Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Edwidge Danticat Gives the Reader a Story

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light (Alfred A. Knopf), reveals how she thinks and works.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I get quite a few story ideas that never pan out, never become actual stories. I get them in the shower, in dreams, while I’m doing my hair, while I’m playing with my kids, sometimes while I’m cooking, and often when I’m reading newspapers or magazines, or books. The trick is their acutally becoming stories. Sometimes I begin writing a story and get stuck, then I try combining several of my story ideas. And sometimes after putting a half a story away for a while, it beckons me back and finally becomes a full story. But what triggers story ideas I’m never sure. It’s not something you can seek out, I think. You can just be curious and expose yourself to new experiences and hope the ideas come.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
Actually, I try to stay away from those types of proposals because I’m always afraid that person would sue me or say I stole their idea. If writers got a dime for every person who told them they had an idea that would make them rich, they would actually be rich.

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
I try to organize the stories in a way that makes sense to me and I hope will make sense to the readers. I imagine the reader as having a story herself or himself in the book. The reader is the character in the book who is trying to figure out the rest of the stories.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
I once tried to write a story about foreign missionaries who lead to a baby boom in a small Haitian town by providing support to Haitian pregnant women who are thinking of aborting their babies. Thanks to their program, all of the town’s women of child bearing age get pregnant so they can get the aid and it becomes a kind of epic disaster. This is partly based on a true story, but as hard as I tried I could not get it out of the zone of caricature into even satire.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?  I’m still working on and I’m afraid that revealing it out would kill it.

Where do you do most of your work?
In a small office I have at home, often in the middle of the night.

What obstacles have you encountered as a writer, and what have you done to overcome them?
As far as writing itself, time is always an obstacle. Finding time is always a challenge. Sometimes you have to ignore important things—you’re not always timely with that e-mail, two hour phone calls with friends are gone—just so you can find the time to do this work for which there is no clocking in or out, which in essence you are always doing, no matter what else is going on in your life.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
In film. I used to work in film and I think it is a very instructive medium for short story writers in terms of the economy of pacing and dialogue, etc... I sometimes like to think of my stories as short films.

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
I’ve never gotten really bad writing advice. Or maybe I’ve just blocked it out. The best writing advice I ever got was from a writing teacher in college who told me never to expect my work to match the image in my mind. There are so many words in any language, she said, but the mind is infinite. You try to get as close as possible to the film in your head, knowing it will never be the same.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Victoria Redel's Secret Joke

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Victoria Redel, author of Make Me Do Things (Four Way Books), discusses where she likes to do her writing and how she puts together a collection.

Where do you work?
I try to get away and most especially from the familiarity of my own home. So I go to the library. I love the library because of the anonymity it provides, nothing needs me, no one is asking for attention, affection, or when I’m making dinner. It’s kind of funny I’ve come to this, since when my kids were little I often worked right in the midst of the tumble and chaos of our everyday life. My office was also where we kept our television. On days when a child was home sick from school, I’d pop a video in—Peter Pan, The Little Mermaid—and while Chef Louis crooned, "Les Poissons, Les Poissons"—I’d try to eek out a day's work. There are more than a few lines from children's movies buried in my books. It is my secret joke. I felt a little ruthless writing while dosing a kid’s spiking flu. But now, even with the kids grown and gone from home, I go to the library where I don’t feel compelled to look up if someone at the next desk sneezes.

How do you organize a collection?
Each time I’m working on a new story I honestly believe (or conveniently delude myself) that the concerns and questions in that story are new territory for me. And, of course, lo and behold, my concerns and interests and obsessions show up in all the stories. Half the stories in this collection stay close to a man’s perspective and half to a woman’s perspective. This wasn’t intentional but now seems inevitable. I’m interested in how we manage (or not), stay true to (or sabotage) our goals, dreams and obligations. Our lives and choices are usually messier, less streamlined than we’d wish. The ways we stray from ourselves and from those we love is a concern that weaves through all the stories in this collection. I’ve tried to organize the stories so that they speak and fight and talk to one another a bit. In organizing a collection there’s also some politeness to the reader—mixing things up—length and humor and disaster and grace.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Andrea Barrett's Science Fiction

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Andrea Barrett, author of Archangel (W.W. Norton), discusses the similarities and differences between writing fiction about science and writing science fiction.

A few weeks ago I went to a series of readings and classes where eight excellent science fiction writers read their work and responded to questions. I was intrigued by what they were writing; also by how they described their working process. How differently, I thought, we found our way into stories! A few days after that—pure coincidence, as far as I know—a thoughtful reader emailed me about Archangel. Frederick Pohl, he said, one of science fiction’s grand masters, had defined science fiction as “a way of thinking about things”—and in his opinion I was a science fiction writer. That same week, a journalist asked me if I’d ever considered writing a science fiction novel.

