Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Favoring Humanity: Deborah Eisenberg, George Saunders, and the Short Story

By Patrick Thomas Henry

Stranded: Eisenberg, Wittmann, and Saunders
On Jan. 11, readers escaped Manhattan’s rain-dowsed Union Square for an evening celebrating the contemporary short story. The event, at The Strand bookstore, paired Deborah Eisenberg and George Saunders for a reading and a discussion moderated by Newsweek/ Daily Beast books editor Lucas Wittmann. The event’s cover charge was the purchase of Saunders’ newest collection Tenth of December, Eisenberg’s The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg, or a ten-dollar Strand gift card—but the buzz among the sold-out crowd was that buying either book was a better deal than the gift card. The readings and discussion were held on an elevated dais at the rear of the Strand's rare books room, where shelves of collectible volumes served as a backdrop for the night’s conversation.

Eisenberg’ and Saunders’ accomplishments rank them among the top writers specializing in the short story. Eisenberg, among other accolades, has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, and the 2011 PEN/Faulkner Award for The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg. She taught in the University of Virginia’s MFA program from 1994 to 2011 and now teaches at Columbia University. Saunders, also a MacArthur Fellow, was recently the subject of Joel Lovell’s New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” Saunders’ first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and his collection In Persuasion Nation was a finalist for The Story Prize. Saunders has been a member of the graduate writing program faculty at Syracuse University since 1997.

George Saunders
Saunders read from “Home,” a short story from Tenth of December. In “Home,” a traumatized veteran finds his family and community in disarray. The story’s narrator cannot interpret the transformations in his town and personal life, and he eventually admits, in typical Saunders fashion, “I started feeling like a chump, like I was being held down by a bunch of guys so another guy could come over and put his New Age fist up my ass while explaining that having his fist up my ass was far from his first choice and was actually making him feel conflicted.”

Eisenberg then read an excerpt from “Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” first collected in Twilight of the Superheroes. In this story, the protagonist, Lulu, returns to the East Coast after her Nana suffered a disabling stroke, and Lulu’s miscommunications with her brother Bill lead to vocal clashes over Nana’s care. As a backdrop to Lulu and Bill’s vitriolic exchanges, Nana—rendered mute from her stroke—incessantly watches the black-and-white television’s shifty, grainy images, a resonant metaphor for the muddled conversations that govern our lives.

In response to these readings, Lucas Wittmann observed that each writer eloquently captured the inexpressive and inarticulate qualities of everyday speech. This interpretation of their work initiated a discussion on writing and teaching short fiction. Eisenberg and Saunders described how their work correlates to lived experiences and, furthermore, to teaching MFA students to sincerely depict their surroundings. Wittmann, invoking the footage of war protests in “Revenge of the Dinosaurs” and the recently discharged veteran in “Home,” asked the authors to place their stories in the context of recent political events. Eisenberg responded, after Wittmann queried her about the recently averted fiscal cliff and the crumbling vision of the American middle class. “One assumed there would always be a middle class. But now, to see it eroded and to see ourselves on this planetary cliff for everything—it couldn’t be more terrifying and riveting,” said Eisenberg.

Deborah Eisenberg
Eisenberg’s remarks suggested that the writer’s task is to express the intrinsic—and simultaneous—beauty and terror of our ever-shifting reality. Yet, both she and Saunders cautioned students against giving ideology priority because that approach can crowd out characters and genuine sentiments. These emotions, they argued, welcome the reader into a story’s fictionalized world. For this reason, Saunders commented that he often teaches Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes to his MFA students because of the collection’s “intelligent surface and overall charm.” For Saunders, the “charm offensive” of Eisenberg’s stories is effective because her prose explores the dramatic tension between characters and their circumstances, so that the larger ideas arise from the characters’ behaviors. When an author crafts a story in this way, Saunders claims, the ensuing symbols, tropes, and metaphors that convey a narrative’s message become “more honest, sincere.” This critical assessment could be swiveled around to accurately judge Saunders’ own stories, such as “Home,” which reveals the muddle of ideology to express the illegibility of its narrator’s circumstances at home.

