Saturday, December 20, 2014

Eliza Robertson Rocks

In the 62nd in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Eliza Robertson, author of Wallflowers (Bloomsbury), considers alternative careers.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?
I have three answers for this question, or rather, I will interpret this question in three different ways. 

Interpretation #1: If I died tomorrow and could be reincarnated as another human being, what would I be? Answer: a dancer. I have danced recreationally for twelve years, but it’s not the same. I missed the back-bending, foot-breaking golden years, and I am not sure I have a natural talent for it anyway. I was born pigeon-toed, which is the opposite of what you want. 

Interpretation #2: If at 20 I did not join the University of Victoria’s creative writing program, what would I be? Answer: A lawyer. I studied political science for the first three years of my undergraduate with the hopes of writing the LSAT and going to law school. 

Interpretation #3: If right now I did not write what would I be doing? This might be the nearest to the original question. Answer: I would work in a fun open-plan office with bowls of candy and bean bag chairs and walls you could write ideas on. I don’t know what the company would be, but it would involve an OK salary, witty coworkers and benefits, I hope. (Really — I would like this anyway, even as a full-time-ish writer.) OR I would work in film production. I don’t know what I would do in film production, but I feel at home on set, and I think I would like to speak into a headset or walkie talkie.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
It has come to my attention that I rock from side to side. The first time I noticed, I was working at the beautiful Bibliothèque d’Etude et du Patrimoine in Toulouse, where I lived at the time. I suppose we are hyperaware of our behaviour in public spaces, because only then did I realize that I was shifting back and forth on the chair. I stopped. I didn’t want the French to think I was a psycho. The next day I caught myself rocking at home and did not stop. I figure it helps maintain a prose rhythm.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
Normally I do not borrow characters from real life, except once I wrote about a hostile housemate. The story itself is not autobiographical, but certainly I recycled some of her mannerisms. She has not confronted me about it. It wouldn’t be the worst thing. I portrayed her sympathetically in the end, I think.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
When I was in a second year workshop at UVic, I submitted a story about a sword swallower, which was written in the form of a how-to guide. (The title was “How to Swallow a Sword,” I think.) It was basically a dramatized eHow set at a circus with a snake charmer and lobster boy who made puns about sea life. Oh, and the narrator was incestuous and “sword swallowing” became a metaphor for seducing his niece. I tried to take on too much, I think. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Sean Ennis Puts in the Time

In the 61st in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Sean Ennis, author of Chase Us (Little A/New Harvest), talks about borrowing from real life and setting himself up to be lucky.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I was a Philosophy major in college so I didn’t have a clear career path.

The last job I left before pursuing writing seriously was with the City of Philadelphia. I was a “management trainee,” which meant I did a lot of high level photocopying, and took minutes at meetings I didn’t understand. The pay was really good, and would increase, regularly, so long as I didn’t, like, carve a swastika into my desk, or pull my pants down in front of the mayor’s wife when she occasionally visited. Men in crumpled khakis would often corner me in the elevator and say, “You could be me in twenty years.” This was terrifying. But my father, a city employee himself, told me that if I didn’t find anything else to do, he would make me quit that job within a year—a bit of advice I’ve always been grateful for. Still, every once in a while, I do imagine what would have happened if I stayed on board. I mean, I had a Palm Pilot (remember those?).

I recently tore my Achilles tendon and have started physical therapy. My PT is the happiest person I’ve met in years. He bobs among us injured with exercise demands and hums along to the Top Forty radio blaring in the training room. Someone asks him about Twitter and he says he only follows other PTs and pastors. From overheard chatter, it sounds like he and his wife just adopted a very sick little girl from Africa. He heals people. I’d like to do that. Like lots of writers, I teach writing, and it’s often hard to know whether there’s progress with my students. But my foot is less purple, and I’m getting closer and closer to picking up a marble with my toes. What a cool job.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased?
All the time. It’s unclear to me how else I would generate story. But there’s rarely a one-to-one connection though—events get exaggerated and compressed, characters are often mash-ups of a few people I’ve met, and personality traits are blown up or deflated as seems appropriate.

