Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Johnny Townsend Asks "What If?"

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Johnny Townsend, author of Dragons of the Book of Mormon, throws out some ideas.

Hamlet was wrong. The question isn’t “To be or not to be.” The question is “What if?” That’s the question we as writers need to ask all the time. When people ask me where I come up with my ideas, the answer is basically, “Everywhere.” The trick is to see or hear or read something and let it spark a question in your mind. “What if?”

Once I was in an elevator on my way to work, and the elevator stopped between floors, just for a moment, but enough to give me a scare. Then I thought, “What if I were a woman, and I was trapped on an elevator with my lecherous boss?” Thinking about that led to my story, “The Elevator Ceiling.”

I recently attended a friend’s wedding. It was a lovely event, but I thought, “What if a supporter of Prop 8 was forced to attend his boss’s gay wedding?” That led to my story, “Bumper Sticker Theology.”

I read an awful story in the news about two friends who were lost while hiking in the fog in a state park. After a park ranger found them and brought them to their car, they drove off right into the lake and drowned. My immediate reaction was horror, but only a moment later, I thought, “What if a man who felt trapped in his marriage subconsciously forced his wife to do dangerous activities, like skydiving or taking hikes in the fog?” That led to my story, “The Eyes of March.”

Temple Men
Even reading a relatively humorous news story can lead to an idea. I saw a short article about Pakistan’s newest superhero—the Burka Avenger. Many people would just read the article and be amused. But if you’re a writer, you have to let things like that inspire you. I thought, “How can I turn that into a Mormon story? What if instead of the Burka Avenger, we have Temple Man, a guy who shows up at crime scenes dressed in Mormon temple clothes?” That led to yet another story.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of reflecting on Mormon theology or doctrine. The Book of Mormon teaches that Three Nephites asked Jesus if they could live from A.D. 34 when they met him until his Second Coming, so they could spend two thousand years bringing souls to God. The practicalities of such an arrangement, when they didn’t ask for immortal wives, led to my story, “The Three Nephites Get Syphilis.”

There are ideas everywhere. What if the Golem of Prague was really Rabbi Loew’s secret lover? What if a Jewish scientist tried to develop the “God spot” in patients’ brains in order to create a Messiah? What if a “bad” person who goes to Mormon Spirit Prison after he dies decides to break out? What if a schizophrenic woman on anti-delusional drugs loses her delusional belief in God? If scientists debate whether or not there could be silicon-based life forms, what if a woman’s breast implants come to life? The ideas can be serious or humorous, but those ideas are everywhere out there.

Of course, there are always the stories based on personal experiences. My entire book The Abominable Gayman deals with my two years as a Mormon missionary in Italy. My story, “The End of the World,” details the last three months of my third partner’s life as he died of liver cancer. “The Removal of Debra” tells the story of my mother’s death from leukemia. Remembering years later an epic quest to buy Coke for my second partner suffering from AIDS led to my story “Partying with St. Roch.” Almost everyone has some real drama in their life that can end up as a story.

People talk about having writer’s block. If I don’t have a story idea, I just go about my daily life and don’t worry about it. Days or even weeks can go by with no ideas. That’s okay. The object is just to be open to ideas, and sooner or later they’ll come. I see no reason to fret about it if today I don’t have any story ideas. There’s no law that demands a writer write every single day. I write when I have an idea.

Watching Downton Abbey, I thought about the Mormon belief that the best Mormons will become gods one day, but those not quite good enough will become their ministering angels, kind of an Upstairs, Downstairs for eternity. What if there were class unrest in heaven?

I think I’ve got my next story idea.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Ranbir Singh Sidhu Seeks to Broaden the Landscape

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Ranbir Singh Sidhu, author of Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull Press), contrasts readers' perceptions with authors' intentions.

In an interview recently, I was asked what it was I hoped people took away from my collection of stories, Good Indian Girls. I explained that I didn’t believe it was my place to have any idea what readers will take away from my fiction. That’s the work of the reader, and all that he or she brings to the story, their attention and interest, and their own ability to respond emotionally or not. Once the story is finished, it really is out of my hands.

