Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jessica Treadway on What's Uplifting About "Depressing" Fiction

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jessica Treadway, author of Please Come Back to Me (University of Georgia Press), discusses why books that seem grim to some readers can yield an exhilerating experience for others.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why a lot of novels and stories some readers find “depressing” (which is the the word people always seem to use) are ones that fill other readers (like me) up – books that exhilarate us, take us over, and make us feel less alone in an often confusing and complex world.

Take Olive Kitteridge, for example. That book took my breath away, quite literally, when I first read it – having received the lucky assignment to review it for The Boston Globe – and it still does. (I checked before sitting down to write this, just in case something had changed in the meantime. Not only had nothing changed, but even knowing what was going to happen in each story didn’t blunt the way Elizabeth Strout’s characters and images made me have to close the book on my finger and look up, in order to absorb the power and the poignancy of what I had just read.)

But the reason I felt the need to look at the book again was a Facebook post by my old friend Jane who said she was “halfway through Olive Kitteridge… so far I’ve found it well-written but distressing, depressing about the human condition.” I wrote to ask her why. She didn’t see any hope in the book, she wrote back. It made her feel that the book’s message was that “it’s pointless – life is hard, and then you die."

“This isn’t my worldview,” she added.

Well, it isn’t my worldview, either. So why did I feel roused by Strout’s book, and stimulated to feel energetic empathy for the characters, instead of emotionally depleted by the losses and pain they suffered along the way? I asked another friend of Jane’s and mine, who’d also loved the book, and she said she had been “comforted by reading another person’s truth.”

That summed it up for me, I realized. When I read a book like Olive Kitteridge or like Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade -- which warns away, in its first line (“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life”) people who want to avoid being “depressed” by the book they’ve just opened -- I feel gratified by the privilege of bearing witness to those characters’ pain, as well as to their moments of triumph and joy, fleeting though they may be. It’s like being honored and entrusted with the most private confidence, being able to inhabit characters as they experience their deepest feelings, including distress.

In college I read Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, whose heroine, Gervaise, wants only two things from life: not to be beaten, and to die in her own bed. At the end (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t get either of those things. The final lines belong to the undertaker as he carries her out from under the stairwell where her body has been discovered: “There, there, you’re all right now. Night-night, my lovely!” More than 25 years later, I still remember the electric surge of emotion I felt when I read those words – and it was positive emotion, not negative. Of course I felt grief for Gervaise. I wouldn’t wish her life on anyone I cared about. But I think what I relished was being there at that final moment, along with every other reader who’d made the journey with her; somehow, our presence gave meaning to her life – and her death. (And though I’m not sure I care to spend much time exploring my own psychology in this regard, it’s possible that by extension, I’m hoping that if Olive and Gervaise and the Grimes sisters have sympathetic company in whatever suffering life holds for them, then so will I.)

In my new collection, Please Come Back to Me -- spoiler alert again -- some people die. Most if not all of the characters have ended up with lives other than the ones they expected and wanted for themselves. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone how to feel after reading my stories, and I won’t be surprised if my friend Jane finds them “depressing.”

But I hope others will understand that this wasn’t my intention. I’m pretty sure I have no interest, either conscious or hidden from myself, in inflicting misery on anyone under the guise of writing stories I hope will hold some meaning. I only want to write what feels true, and maybe touch a few readers who, like me, find resonance – even, sometimes, radiance -- in the dark.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Steven Amsterdam on the Value of Writing Groups

In the 46th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Steven Amsterdam, author of Things We Didn't See Coming (Pantheon), discusses how to put together a writing group and the frame of mind needed to benefit from it.

A writing workshop is contrary to the nature of writing. A writing workshop is vital for developing work. It lavishes unrealistic and motherly confidence onto the most undeserving dribble. It’s a market research group, a torture chamber, a circle jerk. I say yes to all of these things, and loudly, but the fact is that I’ve been in two workshops for the last five years and I credit them for much that is lucid and balanced in my writing.

For a long time, the clearest criticism my writing received was an acceptance letter or, more often, a rejection letter. Since joining a workshop, the regular criticism has helped me advance the meaning of my stories—develop them, make them whole, stitch them to a better fit. Plus, I’ve gotten more acceptance letters. That’s all the proof I need.

Getting a group and realizing the benefit took time. Although I frequently recommend workshopping, there is much that has to go right for it to work.