“Um,” I said. “Maybe?” 

Since then I’ve been wondering how this genre, about which I don’t know enough, might be related to what I do. The fictional characters who take center stage in the five long stories of Archangel are influenced by real characters from the worlds of science, medicine, and technology, and they wrestle with real scientific problems. A woman trained in astronomy, struggling in 1920 to explain Einstein’s new theory to everyday readers, encounters a famous physicist who passionately resists that same theory. A genetics student, experimenting with fruit flies in the 1920s and 1930s, falls sequentially under the sway of scientists promoting competing views of inheritance. A high-school teacher first encounters Darwin’s ideas through biologist Louis Agassiz’s fierce opposition to them at a summer school for natural history that took place in 1873—and so on. Lots of scientific ideas, for sure—yet somehow I don’t think of these stories as being about science. They’re more about the feeling of being engaged in that work. Not about ideas and theories themselves but about people in the act of formulating, contemplating, rejecting, and reacting to them, during a half-century when such theories were overturning our view of the world.

Albert Einstein,
vampire hunter?
While I was searching online for the source of that first Frederick Pohl quote, I found something else he said: “The science fiction method is dissection and reconstruction. You look at the world around you, and you take it apart into all its components. Then you take some of those components, throw them away, and plug in different ones, start it up and see what happens.” With science fiction, that can mean extrapolating into the future, or into an alternate universe; setting invented characters along paths that can’t, or don’t yet, exist in the world we know. Although I’ve so far worked only within the context of this world, I recognize that method. Sometimes my fictional characters brush against actual characters, doing what they are known to have done: and what are those conjunctions, so clearly invented, but extrapolations? Take some of those components, throw them away, plug in different ones—insert the words ‘from the historical record’ after the word ‘components’ and that’s not far from what I do. 

Reading about Einstein’s theories, for instance, I also read about Scientific American magazine’s 1920 “Einstein Essay Contest,” which offered a prize of $5,000 for the best popular essay on the topic. The editor in charge of the contest—delightfully referred to as “The Einstein Editor”—after reviewing the submissions, wrote a cranky essay about what he called the “Divergent Viewpoints as to what Constitutes a ‘Popular’ Essay.” I thought I might write a story about him and what it felt like to sift through those papers. Then I thought I might write a story about a woman who wrote one of those papers. Then I thought—well, I ended up very far from there, as I did from the early ideas of all these stories: because as soon as I begin to sketch a character, her feelings come with her onto the page. 

From her feelings her life begins to come into focus; from the shape of her life more feelings arise, which result in actions and images and lines of dialogue that create still more actions, and bring to life other characters. For me, that path of emotion is the real trigger for a piece of fiction. Not an idea, which is necessary but not sufficient. Good science fiction transmits ideas, sometimes fabulously exciting ideas, but the best of it also evokes our passionate feelings. Somehow, for reasons I don’t quite understand, thinking and reading about science puts me in touch with a different ‘alternate world’—the one we inhabit in times of hope, despair, conflict, passion, envy, and all the varieties of love. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Anthony Varallo and "A Basket of Apples"

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Anthony Varallo, author of Think of Me and I'll Know (Triquarterly Books), recalls how a story his high school English teacher read aloud to the class changed his life.

My high school English teacher—I’ll call him Mr. Tim—would occasionally read aloud to us from books, magazines, or newspapers. It was a strange practice, since we were seniors and most of our other teachers had stopped reading aloud to us years ago, stranger still, since the books and magazines Mr. Tim read had nothing to do with our coursework. Mr. Tim liked to read short comic essays—Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor were favorites—or articles from Time, Newsweek, or The New York Times. Mr. Tim was an excellent reader; he had mastered the storyteller’s art of leaving enough spaces between the words to give them each their proper due, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Instead, I pretended to be bored, like the rest of my classmates. Later, I knew we’d make fun of Mr. Tim at lunch. We’d do impressions of him reading aloud at a snail’s pace. That’s the news, here in Lake Wobegone, we’d intone, and then burst out laughing.

But, the thing was, I secretly loved Mr. Tim’s readings. I looked forward to them, even though I wouldn’t admit that to anyone. I wasn’t a very good student, but I was good at making fun of things, slacking off; the kind of student who turned assignments in late, but not too late, my grades low, but not too low. I was barely pulling a B in Mr. Tim’s English class, mostly because I didn’t mind doing the assigned reading, plus I had some vague notion of becoming a writer someday, something else I wouldn’t admit to anyone.