It was an approach I used when I used to teach literature, and I found it especially important with students from more difficult, and less rich in terms of what we call high culture, backgrounds. I thought then it was important for them to be able to look at a story, whoever it was about, from whatever background the characters came—high, low, the other side of the moon!—and be able to claim their own place in that narrative, to read that story in the way they wanted to, in a way that responded more directly to their needs.

This isn’t to say that any given author doesn’t have intentions, or shouldn’t have, or that literature should be read just any which way the reader that day feels. But really good stories, in their great richness, offer so many levels of meaning, and I knew that to get to those deeper and more complex meanings, I first of all had to get my students engaged with the story itself. But equally significantly, I wanted my students to be able to see themselves outside their own immediate situation and to learn to project themselves empathically into the lives of very different people.

One of the great social values of literature, after all, is this extraordinary ability it has to place us firmly inside the body and mind of someone who is most definitely not us, someone who in real life we might dislike or even despise, yet leaves us, when done well, with a deep sense of sympathy and understanding for their actions.

My own book, Good Indian Girls, consists of stories that primarily feature Indian American characters in some often quite difficult situations, and these are situations and stories not typically encountered in much of the fiction out there these days that deals with India or Indians living in the Diaspora. As a book, I hope it expands the terrain of what is horribly termed immigrant fiction, and that it gives more space to other writers to look farther afield for their subjects, and for readers, especially Indian American readers, to find in them depicted a broader and richer canvas of their emotions.

In presenting deeply conflicted characters, and sometimes unpleasant characters, I guess, in hindsight, I was looking for ways to broaden the emotional landscape of much of so-called contemporary Indian American fiction—though perhaps more accurately I was reacting to what felt like a strangled emotional territory. And also to make, in my own small way, a larger claim on the universality of experience, and that it doesn’t have to born out of exhausted tropes— the newly arrived immigrant, the clash of cultures, the relatively narrow emotional bandwidth of adapting to American middle class life.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Peter Grandbois Listens to Images

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Peter Grandbois, author of Domestic Disturbances (Subito Press), discusses how music and paintings serve as gateways to his writing.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
The short answer is, not often. Or, rather, the ideas that do come to me tend to be tethered to whole worlds, to casts of characters. They require the canvas of the novel. I came to short stories with the specific intention that I wanted to challenge myself to see how short I could make them. I believe in Millhauser when he says, “The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.” The problem was I didn’t have any “short” ideas. So, I went looking for them. I thumbed through a book of paintings by my childhood friends, The Clayton Brothers. I still remember the first painting that caught my eye: a portrait of a blue face under a showerhead. Only, instead of water coming out of the shower, there are all sorts of strange, slimy things. Something about those things dripping from the shower called to me, and I started writing. The initial draft of that story, which is now called “Plumbing,” was twelve pages. Respectable for a short story, but not what I intended. I cut it down to four. 

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
The Clayton Brothers' "Plumbing"
All the stories in my collection, Domestic Disturbances, are written in the ekphrastic tradition. Each story is in conversation with a different painting by The Clayton Brothers. Each morning, I began my writing day by thumbing through their artwork either in their published books or online. The moment I saw an image that startled me, an image that made me curious, I began writing. I almost never knew what I wanted to write about when I began, but rather listened to what the image wanted to say to me, what the story wanted to say. No matter what I’m writing, I begin my writing day by immersing myself in another form of art, letting that art speak to me, listening, watching until I hear or see something that makes me curious. Often, I read poetry before I begin to write. Though to say “read” may be too strong. I skim, searching for that image that startles. If asked to say what the poem was about, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. I only want that image that serves as a gateway for me. Sometimes, I listen to music before I write. Both my published novels were written in that fashion: The Gravedigger is the result of countless hours of flamenco and Nahoonkara is influenced by the Indie, Denver band, 16hp.  

