Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Sandip Roy's Act of Remembrance

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Sandip Roy, author of Don't Let Him Know (Bloomsbury), discusses his impulse to write and his hidden influences.

What do you think is the source of your impulse to write stories?
I work as a journalist but think of myself as an eavesdropper. Whether I am on a bus or at the gym or at a party, I love listening to snatches of conversation, even if it’s out of context, and then imagining lives around them. As a child, I used to kick a small piece of Lego around the house, from terrace to verandah to living room. I called it my “kickabout” and it would kickstart my creative process. The stories I wrote were juvenile, derivative of whatever I was reading at that time. I remember a “novella” which I hand-wrote based on the song "Puff the Magic Dragon" but liberally influenced by The Hobbit. But in the end, as has been said, writing is an act of remembering. And Don’t Let Him Know, while not autobiographical, is very much an act of remembrance. Like the great-grandmother in "Great Grandmother’s Mango Chutney," I too grew up with a great-grandmother, my Majononi. I was lucky to have her around into my teens. She, like my character, had a cast-iron stomach and great appetite for things she was not supposed to have—the more deep-fried the better. While Boroma in my book is not the Majononi I grew up with, it was indeed a pleasure to remember her voice again as I wrote and to hear her voice in my head again after so many years.

Where does a story begin for you?
Very often a story begins with a scene. For me, Don’t Let Him Know flowed out of an image I had in my head. A woman and a child standing on a terrace looking at the street below them, a market street somewhere  in Calcutta. A man is walking down that street looking up at them. The relationship between the trio is unknown. But I could see that scene clearly in my head and the street, I must admit, looked not that different from the street I grew up on. But I was intrigued by that tableau and my story went backward and forward from that point. In the end that scene is neither at the beginning nor the end of the book. It is however the last scene in the chapter "Games Boys Play." While for most readers it will just be another scene in the book, for me it is the moment the book stops and catches its breath. It is the still-frame of the book and everything rewinds and fast forwards from it. However in general, I have often found whether I am writing fiction or in my journalism, it is hard for me to begin if I do not have a first sentence and a last sentence in mind. Perhaps it’s my training as a software engineer, but I need Point A and Point Z in my head, and then I can work my way logically step by step from A to Z. The final product might no longer have the Point Z at the end or the Point A at the beginning. But to start I need to have a beginning and an end in my head.
South Calcutta: Off the beaten track

Name or describe some hidden influences on your work.
Some of the influences in my work were so hidden I did not even realize them myself. I grew up in South Calcutta, which is not the part of the city you see in films that feature the city. The grand mansions of North Calcutta are regarded as the historic part. The sweeping Howrah Bridge is the quintessential iconic Calcutta landmark. But South Calcutta with its single family homes with balconies with wrought iron railings and its front porches and its shady trees, was not regarded as anything exceptional. Perhaps because they were not regarded as special, these houses are being demolished at an alarming rate and replaced by cookie-cutter characterless apartment blocks. Though I did not think about it while writing it, Don’t Let Him Know is very much a South Calcutta book, the lives its characters lead intertwined with the neighbourhood.

The other influence I realized was that this is a book about terraces. It is only in re-reading Don’t Let Him Know that I realize so much of the action happens on terraces. This is where a young Avinash and Sumit dream, fantasize, and explore tucked out of sight of the bustling world. This is where a young Amit comes to hide a broken watch. And the terrace is where a young Romola learns hard truths from the neighbour’s servant boy. In a city like Calcutta, terraces were where we played games, conversed with neighbours, romanced, and hung out the washing. They were our social media before Facebook and WhatsApp. Now as the houses give way to apartment blocks, the terraces belong to everyone and thus to no one. In retrospect this book is a valentine to terraces.

Describe your collection in ten words or less.
A book about family secrets and the shadows they cast.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Why Saadia Faruqi Turned to Fiction

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Saadia Faruqi, author of Brick Walls (FB Publishing), discusses using made up stories to convey real truths.

