Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Portrait of the Adam Levin as a Young Man

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Adam Levin, author of Hot Pink (McSweeney's Books), discusses how his teenage desire to have a girlfriend fostered a career.

What made you want to become a writer?
In fourth grade, I wanted to become a guy with a girlfriend, which I thought you became by getting in fistfights, having long hair in back with short hair on top, making lewd gestures at teachers whose backs were turned, talking non-stop about video games, and drinking beer from the fridges in the garages of the fathers of like-minded friends while those fathers were at work. With the exception of having become a guy with a girlfriend, I had accomplished all of the above by seventh grade, during which I noticed that the girls in whom I found myself most interested liked musicians, and I determined that I wanted to become a guitarist.

For three years thereafter, I was a terrible guitarist—a power-chordist, really—who told himself he’d eventually get better, but I never got better and, upon realizing that I would continue to never get better, I discovered that, all along, the thing I’d really wanted to become was a bassist.

Almost overnight, I became a passable bassist, and by my junior year of high school, I was practicing for at least a couple hours every day, by myself or with bands. Playing in these bands impressed some of the girls in whom I found myself most interested—one girl in particular—and at last I became a guy with a girlfriend. When college started, though, the bands fell apart, my girlfriend tired of me, and though I started new bands and dated other girls, the other girls tired of me as had that first one, and the people with whom I’d started the new bands repeatedly failed to show up to practice.

By that point I’d spent a few years thinking of myself as an artist, which, to me at least, meant something along the lines of “a person whose worth as a human being is measured by what he makes,” and because bassists (let alone merely passable bassists) can’t do a whole lot on their own in terms of making songs, and because songs were the kind of art by which whose making my worth as a human being was measured (by me), and because it appeared that I couldn’t rely on others to help me make songs, I determined that I either had to learn another instrument, settle on being worthless for the rest of my life, or become a different kind of artist. I was too full of myself to settle on being worthless, too impatient to learn another instrument, too dull-eyed and lazy to learn to paint or sculpt, and was possessed of an inexplicable and completely ignorant contempt for photography and acting the both. I’d been writing fiction since I was five years old, though. I had read a lot of it, too, been moved by it, and knew you didn’t need anyone else to help you make it. Furthermore, it occurred to me that many of the girls I’d spent so much time trying to impress were also great readers, and I saw that, all along, what I’d really wanted to become was a writer.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Stefanie Freele on Disasters Evoking Inspiration

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stefanie Freele, author of Surrounded by Water (Press 53), talks floods and unexpected blessings.

The house is rocking, shuddering due to a barge of downed trees and debris building up along the upriver corner as the water rises. The sinister pile of flotsam wedged to the house can be seen with a flashlight. The word rain is too dainty a description for the dumping of water coming from the dark sky. The cars have already been moved to higher ground; the first an easy move, a slow walk in boots, water sloshing onto wet socks. The second car, an hour later, is evacuated while wearing hip waders. The third, moved just now, after swimming out in a wetsuit.

The downstairs neighbor soon will have water in his living room. The river is about three inches below the top of eleven steps. It is 5:30 in the morning. He answers his door blurry-eyed and annoyed; there is nothing he can do about the river. He too is surprised at how fast the water is rising.
Someone will need to get a chainsaw and cut up those tree pieces. If not, this house on stilts, on sandy riverbed, may go swirling downriver.

The flashlight on the garage reveals that the unlocked door rose and subsequently the garage contents are floating away: coolers, kickboards, pool-floaties, the Adirondack chair, all that wood stacked to build a bookshelf and, damn, there goes the almost-finished hand-carved bench.

The house trembles.

I’ve experienced three floods first-hand along the Russian River where I live in Northern California. All three informed my short story “While Surrounded by Water,” which thankfully won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open Award.

“While Surrounded by Water” is a story that takes place an enormous storm, a “tempest” as one of the characters calls it.

I’ve had 12 feet of water in the yard, garage, downstairs. I’ve kayaked along rooflines. I’ve evacuated from a shuddering house. The kindness and generosity of strangers and neighbors during a flood was astounding.

One of the unexpected beauties that happens during a catastrophe is a certain phenomena: Strangers meet; neighbors who never notice each other collide. “While Surrounded by Water” is a story of both isolation and unexpected friendship during a crisis.

Surrounded by Water, the collection, deals with floods and catastrophes in other ways: floods of emotions, explosions, environmental pollution, pain, revenge, growth, gluttony, and fixation.

