his house where his wife and children still live. We stand in the shadows of a wooded backyard and watch a party light up the house’s windows. Family dogs come out to prowl around a swing set. I am filled with guilt for being there with someone who does not belong to me. I am afraid of being seen. But the dogs are gentle, and trot up to settle at my feet. The wife stands framed in the doorway and nods her dark head at me, and the old boyfriend takes me in his arms, into the folds of a leather jacket. In the morning, he climbs onto a motorcycle in a driveway filled with pale sun, and I warn him of the danger, how he might be hurt, and he shakes his head at me, bemused. It is cancer that kills him, of course.

I will spend all day wondering how I will use this. The images are too real to pass up. I can smell the leather of the jacket, the boy’s cologne. I have searched for his obituary online. I have found the town where his wife and children live. Somewhere in this mixture of dream and memory is their real story, and in the shuffling of all of these things will emerge the one I will make up. Can the dead lead us to our stories in dreams? Maybe my story will answer this question, or any other number of questions I have upon awakening.

A golden rain tree
Ideas for stories flit around me at all times of the day and night. They blow past, or flare up—the golden rain tree in my neighbor’s yard, its bright blooms giving way to seed pods like little orange lanterns. They are the power lines strung between houses, trembling and humming in early morning mist. Sometimes, ideas come over water—two Mute swans on Long Island Sound, rounding the point by the old cottage I see through binoculars. Its upper casement windows are open, and I imagine that inside a story of the inhabitants must be unfolding—from coffee to an argument to a sick child to a lost parent. The sun moves up the beach erasing the cold morning shadows. Later my run will lead me through a myriad of small paved roads to the one that leads past this cottage’s front door. I will stop and gaze through the shrubbery, looking for life—a tired runner pausing to catch her breath. The wild roses bloom along a nearby fence. The sea crashes on a rocky bulkhead below. If I stand long enough I will smell the way the sea mist has entered the open window and wet the cottage’s floorboards, and the way the sun has dried them, and I will imagine then the top of the bureau scattered with jingles and periwinkles and sea glass. Much later, if I am lucky—it can be days, or months, or years—someone’s footsteps will sound on the narrow stairs. A voice will call out. Someone will smooth a white table cloth.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Eugene Cross Finds His Purpose

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Eugene Cross, author of Fires of Our Choosing (Dzanc Books), tells how he got hooked on writing.

What I wanted to be, for a while anyway, was a pediatrician. I settled on this career the way you might pick out an entrée at a fancy restaurant where the entire menu was printed in a foreign language. It just sounded good. Never mind that most science remains far beyond my levels of comprehension or that it bores me to tears. I would administer flu vaccines, damnit. I would mend broken bones, and wear a white lab coat. I would grow old and wonderfully eccentric, disappearing to the Keys for months at a time.

All that was before Bio I. And Chem I. Both of which plucked me from the pathway to a medical career like the weed I was. Then I drifted for a bit, and that was alright too. Until it wasn’t. I wanted a purpose, a passion. I just hadn’t found one yet.

I was in school in Pittsburgh, fulfilling as many Gen Eds as the University would allow. I was preparing myself for any course of study, waiting to be bitten. I wanted to call home in a flurry of excitement and say “Mom! Dad! Guess what? I want to be a _____!!!”

Somewhere along the way I took a creative writing course. My instructor, a young grad student named Bill Kirchner, would surely shudder at the clichéd sentence that precedes this one. But that’s really what happened. (He’d shudder at that response as well.) He strode into the cramped classroom in the towering stone Cathedral of Learning and gave us our reading list: Lewis “Buddy” Nordan, Ray Carver, Yusef Komunyakaa, Etheridge Knight. This list might embody his aesthetic, or it might not. Either way I was hooked. We were an hour north of Morgantown, West Virginia, and somehow the literature of that place seeped into our studies as well. Someone handed me a copy of Breece D’J Pancake’s story “Trilobites,” and that was really it. I reread it over and over, and have done so periodically ever since. It seemed to be about everything: fathers and sons, war, love, violence, sex, mothers and sons, limitations, the earth the sky. Everything. 

The narrator, a young man named Colly, has been left in charge of the family farm in West Virginia after his father’s death, and he’s no farmer. The whole crop has gone to blight. His mother wants to sell and move near family in Ohio, but Colly can’t come to terms with it. His high school girlfriend, Ginny, has returned for a visit from Florida, and she’s changed. Everything has changed. Everything but Colly. The story felt so familiar.