One day Mr. Tim told us he’d like to read something a little different: a short story. A “contemporary” short story; I remember him saying that. And I remember the title, “A Basket of Apples,” by a writer I’d never heard of before, Shirley Faessler. Mr. Tim read the story. The story was about a family. The family had problems. The grandfather of the family was in the hospital, dying, and nobody knew how they were going to break the news of his death to his wife, an old woman who, my memory says, was upstairs in bed as the family gathered in the kitchen and whispered about the father’s death. What were they going to tell her? Should they wait? Was she sleeping?

And then there was one detail that I’ll never forget: The family, in an effort to let the grandmother perhaps sleep a little longer, began silently opening and closing the kitchen drawers and cabinets with exaggerated care, trying not to wake her. I couldn’t believe that detail was in a story. Silently opening and closing the kitchen cabinets and drawers was something I did all the time, since I was often the first one up in my house, making a little game out of fixing a bowl of cereal and two slices of toast without making a sound. Something from my life—something I’d never told anyone about, nor been asked about—was being read by Mr. Tim for the whole class to hear, it seemed, by this writer no one had ever heard of, from this thing called a “contemporary” short story. A story Mr. Tim thought was good enough to read aloud to the class. A story that had been published in a book. For anyone in the world to read whenever they wanted to. I listened to Mr. Tim read and felt suddenly strange. It was the first time I can remember having the following thought: Maybe the things I’ve done and experienced and have even kept secret might be interesting to a reader, a reader who didn’t know me at all, but recognized the truth of my words. What if my life was interesting to another human being?

After class, when all of my friends had already left the room, I asked Mr. Tim if he might be able to give me a copy of “A Basket of Apples.” He looked at me with an expression that said, I’m sure you’re just asking to make fun of this in some way or another, but said he would give me a photocopy by the end of the day. I said thanks and went to lunch, where my friends and I made fun of Mr. Tim reading “A Basket of Apples.” But I knew something my friends didn’t: I was going to get a copy of the story and read it over and over again. And maybe write some stories of my own.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Seth Johnson and the Anti-Story

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Seth Johnson, author of The Things We Do for Women (Whitepoint Press), discusses resolving to write stories without resolutions.

Several years ago I worked for a corporation that delivered all of the office stereotypes—tall, gray cubicle partitions, potlucks with meals made by people you knew didn’t wash their hands, cheesy birthday parties, the adulterous couple who ate lunch in the parking garage—all the stereotypes except for laziness. The work was constant, confusing, chaotic. Often I’d wake at 2 a.m. thinking I missed something at work.

The gunman has become an active and perhaps celebrated figure in American culture. Sometimes several “mass” shootings happen within just a few weeks. This is the kind of stuff I watched on the TV in that office’s break room. Once, a series of shootings had occurred and while my co-workers gasped at the news or walked off desensitized, I looked around and formulated a quick recipe for a gunman: mentally, a little off, maybe plagued with a past tragedy, completely self-centered, a dash of adultery (or lack of intimate relations), and a crap job. I wasn’t sympathizing with the shooters; I viewed them as people, just as I view you as a person.

I began writing stories about a gunman or a potential gunman. Many of these stories are in The Things We Do for Women. As the characters began to move and live, I realized that for the work to project the angst and uncertainty, the ilk of disconnection perhaps felt by a gunman, I needed to write anti-stories—that is, stories with no definitive resolutions, no way out, no money shots. Most of the stories written in the main protagonist’s POV are anti-stories. The intent is to leave the reader mired in the character’s emotion, yet unsettled. Sometimes when we wake our hearts are thumping from a nightmare’s fear or maybe we’re laughing because of a joke that woke us or smiling from a joyous dream. This second in bed, on the cusp of wakening, we hold the specific, unadulterated, raw emotion the anti-story aims to exact. 

I explored and wrote and rewrote. Eventually, the collection presented its glue, its seduction, the frightening blood-orange gem: functional people are capable of horrible things. 

Traditionalists probably dislike these attempts, this style. The Freytag Pyramid is the ancient God of story. But the characters themselves, the collection itself, the fact we should know by now there are no resolutions—only perpetual chaos at best—dictate the story.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Guinotte Wise Gets Unstuck

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Guinotte Wise, author of Night Train, Cold Beer (Pecan Grove Press), discusses where and how he works.

Where do you do most of your work?
Where I'm sitting right now, sort of a booth/nook in the kitchen with a little shelf system music deal that I forget to use, coffee nearby, dusty as hell because I never clean it, dust overlays everything, laptop, papers, books. Odd thing is I have a loft area in the studio we buillt in the back yard of the house, with a great desk, bookshelves, music, quiet. I just haven't made the leap to trying to work out there. Everything I've written that's published was written here in this 1950's-like breakfast nook. The booth seats look like Denny's surplus.

