Monday, November 30, 2015

Rebecca Makkai on What Some Readers Are Missing Out on

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Rebecca Makkai, author of Music for Wartime (Viking), describes her frustration with some people's reluctance to read short story collections.

I’m one of three authors at a signing table at a benefit. A woman walks up, touching each book. She gets to my story collection. “What’s this about?” she says.

I say, “It’s a collection of stories, and—”

And she goes, “Oh.” Not as in, “Oh, how interesting,” but like, “Oh, I thought the hors d’oeuvre you were passing was foie gras, but it’s Spam.” A little to the left of “Oh, no thank you, I would not care for a dead raccoon.”

And so I decide to call her on it. I make sure to laugh, and I say, “Wait, what’s that about?”

I’m not a confrontational person. It’s just that this is the 300th time this has happened to me since June, and I’ve reached a breaking point.

In November of 2013, I participated for the first time in Small Business Saturday—specifically in Sherman Alexie’s initiative for authors to hand sell books in the indies. I went to Chicago’s City Lit with a list of titles to recommend. In addition to novels and nonfiction, I was pushing three story collections—chief among them Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More. I told people it was beautiful and strange and important. I showed them the gorgeous cover (silvery and festive!). I did everything but cover up the word “stories” with my thumb. Which is probably what I should’ve done. Because in two hours of selling, I moved novels and children’s books and calendars and a coffee table book on horses, but I didn’t sell a single story collection until one guy came in shopping for his girlfriend, an aspiring writer.
Hard sell: Short story collection

At this point, I’d published a novel and had another due soon; but the stories I’d been writing all along had always been just as important to me. More, possibly. I knew, in theory, that a story collection would be a hard road. Yet for every person saying stories didn’t sell, there was some unhelpful optimist going “Yes, but George Saunders is on the bestseller list!” Or “But we have such short attention spans nowadays!” (I assume the latter explains the raging resurgence of the sonnet among teenagers.)

This was my wakeup call. And in plenty of time. I was still a year and a half away from the barrage of “So this one’s just stories?” and “I only read novels,” and “My book club would never go for a collection,” and “I always skip those in The New Yorker.” I had time to steel myself. I had time to remind myself to be doubly grateful this time for every reader, for every review, for every kind bookseller who made space on the shelf. Triply grateful, in fact. Is quintuply a word?

And on the one hand, I’ve made my peace with it. Because every year I watch the Oscars, and when they announce the short films, I haven’t seen a single one. I get up and refill my wine glass. I know that I should see them, that they’re important, but as a general consumer I just don’t seek them out. And I tell myself maybe it’s the same with stories: They’re important to writers, to serious readers, but they’re not for the average palate.

But NO, NO, NO, NO, NO. Good God. People don’t know what they’re missing. Scarred by some Hawthorne story they read in high school, or maybe seeking a weeks-long immersion rather than a plunge in the icy pool, they’ve turned their backs on our newest voices, our sharpest experimentation, our wildest dreams. They’re missing out on Lydia Davis and Alice Munro. They’re missing the brilliant short work of Kevin Brockmeier and Julie Otsuka. They’re missing the faceted perfection the short form can approach. They’re missing experiments of voice and form and subject that can be maintained for 5,000 words, but not 90,000. (Who wants to read a 300-page novel about a man turning into a cockroach?)

Which is why I snap and ask this woman what she means by “Oh.”

She says, “I shouldn’t have said that! I do read stories. I do. I’ll probably buy this one.” And she turns it awkwardly over, reads the back.

I assure her I was just joking, that I know stories aren’t for everyone. We have a pleasant conversation.

She moves along the table, and when she reaches the end, she looks back to see if I’m watching. I pretend I’m not. She leaves the book right there.

Friday, November 27, 2015

April L. Ford and the Essential Activation

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, April L. Ford, author of The Poor Children (SFWP), describes a life-changing experience.

What keeps you going?
The threat of someone inscribing my tombstone with “Flossed daily & paid taxes on time.”

What do you think is the source of your impulse to write stories?
I nearly died at age seventeen, when I ran across an intersection on the yellow light. I got busted up inside and out, and spent four months in the hospital. The most distressing part was feeling left behind, watching family and friends leave the hospital without me; they were going on with their lives, upset though they were, while I was stuck in casts and slings (I couldn’t even “watch” visitors leave until the blood clots eventually cleared from my eyes). Have you seen Metallica’s music video for “One”? That was how I felt; and after I was discharged from the hospital, I swore I would never feel like that again. I’ve always loved telling stories, but I would say the car accident activated something within me more essential than love.