First, the writer must find:

  1. Five or so people who write, or at minimum, read. These people may start out too kind or too critical, but sooner or later, they will tell you what you need to know. Libraries, writer’s centers, and universities often have noticeboards where a writer can connect with a group. I connected to my groups through a creative writing masters, which meant that several of us had workshopped together before and had already gotten to know each other’s writing, needs, and limits.
  2. A good mix. From my perspective, the more different, the better. We all arrive with our own preferences and bizarre associations. We all have different obsessions and weaknesses. I need someone to ride me about underdescribing places. Someone else may benefit from my focus on tightening.
  3. An agreeable regularity. This means whatever most of you can manage. Both groups I'm in have been content with monthly meetings. That’s often enough to keep us active and not so frequent that the scheduling becomes onerous.
  4. A quiet space. One of my groups meets upstairs at a pub in the middle of town on a Saturday afternoon. The other meets in a room at a university.
  5. A willingness to share the spotlight from one meeting to the next.

Second, and maybe most importantly, the writer needs:

  1. A certain maturity. I believe my 19-year-old self would have probably been so cowed by the process that he would have attempted to make every suggested change and would have ended up crumpling it into a ball (we still had paper then) and throwing it away. So yes, one has to be able to listen without believing that what other people say is always true. For me, this took time.
  2. Faith in the story being told. This allows you to help yourself and help others sculpt away what isn’t needed.
  3. Knowledge of the people in the group and their tastes. This is critical and requires good observation of people (which presumably a writer is capable of). It is doubtful that you are going to find five to ten people who have your tastes and are working in the same area that you are. (Should you find this to be the case, you might want to consider changing your project.) There may be one person who rattles on annoyingly about the demands of genre, but actually knows what she’s talking about, and another who drums loudly about word choice, but you often disagree with his choices. Which leads to—
  4. The capacity to know what you will accept, what will improve your story and what will simply make it beige. Sometimes this is easy, as when three people suggest to you that the twelve-year-old character sounds forty-four. Fix it. Another time those three people may speak convincingly of a flaw you don’t see. What do you do? And sometimes one person’s comment may touch ever-so-slightly on a flaw in your piece, but even as they’re speaking you feel caught, like you didn’t do your job. Make the change.

Most of my writing over the last few years has taken place in a speculative universe or in scenarios that have a slightly magical edge. To pull something like this off alone is not easy. In the process of creating a world of alternate rules it is easy to over-explain. It is just as tempting to keep it all so obscure that not even the reader knows your meaning. This is not good. What I get from my workshoppers is crucial for telling me where I must trim or delve further.

I know there are plenty of writers who don’t need this added market research, masochism, or masturbation for their writing. Maybe it’s insecurity or maybe it’s simply that I’m too social for the solitude of sole authorial creation, but I like it. I enjoy the ongoing involvement in other people’s creative endeavours and the frequent surprise of hearing someone else's suggestion for someone else's piece expand my mind a bit more. I enjoy the sense of collaboration. Most of all, I value my final product.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Alex Taylor: Maddened Ghost—The Late Barry Hannah as Mentor

In the 45th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Alex Taylor, author of The Name of the Nearest River (Sarabande Books), writes about the influence of his teacher, Barry Hannah.

Let me begin by saying we were never friends, though I would have preferred it. I am grateful we were not enemies. Long is the legend of his madness, his unrepentant anger at those either willingly wronging happiness out of life or those who were simply too dull to be anything other than crude motes of the air. It would have been a bitter and raw battle, as a few wives and girlfriends and hapless poets can attest.

So I was neither friend nor enemy to the late Barry Hannah. I was simply his student. So I remain. He continues to guide me into the heat of life, cursing or howling in disgust when I opt for ease and comfort over nail-driven pain and outright agonizing love. You sit in the chair long enough, what you want is a fist in the teeth. What you demand is a blade to the throat. What else is there to keep us in the realm of the riotous prophet? All writers must cultivate vision, must quest through their own desert places for the glowing waters promised us during our time in bondage.

In bondage to what?

The stink of too much money, too little life. The slow waiting. The tedious, thumb-pulling dawdle. Big chains and bad medicine this, and more than a few honest men get the heart felled right out of them by the broad ax of such slavery. You learn freedom comes when the nerves burn white-hot-electric, when your sinuses bleed. You dose up on the drug of it, The Truth, and get giddy from the bald hurt.