Since Brick Walls has been published I’ve had the opportunity to visit a lot of cities and give a lot of talks. I’ve spoken to a diverse audience about my interfaith work, my article writing, my non-profit consulting. The most frequent question I get asked, though, is why I decided to write fiction. I’ve been writing for years, and it’s mostly been boring, technical, non-creative work. Where did the sudden urge to write not one but seven short stories come from?

It’s an interesting question, of course, one that every writer is asked at some time or the other in their career. Why write fiction? Why not knit or paint or work in a real office at a real job like normal people? Why spin stories, of all things? Really, why? That’s a good question.

At one book signing I decided to explain my emotions at switching from non-fiction to short fiction writing. I believe the exact question was, “how did it feel when you started writing short stories?” There was a long pause as I tried to collect my thoughts. Then I clumsily tried to explain that it felt like taking a shower naked in the rain. Imagine the shock at hearing such a – naked – statement coming out of the mouth of a hijab-wearing, fully covered Muslim woman. I don’t know why I said what I did, and followed it further by talking about passion, exhilaration, freedom. It was the only way to let my audience know the immense difference between the two forms of writing. Freedom.

Fiction is such an invigorating and enriching form of writing. There are no statistics, no facts, no truth, except the truth in the writer’s head. There is no right or wrong, no correct or incorrect way of relating events. Does a writer have responsibility to get facts straight? Absolutely, as long as they are related as facts. The thing with fiction is that we can bend information to suit the story, the plot, even the characters.

Certainly this causes problems for people who have mistakenly started reading a book to get some facts. Do you think you can learn about China by reading a fiction about Chinese immigrants? Can you learn about America by reading Stephen King or John Grisham? Can you even learn about Pakistan by reading my book Brick Walls? There is no right answer because the question itself is strange. How can you learn anything by reading fiction? For fiction is imagination, creativity, fun-filled falsities that mean not to harm but to entertain.

Admittedly I embarked upon this journey—to write short story fiction—in order to show readers the true beauty of my birthplace, Pakistan. I was frustrated by the lack, in our media, of factual information about Pakistan away from stereotypical images, so I decided to write some non-factual stories based in that country. Storytelling is a great way to tell people a little something that helps them see the big picture without getting caught up in the facts and figures. Storytelling is a far richer and more vibrant way to say something, even though you’re not using any pie charts or citing any research from an academic journal you can only access if you work in a university. When we read a research paper aloud, people fall asleep. When we tell a story, people are jolted awake, and if the story is great they’ll be thinking about it for the next few days. That’s my motivation to switch from the non-fiction to the fiction format: to jolt people awake, to get them talking, discussing, understanding, perhaps even accepting.

My hope: to tell it like it is, but in a story format, so that it is true but not true, correct but not really. None of the things in the book really happened, but all of them happen every single day. Does that make a lick of sense? If yes, then I’ve done my job as a writer. 

Monday, September 14, 2015

Catapult Launches Padgett Powell (and Itself) at Housing Works

By Drew Ciccolo
Housing Works Bookstore Café
New York, NY, Sept. 10, 2015

Padget Powell signing books
If Padgett Powell’s life has been anywhere near as unconventional as his fiction, it follows that he’s probably had his share of outlandish experiences. Elissa Schappell, a fellow author and friend of Powell’s, claims, for instance, that he once wrestled a bear on a dark street in the Russian city of St. Petersburg. Whether this is true or not, Powell, whose career has suffered the vicissitudes that tend to accompany substantial deviation from normality, has accomplished more than most writers could hope for in his thirty-plus years as a literary man. Oddly enough, though, it took the publication of Powell’s ninth book, a story collection called Cries for Help, Various, released this September by Catapult, a new publishing start-up, to occasion his first-ever launch party.

Accordingly, the Cries for Help, Various launch at Housing Works Bookstore Café on Sept. 10 proved to be a special evening for Powell, and like night-wrestling a bear in St. Petersburg, it was anything but dull. A standing-room-only crowd congregated from out of the lower Manhattan drizzle to hear Roy Blount Jr., Rick Moody, Schappell, and Justin Taylor, authors who each know Powell personally, read from his body of work. All things considered, the event turned out to be as much a tribute to Powell and his distinctive talent as it was a book launch. Most people in attendance, including the authors, stayed well into the night, enjoying snacks, wine, and beer, along with each other’s company. Housing Works Bookstore and Café is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and 100% of its profits go to Housing Works, an organization that advocates and provides services for people affected by homelessness and HIV/AIDS. The event also served as a formal launch for Powell’s publisher, Catapult, co-founded by Elizabeth Koch and Andy Hunter (who is also co-founder of the literary website Electric Literature).

