Monday, December 31, 2012

Dan Chaon: The Bradbury Chronicles

In the 66th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Dan Chaon, author of Stay Awake (Ballantine Books), describes how a famous writer inspired and encouraged him to write.

Ray Bradbury changed my life.

Perhaps that sounds melodramatic, but it’s not meant to be. I would not be the same person—I would not have become a writer—if it weren’t for Ray Bradbury.

I started reading Bradbury at an early age. I wish I could remember the first book of stories I read—I think it might have been The October Country—but in any case, by the time I was ten or eleven, I was well on my way to reading his entire oeuvre, and one of the results of this reading was that I was inspired to write myself. I wrote sequels to his stories, and imitations of his stories, because I couldn’t get enough of them.

Ray Bradbury (photo by Alan Light)
I was growing up then in Nebraska, in a very rural western corner of the panhandle. The village I lived in had about 20 people in it, and I was the only child in my grade. I was bussed to school in a bigger town, ten miles away, but I was always glad to come home to my books. I didn’t fit in very well with the kids in town.

When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher, Mr. Christy, gave us a strange assignment. He asked us to write a letter to our favorite writer, living or dead. In the letter, we were supposed to explain why we liked their writing.

I decided that I would write to Ray Bradbury. But I went further than the assignment. I went to the library and found Ray Bradbury’s address in Contemporary Authors, and I sent him some of the stories that I’d written. I asked him if he thought I could become a writer.

A few weeks later, I got a letter back from him.  It was typed on the most beautiful stationery that I’d ever seen, and it was addressed to me.

“Dear Dan Chaon: You must never let anyone tell you what you want to be. If you want to be a writer, be a writer. It’s that simple. When I was your age, I wrote every day of my life, and my stuff wasn’t half as good as yours. Quality doesn’t count, to begin with, quantity does. The more you write, the better you’ll get. If you write a short story a week for the next three or four years, think of the improvement you’ll find in yourself. And, above all, what fun! Are you intensely library-oriented?  I hope so. If not, from now on, you must be in the library, when you’re not writing, reading, finding, knowing poetry, essays, history, you name it! Keep at it!”

Then, a week later, he sent me a critique of the story I had sent him, and I was so hooked, and so crazy in love. I grew up in a family where no one read, and books were not a big part of daily life, and I felt intensely as if I had been rescued. Ray sent me his book, Zen and the Art of Writing, and Brenda Ueland’s If You Want To Write, and I read them over and over.

During the next few years of junior high and high school, I would send stories that I thought were good to Ray Bradbury, and he would write me back about them. “The story is a small gem, and perhaps, as with your other stories, too small,”  he would say. Or:

“Take a look at your structure here. What does Mr. B. want from life? I guess you have left that out. My characters write my stories for me. They tell me what they want, then I tell them to go get it, and I follow as they run, working at my typing as they rush to their destiny. Montag, in F.451, wanted to stop burning books. Go stop it! I said. He ran to do just that. I followed, typing. Ahab, in MOBY DICK, wanted to chase and kill a whale. He rushed raving off to do so. Melville followed, writing the novel with a harpoon in the flesh of the damned Whale!”


“Your werewolf story is too short! It is an idea in search of conflict,  but you are close to finding a short story—some nice ideas there. Develop them! What about the other people in the ‘school?’ You drop hints, but I would like to know about the others. It is almost like the start of a longer story. What happens when he arrives at the school, or does he ever arrive? Play with the idea.”

By the time I went away to college, I had started writing other kinds of stories, and my correspondence with Ray began to peter out. I was distracted by undergraduate life, and I was thoughtless in a lot of ways. Ray wrote:

“Why are you going to college? If you aren’t careful, it will cut across your writing time, stop your writing stories. Is that what you want? Think. Do you want to be a writer for a lifetime? What will you take in college that will help you be a writer? You already have a full style. All you need now is practice at structure. Write back. Soon! Love to you! RBradbury”

I never did write back to him. I was scared by his questioning of college, and, by that time, I was enamored of a different Ray—Raymond Carver. And, ultimately, I didn’t know what to say. I loved college. I thought it did me good. I didn’t want to disappoint him.

And then, daily life took hold. I published a few stories in magazines, and I sent them to Ray, but he never wrote back. I spoke about him in interviews, his influence on me—and once I even saw him briefly at the Los Angeles Festival of Books, but the line to see him was hours long, and when I came to the front of it I wasn’t sure whether he recognized who I was. I gave him copies of my books, and he said “Thank you, thank you,” and then I was hustled along. He was a very old man, and he had been signing books for hours and hours. I don’t know whether he knew who I was, or not.

Oh! I thought. How I wished I had written him back, all those years ago. How I wished I had kept up our correspondence.

Now I am nearly the same age that Ray was when he first wrote to me—and that desperate twelve year old is very far in the distance. But I can see now how fully Bradbury has fitted himself into my brain. It is not just that he was a mentor to me at a time when I needed him most; it is also that his style, his mood, his way of thinking, has seeped into the very core of my work.

I think that most of us are really writing for other writers, writers we love, dead writers a lot of the time. When I wrote my first short story I was obsessed with Ray Bradbury and I remember wishing, I don’t know, wouldn’t it be cool if Ray Bradbury read this—!! But I might as well have been writing for Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft or Charles Dickens.

Even though no one would make a connection between my work and his, Bradbury is still the kind of person I think of most. I like the idea that I’m in some weird way having conversations with other writers that I really admire. To me, at least part of what you’re doing in art is connecting to this larger chain of stuff that you’re responding to. Whether it’s literature or whether it’s film or whatever.

It’s this living connection between you and the world of the “story,” which is somehow alive…alive outside of anything on a page,  alive outside of anything in your head.

Think of a story, that story, that mute story, coiled and dormant inside a book in a library’s forgotten  back room. Think of how you might accidentally open it.

It’s waiting for you.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Charles Yu's Cyborg Laboratory

In the 65th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Charles Yu, author of Sorry Please Thank You (Pantheon), talks about trying to push himself outside of his comfort zone and how his ideas germinate.

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
I struggle with sameness of voice, sameness of outlook for my narrators. I have experimented with a fairly wide variety of forms, but in terms of tone and general worldview of my characters, I have not taken as many chances as I would like to have taken, and that is something I am looking to change. Writing from the same philosophical or psychological point of view all the time can get boring, and it limits the kinds of stories I can tell. The problem, of course, is that it’s natural to go to what you know, to go to what you are. So what I am doing now is imposing constraints on myself. Not censoring or pre-editing my ideas, but deliberately, actively trying to do things that don’t feel natural, steering away from what I am comfortable with and straight toward what I am most of afraid of—sort of writing with the weak side of my imagination. I’m trying to write with my brain’s left hand.

What’s the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
If we’re talking about a story that has made it out into the world, then probably about two weeks. A relatively short story – less than 2,500 words, I think. And the revising process took place over longer. But that was one of those rare occasions when a lot of the story came out in a rush, and that rush ended up being decent enough, close enough to what I was trying to say, that even after revision a lot of the kernel of the first draft was still preserved in the final version.