He rarely spoke to me. I recall him drawling out "I want to take you fishing," and giving me a hug once. We never tossed hook or line together, a deep personal regret of mine. But you were either in the circle of Hannah’s love or burned in the lake of his hatred, and I somehow drifted into the limbo of his indifference.

It’s nothing terrible. Barry’s ability to lift the heart of the struggling fiction writer was worth every barb, insult, or misguided misreading of a story. I’d leave his classes desiring war. I wanted to run the bomb-cratered dirt, gun for the trenches, and cabob the Hun with my bayonet, leave the world of the sad complacent soaking up the soil at my feet. He spoke as if literature mattered. As if it was of deep and lasting importance. Strange gris-gris this, especially in the digital era of flash, flicker, nothingness. But there was Barry, aged and come back from Hell, snickering and jolly, mad and blunt-tongued, hoisting the flag of The Word above a field of tattered pennants and smoking corpses, rallying the living to the fight, the final push, the big roar.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Michael Delp's Haphazard Process

In the 44th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Michael Delp, author of As If We Were Prey (Wayne State University Press), shares his approach to writing. 

On my process:
Because I value my instincts over my intellect, I rarely think about process. In fact, my process, if I have one, is haphazard. I work when I feel like it, which is rarely because I'd much rather be fly fishing. If pressed, I would say that I work from something that strikes me visually at first. If a story starts to develop in my head, I immediately try to forget about it and let it fester somewhere. Months later, if it comes out, it's a story. I am not a writer who likes to write, as you can guess. I like having written, for sure. But.....I am far more interested in what comes long before the story comes into view. The images I tend to work with come from places and people seemingly less valued in this culture...people in trouble, those who are confused and sometimes dangerous. I'm drawn to the carnival nomad who is also a psychopath well before I'm attracted to the beauty queen who lives on a Texas ranch and never has a revulsive thought.

On mentors:
My first mentor was my father who taught me the value of tools...literally. I made things with him. Stories are made things too.

My second one came in college. I was a pre-med fool, flunked an Embryology class and had the good luck to run into Jim Tipton. Tipton was a wild man, a poet, farmer, Sufi dabbler, and above all, the most gifted teacher I have ever had. He showed me a way to take my life and put it to work on the page. Being with Jim was like living inside a thunderstorm, lightning and all.

Next came Jim Harrision. Without Harrison I would never have come to the understanding that living with large appetites is more important than writing. He did things on the page and still does, that I see as impossible, yet he does them with ease and grace. He showed me what happens when you have access to a soul which is rooted in the natural world.

On important books:
Huckleberry Finn set me off on a literal journey that is still going on.

Ninety-Two in the Shade is my annual literary electroshock therapy. I've read it every year throughout my adult life.

Today, Barry Lopez is a constant reminder of what it means to actually take up residence in the world.

Describe one of your stories:
My favorite is the title story, "As If We Were Prey"...a dark tale about what it means to live with anger and fear inside you your entire life. It's also about what happens to anyone who does something too long and snaps. It's not pretty, nor is it meant to be a lesson. It's just a look into what is possible in almost any of us, even though we won't admit it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Rivecca Goes Seriously Comic

In the 43rd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Suzanne Rivecca, author of Death Is Not an Option (W.W. Norton), answers a critic who takes her to task for treating a serious subject with humor. 

After I gave a reading in Bainbridge Island, Washington, a woman from the audience approached me. First she told me I’d pronounced the word “ravine” wrong. Then she asked me about “Very Special Victims,” the story I’d read from, which was about a sexual abuse survivor’s attempt to reconcile her past with her present-day romantic and social relationships. “You seemed like you were trying to make the subject matter into a comedy,” she said. In a crabwise, passive-aggressive way, she was letting me know she was not amused. “Was it supposed to be funny?” she went on. “Are you trying to make people laugh with this subject matter?” If she had approached me as a person sincerely trying to understand why I refused to treat the subject with the humorless sanctimony of a Law and Order episode, I might have been willing to engage with her. But this woman was not trying to start a dialogue. I recognized the place she was coming from, and it was a hushed realm of pursed-lipped, squeamish disapproval. And it wasn’t molestation she was expressing disapproval of. It was the way I’d written about it. She was making it clear to me, with the wearily prim certainty of someone duty-bound to make such things clear to the ignorant and brash, that what I had done was not acceptable.

