Sunday, June 10, 2012

Natalie Serber's Acts of Empathy

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Natalie Serber, author of Shout Her Lovely Name (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) talks about where her stories come from.
What made you want to become a writer?
I can’t remember a specific moment of wanting to become a writer. It seemed that writing was something I always did. As the only child of a single mother I spent great stretches of time by myself. I read to escape loneliness and when I wasn’t reading, I was pretending to be the characters in the books I loved, continuing their stories in my bedroom. I carried an onion as a pretend doll, just like Laura Ingalls Wilder. I eavesdropped on neighbors and took notes like Harriet the Spy. Sometimes I wrote my stories down. I guess it was my own version of fan fiction.

Blank slate inside
My mother had two jobs when I was a girl. She was a schoolteacher and a cocktail waitress. Both jobs required that she wear nylons and I remember being delighted when she opened a new package because the hose came wrapped around a thin piece of cardboard. She would give the blank cardboard to me and I wrote out the stories I’d been making up. Of course we had plenty of paper in the house, but I felt the cardboard elevated my stories to something very special.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
The second story I ever had published I wrote in one sitting.  It is only about 1000 words and it’s called “The Day You Stop Being A Cat.” It’s told in second person, but really it is the point of view of a girl who is pretending to be a kitten, meowing and rubbing up against her mother’s bare legs. The mother tells the girl to stop. She tells her girl that she’s been up all night, contemplating suicide. The only thing that prevented her from taking her own life was holding on to the girl’s first grade school picture, as a tether. On hearing this, the girl stops pretending, stands up and goes into the kitchen to make them both toast. It came out of me in rush and I think I only revised once or twice.

If you've ever written a story based on something another person told you would make a good story, what were the circumstances?
My best friend is a wonderful storyteller. Right after her first child was born, when she was in that state of afterglow, wanting to be a mother to the world, she found herself on a long flight with a caterwauling baby (that was her word choice). It drove her to tears, both because she worried about the baby’s discomfort and because her milk let down and wouldn’t stop, long after her own child was sated and sleeping in her arms. Finally she handed her infant over to her husband and went marching up the aisle to see what was going on. She came upon two nuns who were beside themselves—unable to comfort a baby they were bringing to his adoptive parents. My friend offered to nurse the boy and they agreed (this was long before HIV was a worry). I remember thinking, oh yeah, that story is now mine.  It became “This Is So Not Me.” It was the first story I ever published.

What writer or writers have you learned the most from?
In my early twenties I was somewhat lost. I really wasn’t present or thoughtful in my decisions or choices; I just jumped into the fray. The stories of Lorrie Moore, Ellen Gilchrist, J.D. Salinger, Deborah Eisenberg revealed to me, without a shred of judgment, characters making the same sorts of mistakes. I felt understood in a way that I was incapable of understanding myself. What I learned was to maybe go easy on beating myself up, and I learned to strive to write without moralizing. I learned that writing is an act of empathy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Rob Davidson on Overcoming Every Day Obstacles

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Rob Davidson, author of The Farther Shore (Bear Star Press), discusses obstacles he's encountered, writing quickly, writing slowly, and what triggers his ideas.

What obstacles have you encountered in your work, and what have you done to overcome them?
"Obstacles include..."
Frequent obstacles include fatigue, anxiety, self-doubt, pride verging on hubris, teaching, debt, exhaustion, my ongoing attempt to be a good husband and father, my 1939 Gibson L-00, ambition, lust, anger, occasional insobriety, a great new book by someone else, my obsession with rock music, and a general sense that life is filled with many wonderful things that don’t involve me isolating myself in my studio with the door shut. What have I done to overcome them? I’ll paraphrase Isak Dineson: A writer should work a little bit every day, without hope or despair.

What's the shortest time it has taken you to write a story?
I wrote “The Student,” which is in my new book, The Farther Shore, very rapidly. The germ of it was told to me by a good friend, to whom something very similar happened (as a graduate student, he slept with an undergraduate who feared she’d become pregnant). Immediately after my friend told me his tale, I knew it would work as a short story. It seemed like a gift dropped in my lap. I asked him if I could use it, and he wished me the best. I wrote the core of the story very quickly, in just a week or so—light speed, for me. I tinkered with it for a while after that, but the final version stayed pretty true to that initial draft.

What's the longest time it has taken you to write a story?
I wrote several failed versions of “Criminals,” the long story that concludes The Farther Shore, before writing the version that is in the book. I began drafting the story in 2004 and worked fairly steadily on it for the next two years. Howard Junker accepted it at ZYZZYVA, then proceeded to give it a good, old-fashioned hard edit, cutting it by almost a third. After that first publication, I revised it, restoring much that Junker had cut, and sent it out to the Camber Press fiction award. To my delight, Ron Carlson selected it for the prize. I revised it a third (and final!) time for The Farther Shore—so there are essentially three different “finished” versions of this long story. Faulkner had something like four published versions of “Barn Burning,” and of course Raymond Carver was known to fiddle with his work after it had seen print, so I guess I’m not alone.