Another reason to resist idea-based fiction is what Eisenberg termed the “danger of imposing rules.” Indeed, Saunders jocularly dismissed the misconception that MFA programs allow students to “receive the secrets on a silver platter.” Based on this conversation, Wittmann suggested that the purpose of an MFA program isn’t one of passing down strictures but of teaching students to read themselves and others. Eisenberg and Saunders both endorsed this mission. Yet, as both writers continued praising the short story’s compression as a means of amplifying a narrative’s clarity and momentum, I suspected that they were imparting a message as pervasive—yet easily neglected—as the shrouding mists outside The Strand. The writer’s craft must emphasize conveying sensation and emotion accurately, fairly, and evocatively—in defiance of our own worst habits. Eisenberg intimated as much when she discussed a conversion in her own writing habits: the decision to keep notebooks during the aftermath of September 11. Eisenberg said, “9/11 was a huge obstacle.  I felt that things were going to start changing immediately . . . and that it would be impossible to remember accurately.” So she bucked her own methods, kept journals, and resisted the urge to soliloquize in a manner that would emphasize concepts over humanity.

What Eisenberg and Saunders imparted on a cold, rainy night is a warming sentiment: May all writers have a vision crystalline enough to remember why they write, and for whom. This hope is as pervasive in Eisenberg’s Collected Stories and Saunders’ Tenth of December, as it was at their reading at The Strand.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Here Are Your Story Prize Finalists: Dan Chaon, Junot Díaz, and Claire Vaye Watkins

Dan Chaon           Claire Vaye Watkins                Junot Díaz
We’re pleased to announce the books and authors we've chosen as this year's finalists for The Story Prize:

These are all outstanding short story collection by skillful and accomplished authors, whom we're thrilled to have as finalists for The Story Prize. We read 98 short story collections from 65 different publishers or imprints in 2012. Quite a few would have made excellent finalists. It’s always hard to choose just three books, and it will be just as difficult (if not more so) to compile a short list of other notable collections we read in 2012.

We're also excited to announce something new, The Story Prize Spotlight Award, a $1,000 prize to a book submitted for The Story Prize that we believe deserves further attention. This year's winner is Krys Lee for Drifting House (Viking).

The Story Prize’s annual event will take place at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium in New York City at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 13. General admission tickets are $14. That night, the finalists will read from and discuss their work onstage. At the end, Julie Lindsey (Founder of The Story Prize) will announce which of these three deserving authors gets the top prize of $20,000—the most of any U.S. annual book award for fiction. Our three judges—critic Jane Ciabattari, author Yiyun Li, and bookseller Sarah McNally—are reading the books and will determine the outcome.

The Story Prize Spotlight Award—Oh, Do Not Ask: "What Is It?"

This year, we're introducing something new: The Story Prize Spotlight Award, which will provide an additional prize of $1,000* to the author of a book entered for The Story Prize.

Why create another award? 
Author Krys Lee
Because The Story Prize’s aim is to support fiction and encourage authors who write it. The finalists and eventual winner, we believe, bring added attention to the form. But we read more than 90 books each year, and more than the three we choose as finalists are worthy of attention. So we decided to add another award to cast a wider net. The winner of the Story Prize Spotlight Award might be the work of an emerging author, an established but overlooked author, or an innovator in the short story form.

Who is the winner this year?
The first winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award is Krys Lee, author of the story collection Drifting House, published by Viking.

Why this book?
Because this is a powerful and moving debut collection. The nine stories in Drifting House are set in the U.S., South Korea, North Korea, and often—from the characters’ perspectives—the indistinct spaces between these places. We felt this book merited more attention and a wider readership.

Does the jury that chooses the winner of The Story Prize also determine the winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award?
No. The Story Prize judges only choose the winner from among the three finalists. Director Larry Dark and Founder Julie Lindsey will select the winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award at their discretion from among the regular pool of entries for The Story Prize. Any book submitted for The Story Prize will also receive consideration for The Story Prize Spotlight Award. The winner might be an emerging author, an established but overlooked author, or an innovator in the short story form.