I took every writing and literature class I could fit into my schedule. I read Munro, and O’Connor, and Ford, and Erdrich, and Wolff. I wrote really bad stories. Lots of them. I kept working at it. I’m still working at it. My parents finally got that call, only this time, the blank was filled in. “Writer,” I said. “I want to try to be a writer.” That was a long time ago. I’m still trying.         

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Marie-Helene Bertino Shares Some Story Love

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Marie-Helene Bertino, author of Safe as Houses (University of Iowa Press), discusses what short stories in general and Symphony Space's Selected Shorts program in particular have meant to her.

I love short stories. I love the stuffy, classic ones that refuse to bow to whimsy. I love the experimental ones, when a writer tosses the form into the air and shoots it through with magic and risk. I love the feeling of coming to the end of an expertly executed story: the upshot of energy like taking a hill too fast in my car. I love short stories even though I don’t always understand how to craft them, even though they baffle me; like a cherished, elusive friend who once in a while bestows on me a stunning visit.

When I moved to New York ten years ago I had an overdeveloped dream to be a writer and an underdeveloped plan as to how. Every season I scrounged enough money together to attend “Selected Shorts” at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side. In that quiet auditorium I listened to William Hurt read Maile Meloy, Hope Davis read Jennifer Egan, Joe Morton read Jim Shepard, and countless other amazing performances. No matter what mood in which I entered Symphony Space, I always left excited to write.

Isaiah Sheffer at the mike*
On Saturdays, “Selected Shorts” was broadcast on NPR. Every week, I listened while recording the show on cassette tapes (yep, cassette tapes). They are prized possessions—I’ve played them thin! I’ve listened to Lou Antonio reading the last paragraph of Tobias Wolff’s “The Night in Question,” fifty times or more. Every single time, the paralyzing windup to the devastating last line, “It’s okay, Franky. I’m here!” pushes tears into my eyes.

This was before my work with One Story, before my MFA, before I received the call from The University of Iowa Press. I hoped if I listened hard enough I would learn how to write a short story.

Isaiah Sheffer, the host of “Selected Shorts,” passed away last week, and the short story lost one of its best friends. I was lucky enough to meet him twice. The first time I was too nervous and couldn’t get my voice to work. The second time I was able to force out how much “Selected Shorts” means to me. He was kind and dear and oh, that voice! It is the voice I hear when I read short stories. It was thrilling to hear it in real life.

* At The Story Prize's first event, a Selected Shorts program at Symphony Space on Jan. 26, 2005.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Steven Barthelme Aspires

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Steven Barthelme, author of Hush Hush (Melville House), explains why he doesn't call himself a writer.

I became a writer in about 1989 but that only lasted for a brief period, a few years, until I wasn’t anymore. At first, when I was 17 and on through about 30, I would not call myself a writer because it seemed something too fine and too accomplished, something wonderful that I aspired to but didn’t qualify for. Actually it was longer than that, it wasn’t 30, I felt the same way even after publishing a book of short stories, getting a job as a professor of English teaching creative writing. The only time I ever felt that I was a writer was a brief period of a year or two, when I was about 42, after a fancy literary agent got me a contract at Random House to publish a novel and a second collection as well as to reprint the first collection in Vintage Contemporaries. I probably felt that I could stop holding my breath then. None of that ever happened, of course. I wrote the novel, which wasn’t much good, and Random politely declined to publish it; the other commitments were contingent, and so evaporated. I went back to my previous sense of things, in which, truth be told, I was more comfortable, as a person who aspired. Someday I would succeed, at writing something good, and at publishing as well.

For many years now, when people at a doctor’s office, or in the casino at a blackjack table, ask what I do, I tell them I teach school. It is, after all, how I pay the freight. The people at the university have the good grace not to ask if I’m qualified to teach what I teach, as any professor knows that almost none of us are, in God’s eyes. But my understanding about writing stories has deepened only very recently, and it’s only now that I grasp the thing better. I’m not a writer. I’m some English teacher, a guy who is fond of television and mows the lawn, likes steaks and cars and cats, sleeps badly, who sometimes plays the instrument, likes words, likes sentences, likes typing.