In answer, I said something about how every single experience has the potential to contain the full spectrum of human reaction and emotion, and that that spectrum includes humor, whether it’s socially palatable or not. She kept staring at me with owl-eyed severity. She seemed surprised that I hadn’t backed down. Then she said, begrudgingly, “Well, you’re good with descriptions.” I said, "Thanks."

When I was in writing workshops, I was often accused of using humor as a crutch. When I deliberately wrote a humorless, utterly joyless story about a nun who fell down and broke her leg, my offering was greeted with somber, measured approval. Not because it was a good story (it wasn’t), but because I had successfully subverted my natural inclination to perceive and articulate life’s absurdity. My feat was treated as a self-abnegating act of moderation and self-discipline. It’s the way Robin Williams always gets patted on the head for his restraint when he’s acting in a subdued drama and thus forced to replace every irritating, hammy tic in his repertoire with a beard and a vaguely British accent. He’s no better; he’s just quieter.

“Very Special Victims” isn’t about how funny molestation is. It’s about how absurdity and the ridiculous are found everywhere, and how sometimes the only vestige of power and agency left to us lies in laughing at what we’re not supposed to laugh it. This tendency is the opposite of flippancy. It’s actually deadly serious. It shows that you’re still alive and that you’re still yourself. 

Whenever I start worrying about people taking offense at the way I approach certain subjects, I think of that documentary footage of Bob Dylan where he’s getting booed at the Newport Folk Festival for going electric. The entire audience hates him, and he’s about to launch into “Like a Rolling Stone,” and he suddenly turns to his band and matter-of-factly tells them, “Play it fucking loud.” And they do.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

On Literary Awards and Subjectivity

Ron Rash, winner of the O'Connor Award
Congratulations to Ron Rash, winner of the £35,000 (around $55,000) Cork City – Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award for his story collection Burning Bright  (Ecco). In the five (correction, six) years since the O'Connor prize was established (The Story Prize is in its seventh), the overlap of winners and finalists between the two book awards for short story collections has been small. So far, only two of our finalists--Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and Wells Towers' Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned--have been finalists (Towers) or winners (Lahiri) of the O'Connor award. We don't announce our finalists until early January, so that correspondence could increase. But what's clear is that literary prizes are (as everyone understands or should) largely subjective.

The first year I served as series editor for the O. Henry Awards, 1997, I got in touch with Katrina Kenison, then the series editor of Best American Short Stories, and we established a practice of comparing winners, once we'd both chosen. In those pre-social-networking days, there was no announcement. And until the galleys were sent out, few people knew the complete list of stories chosen for either collection. The first year, I think both Katrina and I were nervous as we read our lists of stories to each other over the phone. What if we had too many in common? She was nervous because our collection came out six weeks earlier. I was nervous because their collection routinely trounced ours in sales. Both our fears, however, were unfounded. We didn't overlap a single story in 1997. In 1998, we had three stories in common and two in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2002.

One big procedural difference between the annual collections was that I chose the 20 stories myself, whereas Katrina picked 120 or so stories to send to the guest editor, who chose the final 20. We would often both admire some of the other collection's choices, and she sometimes took on a wistful tone. For instance, that very first year, she told me she would have liked Rick Moody's "Demonology" to have made the Best American cut. And I believe I made the better choice of Annie Proulx stories in 1998, when I chose "Brokeback Mountain" and Best American guest editor Garrison Keillor chose "The Half-Skinned Steer." Truth be told, I always thought the O. Henry Awards choices were better. But, then, I would. That's what subjectivity is all about.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Ben Greenman on Karmic Boomerangs and Sad-Sack Slapstick

In the 42nd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ben Greenman, author of What He's Poised to Do (Harper Perennial), discusses influences and mind control.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
It’s hard to pick a representative story, in part because the stories are all so different from one another, and my affection for them fluctuates. Depending on my mood, stories can feel lugubrious, or mannered, or glib. The one story that somehow remains in good standing is “The Govindan Ananthanarayanan Academy For Moral and Ethical Practice and the Treatment of Sadness Resulting from the Misapplication of the Above.” It’s the story of a factory that manufactures a novelty called the Karmic Boomerang (normal old boomerangs packaged with moral or ethical questions), but beneath that it’s the story of two friends, and how they deal with disappointments, romantic and otherwise.