What’s the longest time it has take you to write a story?
That remains to be seen—there are stories that have been in the laboratory for years now, stories that have cycled between the lab and the landfill, parts falling off, new parts being grafted on, stripped down to their skeletons and rebuilt from the inside out. They’re like my cyborgs, part organic, part synthetic, part breathing and blood-filled, part designed and engineered, and they live in this kind of active ecosystem, a very harsh environment where they are in competition with the other lifeforms. They are competitive for resources, trying to eat up the ideas around them, to expand their territory within the space. And they are cannibalistic, eating others if they need to. All of which is to say, I may have a story that will end up taking years to write—I have an idea that I have been messing around with for four years now, and I can’t imagine how it would ever turn into a story, but I’m not giving up on it. And sometimes these proto-stories, even if they don’t make it out themselves, they have offspring, they give birth to other stories, baby-stories, that do make it out.

What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?
Oh there are too many to count. That’s like a hundred-way tie. The truly bad ones I can’t even really remember, because I’ve blocked them out. Extremely awful ideas of mine tend to be conceptual, premise-driven, meta- to the point of breaking the fourth-wall, overly clever without any real story in there, intricate without any point to the complexity, and generally just not very well thought out.

Where do you do most of your work?
I do most of my writing in one of two places, either in a chair in my living room, or at a table in my kitchen. Although if I’m being precise, that’s where most of my typing gets done. Most of my thinking gets done unconsciously, in the shower, or in the car listening to Radiolab or music or the news, or right before I fall asleep, or pulling into the parking lot at work. Transitional moments, for some reason, are when I do my best thinking, a moment here, a half-second there, a sudden flash of something that I try to hold onto long enough to capture it in my lab.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Matt Mullins Steps Out of Himself

In the 64th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Matt Mullins, author of Three Ways of the Saw (Atticus Books), contrasts the writing process with playing in a jam band.

I write for the same reasons I’ve played guitar in improv or “jam” bands for so many years: to get inside that imaginative place where all invention and spontaneity seem to exist. When I’m creating anything compelling to me, my mind enters that place and my ego dissolves and I become another world. With music, the world swirls in bending strings and pulsing drumbeats made by fellow travelers, and it goes where it will go, sometimes with guideposts we’ve agreed upon beforehand. With writing, the world is filled with characters saying and doing, conceits, structures, dead ends, surprise turns, slow realizations, and sudden illuminations, as well as the shape of every single letter and word and the sounds they make alone and in their various combinations.

I’m not sure why I like to go to this place so much. Why I’ve always wanted to step outside of me. On the simplest level, I want to because it’s a really fun place to go. Anything can happen, and even on those days when you can’t quite make it or when you come back to face the consequences of traveling there, there’s no physical danger in the going. And you usually learn something about your craft, if not yourself, in the process. If I want to get psycho-analytical about it, I could say maybe I like to go there because I’m running away from (and looking for) myself and what I mean at the same time, but such an idea doesn’t hold all of what I experience while I’m there. Because I also like the challenge of trying to pull a good story from that imaginative place and bringing it back to share. There’s both brass and humility wrapped up in that.

The best thing about jamming with friends is that we are all part of it, all part of the experience of that moment because we are all plugged into it and going to that place together. The transference is communal, visceral and immediate, regardless of if you’re listening or playing. The writer has to go it alone and plug other people in after the fact. The writer has to take the story from that imaginative place and keep it alive on the page so the reader can enter later through the words. This creates the essential difference between what happens in the moment and what you bring back and revise (or not):  the improv jam versus the multi-tracked recording, those characters and scenes and situations as they unfold inside your mind versus what you write down then versus what you craft later.

While playing, all the musicians can hear the song at once, but the reader can’t be inside the writer’s head during the writing, so there isn’t collaboration or collective influence in the now. But if the writing truly connects to that imaginative place, the reader will be as close as possible to the moment as they read. There will be a transference. And it’s the power of this transference of empathy or sympathy or dissonance or harmony from an imaginative place that speaks to us (one in a primal way without words, and the other inside the mind’s ability to conceptualize abstractions and create an imaginary reality through symbols) that I’m talking about here—the universal connections that people, who are physically disconnected from each other by our very nature, feel from this transference, which is part of why our need for it is universal and nearly as old as imagination itself and has existed within art and storytelling since their beginnings. When someone truly accomplishes that transference, you feel it in a profound way. And then you think about what you just felt. Which is exactly what the imaginative place at the core of art is about, at least for me: creating and expressing artifacts that speak to the truths behind what we think and do and feel.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Valerie Fioravanti Embraces Hard Work

In the 63rd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Valerie Fioravanti, author of Garbage Night at the Opera (BkMk Press), relates a valuable lesson.

What’s the longest time it has taken you to write a story?
I began a couple of the stories included in Garbage Night at the Opera before I entered my MFA program in 2001, although the final versions are wildly different than those early drafts. Right now, I’m finishing up a second story collection, and I’ve been joking that once I’m finished, I promise to be faithful to my current novel project, Bel Casino, which continues the story of Franca and Lina from Garbage Night at the Opera as they reunite in Italy.

Chances are, I’ll cheat. I’ll want the more immediate gratification short fiction provides, or an essay topic I’ve been contemplating for years will finally coalesce. My writing process doesn’t appear to be naturally quick or monogamous. I need simmer time, and the most productive way through this seems to be to work on multiple projects concurrently. This makes it difficult to talk about how long I worked on something. It could be (if fortune shines upon me) that my second and third books follow quickly, giving the appearance that I am prolific, when the truth is that my book-length projects have been chugging quietly along for years.

When I arrived in Las Cruces (New Mexico) for grad school, one of the first people I met was the writer Becky Hagenston, who had recently published her story collection A Gram of Mars. We were the same age, and our upcoming birthdays so close that she graciously shared her party with me. As we celebrated together, I couldn’t help but compare our writing lives: Her work had found a home, and mine seemed stalled in the land of promise. Becky gave a reading a few weeks later, and afterward a man came up to her and asked, “So, how long did it take to write that story—a month?”

Becky’s chin lifted as she declared, “I worked on that story for five years.”

That man snorted and walked away, but Becky became my hero that night. In her place, asked that question, I would have lied. At the time, I thought a story was something you tinkered with for a few months and then abandoned if you couldn’t get it right. Talent meant the work came easy, right? As I watched my new friend read, my own desires intruded upon my happiness for her. I couldn’t quiet my envy, which fixated upon Why isn’t that me?

Well, had I ever worked on a story for that long? Question asked and answered. It was time to shut up and get to work. Five years was a generous timeframe that allowed me to take my work more seriously without the pressure I was putting on my work to be immediately and exceptionally well done, and Becky’s unflinching declaration helped me reset the image I had of talent as something that bypassed, rather than embraced, hard work. Even though it occurred outside the classroom, it was the most valuable lesson from my MFA experience.

What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
Well, clearly I learned a lot from knowing Becky Hagenston as a person, but I admire “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow” from her second collection, Strange Weather. I’m interested in her sideways storytelling, how two characters naming a cat reveals so much about other aspects of their lives.