Of many things I wish I had written, one thing for which I hold a fixed awe and a fierce envy, and which is also germane here, is a preface James M. Cain wrote to one of his novels [The Butterfly]. The preface ends with these more or less flawless sentences: “Yes, I have actually mined coal, and distilled liquor, as well as seen a girl in a pink dress, and seen her take it off. I am 54 years old, weigh 220 pounds, and look like the chief dispatcher of a long-distance hauling concern. I am a registered Democrat. I drink.”  

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Michael Jeffrey Lee's Stories That Will Never See the Light of Day

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Michael Jeffrey Lee, author of Something in My Eye (Sarabande Books), discusses some story ideas he pursued that didn't work out.

What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?
I have ideas for stories all the time: I might be standing on a bridge, looking down at the freezing water, I might be walking home late at night, trying not to be murdered, or I might be getting intimate with a significant other, but no matter where I am or who I'm with, my mind is working overtime, helping me generate fresh ideas and inspirations for my fiction—that’s why I always keep a pen at the ready. There are days when I can barely jot my ideas down fast enough, and I can fill whole Moleskins without coming up for air … it’s on those days that I feel my most healthy and human.

But some of my ideas over the years have been very bad—a few of them have made me downright ashamed of my own brain. Even worse are the bad ideas I insist on laboring over for long periods, bringing them all the way to draft form. A few years ago, I spent several months writing a story about an incarcerated man. He had done something awful, his execution day was quickly approaching, and the stress was causing him to lose his grip on reality: Alone in his dark cell, he would hallucinate and see people that weren’t really there, talking and dancing and carrying on with them until the wee hours. Then, the night before the state was set to murder him, something unexpected happened: He died in his sleep, an apparent heart attack. Then the story took a turn for the humorous, and the bumbling guards, fearful of legal action, tried to carry out the execution as planned, and spent the rest of the day attempting to fool the sheriff and the chaplain and the victims’ family into thinking that the condemned man was still alive, right up to the point that the switch was flipped. I am particularly proud of the last supper scene, messy as it is, though I don’t think much else about the story works—I realize now that the idea was just not original enough. Many authors have just written that story better, and I had no business thinking I had anything new to bring to the table.

Machine dreams
And just a few months ago, I found myself working on another dud—it was a story about a woman who dreamed every night about owning a hybrid car. She wanted to use less gas and help the environment, and even though such a car was well beyond her means it didn’t stop her from thinking about it night and day. She was obsessed, and who could blame her? Also, she was very old, which I was hoping would make her more sympathetic. But then an interesting opportunity came her way: a famous game show began filming in her town, and something told her to try and get on it, so she did, and, just her luck, the grand prize of the day was a hybrid car, and through a combination of chance and skill she managed to win it. She drove it home that day, and it was the happiest day of her life. But that’s where her luck ended. She crashed the car the very next day, and before long, everything in her life was going wrong too, and sooner or later she found herself on the street. The last scene was quite ironic: a jeweled hand passing a single dollar bill out the window of a hybrid car to the protagonist, who stood shivering on a median beneath a freeway overpass. I didn’t really like the story when I began it, and I really didn’t like it when I finished it, especially because it seemed to imply that the old woman deserved a severe punishment for desiring something well beyond her means. I’m glad I lost the story when my computer got wet.    

Just the other day I had another bad idea and wrote on it; from sunup to sundown I worked on this story that will probably never see the light of day. It was a tale of two roommates. They were friends, and they were living in an apartment together. They were both working odd jobs, and, interestingly, they were both involved in romantic relationships that were eating their souls. Anyway, one night, one of the roommates finally snapped, and he packed up his car and drove to the river and then drove his car into the river, but he decided at the last minute that he wanted to live, so he rolled down the window and escaped. The next day he cut ties with his sweetheart, purchased a bike, and turned his life around. The other roommate was happy for him but still mired in his own toxic relationship, which he persisted in for a few more weeks, but one night, his anxiety became too great, and he snapped, and did the same thing with his own vehicle and possessions, and he too turned his life around. Actually, I’m not really sure if this is a bad story or not. I know these people, and I feel too close to the material to be able to judge it accurately. But I suspect that it’s bad, very bad and nasty and quite possibly my worst, and I don’t think I’ll return to it anytime soon.

Anyway, those are some bad story ideas, and if I wasn’t so excited about the one I’m working on today—it’s about a church group building toilets for some grateful villagers in Nicaragua—I’d feel much more depressed about how much of my life I spent working on them.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Alice Petersen and the Misplaced Prediction

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alice Petersen, author of All the Voices Cry (Biblioasis), reveals her narrative modes.