How will you announce the award, and will the winner be part of The Story Prize event?
We will announce the winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award along with the three finalists each January, and we will also mention and honor the Spotlight winner at our award night on March 13 at The New School. However, the Spotlight Award winner will not be a participant in the event itself.

* The winner of The Story Prize gets $20,000—the largest top prize of any annual U.S. book award for fiction—and each of the other two finalists gets $5,000.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

An Index of Posts from Authors of Story Collections Published in 2012

In 2012, for the third straight year, The Story Prize offered the authors of books we read the opportunity to contribute a guest post. The aim is to give more exposure to more books than the three we choose as finalists. Out of 98 short story collections we received as entries, 72 authors availed themselves of this opportunity. 

Authors could either choose from among a set of questions or write a post on a subject of their own choosing. The questions we provided were:

  • What made you want to become a writer?
  • Where do you find inspiration?
  • What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
  • What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
  • What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
  • How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
  • If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
  • What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
  • Where do you do most of your work?
  • What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
  • What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written?

The format is consistent for each post—a standard introduction followed by a composite image of the author and book cover, then the author's post. The aim is to let the entry speak for itself. According to Blogger's stats, posts usually received at least 50 page views, with most getting 100 or more and the most active page (Junot Díaz's) attracting more than 1,200 views. 

Here's an alphabetical listing of 2012-13 posts by author's last name, with links to each: 

Monday, January 7, 2013

Claire Vaye Watkins and the Myth of the Good Idea

In the 72nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn (Riverhead Books), discusses bad ideas for bad stories and bad ideas for good stories.

What’s the worst idea for a story you ever had?
It’s difficult to determine the worst idea I ever had for a story, and not just because I’ve had so many. There was the one about a town that builds a rocket ship to colonize the moon, deciding to leave all the rabble-rousing feminists behind. There was the one about a stoner dropout whose absentee father recruits him to repair his failed marriage (the stoner agrees, inexplicably, and ends up with his dad, watching his stepmother have sex with her new lover atop a trampoline. Naturally, they watch from beneath said trampoline). There was the one about two brothers who ride bikes through town after a flash flood has garlanded the streets with carcasses of drowned tabby cats. A Judy Garland figure tries to seduce a young guest—a trailer park chubber named Jellyroll—at her ten year-old daughter’s birthday party. A couple travel to Fort Vancouver to nurture their last shred of love and respect for each other, which is, of course a literal shred that closely resembles menstruate, and which they keep in a Tupperware dish, for it is, yes, animate (chase scene!). There was the one—a comedy—about a mother who returns to college and chains her son to a boulder in their front yard because she suspects him of masturbating to an issue of Reader’s Digest she’s not yet read.

Those are perhaps obviously rotten ideas, but what about the 9/11 story wherein a teenage girl allows her best friend to be gang raped? Or the story about a gay madam who falls for a foxy Italian tourist who holes up in his brothel when the Italian’s companion disappears in the desert? Or the one about the Forty-Niner who can see the future? Or the one where pretty much nothing happens except two abortions?

Those all sound pretty lousy, too, and they may be, but those are the ideas for some of the stories in Battleborn. My thinking is there’s no such thing as a bad idea for a story. Or perhaps what I mean is every idea for a story is bad until you make it good. Any time I’ve written anything good I’ve spent the vast majority of the composition process convinced it was an utter stinker. And they were stinkers, until they weren’t, at which point they were done. The only way to get from one to the other is work. That’s the tiny, tremendous membrane separating Joshua, the homesick and clairvoyant Forty-Niner in “The Diggings,” from poor lil’ Jellyroll.

Debunking the myth of the good idea is essential for the short story writer. It is, I think, essential for any writer working in any genre other than film or television. There’s a reason fiction writers don’t pitch their books (imagine Toni Morrison saying, “Picture this! Ghost baby has sex with her mom’s boyfriend! It’ll win a Nobel!”). The idea is a formality, mere permission. The triumph is what you do with it.

This post is dedicated to the memory of young Jellyroll. May he rest in peace.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Brian Evenson and the Twelve-Year Story

In the 71st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Brian Evenson, author of Windeye (Coffee House Press), discusses the long and short of it.