What's your approach to organizing a collection?
I look through stories I've written that have a sort of sameness of element—maybe that element is ambiguity, or maybe it's that peculiar switch of mood or oddball human dynamic that takes things in a different direction than one would want or expect. I mean "linked stories" don't have to all be set in a theme park or Japan or whatever. At least, not to my way of thinking. I could be wrong. Often am.

In what other forms of artistic expression do you find inspiration?
Real steel
I'm a sculptor, welded steel. One might think one activity might take away from the other, but I've found that when I'm stuck writing, if I just go out and start work on a sculpture project or continue working on something that's midway, I become unstuck on the other activity. Right now I'm working on a bull with Caterpillar tracks on either side of it that is scheduled to go to Illinois to a hotel built on the site of the original Caterpillar plant. And I'm working on a novel set in Los Angeles. Totally dissimilar, yet one spurs the other. 

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
Often, I'd say. I tend to look at so many things as story possibilities. I live rural, so a passing vehicle on a gravel road can start me thinking. Or a cow getting up from a lying position—they always get up butt first, while a horse gets up front first. The funny little noise a hawk makes when it dives to grab a fieldmouse. I would think that would scare hell out of all little prey, scatter them pretty good. But they keep doing it, the shriek "I'm coming to get you" noise. Out walking on a hot, hot day, I saw the road ahead go up, down, up, down as it went off in the distance and it was so desolate and sad I wrote a story when I got back. It reminded me of rural areas where I'd worked on bridge jobs. Rural roads I'd traveled to get to rodeos. Strange Ozark road trips to nowhere. Then, in more peopled situations, like opening night of sculpture shows in the city, you get all these people loosened up by free booze and wine, and they say things. Story ideas occur. Galleristas glide through, model-like beauties who act as though they should really be somewhere else, perhaps poolside at Karl Lagerfeld's residence.

What's the best and worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
I can't really think of the worst advice I've gotten, as I jettisoned it quickly after getting it. On several occasions. But the best advice would be that of Al Watt who said give yourself the permission to write poorly on the first draft. Or that of Robert McKee whose screenwriting workshop I attended when living in LA years ago. It was: Turn right at the bottom of the stairs, look for the blue canopy. The restroom door is appropriately marked. Seriously, that workshop was chockful of great advice. As was Ropewalk in Indiana. I urge anyone to take a workshop featuring writers they admire. I got to meet (and be guided by) Barry Hannah and Bob Shacochis at that one, and it stayed with me for good. "Stay in the room," I think, is good advice. Whoever does that, gets done.

I used to write Toyota commercials at Saatchi & Saatchi in California and got lots of advice from account executives. I got less and less of that as time went on, as my reactions to their advice was so crazy and unpleasant, that they gave up. And the commercials aired. The less I wrote in a commercial, the more the client accepted them. Which hearkens back to the advice, show, don't tell. Especially in TV. As for the question, I think I took the long way around the barn to answer it. Can you repeat the question?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Andre Dubus III Asks: What Would That Be Like?

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Andre Dubus III, author of Dirty Love (W.W. Norton), discusses the seeds of his stories.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
I seem to get two to three story ideas a month, all year long. What triggers them are the slivers of things: parts of an overheard conversation; a brief local news story; a woman, man, or child I might see on the street; a friend going through a bad time. These all present potentially dramatic situations I find I'm curious about, leading to the same central question: What would that be like? But some story ideas have more pull than others, and you can't control this; you just have to be aware that your curiosity has changed, and, as you keep digging with words, it leads to layers of human experience you find yourself even more curious about. This means that you have to abandon any notion of what you, the writer, wants to write about or say. Instead, you have to let the story write you.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Louise Aronson Answers "The Question"

In the 37th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Louise Aronson, author of A History of the Present Illness (Bloomsbury), explores the line between Truth and the truth.

It happens every reading. I’ve begun to think of it as The Question.

Indeed, the predictability of The Question is such that I’ve not only given it its own moniker, I’ve made a game of trying to guess where it will come from: Will it be the vaguely familiar, distinguished looking woman at the back, intelligence apparent not only in her gaze but in the set of her lips (a writer, I suspect, but who…)? Or will it be that bearded, middle-aged man in an oxford button-down shirt (one of many in his closet, or so I imagine…) and likely a doctor of some humanist, generalist slant, an internist like me perhaps, or a pediatrician, or a psychiatrist? Or will it be the young South-Asian-American woman with an eager, beatific smile and blond streaks in her otherwise dark brown hair (writer, medical student, or both…)?

Wait for it, I tell myself, wait for it.

When The Question comes, the words vary but the intent is the same. “You call this fiction,” they might say, “but the stories are true, right?” Or, “Which parts actually happened, and which did you make up?”