I’ve never really had a negative experience with this. It took my mother a little bit of time to distance herself from anytime I wrote about a mother. But that makes sense. I think my friends get a kick out of seeing themselves occasionally in my fiction. And I have sympathy—it’s not easy to be in a relationship with a writer who might be mining you for material. But I think a responsible fiction writer doesn’t just copy and paste people or events onto the page. Still, the real world is usually more interesting than pure imagination.

For me, this is one of the less reported on benefits of being a writer: the opportunity to transform crappy real life events into art. When something catastrophic, or tragic, or even just downright irritating is happening, I pretty quickly start taking notes. This might be an unhealthy response to real life events, but it does provide new fodder for story-telling.

What's the worst idea for a story you've ever had?
I love this question, and I wish I had a great example, but I don’t. It’s certainly not because I haven’t had terrible ideas, but they’re bad because they’re boring (and so probably not worth reporting on here). Most of my stories worth abandoning have to do with people who are trapped, or even just extremely bored. These are really difficult plots to move forward, even if the first few pages might be interesting. My worst ideas have no legitimate engine to push them forward.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
For writing in general, I’d just assert that the work gets better when you put the time in. Forget mystical issues of “talent” or “inspiration.” Writing effective fiction is much more like hitting a 90 mph fastball or cooking the perfect omelet, than convening with some muse—practice, practice, practice. Your worst idea is instructive, and your best ideas usually come while you are already writing. As far as I can tell, there is no third party, no spirit guide, no secret knowledge that some writers have access to while others don’t.

For publishing, I think the real virtues are patience and persistence. This isn’t sexy advice, but most publishing successes I’ve had have come from the piece finding itself in the right place at the right time in a way I never could have predicted. So, submit the work you’re done with, go to the literary events that you can drive to and/or afford, and accept that luck, as in most people’s careers, has something to do with your success. But of course, there are ways to set yourself up to be lucky.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Peter LaSalle Considers John Cheever Across the River

In the 60th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Peter LaSalle, author of What I Found Out About Her (University of Notre Dame Press), recalls the time he almost met a literary idol.

Every short story writer surely has his or her pantheon of masters of the genre.

For me, there's Borges and Hemingway and Maupassant (trained by no less a mentor than Flaubert, and amazing to think how Maupassant could accomplish so much in such a small space—I personally say it's tough to find any writing in the entirety of world literature to match the sheer craft afoot in "The Necklace" or "Boule de Suif").

And there's also been—equally a favorite and the subject of what I have to tell here—John Cheever.

Like many aspiring writers fresh out of college, I was stuck in a job that had little to do with writing. True, I was supposedly working with words as a reporter for the Providence daily newspaper, but those words were far removed from what I really wanted to write. And what I really wanted to write, often my model early on, was fiction like that of John Cheever, his startling short stories. They were seemingly about lost city dwellers or lost suburbanites, while they also approached something much larger and airier than that. Intimate, rendered in a prose effortlessly lyrical, they moved toward valid transcendence in gems like "O Youth and Beauty!" and "Goodbye, My Brother." I read Cheever, I imitated him in stories I wrote when young, and I read him some more.

Which makes what did happen quite painful, I suppose, but important and even revelatory, too, an incident back in 1970 that has always stuck with me.

You see, good friends of mine from college in Boston were marrying in Albany, and a bunch of us in our old undergrad group drove or flew in from various parts of the country to attend the June wedding. Afterwards we planned to keep the impromptu reunion going for a while and spend a few days at the longtime family summer place of my college roommate at Thousand Islands there in upstate New York. It was seldom used now, so we would have the entire house to ourselves, a grand old operation from an elegant era long gone by, sprawling yet ramshackle and located on its very own island on the St. Lawrence River. With cars left on the mainland, our shuttling back and forth for groceries and such was done via a little white-and-blue Boston Whaler powered by a happily buzzing outboard motor. We weren't even a full year past graduation—guys and girls, swimming and enjoying the extended meals we slapped together in the antiquated kitchen, then talking late into the night.

