Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mark Chiusano on Finding the Right Cover

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Mark Chiusano, author of Marine Park (Penguin), discusses the challenges of coming up with a fitting cover for a book of stories all set in a specific place.

One of the most exciting parts of the publishing process for Marine Park was choosing the cover. I should preface this by saying that I was a very poor Art Appreciation student in high school. Visuals were never my strong suit. I had essentially no idea how a cover should look. The book is a collection of stories all set in the lesser-known Brooklyn neighborhood where I grew up, Marine Park. Once, in a Park Slope bar bathroom, I took a shaky picture of a grainy map of Brooklyn that I thought could be a first draft of the cover, or something. Some divine intervention stopped me from sending it to my editor. When the actual first draft of the cover came out, I was even happier I’d refrained. The designer had gone, on his own time, on a boat out around the curve of the borough off Jamaica Bay, and snapped pictures of the waterfront houses, cattails, piers, and beaches of the surrounding area. The image they’d chosen was sunny, bright, intriguing, alluring—a beach scene, houses in the distance and blue sky above, the choppy water below. My only hesitation was one of the items out on that choppy water—a jet ski. Come on, I said, there’s no jet skis in Marine Park. Hmm, the photographer said, or something to that effect. Photos capture reality, see, he could have told me. He hadn’t made the image up, of course. Perhaps he’d pointed his camera a number of blocks away from Marine Park proper, but essentially he was right. Still, I said, obnoxiously. There were no jet skis in Marine Park.
© The New York Times

With great patience, the art department tried another photo. This one was truly perfect. Same great verticality, blue skies up top, choppy water below, and in the middle a row of houses, trees, and seawalls. I tried to decide where the photo had been taken—a bit west of the salt marsh Nature Center? Orthogonal to the park itself? Regardless, it fit the feel of the book perfectly. There was even some great graffiti on the seawall saying “Slow Down.” I could picture a few of the various curmudgeonly characters in the book, old Marine Park heads, saying just that to some young bucks. The designers found some fantastic font for the title itself, graffiti-like as well. Sold, I said.

About a month before the book came out, a friend called me and said he had a story I wasn’t going to believe. He was an Old Mill Basin native, not far from Marine Park. One afternoon, he said, he’d been sitting on Rockaway beach with his cousin and cousin-in-law, enjoying the beginning of summer. The waves were good, the sun was warm, there were no jet skis in sight, and he was reading an early copy of Marine Park. His cousin-in-law, a nice guy named Matt, does a double take when he strides out of the water and catches sight of my buddy reading the book.

Hey, he points at the finely calibrated cover. That’s my mother’s house! And so it was, apparently. On closer inspection he identified the place with certainty.

The three beachgoers were happily marveling at this shock of recognition, when suddenly, the thought hit Matt. Wait a minute, he said, indignantly. That’s not Marine Park—that’s Gerritsen Beach! GB, not MP! In my mind he started pounding his chest to underscore the tribal affiliations of our hoods.

In this way, I discovered, you can’t please everyone. But in the end the sky above is blue, the water below is dark and choppy, and the thin strip of land in the middle is someone’s true and permanent home.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Tom Noyes Keeps the Faith

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Tom Noyes, author of Come by Here (Autumn House Press), explains why fear and trembling over the state of literary fiction augur well.

Literary fiction is sick. Literary fiction is dying. Literary fiction is dead.

One doesn’t have to search too far to find these kinds of sobering pronouncements. In fact, if you’re a dedicated reader or writer of literary fiction, you know this dispiriting news seems to have a way of finding you. But what’s the real story? Is the news of literary fiction’s demise greatly exaggerated, or is there truth to be heard in the dirge-like proclamations of its final failure? It’s difficult to figure out what to make of all the discord and strife.

Here’s one possible answer: No matter how healthy or unhealthy literary fiction is believed to be at any given point in history, the anxiety that its readers, critics, and practitioners feel about its health, the very anxiety itself, is necessary, invigorating, and, ultimately, affirming. Uncertainty, doubt and existential angst about the state of literary fiction bodes well for the continued relevance of literary fiction. No matter how desperate and dire, no matter how bitter and troublesome, all commentary that calls into question literary fiction’s survival and relevance is, even if it doesn’t mean to be, an intrinsically vital, dynamic expression of faith in fiction. In a roundabout way, these kinds of foreboding statements function to buoy and breathe new life into the very thing that they aim to bemoan and eulogize.