Describe your revision process. 
I revise as I write. Some sections of the novel I’m working on now, for example, have survived reader scrutiny marvelously, whereas one particularly beasty chapter took me a year to get right. (There was this one time in summer 2014 when my spouse had to force me away from a single paragraph I had been revising for five hours.) But if I have to put a number on it, then I’ll say the third draft is my happy place. If I keep going after that, there’s a good chance I’ll overreach.

What’s the best phrase, line, or passage you’ve had to cut from a story?
How about the worst passage? I can’t believe I’m sharing this; it’s from a story I wrote as an undergrad, for the sole purpose of electrifying a professor. He was a wry, middle-age poet, and I was smitten. I never actually showed him any of my fiction, though our frequent conversations about craft kept me motivated. I wrote a lot of stuff for that guy, intended some of my greatest metaphors for him… Anyway, here’s the opening paragraph of “December Twenty-First,” a story I wisely abandoned long ago:
I traipse up the steps and open the door to Alanis on the radio crooning, “You see allll my light and you loooove my dark.” The trickling bulb over the entranceway casts a urine yellow stain into my apartment, yesterday’s garbage heaps shapelessly by the door. “You dig eeeeverything of which I'm ashamed, there's not anything to which you cannnn’t relate,” continues Alanis. My boots come off with a suction sound and I hook my jacket on the door handle like a three-eyed sewer fish somebody might catch in a sea of dolphins; it’s not beautiful but it’s one of a kind, worth relishing because those don’t come around too often. 
Name or describe some hidden influences on your work.
Jeffrey Eugenides. Iris Murdoch. Jonathan Franzen (but don’t tell). Stovetop espresso. Candy bars. That epitaph I mentioned earlier.

Describe your collection in ten words or less:
Kathy Acker’esque, according to one reviewer. I’m cool with that.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Mark Brazaitis' Orphan Stories

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Mark Brazaitis, author of Truth Poker (Autumn House Press), discusses two stories he had trouble fitting into previous collections.

The eye man came to town with doctors and nurses who carried suitcases full of medicine and Bibles. They were accompanied by boys and girls who dressed up like daisies and frogs and sang religious songs in English in the park. The eye man wasn’t a doctor himself. And neither the doctors nor the nurses nor the boys and girls who dressed up like daisies and frogs knew, or would tell me, what he was. He was simply “the eye man.” 
— from “The Eye Man”
     Grace and I laughed and kissed, and I ran my hand through her long brown hair. I put my hand up her skirt and felt her smooth thigh.
     “Uh oh,” Grace said.
     She was off my lap in an instant.
     “Get up,” a voice said in Spanish.
     I turned around and saw three policemen, one of them shaking a billy club at me.

—from “The Bribe”
Call it "Two Stories in Search of a Collection."

For more than fifteen years, my stories “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe,” both of which appeared in The Sun, had failed to find a home in one of my short story collections. This wasn’t because I disliked them. The opposite: They are two of my favorites. But they didn’t fit in with the tone, temperament, and themes of my first three collections. They were a couple of literary orphans, all dressed up (plot! character! conflict!) with nowhere to go.

My first book, The River of Lost Voices: Stories from Guatemala, is a collection set in a small town in Guatemala’s northern mountains. But although “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” are Guatemala-based, they are told from the perspectives of North American characters. The stories in The River of Lost Voices are told exclusively from Guatemalan characters’ points of view.

My second story collection, An American Affair, features point-of-view characters from both North America and Latin America. But what ties the stories in An American Affair together is their exploration of the complexities of cross-cultural romance. “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” have different concerns.

All of the stories in my third collection, The Incurables, are set in a small Ohio town and feature characters who struggle with mental illnesses. “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” would have been most out of place here.

For years, I debated whether I could call “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe” creative nonfiction and include them in a memoir or a collection of essays. The first two-thirds of each story comes straight out of my life. (I was a Peace Corps volunteer and technical trainer in Guatemala in the early and mid 1990s, and the first-person narrator in both stories might as well be me.) But the latter third of both pieces is invention. I wondered if I could tell my nonfiction readers, “Hey, I’m about to deviate from the truth here, but you will be entertained—I promise!” In the end, this seemed an unsatisfactory compromise. Imagine a symphony whose final movement becomes a blues song.