What’s your approach to organizing a collection?
In high school and college I played in a rock band with my brother. We often spent a lot of time figuring out the play lists. Varying the set by theme and tempo, and, of course, starting and ending the set with our best songs. I think some of that mindset affects how I put together this collection. But the single biggest factor driving the arrangement of the collection goes back to the idea of brevity. I cut a lot of stories from this collection, including some that I thought were really strong, but that didn’t quite fit in terms of form or style. My favorite collections (and novels) are often those that privilege precision, those collections where you feel nothing is wasted, where you feel the author sacrificed a limb cutting away any piece that didn’t fit with the others. I knew from the outset that I wanted to set off the shorter flash pieces in the collection with a longer piece at the beginning that established theme and tone. I knew, too, that I wanted “What the Billy Goat Said” to end the collection. I wanted the murmuring voice that ends that story to linger in the reader’s ears long after he or she put the book down.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Meet The Story Prize Judges: Stephen Enniss, Antonya Nelson, and Rob Spillman

The Story Prize, now in its 10th year, is pleased to announce this year's judges: Stephen Enniss, Director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin; award-winning author Antonya Nelson; and Tin House Editor Rob Spillman. 

In January, Larry Dark, Director of The Story Prize, and Julie Lindsey, the Founder of the award, will select three story collections as finalists out of more than 90 entries. Judges Enniss, Nelson, and Spillman will read those three books and decide the winner of the $20,000 top prize—still the most of any annual U.S. book award for fiction. We will announce the three finalists in January, along with the second ever winner of The Story Prize Spotlight Award. At the end of an evening of readings by and interviews with the finalists on March 5, 2014, at The New School in New York City, we will announce the winning book and author.

The National Book Awards made news earlier this year when it announced that it was expanding its judging panels beyond groups of authors. The Story Prize, from its inception ten years ago, has included judges from a variety of fields associated with short fiction, including: writers, editors, booksellers, librarians, critics, journalists, and academics.* Why? Because a book award serves its readers, and while, in our case, that includes those who write story collections, it also includes many others who are avid readers and support the form.


Stephen Enniss is Director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has responsibility for 42 million literary manuscripts, nearly one million rare books, five million photographs, and more than 100,000 works of art. He previously served as Eric Weinmann Librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library and, before that, Director of Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library. He held a Leverhulme Fellowship at the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. In 2005, he co-curated the Grolier Club exhibition: “No Other Appetite: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Blood Jet of Poetry." He is currently completing a biography, After the Titanic: A Life of Derek Mahon.

Antonya Nelson is the author of four novels, including Bound and six short story collections, including Nothing Right. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, Harper’s, Redbook, and many other magazines, as well as in anthologies such as Prize Stories: the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories. She is the recipient of a USA Artists Award in 2009, the 2003 Rea Award for Short Fiction, as well as NEA and Guggenheim Fellowships, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, as well as in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. She lives in Telluride, Colorado; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Houston.

Rob Spillman is editor and co-founder of Tin House, a fifteen-year-old bi-coastal (Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon) literary magazine. Tin House has been honored in Best American Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, O. Henry Prize Stories, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. His writing has appeared in BookForum, GQ, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Rolling Stone, Salon, Spin, Vanity Fair, and Vogue, among other magazines, newspapers, and essay collections. He is also the editor of Gods and Soldiers: the Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing, which was published in 2009.

* Past judges have been: Authors: Sherman Alexie, Andrea Barrett, Dan Chaon, Edwidge Danticat, David Gates, A.M. Homes, Yiyun Li, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Hannah Tinti. Booksellers: Ann Christophersen, Marie du Vaure, Mitchell Kaplan, Sarah McNally, and Rick Simonson. Librarians: Patricia Groh, Bill Kelly, and Nancy Pearl. Editors: John Freeman, Brigid Hughes, Daniel Menaker, and Meghan O'Rourke. Book bloggers: Ron Hogan and Carolyn Kellogg. Critics: Jane Ciabattari and James Wood. Professor Breon Mitchell and reading series curator Louise Steinman (both with library affiliations).

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Amber Dermont and the Incorrigible Student

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Amber Dermont, author of Damage Control (St. Martin's Press), reveals how an unsatisfactory encounter with a spoiled teenager haunted her stories.