When I was working on my story “Earning Money All Her Own,” I returned to Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” because my story had a refrain of factory closings in the neighborhood, and I wanted those closings, which put more and more people out of work, to build power via repetition.

Richard Bausch’s “What Feels Like the World” is another story I read compulsively while writing the title story of my collection. The fate of the grandfather/granddaughter relationship at the core of the Bausch story had my heart in a vise the first time I read it, and I wanted that same quality for the father and daughter in “Garbage Night at the Opera.”

Monday, December 24, 2012

Luis Jaramillo and the Unintentional Curse

In the 62nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Luis Jaramillo, author of The Doctor's Wife (Dzanc Books), discusses the different ways writers write.

When I’m writing I usually think I’m doing it wrong, that the stuff I’m trying to serve is too thin a gruel. This feeling becomes worse when I think about Mavis Gallant’s stories like “The Moslem Wife,” or “The Remission,” long stories about money, war, and love, stories that have the weight of a novel. I’m well acquainted with jealousy and envy, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I admire what Gallant does, and yet I also have a rock solid sense that I’m constitutionally unable to write the same sort of condensed epics.

There’s a danger in reading too much into a fiction writer’s biography, but Mavis Gallant’s story is too good to not tell. At the age of four, her parents sent her to board at a convent run by French-speaking nuns. When her father died she was told he’d taken a trip to England and would be back soon. At the age of 29, Gallant decided she wanted to be a fiction writer, full time. She quit her newspaper job and moved to Paris from Canada. She prepared three stories to send to The New Yorker, telling herself that if all three were rejected she’d give up. She received an encouraging note in response to the first one, and the second was published.

In the afterword to the story collection Paris Stories, Gallant describes a childhood marked by a split in languages—French was the language of order and English the language of her imagination. She points to this duality—of language, of sense of self—as key to the project of writing. “Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping vision of things seen and things as they might be seen. All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing: It is the basic requirement.”

I’m good at holding my breath, and though I didn’t have to go to boarding school as a toddler, I too have a claim on duality. When I was only a few days old a family friend took a look at me and declared, “Nacio para no ofender,” literally “he was born to not offend,” an unintentional curse of sorts, but meaning I looked like a 50-50 mix of my parents. My mother is of Nordic stock, and my dad’s side of the family is Mexican-American. My first word was agua, said while pointing at a fountain in Mexico City, but I consider English my mother tongue. I grew up in Salinas, California, a farming town, a deeply segregated place very attuned to the differences between white and Mexican, meaning that so was I.

In the same afterword to Paris Stories, Gallant writes that if childhood trauma and a sense of duality were the only determining factors in someone becoming a writer, there’d be a lot more of us—practically everyone would be scribbling away. That clearly isn’t the case, and to go back to my original point, those of us that do write, write in completely different ways. I sometimes think that my style comes from having a stingy, withholding kind of personality. But the truth is I admire other people who write even more concisely, like Lydia Davis in her lovely masterpiece The Cows. The short book is made up of short observations of cows in a pasture, and yet somehow Davis writes a deeply funny book about sex, friendship, and the nature of being. I don’t think I’d have the nerve to go that small. See also Flannery O’Connor, on the opposite end of the dramatic and syntactic spectrum. I tried to write a short story like her once, to disastrous results, ending the story with a wholly unbelievable scene in which junior high school kids bury a mouse, saying a prayer over the tiny gravesite.

I first read Mavis Gallant on an airplane, flying from Portland, Oregon, to New York. I finished each story feeling like I’d eaten a whole pie, but after I closed the book and rested it on my lap for a few minutes I’d find myself opening it again, drawing the fork to my mouth in bite after delicious bite. There’s a difference between writing a story and reading a story. Reading can be an act of gourmandism—I like all sorts of foods, all sorts of books. The writing is a bit more complicated.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Kate Hill Cantrill Feels the Rhythm

In the 61st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Kate Hill Cantrill, author of Walk Back From Monkey School (Press 53), discuss her belief in the importance of reading her own—and others'—writing aloud.

I am fairly obsessed with rhythm in writing—the cadence of dialogue, the timing of a response, the drum-beat feel of an appropriate repetition. Reading a dull or off-rhythm story is like listening to a poor joke-teller hopped up on wine at the Thanksgiving table struggle through your favorite one about the wide mouth frog, and you’re just dying to leave and start scrubbing some dishes.

I read my work aloud constantly, sentence after sentence, to make sure that it’s doing what it should be doing and saying both what it should say and hopefully something else and maybe luckily something else as well. Ideally I have chosen a word or a combination of words or punctuation that will allow the sentence to be read in a variety of ways. This is mostly true of my flash fiction, but I strive for it as well in my longer stories and even in my novel writing.

I also read aloud the words of others. I know I truly love their work if I find I can’t read a line without stopping and reading it a second or third time aloud. Amy Hempel is one I can’t possibly just read to myself. If I’m on a train or in some other public place then I will at least have to mouth it out. Grace Paley as well. Jamaica Kincaid probably started it all for me, along with Salinger.

I do care what happens in a story, I really do, but if it happens in a vanilla bean manner, then I don’t care. It doesn’t matter if it is a scene of puppies getting hurled off a bridge into a rocky abyss—if it is not written with a masterful rhythm, it will not move me because I will not be there to believe it. My heart will not be pumping with it. Well, ok, so puppies, just the word triggers something, I have to be honest about that. My heart is not made out of Gobstoppers, after all.

I have just now been reminded of John Edgar Wideman’s Two Cities, one of my favorite novels of all time. The final bit was titled something funny—I can’t remember it and I can’t check it because I am an idiot and I loaned my copy to a student and everyone knows that books are never returned, especially the great ones. Now I have to go and buy it again because it made my heart race like crazy—the whole book but especially the ending. It was written in a jazz beat that really floored me. It solidified in my head-ball that words are like any other creative material: paint, clay, instruments, voice, etc.

I just walked by a young woman on the street who was waiting for the bus. She dressed in black and white and adorned heavy black eyeglasses that slid down her nose. It’s a warmish late-fall day so she didn’t wear a coat and on her strappy-the-duck tee (wife-beater to some) she had had pinned a college ruled sheet of paper that flapped in the wind and read: I heart you. It sounds a bit batty, but she was appropriately self-conscious about the whole thing. She was a walking short story, really. After I passed by I wished that I had stopped and told her that I liked her sign, but alas, I didn’t do that and I was late for work. In the short story I’ll write I’ll have a character who will stop and tell her this—that she likes her sign—and it will be as awkward and uncomfortable as it would have been in true to real life, but in the story it will be oh so perfectly timed and the rhythm will be oh so totally spot on. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Chad Simpson's Eureka Moment

In the 60th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Chad Simpson, author of Tell Everyone I Said Hi (University of Iowa), tells how reading a single story changed his life.

I had decided in October that I’d made a mistake, that I missed baseball.

This, after I’d turned down a handful of scholarships earlier that year, disappointed I hadn’t been drafted. This, after I’d told myself I was done with the sport forever.

From my dorm room in Peoria, Illinois, I called the coach at a community college in Kansas—Garden City, home of the Garden City Community College Broncbusters—and asked if he’d have me. Then I called a guy I knew from high school back in Indiana, T., who was a sophomore at GCCC, the centerfielder.

