Monday, October 29, 2012

Ray Morrison, Register of Human Deeds

In the 34th in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Ray Morrison, author of In a World of Small Truths (Press 53), reveals the wellspring of his work.

Inspiration comes at the moment when the world outside me becomes the world inside me. Often it starts from an innocuous moment—the call from an old friend with the unexpected news of divorce, reading a newspaper article about a love triangle that ends in murder, a close friend’s tale of surgery and its aftermath. These commonplace things propel words onto the page for me, for I crave a real-world connection in my stories. A link to the small, unique worlds in which each of us exist. And within each of our private worlds exist a multitude of truths, some small and some large, to which we all are anchored. But many of these truths we hold onto are flawed beyond our own ability to detect, and so we find ourselves on occasion treading in complicated and uncomfortable places. It is those moments—and how we respond, good or bad—that holds my interest and animates the characters in my stories.

The beauty of finding inspiration from ordinary life is never knowing when I’ll encounter my next story. Will it be at a baseball game? The homeless man soliciting alms on the corner while I idle at the intersection? Will it be my daughter’s innocent comment in the backseat of our car? The sight of a fish bowl on my kitchen counter? These have all served as germs that have grown into stories found within In a World of Small Truths. A writer, it seems to me, is the observer and translator of the world around us. I am, if you will, the register of human deeds. 

The horns of a dilemma
Yet the challenge I set for myself is to present the “ordinary” in a way that is in equal parts meaningful, entertaining and personal for my readers. First loves are universal, but can border on mundane to those not involved in them unless, perhaps, we add an ornery Holstein bull in the mix. A teenager’s high school history report is a drab basis for drama until we have her fall head-over-heels in love with a dead president. A spat with a neighbor over excessive holiday decorations that is peacefully resolved is far less entertaining than if it turns accidentally violent. Therein lies the joy I find in writing short stories:  finding the right costume to dress up the unremarkable.

In a World of Small Truths, as a collection, is my effort at doing just that. To take my imaginary people and make them seem as real as the readers who meet them. I don’t set out to try to leave my readers with a moral or a “message.” Nor do I try to (for I cannot) create fantastical worlds to which readers can escape. Rather, I merely attempt to guide them across the very world we all share. I consider myself successful if one person comes away after reading any of my stories thinking of how sad, yet how true; how wonderful, but so true; how surprising, however so very true. We are, all of us, immersed in large and accepted truths, but it is the personal ones, the small truths, that connect us as individuals, one to another. 

This is the world of my stories.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Imagining Character Inside the Beltway: Edward P. Jones and the 20th Anniversary of Lost in the City

By Patrick Thomas Henry

Washington, D.C., seldom comes to mind as one of the world’s literary centers, yet alone a city of neighborhoods. The District is a company town whose business is politics, a city-machine that fuels ambitions but tanks hubris-plagued careers. Literature and film capture this in depictions of the Nixon administration’s Watergate scandal, as in Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s All the President’s Men, the exposé’s film adaptation of the same name, and, most recently, Thomas Mallon’s novel Watergate.

Edward P. Jones, who writes about living inside the beltway, envisions Washington as a whitewashed “unfree world” that neglects its citizens, “black human beings [who] lived full and valued lives, lives that had all the messiness and grandness of white life in small, nowhere towns.” In his PEN/Hemingway Award winning debut collection, Lost in the City, Jones removes the gauze from his readers’ eyes to reveal a vibrant Washington populated not with stuffed-suit politicians but with African Americans struggling in Washington’s neighborhoods. Jones has also authored the Pulitzer prize winning novel The Known World and the collection All Aunt Hagar’s Children. His fiction demonstrates the necessary role of the writer’s imagination in uncovering the stories that political narratives obscure.