Roy Blount, Jr.
The authors, aside from Powell, read in alphabetical order, so the first to read was Roy Blount, Jr., who had a hard time mounting the stage due to sciatica, which, he said as he got settled in at the microphone, “sounds like an old man’s complaint but hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.” In a thick and somewhat drawling voice, not unlike a more-animated-than-usual Tommy Lee Jones, Blount, Jr. read the last three pages of Powell’s short story “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole.” Collected in Aliens of Affection (1998), the story finds Rod, who calls himself Scarliotti, reluctantly convalescing in his trailer home after having been “clipped in the head by a mirror on a truck pulling a horse trailer” while riding his now-in-need-of-repair Yugoslavian moped. Scarliotti manages to seduce a convenience store clerk, and during some post-coital banter in his trailer, the clerk asks how many women he’s had. “Counting you?” Scarliotti asks her. Here Roy Blount, Jr. stopped reading and pointed out that he felt this was “a really nice question, polite really,” which elicited quite a bit of laughter from the crowd. A few lines later, after Scarliotti laughs himself into a coughing fit (skillfully acted out by Blount, Jr.), he blurts out: “Quailhead.” Blount, Jr. stopped here once again to confess he didn’t know what that meant, garnering more laughter from the now-delighted crowd. “Scarliotti and the Sinkhole” only gets more and more preposterous, and by the time Blount, Jr. left the stage the audience was pretty much punch-drunk.

Rick Moody
Rick Moody, clad in a stylish black button-down shirt with large white polka dots, was the second to read, and his first words upon taking the microphone were: “Well why the fuck do I have to go after that?” Moody read two very short pieces from Powell’s first story collection, Typical (1991), which he edited for Powell back when he worked at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Powell had included in the collection four short pieces titled after U.S. states: “Texas,” “South Carolina,” “Florida,” and “Kansas.” Moody recalled asking Powell, “Why don’t you do the rest of the states?” To which Powell responded, “I only know those four.” Moody read two of the four, “Texas” and “South Carolina,” in a slow, deliberate, and sometimes almost erotic-sounding voice that made the stories—subjective and unusual takes on their title-states—that much more spellbinding and peculiar.

Elissa Schappell
Next up was Elissa Schappell, who immediately echoed Moody’s “Why the fuck do I have to go after that?” lament. Schappell read from “Trick or Treat,” also from Aliens of Affection, a story about a demented adulterous romance between a twelve-year-old boy and an eccentric woman named Mrs. Hollingsworth, which inspired more laughing fits among the audience members. At one point in the story, Schappell had to start a passage over, and peering out to a dark corner in the back of the room, she joked, “Don’t get mad at me, Padgett.” Though seats were reserved for all the authors, Powell watched and listened to the four authors from a distant, shadowy corner of the room.

The final reader before Powell, Justin Taylor eschewed the “Why the fuck do I have to go after that?” refrain in favor of a simple “Hey.” (Quite a few people said “Hey” back.) He read the beginning of the third of Powell’s six novels, Edisto Revisited (1996), before introducing the man himself. The youngest of the four writers to read, Taylor’s admiration for Powell was palpable as he told the audience how he and a friend used to memorize Powell’s stories and recite them to each other, trading lines back and forth. Taylor studied creative writing under Powell as an undergraduate at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and humbly recalled the first positive feedback Powell wrote on one of his stories, one line at the end: “As a character sketch, this almost works.”