It’s tempting to answer: yes, few, and most, respectively. In other words, yes the stories are true, though few of the events actually happened, and I made most of it up, imaginary events and people being the essence of fiction.

But of course, that answer would leave people confused and is neither helpful nor nice, which is not only a bad marketing strategy but, more importantly, bad behavior.

I know I’m not the only fiction writer who gets The Question, though I might get it with more regularity. This is because I am a doctor as well as a writer and my book, A History of the Present Illness, is a collection of sixteen linked stories all of which have a protagonist who might—among many, many other descriptors—be characterized as a doctor or a patient. However, although each story was inspired by an actual person, event, comment, or image, each character and every plot was entirely and exclusively the creation of my imagination.

Inspired by real events
I wanted to represent the world, not transcribe it. I wanted to see life and people, health and illness, love and parenting, medicine and writing from new perspectives. And I wanted to learn what I could do with language, find out what would happen if X person was put in Y situation, and take readers (though for years it seemed unlikely I would ever warrant any…) into lives and worlds unlike their own. My characters range in age from 8 to 88 and come from over a dozen different ethnic groups and neighborhoods. Yes, people of those ages and backgrounds inhabit the neighborhoods of my city (and yours). That was the point. But the people in the book don’t live in San Francisco, and never have, because they don’t exist, even if they now feel as—or more—real to me (and, I hope, to my readers) than some people I actually have known.

So are the stories true?

No and yes. Or, rather, they are True, but not true.

Fiction, I believe, offers Truth with a capital T, while non-fiction in all its myriad and often entertaining and educational manifestations offers fact, or truth, small t.

Capital T truths are universals, impervious to time period, geography, and culture. They include life, death, loss, love, guilt, heroism, suffering, friendship, adventure, and terror. Truth with a capital T is the stuff that matters most to most of us most of the time. It’s our humanity distilled. It’s what endures.

This answer is clearly troubling to many people. The problem, it seems, and the reason I keep getting The Question, comes down to a misunderstanding about the very nature of reality and to a related confounding of facts and reality with truth—or more precisely, with Truth. Surely the fictional realism in the stories of recent Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro is more "real"—or at least more true-to-life—than the staged and edited competitions of reality television. Moreover, even in literature, truth is more elusive than we usually admit. Consider the literary scandals of recent years in which prominent writers have been castigated in the press and academy alike for fabrications in books billed as memoirs. For some, the deception was calculated, but for others, the line was less clear. After all, how accurately can you transcribe a conversation from this morning or last week, much less one from one, twenty, or fifty years ago? And isn’t it well established that if three people have the same experience at the same time, they will generate three different descriptions of it? And is that such an awful thing?

Too often, we ask questions about whether something is fact or fiction when the better question is whether it’s any good. Were you entertained? Did you learn something about life? Was the prose beautiful or surprising or novel? Did you stay up later than you should have because you simply could not put down the book?

One of the great gifts and pleasures of fiction is the opportunity for writers and readers alike to imagine and distill and recreate the world in ways that strike us as meaningful and compelling, whether the work itself is realistic or fantastic or allegorical. In essence, fiction is reality manipulated in service of Truth. Which brings me to the most honest answer I can give to The Question: A History of the Present Illness is a work of fiction that’s 100% true.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Laura van den Berg's Journey to "Antartica"

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth (FSG Originals), discusses her years-long quest to write a story about Antartica.

What’s the longest time it has take you to write a story?
A story in The Isle of Youth, “Antarctica,” was almost a decade in the making, in that for about eight years I had been trying and failing to write a story set in Antarctica. With each try, I would get a few pages in and the story would turn to dust. I would push on, writing one inert scene after another. The word count would tick up; the characters would grow flatter and more uninteresting. At my desk, panic would set in. For almost a year, I struggled with a draft called “Whiteout” before finally shelving the story. A few months later, I tried again and wrote a very unfortunate ending scene that involved Emperor Penguins. I didn’t need a year to know that one was a lost cause. And yet, I remained incorrigibly drawn to the landscape of Antarctica—the isolation, the severity, the profound strangeness—but couldn’t find the right story to unfold within that landscape, the right angle of attack.

Looking back, I can see the wrong turns. I kept trying to write from the perspective of a scientist on a research station. I have not been to Antarctica—nor am I a scientist, and by “not a scientist” I mean barely able to name an element on the periodic table—and I struggled to write convincingly about the landscape of Antarctica from that “insider” perspective. I always tell my students that when it comes to what we can write, we are only limited by our own imaginations, and I was coming up against the limits of mine.

After my third failed attempt at an Antarctica story, I gave up. I threw out my drafts. I tried to forget all about whiteouts and Emperor Penguins. I moved on.