I love family stories that have a twang of the extraordinary about them. One of the stories in All the Voices Cry has its origins in a piece of family mythology.

When my father was young, during the 1940s, his mother used to give regular card parties, together with lovely afternoon teas. One lady who often attended could predict the future. Once she wrote down a prediction for my father. He read it and put it in an envelope. He has since misplaced that envelope, somewhere in the boxes of belongings that were delivered when the family house was sold at the end of the 1970s, but he says he never threw it away. Still, Dad can’t remember what the prediction said. Now my parents have a wonderfully impossible box room—you can’t just walk in there and look for something—you would have to pull everything out—so we have yet to locate the envelope, although it must be there.

At a family reunion a few years ago we agreed that the idea of the prediction would be a good topic for a story. On that occasion, my daughter and I had just arrived in New Zealand, having totally missed Christmas Day, on account of crossing the Pacific dateline. This loss had been quite hard for my six year old. It occurred to me that you could also lose a day that you did not want to see come, which is how the central character in “Mrs. Viebert’s Prognostication” attempts to cheat his own fate.

But can you cheat fate so easily? And if you succeeded, or if you failed to read the signs properly, would there be a second event in store for you that was your real fate?  This is where the story ends.

The idea that Norman’s life has been directed by a prediction made me think about fate operating from a distance. I did not want to get too close to Norman—I wanted to set him free with his prediction and watch him scuttle about trying to evade it. The action is set either in the distant past or in a kind of limbo of airplanes and airports. Norman thinks that he is planning events, but he is a bit of a blunderer and forgets that the plane might stop on an island in the Pacific en route.

Each story in All the Voices Cry has a narrative mode, or mood, that to my mind suits the subject matter. I decided to use a narrative voice that was not always kind; one that was faintly amused by the variety of fates allotted to the players. I made unjust comparisons between secondary characters: “In 1951 General Freyberg became Baron Freyberg of Wellington and of Munstead in the County of Surrey. Nobody knew what became of Baby Viebert.” In some places I used a deliberate carelessness in phrasing to maintain this distance: “Not long after space men began to speak to Poor Gladys through the radiogram, they came and took her away.” For this reason the narrative voice is not as impassioned as some of the other voices in the book; it is possibly even disagreeable under examination.

The Lament of Icarus
I am a bit of a packrat when it comes to historical detail. It was my pleasure to add in a few remnants from my parents’ wartime childhood in New Zealand: a set of yellowed notepads printed up with grids for a game called “Smash the Nazi Navy” (much the same as a game that we played in the 1980s under the name “Battle Ship”) and a rumpled pair of khaki shorts that my father wore as a little boy.

Likewise, the playing card with the picture of Icarus on the back of it comes from a set that belonged to the same grandmother who gave the bridge parties. The picture is Herbert Draper’s “The Lament of Icarus.” We received those cards in the boxes that were delivered at the end of the 1970s, so I have looked at that picture since I was a little girl. Draper has painted a thoroughly gorgeous Icarus, with vast wings. As a child I thought that Icarus was dreaming and that the mermaids were about to wake him up. I like to think that the real Mrs. Viebert played a good hand with these cards.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Charles McLeod's Dedication

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Charles McLeod, author of National Treasures (Outpost 19 Books), speaks to who his book is for.

This book is for the first house past the strip mall, red fabric over the windows, strangers’ shadows stamped on them by the ceiling’s bare bulb. This book is for the fifteen year old twink tricking in front of the suburban Chevron, shivering into his cigarette, underdressed, a wad of hundreds in the crotch of his briefs. This book is for people living in towns that died with the train tracks, Eisenhower’s interstates erasing, for them, everything. This book is for the homeowner weeping in her mortgaged foyer, each memento now math in an unsolvable equation. This book is for the month-to-months at the weekly motels, tan butts spilling from tiny, tin ashtrays. This book is for the black kid skating up East 14th, out toward the worst part of Oakland; this book is for what he has to do, once he gets where’s he going. This book is for the dopesick lost driving West Virginia highways. This book is for wrecked-leg Vets cloaked from the world by the walls of care wards, betting their checks from the Feds on baseball. This book is for long-haul truckers who shoot crank on the clock. This book is for widowed farmers. This book is for the sad, sick suits humping it up subway steps, trying to remember if they’re texting their mistress or children while on their way to hawk t-bills from skyscrapers. This book is for the bum I didn’t give money to. This book is for the cop who let me out of my speeding ticket, after I’d told him that I was a teacher. This book’s for the dead, as an RSVP. This book’s for the people who won’t read it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Jennifer Moses: Schedule? What Schedule?