Several of the stories in Damage Control were inspired by the summers I spent teaching at a “pre-college edutainment program.” The students were from diverse backgrounds: the wealthy, the very wealthy, and the obscenely wealthy. One student—I’ll call him, Harry—was infamously affluent. His father ruled over a publishing empire (yes, such miracles exist!). Harry had his own literary aspirations. A talented drummer, he wrote poems he hoped to slap into songs. In his dormitory he set up a vintage Pearl kit and gave command performances conjuring the hotfooted lightening of John Bonham and the jazz cool of Ginger Baker. During one impromptu session, Harry spotted me in the crowd and gave a nod of approval.

Teachers are wise not to turn their students into characters. A writer’s greatest wisdom/burden is a talent for turning everyone into a character. Harry had the aloof swagger of a fortunate son and the rough-throated timbre of a smoker who’d been toking since the womb. The kid was smart, charming and high all of the time. Whenever he rode along for fieldtrips, he’d fall asleep and when I dropped him off at his dorm, he’d stare at the building and ask, “Where am I?” Harry reminded me of the careless boys I’d gone to prep school with and in my arrogance I hoped to change him. I didn’t want to write about him. I wanted to teach him something.

On a trip to Provincetown, one of the other students referred to me as, “the hired help.” Harry came to my defense. “Nah,” he said. “She’s cool. She’s one of us.” I saw nothing of myself in these children. Touring down Commercial Street, Harry asked for help picking out a skateboard. He customized a deck, trucks, bearings and wheels that cost more than my first car. Later that night, Harry expertly skateboarded past me, maneuvering around tourists, a lit cigarette in his hand. I called out to him and Harry circled back, reciting lines from the very John Berryman dream song we’d learned that week: “I am the little man who smokes and smokes.”

That summer ended in cataclysm. After a series of epic violations, Harry was expelled. As his parting salvo, he indicted a dozen classmates. While he packed and waited for his father, I babysat, berating him for narking on his friends. He shrugged. I explained honor among thieves, advised that in the future, when he found himself in trouble (and he would), he should shoulder the blame. He agreed. I waited a moment then asked if any other students were involved in the scandal. He mentioned three additional girls. I shook my head. “You’ve learned nothing.”

Harry’s father hailed a cab in Manhattan and made the three-hour/two hundred-mile journey with the meter running. The great mogul was a tiny man. Harry greeted his father with a nod, the same nod he’d given me. Not a sign of approval after all, just an indifferent acknowledgement. His father said, “Let’s get your things.”

Drum set: not a good fit
When Harry lifted the taxi’s trunk, he realized his drums were too large. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make the drums fit. His father said, “Leave them. I’ll buy you a new set.” For a kid who cared about nothing, those drums meant everything. Harry looked at me. Soon he would return to his SoHo loft and squander his summer with people who would fail him forever. I saw his future and understood the depths of his doom. He was a character I knew well. He’d entered my imagination.

So, what happened next? In one account, I remain a bystander. I do nothing. Offer no assistance. The taxi pulls away and the drums remain. Maybe I tap my own music on their skins. Maybe I take the drums for myself. In another draft, I parent the misfortune. “We can fix this.” I volunteer to ship the drums home, to do the paperwork, the dirty work. Harry nods. “Cool,” he says. “You’re cool.” I’m the hired help. I’m one of us. “I am the girl who does know better but.” I’m a writer enacting a scene.

Perhaps it’s foolish to lavish lines of empathy on a spoiled child. There are so many sudden saints worthy of consideration. Maybe we are all spoiled children in search of our salvation. Stories help us reconcile what we are with what we might never be. Stories emerge from the rhythmic notations of our lives and shape our muted desires into art. For me, stories are triggered by a single image or turn of phrase I then begin to submerge and conceal from the reader. That’s the work I do. I build a story around something no one else can see: a reckless boy, an impatient father, snares and cymbals. Harry does not appear in my collection and yet his privilege, sadness and spirit haunt the stories in Damage Control.

Nowadays, Harry works for his father. From his office I imagine he has a heart-stopping view. I hope he still plays his drums. Before the music ends, here’s my tribute story, one last song: Harry, you were my student but what did I teach you? You might as well have been my son.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Ben Stroud Learns to Adapt

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Ben Stroud, author of Byzantium (Graywolf Press), talks about becoming more flexible about where he does his writing.