One afternoon, the others set off in the Boston Whaler to bring some supplies from the mainland over to friends of my roommate's parents at a similar big summer house on a nearby island, but I took a pass on the idea. I guess I saw this little vacation from rushing out of the newsroom to cover yet another tangled car crash, let's say, as a time to rest up, free of the drudgery of newspaper work. Plus, I was maybe a bit hung over from too much Utica Club beer that accompanied all the good talk the night before, and I wanted to just relax that sunny, leafily brilliant June day, probably reading, certainly napping as well. When the contingent returned a few hours later, I met them at the dock. I asked how the afternoon had gone; a lovely girl named Sandra in her swimsuit there in the boat looked up from under a Red Sox cap and said they had fun visiting the friends of my roommate's parents, had even met a famous writer:

"John Carter, I think his name was," she said, "a nice man and a house guest there."

"Not Carter." My college roommate, tying up the boat, corrected her. "It's something like that, with a 'C,' and apparently a short story writer, named John . . ."

"Cheever?" I offered hesitatingly, and my roommate confirmed it.

Cheever: So close and yet so far
I seem to remember—or maybe simply picture—me lingering on the dock after the others, sunburned and noisy, headed up the slope of the shaggy lawn to the house, as I stood there alone, looking out over the shimmering blue water to the wooded island across the way and thinking still more, now with self-recrimination: "Man, I could have met John Cheever, and there I was, lazily sleeping away the afternoon."

Anyway, here's the jump I wish to make, to perhaps bring this all full circle. Yes, I felt disappointment then, but sometimes the scene also does come pleasantly back to mind lately whenever I look at a blank page and begin a new short story. There's always that possibility, a fresh chance, and maybe this time the words themselves will produce a rare story indeed, granting I'm never to be even vaguely included in that hallowed group of my short story masters, of course. And with the sentences accumulating, the narrative moving along almost like a buzzing Boston Whaler with its blunt, wave-splashing bow tirelessly cutting through the water, the story will take me to a place where I just might tap into at least a small measure of the magic that any of those heroes of mine so often and very beautifully tapped into.

All of which is to say, there's John Cheever beckoning across water, also Borges and Maupassant, even the mustached, dimpled, darkly handsome young Hemingway there.

The whole gang, writers who with others have made the genre the special entity it is, which, for better or worse, has led me to neglect trying to write the Great American Novel (though I've published a couple of hopefully reasonably decent ones) and devote what has passed for a pretty long literary career to what ultimately interests meah, the short story!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Amina Gautier Says: "Remember Who You Were"

In the 59th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Amina Gautier, author of Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press), discusses her life-long love of reading.

If I could give one piece of advice to another writer, it would be this: Remember who you were before you became a published Writer.

Before I ever had a short story published or a book published and became a Writer, I was just a girl who loved to read. While growing up in Brooklyn, I had two homes and two lives. From Friday to Sunday, I lived in East New York, in an apartment full of people. There I lived with my mother, grandmother, uncle, and male cousin, and we were a family of five. On the weekends, I lived with noise and activity, and very little time to think. During the week, I lived in Brownsville, with my grandmother’s older sister. My great-aunt was forty-four years my senior; she did not know how to play dolls; and she still had a hi-fi stereo system capable of playing eight tracks—in short, to me she was as old as old could get. But, in her home, there was quiet and the time and the freedom to read. Every night, after she went to bed, I would perch on a kitchen counter and read. The light in the small space of our kitchen was the strongest, brightest light in the apartment. I would hoist myself onto the kitchen counter and nestle in the space between the refrigerator and the sink and there I would read for hour, lost to the page. The mosquitoes—attracted by the light—that came in through the opened living room window and bit my legs to bloodiness didn’t bother me. The warmth radiating from the refrigerator’s back coils went unnoticed. The cramps, neck cricks, numbness and tingles that come from sitting in one position too long? They were as nothing to me so long as I had the words, the book, the pages to turn.