What made you want to become a writer?
When I was twelve my mother published a science fiction story in a small anthology, and then went on to write a few more stories. To give herself time to write, she would set my four siblings and me up doing something while she was writing—drawing, painting, etc. Since I was the oldest, she set me up with our manual typewriter and encouraged me to write a story. After spending an hour or so seeing how many keys I could make stick together by hitting them at once, I ended up deciding it might be worth it to actually try to write something. I did, and was surprised to find I really liked the process of writing.

Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve always been a strong believer in the idea of a writer finding inspiration from anywhere, and trying to be open to all the different directions inspiration might come from. I get a lot of inspiration from other stories, from reaching a point in a story where I think, What might have happened if the story had gone in this direction instead? But I also get inspiration from music, from events in life, from idle thoughts—just about everything at one time or another.

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
I think most of my obstacles have been self-inflicted. A big part of being a writer is figuring out how to get out of your own way.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
When I was very young, I’d write stories in a single long sitting, then revise them a few times very quickly. The story could potentially go from flash of inspiration/idea to finished product in less than a week. The only time recently I had something like that happen was when I wrote “Windeye”—the actual writing was very quick, and it didn’t need much revision: All that was done in just a few days. At the same time, I’d had the idea for the story probably several months before, so it had had a long time to percolate.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
There’s a story that I began when I was 17 and which I didn’t finish until I was 29. I obviously didn’t work on it the whole time, but I worked on it quite a bit over the years. I couldn’t quite get it right, but also still felt there was something there, waiting to happen. Finally, after twelve years, it did.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I’m lucky in that I have many more ideas for stories than I can actually write. I think it’s really a question of being willing to let your mind explore the possibilities that the world or other books don’t take—not only living your life or following that plot but always thinking about what might have happened if that life or plot had swerved in another direction, even very quietly. That for me is the trick—quiet differences rather than dramatic ones that very slowly open onto completely other worlds.

What’s the worst idea for a story you've every had?
Lackluster protagonist
When I was in my early teens, I wrote a story that began “I am a rock. I live in the center of the earth.” Turns out that it’s hard to have dramatic tension if you’re a rock that can’t actually move, surrounded by other rocks. I tried to make the most of it, but that story is mercifully hidden away in my files.

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written?
There are a lot of stories I really admire by other writers. I think my choice would be Franz Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,”,which strikes me as doing about as perfectly as possible what I’d like to do with my own fiction. But there’s also William Trevor’s story “Miss Smith.” And there are so many others out there:  Kelly Link’s “Catskin,” Jessie Ball’s “Pietr Emily,”  Dino Buzzati’s “The Falling Girl,”  pretty much anything James Salter has written. It’s very hard to choose…

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Joshua Cohen's Nine Worst Story Ideas

In the 70th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Joshua Cohen, author of Four New Messages (Graywolf Press), gives several answers to a question.

The Story Prize has asked: “What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?” Below are nine answers—from a late teens/early twenties flirtation with “scifi.”

1.  Once upon a time a machine was invented to invent every possible scifi story. It made stories of space opera, space western, interspecies romance, time travel, parallel universe, cyberpunk, steampunk, utopia, dystopia, apocalypse noir. It created literally billions of stories. This story you are reading now is #45,059,534,455.

2.  Scifi writers, at their annual convention in Newark, decide to take over Hollywood by writing nothing original anymore but by merely novelizing movies with great accuracy: describing setting, transcribing dialogue. For years no new scifi is written, while the only scifi that gets published remakes recent movies in prose. Gradually filmmakers forget this fact and begin remaking scifi into movies again: remakes of remakes, remakes of remakes of remakes. This will continue until filmmakers forget about literature entirely. Gradually.