Where do you do most of your work?
I write at home, in whatever nook I can carve out depending on whatever place my wife and I happen to be renting at the time. I wanted to take on this question because I think it speaks to something important:  as writers, we can't be too precious about where we write. The main thing is to find some place, any place, where we can work.

When I was writing the first stories that would end up being part of this book, I was very particular about how I worked. We lived in Ann Arbor then—I was finishing graduate school. To write, I had to have the apartment to myself. I had to have the radio on and tuned either to WCBN (the University of Michigan student radio station), CBC2 (the Canadian station out of Windsor), or WRCJ, the classical station out of Detroit. I would work in the mornings, at my desk, printing out my drafts and doing my revisions in longhand.

Demoted: Weisbaden workspace
Then we moved to Germany. German radio proved to be surprisingly disappointing—American top-40, Germany country music (which I found wretched), or the military station from the nearby Army base. I'd bought a new radio special at the Real (a sort of European Wal-Mart) only to be disappointed. So, the radio was out. Then there was the issue of space. Our apartment was small and there was no desk. I pulled the folding cafe table that was in the kitchen over to the living room window, along with the accompanying rickety chair. From the large desk piled with papers I'd had in Ann Arbor I was demoted to a roughly square foot surface in Wiesbaden. Oh, and the surface wasn't smooth, but made of slats with gaps in them. So I had to work on the back of a book. And the other change? My wife wasn't working. She had been warned (happily so) by a German bureaucrat that she could take no job; I was the one with the work visa. So now I didn't have the apartment to myself when I worked. But none of these changes mattered. All that mattered was getting to the writing. Curled over that little desk, I finished the title story of the collection, and wrote two others—"Amy" and "Tayopa." It's the writing space I most long for these days.

Now I work wherever I can. At home I have an office. It has no door, and so is open to the noise of the household—but that doesn't bother me in the way it once would have, long ago. When away, I work in whatever borrowed space I can find: in my in-laws' home office, in a coffee shop, sitting on patio furniture on a balcony while the rest of my family is down at the beach.

One piece of advice I'd give to any writer starting out is: Don't be so focused on finding the perfect place or time to write. The key is to find any time and place to write. The focus on needing just the right place can be another way to put off writing. And it's in line with the other perfectionisms that get in the way of doing the work. We'll never have the perfect environment, just as we'll never put together the perfect story. Getting over those hang-ups allows the true work to begin.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro, Nobel Prize Winner!

A speech given at the O. Henry Awards Tribute to Alice Munro held at the 92nd St. Y in New York City, November 19, 2001.

by Alice Munro

I wrote my first story during the Easter holidays, when I was fifteen years old. I began to write it, in the back of a school notebook, in the unaccustomed silence of the house, on an afternoon when everybody else was out. I can remember the plot, and one or two phrases which I particularly liked, and am not going to reveal, now or ever. Before I started it I had been making use of the solitude to think about my novel. This was actually the third novel that I had worked out, and was carrying around in my head. The earlier two had been by this time discarded. The plot of this one was fully developed, the characters named, and decked out with their proper hair and eye colour. But I could not write a word about them. Not yet, I thought, but actually not ever. Too much was riding on their realization. It takes nerve, to write a novel.

So in the meantime, I thought, why not write a story. Just for practice, just to get myself in gear. Just whatever comes into my head. And I've been writing stories ever since.

It takes nerve to write a story, too.

To want to be a fiction writer, in the community where I grew up, and in the suburbs where I lived later, as a young housewife and mother, was such an outlandish notion that it never occurred to me to try to justify or explain it. I tried as much as I could to keep it secret. And at the same time, it never occurred to me to give it up, it never seemed possible that I would discard that hope--it seems more accurate to call it a hope, rather than an ambition—not even when the stories I wrote turned out to be limp or over-strained or in other ways—all ways—disappointing.

After a while I began to meet people who were better educated, more sophisticated than the people I was used to, and I learned about some other reasons why I should cease these efforts. One was that women resorted to such—usually second-rate—productions, because their wombs were inactive—in fact mine was very active—and another was that the short story as a literary form was dying or already dead. And Canadians couldn't write anyway.