Justin Taylor
After being introduced by Taylor, Powell emerged from his remote spot in the corner to a sustained eruption of applause. Once on stage, it became apparent that Powell had been moved to tears, or as he put it, “gone weepy” and “completely dislocated” by the evening. In a soft voice, he confided to the audience that he hates “taking the podium and thanking people,” but expressed deep gratitude to Pat Strachan, the first editor hired by Catapult, whom he’s worked with since the early eighties. So as not to forget, Powell also quietly noted that he was to introduce the musical act that would follow the reading, singer-songwriter Beth McKee on keyboards and vocals, and her husband Juan Perez on drums. “Juan,” Powell began to riff, “is an illegitimate child of Fidel Castro… he floated over on a log from Cuba… and he’s still going strong and can keep time.” He then went into a brief, somewhat inaudible discussion of the drummer Ginger Baker and illegitimate children, which had the crowd laughing once more, before announcing that Catapult wouldn’t let him subtitle his new collection “45 Failed Novels.” The man was almost as odd as his fiction, a real character, and it would have been a tall order not to be charmed by the whole thing. Still emotional at times, he read three of the shortest pieces from Cries for Help, Various, which he characterized as “either the most failed, or the least failed.”

“Marbles,” the first piece Powell read, is a two-sentence take on the relative value of sanity in the life of a writer:

I am sitting here without my marbles together, envying other people sitting where they are sitting with their marbles together. I have in mind a certain poet in New York, seventy-five or so, in his apartment knowing all that he knows, arranging some lines on paper that advance evidence he knows yet a little more than the prodigious sum we already knew he knew.

“Longing,” the second offering, explores just that, longing:

The kind of exhaustion I am talking about is, simply, or not simply, the broken heart. It makes you long to hold hands with someone you have not hurt who has not hurt you. This longing would be immediately and hotly extant if a dark girl offered you a cup of flan.

In a 2009 interview with MPR News, Powell mentioned an already-completed version of Cries for Help, Various (which also contains plenty of longer, delightfully preposterous narratives), saying at the time that it was “unpublishable,” and that it had “been rejected by about seventeen parties in New York.” Though Powell’s writing is inarguably, and often comically, ingenious, as well as highly enjoyable to read, mainstream success has eluded him for much of his career. He’s been criticized for exalting inventiveness and style at the cost of “perceptive acuity” and the exploration of real meaning. Allegedly, an inability to publish his writing in the 2000s led him to claim for a time, jokingly or otherwise, that he was retired. It was clear that Powell felt some amount of validation at Housing Works Bookstore Café Thursday night. After the reading, while Beth McKee and Juan Perez played music on stage, Powell signed copies of his new collection and took time to chat warmly with anyone who engaged him.

Powell reads
On a more personal note, while I regret not having asked him about the bear in St. Petersburg, this event served for me as a meaningful introduction to Powell and his work. I’d read a handful of his short stories years ago, and had liked them quite a bit, but Cries for Help, Various, along with the evening at Housing Works Bookstore Café, gave me a real appreciation of Powell. Much of his writing is laugh-out-loud funny, and the lack of conformity, along with the careful attention to language present in Cries for Help, Various and in the work read by the guest authors, left me feeling more open to the world at large and the cacophony of magical sorts of voices that can emerge from it.

Here’s a choice line, for example, from “Horses,” the opening story from the new collection:

It’s a Holstein for all I know, and that is one of the galling things about this enterprise, people saying the roan this and the buckskin and the paint and the quarter and the Indian pony and that and this and you have no idea which goddamn horse they are talking about, they are talking about one of fifty things we have here which can get us hung if we are caught, can kill you if you get near one in the wrong way, and can run off and get you beat to shit by the hombres who affect to know how not to have them run away, I have just about had it with this shit, what with most of the crew over there in the 7-Eleven and the Sheriff cruising around out here, around me and the herd and the hot dog wrappers, and the horses are nervous in the wind and the swinging stoplights, and all the fellows with the handlebar mustaches are inside getting coffee, and I’m out here looking like a plebe in a fraternity with fifty stolen monsters I can’t tell apart, and there’s the Sheriff, and we are beyond the day when he can be shot and we go on our way.

You can hear in this sentence the wild lyricism, the alliteration, the disregard for typical sentence length and construction, and the peculiarity of the narrator and his situation. Powell doesn’t seem to be a writer at all prone to compromise, making the narrative voices that populate his fiction all the more unique and, for me, engaging.