3.  A boy reads a scifi story in a book, but the book, being old and maltreated, is missing pages, specifically the story’s last three pages, and so while the boy is under the impression that the story he’s reading has ended, really the ending has been missed. In the last three pages the hero who the boy thinks has died is revealed as actually being alive, and his death nothing but an alternate destiny. The story, then, has something of a trick ending. Too many scifi stories have trick endings…

Years later the boy’s on a date. This is the first date he’s been on in months, and he’s nervous. The girl, similarly dateless of late, is nervous, too. Over dinner they begin talking about movies, which leads to booktalk and, after they’re comfortable with one another and a smidgen drunk, their geekiness blooms (like a rose) or spurts (like a cream-filled chocolate) as they discuss scifi. The girl mentions a story familiar to the boy and proceeds to detail its plot. The boy stops her eagerly, fills in much of the rest, then adds, I thought it was so sudden though, that he died.

 She says, He didn’t die, that’s the point, he was alive the whole time.

 He says, That’s not how I remember it.

And the girl, who until now had been entertaining great prospects with this boy, frowns, thinking anyone who can’t remember an ending isn’t worth beginning with.

4.  Someone writes a scifi story that features a character called Nul. A movie’s made and is called Nul. Duly, Nul apparel appears in stores, Nul lunchboxes and actionfigures, a Nul videogame. Then, civilization crumbles (this, of course, is the funnest aspect of scifi, just saying that, just doing that—crumbling).

A million years later the alien equivalent of archaeologists discover a lost planet that worshipped a god called Nul and bring this cult of Nul back to the home galaxy, where its objects are venerated, if not religiously then for reasons of historical respect. Until, that is, a subsequent research team manages to translate what are known as “intellectual property laws,” and the alien intelligentsia, previously the most ardent servant of Nul, becomes suddenly ambivalent.

5.  A young writer of scifi outlines an elaborate story that serves as a political allegory. Alien People A are very poor and oppressed by Alien People B. The writer, who is a liberal like all young writers, obviously sympathizes with People A. The book is a smash hit, and he spends the rest of his life writing sequels. But, over the years, as he gets richer and tired, more old and conservative, he finds he agrees more with People B, and begins to suspect that People A are responsible, to some degree, for their own poverty and ignorance.

However this sense also passes, and at the very end of his life the allegory has been forgotten entirely as the writer grinds out books describing only kidnappings, rapes, and murder, in an unending war between two mutually incomprehensible selves.

6.  A man who produced scifi comicbooks was a rarity for his day: He both wrote the words and drew the pictures. One day, the day his wife left him for drinking too much and smoking marijuana and sleeping with the redhead down on the third floor, he developed a terrible problem. Everywhere he walked a bubble would follow: a thought bubble, and in it people could read each of his thoughts, floating just above his head. When the redhead left him a month later for an assistant harpist with the San Francisco Symphony, the thought bubble, which had been connected to his head by sundry puffs, became connected to his mouth by a wisp, and turned into a speech bubble, which meant that now everything he said could be heard everywhere, as if he were speaking from the clouds. Some people had begun to think he was a god, but the women in his neighborhood knew he was just an egomaniac who kept odd hours, drew dirty pictures, and never washed his pants.

7.  Once an elderly scifi writer was solicited by the new young editor of the last scifi magazine to appear in print and, in response, submitted a story that involved squid—he thought it was a squid. But then when the magazine finally printed the story—two years later in the last issue of any scifi mag to ever appear—and he received his single complimentary copy at the Westchester assisted-living facility he’d just been moved into by his daughter following his second stroke, he found that every instance of the word “squid” had been changed to “pickup truck” (though once it was just “pickup”). Other than that, the story appeared unchanged—not even copyedited, all its typos intact.

The writer spent the last two years of his decline wondering how all his squids had become trucks, and tried his hand at various fictional explanations (squid meant truck in an alien dialect into which his story had been translated before being translated back into English by the alien editors of a periodical that was, in truth, to serve as an alien constitution, and so on—because the aliens had lost the original manuscript and had to work hurriedly)—all of which attempts were failures, though his daughter, who typed every single one of these stories from his shaky handwriting on napkins, would never have admitted that to Dad.

8.  Once a literary genre was invented to relieve the psychic pressure brought to bear on human life by mechanization, and the encroachments of technology. But once that technology overtook life, and life became just one more form of mechanization, there was no more need for this genre. What formerly had been fiction now was fact, and that was perhaps the strangest story conceivable.