Mr. Dynamic: Paul Tillich
To explain further what I’m getting at, to push this point of faith in fiction, I’m going to turn away from fiction writers and fiction critics and turn toward a couple theologians.

In his important work The Dynamics of Faith, Paul Tillich defines faith as “ultimate concern.” Faith is not simply the will to believe, says Tillich. Rather, it is a cognitive affirmation of the transcendent nature of the ultimate reality (the reality with which the faithful is perpetually “concerned”). When you have true faith in something or someone, according to this definition, you cannot not be concerned with them. You cannot not think about them. Whether this ultimate concern, this dedicated thinking about the something or someone, takes the form of praise or critique, love or hate, is essentially irrelevant. Furthermore, Tillich argues that doubt is included in every act of faith; in fact, this interaction between faith and doubt is part of the dynamic nature of faith. Surely this tension is anxiety-inducing, but it’s also necessary. There can be no faith without doubt, without anxiety, without what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.”

This is where another religious thinker’s notion of the “double movement of infinity” is perhaps helpful. For Kierkegaard, a nineteenth-century Danish Christian existentialist, the spiritual life was a roller coaster ride, an anxiety-inducing cycle of a) desiring to be in God’s presence, b) realizing that his physical nature wouldn’t allow him to be in God’s presence, c) feeling the pain of this realization, and then d) somehow, through the pain of this unfulfilled desire, finding himself, in a sense, in the presence of God, but not present enough, so that e) the cycle starts all over again. Rather than lending his life sustained peace and harmony, Kierkegaard’s spiritual convictions depressed him and about drove him mad. Moreover, Kierkegaard seems to suggest, this is exactly how humankind’s relationship with the Divine is supposed to be. It’s supposed to depress you sometimes. It’s supposed to sometimes drive you nuts. This is faith.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it, fiction writers? Fiction readers? The form will sometimes yield itself to be almost exactly what we always hoped it would be, but then, inevitably, it disappoints us, or worries us, make us nervous, and the chasm between what we desire for our art and our art’s reality drives us to, well, want to do nothing more than to obsess about and revel in the pain of our favorite writers’ and our own “failed” attempts.

In applying this concept of faith to “the state of fiction” statements, my suggestion is that even the most ardent critics of fiction and its practitioners are exhibiting faith in the “ultimacy” of fiction. In fact, it’s possible that fiction’s biggest doubters and bemoaners are, ironically, in this sense, its biggest supporters, its lifeblood. The worst thing that could happen to fiction, to any art form for that matter, to any deity for that matter, would be for its disciples to become satisfied and content. There can be no true faith without doubt. No dynamic faith without anxiety. When tendencies or examples of contemporary fiction make us fiction writers nervous or angry or confused or panicked, or relieved or delighted or invigorated, we can know we’re standing on solid, safe ground. It’s only when we stop feeling or thinking anything at all about the state of our art that we should consider ourselves goners.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Ben Marcus' "Dear Writer" Letter

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Ben Marcus, author of Leaving the Sea (Alfred A. Knopf), addresses a would-be author.

Dear Writer:

I trust this finds you immersed in your work, suffering alternating spells of doubt and excitement, doing your best not to entertain impossible questions like What is fiction for? and Who will read my work? Good. Those questions can churn in the background, along with other larger unanswerables, but right now you need your best head space for getting something done.

You’ve heard all of the advice already—show don’t tell, write what you know—and after giving it serious due, you’ve laughed in its face. Then you stepped on it. Also good.

Your blinders are on, your Internet is off, and you have somehow carved out a daily schedule into your very hectic life. Fine. You probably also have some goals. At a thousand words a day you’d finish a draft of your novel in two or three months, an absurdly quick pace. But did you do the math that suggested that at two hundred and fifty words a day you’d finish a draft in a year or so, still ridiculously fast, as far as novels go? And if you lowered your word count expectations, wouldn’t it stand to reason that those words would be more sharply gathered, more coherent, more precise? Would they be truer to your vision of your book, and would they more forcefully invite readers into the world you’re creating? Because you could bang out two hundred and fifty words and then revise them about a hundred times each day, maybe perfect them, rather than charging ahead just to get more words. More words are a fallacy. But you know that. It’s about the right words, and, well, if it so happens that you can rightly order a thousand of them or more a day, well then you should. Still, you have a strong suspicion that this obsession with word count is somehow deeply beside the point. And your suspicion is correct.