Several years ago, I began writing stories whose characters have a complicated, and sometimes compromised, relationship with the truth. In “What to Expect When You Say You’re Expecting,” a woman fakes a pregnancy in order to fit in with her three pregnant friends. In “The Juror,” the title character is convinced he knows whether two young men on trial are guilty or innocent because empathy or magic returns him to the day and place of the murder they are accused of. In “Authorship,” a wife must decide whether to give her husband credit for her work in order to save his career.

Before long, I realized I was close to completing a cohesive collection. And, lo and behold, “The Eye Man” and “The Bribe”—the former about a man who claims to have the power to help people who see his blind patient, rather than the patient himself, see; the latter about an impoverished police officer whose ethics prevent him from accepting a traditional bribe—at last had a collection to join. More than fifteen years after their creation, my orphans found a home in Truth Poker.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Mary Rickert's Letter to a Young Writer

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Mary Rickert, author of You Have Never Been Here (Small Beer Press), stresses the importance of words themselves.

Dear Young Writer,

I know many people have told you to make the language invisible, but what if they are wrong? Consider the possibility that words are not mere instruments of description but tools of alchemy.
Boa Senior
Try believing, for a while, in a reality where each word carries all its definitions everywhere it goes. What is light? Is it what we see in darkness, or the weight of a load? Yes, of course, context creates meaning but consider the possibility that with everything you write once, you create a hundred songs. Try to hear those songs. Listen, only a few years ago Boa Senior, the last speaker of the ancient language of Bo, from the Andaman Islands, died. What reality died with her? Ask yourself if you are writing like a person whose pen keeps the world alive, and if you aren’t, ask yourself why not? What are you doing? What do you believe in? Would you die for your art? Because really, in the end, we all die for the life we’ve chosen. Make sure you say what you have come to say and not just what others prescribe. Write like you are the only one who can impart your meaning. Because you are.       

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Andrew Malan Milward's 25 Entreaties

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Andrew Malan Milward, author of I Was a Revolutionary (Harper), shares some advice.

25 Entreaties: A Manifesto of Sorts, But Really Just Some Suggestions For Fiction Writers That They Are Free To Disregard
Emotional foreplay (see #22).
  1. Read poetry. It will clarify your vision by making you pay closer attention to the most elemental aspects of writing: the letter and the word. This is the last thing I do before sitting down to write fiction.
  2. Read “uncreative” writing. You want to be well versed in literature, of course, but reading outside the genre as well—history, science, philosophy, economics, political tracts, cultural studies, whatever blows your hair back—will open up interesting doors in your fiction that didn’t exist before.
  3. Have a routine and be disciplined about it. Art is hard but also rewarding.
  4. Remember that you have agency in the creative process. You are not simply a passive vessel waiting to be filled by the muse. We have way more control of inspiration and creativity than we’re led to believe, but a lot of it is just showing up. (See #3.)
  5. If you’re too easy on your work, bear down harder on it. Be merciless.
  6. If you’re too hard on yourself, try to be kinder. Self-doubt and rejection never go away, no matter what point you are at in your career, but they can’t be reasons to beat-up on yourself and they shouldn’t be reasons to give up on writing.
  7. Remember the suffering of others.
  8. Remember you have a body. We spend so much of our time inside our heads, reading and writing, that it’s good to do something physical regularly.
  9. Keep your eyes on the prize and remember what the prize is. It is not the six-figure book contract or a closet full of awards, nice as they might be. It is the sustained, regular, patient engagement in the world of your fiction and the good-faith attempt to make meaning that will help us understand the world and ourselves a little better. Get Zen on this shit: The process is the reward.
  10. Try to find the healthy balance of being kind and generous while also protecting yourself and your writing time. Not gonna lie: this can be very hard to do.
  11. Challenge yourself to be willing to take risks in your writing even if the probability of failure might be high. At the very least, you will learn something about yourself and your writing.
  12. Write about what you do and don’t know. Most efforts will be some combination of both. However, when you write about something you don’t know, be it a place you’ve never been or a character who’s had very different life experiences than your own, it carries a responsibility to not do a half-assed job. You want to do your research, when possible, and you want to channel the empathy good fiction demands so that you can put yourself in the heads of people very different from you. It will feel uneasy and it should. However, that uneasiness shouldn’t be a reason not to make that empathic leap.
  13. Don’t be afraid to tell. Backstory, narration, and exposition are not just complimentary or perfunctory; they can be as powerful as scene and action. The pleasure of reading fiction lies not just in watching characters do things but in seeing an interesting mind and narrative consciousness move on the page.
  14. Remember that the tragic and comic must co-exist.
  15. Be willing to wander into the open wounds of your characters, and when you do, do not flinch.
  16. Be flexible. It’s okay—and helpful, I think—to have a sense of where you think a story might be going; however, you need to not over-determine its end. Sometimes you can only see the meaning you’re making well after the fact and that’s okay. So let your characters surprise you, because inevitably they will. Be willing to follow them when a new door opens and see what happens, even if it differs from how you thought the story would unfold. This is the story teaching you what it wants to be about.
  17. However good or bad they might be, give your characters the dignity of human complexity. Don’t be glib with them or your readers.
  18. Periodically take the rectal temperature of your story or novel. 98.7 degrees is wonderful if you’re a human being but highly problematic if you’re a piece of fiction. Move the mercury! 
    Bring the heat!
  19. Write with confidence and clarity, and they will give you authority. Don’t let your sentences carry the subtext, “Do you know what I mean? Kinda? Maybe?”
  20. Remember that it’s okay to ask the reader to do some work, but first you need to make them want to do the work and then you need to make it pay off when they do.
  21. Remember that readers like to feel smart and they will resent it if you hold their hand too tightly. Trust the reader.
  22. Remember that most readers like to be generous with their emotions, but they hate to have them stolen without permission. The writer needs to do some careful, patient work to seduce the reader into feeling deeply. Put on some Barry White and engage in emotional foreplay with your audience.
  23. An eloquent prose style can be a wonderful virtue, but you should never sacrifice clarity for beauty.
  24. Write about whatever you want, but make sure you write about complex things complexly.
  25. Write toward, and with an acknowledgement of, the mysteries of being alive.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Z.Z. Boone Advocates Lying