9.  There once was an inventor who invented a machine to invent, and categorize, every possible scifi story. His machine made stories of space opera, space western, interspecies romance, time travel, parallel universe, cyberpunk, steampunk, utopia, dystopia, apocalypse noir. It created literally billions of stories. This story you’re reading now is from category #45,059,534,456.

(The writer of the above story sat back in his chair, well satisfied. His happiness lasted until he realized he could not think of a single magazine left that would publish him.)

Friday, January 4, 2013

Krys Lee Navigates Between Worlds

In the 69th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Krys Lee, author of Drifitng House (Viking), discusses what motivates and inspires her.

What made you want to become a writer? 
Reading saved my life when I was young, and unfortunately, I’m not exaggerating. The next step, moving from reading to writing, came naturally, as I grew up loving the escape into stories and words. Discovering a world—and word—I didn’t know, was a thrill, and to put words down on paper showed me that there was so much rage, hurt, and love I hadn’t been able to express. Writing allowed me to release that secret self that was uglier, harder, as well as more hopeful and more willing to dream, than my public self. I wanted to write and create a world that wasn’t about me, but by writing, I found myself looking back at me from the pages. Today, I write for those reasons, and more. When I can’t change or fix what I find unjust in the world, or see the secret selves of misunderstood or neglected others, I find myself wanting to write. 

Where do you find inspiration? 
The world and its people are my inspiration. I’ve lived on three continents and have spent exactly half my life speaking in two different languages. I grew up in the United States without knowing what it meant to have health insurance and saw my parents lose the very little that they had before I was twenty-one, and now live a stable life with more opportunities than my parents. My good friends range from professors, park rangers, writers and readers, to North Korean defectors. This navigation between worlds has liberated me from a fixed sense of what is real, what is right, and who I (or anyone) is. This constant relativity can be a bit dizzying, and sometimes a little lonely, but I try to understand the rich chaos of the world is through fiction. 

Books are also a source of excitement and inspiration. When I read a book that excites me, I feel, as Emily Dickinson put so well, as if the top of my head were taken off. Most recently, I had that experience when I read Jeet Thayil’s incredible novel Narcopolis. I also turn to history, philosophy, poetry. Words, words, words. They excite me. 

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
I’m my greatest obstacle. When I first began writing, it was my lack of confidence and feeling that nothing I wrote would ever be worth reading. Later, it was my lack of concentration. I’m a restless person, have never been great at sitting down for extended periods of time unless I’m reading, and I don’t take Adderall or any of those other aids that some writers use to pull them through the writing day. Instead of fighting this, I allow myself to stay involved in other work that I care about, go kayaking when that’s what my body is wanting, read, travel, or wander around different neighborhoods. I began writing for myself as an act of need and pleasure, and I want to respect that first impulse. As long as writing is a steady part of my life, I accept my restlessness, though I wish I had the work habits of Philip Roth.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas? 
When I was working on the stories, new ideas came to me nearly every other day. I saw the world through story, or as story. I jotted down entire introductions to ideas that excited me that I haven’t had time to return to yet. But since I began working on a novel, this has been happening to me far less. In my experience, there’s something about being immersed in the universe of the novel that seems to suppress the impulse toward all the disparate story ideas that might come to a person in a day. Rather, if I get ideas, they are already implicitly a part of the novel or are new novel ideas, all which have a very different feel and shape than my story ideas did. Writing stories allowed me to imagine radically.

Where do you do most of your work? 
I write most of the time in the library, cafes, or in bed. I enjoy the library because all the others studying helps writing feel like a slightly less isolating endeavor. The distractions are always entertaining too, as men have occasionally clipped their toes or started rambunctious rows a few feet away from me. These days I’m usually in my favorite book café in Seoul run by a major South Korean publisher. The high ceilings, the presence of books, and the buzz of people talking about and writing create a good working environment. And the incredible hot chocolate doesn’t hurt either. I resort to the bed when I can’t bear the idea of sitting upright and working. Something about staying prostrate while sipping hot chocolate and tapping at the keyboard with two fingers reminds me that writing is also play and pleasure.

