Friday, December 18, 2015

Tara Ison and the One Good Word

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Tara Ison, author of Ball (Soft Skull Press), provides the inspirations for her stories.

Describe your collection in 10 words or less.
Obsessive, prickly, honest, cringe-worthy, emotionally explicit, sexually explicit, apricot. Honest.

Describe a good writing day.
Writing one good chapter. Or paragraph. Or sentence. Or word. A day I get myself in the chair and get out of my own head and ego and fears just long enough to enter that alternate universe space where nothing exists but the experience I’m channeling from my characters onto the page and at some point I look up and hours have gone by, it’s now dark out, or I’ve forgotten to eat or shower, haven’t checked messages or Facebook, and there on the page is the one good, or perhaps decent, or maybe just not-dreadful chapter, or paragraph, or sentence, or word. That’s a good writing day.

What’s the best phrase, line, or passage you’ve had to cut from a story?
Not sure if this answers the question, but…in grad school I wrote a story for workshop, and my mentor—an extraordinary writer I respected enormously—circled a sentence in the opening graph, and in the margin wrote: BRILLIANT! And the following term, because I was a lazy, terrible student, I turned the exact same story in for another workshop, and my new mentor – an extraordinary writer I respected enormously – crossed out the same sentence in thick red pen and in the margin wrote: ICK! CUT! 

I tell my students that story – because that’s what grad school is all about. Well, that’s what writing is all about. Listen to the feedback, because sometimes it’s right, and sometimes it’s wrong, and how do you know? It comes back to you, the writer. You do have to question, and justify—if only to yourself—every sentence, every single word that goes in a story.

(In that case – I decided I was able to justify the sentence, and that story became “Ball,” the title story of my collection.) 

What keeps you going?
At one point I might have said: Well, I really hate writing, but I love being a writer. And if I don’t actually write anything, at some point they’ll notice.

And now—I still hate writing. But I’m grateful, or I try to be grateful, for every moment I’m able to get in the chair and sit there and do my best to write a story that gives voice to a character whose story I think must be heard, for a reader who is taking precious time out of his or her life to read something I’ve written, and to whom I owe my best.

Where does a story begin for you? (An opening line? A lst line? A plot? A character? A situation? An incident? A concept?)
All the above – each story is inspired by something different. (Although a deadline is ultimately the best inspiration!) Here’s how the stories in my collection began:

"Cactus": The fiancé of a friend of a friend was killed in a plane crash, and she went on to marry his brother. That fascinated me. (But it’s not her story.)

"Ball": I woke up in the middle of the night with the opening sentence in my head: “My sweet little dog, Tess, is what they call ‘apricot.’” I had to get up and write it down. That’s never happened before, or since. 

"Bakery Girl": Nerve asked me to submit a “sex story”—I was a “bakery girl,” but this is not (totally) autobiographical.

"Wig": I wanted to submit to an anthology on “Revenge Stories,” and tried to find a twisted/oblique way to depict the desire for vengeance.

"The Knitting Story": 1) I was on a deadline to complete the collection, and 2) I’m a compulsive knitter but had never written a story about it.

"Staples": Inspired by a buddy in a relationship with an older, plastic surgery-addicted woman.

"Needles": The first sentence was something I actually said to a friend, after a cross-country drive. She thought it would be a good opening line to a story. And then she challenged me to write it in less than 500 words.

"Apology": Also inspired by people I know—but again, not their story. I wanted to push the dynamic between a couple to as dark a place as I could. (I think that’s true for most of my stories.)

"Fish": Inspired by a terrifying photograph of a koi fish by Susan Unterberg.

"Musical Chairs": Pretty darn autobiographical. Had to work those demons out.

"Multiple Choice": More demons, inspired by a relationship I almost had but got out of asap. Because I’m not that crazy….