By your desk I imagine that you have a pile of books. A few shelves maybe, somehow related to your dream of this novel. Mixed in with all of the research texts you’ll only ever skim are perhaps a handful of novels that you mean to learn something from. When you’re not writing you pick up these books and try to observe the techniques. Perspective and tense, the approach to time, character detail, structure. How the exposition is balanced with the narrative, how the feeling somehow leaks up out of nothing. You read from these books relentlessly and you underline the sentences that interest you.
You read them aloud, you write them out by hand. From these books you design little exercises for yourself to practice the techniques you need to master. Good. You cannot do this enough. You read in bed before you go to sleep. In the morning before you get out of bed you pick up a book and read. Even just a few pages. This is the best nourishment for writing. This and no TV, no Internet. Add to this some exercise every day, a walk or a swim just when your work is exhausting you, because the motion of your body can trigger your best problem solving.

And of course if you do not face enormous, seemingly insurmountable problems as you pick your way forward into your novel, then something is wrong. Problems are the best sign that you might be onto something.

All of this is just regimen, and it’s obvious. But the strictness of the regimen will help your book come into being. Strictness, focus, relentless drive. Persistence and no small bit of mania.

When you’re ready for outside readers you know better than to show your novel to good friends, friends who want you to succeed, who also hope to preserve the friendship, which keeps them from being impartial standard-bearers for your work. You also know better than to show your novel, if it’s advice you want, to someone who doesn’t actually read, won’t read another book this year, hasn’t read one in a while. No offense to those people, but, uh, you know. I’m sure they mean well. Let’s also leave off partners and spouses and parents, at least as critical readers. You know this, too, of course. We love our partners, spouses, and parents, if imperfectly, but when we show our books to these people it’s to get validation. Validation is important, go and get some. But once you’ve gotten it, it’s time for criticism. Real criticism is much harder to find, and it’s much more important when it comes to improving your book.

A good outside reader is someone who holds you to a higher standard, someone who wants more from you than you might really be capable of, who sees the book on your terms, but raises the bar for you by showing you what might be possible in your revisions.

When you show your novel to someone like this, you know better than responding defensively to any criticism you hear. You do not get to follow your readers home to explain what you meant. Everything must be on the page. You know that you should listen carefully to your critique, take good notes, ask some polite questions, and then, in gratitude, send them a gift: a bottle, or a case, of something wonderful. A live animal, maybe.

We have not discussed what kind of book you will write, because this is up to you. Please let it be up to you. I beg you. It is your secret and it is almost all that matters. This is your book. The world has enough books that were written according to dreams or ideas other than your own. But it does not yet have your book. Please write only the book you most want to write, the book you wished existed in the world. The book must meet your own deepest desire for what a book can be. But of course you know this already. It’s why you started writing in the first place.

Good luck.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Nicholas Grider's Ten Pieces of Advice

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Nicholas Grider, author of Misadventure (A Strange Object), offers several tips.

Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

1. Don’t give up.

2. Don’t fall so much in love with something you’ve written that you’re unable to see that it might not work, or might belong elsewhere; learn from the criticism of others.

3. Don’t end up hating something you’ve been trying to revise so much that you lose sight of what’s good about it; learn from the praise of others.

4. No matter how much you’ve revised it, given time and perspective you can probably still improve it, but:

5. Don’t overdo it. If a text is telling you it’s done, if it has exhausted you and you have exhausted it, it’s done.

6. The goal of revision isn’t perfection, the goal is maximum impact.

7. Don’t write solely to please yourself and don’t write solely to please others, but ask yourself what will give the most to both you and the reader, and realize that this is not necessarily a kind of compromise.

8. There’s often a tradeoff between complexity/innovation and accessibility, and when you’re trying to decide how your text should be defined in those terms, don’t let people tell you what to do, just go with your gut. There’s no right answer.

9. Realize that sometimes something you work very hard on really only ends up being practice for something you write in the future, but that the learning involved in practice is just as important as “finished” texts and publication.

