Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sameer Pandya on the Intimacy of “I”

In the 12th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Sameer Pandya, author of The Blind Writer (The University of Hawaii Press), appears in his fiction.

“I” is such an intimate pronoun. Yes, of course, the use of it in fiction does not signal the instant appearance of autobiography. And yet, for me at least, the use of it has always felt intimate.

I am still amazed when I read the first pages of a memoir or a personal essay where the writer reveals something alarmingly personal. It isn’t the detail that surprises me anymore, but rather the act of telling. It’s not the confession that shocks, but the act of confessing.

It is no surprise that my discomfort with confession has something to do with my own background, which I have been trying to dissect for a good long time. And I suspect I will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But I seem to have inherited some combination of Hemingwayesque reticence, Brahmanical puritanism, and Gandhian self-denial. Translation? Reveal nothing. This might be a good formula for living for some, but it’s not so useful for writing fiction.

The first story in this collection was published ten years ago. In the time that has passed since, I wrote more stories, tossed some, wrote some more. Sometimes, I thought the collection was done and ready. Many other times, I was prepared to toss the whole thing out. The collection only began to take shape when I started writing the novella anchoring the book. I imagined another short story. It started with five pages, and then fifteen. At some point it was fifty, and now it is over one hundred manuscript pages. As I worked through draft after draft, I had some readers along the way who helped give it shape.

One comment particularly struck me. “You finally seem to appear in this story.” Appear? Had I disappeared all this time while I wrote, published, and trashed other stories? Had I been hidden away somewhere? This was a particularly interesting comment because in terms of plot, much of what happens in the novella—a love triangle between a 24-year old man, an aging blind writer, and his younger beautiful wife—never happened to me. And yet, it did feel like I appeared emotionally in the story in a deeper kind of way than I had before. Why was this? Did I suddenly become more comfortable with the public act of confession? Did the death of my father release me in a certain way? I don't know. What I do know is that I was simply lucky enough to find a story that allowed me to be more forthcoming and intimate with the themes embedded within it—on the complication of real and literary fathers, on failure and success, on the elusive idea of happiness.

I teach literature and creative writing at a university, and in any given quarter, I somehow end up in my classes on the last line of Ralph Ellison’s magnetic Invisible Man. “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” There is just so much here. But for this context, I think becoming really intimate with the I—fictional and otherwise—was the key to making a connection with the you, the reader.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Patrick Hicks: 11 True Things About Writing

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Patrick Hicks, author of The Collector of Names (Schaffner Press), shares an odd number of writing tips.

1. Have a word goal
Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, it’s good to have a finish line for the day. For me, I sit down and won’t get up until I’ve written at least 750 words. Other writers shoot for 400. Some aim for 1,000. The important thing is to find a number that works for you and stick to it. Think in terms of words on the page rather than hours spent at the desk. However, I have to say that this can be a colossal pain in the butt because sometimes it takes me two hours to reach 750 and, on other days when I’m beating my head against the keyboard, it can take five or six hours. I slog on and don’t stop until I reach 750. For me, writer’s block is a myth, and it’s something only beginners say. After all, writing is my job. No one asks a plumber if he or she wants to go to work. They get up, they get under that sink, and they stay there until the problem is solved.

2. Rewriting is more important than writing
The first draft of anything is usually a big hot steaming mess, but at least the words are there and you’re now ready to start tinkering with them. I’ve always enjoyed rewriting more than writing, and I love the challenge of finding just the right word and just the right phrase. My first novel went through seven drafts before I sent it off to a publisher and most of my stories go through fifteen or twenty revisions. I keep on rewriting (and rewriting and rewriting) until it feels like someone else wrote the sentences. When the words feel like they don’t belong to me, that’s usually a good sign to let them go.
It's blue. We get it.

3. He said, she said
When it comes to taglines, I think you’re better off sticking with a simple “he said” or “she said.” Don’t get all flowery with adverbs and write things like “he roared aggressively” or “she bellowed pointedly.”