But the real answer is that if I don’t feel as if I can write in a certain environment, I’ll write wherever I can, whether it is the subway, in a tent camping, or sitting on a bench in a park. Days off writing and away from the desk are an important part of writing, too. 

What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
I’d like to claim everyone from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Kurt Vonnegut, but in retrospect I think the economy and restraint of Ernest Hemingway and Elizabeth Bishop the poet have been influential. I grew up as a teenager reading the oeuvre of Hemingway and Bishop (a modest collection), and it seems to have influenced my impatience with pretty words that aren’t doing much on the page. Virginia Woolf was also very important to me. Her narrative vision and the tension and energy of her sentences were important to me, as were her life-long obsessions with time and death. 

What story by another writer do you most wish you'd written? 
There are so many. I admire Anton Chekov’s “The Lady with the Dog” for its understated, heartbreaking power and the way we feel the expanse of the characters’ lives within a moment. Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” is a story that anyone interested in stories as well as the human condition should read. Also, if I can throw another one in, it would probably be Lorrie Moore’s “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People.” It’s a wicked, funny story that turns into one of understanding and even tenderness. I admire humor in fiction precisely because it eludes me. I may start with draft of a comic story but as I revise, it inevitably turns into some dark tale. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

L. Annette Binder: Five Passages I Wish I’d Written (and a Poem)

In the 68th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, L. Annette Binder, author of Rise (Sarabande Books), offers some of her favorite quotes.

Sometimes when I’m hard at work on a piece of fiction, I can’t read other prose. I’ll read magazines, foreign language dictionaries, camping gear catalogues, anything around the house that won’t encroach on my work. This can go on for weeks at a time.

Then I’ll finish my story or my chapter and resurface for a little while. I’ll read five or ten novels or story collections in quick succession, and I’ll be struck again by how many wonderful writers are out there, and even as I’m reading I’ll want to get back to work.

Here are a few fiction excerpts—some recent and some not, some only a sentence, some a little longer—that I return to time and again.

Number One:
“He was too excited to eat and afraid to go home. He felt as though his heart were a bomb, a complicated bomb that would result in a simple explosion, wrecking the world without rocking it.”
– Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts
Sometimes restraint leaves too many questions unanswered, as if the writer were undecided about the story and the characters and decides to cover for the undercooked narrative by withholding. Other times, as here, it opens entire worlds in a single paragraph.

Number Two:
“This is suffering’s lesson: pay attention. The important part might come in a form you do not recognize.”
– Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay
Crystalline prose that describes—and transcends—the effects of serious illness on the body and the self. By the time Manguso gets to her final observation (just a few lines after this excerpt), it stops me still. It wrecks me every time I read it.

Number Three:
 “The overcoat was a trademark of his. It was an impermeable thrift-shop special with a plaid flannel lining and wide lapels, and it looked as though it had been trying for many years to keep the rain off the stooped shoulders of a long series of hard cases, drifters, and ordinary bums. It emitted an odor of bus station so desolate that just standing next to him you could feel your luck changing for the worse.”
– Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys
Large-hearted, funny, with wonderfully precise and ornate prose. A lesson in how to linger in a moment and how description can create character, and a reminder that stories don’t have to be dark to have great power.

Number Four:
“He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ”
– Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men
Astonishing. This novel is one of the most remarkable things written in the English language and one of the truest and most moving uses of first person I’ve read. Every time I see the moon I think of this passage.

Number Five:
“With a guide and a handful of children Maria walked through the chambers, stared at the turbines in the vast glittering gallery, at the deep still water with the hidden intakes sucking all the while, even as she watched; clung to the railings, leaned out, stood finally on a platform over the pipe that carried the river beneath the dam. The platform quivered. Her ears roared. She wanted to stay in the dam, lie on the pipe itself, but reticence saved her from asking.”
– Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
A key moment in the novel, in Didion’s distinctive prose. Reticence brought Maria to this terrible place, and reticence saved her, too. This novel taught me that a character can be passive and still be compelling. It showed me, too, how prose rhythm can heighten the reader’s experience of the characters’ alienation.