In early 2012, I heard about an explosion at the Comandante Ferraz research base in Admiralty Bay on the news. Two men were killed. The story stayed with me. A few weeks later, a line got stuck in my head: “There was nothing to identify in Antarctica because there was nothing left.” Right away I was flooded with questions. Why was this person in Antarctica? Who or what was she there to identify? Why was there nothing left? This line soon became the first line of a new story, a new attempt at writing Antarctica, and eventually two interlocking narratives emerged: a present thread set in Antarctica, where the narrator has come to investigate the mysterious death of her scientist brother, who perished in an explosion, and a past thread set in Cambridge, MA.

Commandante Feraz research base
This incarnation felt different. First, it was mercifully free of Emperor Penguins! Second, since I was writing from the point-of-view of an outsider, I no longer felt limited by all that I didn’t know about Antarctica—outsider, I understood. Research became an adventure, driven by the burn of curiosity, not a slog to fill impossibly large gaps in information. And I also had the anchor of Cambridge, a place I know intimately, as a counterpoint. By May of that year, after almost a decade of trying to set a story in Antarctica, this new story, titled—what else!—“Antarctica,” was finished.

I also tell my students that whenever we are actively writing what we don’t know, chances are we are also writing what we do know at the same time—even if our story is set on a space station or during the Crusades, probably some aspect of the emotional topography is familiar. It is often that “emotional autobiography” that gives life to imagined worlds, that gives the strange the necessary force, the human weight. In the case of “Antarctica,” it was that intersection between the very personal and the very foreign that allowed the story to take flight.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Jess Walter's "Process"

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Jess Walter, author of We Live in Water (Harper Perennial), reveals the genesis of a story.


The Story Writer dicks around all morning, answering emails and opening files, none of which inspire him. He’s filled with shame over this wasted morning. The Story Writer has solid work habits (he’s a 7-day-a-week, 5:30 a.m. kind of writer) but on days like today he feels like a jackass-hypocrite.

He feels especially jackass hypocritical later when he meets a Writer Friend for a beer and the Writer Friend asks, “What are you working on?”

This is what the Story Writer and his Writer Friend do: They drink coffee, beer and whiskey once every couple of weeks, and they ask each another, “What are you working on?” 

Then, no matter what the other one says, they say, “That sounds fantastic.” Even if one of them were to say that he was writing a sonnet about insurance regulations, the other would say, “That sounds fantastic.”

This evening, the Writer Friend says, “What are you working on?” and because the Story Writer has dicked away the whole day answering emails and opening files, he has to make up a story about what he wishes he was writing: “It’s about a guy who moves to the exurbs and buys a gun for protection and then one morning, in the fog, he accidentally shoots a deer.”

“In the face?” the Writer Friend asks.

“Exactly!” the Story Writer says, thinking, Why didn’t I think of shooting the deer in the face? That sounds fantastic.

“That sounds fantastic!” the Writer Friend says, and the Story Writer thinks, Actually, that DOES sound fantastic, which is a problem because he hasn’t really written a word of the deer-shooting story. But now it seems like the greatest story ever—funny, disturbing, smack in the Story Writer’s wheelhouse. And just think of the potential for thematic depth! Guy-shooting-a-deer-in-the-face is a way to say something about the encroachment of humans on the wild, or the sick paranoia of some gun owners, or the illusion of security in a random world. Or something.

The Story Writer often hopes his stories will say something about … something. This is a dream he has, to be the sort of writer who has things to say about things. Sometimes, when he’s feeling his intellectual oats, he even imagines he’ll write a meditation. On, say, liberty. Or existential dread. But usually, the Story Writer gets too caught up in the story and the meditative part gets lost in comic action. Or he just dicks around and loses the whole day.

"One of those housing developments..."
But, the next morning, inspired by the talk with his Writer Friend, the Story Writer is at the desk at 5:30, making great progress. He creates a guy, makes him 37, with receding hair, calls him Geoff. The name Geoff makes the Story Writer happy. He puts Geoff in one of those housing developments right on the edge of the forest. This, he thinks, will be a way to say something about those developments built right on the edge of the forest. He gives Geoff a gun. Actually, Geoff has a whole case full of guns. Geoff’s mild cultural paranoia has morphed into obsession. He loves guns. But Geoff and his wife Celia have recently had a baby, and Celia does not want the gun case upstairs near the baby. Geoff protests (How the hell is a baby going to crawl up on the gun case, unlock it, pull down a gun, load it, take off the safety and shoot himself?) but Celia is adamant. So the guns are all locked in the gun case on the main floor of the house.