4. Readers are smart
Stories work best when readers have to ask questions along the way, and it’s good to remember that uncertainty is the lifeblood of narrative. Think about it this way: Pages will only be turned if a reader wants to know what’s going to happen next, so let them wonder. Trust your reader and don’t over-explain the plot. They’re smart. They’ll figure it out. I believe we read fiction in order to put ourselves in a different moral universe and then we compare the actions of the main character against how we would react to those very same situations. It’s therefore necessary to open up unknowns in a story so that readers are forced to fill in those gaps with their own imagination.

5. It’s okay to fail
This runs in such total opposition to our cultural beliefs that it seems un-American to even mention it. In the U.S., we love winners, and we don’t have much time for losers. But if you want to be a writer, you’re going to have to fail, a lot—month after month, and year after year. It’s only by failing that you become better at your craft. Failure is your friend. It won’t feel like this at first (you’ll hate failure so much you’ll want to punch it right in the face), but as you write more, you’ll find your voice, and by finding your voice, you’ll discover what makes you tick as a literary artist.

6. Good writers start off as extraordinary readers
If you’re serious about wanting to become a writer you’ll need to read with great promiscuity. Read everything that comes across your field of vision. Even the books you don’t like are educational because at least you know you don’t want to write like that. Study cadence and voice and word choice and description and narrative perspective and pacing. Just as musicians listen to songs, and painters study shadow and form, you’ll have to bury your nose in a book. Writers begin as readers, and this is an unshakeable absolutely true 100% for real rule here. Read, read, read, and read some more.

7. Snow is white
Don’t tell the reader things they already know. By writing a line like, “the snow was white and on the ground” you’re not saying anything new. Tell the reader if the snow is yellow because there’s a story there, especially if a dog is sniffing around. Equally, don’t say the sky is blue—it usually is blue—but tell the reader if the sky is “green and boiling.” The same goes for green grass, and red blood, and wet water. In other words, don’t state the obvious.

8. The element of surprise
If I’m not surprised by what happens in the story as I’m writing it, readers will never be surprised by the story when they’re reading it. For example, let’s say you’re motoring through the first draft and then—what the hell?—your main character does something totally unexpected. Follow behind your character and see what happens next. If you’re not surprised by your story, the reader never will be. Go with the flow. Be surprised. Let your characters control you rather than you controlling your characters.

9. Find the “moment of crisis”
In short stories and novels, the narrative should zero in on a specific event that will forever change the main character. I call this “the moment of crisis,” and as far as I’m concerned, it’s the center of gravity around which the rest of the narrative should orbit. I often tell my students to rip off the first page of whatever story they are working on because the moment of crisis rarely reveals itself on the first page. Most of the time, it begins to appear on page two or three. Start there, I tell my students. Drop the reader into the crisis and they will start to ask questions immediately, which is exactly what you want to keep those pages turning.

10. Be kind to other writers
There are many wonderful things about being a writer, but it’s a life full of rejection letters and frustration. Other writers will understand what you’re going through better than anyone else. Plus, most of the writers I know are kind and thoughtful people who are deeply interested in the human condition. Be kind to your fellow wordsmiths. Support them. Don’t be a dick.

11. Get out of your office
You can only write about yourself for so long before you’ve exhausted your own stories. When this happens, get out into the world. Travel to a foreign country. Go interview a hospice nurse. Talk to a single mother. Meet someone from a faith group you don’t understand. Think of a weird job and ask someone who does that job about their hopes and dreams. Learn from strangers and widen your pool of stories. By doing this, you won’t make yourself the center of every narrative you write about and you’ll also find out new things that can spice up your work. In order to be a writer, you have to be curious about the world.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Kelly Fordon Loses Track of Time

In the tenth in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Kelly Fordon, author of Garden for the Blind (Wayne State University Press), discusses her impulse to write and a story inspired by something she read in a newspaper.

Describe a good writing day. 
A good writing day is a day when I sit down at the desk and I resist the urge to surf the web. I start writing and the next thing I know three hours have passed. I actually lose whole hours and even days of my life when I am writing, and that has never happened before except perhaps when I was in college ☺) It is the only thing I do that makes me feel better afterwards. Sometimes I feel good about exercising or teaching or cleaning my house, but I don’t feel better about my whole life and the universe in general the way I do when I am writing.