How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
A story can be triggered by almost anything: an overheard bit of conversation, an image or detail from life around me, a line in a book I’m reading. Once, I was distracted from reading a book in my back yard by the low, steady drone of a single-engine airplane moving slowly across a brilliant, blue sky. I wondered, Who is on that airplane? Where are they coming from? Before I knew it I was at my desk, writing the first draft of “Barnstorming,” a story in my first collection, Field Observations. Years later, I was reading The Routes of Man, by Ted Conover, and a line leapt up off the page: “It’s much easier to make a roadway dangerous than to make it safe.” I copied it into my notebook, carried it around in my head for a little while, found I couldn’t stop thinking about all the things that single sentence might mean or suggest, and now I’m hip-deep in drafting a novel, The Road Builder. Triggers for stories are everywhere; it’s just a question of paying attention. Henry James said it best: “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.”

Monday, June 4, 2012

Sharma Shields on The Little Disturbances of Monsters

In the third in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Sharma Shields, author of Favorite Monster (Autumn House Press) discusses her dark subject matter.

In my graduate school workshops, inserting Polyphemus into a literary story would likely—and astutely —have been decried as a gimmick. And I admit it: monsters are gimmicky. No doubt the monsters in my collection sprang from supremely dorky childhood interests—D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, for example, and epic computer games like King’s Quest—but, origin-stories aside, I most likely employed them because they offered a tired narrative a bit of fun.

Some of my monsters are quite literal: a Cyclops working in a Seattle PR firm (“The McGugle Account”); a snake-haired playmate that turns a little boy to stone (“Brains and Beauty”). Most of the true monsters in the collection, however, are figurative: a teenage girl who would do anything for her new friend (“Sunshine and the Predator”); a mercilessly controlling wife (“The Chirp of the Cricket”). My collection is filled with regrets and misapprehensions and terrible, terrible mistakes. In many ways, these stories reflect my own desire to mature and forget and forgive. I am not one of those people who bellow absolute confidence, declaring she has no regrets in life. I believe almost anyone with a conscience carries within them one or two major regrets (and several more tiny ones) – the horrible way we treated a friend in seventh grade, perhaps, or that one awful act we committed when feeling insecure. Reading back on Favorite Monster, I can see my own fears and regrets surfacing, leviathans carefully obscured with a heavy fog of make-believe.

Amusingly, despite my dark subject matter, I have always found incredible joy while writing. There’s something about the complete dissolution of my conscious world that I find mysterious, thrilling, and yes, disturbing.
Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son

I don’t think these joys and disturbances are mutually exclusive. I’m reminded of the three trips I’ve taken to the Museo del Prado in Madrid – all at very different times in my life (two of them with my Aunt Eusebia, who was born and raised in Spain, and once with my friend Sarah, who I met while studying abroad). I always visited and revisited El Prado, in particular to admire the paintings of Francisco de Goya. Wandering through the museum’s front rooms, I would marvel at his light and airy paintings of the aristocracy, some of them filled with a summery innocence, a joining of hands in a pastel meadow, for example, expertly rendered…but how much more I loved The Black Paintings in the museum’s dim basement—paintings of violence and despair, of monsters and witches, of demonic goats, of a drowning dog. I descend my own staircase, I think, when I explore the multifarious rooms of my own museum of creation, from well-lit, pleasant front rooms to spine-tingling, shadowy basements. And unearthing any of it is both joyous and frightening. Perhaps joyous because it is frightening.

Two awesome examples of this combination of joy and fright are Etgar Keret’s Suddenly, a Knock on the Door and J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand. These story collections are funny and dark, terrifying and amusing. And, as disturbing as these stories can be, you always get the sense from them that their authors enjoy writing. That joy is fantastically contagious.

Like any other person who attends a horror movie, shrieking with lusty agony at the final bloody scenes, or who buys a Stephen King novel, hoping it’s as freaky and demented as his last, I enjoy being a little scared. Writing allows us myriad emotions: joy, terror, frustration, satisfaction, whathaveyou. Just so long as it’s not boredom. Good grief, anything but that.

Friday, June 1, 2012


(L to R) Story Prize Director Larry Dark (yours truly) with authors
Susan Minot, Rick Moody, and Elizabeth Strout (via Dusty Spines)
The three authors who participated in last night's tribute to The Stories of John Cheever at the Center for Fiction, turned out to have strong, sincere connections to Cheever's work. Elizabeth Strout read "The Worm in the Apple" and told how important the stories were to her development as writer. Rick Moody read from "The Jewels of the Cabots" and discussed how the late stories in the book convinced him that indirection could be an effective narrative technique for him. And Susan Minot brandished a faded, hardcover copy of the book with her ratings of various stories in the table of contents, ranging as high as seven stars. She noted that the story she was going to read from, "The Sorrows of Gin," only rated three stars back then, but her estimation of it had grown. I, too, brought my first copy of the booka 1978 mass market paperback with off kilter pages. And Rick Moody had his original copy, as well. He read the very Cheeverian inscription his father had written to him, suggesting that Rick, a mere teen at the time, might never be as good a writer as Cheeverkind of like saying he might not measure up to Chekhov.

The Center for Fiction did a great job with the event, which ended with a panel discussion and questions from the audience. I say we do it again in 25 years.