Geoff and Celia are asleep in their upstairs bedroom when Geoff hears someone banging around downstairs. On the main floor. Where the gun case is. Then he hears voices. Two male voices. And he remembers that he let the cat out in the middle of the night, through the kitchen slider. Shit! He left the slider open for the cat. And now his worst nightmare—intruders are in his house and his guns are all down there! Stupid cat! Stupid baby! Stupid Celia! Stupid life in the exurbs! He fumbles around and remembers his brother has given the baby a T-ball bat, a tiny baseball bat, less than half the size of a normal bat. (What kind of moron gives a t-ball bat for a baptismal gift? Celia asked.)

Geoff grabs the bat and edges toward the dark stairs. A houseful of guns locked in a case at the bottom of the stairs and he’s stuck at the top of the stairs with a tiny baseball bat. The Story Writer thinks the intruders will see Geoff at the top of the stairs with the bat and will be fooled by the tiny bat’s silhouette and think it’s a normal-sized bat and that he’s a giant. But he writes this and it’s stupid. The intruders aren’t budging. It’s a stalemate.

This all seems richly thematic to the Story Writer, Geoff standing at the top of the stairs holding a tiny bat, while an entire arsenal exists beyond his reach downstairs and two stoned kids root around in the kitchen for munchies. He is on the verge of saying something about something.

But he gets stuck. For eight days Geoff stands at the top of the stairs, and the stoned kids hunt for Doritos while the story writer tries to figure out what happens next, and who the intruders are, and what will happen with the guns. (Does Chekhov’s Gun Rule apply to a locked case of guns? Must each gun be fired to fulfill dramatic tension? Or will, say, three or four fired guns be enough?)

Geoff falls down the stairs, and then he doesn’t. He gets in an argument with Celia and then the argument goes away. She calls the police, then can’t get through. Sentences are tightened. Adjectives lost. The story takes on a staccato rhythm. Then, in a whoosh of clauses (and parentheticals), the thing is loosened up. The kids turn out to be harmless, then become a little less harmless. Celia tries to emerge as a character. She has baked a pie and left it out. The boys eat the pie. The Story Writer has gone off the rails. He can’t imagine anything with less narrative punch than two intruders eating a pie. But what would Chekhov say about baking a pie and then not eating it? The Uneaten Pie Rule. It’s a pecan pie. The frustrated Story Writer gets hungry and goes for lunch. He has a pastrami sandwich and a slice of pecan pie.

The Story Writer wakes again at 5:30 for the next two mornings, but he makes no progress. He dicks around answering emails and opening files. Then the phone rings. “Hey, what are you working on?” his Writer Friend asks.

The Story Writer says, “I’m stuck on this short story.”

“The one about the guy who shoots the deer in the face?”

Oh right! How could the Story Writer have forgotten? The deer! He can’t wait to get back to work on the deer-face-shooting story! “Yeah,” he says. “The guy’s name is Geoff!”

“That sounds fantastic!” his writer friend says.

“Thanks,” says the Story Writer, and he thinks it is fantastic! “What are you working on?”

The Story Writer is so excited to get back to Geoff shooting the deer in the face that he doesn’t catch what his Writer Friend says he’s working on. 

Doesn’t matter. “That sounds fantastic!” he says, and they thank each other, hang up and get back to work.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Anthony Wallace and the Everyday Eternities

In the 34th in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Anthony Wallace, author of The Old Priest (University of Pittsburgh Press), discusses the relationship between pattern and design in assembling a story collection.

In The Old Priest I had the problem that the stories were written over a long period of time and that the title story was written well after the others, and so the stories represent my different changing and evolving selves as well as different stages in the development of my writing. My goal was to bring all this material together and revise it until I had an actual book, meaning something whole and complete that somebody could read from start to finish and feel that they’d gotten someplace not just with each story but with the movement from story to story that informs the collection and, I hope, the reading experience.

Often a title story focuses a collection: “The Magic Barrel,” for example, or “Cathedral.” “The Old Priest” is a long story I think of as a novella, and so I wanted to bring the other stories into conversation with it—or, more accurately, to develop further the conversation that was already present. When I first started writing I attended a day workshop at The College of New Jersey where Askold Melnyczuk, the founding editor of Agni, told the class that the parts of a short story “need to talk to one another.” I wanted to apply that idea to the stories in my collection, and to get as much crossfire going as possible. In “The Old Priest,” we move from a second person narrator to a first person narrator who quotes passages from the old priest’s Master’s Thesis in which he “talks about eternity as a place that contains everything that has ever been, every lost dog, as he describes it, every broken watch and burnt dinner, then adds, ‘If eternity really is eternity, then nothing is ever lost. It’s all there, for all time, safe and whole within the sight of God.’” 