What keeps you going? 
That feeling (above)

What do you think is the source of your impulse to write stories? 
I write stories to make sense of the world or to figure out how I would behave in certain scenarios. I wrote the stories in my collection, Garden for the Blind, because sometimes I feel like people with privilege have no idea how unfair the world can be.

Where does a story begin for you? 
The Buddha: Ancient truths
The last story in this particular collection was the first story I wrote. I read an article about a garden for the deaf in Detroit that was vandalized. When I Googled it, I was lead to various articles on gardens for the blind, and I wondered who thought of a garden for the blind and could a blind person really enjoy it? It turns out that yes, there are five senses, and one can experience a garden through touch, taste, smell, sound. As I was writing the story I was also reading about Buddhism and a line from the Dhammapada struck me: “Not by enmity are enmities quelled, Whatever the occasion here.
 By the absence of enmity are they quelled. This is an ancient truth.” I wondered what the absence of enmity would look like and I pictured a cessation of the tension that exists between the city and the suburbs here in Detroit. Somewhere along the line, I started picturing Buddhist monks in a garden that had been vandalized holding up flowers for blind students. Even though the story placed in a contest a few years back, it never really felt fully realized until I wrote the ten other stories leading up to it.

Name or describe some hidden influences on your work. 
One of the main characters in the story is a boy named Mike whose mother is a newscaster in Detroit. She is never home and leaves him alone all the time with whoever she can find to take care of him. She doesn’t put a lot of thought into his safekeeping. The inspiration for that story was a boy I met one time (I don’t want to be too specific) who always showed up in our backyard and for years and years played at our house. I only saw his mother once during all that time, and I wondered what was up with that? For all she knew we were crazy people.

What surprises you most when you re-read your own writing? 
When I finally get something right, I am surprised, because I spend most of my time bumbling around with no idea what I am doing. I studied with the amazing poet and novelist, Laura Kasischke, and she is a brilliant wordsmith churning out award-winning poetry and fiction every year. I am not like that at all, unfortunately. It took me ten years to write this collection.

Describe your collection in ten words or less. 
Privileged people get away with more and everyone pays.

Monday, July 20, 2015

John Keene's Hidden Soundtrack

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, John Keene, author of Counternarratives (New Directions), discusses the music his stories evoke.

If you were to place any book against your ear, what would you hear? Unless it were an audiobook, very likely nothing behind the sound of paper on skin, along with background ambient sound. One aspect of my collection Counternarratives that surprises me when I reread it, however, is that each story's prose contains an internal music and rhythmicality specific to that text, and both function in complementary, productive ways in relation to the stories' narration. I find myself surprised because when I was writing the stories, I was not consciously considering this element of my prose, yet somewhere in my subconscious, I apparently was scoring and setting pitches. Additionally, among the thirteen stories in the collection, only two specifically explore the lives of musicians, and in only one of these, "Cold," which recounts the final day in the life of the minstrel composer and performer Bob Cole, was I intentionally attempting to convey what the composer's music might have sounded like.

Degas' "Miss LaLa at the Cirque Fernando"
To give some examples of this unanticipated music—by which I mean the combination of sound, syntax, and rhythm—in the opening story "Mannahatta," the music materializes as soon as one reads by eye or aloud. Just as the character Juan Rodríguez is imagining the creation of a new life on the island of Manhattan after deciding not to return to the Jonge Tobias, the merchant ship on which he works, so too do the story's words, its sentences, unfold as if in a rhythm of assembly, fitting together sonically, rhetorically, and rhythmically, to create the scene in which the action occurs. Similarly, in "Acrobatique," the narrative's sonic movement reflects the high-wire-like thought and movement of a late 19th-century black acrobat whom Edgar Degas famously depicted in his 1879 painting "Miss LaLa at the Cirque Fernando." Olga "Miss LaLa" Kaira ascends and descends the circus's interior spaces but also swings, as if on a trapeze, back and forward through time and through the complex social spaces of her era, maintaining her poise and the breath of her storytelling, balancing everything in one long and continuous sentence, almost like a theme with multiple yet non-repeating variations.