My fondness for this story comes from the fact that it takes up some of the questions that I think are always present in literary fiction (How do we process sadness? How do we endure change? Are we ever really brave enough to say true things to the people we love without worrying over the consequences of those disclosures?) and shows how they can be simultaneously addressed and evaded. It has the feel, at times, of a serious inquiry into these moral and ethical issues, and it’s also an exercise in mechanical comedy—it’s Sad-Sack Slapstick, which might not be an official genre, but should be.

Maybe I am doing a bad job describing it. It takes place in the first half of the twentieth century, on the imaginary border between Australia and India. It is printed on paper the same width and height as the other stories. Some stories, when I reread them, seem transparent. This one seems reflective, like a mirror with an inscription over it, and I think the inscription is this, which is stolen (let’s say borrowed) from Baudrillard: “The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice and therefore intelligence.”

What book made you want to become a writer?
First, Where the Red Fern Grows. You could express feelings on paper and not be embarrassed? Who knew? Then Stanley Elkin’s Searches and Seizures. I was always a reader. Books, and the stories in them, not only helped me cultivate an internal world but also helped me avoid actual people. It was a win-win. But many stories seemed limited—or maybe it’s more precise to say that they respected limits. Then I read the first novella in Searches and Seizures, “The Making of Ashenden,” which blew up the entire notion of what a story was or could be. Without giving too much away, it’s the story of a young man of good breeding that electrically parodies nearly everything that has ever been written about young men: rags-to-riches tales, patrician fictions, bildungsromans, confessions, all of it.

I’ll only say two things about it. First, the narrator, Brewster Ashenden, is the son of the man who invented the slogan “Close cover before striking” for matchbooks. Second, he eventually has sex with a bear. I read the story, and reread it, and reread it again after that; it was the first time that I felt the energy of the writer coming through the page, at least in the sense that Elkin knew that he was performing a high-wire act. He knew there were risks, and he took them because the process of taking them pleased him. My work has sometimes been as experimental and strange, but even when it’s been more traditional, I have tried to remember that fiction, done right, is inherently subversive—it subverts reality—and that by only by undermining and overthrowing can we keep the rules honest.

Describe a technique you've learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression.
When I was a graduate student, I noticed a strange phenomenon. If I gave students a short story to interpret, they would, and with lots of variation. Some would see it as a parable. Others would read the tone as blackly comic. But if I gave students a story with a few italic lines of introduction, their responses were narrowly restricted. If the introduction said it was written in response to the death of a parent, then it was. That flabbergasted me. It seemed to defy physics: How could a few little lines lift and turn the entire story? In previous collections, I’ve used this device more overtly. There’s an early story called “Getting Nearer to Nearism” that’s written in the form of an interview with an artist I invented, and it has a deadpan introduction that tells you how to handle the rest. What He’s Poised To Do returns to this site, but with slightly different equipment: It’s about letters and letter writing, so those questions of authority over text and meaning are built into every story, every narrator, and every plot.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A.L. Kennedy, We Kid You Not

In the 41st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, A.L. Kennedy, author of What Becomes (Alfred A. Knopf), answers a slew of questions about her work.

Describe one of the stories in your collection. 
One of the stories concerns a one night stand in a hotel—two people who don't know each other and are trying to be civilsed about something which probably isn't actually that civilsed. The piece is entirely dialogue—I wanted it to seem that the reader is overhearing what's happening in the room next door and can decide to listen or not and to judge or not—and, given that what they're doing would be very easily simply pornographic, it seemed best to simply let them speak—then the story is about why they're doing what they're doing and who they are, rather than a series of acts.

What is your writing process like? 

I just write whenever I get the peace and the chance to—at home, on trains, on boats, on the road—a high percentage of most books have been written at least in part in hotels. I prefer to work at night, but sometimes I can't. I prefer to work lying down, but sometimes I can't. I prefer to work barefoot, but sometimes I can't.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom?

I don't inflict my work on anybody—my editor gets it when it's as finished as possible—no one can read something for the first time more than once... I do read work in progress—but only when it's quite far along and only pieces that would be free-standing.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver? 

Whatever you want it to.

What book made you want to become a writer? 