If you ever get the opportunity to meet the man, maybe ask him about that bear-wrestling incident. Judging by what I’ve learned about Padgett Powell, the story he’ll tell you, true or not, is likely to be one of a kind.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Liam Callanan Sorts It Out

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Liam Callanan, author of Listen (Four Way Books), gets a reality check.

I have never once complained about the writing life, because I have never had a bad writing day. I have never begrudged the cursor blink-blink-blinking out from a blank screen. I have never begrudged the computer letting me spend a day filling that screen without bothering to tell me what I’d written was terrible. I have never begrudged another writer’s success at triumphing over either of these horrors, or over the Times’ best seller lists. I have never nursed a headache brought on by such begrudgements. I have never procrastinated by looking up words I just made up, and that’s because I made up this paragraph, and did so entirely of lies.

I write fiction, I lie, it’s what I do.

And what I do is lead a fortunate life, as a woman two weeks ago reminded me. This is not a lie, and neither this: April is the cruelest month only for lilacs; for writers, especially those who teach, August crueler still; all you’d planned to achieve in that sunny, supposedly empty stretch prior is now called to account. In my case, the tally took place at an outdoor café table in Milwaukee. It was gray, 60 degrees—August can also be a cruel month for Milwaukeeans—and felt colder whenever the wind blew a nearby fountain’s spray across me, colder still as I read the pile of pages before me. Could I have really misspent the summer writing this?
An awful lot of pages

A waitress came with coffee, and returned every so often with more. No one else sat down nearby, a bitter relief. Not only was what I had before me the worst book ever, but I was the worst writer ever. And by extension—worst husband, worst father ever. I hadn’t finished yet—there were an awful lot of awful pages—but it seemed likely I’d prove to be the worst person ever.

Who could argue otherwise? I was lolling about on a Friday morning, drinking coffee that, if I’d had to pay for it out of funds my writing had earned that summer, I could not have afforded.

The waitress disagreed. With all of this, though only the last part explicitly: I did not have to pay. “Working here, I get a free breakfast,” she said. “You can have mine.” I shook my head. She nodded to the pages. “Is it a novel? We were all making guesses. I said, gotta be a novel.” I mumbled something about how probably no one but me would call this mess a ‘novel,’ and that—

She waved a hand. “You’re doing it,” she said, and smiled, and left. I slipped a 400-percent tip under my cup and then I left, too.

When I get together with other writers, over coffee or alcohol or whatever else recent pay will pay for, the talk often turns to how terrible a life this is. How the bad days outnumber the good, how good writing is no longer recognized, how we no longer recognize quite why we ever started doing this. There might be worse jobs, we say—and some are doing those jobs, at least part-time, since so few of us are actually surviving solely as full-time writers—but really, what could be worse?

This: an alternate reality featuring the same morning, same fountain, same me, but only coffee on the table, no pages—because I’d never written them, nor any of the thousands that came before. I saw this the moment the waitress turned away.

I didn’t call her back, so I don’t know why she bought me the coffee, only that she’d said what she said with a curious smile, like she was somehow proud of us both. I don’t know if she thought she was throwing a buck in an open guitar case as the artist huddled with his art, or if she won a bet in back and was paying it forward. I know what it felt like, though, which was, for a change, good.

No lie: Some days, the writing is its own reward. Other days, coffee’s the reward. And once in a great gray while, it’s being reminded that there will be time enough to sort out whether the work’s good or bad. For now, there’s a hot mug, a cold morning, a kind smile, a simple truth: Writing is the gift I get to do, so long as I do it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Emily Mitchell: Anatomy of a Bad Writing Day

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Emily Mitchell, author of Viral (W.W. Norton), describes her work day circuit of frustration.

About good writing days I don’t have much to say. The hours vanish, replaced by words on the page, and for the time that I am writing I get to vanish too. It’s wonderful.