And the Poem:
The warning that reiterates across
The water: there might someday be fog
(They will be lost), there might very well
Be fog someday, and you will have nothing
But remembrance, and you will have to learn
To be grateful.
– Sarah Hannah, “For the Foghorn When There is No Fog” (full poem)
When a new journal comes to my house, I always read the poems first. They are a tuning fork and a comfort and this lovely poem by Sarah Hannah is one I return to often, for the perfection of its form and its soulfulness.

Remembrance and gratitude, these are two things that writing has taught me. Look around at the world, take it in, and be grateful for the chance to write your story and for the interruptions, too. You could have two hundred years to write and it wouldn’t be enough.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

E.J. Levy and the Sympathetic Practice

In the 67th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, E.J. Levy, author of Love, in Theory (University of Georgia Press), discusses the evolution of her subject matter.

“All literature is autobiography,” modernist novelist Virginia Woolf once claimed. When I first tried my hand at writing fiction at the age of 30, in an evening extension class at City College in New York years ago, I found Woolf’s words a comfort: that the material of my life and those I knew might be the stuff of literature delighted me. I’d grown up in Midwestern suburbs, that most unromantic of places, had studied economics as an undergrad, that most unromantic of subjects. I worried that our lives were not the stuff of art. I did not reside at Mansfield Park, had not spent time in an orphanage or in a war, but Woolf’s work and words about writing promised that our lives might matter nonetheless, if observed closely and well.

So I took notes on how we lived in Brooklyn at the end of the 20th century—the tribe of lesbians I lived among in Park Slope then, the artists and editors at the magazine where I worked—and I wrote my first story, “Theory of Transportation,” in a single sitting, a story that would in time become the seed of my first collection, Love, In Theory, winner of the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award. Above all, I read and reread the wonderful short stories of Amy Hempel, Lorrie Moore, David Leavitt, and John Cheever, amazed by their alchemy, how they transformed daily-ness into drama and significance.

Octopus: seed of a story
Almost a decade later, I got up the nerve to go to graduate school where I wrote most of the stories in the debut book that was published this year. As I wrote, I leaned away from the personal, drawn to the mystery of lives unlike my own: an octogenarian on an ornithological tour in Costa Rica; an orderly in a psychiatric ward in northern Minnesota; a gay male oncologist home for a wedding; a rug collector in Chicago; a woman pursuing her beloved to an ashram, after having been dumped for God. These days, the seeds of my short stories most often come from The New York Times—a young Pakistani woman who flees a brothel with her beloved’s help, only to find that their parents want to send her back; elderly Chinese workers speed dating at IKEA; intelligent octopodes. These days the inspiration for story often lies far from my life, in the mystery of what is not known.

Conducting research for a story can be, for me, nearly as engaging as writing; both provide the singular pleasure that poet Elizabeth Bishop famously described as “a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration.” Writing, we are lost in thought—or, more accurately, we are found.

Increasingly I write to shrug off the yoke of self and slip into other lives, to know what it is to be human at this point in history; I write, in short, for the same reasons that I read. Mine is a common trajectory for fiction writers: First we write to affirm and understand our own experience, then we write to understand other lives. (Of course, the division isn’t nearly so neat between the two subjects: writing about the one, we are engaged in the other.) For me, fiction writing has always been a practice of disciplined empathy. It’s just that when I first set out to write at thirty, I needed to develop empathy for myself and for those I lived among; now the human circle is expanded.

There was a time not long ago when my first stories began to be published—in the Paris Review, North American Review, publications where those writers I’d admired had published, too—when I worried whether writing fiction was self-indulgent. I wondered, Why write? When so much was wrong with the world. Answers to that question are obviously as various as writers are, as diverse as their work. The best answer lies in the work itself, and in the working. In the patient practice of noticing and noting down the details of one’s life and those of others, we gently stitch ourselves more tightly to the world. The act of writing restores a conversation with oneself that we are sorely in need of having in our increasingly distracted culture. It’s a kind of communion with the self, which is the foundation for a communion with others and the world.

These days I tell my graduate students that fiction writing is a sympathetic practice—by imagining our way into others’ lives, we exercise and strengthen our ability to care for and about others, transcending briefly our egoism; writing, we exercise that most important muscle, the heart.