I believe that an unexpected blessing occurred: Living through these storms made me a better person and, hopefully, because of my observation and witness to the enormity of detail, a bit of a better writer.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Elisabeth Doyle on the Smallest of Moments

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Elisabeth Doyle, author of War Stories (Two Harbors Press), explains what she learned from reading Raymond Carver and her aim to combine the public and the private in her work.

What writer has most influenced your work? 
I suspect that I may not be unique in my choice of writers who have most influenced my work, but the answer for me is clear: Raymond Carver. I began writing seriously when I was in college—or at least, it was at that point that my writing began to mature. I wrote two or three stories during that period that received a good bit of attention, and one of them was awarded a university prize and published in a literary journal. Each of these stories revolved around “big” themes—my recollection is that one reflected an imagined rendering of the circumstances of my adoption as a young child—an entirely fictitious account of the circumstances of both my adopted and birth mothers. The other two stories also had larger, very defined themes and followed a more traditional story structure.

After writing those stories, I remember thinking: “What next?” Did every story have to revolve around a grand plot or event? If so, how could I possibly continue to generate or manufacture such events? I felt a great deal of pressure to continue to write a certain “kind” of story. Then I read Raymond Carver—I’m not quite sure how I stumbled upon his collections, but I read them voraciously, each one. They were a gift, and changed everything for me in terms of my understanding of what a “story” could be.  From Carver, I learned that almost anything can be the foundation for or comprise a story. A walk to the grocery store, a chance encounter with a stranger on the sidewalk… I saw that there are stories everywhere, in the smallest of moments, the subtlest of interactions. This realization liberated me from traditional story conventions and traditional notions of what “makes” a story. I continued writing, but in a more natural voice, finding stories in the smaller, more intimate moments. This freedom from convention, and the intimacy of voice, was—in my mind—Raymond Carver’s great gift to writers and to literature.

What inspires you? 
I have always been something of a duality, deeply interested in and moved by the real-life events taking place in the world around me, and also deeply committed to art and creative expression, which often reflects the internal world. In the “real” world, there are certain topics and interests that have informed my life since I was a child, and about which I continue to read voraciously: the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust, and the war in Vietnam. In my fiction, these two sides of myself meet one another and come together, in stories that are deeply personal and which also touch upon a broader set of circumstances. (In War Stories, that “broader” set of circumstances is clear.) In a nutshell, then, I am inspired equally by external events in the world around me—including historical events—and my own life experiences. These two elements intertwine in my work, such that even in those stories that are related to seemingly outward events, such as war, the personal is always a factor; I use my own experiences to help me “find” the characters’ inner lives. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Anita Endrezze on Blurring the Edges of Reality

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Anita Endrezze, author of Butterfly Moon (University of Arizona Press) discusses how writing and painting help her cope with chronic pain.

When I was four years old, I used to tell my little sister stories that started out, “Once upon a time in the Great Pacific Northwest…”  I’ve always told stories, whether in poems or visual art, oral tales, or the written word. It goes beyond trying to make sense of our world since I create my own worlds. My latest collection, Butterfly Moon,  contains short stories that blur the edges of reality. An ogress that lives in a world eerily like ours, but not really. Or a street hustler that finds his world view shaken after taking on an apprentice. Or a young girl who goes into the woods to find her future and meets three gods.

Perhaps my need to create other places is due to my own unhappy situation. I have MS and it has made me house-bound. I’m forced to stay home and create…no shopping trips or visits to friends to distract me. Of course, it’s very hard to be in this situation. My right hand was paralyzed twice. I was partially blind in one eye once. I’ve had a lot of physical challenges. It’s my art (writing and painting) that has kept me sane. And those arts have connected me, via the Internet, to others who create. This social network has been vital.

I love writing. I love painting and creating with mixed media. I wrote most of Butterfly Moon in about five months. The stories came to me through the characters. One story was prompted by a painting I did. I’m currently busy painting. I haven’t written much, although I did write several poems for an altered book project that I’m doing with several other artists. 

Although I live in a big house and could have a room dedicated to writing/painting, I use the dining room table since its hard to climb stairs. I also paint in the kitchen, standing up, to give my legs a workout. I must use a walker or cane to get around so its hard to carry a water jar for the brushes. I leave my brushes and paint and canvases all over, although I do try to tidy things up a bit before company! My family is understanding. The biggest problem I have is with my cat who wants to play with the brushes and tip over the water or lay on the wet canvas! I usually paint for as long as I can stand and then go sit for a while. Writing can be hard on my legs; I need to stand up because the circulation isn’t good sitting all the time. Because my body defines my limits, I love to get out of it and paint or write. Living in my head is better than noticing my pains. 

I live near Seattle, in the Great Pacific Northwest.