I don't think any book did that. Most of them have made me want to be a reader—and some have made me feel lucky that I am.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 

That depends entirely on the story or novel or whatever—it might be historical, scientific, contemporary, might involve going to locations or simply thinking a lot about someone imaginary... It's very variable—whatever the piece requires—travel, learning another language, training, whatever.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 

I do stand up and some more theatrical performance—they're both very immediate and pure as a forms and very plainly communicative—and you get an instant reaction. All of which are helpful. And, of course, they generate material which eventually can become something in prose. I also do a lot of voice work with a coach—I think that strengthens the voice on the page.

Describe a technique you've learned from other narrative or non-narrative forms of expression. 

I think doing standup helps me understand funny better and get it on the page better.

Who is your favorite living author and why? 

John Byrne, the Scottish playwright and artist—he's simply one of the most pleasant and talented people alive.

Have you had a mentor and who was it? 
Nope. Many people been inspirational, but I've rarely met any of them and most of them weren't writers.

What's the longest narrative time period you've ever contained in a short story? 
Odd question. On one level, something over 300 years. Genuinely as part of a narrative, ten years.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later? 
Are you kidding? You are kidding, right?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Shannan Rouss on L.A. as an Adjective

In the 40th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Shannan Rouss, author of Easy for You (Simon & Schuster), discusses the part her native Los Angeles plays in her work.

If I were to rename my book, I'd call it Natives. My family has been in L.A. since 1923 when they left Fort Worth, Texas, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The way my grandmother tells it, she was sick in some vague, undiagnosed way, and apparently Southern California was where you went to get better.

It’s worth mentioning that my great grandmother’s sister had married my great-grandfather’s brother, which meant that when one family decided to leave so too did the other—all of them settling in West Adams, a changing neighborhood that was fast losing its wealthiest residents to the brand new Beverly Hills.

Today, three generations later, my family is a map of urban sprawl, stretching from the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley to the edges of Orange County and eventually down into San Diego.

We are normal in the sense that no one has become an actor or a filmmaker. No one is even in the “business.” For the most part, everyone is a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer. We are from L.A. but we are not L.A.—sooo L.A., very L.A., how L.A.—the city as an adjective, a pejorative term describing anything affected, shallow or downright silly. Like Venice boardwalk’s Botox on the Beach where walk-ins are welcome, or the Craigslist ad for an apartment with “rock star views and super model décor.”

I wonder: Who are the walk-ins? The people making an appointment to see this apartment?

Of course, I know the answers. I have figured out that this L.A. exists even if it doesn’t. What I mean is that beauty and perfection and rock star views may not exist, but the dream does, both the creation/perpetuation of it and the people who will always be looking for it.

Easy for You ended up being my attempt to write about the real L.A., not the dream. But the people and stories that came to me by way of memory and imagination were always abutting the dream, pressed up against it: the widower at war with his new neighbors in Beverly Hills adjacent or the teacher on a field trip to the city’s La Brea Tar Pits.

The L.A. they inhabit is as mundane and lonely and dream-less as anywhere. The difference is that the dream is right there. Which means, in a way, that there is nowhere left to go.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Patricia Engel Aims to Strike a Chord with Readers

In the 39th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Patricia Engle, author of Vida (Black Cat), discusses the title story and her influences.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
The title story of my book, "Vida" is about a small town Colombian beauty queen who is offered a chance to travel to Miami to model and audition for the Latin TV networks but is instead sold by her chaperon to an underground brothel. When Sabina, the narrator of all the stories, meets her, Vida has already escaped the brothel by winning the affection of one of the guards who is now her boyfriend. Vida and Sabina slowly develop a close friendship and ultimately change each other's lives.

I'm often asked if there is a real Vida who I knew in my own life. I never knew this particular Vida other than in my imagination. But I have heard many, many stories of girls (and boys) who are trafficked from South America to the United States, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and realized that such a deception could just as easily happen to any friend of mine or to me. Hope and faith, after all, can make for easy victims.

In fact I've known many Vidas: women who at some point found themselves in prison-like relationships, who are simply searching for the courage to transcend their existence, men and women who leave one country for another with the dream of a better future, aching for the pride of being able to send money home to their families and instead walk into traps set by those eager to exploit their vulnerability and displacement. I wrote this story for them.