10. This bears repeating: Don’t give up. Take breaks, put things aside, shelve things for years, but if you’ve got something and it has something important to give to both you and the reader, don’t give up.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

K.D. Miller Works with What She Has

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, K.D. Miller, author of All Saints (Biblioasis), discusses applying her theatrical training to her writing.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
What I would like to be (whether or not I could manage it) is either an actor or a down-and-dirty blues singer. I don’t sing at all, but I do have an acting/theatre background. In fact, it was very much a road not taken.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Theatre. Good acting excites me as much as good writing does, and the two are remarkably alike in terms of the muscles they use. I don’t regret a minute of my acting and directing training. I use it every day at my desk.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I get up at 4 a.m. and am usually at my desk by 4:30. Yes, really. I write before I set out for my day job, which pays the rent. If a story is on the home stretch, I might write in the evening. But usually, it’s the hour and a half first thing in the morning that gets it done.

Where do you do most of your work?
I compose by hand at an antique “secretary” desk—one with a drop-down writing surface and pigeon holes. For computer work, I have a computer desk that supports my laptop and printer. Both are in the sunroom of my apartment.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I go to my desk at the usual time and just read. You have to breathe in sometimes.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write. Stop talking about it, thinking about it, claiming you have no time for it. Just do it. Every day. Ten minutes a day is better than nothing. And it will grow.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
It would have to be a tossup between James Joyce’s "The Dead" and Alice Munro’s two-part story, "Chaddeleys and Flemings." Both fill me with what I can only describe as delicious longing.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
My characters are patchworks—a vocal tic here, a gesture or habitual posture there—and of course, a big dollop of myself. It is, in my opinion, impossible to make anything up out of whole cloth. What do we have to work with, aside from our own observations, memories, experiences? Everything is borrowed. (Or stolen, depending on your point of view.) A friend of mine once told me a funny anecdote about scattering her husband’s ashes. I told her she should be careful about telling stuff like that to a writer, since they might work it into their fiction. She got very excited, and all but begged me to use the anecdote. So I did, in one of the stories in All Saints.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
I’m not sure I can answer that. I certainly have stories that have died on the page, or been less than my best work. But I never entirely trash anything. I keep fragments and scraps of dialogue, character sketches, bits of scenes. It’s like compost. Really fertile. And it can sprout after years or even decades of lying around doing nothing.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
Actually, I think I may have finally captured this in a poem. When I was thirteen, the family went on vacation in Maine. One very foggy morning, I got up early and went for a walk. I heard the clop of horse’s hooves. Out of the fog came a horse with a girl my age on its back. She rode past me, and disappeared back into the fog. I was possessed of an almost unbearable yearning to be that girl, and I tried for years to write about that moment. Again, my poem “Girl in the Morning” might be the best I can do.

Girl in the Morning

Thirteen. Awake and out the door
while the family sleeps on.
Walking through a morning fog
she takes as her own—
a gift from the universe—
cool and grey as the mystery
she holds too close
for anyone but her to solve.

Watching her now. Knowing, as I do,
that the seagulls guessed the ending
ages ago, and are crying down
one red herring after another.
Listening, as I can, to the ocean
patiently repeating the solution.

But she is too marvellous to hear.
And when she gets back to the cottage
she’ll be so magnificent and strange
that none of them across the table
will ever be able to understand her.
Those last minutes
before seeing that girl on her horse.
The one who will ride through my memory
for the rest of my life.
And nothing will summon her,
nothing dismiss her.
She will just be there, then gone,
as on that morning in Maine.

First the clop of hoof on stone,
a sound out of time.
Then the long nodding head,
nosing through the fog.
And finally the girl. High and alone.
My age and ancient and yet to be born.

What does she do to me
that so breaks my heart?
Is it enough to know
she led this animal forth this morning
and gathered the reins at its shoulder
and stepped high into the stirrup
and pulled herself astride?

If she knows she is everything
I will ever pray to be,
it does not show in the curving rein
that could tug to call a halt,
or in the swaying boot
that could prod to command a gallop.

She is content for now
with this slow procession
through the grey.

The fog closes round her.
Sounds of hoof and leather enter silence, leaving me small on the ground,
hearing at last the gulls’ high laughter,
the ocean’s consoling sigh.

Back at the cottage, the family:
But don’t you like horses?
And so what if she passed you by?
That’s nothing to cry about.
So begin the screaming and slamming,
the Nobody understands me.

How can I explain even now
why I bow to that girl each time
she rides through, just as I did
at thirteen, then cry again
without words to her shadow—
something between come back

and go away and take me with you.