Monday, August 30, 2010

Ron Rash on the Daunting Challenge of Writing Short Stories

In the 35th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, author of Burning Bright (Ecco), explains why he finds the last of these the most difficult to pull off.

Because I write poems, novels, and stories, I’m sometimes asked which genre I find most challenging. My answer is the short story, because for a short story to work it must have concision akin to a poem yet also a novel’s sense of a whole life revealed. It is a daunting challenge, but when it is achieved, as in a story such as O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard To Find,” concision and breadth are seamlessly interwoven, and the reader is given a singular artistic experience.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Short Story Writer Thomas Lynch's Day Job Is a Serious Undertaking

This is the 34th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize. 

It's a well known (and unfortunate)  fact that few people can make a living by writing short stories alone. Consequently, short story writers tend to have other jobs as well. Many teach. The more unusual careers of authors whose collections we've received this year include a guitar maker and a funeral home director, Thomas Lynch, author of Apparitions & Late Stories (W.W. Norton). 

Regarding the latter, in 2007, the PBS documentary series Frontline, broadcast a frank and moving documentary, "The Undertaking," about Lynch & Sons, Lynch's family owned and operated funeral home in central Michigan. The film was inspired by his nonfiction work, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade. Here's the first part of that show:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Darlin' Neal on Revisiting Her Wandering Past

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Darlin' Neal, author of Rattlesnakes & the Moon (Press 53), discusses the influence of her rootless childhood.

What book made you want to become a writer?
It’s hard to separate out one book because my mother flooded me with wonderful books when I was a child—Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, so much Dickens, but I remember very clearly reading True Grit when I was eight and how much I loved that book, how it brought the world outside alive in new ways. I started imaging the characters outside roaming the New Mexico mountains near my home. I started imagining the guys my dad worked with, and told stories about, into the book. I remember leaping up onto the bed filled with purpose and joy because I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write books when I grew up and I wanted to run tell everyone, but I couldn’t because it was 2 o’clock in the morning and I was supposed to be sleeping. I still remember very clearly the heat of the light bulb above, how bright the room was, and my utter happiness.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
Some of the stories in Rattlesnakes & The Moon stemmed from wondering that occurred after research into family history—“Sister Shadow,” “A Man Wrapped In Gold.” I did so much moving when I was a child, I’ve had this need to know where I came from, to make something of the separation I felt from places and people I loved. These two stories are fiction, but seeds came from that research.

This summer I spent a lot of time traveling in New Mexico to gather information about the schools I went to. There were 13 of them by the time I was 13 and it’s hard sometimes to remember when I was where, where I went from where. I’ve been writing short memoir pieces and now I plan to write a memoir.

The tug toward fictionalizing the material is strong though. During the Taos Summer Writers Conference recently, I went traveling the enchanted circle with Dorothy Allison and talking about story. My dad once paved that highway I was on. He paved just about every road in New Mexico at one time or the other. I started imagining that young guy being out there, all the way from that farm in Mississippi, looking out over those mountains and all that beauty. Roads were not only my family’s livelihood when I was a child, but truly were mostly our home, winding us from one town to another in that little trailer we lived in and could pull along.

Have you ever written a story in one sitting and not revised it?
Some stories are like gifts from the start and not much needs to be done. That doesn’t happen often. Most take many, many drafts before they let you in and start falling together. I will say that I wrote “A Man Wrapped In Gold” in one long fevered weekend, pretty much stopping only to eat with my daughter and sleep. The only thing that really changed about it since then is the frame that Rust Hills helped me with. He loved that story. His belief in my writing kept me going for a long time when part of me felt like giving up. I miss that guy being on the planet.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
The first two writers I studied with were Kevin McIlvoy and Antonya Nelson. They were wonderful mentors and got me going down this path. I’ve been lucky the writers I’ve met and studied with. Joy Williams at the University of Arizona. Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison at the University of Southern Mississippi. What a great loss for USM that Frederick Barthelme will no longer be teaching there and heading that magazine.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tiphanie Yanique: "A Reader Is Always a Child"

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Tiphanie Yanique, author of How to Escape from a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press), contemplates the divide between craft and inspiration.