Edward P. Jones reads "Marie," from
his collection Lost in the City
Jones read from Lost in the City at Politics and Prose Bookstore, near the intersection of Connecticut and Nebraska Avenues, on Oct. 20 to celebrate the release of the collection’s twentieth anniversary edition, which includes an introduction by the author and the story “A Rich Man,” originally collected in All Aunt Hagar’s Children. To launch the event, David Cohen—whose wife Carla Cohen was a founding owner of the store—introduced Jones and traced the author's connection to Politics and Prose back to the initial 1992 publication of Lost in the City, for which the bookstore hosted a reading. Describing Jones’s fiction as “stories of the imagination,” Cohen likened Lost in the City to James Joyce’s Dubliners, a debt Jones acknowledges in the new edition’s introduction.

In that introduction, Jones writes that his characters, while products of his imagination, inhabit the real geography of his native Washington: “But all the streets and avenues and roads those characters and the other people in this book go up and down are real, or were real once upon a time, when I knew them as a boy.” Jones’s Washingtonians, invisible to the capital’s powerbrokers, navigate their city to gather safeguards against the common dangers of everyday life. This theme manifests itself when the protagonists of “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” and “Marie” accumulate objects to cobble together a sense of security: pigeons for Betsy Ann in “Girl” and everything from Social Security letters to audiocassettes of her oral history to a serrated knife for the title character in “Marie.”

Jones hardly endorses the pervasive myth of America as the land of opportunity. Instead, his writing reveals the complexity of his characters and encourages us to empathize with plights like Betsy Ann’s and Marie’s. This vision infused Mr. Jones’s reading style for “Marie”; he delivered the story in soft yet sonorous tones, absorbing his listeners into Marie’s sensibility, that of an octogenarian who lives and dies by the whims of her Social Security office.

After the reading, Jones fielded audience questions and comments, ranging from process queries to praise. Denny May, an instructor from Northern Virginia Community College, praised Lost in the City as “the one book that never fails to connect with students” because of its portrayals of characters and their hardships. This steered the conversation toward the people inhabiting Jones’s Washington. Pressed to speak on multiple points of view in a single short story, Jones demurred and emphasized the role of imagination in writing fiction. For Jones, fiction speaks to the emotions and values of its characters. As such, the writer’s task is straightforward: Tell the story however it needs to be told. “You just have a mission, a task” Jones said on storytelling, “and you go at it, using whatever tools you have available to you.”

The writer’s imagination is the chest containing these tools, and careful application of a writer’s skills is essential to developing character. Jones stated during the question-and-answer session that imagination allows writers to conceive the full scope of a story before penning a single word. But this isn’t an argument for inorganic plotting: For Jones, the end of a story is the result of a character’s ambitions. He rhetorically asked the audience, “If there’s no outcome, then why begin to write this story?”

If character is at every story’s core, then Jones’s question implies that character and plot must be intertwined, and setting stages the story’s conflict. His status as a D.C. writer, then, extends from his decision to explore the human condition in the nation’s capital. Nonetheless, Jones said, “I don’t see myself as a D.C. writer, but if that’s what I am, I won’t run away from it.” His use of D.C. is certainly a merit to his work, as it alerts us to neglected communities, the uncertainty of dreams, and lurking losses—factors in Jones’s fiction that resonate for readers discovering themselves lost amid the vitriol endemic to American politics.

Patrick Thomas Henry, a PhD candidate at George Washington University and a graduate of the Rutgers-Newark Writing program, occasionally reports on literary events for The Story Prize.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Melissa Pritchard and the Buried Story

In the 33nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Melissa Pritchard, author of Odditorium (Bellevue Literary Press), tells how her career began and describes a perfect writing experience.

What made you want to become a writer?
During a January blizzard of historic proportions, I was marooned in Evanston, Illinois, with a newborn daughter, reading The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki. A newcomer to the Midwest, I had no friends other than my husband, who went off to a job he hated early every morning and did not re-appear until evening. When I wasn’t nursing my daughter or reading about medieval royal Japan, I was staring out at an oblivion of falling snow. One night, my husband arrived home to be greeted by wails louder than any infant’s. My twenty-nine year old life, I told him, was over. After I quieted down, he said, not unkindly, “You are always talking about being a writer, but you never write. What about this? If you write five pages a day, I’ll give you a back rub each night after I get home from work.”

So I became a writer.