There was another reason offered sometimes, which was more interesting, and which popped up just recently, in a discussion some writers were having on Canadian television. (I want to call them young writers but they were probably all over thirty.) The question they asked was something along the lines of, "Is it not irrelevant, is it not frivolous and self-indulgent, to be fooling around with stories and poems and novels, in the new world that exists after September 11th?"

When I first heard that argument, I believe it was "in the new world that exists after Auschwitz."

Well. I don't believe that it is irrelevant, or frivolous, or self-indulgent, because I don't believe that it is entirely a new world. The horror that has been recognized recently, in a new and vivid form, has been around in human dealings for a long time. And if a poem or a story has no place and no necessity now, no story or poem was ever necessary.

Yet we go on making them, caring about them, depending on them.

And because that is so, I'm particularly glad, as well as personally grateful to the O. Henry Awards Committee, that this evening's event is happening, and that it is happening in this place. A place which holds the memory of so many writers, a place in which writing has been given its due for so long, that the very thought of reading there, or of having one's work read there, has always seemed a high honour to me. It's like a link in a long chain of vital experience—an acknowledgement of what remains important or central to our lives, what we hope to preserve and never to be without.

So I want to thank you, all of you, for this evening, and to mention just a few of the New Yorkers who have been so helpful to me. Ginger Barber has worked hard for me, boosted and believed in me and given me the delight of her company—she and her husband Ed have sheltered and sustained and entertained me in sickness and in health; Ann Close has managed most wonderfully to be a warm friend and an excellent editor. Wise and tactful people—Alice Quinn, Daniel Menaker, Charles McGrath—have worked with me at The New Yorker, and Anne Mortimer-Maddox, known as Dusty, has performed incomparable feats of checking, making me seem more scrupulous and knowledgeable than I ever was. And I have also to thank Bill Buford and David Remnick for their attentive encouragement.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Manuel Gonzales' Strange, Meandering Thought Process

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife (Riverhead Books), discusses the many offbeat story ideas he abandons and those he doesn't.

During a discussion of his work at the International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, Alistair MacLeod, the well-respected Canadian author, said that he’d never abandoned a story once he’d begun it. He’d been publishing since 1976, had published two story collections and a novel and, recently, a collected works, and through all of this, every story he’d begun, he’d wrestled with it until he finished it.

Which does not describe me at all.

Just today, I deleted ten stories from a folder titled, New Collection, because they were sketches or because what I’d started no longer spoke to me or the idea, even if it spoke to me, seemed silly, which, considering I’ve written stories featuring unicorns and swamp monsters and robots, says something about how silly these story ideas were.

I could have deleted more of them, really. Unlike MacLeod, who carefully picks and chooses what he’ll write about before he even sets pen to paper, I grab story ideas at every chance I get, throw sentences onto the page willy-nilly, and then wait and hope that something comes of them. 

Today alone, three story ideas popped into my head, one about an old woman who shows up at a young couples’ house and refuses to leave, another about a couple who uses a specially trained cat to act as birth-control (by inserting itself into the bed between them), and a third that I won’t mention because I think it might actually become a story at some point. These came to me while loading the groceries into my car, while washing the dishes, and while reading a book to my son at bedtime. It’s possible none of them will become stories, but for each of them, I’ve already composed various opening lines. 

For instance:

He told his wife the old woman looked like the kind of old woman, gnarled and haggish, who will, when you refuse them a bed for the night or a cup of soup, reveal themselves to be beautiful, vengeful fairy queens before laying a curse on you for being arrogant and handsome and princely, turning you into a hideous monster, and that that was why he let her inside. To which his wife responded that he was an idiot, and to this he didn’t quite disagree.
Knock, knock

People have asked where my stories come from so I’ve tried to backtrack my thoughts to figure out what strange, meandering path my thoughts followed before actual words reached the page hoping to find some dark, mysterious magic to it all, but generally my story ideas grow out of misunderstandings, or poor extrapolations, or hyperbolizations. The story about the man who wrote a speech commemorating the sinking of the African continent into the sea, for example, came about when, looking over someone’s shoulder, I misunderstood the headline, “Farewell, Africa,” in The New York Times Week in Review section. The story about a man trapped on a plane that circles Dallas for twenty years I wrote after spending a lot of time on airplanes.