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Z.Z. Boone, author of Off Somewhere (Whitepoint Press), talks about stretching the truth to create suspense in a story.

I lie. It comes naturally.

As a high school student, I invented a fake girlfriend named “Dixie.” While in the Air Force, I said I’d been a Golden Gloves boxer. In order to adopt our daughter from China, I exaggerated the amount of money I made.

Z.Z. Boone is not even my real name.

Last semester, I told my Introduction to Fiction students the following story:

One summer about ten years ago, while my wife was away on business in Germany, I decided to teach our seven-year old daughter, Lia, to ride a two-wheeler. I removed the training wheels from her bike, drove us both over to the empty school parking lot, and held the back of the bicycle seat until she seemed fairly skilled and properly balanced. Although I promised not to, I let go of my grip on the bike and watched proudly as our daughter wobbled away unaided.

What I hadn’t thought about was her lack of steering skill. She picked up speed on the downslope, shot from the parking lot into the street, and was struck by a hit-and-run driver.

I stopped the story there and started talking about something else, maybe some novel I’d read.

“What happened to your daughter?” a student in the back of the room asked.

“I don’t know,” I told him. “I haven’t made that part up yet.”

In truth, the account is accurate right up until Lia rides into the street. She actually did quite well, despite falling once, and we went home and I made pasta.

A nice tale, but not one that’s going to motivate people (or readers) to ask, “And then what happened?” And that’s the question we, as storytellers, must force them to ask.

Many beginning writers make a common mistake. They write about something familiar, something they feel confident they can recreate precisely. Sunday breakfast. Profound talks with mom. My pesky little brother. When I tell them their work lacks tension, they defend it by saying, “But that’s exactly how it happened!”
The Boss: It never happened

“Then lie.”

“Oh, I could never do that.”

I ask them to imagine sweet Anne Frank is hidden in their attic. The Nazis arrive and demand to know where she is.

“Could you lie then?”

Or I tell them to look at theatrical drama. Actors in costumes pretending to be people they’re not, reciting words that aren’t theirs, standing on a stage designed to look like someplace it isn’t. Total pretense.

A good piece of fiction, I try to explain, covers an event that your protagonist has never encountered before and will likely never encounter again. It has to be a day unlike any other. I also tell them to avoid writing based on theme. Theme comes from an honest heart, not an active imagination, and results in sermons, not stories. Let the reader arrive at his or her own version of the truth, not yours.

There’s this fiction exercise I drop on my students every semester. I have them write down three statements, only one of which is true. I give them fifteen minutes to think about the false ones, to try and defend them as the truth. Then I ask volunteers to come up and write their statements on the board. I set a timer for three minutes, and allow the rest of the class to ask questions in an effort to ascertain which of the three claims they think is genuine.