The rubs, poor harried man, lasted less than two weeks. Still, I was launched and learned to replace his twenty second, distracted massages with a daily portion of a frozen Snickers Bar.

This lays bare how simple a creature I am. How easily carroted to write.

What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?
Taxidermy + divorce = nada
I was living in Taos, New Mexico, going through a painful divorce (yes, from the same husband who helped me to become a writer; today, we are friends) and deeply obsessed with taxidermy. In Taos, hunting for deer and elk is a seasonal tradition, so taxidermy is a logical offshoot (sorry) of hunting. I had met a Hispanic hunter, a self-taught taxidermist, who gave me a tour of the shop inside of his trailer. The experience was so bizarre, I left elated, convinced I had fantastic story material—all I needed to do was combine the bitter proceedings of my divorce with the creepy procedure of stuffing and bending a dead animal into a fake, life-like pose. I wrote the story, pants on fire, mailed it to Lois Rosenthal, then-editor of Story. She had published two previous stories, so my confidence was unassailable. Within hours, it seemed, I received my taxidermy fiction back from Lois along with a note: “You still seem very angry about your divorce.” Without bothering to substitute an improved set of plastic squirrel’s eyes or a second dead mammal for dramatic tension, I quietly buried the story, research and all. Now that I think about it, the same thing happened with a family-run alligator farm I once paid three dollars to tour somewhere in the lower third of Colorado. I tried, fruitlessly, to combine the sad weirdness of that place with a news article I’d clipped and saved about a ten year old, three hundred pound Pentecostal preacher boy from Alabama.

Where do you do most of your work?
When home, I write from one of two places—my bed or the bedroom floor. I wake early, around 5 a.m., grope my way into the kitchen, make Lazarus coffee, strong enough to revive the dead, feed and water the dachshund, return to bed with coffee and dachshund, and write for about two hours. If I am not teaching, I might work again in the afternoon, sitting on the bedroom floor, propped against a chaise longue, surrounded by notes, chocolate, shortbread, a cup of coffee, or a glass of Chardonnay.

Libraries can be terrific temples in which to write. My perfect experience took place at the British Library in London. I spent weeks there one winter, writing—by hand—fifteen drafts of a story inspired by the 19th century German feral child, Kaspar Hauser. The distilled, concentrative quiet, pinned to one’s own little desk lamp and hard chair while knowing that one level down was a café with hot tea and scones with clotted cream and jam—I was never happier or plumper—a tea-drowned raisin. This is the nearest I have ever come to being a human-turned-book, pastured and mute among its noble kind.

What story by another writer do you most wish you’d written?
An impossible, irresistible question. Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and James Joyce’s “The Dead.” When I read them in my English class at the Convent of the Sacred Heart high school, both affected me tremendously, and in my current loose hierarchy of great stories, they still share the apex. But other stories have undone me for days—Edmund White’s “Cinnamon Skin,” William Trevor’s “Ballroom of Romance,” Tolstoy’s “Master and Man,” heaps of stories by Edna O’Brien, Helen Simpson, Mavis Gallant, Flannery O’Connor, Alice Munro, Anton Chekov, Harold Brodkey, John Cheever…I am tumbling into a very deep hole here. Hopeless. The usefulness of this question seems to be to bring to mind how many extraordinary stories exist, already admired or still undiscovered. A humbling, leveling, awareness.

I chose Tolstoy’s and Joyce’s stories, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” and “The Dead,” since they awakened this once over-striving, pious fourteen year old to the notion that unforgettable stories might pose an (unanswerable) ethical question, might dare to touch without a trace of pedantry on philosophy, even theology, creeded or not.  Might open wide, like nothing else, her terrified heart.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Announcing The Story Prize Judges: Jane Ciabattari, Yiyun Li, and Sarah McNally

We're excited about this year's judges for The Story Prize: critic and writer Jane Ciabattari, award-winning author Yiyun Li, and bookseller Sarah McNally.

All three have strong ties to The Story Prize. Jane Ciabattari, who recently served as president of the National Book Critics Circle, has attended the event for several years. Yiyun Li was a finalist for books published in 2010. And the bookstore that Sarah McNally established and operates—McNally Jackson Books in New York City—has sold books at The Story Prize event for the last three years.