As things turned out, T. needed a roommate for spring semester. About a week after Christmas, I filled two black garbage bags with my stuff, and T. picked me up at my girlfriend’s house in Logansport on a cold January morning.

Garden City ended up being this mostly treeless place with unrelenting winds. In the way station that was community college athletics, as a part of its machinery, I quickly realized that I liked the things baseball did for me more than I enjoyed actually playing the game. By the end of January, I was ready to be done with it all over again. I was ready to go home.

I suppose I was having an identity crisis, though I wouldn’t have called it that at the time. I had a bedroom in the apartment I shared with T., but for some reason I slept on the couch the entire five months I lived there.

For the previous two or three years, I’d filled a notebook with bad poems, and not long after I arrived in Kansas, I began visiting the library. At one point, I checked out a novel each by Hemingway and Faulkner, The Sun Also Rises and The Sound and the Fury. I knew nothing about the books or their authors, but I read from them each night before I fell asleep on that ratty couch, and something clicked. I decided I wanted to be a writer.

T. had a subscription to GQ or Details, I can’t remember which, and one afternoon when our double-header was rained out, I was flipping through it and came across an author profile. The writer’s name was Michael Chabon. His second novel, Wonder Boys, had just come out, and the profile mentioned a sentence of his from his story collection, A Model World and Other Stories, as proof of Chabon’s unique way of viewing the world: “It was a frigid May morning at the end of a freak cold snap that killed all the daffodils on the lawns of the churches of Pittsburgh.”

I was slain by those dead daffodils on the church lawns. Later that afternoon, at Hastings, where T. and I rented a lot of movies, I browsed the books and found Chabon’s story collection and purchased it. Later that night, after T. and his girlfriend had quieted down in his bedroom, I read my first short story as an adult, “S Angel.”

I have just reread that story for the first time in almost eighteen years, and it’s hard for me to imagine what I would have thought of it back then. The story itself is simple enough: A young man, Ira, attends his cousin’s wedding and reception in California. There are references to Italian wool trousers, to salmon carpaccio with lemon cucumber and cilantro. There are glancing references to Judaism. There are at this wedding a lot of rich people.

I had grown up in two small towns that each held a hog slaughterhouse. At the time, I don’t think I’d ever met anyone who was actually wealthy. I’d known only a single Jewish person.

But there was language in that story that I’m sure I was drawn to: a “delta of hair” Ira shaved between his eyebrows before attending the wedding, “wadded florets of Kleenex” submerged in one character’s purse.

And there was something else. Ira, who is a little lost in his life, isn’t so sure his cousin who has just gotten married looks happy. He spends much of the story pining for a woman, Carmen, who eventually leaves the reception with another man.

The reader knows, too, that there was a moment in the recent past at which Ira had been attracted to his cousin but that he had not pursued it. So he longs not just for some direction in his life, and for Carmen, but, possibly, for his cousin as well.

I think I would have understood at the time Ira’s longing.

At the end of the story, Ira finds his cousin after she has wandered off from the reception, and the two talk for a second and then kiss and then bam, the story is over.

Even now, it’s mysterious. I don’t know exactly what’s going on. There is a taboo thing taking place, but it’s subtle. It comes out of confusion, out of longing.

At eighteen, I was hooked. I read that first story two more times that night, taking it all in, trying to figure it out. I’ve been reading short stories with the same kind of awe and dedication ever since.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Roshi Fernando and the Touch of Place

In the 59th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Roshi Fernando, author of Homesick (Alfred A. Knopf), discusses definition of herself by herself and others.

Since the publication of Homesick, I have been haunted by the specter of definition. Who are you?  What are you? Homesick itself has been defined—as diasporic literature, as “Sri Lankan” (I am a “Sri Lankan author” apparently) (I was born in Paddington, London, of Sri Lankan parents) – as a novel, as interlinked short stories. I have been asked to define myself, and my stories, and I have defined and redefined, adapting to who is asking the question.

My work has been freighted by the reader’s perception of what it should be. In writing about the immigrant experience, I am writing about the experience of the outsider, and everybody has had the experience of the outsider at some point in their life. Therefore, the reader assumes that my characters’ outsider status is my outsider status. The color of my skin has radicalized my work, and although I was and am clearly sitting on a fence well outside the arena, observing in a measured manner, I am still somehow dragged into the stories themselves. I am there, the creator and procreator of these characters.  In this world of celebrity, people want to know that the stories are autobiographical—they want to know that when reading the work they are reading a little piece of you. And of course, they are. But they are also reading the many books I read which trained me, the people I met, the places I’ve been, the husband I have loved for many a year, the children I have nurtured.

It is not only my personal definition that has been tasked and trammelled but also the form with which I wrote. And this is where we get to the meat of things: Many who have read Homesick would not have necessarily reached for a book of short stories. People in Britain are dedicated novel readers, and often I have been accused of challenging a reader down a route that points them, in their opinion, in a direction they didn’t necessarily want to go. The Amazon reviews (never read the Amazon reviews!) suggest that in using the short story, I have somehow limited the enjoyment of the piece. I find this the most interesting of reactions. Short stories were the only way to write Homesick; I thought what I was doing was democratizing the telling of the story. I was gathering a community of people, and showing individuals becoming more unique and apart from their origin. The stories and their individual themes also reflected the multi-cultural place London became during the years I was writing about, so that eventually, the stories disjunct: Their individuality defines the collection. Only the short story could reflect the complexity of what I wanted to do with my work. I wanted to show individuals changing, I wanted to show a country changing, I wanted to show the world changing. How best to do this? With the universality that is the human experience—the tiny moments of a broken bird’s wing, a snatched kiss, the singing of a song at a cricket match, a slip-over at a dance, the counting down to a new year.

As I write this, I have no clearer understanding of how to define myself or my work. I think I wrote short stories that came out satisfactorily. You see, in being required to define myself, I have lost myself.  I am puzzled still as to this urgent requirement for definition. But in asking “why define?” rather than scrabbling to give answers, I think I have stumbled on the reasons why people ask me for definition. They ask because what made sense to me when I wrote the book, has touched them as making sense too, and what they want to know is: Do you really mean it? Are we all the same? Are we all a story that makes up a larger whole? And are our moments of rejection and sadness, of joy and laughter, the same as yours?

So many good writers—Orhan Pamuk, Alice Munro, William Trevor, Annie Proulx—have a sense of place and clearly define that place continually throughout their oeuvre. When composing this collection, I wanted the music of my place to sing through. But that meant defining what that place was. South London? Colombo? The place became somewhere inside of me. Once, one of my children, aged four, was woken suddenly at the end of a car journey. She cried loudly, as if bereft. I scooped her, comforted her, asked her why? “I was having a lovely dream,” she said. “Can you remember it?” I asked. “No,” she whimpered, “not a touch of it.” It is so beautiful, the thought of that lack of a touch. In each of the stories, you will find somewhere, a touch of the place I was defining. A place I was homesick for.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Dwight Holing Keeps It Real

In the 58th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Dwight Holing, author of California Works (Snake Nation Press), discusses his roundabout path to writing fiction.