What books made you want to become a writer?
Throughout adolescence there were many books that I loved as if they were members of my own family: Innocent Érendira, The Four-Chambered Heart, The Lover, The Stranger, and Wide Sargasso Sea, to name a few. While these books appealed to different aspects of my curiosity and experience, I never found a book that I felt spoke to the full spectrum of my loneliness, my exile, my conflicts, my desires, my questions about life, and, of course, these variables changed year to year. My goal was to write an honest book in pure language that could evolve with the reader, intimately, like a lifelong friend, regardless of gender, culture, or age, because that is what I most wanted from a book.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Judith Stephens Answers the Call of the Wild and Acts Up

In the 38th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Judith Stephens, author of Rancho Armadillo (Livingston Press), discusses the creative energy she draws from acting, among other things.

What book made you want to become a writer?
The Call of the Wild, by Jack London, penetrated my ten-year-old soul. Buck's determination to survive and his ultimate conquest of the Yukon's environment gave me hope. There in my canyon home, the only stranger in my new country school, Buck inspired me to adapt.

I had read to my little brother, and I had read all the Oz books fast, so fast that my dad decided I needed something more challenging. So, in rapid succession, he brought me The Call of the Wild, The Three Musketeers, and The Count of Monte Cristo. I read the entire contents of the fifth/sixth grade library in my school. Then I said, Mom, what do I do when I've read all the good books? My mother didn't laugh, “Maybe you'll write some good books.” I knew I would never be as good as Jack London and Alexander Dumas, but I could tell stories, and I began writing them down.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
Acting. I love to perform on stage. When I write or when I act, people listen to me, which is not true when I talk. Soft voice? Maybe, although I can project my voice on stage. When I was young, people thought I had to be stupid under my blonde hair, so they didn't hear when I offered an observation or insight. And writing? I get to say what I want, but it can be a long wait for a response. When I act, I get an immediate response; I know instantly what works or doesn't.

How does acting affect my writing? The theater infuses juice into my creative energy; at the same time it does not engage the part of my brain that must wander to let my imagination free. The best stories I write are not at the surface of my mind when I sit down. I may take hours to get to them. If I act in just a few short pieces each year, the words seem to flow straight out of my fingers when I sit down to tell a story. And when I need a story to move fast, I use dialog, as in a play.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
Herb Wilner was my mentor. I applied to enter the masters program at San Francisco State twice, and I was rejected twice. I had applied with poetry, although I wanted to write fiction. I had begun to learn to write poetry with the theory that poetry is shorter; you can write ten or twelve failed poems in a week and then analyze them to see what went wrong, whereas even one short story could take a week just to write. Some of my poems had been published, but my groups didn't offer much criticism, and a hard critical look was what I needed. When I told Herb that, he got me a special place in the masters program.

When I took his short story class, I found a teacher and a mentor. His writing was nothing like mine. As he put it one day, he was a civilized writer, and much as he loved William Faulkner, he didn't write like Faulkner. Maybe all writers are like me – I really don't know if what I write is any good, so I must rely on trusted feedback, and Herb was perfect. He was wonderful at spotting missed opportunities and generous with his comments, whether I succeeded or not. Later, when I taught at San Francisco State, I did my best to emulate him.

But he was a sick man. When the time came for my oral exams, he was in the hospital, and he died the day after I passed the orals.Years later I still miss him, but I try to look at my work the way he would have, and I have learned to be great at spotting missed opportunities (or so my fiction group tells me).

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Christian TeBordo and the Exploding Story

 In the 37th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, poet, novelist and short story writer Christian TeBordo, author of The Awful Possibilities (Featherproof Books), discusses how he works and what he looks for in a story collection, among other topics.

What is your writing process like?
I don't really have a writing process. Usually I write by hand with whatever paper is available, but I'll use a computer if the sentences need to be fast or if I'm on a deadline. Time-wise I write when I get the chance, or I'll make time if I feel like a story's about to explode. Sometimes I think it would be a good thing to get a process, but I just can't see myself as the write everyday type. First because (and I know this isn't true for everyone, just me) I think there's an inverse relationship between quantity and quality; second because I don't think the world needs every idea I have, only the best of them. Of course, I can barely go five minutes without thinking about writing.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
I like collections where the stories seem like they're at war with one another. Maybe there's an alliance between any group of two or three, but generally I like having no idea what I'm in for when I finish one story and start the next. That way the individual pieces can play off each other dialectically, make a synthesis that adds up to an authorial (as opposed to a generic, or literary) sensibility, and hopefully paint a truthful picture of the world as it is or could be. That sounds a little idealistic, but I find a handful of books that do it each year.