Past judges have included fiction writers Sherman Alexie, Andrea Barrett, Dan Chaon, Edwidge Danticat, David Gates, A.M. Homes, Jayne Anne Phillips, and Hannah Tinti; Booksellers Ann Chistophersen, Mitchell Kaplan, Rick Simonson, and Marie du Vuare; Librarians Nancy Pearl, Patricia Groh, and Bill Kelly; Editors John Freeman, Brigid Hughes, Daniel Menaker, and Meghan O'Rourke; critic James Wood; book bloggers Ron Hogan and Carolyn Kellogg; translator Breon Mitchell; and event curator Louise Steinman.  

The judges play an important role in determining the winner of The Story Prize. They decide from among the three books that Story Prize Director Larry Dark and Julie Lindsey, the founder of the award, select from among the more than 80 books they receive as entries each year. The announcement of the finalists will come in January. The judges will then have about a month to read those selections and each vote for her top choices. The authors will appear at an event at The New School on March 13, 2013, and at the end of that, we'll announce the winner that Jane Ciabattari, Yiyun Li, and Sarah McNally have selected.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Clifford Garstang Looks Behind Closed Doors

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Clifford Garstang, author of What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53), discusses how visualizing a series of stories helped him write them.

It happens rarely, but sometimes the words come quickly, flowing rather than dripping onto the page. It’s not a trance, exactly, but it comes close.

Studio view
I am at a colony, a magical place where writers, composers, and visual artists come together in an orgy of creativity, where pursuit of the craft is each day’s single purpose. My studio’s windows open onto a rolling pasture and the mountains beyond. Horses sometimes stroll into view. Clouds form and unleash rain or snow on the ridge. Mostly, I don’t look. 

The outline of my work-in-progress lies before me, a list of the stories I want to write based on characters who appeared to me when I visualized my chosen setting. In a condominium building in Washington, D.C., nine doors open onto a central hallway. Behind each door is a story, or more than one. 

I open the first door and see a family—a father and two boys, plus an older man, recently arrived from far away—Shanghai, let’s say, because I’ve recently visited there and have long been fascinated by China. The boys’ mother is missing. And missed. This family, who simply materialized in the doorway, will form the heart of my tale.

I open another door and see a man—he’s African American, a lawyer, divorced—wielding a sledgehammer that breaks open a hole in the wall. The city flies inside, through the hole, but what escapes? Something gained, something lost. 

Behind another door is a painter of abstracts whose inspiration comes from an encounter at an artists’ colony, one not unlike the very colony where I write. Behind another door is a sculptor, angry, obsessed. A novelist works behind the next door, mourning a personal loss, but also the loss of humanity. In the front apartment is a young woman unhappy with her objectification and willing, finally, to fight back. Across the hall, a gay couple, committed to one another but unraveling. Next to them an unemployed woman, hungry, forced to take desperate measures. Across from her, an empty apartment, needing to be filled.

The residents of the building clamor to tell their stories. I listen, and I write it all down.

The sculptor, a misogynist, remembers a pretty model from years before. Her son—his son—arrives to confront the sculptor, who doesn’t care that the woman is dying. Or does he? He didn’t know he has a son. Or did he? They argue, and I listen. The words pour out and it seems that I am not writing so much as transcribing the story as it occurs in my head. It’s a feeling I’ve not had before, or since. At the end of the day I am exhilarated, but also exhausted, a contradiction that is somehow appropriate given the story’s own paradoxes. At a gathering of the colony’s artists that evening, I read the story aloud, as breathless as I was while writing it. Incredibly, it feels done, and, a few short weeks later, with only minor edits, I submit it to magazines and quickly find it a home.

None of the other stories is delivered quite so cleanly, and most require substantial revision, but with just a few exceptions they emerge painlessly, unlike the stories in my first book. The story with multiple points of view starts life with a traditional structure, but soon needs a second voice to balance the occasionally unreliable narrator. It’s hard to get that one right. It will be months before it’s finished. And the novelist’s monologue takes the longest of all the stories because of the man’s complicated history, his elaborate voice, and conflicted motives. Still, the shape never changes. But the others—ten stories that practically write themselves—they’re magic and change little from first draft to last.