Okay, here it is in a rush because I need to get back to work since I came late to short fiction and am trying to make up for time. Notice I didn’t say “lost” because it wasn’t. I just took a roundabout way of getting to it. It’s not like I rolled out of bed in my 50s and suddenly decided to put fingers to keyboard.  I’ve always made my living as a writer, if you don’t count the stints working in a body and fender shop and cutting and gutting salmon in Alaska. Nonfiction books, newspaper articles, magazine features, special reports, you name it, I’ve written it. Whatever could pay the rent, the trips to distant lands, then the mortgage, the sitters, the tuitions. Well, you get the picture.

Spare me the cliché that journalism is the world’s second oldest profession and nowhere near as well compensated as the first. There’s plenty of creative juice getting spilled over reporting, whether or not you subscribe to Wolfesonian mau-mauing or Twain’s never letting the facts get in the way. Characters, conflicts, and cool stuff inhabited the environmental issues, life sciences, and outdoor adventures I’ve written about. Some was truly stranger than fiction, and now I’m finding the natural world not only is a source and inspiration for short stories, but helps keep dialogue and settings real. Wildlife, weather, landscape—they all play an integral role in a narrative’s arc and protagonist’s journey, providing action, motivation, revelation, be it a story about a veteran of the Iraq War turned cactus rustler finding peace in a night blooming cholla or a commercial fisherman relying on the rules of the sea to distinguish what he knows and doesn’t after his son drowns and marriage founders.

Chiseled on a tablet somewhere is the adage “write about what you know.” What isn’t carved right alongside it is the answer to “why do you write in the first place?” Though I’ve reported about genetics, I can’t say for certain if there’s any involved in writing. For sure, environment plays a role. It’s the whole nature versus nurture debate all over again. My grandfather was a story teller, penning Jazz Age romances for Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s before getting the call from Hollywood. My mom raised me on a steady diet of what it was like growing up with an itinerant writer for a dad—true life adventures of being chased by bill collectors from one Georgia town to the next while they awaited a check for his latest creation, waking up in their rented California bungalow to find Raymond Chandler passed out on the sofa, his fingers still ensconced in the white gloves he wore the night before while drinking gin and playing poker with a pack of Paramount scribes.

Was it genes or memories that shaped me? Was it just cosmic coincidence that this California writer’s first collection of stories was published by a Georgia-based literary press? Who knows? But what I am certain of is I only have to reach back to what I’ve witnessed and experienced to find the genesis for stories, and then just look and listen all around me for mood, imagery, and voice. I’m not the first to discover nature not only delivers honesty to a well-told tale, but adds punch, no matter the form or genre. Read Chandler’s opener to his short story “Red Wind” and you’ll see what I mean:

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

Okay, now back to writing fiction. Cheers.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

George Singleton's Ode to Henry Gibson

In the 57th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, George Singleton, author of Stray Decorum (Dzanc Books), discusses what made him a writer.

I understand well that it’s asylum-worthy in the South not to mention Faulkner or O’Connor as the omnipresent mentors to any wishful writer-to-be, but as a teenager I looked up to one scribe solely, the under-appreciated poet Henry Gibson, from Laugh-In fame. My parents owned a television set, and my town never supported a library that offered much more than a collection of  South Carolina histories, so it shouldn’t seem odd that, for me, Gibson preceded the southern masters. I did not confront Mr. Faulkner or Ms. O’Connor’s work head-on until just after college—along with Harry Crews and Barry Hannah—so for a while I could only imprint myself on a short, hair-combed-over, cheap version of Ogden Nash.

Understand that during the Laugh-In years I was a beginning distance runner more than anything else.  I got up at five in the morning and—not having a plausible coach, either—ruined my knees on a six mile course running at too fast a pace. These were dark, bat-ridden, scary mornings, and to fight the pain and hallucinations (how many spectral men and animals did I see roaming the nearby woods and fields?) I recited Henry Gibson poems, and tried to write my own. Here’s a typical Gibson:

“Elements” (by Henry Gibson)
I used to like fresh air
When it was there
And water—I enjoyed it.
Till we destroyed it
Each day the land’s diminished
I think I’m finished.

So I ran these goofball poems through my head, more or less, until I quit running at age eighteen when I A) got bored with running and B) tore some kind of ligament in my torso while doing that absurd “six-inches” exercise as ordered by my “coach,” had my personal doctor diagnosis it as gas, and then went off to college where the good track coach there wondered what the heck happened to me during the previous outdoor season and made the correct diagnosis as to why I could not run a mile without bending over as if undergoing appendicitis.  

The college coach said, “We can get you an operation, or it’ll heal itself in a couple years.”

I said, “I think I need to study.”

At least that’s how I remember things. I’m pretty sure I’m close to the exact chain of events. Anyway, I was then an ex-runner prone to waking at five in the morning. What’s there to do at five o’clock in the morning, in a dormitory setting, at a then-Baptist affiliated institution? I read my philosophy texts. I hid in the library in order to escape the predatory and persistent members of Campus Crusade for Christ. I scribbled down poems of my own that weren’t that much different from the Henry Gibson poems I had encountered six years earlier.

And then I discovered Ionesco and Beckett, which—impressionable boy that I was—turned me away from writing early morning poetry to early morning theater of the absurd. And then by my junior year, I came across Pynchon, Barth, and Barthelme, which caused me to turn from playwriting to prose.  

That was thirty-three years ago. You would think that I’d rip a ligament in my wrist, or get carpal tunnel, get bored with writing altogether and take something up anew, that I could find something worthwhile to do with my time two hours before dawn besides either running or writing. 

Like housebreaking. which, as I see it, isn’t that much different from sitting down to start a new short story. Who knows what hurdles and inconsistencies will arise once inside, what inimical characters lurk half-hidden, what unknown welter of fortune might—maybe—emerge.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Joanna Luloff: How A Lost Toe Provided a Creative Toehold

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Joanna Luloff, author of The Beach at Galle Road (Algonquin Books), discusses why she decided to write a book of connected stories rather than a novel.

When I first began writing the stories in The Beach at Galle Road, I had recently returned from Sri Lanka, where I had worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. I began writing with a very tiny idea for a story—an old woman and her missing toe. The old woman was based on my Sri Lankan host grandmother. A few days after my arrival in the village of Baddegama, my host family took an emergency trip to the local hospital. There, my host grandmother had her toe amputated. She suffered from diabetes and poor circulation and her toe had “died.” Over the next weeks, she hobbled around the house with a bandaged foot, looking at times confused, at other times tremendously angry. We couldn’t understand one another; I hadn’t learned her language yet. So we sat in silence, keeping each other company in our shared befuddlement.

A few months later, she died, and I felt stunned by her sudden absence. She had been kind and patient with me, and I had hoped that my Sinhala skills would eventually get to the place where we might share our stories. After her death, I was surprised to learn that my host mother Dhamika (who had become my best friend) had hated her mother-in-law for a number of small meannesses. In my story “Counting Hours,” I eventually wrote about my host grandmother and her missing toe. I tried to explore the silence that had accompanied her return from the hospital, what it might be filled with—anger, regret, confusion. I also wanted to look at the ways in which a once large and fulfilling life could shrink to the small space of a couch. Dhamika’s character hovered in the shadows of that first story, a somewhat bullied young wife and daughter-in-law. After a few months’ time, I started a new story that would allow a fictionalized Dhamika to play a central role.