Before I ever became a Writer, I was a reader enchanted and seduced by what the words on the page could do, in love with the way a short story or novel could reach inside of me and spread itself across my soul. I had been warned that there were consequences that came from reading. Frederick Douglass’s masters warned that it could make a disadvantaged person discontented. Parents and guardians warned that it could cause one to strain one’s eyes and wear glasses for the rest of one’s life. It could pull you from your friends. If you did it before going to bed, your brain would be too active and it would make you lose sleep. But what are such threats in the face of such an irresistible lure?

And now—lucky me—I am a Writer. Which means that not only do I have the honor and privilege of attempting to write books that will do for other readers the same things books first did for me, but also that I get paid to read. Like many published writers, I am tasked with reading the fledgling work of students for the purpose of commenting and grading, reading published collections and novels for the purpose of conducting interviews or writing book reviews, and reading unpublished manuscripts submitted for various contests, journals, prizes, and residencies for the purpose of assessing, evaluating, and ranking. And then, of course, there is my own writing. There are deadlines; there are rejections; there are rewrites and editors’ comments; there are changes I did not approve or wish I could go back and make. There are payments in contributor’s copies and promises never fulfilled. There are bad reviews; no reviews and any number of writing-life-related distractions that can threaten my joy with tedium. It’s easy for one to forget why one loves writing or why one started and how one even got here in the first place.

Dear Writer,

Permit me to refresh your memory. Here is how you got here:

Books: You gotta love 'em
Before you became a Writer, you were a Reader, a lover of good and fine books. Once upon a time, you read books that moved you, that took over your mind and ruined your day for whatever else it was that you had planned. You read books that made your brain stand up, applaud and beg for more. You read books that made you believe that writing was something secret and magic and wonderful. (How does that magician do it?). You memorized your favorite lines, recited them aloud in public and in private, used them to impress teachers and crushes. You snuck flashlights under the cover in defiance of calls for lights out and time for bed (You book-loving insurgent, you!). You took chances with your life by reading while walking, bumping into people or stepping off of curbs into oncoming traffic. You folded beloved books into your back pocket to keep them around just in case of emergencies. You loved books the way a child first loves its mother—joyfully, unquestioningly, simply, fully, and without judgment.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Catherine Browder and the Unmet Mentors

In the 58th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Catherine Browder, author of Now We Can All Go Home (BkMk Books), discusses how great writers have inspired her.

I’m a “late bloomer.” I was 29 and teaching in Japan when I decided to write fiction. While walking to my suburban Osaka train station, I had the thought: This is what I want to do with my life. Besides, not only did I suddenly have the “luxury of time,” but the need: Writing was a way of preserving a sense of my own language, and myself. There were no “writing teachers” except books. Gratefully, we expats took advantage of the British consulate in Kyoto to check out novels, as well as the cheap English language paperbacks at Kinokuniya Bookstore… Odd, that in Japan I discovered Joyce Carol Oats, Grace Paley, Doris Lessing.

But the most significant influence during those overseas years was Katherine Mansfield. After reading her novellas, "Prelude" and "At the Bay," I marveled that you could tell a story this way. I was smitten. Later I learned to what extent she was an innovator—with her child narrators, her meandering and multiple points of view filled with the sensual details of New Zealand, and her canny psychological insights. Much later I discovered how much she’d been influenced by Chekhov. But at the time I wanted to be like her, write like her. So began a period of shameless imitation. If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” then I was guilty of it. Poor dead Katherine: the object of my scrutiny and my love.

(I take comfort in the fact the traditional Chinese landscape painters spent years imitating their masters.)

In his memoir, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, Norman Mailer recounts a visit he made to Nelson Algren’s writing class in Chicago. Mailer writes how dismayed he was at one student’s work, which struck him as “bad Hemingway.” Algren was unconcerned, explaining to an indignant Mailer that imitation was part of the process and would pass. A serious writer, Algren opined, will tire of imitating when he’s established his own voice. 

Reading the passage brought to mind my Mansfield years, and I realized to what extent these admired writers (dead and alive) are teaching us how to write. They are our "unmet mentors;" and our own writing is part of a continuing conversation we have with them. In the last few years I’ve sensed this conversation, and mentor-hood, while reading (sometimes for the first time) the works of Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Willa Cather, and Charles Dickens. Try asking yourself: Who are my unmet mentors?