A bad writing day on the other hand is an event. On a bad writing day, one of those days when the language itself seems to obstruct what I want to say, I have a circuit that I track repeatedly around the lower floor of our apartment. It starts on the couch by the window in my office (also our spare bedroom) where I do most of my work and where, on days like that, the open file on my laptop seems to glare at me resentfully as if to say it can’t believe that I’m not making more and better progress given all of the advantages I’ve had in life. Why haven’t I finished the draft I’m writing months ago? Why haven’t I started on the next project? Why am I such a mediocre cook? Why can’t I speak French?

I look away from my computer screen and glance evasively around my office. When did the room become so messy? Is that yesterday’s cup of half-drunk coffee sitting on the window sill? Or is it the one from the day before? Either way it is evident from the state of the room—the haphazard arrangement of the furniture, the drifts of books and papers waiting to be shelved or filed, the overflowing trash can—that this is not of office of a real writer. A real writer’s office would exude an air of calm and artfulness. A real writer’s office would seem to hold its breath waiting for the great work to begin inside it. Obviously, my two books so far have just been flukes. The praise they’ve garnered was people being polite, foolish, or both. You can be sure that Alice Munro does not leave dregs of coffee sitting out in her workspace overnight. 
In the fridge: Same old, same old

I put my laptop aside and stand up. I go into the bathroom (stop #2 on the tour), where I discover that my face in the mirror has not appreciably changed since the last time I looked at it. A few more wrinkles maybe, a few more signs of my advancing years. From there (stop #3), I try the kitchen. I open up the fridge and look inside just in case some interesting new food has materialized in there since last time I checked it 20 minutes earlier. It hasn’t. There is only the same astonishing array of condiments, and so from there I go to the front window (final stop) in the living room and gaze out at where the flowers in our flowerboxes nod sagely, much too well advanced along the road to enlightenment to worry about anything besides displaying their inherent beauty to the sun.

From there, since there’s nowhere else to go, I return to my office and sit down again. I pick up my laptop and reluctantly reread the page of text displayed there on the screen.

And this is where, occasionally, something interesting happens. For example, I might suddenly discover that this character I’ve been trying and failing so far to bring to life has … what? A prodigious memory. She can recall anything she’s read after seeing it once only. She can recite entire books by heart, long ones, like Don Quixote. I did not know this about her until just now and it changes my view of her significantly. Instead of only being difficult and damaged, she’s a person with an unusual gift. Abruptly, she ceases being flat, she is interesting to me once again, intriguing, and I’m wondering about how this odd talent might connect to other aspects of her personality and suddenly the bad writing day is turning into something else entirely. And off we go.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Jerry Gabriel and the Crux of the Impulse

In the 16th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Jerry Gabriel, author of The Let Go (Queen's Ferry Press), explores his drive to write.

For various reasons, I have been thinking lately about where the impulse to write stories even comes from, in part because it seems at once wide-spread—there doesn’t seem to be just one or even a hundred “types” of people who want to (or do) write stories—but also generally frowned upon—as an indulgence, a frivolous hobby, and worst of all, an economic liability. No parent-in-law-to-be that I know of is happy to hear that their future daughter- or son-in-law is a novelist, let alone a short story writer or, god forbid, a poet.

So there is this tension about the act of writing on a cultural level, and probably as a result of that—at least for many—on a personal level.

When I first started to encounter contemporary fiction (I came to reading late, around 20), I was electrified by the ways it caused me to think and see and feel differently. I was receptive to the discomfort that frequently accompanies literary fiction, because I wanted to understand everything about the world—every inscrutable decision that people in my life had made, every masked behavior I guessed was happening just out of view, every fear and hope that people possess. And, too, I wanted to see into my own somewhat ineffable motivations and longings. Almost from the start, I understood reading fiction—in addition to its other charms—as a means of accomplishing some of this. I don’t think I was wrong to do so.

And once I had had this kind of experience—let’s call it insight, the nebulous rat pellet we get from engaging with a book (or any piece of art, really)—I wanted to have it every day. I reasoned that if reading could give this to you, then writing had to be an even better vehicle. So I started writing—hadn’t been a reader for more than a year or two probably. But I was drawn inexorably toward what I was beginning to see as the magic of a created world that was perhaps not quite our world but that somehow reflected it, somehow allowed us to see ourselves from the outside. I wasn’t any good at conjuring this magic, of course, but this, I think, was the crux of the impulse—getting outside of myself. And I think it still is, another twenty plus years later.