Sri Lanka
Luckily, at the time I was writing these stories, I took a class on the linked short story with the wise and generous Margot Livesey. In that workshop, we read Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, and Russell Banks’s Trailerpark along with a few other linked collections. Munro’s stories offered glimpses of a single life refracted across time. Doerr’s stories conjured a richly drawn place through multiple vantage points, and Banks’s stories used a rather enclosed space to explore the very different people who live there. Each of these books, through their very different approaches and styles, helped me see the potential expansiveness of a linked collection.

There are many other books and writers that I like to imagine my collection talking with. While I was living in Baddegama, I read several books by Sri Lankan-born writers. I admired Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Coming Through Slaughter; his books felt like wonderfully complex puzzles where characters’ lives bump up against one another, forming an almost, but never complete, whole. Romesh Gunesekera’s Monkfish Moon is a subtle and kaleidoscopic view of Sri Lanka that shows how the notion of home shifts and realigns after both small and large journeys. And other writers have demonstrated the linked collection’s ability to capture long and complicated political conflicts within the particular lives of families and individuals—Edwidge Danticat’s Krik? Krak! and The Dew Breaker, for example. All of these writers helped me see the ways in which stories could communicate across a single text, how story collections could be these wonderfully malleable things that could move fluidly through time and place and character perspectives while still maintaining an almost novelistic narrative arc.

There are more than twelve different perspectives that make up my story collection. I knew a novel couldn’t handle so many points of view. The stories gave me the flexibility to travel from the south of Sri Lanka to the north and east, from older narrators to younger ones, Sri Lankans to foreign aid workers, from girls to boys, from those directly affected by the Sri Lankan civil war to those only tangentially touched by it. My hope was that each story could stand on its own while complementing and complicating other narratives linked to it. The book had begun with a very small idea—the absence of a toe—but it had become a collection that (hopefully) grappled with much larger contemplation of absences, hauntings, escapes, and disappearances.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Beth Bosworth: A Shed of Her Own

In the 55th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Beth Bosworth, author of The Source of Life (University of Pittsburgh Press), talks about where she writes and writing she admires.

What made you want to become a writer?
In 1976 I was studying with Allan Gurganus at Stanford University and he had invited Grace Paley to read.  I thought she was her narrating character, Faith. (She wasn’t.) Afterwards as I recall he said, “Hello, Grace,” and leaned down to kiss her cheek. I’d never seen people more glamorous in my life. That’s one answer to the question.

Where do you find inspiration?
I read and reread really good prose, from Walter Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood to Dashiell Hammet’s The Thin Man. Inspiration is linked, for me, to notions of comfort or nurture; I’ll go back to Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare to learn about being human.

What obstacles have you encountered in your work?
Sometimes I badly want an idea to take form, flesh, and I can waste a lot of time not accepting that just isn’t happening. All sorts of material does eventually get recycled, but that’s different.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
On rare occasion, I’ve sat down to write the whole in the space of a morning. Generally a first draft can take a week. I know if a story is healthy or true to its own terms if I can envision getting up in a roomful of people and reading it aloud.

What's the longest time it has taken you to write a story?
I revise constantly and some of my stories take a long time to gel—years. My sense of how a story ends has changed over time, too. Some ideas end up in short-shorts.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you?
This past summer, while I was working on the final draft of The Source of Life and Other Stories, no new ideas came. I’m often plagued by a sense of fraud—“I’m not really a writer” or “It’s all over”—and I’m relieved to say that ideas have begun to pop in the last week or so. Generally speaking, reading can set off the idea mechanism, as can the return of sunlight in spring.

What is the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
The worst idea I've ever had is for a story about how imbibing water from Brooklyn’s polluted Gowanus Canal causes the women on a certain block to grow noticeably taller. What’s worse is that I go back to the idea from time to time.

Where do you do most of your work?
Remote office
I do most of my work in the quietest, most private spaces possible. Perhaps because my work is less autobiographical than it was, I can now write, if necessary, in a room with other people present, if I wear headphones. In Vermont I’ve had two windows enlarged in a ready-made, internet-free garden shed; in NYC I sneak away to locations undisclosed. Writing colonies have also proven immeasurably useful, not so much for what I’ve written there as for the hard resolve, a kind of revolutionary resolve once I’ve returned to my life that each and every one of us deserves Quiet Hours until four p.m daily.…and lunchboxes filled with cookies and carrot sticks.

What writers have you learned the most from?
The other day a poet I know looked around at the various obligations he had for this season, including reading his poems, teaching, writing recommendations, traveling, writing new poems, and he said quietly, “I’m just going to have to declare this a success.” Every day now, I look around and declare “this” a success. I think I might have three short story collections in me, the way Grace Paley did. I love the taut prose of certain novelists and story writers; Kafka, Doctorow, others. I loved Junot Díaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao for its exuberance, its breadth, its access to fantasy. I note the humility that accompanies some narratives—the reaching out to other people. I had a student once who said Hamlet was about how language connects the mind to the world. Like I said, I go back to Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being or A Room of One’s Own for refueling. I feel like I know that guy Shakespeare, the way many of us do, I’m sure (ha). The writer Jane Avrich once said that if you push tragedy a little farther, it becomes comedy. That seems central, and I am so humbled and honored when someone finds something I’ve written funny. I recently read Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife and was reminded how some great tales take a while to spin. I think we’re always learning from writers and their texts.

What story by another writer do you wish you'd written?
Heinrich von Kleist’s story, “The Earthquake in Chile,” is a miraculous piece of writing. But do I wish I’d written it? Naah…. Occasionally you do read a story or novel and think, “I guess there’s no need to try something like that now, huh.” I felt that way years ago when I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession,  partly because she could actually pull off the Victorian poetry. Wow.

Friday, December 14, 2012

David Ebenbach Doesn't Have the Answers

In the 54th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, David Ebenbach, author of Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers' Publishing House), discusses how writing each story is like starting all over again.

Sometimes I get envious. I’m not even talking about the usual kind of envy we direct toward our fellow writers and their successes; I’m talking about the envy I feel toward people who are doing other things with their lives—being doctors, collecting the trash, running guns across the border illegally, working the stock market, whatever it is. I envy those people because I sometimes get the feeling, right or wrong, that, after a few years on the job, they probably basically know what they’re doing. They know the safest routes across the border, the easiest way to get an appendix out. They know how the trash compactor in the garbage truck works and that they’ve got to buy low and sell high. Whereas I’ve been writing fiction since I was eight years old, have been writing short stories seriously for more than fifteen years, have published two books of short fiction, in fact, and have almost finished a third, and I’m pretty sure I still have no idea what I’m doing.