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jennifer Moses, author of Visiting Hours (Fomite Press), discusses her writing habits and sleeping regimen.

When I speak to audiences about my work as writer, the one question that invariably comes up concerns my schedule: “What kinds of hours do you set for yourself?”

“I don’t.”

And then the collective bewilderment. The idea is that writers, who possess god-like gifts of creativity, must also hew to a rigorous discipline of endless hours at the writing desk, a la Tolstoy, or the work simply won’t get done. But then you have to think about the likes of, say, Trollope, with his forty-seven novels, twelve collections of short stories, eighteen works of nonfiction, two plays, and life-long day-job at the British postal service, his decades-long habit of fox-hunting, his run for Parliament, and his marriage; or, to take another good example, Edith Wharton, who spent a whole bunch of time decorating, buying and selling real estate, schmoozing on an international scale, and making trans-Atlantic crossings. Come to think about it, the great Tolstoy himself, when he wasn’t writing, was busy chasing tail, gambling, fighting, impregnating his wife, launching various Utopian educational programs, volunteering to save Russia from itself, organizing food drives for various famines, suffering spiritual crises, and generally being all over the place all at once and all the time. Coffee, anyone?

Tolstoy, Trollope, and Wharton pause—momentarily—to pose
I too drink coffee, but not much, and that’s because I don’t need to. After all, the one schedule I do rigorously adhere to is my sleeping schedule, which demands no less than a full nine hours of nighty-night, every night, and without fail. If I get less than nine hours of sleep, I’m so off-kilter that anxiety creeps up on me like a tsunami and I go around the house hugging stuffed animals to myself and crying. Really. I know all about sleep deprivation, too, having experienced it both during the infancy of my and my husband’s first-born son (who is now 23), and, four years later, of our twins. Let’s put it this way: given how tired I was, it was a miracle I never dropped any of them on their heads. Or tucked one of them to bed in the freezer compartment of our family-sized Whirlpool, where I wouldn’t have to hear the kid screaming.

The point is, the one thing I did do “full time,” to use the ridiculous nomenclature of our post-industrial, hyper-wired, and over-stimulated times, was be a mommy. The job came fully loaded with a mommy mini-van complete with the scent of ancient spilled chocolate milk; a mommy tummy, crisscrossed with stretch marks; a house filled with cheap plastic toys; and endless trips, to doctors and dentists, to soccer practice, to back-to-school nights, to meetings with the principal, to cross-country meets, to eight thousand birthday parties, to school plays…

Thus one of the many lures of writing short stories. Because one of the great things about the form is: a short story is, you know, short. WHOOSH! A voice is speaking, dictating the first, and then the second, and then the third sentence and so forth and so on until I look up from my computer and gosh darn it if both twins aren’t up from their naps and screaming their lungs out, but that’s okay because, what do you know, the Eagle has landed. Or maybe it’s a rather less pleasant experience, where—KERBANG!—I get this utterly fab idea for a sweet little story, only it dies a slow and desperate death on the page, one agonizing paragraph after the next, until, by half-way through what was supposed to be a masterpiece, the thing has expired. But at least I didn’t forget to, you know, pick up my kid from school. Not to mention that I got a full load of laundry done.

Not that I waste a whole heck of a lot of time, either. Because the one thing about getting things done is: you have to do them to do them. That includes writing. There just ain’t two ways about it: If you want to write that story, or novel, or poem, you’ve got to sling your butt in the chair and put one word in front of the other.

Which I do do. I just don’t do it according to the clock.

By the time my little ones got to be bigger ones, and then, thank God, big enough to go to college, I’d long since embarked on other forms: extended essays; memoir; humor; long fiction. But by then my habit of non-adherence to a fixed schedule was long since fixed, such that to this day, Trollope-like, I make a point of regularly mounting my trusty stead to go to the foxes. Kidding! But I do spend a lot of time walking my two dogs, playing the piano, gazing at wallpaper patterns on the internet, re-arranging the knick-knacks, cooking, going to an occasional hip-hop class, meeting friends, visiting my kids, and all kinds of other things that I can’t imagine giving up. And why should I? If Edith Wharton could stay in bed until nearly noon and obsess about home décor, than surely I can, too.