Fast forward to 2006. For two years, as a university teacher of fiction, I was re-immersed in the stories of Chekhov, even the plays. I attended an impressive university production of Three Sisters. For weeks after the performance the plight of the Prozorov family haunted me, especially the youngest daughter. What now for Irina? I needed to find out. Yet the form this inquiry would take struck me from the onset as narrative, not dramatic. I would discover their future lives in fiction—on the page, not on the stage. From Irina, I went on to her sisters and finally her brother. And so began the book, Now We Can All Go Home.
Anton Chekhov: Doubly Innovative

Like his fictional characters, many of Chekhov’s dramatic characters are so compelling, and flawed, it’s hard to say good-bye when the curtain comes down. And so I moved on to Uncle Vanya. Besides, Chekhov ends his plays in the middle of things—we keep waiting for another scene or some sort of resolution. We forget he was an innovator in drama as well as short fiction. He introduced realism with a light touch, where natural sounds and pauses could be heard, and actors didn’t declaim.

Finally, I turned to Dr. Dorn of The Seagull, the only contented man in Chekhov: the ideal narrator.

With each new character it was necessary to reread the play. A new reading, a new discovery. And so the dialogue with my "unmet mentor" continued for five years, traveling through many revisions. The project allowed me to live in the two worlds I feel most at home: short fiction and drama—Chekhov’s worlds. The challenge wasn’t to sound or write like Chekhov. No, the challenge was to imagine a future life for nine characters beloved by many and in so doing, honor them and their creator.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A.L. Kennedy Gets Out of the Way

In the 57th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, A.L. Kennedy, author of All the Rage (Little A/New Harvest), discusses her writing habits.

If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing?
I would be unemployable. I'd be a very grumpy waitress, or stacking shelves in a DIY store or something. It would be ugly.

Describe an unusual writing habit of yours.
I don't like to write serious prose unless I'm barefoot.

Do you ever borrow characters or situations from real life, and has anyone ever confronted you about it, been angry or pleased? 
It's largely a myth that serious writers are forever borrowing people from life. People from life fit the real world—they do less well in imagined worlds. And I'd rather have my friends as friends and my family private.

What's the worst idea for a story you've every had?
If I get an idea I'm glad—I wouldn't ever treat it as if it wasn't any good. It's possible to produce a good piece from any idea—it's possible to screw up any idea with bad writing. It's all in how you tell it.

What's the best story idea you've had that you've never been able to write to your satisfaction?
It's my job to write stories—when I get an idea, I write it. If I thought I had really exciting idea, I would always write it. I don't have anything hanging around that I haven't written, beyond the ones in the queue that I haven't got to yet.

What one story that someone else has written do you wish you had written?
I don't wish I'd written other people's stories. The joy of  them is that someone else produced them and I can enjoy them. Anyone else—including me—would have produced something different.

Where do you do most of your work?
I travel a lot, so I write pretty much everywhere. Trains and hotel rooms are especially good. I do have a study at home, but I'm rarely at home.

What do you do when you're stuck or have "writer's block"?
I go for a walk, or watch a movie, or cook a big batch of food. Then, when my head isn't tired, it can see the story properly.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write. Remember it's not about you - it's about the story and the reader. Get out of the way.

What else (beyond books and writing) informs or inspires your work?
Everything that I do and everything that I see, everything I read, everywhere I go. Life.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Shelly Lowenkopf's Good News and Bad News

In the 56th in a series of posts on 2014 books entered for The Story Prize, Shelly Lowenkopf, author of Love Will Make You Drink and Gamble, Stay Out at Night (White Whisker Books), explores the upside and downside of having a book accepted for publication.

In what may be the oldest joke in publishing, an aspiring writer learns from his or her literary agent, “There’s good news, and then there’s bad news. The good news is, you’re going to be published.”

At this point, the aspiring writer wonders what downside could impact this extraordinary event. “Ah, the bad news,” the agent says. “The bad news is, you’re going to be published.”