In some of the longer stories, the music and rhythms are less obvious yet still surprise me. For example, in "The Aeronauts," which is set during the early years of the U.S .Civil War, the main character, Theodore King, recounts the entire story in retrospect to amuse a group of close friends and loved ones. His narration, in a realist mode, mixes verbal registers, from the vernacular to the technical language of ballooning, and has the pace of a story told in intimate company but that also could be—and is—written down. The music here, by which I mean his cadence of narration, is by turns prosaic and rollicking, and upon rereading the story it impressed upon me how much as I was writing I was hearing Theodore's voice, and not simply my own. Moreover, the rhythms of his narration track his movement geographically and in time, from Philadelphia to the theater of war in Washington, D.C,. and northern Virginia.

A final example exists in "Rivers," which tells the story of the character Jim, from Mark Twain's famous novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, roughly two decades after that book's events took place. In my story, Jim's perspective is preponderant, and comes even later in time, when he is much older and has been invited by a young reporter to recount his experiences in the U.S. Civil War. The reporter begins by asking about his river journey with Huckleberry, but Jim—now James Alton Rivers—decides he will only say a little bit about his former raft mate, and the rhetorical device of praeteritio becomes key. When I was writing the story I was not conscious of how this withholding of information from characters in the story but not the reader established a particular kind of music and rhythm of narration, but on rereading it, they gave me a sense of who Jim—James Alton Rivers—was and is beyond the story's specific facts, and suggested that he might have needed to keep secrets in order to survive, but that he was going to share with the reporter, and with the reader, a few unforgettable stories about his post-raft encounters with Huckleberry Finn. The music of his silence and non-silence, like the book's other subtle tunes, provides another path into the collection's narratives.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Kelly Cherry and the Hard Work of Imagination

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Kelly Cherry, author of Twelve Women in a Country Called America (Press 53talks about her characters.

When I published my first novel, a friend wrote to say she was surprised to learn that I had gone to med school. It was my character who had gone to med school, not I. When I published my second novel, my kid sister was sure I was mocking her: Why else would I have made the lead character a flautist, just like her? Of course, Augusta was not just like her; Augusta was made up. And so it seemed to go, book after book. The hard work of imagination was read as biography, usually autobiography.

There is no autobiography in my new collection of stories, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, which, by the way, is for male readers as well as for female readers. There are no stories based on anyone I've known or am related to or have been told about or whom I've read of. All of the women are grown up (even the ten-year-old), all are complex and interesting, all have comments to make about the states in which they live and about America in general. None of the women mention designer brand names, though a rich man named Clyde Beamer refers to "Armani and vintage Pucci." (But he admires Lorna Jo precisely because she cares about things more important than designer wear.) The characters' lives take twists and turns. There are men among them. Clyde, of course. Sloan, Hodder, Gerhardt. These are pretty terrific men, I think, but then there's Constantine, or Connie, from "The Starveling":
Connie had wooed her with poems—his own, yes, but also the poems of other poets—and by now she recognized the difference between his and theirs. The words of the old poets were like beautiful beads. But she respected Connie's passion for his craft, his art. If he was a jerk sometimes, if he never made the bed, never washed the dishes, she fully agreed with him that his art lent him privileges she did not deserve. In her view, he had earned an exemption from daily life. 
She also believed that a girl was supposed to encourage her boyfriend, but it wasn't always easy to see how. "I love that," Calista said, at last. "An old man who has forgotten how to spit. How in the world did you come up with that?
Certainly, the women have feelings. They also have thoughts and opinions and questions. The ten-year-old contemplates the nature of time. The schoolteacher nearing ninety remembers her mother, her siblings, her first-graders, and the man who would have been her husband had he not been killed in WWII. Gods and aliens turn up because sentences conjured them. These characters are real and various and their lives are not for mocking any more than my sister's. I wanted them to have dignity. To own their lives. Perhaps I approached the writing of these stories the way an actor may portray a character: I sought to inhabit each of them, to understand their needs, desires, and choices and to grant them the authenticity of their being.

Each woman is clearly different from the others. My perspective therefore shifted with each story. In fact, there is such a range of perspectives that this time I am certain no one will imagine that I am writing about myself or my family.