Most recently, the story of the old woman and the couple arrived while I washed dishes. Looking out of the window above our sink and into our backyard, littered at the moment with boxes and tubs and children’s toys and dead leaves and a shed that we don’t close, even when it rains because it is full of holes big enough for rats to climb through, rats who do not feel safe enough to nest there when the door is open, I thought about the poor state of our house and wished our landlady, who is ninety-one, would invest money into fixing it or would agree to sell it to my wife and me so we could fix it, which made me think about her own house—a split-level two-story, four-bedroom house in a hilly neighborhood and with an enormous front and backyard—which she lives in by herself, and which causes us undue stress (because she’s 91), and then I thought: What if she arrived on our doorstep one day having sold her overlarge house so she could move back into this house where she grew up, where she raised her kids and lived most her life? And then, because we’re unable to say no to a 91-year-old lady, what if we let her in and never tell her to leave?

Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be the worst story I’d written.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

B.C. Edwards and the Terrifying Malady

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, B.C. Edwards, author of The Aversive Clause (Black Lawrence Press), discusses the frequency of his ideas and how he puts a collection in order.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
All the time and anything. It’s sort of a terrifying malady, knowing that at any minute you might be hit with a concept for a character, a place to set something, a turn of phrase that sparks an entire narrative, and then be compelled to write it down as quickly as possible before it vanishes.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
"Tumblers," the opening story in my collection The Aversive Clause, was written that way. It was three a.m. at a bar. All the parties were drunk, no one was taking notes, nothing was remembered accurately. I think that’s the best way to do this sort of thing.

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
If you’ve got a short, sweet piece of flash that really hits, put that first, it’s an amuse-bouche at the top of a meal. Then the strongest story next. Your next strongest at the end. The third strongest right in the middle so there’s something at the center of the book that pops, kind of like the centerfold of a porno-mag. Your weirdest story, (the one that you love and your editor and readers didn’t understand and may have told you to pull out of the collection) should go second or third to last. If you have a story that involves the end of the world, the zombie apocalypse, death by ebola-like-super-flu, or anything else that would make a really terrible movie put that in the first third. Anything involving a dystopian future or near-future should probably be buried toward the end, everyone’s writing that stuff these days. If you’ve got a story that closely mirrors a recent breakup or divorce put that as near to the front in proportion to how far you think your ex will make it through the book before putting it down.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
A story I wrote in college about an arsonist. It was called "The Joner "because I really liked inventing words. It was mostly based on the MC 900 Ft. Jesus song “The City Sleeps.” It took place in a café. There was a generic kindly old black man named Bass (like the guitar). That’s about all I can remember.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
I wrote a story about dead people and the various jobs they have while they are dead and how annoying they are, but I think it’s supposed to be a graphic novel. And I am a terrible drawer.

Men at Work: Variety, Williamsburg
Where do you do most of your work?
My first book was written almost entirely at two coffee shops. Phoebes (RIP) and then Cho’s Variety both on Graham Ave. in Williamsburg. Lately I’ve ben writing mostly from home and a cabin in Woodstock.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
I really like building fires and then watching them burn. Does that count?

Also, tennis. I like to play before I write most days. There’s something to the rhythm and grace(lessness) and the mental and physical strain that is perfect.

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
I wrote a piece for the NY Times’ blog about some of the best advice I’ve received.

In terms of the worst… Whenever someone starts saying things like, “treat every word like a precious jewel,” I get really uncomfortable. There was a lot of that in college, the need to make a sentence perfect before moving on to the next. And I couldn’t stand that. I hate the idea of anything you write being to precious to un-write. I really enjoy beating the hell out of the words.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
Facebook. It keeps winning.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
I was supposed to go on a date with a guy. He canceled because he needed to finish a story for an all-gay-zombie-anthology-competition that had a deadline in two days. Out of spite, and boredom, I opted to write a story for the same competition. I made it in the anthology. He didn’t. We went on the date a few days later. It was pretty fun.

What's the longest time it has take you to write a story?
I started writing an epic fantasy novel series when I was nine. So twenty-nine years and counting?