Of course the irony is lost on the aspiring writer, who now has visions of transition from aspiring to emerging. After some long, arduous sessions, the writer has performed chiropractic on the original concept, adjusting, twisting, and reshaping it to the point where an agent has agreed to represent it, provided the following matters are resolved. Thus the writer learns of editorial notes.

But what could go wrong now? What could turn the good news into bad news, now, of all times, when the contract has been signed, and the publisher’s check for the advance against royalties has cleared the bank?

What, indeed?

The aspiring-now-emerging author is soon to meet the editor who, in fact, is taking a risk to her own emerging career. The meeting is in the form of a memorandum, either snail mail or pdf file, by no means something as terse and business-like as a mere email. The eager author reads it, then telephones the agent.

 “Why,” the author asks, “would they take my novel on if there is so much wrong with it?”

“Ah,” the agent says. “I see you received your editor’s notes.”

“This is like—"  the author says, “—like going to a doctor to have a splinter removed, then being diagnosed with stage III cancer.”

“Could we please,” the agent, all patience, says, “dispense with the metaphor and get on with the work? Oh, and by the way, welcome to the club. When you’re finished with the editor’s notes, you’ll be a writer.”

Several myths shatter in this imaginary scenario, which is not so much imaginary as it is a compression of my own experiences as an editor, with authority to contract titles, for general trade, mass market, literary, and scholarly book publishers.

You might think, then, that my experiences would preclude the phone calls or emails to my agent when, as a writer, I’m on the receiving end of editorial notes, or that I even get editorial notes. Go ahead—think that. But you’d be wrong. To set the record straight, I would not want to publish with a house that did not give notes and suggestions. This statement is made with the memory of a call I once made to my agent where I said, in a bowdlerized version, “They want me to spell out—to freaking explain—what the reader will all ready know.”

Agents being agents, mine said to me in reply to my outburst, “Maybe if you got through in time, we could meet for dinner.”

Yet another myth for shattering, this one being that writing is a lonely, solitary business, one screenwriters and dramatists retreat to after such traumatic experiences as a producer once wanting me to write in a part for his girlfriend’s Golden Retriever.
Golden Retriever: Bit part?

“Not the brightest dog in dogdom,” I said. The producer smiled.

 “You’ll understand when you see my girlfriend.”

When I’m doing the thing I most enjoy, which is telling stories, I’m grateful for the occasional hours I get alone, with no interruptions, no deadlines, no suggestions. If I’m lucky, I might get in as much as an hour before some character doesn’t see his or her part the way I do, or some editor, often my own inner editor, takes exception to a word choice or a line or, sometimes, an entire paragraph. “You call that story? You call that dialogue?”

I’m often delighted to learn my literary agent has a full plate at work, because then I won’t have to listen to her telling me about an editor she knows who’d be perfect for the novel we’ve been discussing. When an old sales manager pal from earlier publishing days reminds me to keep my ear to the ground, I try to make light of the situation by telling him, if I do keep my ear to the ground, all I’ll hear is the D Train to Yankee Stadium. But I know what he means. He means, listen to the public.

The good news is, I hear the public; the bad news is, I hear the public too much, drowning out my own. I have, in fact, spent the past several years trying not to listen to the public for marching orders, rather to listen to it for ideas.

“Good,” your sales manager buddy, whose name is Fred, and who has on occasion, given you blurbs for your books, says. “You got to move beyond midlist.”

 He means I have to work my way closer to the front pages of the publisher’s catalogue. He means well; I know that, and I love him for it. Another writer we both know well has listened to the public and as a result, her books are frequently on The New York Times bestseller lists.

My literary agent has never welcomed me to the club or told me I was a writer now; she took me on because she assumed I already was in the club, which, for her, means I write at least two thousand words a day.

Fred’s and my friend who hits The New York Times Best Seller list once attended lectures I gave at a writers’ conference, and I once saw her, her back so messed up, that she had to sprawl across the width of her bed in order to reach her laptop, down on the floor, to get in her pages. I have a blurb from her on a previous book of mine.

There’s good news, and there’s bad news. The good news is, you’re getting published. The bad news is, you’re not alone.