Where did these stories come from? What accident of space and time made them possible? How can I recapture that moment?   

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Gerry Burke Makes a Pest of Himself

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2012 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Gerry Burke, author of Pest on the Run (iUniverse), tells of how he evolved from an accountant to an advertising copywriter to a short story author.

What led you to become a writer?
I used to be an accountant. I then came to the conclusion that I really wanted to be anything but an accountant, so I took on a scriptwriting course. I could see myself as a television creative, but the tutor thought I had the imagination and fantasy-driven ideas to be successful in advertising. It was a good pitch and I rewarded his optimism by landing a job as a copywriter with a large international agency. You can now fast-forward thirty years.

I had never harbored the desire to write any kind of a book but that I ended up churning out short stories was fairly predictable. My advertising brief usually required me to produce 30 second and 60 second commercials. My first volume came out of frustration. I had geared myself up to become a columnist, for one of the dailies or a local mag, and had accumulated a swag of material: articles, essays and commentary that covered the area of politics, entertainment, sport, and travel. I gave myself a pseudonym — PEST. Of course, the media weren’t interested. It wasn’t so much rejection. They just ignored me. One of the editors, a friend, suggested that I put it all down in a book, and that’s what I eventually did. Yes, the high profile publishers also ignored me. One day I will learn how to get past the receptionist.

The short stories are now getting longer. I was shocked to see the puny size of my first paperback. I have now produced five books in three years and the latest runs to over one hundred thousand words.

Where do you do most of your work?
I have a home office, but my best work is done in bed. Sometimes I can be a bit of an insomniac and I use those sleepless moments to conjure up various scenarios that I put into my computer the next day. I have retained the imagination from my youth, and I go where the story takes me. My adventure tales involve very little research other than the checking of facts, and the locations for Paddy Pest’s escapades are usually destinations that I have visited. I am well-traveled, and so is Paddy. He actually classifies himself as an international crime-buster.

Have you written a story based on an idea from another person?
I certainly have. I seem to be more focused when somebody gives me parameters. It is probably my advertising training, which required me to work within the structure of a brief. I can modestly say that I wrote an excellent radio play about a couple called Basil and Rosemary. My friend, a chef, was living his fantasy, but, to me, the challenge to incorporate jazz, cooking, and sex into a late-night format was irresistible. After my first two publications, another friend suggested a novel that incorporates a private investigator and, so, Paddy Pest was born and remains alive and kicking after three books and many stories. In both cases the narratives diverged from the original expectations, but their suggestions were the motivation that I needed to proceed with enthusiasm.

What writers have you learned from?
Would you believe? Maxwell Smart
I can’t answer this one because it is highly likely that my style is comparable to someone else and it is a subliminal thing. It is also an area of worry for a writer. In Australia, one of our most famous rock bands (Men at Work) lost a legal case for plagiarism. It was all because of a flute solo that supposedly resembled a ditty from a Girl Guide’s song in 1934. A newspaper editor commented that my early material reminded him of David Sedaris. I had never heard of that gentleman at the time. On the face of it, my hero is a cross between James Bond and Maxwell Smart. Paddy would think James Bond, everybody else, Max Smart. I like to think that I have instilled a fair amount of individuality into my work. After all, what other crime buster carries a fold-up boomerang in his coat pocket?

What's the worst idea you've had for a story?
You can combine this with the question that people often ask “What triggers your ideas?” I had just experienced my first visit to a talking toilet, and I thought that the instructions were particularly bossy. Being in the advertising business, I recognized the voice-over man and wondered if I could blackmail him. After all, I knew that he was doing Shakespeare at a nearby theater and wouldn’t want to fess-up to the fact that he was the voice of a St Kilda toilet. Incredibly, the toilet was actually in Shakespeare Grove. In the end, I didn’t out him but placed the story in the Entertainment section of my book entitled “Down-Under Shorts.”