Some of the lies I recall include:
  • I lost my grandfather’s autographed Jackie Robinson baseball.
  • A senile nun told me to remain after class, and I sat at my desk until the janitor found me.
  • During a concert, Bruce Springsteen brought me up on stage.
  • I met my boyfriend when he broke into my apartment.
  • When I was ten, I was convinced my parents were trying to kill me. 
Generally speaking, the truth—memorable sports moments, beloved pets, surprise birthday parties—is far less interesting, far less fiction-worthy. It’s the lies that create more suspenseful stories, that cause us to widen our eyes and push forward in our seats. It’s the lies that make us willing to take that journey in search of the bigger truth.

It’s the lies that make us wonder what happens next.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Colum McCann's Letter to a Young Writer

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Colum McCann, author of Thirteen Ways of Looking (Random House), shares some advice.

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Bryn Chancellor and the Girl on the Wall

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Bryn Chancellor, author of When Are You Coming Home? (University of Nebraska Press), discusses her impulse to write—and why it took her so long to finish her collection.

What is the source of your impulse to write stories?
One answer: An obsession with words. As in, impulse.

Im-pulse. A pleasing hum of pressed lips, a push of breath. A meaning rooted in pushing—a sudden force or desire to act—but also in electricity, in the fundamental workings of the heart.

On a story level, we sometimes call an impulse a trigger—funnily enough, a word rooted in pull. What pushes and pulls me to write a story varies. In this collection, the title story started with a single word on a classroom chalkboard: locksmith. Other forces: driving through a desert city cloaked in smoke; reading about a mountain lion stalking the woods; seeing an irrigation worker in my yard late at night; maneuvering my middle-age keister down a harrowing set of stairs. What I have come to recognize about the impulse harkens its etymology: a little electric kick, a surge that thumps against my sternum. Pay attention, it tells me. Make a note. Do this.

What impels me, in a larger sense, to Write Stories?

Today’s answer: to push the ghosts back. To pull them in. Tomorrow’s answer: I don’t know. Or: holy hell, why do I do this?

But I’m not answering the question. Actually, I’m deliberately sidestepping.

Not my impulse but the source of my impulse.

Source: a double hiss, a word that looks sour and sounds sore. As in, the doctor found the source of infection. As in, I will not reveal my source. As in, can I outsource this question?

I grew up in northern Arizona, in a small town turned famous town: Sedona. There, with no transit save for the tourist trolley and parents who worked full time, I walked everywhere. To and from the school bus stop. To and from friends’ houses and swim practice and the movie theater and the creek. I walked up the sides of the legendary sandstone rocks, sometimes barefoot. I walked at a slow, rock-kicking pace, cursing people for not giving me rides.
Sedona: Main drag

Often, midway home after school, I stopped and climbed up on a neighbor’s stone wall, low and flat enough for a kid of nine or ten—those tender years before adolescence, before self-absorption and self-flagellation. Before I learned that this was a weird thing to do. Before I learned that I had to flee this beautiful place, my home, before it swallowed me whole.

An ordinary day in an extraordinary place: a girl, alone, sitting on a wall in the shade of a sprawling mesquite, scuffing the stone with the soles of her cheap shoes. Staring at the road, at the sun-heated world swarming with gnats and mating grasshoppers. Noticing the gray gravel and powder-soft red dirt, the foxtails lodged in her pant cuffs. Wondering who lived in that house behind the wall, what their furniture looked like, what kind of dinners they cooked, if she would get in trouble if she stepped into the yard. Learning to read the world as she read books: closely, voraciously.

Staring, wondering, dreaming, sitting on the outside looking in, seeing beauty in the ordinary. The conditions were ripe. The impulse, thumping.

Yet I didn’t attempt to write a story for another twelve years. Took another ten years to finish one. Took another fifteen years to write enough to make a book.

The source of my failings?

I turned my back on the girl on the wall. I was so busy with the impulse to flee that I forgot how to sit still.

What is the source of my impulse to write stories? What is my push, my pull, my electric heart surge?

Home. A word that keeps turning on me. A word I can never define.

And this, too: Stillness. Big S, as if it’s a place. To me it is. The place where I fall into a story. Where I can go back to that old wall.

The girl is still there. She is still, there.

Pay attention to commas, I tell her. Pay attention, period.

I tell her, It’s okay to be afraid, and ashamed, and guilty, and overwhelmed, and petty, and lonely, and oversensitive, and joyful, and weird.

I tell her, It’s okay to leave. And it’s okay to come back, too.

Someday, I tell her, you’ll write stories about it.