Real know-how
What I mean, really, is that I still don’t know what it takes to write a short story. Because, on the one hand, there’s one story of mine—“Jewish Day,” from my new collection, Into the Wilderness—that took me eight years to write, with drafts abandoned and radically revised and revived, and time away from the thing altogether, and so on; and on the other hand there’s another piece in that same collection—“Counterfactual”—which basically took me one morning to write, all in a burst. And I like them both equally; they might be my favorite ones in the book.

So: How long does it take to write a story? I don’t know; it depends. And that’s not the only thing I don’t understand; consider the Judith stories; there are four of them in Into the Wilderness, all about the same character—but I started out thinking that her story was going to be a novel. It wasn’t until I’d finished the novel and gotten some honest feedback that I realized that most of the book was sort of crazy but that actually I had, amidst the craziness, some promising connected short stories in there. So, clearly I’m confused about the form that work should take. There have even been stories that were no good until I turned them into poems, or vice versa. Or consider point of view, or setting, or verb tense, or anything else; not infrequently I start the first draft out with one set of choices and it doesn’t end up working until I make other choices. I mean, I’m flailing out here. 

Of course, the really ridiculous thing about all this is that I’m also a teacher. I’m constantly going into the classroom to answer student questions: How long should a story be? How much description do I need? Isn’t present tense a bad choice? How much revision does it take? These people are counting on me for answers, and I don’t have them—or at least I don’t have them in the abstract. That’s why so many creative writing classrooms operate through the format of the workshop: Instead of making general pronouncements about the nature of fiction, we look at specific things the students have written and we try to figure out what that particular piece needs. Maybe it’s almost done, and maybe it needs a whole lot more work. Maybe the story would be better if it was told from a different character’s point of view, or maybe it should be focusing on a different moment in the character’s life. Maybe it needs to be twice as long, or maybe half as long. We don’t know until we get to know that story.

Like it or not, it seems to me that this writing thing—maybe it’s actually the same in the stock market or the garbage truck; I don’t know that, either—but writing fiction, anyway, is not about coming to understand fiction, or at least not in any kind of definitive and permanent way. It’s about writing a particular story, and looking directly and intently at that one particular thing, and coming to understand what it is you have to do, this time, to get it right. Honestly, it’s more like parenting than anything; these things we write are almost as alive as our children, it turns out, and there is no singular wisdom that will help us make all of them grow up right. There is only the wisdom reminding us that we need to figure out how to do it over and over again, every single time.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Ron Hansen and the Legion of Bad Ideas

In the 53rd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ron Hansen, author of She Loves Me Not (Scribner), shares some of his favorite stories.

What made you become a writer?
I have written elsewhere that when I was in kindergarten I was the narrator for a Christmas pageant and recited from memory the nativity story from the gospel of Luke.  I stood there in front of a hundred people, mostly parents, and watched them pay strict and serious attention to what I was saying, even though words and phrases like "manger" and "swaddling clothes" and "the time of her confinement" were like gobbledygook, an absolute mystery to me.  The power of language took root in me, and over the years I realized that storytelling, at least on paper, was something I enjoyed doing enough that I did it voluntarily. In high school I discovered John Updike's work and read everything of his that I could.  Even though I then aspired to be exactly like him, one's own personality comes out even in imitation and few would find many likenesses in our fiction, though I have followed his lead in writing essays and book reviews—mind you, they're not remotely as good.

What's the shortest and longest time it's taken you to write a story?
Some come so quickly that I have little memory of writing them. My children's book, "The Shadowmaker," took only three hours in first draft. The first-person stories "My Kid's Dog" and "My Communist" and "She Loves Me Not" each took less than a week. But speaking of "My Communist":  the idea for that came from a Polish priest's homily in California in 1981. The gossip was that the pope had sent him away from Poland because he was on a KGB hit list for those priests involved in the Solidarity movement. In his homily, the priest said he was spied on by a man in a trenchcoat for several weeks and wanted to speak to him because he would surely know Polish, but then the man stopped following him and the priest was surprised by his feelings of loneliness. I knew immediately, in 1981, that it was the basis for a good short story, but it took me more than twenty years to get around to it.

Oscar Wilde
The necessary added ingredient came in the form of a newsletter that carried a Polish priest's narrative of his journey to Alaska to serve a parish. He'd asked the editor to correct his English, but the editor found his grammatical mistakes charming, and that voice was what precisely what I'd been missing for twenty years. "My Kid's Dog" was a true story that my late father-in-law related to my wife some thirty years after the events it describes. It just hung around in my head for a while, and then I knuckled down and finished it rather quickly. Same with "Wilde in Omaha." I discovered Oscar had visited my hometown in the course of writing a research paper on an entirely different subject when I was probably 21. Many, many years later I remembered a reporter's rather snide version of Oscar Wilde's day in Omaha and I finally thought it was time for me to write my own account. The gestation period can be very long. The blizzard of 1975 in Nebraska greatly influenced my writing about the famous blizzard of 1888 in "Wickedness," but that story was the last one I wrote for my first collection of stories, Nebraska, which was published in 1989. So again, more than a dozen years passed before the inkling got down on paper. 

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
My bad ideas are legion, and I generally just tuck away the finished products in a garage file in the hope that I'll someday figure out how to solve their myriad problems. But one story comes to mind: It took place on Old McDonald's farm (of the children's song) among the talking sheep and cows and chickens who were involved in what resembled a contentious town meeting. At last Old McDonald descended into their midst like a deus ex machina and yelled, "Stop these shenanigans!" I got some chuckles myself in rapidly writing it down, but it really was a ludicrous idea. Sometimes you just have to get these things out of your system.

What stories by other writer do you most wish you'd written?
In no particular order:  

"Mars Attacks" by Jim Shepard.  
"Notes for a Story" by Gail Godwin.  
"Master and Man" by Leo Tolstoy.  
"Redemption" by John Gardner.    
"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien.  
"Everything That Rises Must Converge" by Flannery O'Connor.  
"Pigeon Feathers" by John Updike.  
"In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" by William H. Gass.  
"Spring in Fialta" by Vladimir Nabokov.  
"Big Two-Hearted River" by Ernest Hemingway.  
"Absolution" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  
"How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Corrections . . ." by Joyce Carol Oates.  (She also edited an anthology titled Scenes from American Life and almost everything in it is something I wish I'd done.)  

And already I feel guilt over the many great stories and writers I've left out:  John Cheever, Edna O'Brien, Jean Stafford, Alice Munro. . . the list threatens to be endless.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Helen Marshall: Writing as Tourette Syndrome

In the 52nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Helen Marshall, author of Hair Side, Flesh Side (ChiZine Publications), discusses the powerful, age-old urge for self-expression.

The difference between essay writing and short story writing, I recently had explained to me, is that there really is no market for short stories—you write them because you have to, because you can’t stop doing it.

There’s something about that I find amusing: short story writing as a kind of Tourette syndrome. You might be sitting alone at a restaurant, struggling with chopsticks as you try to get through your pad thai with the modicum of calm dignity attempts that using chopsticks inevitably attempts to shred, and—bang!—out pops a short story. You are embarrassed. The other patrons stare at you. Small children gape and point. The restaurant owner quietly, firmly asks you to leave.