What book made you want to become a writer?
I'm probably like many males of my generation in that discovering Vonnegut in high school really opened up the possibilities of fiction for me. But as for short fiction, it was Barry Hannah's Bats Out of Hell, specifically "The Vision of Esther by Clem," that really turned me on to the form. With that story, he seemed to take all of the psychology of the best nineteenth century novels and cram it into twenty or thirty pages of ecstatic prose. I know that Airships (which I also love) is technically the top candidate for classic status, but Bats Out of Hell gets my vote.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Am I going to get kicked out of literature if I answer yes? Well, no, if by "not revised" you mean not even proofread and tweaked some. If you mean "have you ever gotten a story right the first time," then yes. Some stories need slaving over, others just come on out. Neither will ever be perfect, but perfect's not exactly what I'm aiming for, and anyway, I doubt anyone who didn't know me well would be able to guess which ones were easy and which weren't. I have a gift for making it look difficult.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Kermit Moyer on How Lies Can Get at the Truth

In the 36th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Kermit Moyer, author of The Chester Chronicles (Permanent Press), answers a few questions about his book.

What is The Chester Chronicles About?
It’s about the childhood and adolescent experiences of one singular individual, but it’s also about the way our identities are shaped by our families and the times we live in—which is to say it’s about the interplay between self and culture. Thus, Chester is seen in a context of books and movies and popular music and attitudes toward sex and race and politics and history unfolding during the Cold War era. The themes of these stories include the loss of innocence, desire and taboo, aspiration and heartbreak, and the way the imagination constructs what we take to be reality.

Why did you write autobiographical fiction instead of a memoir?
In my view, the best way to tell the truth is to lie—that is, to write fiction. This is not only because it’s easier to tell uncomfortable truths about yourself if you’re talking about someone else but also because it’s impossible for memory alone to do justice to life’s intricate and filigreed surface, its varied textures and detailed particularity, without resorting to imaginative invention.

The Chester Chronicles is retrospective, like a memoir, but it’s largely written in the present tense—why is that?
I used the present tense because it allowed me to give a sense of immediacy to the boy’s experience and at the same time to see it retrospectively from the adult’s point of view. The adult’s language is being used to evoke the boys experience as it was happening—or rather as it happens again in his memory and imagination. It’s a retrospective present tense.

Like Chester, you grew up as a so-called “Army brat”—what was that like?
Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I was familiar with the designation, “Army brat,” but I wasn’t sure whether to feel offended or honored by it. Although “brat” is certainly a negative word, I liked to think the term implied that military kids, because they were necessarily rootless, were less tractable and more willful than other kids, more restless and harder to control. If you were an Army brat, you were only in a place temporarily, and this was something you knew going in. So you could never let yourself feel too much “at home.” You were only a visitor, an outsider, but this tended to make you an observer, too, and, out of necessity, a kind of cultural anthropologist—in short, it gave you the natural perspective of a writer.

Chester hates his given name. How did you like being named Kermit?
When I was a kid, my virtually unheard-of name (there was no Kermit the frog back then) sounded strange because we moved so often. If I’d grown up in one place, my name would have become too familiar to strike anyone as strange. Consequently, at the center of my myth of myself there has always been the fundamental belief that all the qualities that make me who I am, and especially the ones that make me a writer—my hermit-like shyness and self-conscious discomfort in social situations, my bookishness and interiority—have resulted not simply from being named Kermit, and not simply from being an Army brat either, but rather from the wicked combination of being both--an Army brat named Kermit.

What are your favorite and least favorite parts of the writing process?
My favorite parts of writing are the beginning of a story when anything seems possible and the ongoing trial-and-error process of revision. The part that scares me (because it’s mostly not under my control) is writing the first draft of a paragraph or a scene; the part I like most (because it is under my control) is revising that first draft, clarifying and polishing what’s there until it seems to shine.

What’s the best advice about writing that you ever got?
The poet William Stafford, in his book Writing the Australian Crawl, says: “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” My other favorite quote about writing is something E. L. Doctorow said: “Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.”