The joy of writing is creating, that is, making stuff up. The more realistic you can make the stuff you are making up, the more readers are inclined to think you are writing nonfiction, or almost-nonfiction. But surely, with twelve radically different women, it must be clear that this new collection is based on imagination, not life. And when I speak of joy, I mean joy: To write is to be entranced, to live outside of time, to concentrate so closely that the world disappears. The backache disappears, the anxiety about paying bills disappears, time disappears. The writer comes back to the world she lives in, of course, but she returns with pages, and they seem to be a mystery: Who wrote these words? Where did they come from? Could they be autobiographical? But no. They have come from somewhere utterly mysterious, an island, maybe, obscured by mist and fog, where owls dance by moonlight, and where all the cats read poems by T. S. Eliot.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Johnny Townsend Writes for the Record

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Johnny Townsend, author of Despots of Deseret, discusses his subject matter.

When I first began reading the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer, I was instantly fascinated. He had so thoroughly described a culture that in just a few years had become completely extinct. Yes, Jews survived, but Eastern European shtetl Jewry did not. There were problems in that culture, to be sure, recounted in detail, but there was a real beauty as well.

As an eleven-year-old boy in New Orleans in the summer of 1973, I watched a horrifying news story of thirty-two people who died trying to escape a French Quarter bar which had been set on fire by an arsonist. The images of people burning to death halfway out the windows haunted me for years. When I came out as gay in the late 1980s and learned for the first time that the UpStairs Lounge had been a gay bar and that the arson had occurred on Gay Pride Day, the horror of that day came rushing back. I wanted to read more about it, but there was nothing to read.

So I decided to write something myself. I tracked down survivors of the fire and friends and relatives of those who had been killed, and I tried to tell the stories of the people who’d been in that bar that night before those stories were lost forever. This was at the height of the AIDS epidemic, before any successful treatment existed, and people in my community were dying daily. That book, Let the Faggots Burn, may not be my best writing, but I consider it a useful historical document. Now, twenty-five years after I wrote my account, other people are telling the story in new books and in documentaries, and they are thankfully learning information I didn’t know, but the vast majority of my interviews with people involved in the fire simply can’t be replicated given that so many of them have since died. 
UpStairs Lounge: Commemorative plaque

I recorded history, however inadequately. That feels like something important.

I suppose in many ways, this is the same motivation behind my writing Mormon short story collections. With the advent of the Internet, so much information about Church history is now available, and Mormons are leaving the Church in droves as they learn that much of what they had always been taught simply isn’t true. Other religions also have issues with their past, of course. Catholics have the Inquisition, to mention just one. Yet even something as horrific as that didn’t destroy Catholicism.

But the situation for Mormons is slightly different. We have absolute proof that some of the scripture Joseph Smith claimed to translate from Egyptian papyri was completed fabricated. We know because we still have those papyri, which have been translated correctly now by Egyptologists. There is DNA evidence that proves the Native Americans did not come from the Middle East as the Book of Mormon claims. We have documents that prove Joseph Smith lied about his polygamy, even to members of his Church, and was married to girls as young as fourteen. At some point, even “faith” isn’t enough to prevent members from realizing the whole thing might really be just a great big sham.
And yet, despite the many problems I have with Mormon doctrine and social practices, I also had many wonderful experiences as a member of that Church, and I don’t truly want to see it dwindle away completely. Improve, yes, but disappear, no.

So I write about Mormons. True believers are horrified by my work and won’t touch it, and many ex-Mormons are so “over” religion that they certainly don’t want to read stories about it now. So I’m not sure I’ll ever have much of an audience. But it feels important to me to record the culture honestly. I understand Mormons, both their strengths and their weaknesses, and I believe they are people worth knowing.

Jewish culture lived on despite the destruction of the shtetl. Gay culture survived the death of many of its greatest artists from AIDS. And Mormonism will probably continue on as well. But there is no doubt it will be changed by the current events shaping it just as those other cultures were.

I write stories to entertain, as any writer does. But I also write them to record.

That attempt gives me comfort, even if few other people in Mormon culture have any desire to read my books. As a writer, I obviously want my work to be known, but ultimately, I write out of the belief that history and experience are things worth preserving, and in the hope that if something is recorded well, it never really dies.