Maybe short story writing is a bit like that.

The starting place for my collection Hair Side, Flesh Side was in the archives of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In order to complete the research for my dissertation on medieval book production, I had agreed to spend four months touring various libraries in England and Europe, poring over four-hundred-year-old manuscripts, making notes on handwriting, discoloration, measuring punctuation marks. It’s the kind of work that is both terribly mysterious and terribly dull.

And I was alone.

I was alone in a strange, gorgeous city where gargoyles and grotesques hung from the hidden places of the buildings above me. I had rented a tiny room—so tiny, in fact, that the only place I could fit my suitcase was wedged between the highest bookshelf and the ceiling so that it overhung the bed by about two feet—in Cowley where the students lived. Half the people told me this was a lively, up-and-coming neighborhood; the other half were worried I’d be raped when I went home from the library.

And the truth was that as glorious as Oxford was, as exciting as the work was, I was lonely. So I wrote. And my stories grew out of the work I was doing and the places that I was seeing: Oxford, Siena, London, Croatia—all these places took on a sort of magical quality that leached into the stories. Stories about children receiving the bodies of dead saints from their divorced parents. Stories about women discovering lost manuscripts written on the inside of their skin. Stories about angels debating the finer parts of temporality, omniscience and art. And the stories were all about the things I couldn’t say. They asked questions too broad for me to ask in my dissertation. What is art? What is history? What is memory? And what have people got to do with any of that?

Illustration from The Three Edwards: War and State
in England 1272–1377
 by Michael Prestwich
The thing about reading old manuscripts is that as you flip through pages of Gothic Bibles, sometimes you’ll stumble upon something written in the margins. It might be a simple note about how tired the monk was, then, of copying. How the light was too dim. Or “Now I've finished: for Christ’s sake give me a drink.” This is where monks first began to write in English after the language was suppressed following the Norman Conquest. You see lyrics, fragments, bits and pieces written on flyleaves, on the backs of charters, or in the spaces between Latin texts. Images too. Apes dressed in lady’s clothing, dragons devouring their own tails, pigs on stilts, rats making off with the sacrament—all these fantastical images sketched out in a few ink strokes.

All writing, I think, is like Tourette syndrome.

It burbles out of us. It leaches out of the cracks in our lives. Writing is infectious. Irresistible. Even those monks for whom accurate copying would have been the most sacred duty could not resist the call to articulate their own experiences. And to elaborate on them.

What many scholars have found strange is how many of those images in the margins of Gothic manuscripts are profane. Quirky. Boisterous. Violent—all those arse-kissing priests and squires jousting with penises. I think there’s something in that. Writing is a space for play, a space to subvert, to argue and counter-argue, to attack, to provoke. Look at Chuck Palahniuk. I can’t think of a writer whose short stories more resemble the bizarre, raunchy scribbles of medieval monks than him!

Short story writing, for me, is wonderful because of its brevity. The short story allows you to play God, to construct a tiny universe and tinker with it, compress it, make it strange and startling. As short story writers, we can explode our worlds. We can push them and their inhabitants to the breaking point, escalate tensions, find the greatest sources of discomfort, the greatest moments of passion and zeal. It’s also one of the most confrontational forms because of its brevity. Short stories are like bullets sent out whizzing into the world:


And because of that, the short story lingers in the mind. Like a dirty word. Like a monk’s jutting phallus. They embarrass us. They shock us. They excite us. A good short story finds the humanity in confrontation. It grabs you by the balls. It refuses to leave you unmoved.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lucy Wood Gets Inspired

In the 51st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Lucy Wood, author of Diving Belles (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), discusses the roots of her stories and what other writers’ work has taught her.

Where do you find inspiration?
For my collection of short stories, Diving Belles, I was inspired by Cornwall’s folklore and landscape. The folklore and the landscape are intrinsically linked: Many of the stories grew directly out of specific locations. When you go walking around Cornwall’s coastline, you can see granite boulders that look as if they’ve been carved by giants and dangerous stretches of water with small peaking waves that look as if they are haunted by mermaids.

Zennor Mermaid Chair, Cornwall
When I started to read nineteenth-century collections of Cornish folklore, I was inspired by the very real, everyday lives that the folklore described. Although the folklore is full of magic and extraordinary events, it is, fundamentally, about human situations and relationships. For example, stories about mermaids luring men out to sea are stories about loss and absence. I find it fascinating that these stories may have evolved to describe the feeling of losing a loved one at sea.

I found certain images in the folklore very inspiring: a wrecker swinging a wrecking lamp in the dark, house spirits watching over a house, storm spirits hovering over the sea. I also came across lots of interesting Cornish dialect words during my research. The word “wisht,” which means melancholy or lonely, and is also the name of hounds that run over the moors, is very evocative. When I came across this word I was inspired to craft a story around its meaning and the atmosphere it evokes.

What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
I have learned things from so many writers. I think the ones that have had the most influence on me are Annie Proulx, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, and the poets John Burnside and Alice Oswald. I am particularly influenced by writing that focuses on a particular place or landscape. The way that Annie Proulx writes about the landscape of Wyoming in her short stories and Newfoundland in The Shipping News is really inspiring—the language and style that she uses reflects the environment she’s writing about. And the characters and the action are shaped by place, too.

Along with many short story writers, I learned a lot from Raymond Carver’s stories. His stories are so well crafted and the tension is perfectly pitched. Carver’s stories show that nothing much needs to happen in a short story, as long as the tension and conflict is maintained and developed throughout it. I learned that what it unsaid and unspoken is just as important, or even more important, than what is said.

Lorrie Moore is such a playful writer: Her stories play with form and language, move backwards through time, and use second person narration. She finds the right balance between sadness and wit, often with a well-placed pun. This play with language and vivid imagery is evident in a lot of the poetry that I enjoy reading. Both Alice Oswald’s and John Burnside’s poetry are rooted in a specific place or landscape, and they evoke this through unusual language and imagery. Poems are often structured through movement from image to image, from conjuring a particular atmosphere, or through repetition, and I try to use these ideas in my own writing.

What story by another writer do you most wish you’d written?
I wish I had written Lorrie Moore’s collection Self-Help. The collection works so well because it is tied together by such a wonderful premise—stories that take the form of self-help guides. This means that Lorrie Moore can play around with, and poke fun at, the structures and clichés of self-help manuals, while at the same time gently poking fun at the disasters and tragedies of her characters. The whole book is full of wit and wry humour, but it is also serious and sad. I love the way that the stories use the second person ‘you’ to address the reader, as if the reader is a character in the book. Like the self-help manuals that the collection plays off, “you” implicates the reader in the action, the character’s small joys and mistakes are everyone’s. Lorrie Moore plays around with time to great effect throughout the whole thing, whether we are moving forward quickly through a relationship in small snapshots, or going backward, seeing a relationship between a mother and daughter from the mother’s death to the daughter’s birth.  

The stories are full of interesting language, vivid images, and poignant moments. There is a real confidence and playfulness to the collection, and it is wise without being earnest. It really influenced my decision to base my first short story collection on a specific premise, Cornish folklore, and find ways to play around with its ideas and structures in my own work.