Anne Tyler has said, “I write because I want to live more than one life.” For me, this is exactly the thing, and it is these other lives that I’m after, both as a reader and a writer. Has reading and writing fiction made me into a better person? I’m not sure I would say that, at least not here. But I would say that it’s made the world a bigger and richer place for me, and has allowed me—continues to allow me—to come to better understand or better see or better feel, sometimes consciously, frequently not, who we are and why we do the things we do. It is a kind of learning, of course, but it is not just learning, but something else, a visceral catharsis. On the best days, anyway.

Obviously people write for lots of different reasons. This is my current best stab at why I do.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Carole Burns' Free-Roaming, Imaginative Phase

In the 15th in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Carole Burns, author of The Missing Woman (Parthian Books), describes the process of starting something new.

My stories begin in pieces. I write in longhand, often in a lined, spiral college notebook, putting down images, preoccupations, descriptions of people. I seldom sit down with a story in mind; stories form on the page.  

“My Life in Dog Years,” from my collection, began when I wrote down the snippet of conversation, overheard in a bookshop cafe, which became the opening line. “The City of Brotherly Something” connected two images I’d been playing with: the PECO sign shining in my friend’s Philadelphia apartment, and a woman sitting at the top of a brownstone staircase between two potted trees. When the imaginary woman rented my friend’s apartment, I began to see a story. 

A long time ago, my advisor in graduate school told our workshop: You can’t write a novel the way you write a short story.  

So the first time I started a novel, I spent three days at MacDowell trying to write the beginning, and failing. Finally, I just plunged in, and wrote the hardest scene. It took me years to finish that novel (it’s now making the rounds), so maybe my advisor was right.

But I don’t know how else to do it. 

So these last few weeks, I’m starting a “new project” (I don’t dare call it a book yet) in the same way. Each morning, I head off to a local library in Cardiff, Wales, where I live, with a few pens and a spiral notebook, and write whatever snippet of the larger story comes to mind. 

I have to admit these days are glorious. 

Unlike with a short story, I have a big idea, but the people and event and countless particulars are sketchy indeed. I fill the story in by writing. The scenes and characters I’m scribbling on the page may belong to any part of the story, and may or may not end up in the final version months and months from now. I don’t worry about that at the moment—I can’t pre-edit.  

The endless possibilities for the story remain open to me. My character says this here; no, she says that. I keep them both in my notebook. An essential event happens this way; no, it happens that way. I don’t have to decide yet, because I don’t know. For a person who hates making decisions, this is a very comforting way to work. 

At some point, when I feel I have enough—when I feel I’ve earned it—I will take these notes and put them onto my computer, where they will expand and contract, lead to new scenes and ideas, be given some order, and take a shape on the page. The writing and rewriting will begin. I’d certainly have enough by now if these were stories, but I’m not sure yet—I’m afraid of stopping this free-roaming, imaginative phase too soon. 

Friends ask me: How’s it going? Not a clue, I say. Just words on a page right now. But I sort of know that the words some days are better than others. Bad days produce just ideas, character traits, descriptions, polemics—useful, maybe necessary.  But some mornings, I look back and find a scene that I’m right in the middle of. It’s alive. I’m inside it. Sometimes, I’d forgotten I’d written it. That’s a good day. 

But I try not to think of all that—it might freeze me up. It’s working that matters. I was lucky enough to interview Michael Cunningham, who told me that on “bad” writing days, he would sometimes come up with just one good sentence. “I’ve found, though,” he said, “that when I look back six months later at what I’ve written, I can’t distinguish the parts I wrote on the good days from the parts I wrote on the bad.”  

So I keep sitting with my pen and lined paper. 

At precisely one o’clock, I am thrown out, occasionally in mid-sentence, when the library closes for lunch. 

I’ve always resisted Hemingway’s idea to leave yourself knowing where you’ll start the next day. I want to explore my ideas immediately, before they fly away. But I can’t now, and I’m finding that’s fine. 

I’m writing, and it’s a good day.