From here to eternity?
When I wrote that passage, I knew it was a lightning rod for the collection, and that within the collection there was a pattern of what you might call “everyday eternities”: characters mythologizing their own lives and the lives of people they care about, and a corresponding process of chronological time opening out to reveal something larger and less restrictive. I tried to develop other kinds of resonances that would connect with that primary motif. The patterns of imagery that connect one story to another, or many others, should work novelistically, because one way a novel is more complex than a short story is that it contains a more complex constellation of images. In my book, time and memory is the largest pattern, with characters remembering, telling stories—telling stories about other characters telling stories. I like the way the word “stories” hovers over the martini glass in the book jacket illustration. There is also some dislocation or disruption of time in every story—including ambiguity of time periods, or a layering within a given story of different time periods—so that time is worked out both horizontally and vertically. 

As the collection advances I skirt plausibility a little more obviously in each of the last three stories, which also represents an opening out of the material in the general direction of eternity. For me, the ending of “The Burnie-Can” as a freestanding short story is not quite as powerful as the ending of that story when read as the ending of the collection, with all the accumulated weight of the elements I’ve described, including its resonance with the passage I’ve quoted from “The Old Priest.” I admit that this is so, but I don't consider it a weakness of the story because I’m out to write books more than I’m out to publish stories in journals and magazines. For me, it’s all about how the stories in a collection become more than the sum of their parts. If the reader can connect the final image in “The Burnie-Can” with other key images that form the emotional framework of the book, the collection should light up like a Christmas tree. That’s what I’m after.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Stevan Allred Populates a Town

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2013 books entered for The Story Prize, Stevan Allred, author of A Simplified Map of the World (Forest Avenue Press), explores point of view.

The stories in A Simplified Map of the Real World gave me the opportunity to explore one of my central obsessions as a writer: point of view. I had abandoned a novel that I'd worked on for five years, a novel that had four first person narrators, and when I turned my attention to short stories, I was eager to try something different. I'd been away from third person for so long that writing in third person felt exotic, as if I had slipped my body inside a new skin.

POV is of course a great deal more complicated than deciding with which pronoun a narrator will refer to him- or herself. I live in a very rural setting, but I had not written from that place, and now this unexplored territory beckoned. The familiar world right outside my door became a second exotic element I could build into the POV of a character. So as I began “Conflations of a Hard-headed Yankee,” the story that would become the first one I wrote for this collection, I was thinking only that I would write in third person about a man who lived in the country. I wanted the story to have a ghost in it, because I'd never written a ghost before—at the time the idea seemed completely foreign to me—and I was interested in both how to describe something so ephemeral, and in what the deeper metaphor meant. Ghosts, I came to understand as I wrote, are a metaphor for the persistence of memory.

I began with a man watching his cat hunt. He follows her into his barn, and there he encounters the ghost of his dead wife. He believes he is hallucinating, and I leave it to my readers to decide for themselves how real this ghost is. I have never seen one, but I have a friend, a man of great sobriety and intelligence, a man not given to flights of fancy, who saw one and told me about it. This man, a New Englander, became the "hard-headed yankee" in my story, a man who sees something he does not believe in, and who must decide how he will live with the inexplicable.

I felt a door swinging open inside of me as I wrote this story, and this door opened on to the terrain that I would spend the next several years exploring. I had always loved the conceit of William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, that Faulkner invented a county in which to set all of his work. I would do the same. I would write about the countryside that I loved, and the small town near where I lived. I would call my fictional town Renata, Oregon, and like Faulkner, I would draw my own map, and populate it with my stories, and I would include that map in the collection.

The question of setting now settled, I was free to obsess about POV. Each story in the collection would have a different narrator, but characters would recur, giving me the opportunity to present them again as they are seen by their neighbors, their friends, their family. The stories would always be about whatever was going on inside me at the time—I know no other place from which to write—but there would always be a POV issue to wrestle down to the mat. I wrote in first, second, and third person, and in third person I explored close-in and more distanced narrators, and I took on omniscience. I alternated more than one third person narrator within a story.

Craft, character, and setting coalesced for me into a kind of writing joy juice that I sipped on as I wrote these stories over the next several years. I gave each story its own voice, with its own idiosyncratic language and sound, whether I was writing in the persona of an eight-year-old boy, a ninety-one-year-old woman, or an omniscient narrator. Voice, I came to understand, was a metaphor for the particular consciousness of each narrator, and as such, was central to how I wrote the many different point of view characters in A Simplified Map of the Real World.

Writing these stories engaged me on so many different levels that I never grew weary, and when I sat down to write, I could enter my imaginative world through any of several portals—setting, character, story, language, or POV. Each presented its own challenges, and together they served to keep me writing about Renata, Oregon, for years.