It is said that a writer must be smart but not too clever; artful but not too artsy, thoughtful but not too conscious. But wouldn’t it be a wonder to see Baraka and Ashberry sit beside each other on the last train out of or into a riotous city? Is it too much a dream to consider Akhmatova sharing a piece of her people’s bread with Oliver, and Mary in turn passing Anna a lily? It is said that to write well, one must not write with political intent or social hope. But this impossibility is always what I have strived for in my own person. To be someone both artful and socially intentional.

Once upon at time craft and inspiration were good friends, lovers actually. They were ravenous lovers, co-dependent, even. Thus, were born books such as Dubliners, stories such as "Sonny’s Blues." The people all had a calling and it was called inspiration. I might also call it intention, hope, consciousness, love, hate, horniness. I mean to say that all people live inside their particular desires.

It has come to pass that some people live inside a life where they do indeed get arrested for breaking into their own castles or cabins. This might be inspiring for them to write about. Others may watch such a mess (or message, depending on if the others are participant observers or voyeurs) on TV and consider it rather fetching material for a story. Material is not the same, in this account, as inspiration. Inspiration, to be elementary, comes from inside, where the gods (or you may call them muses) reside. Material comes from without.

The time came when craft and inspiration would never again be friends. I began to see the splinter when I read stories with social awareness that were terribly written and when I began to read fiction that was skimpy on worldliness but finely crafted. The rift began when we were all children. We were told that we must be readers who value the mind or readers who value the emotion. We were taught that the very good literature took a certain mind to be appreciated, whereas the bad stuff, well, that was for babies. We did not understand this. When we read Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, we were disturbed by it, in love with. It was poetry and it was prose. We did not care. It made us want to cut down our parents. It made us want to love and never leave them. It made us want to read it again. This lasted until we were asked to pass a test, enter a contest, sell our books on shelves. Then we understood that craft and inspiration were supposed to be unfriendly toward each other. At least they should act that way. At least they should pretend.

This made all us children, who by instinct, love a good story, very sad. In his essay, “Imminence: Reflections on ‘the-about-to-be moment’ in the Comedies and Tragedies of Being Human,” Kevin McIlvoy says, “A reader is always a child, and that child is always making a wish.” The wish I had was for cool stuff to happen in what I read and wrote and for it to make me or other people feel cool and do cool stuff. Like laugh, march in the streets, curse somebody out, close the door and meditate. Those things were cool to me. But it mattered not, for the narrative went like this: The literature teachers favored stories that were obviously socially and personally aware, the creative writing teachers favored stories that were obviously crafted. And that was to be the end of it.

But it was not the end. Because people kept living lives that were socially meaningful or personally profound and they couldn’t help, if they were writers, but write about it, and they couldn’t help, if they were readers, but read about it. In my tales I have sought to write about what truly matters to me. My stories are each vastly different and are told each in a particular way via a unique voice—which must mean that my true self is schizophrenic. All those voices came out of my insides. I wanted to write about what matters and in such a way that mattered. But this must be, clearly, what matters to the child I was and still often am. It is about what inspires, you understand, me.

And so it came to pass that I wrote a story about failed nuptials that teach two families how to love. And I wrote a story about a man who catches a culturally specific disease that causes him an inconvenient paralysis. And I wrote a story about an abandoned daughter who finds relief from her pain only when having sex or dancing in a carnival parade. It was said that I cared about familial and romantic love, that I cared about colonialism and racism, that I cared about the abandonment of children and the sexual freedom of women. And it was true. But I care about them not only in my writing. I care about them first in my life. These things mattered to me as a child and they matter to the child within me and these matters are the truth and the fiction of who I am in the adult world of life and literature today. But I was not, you see, in New York when the towers fell. No one I know died. It did not, it is true, personally affect me. It might have served as material but never as inspiration. And so while I will bow my head for those dead, I will not write about them.

Ever after it will be that writers who feel they should write about war but do not really, not really, really, concern themselves much with war in their lives, are bound to write poorly. They are best off taking one of two dusty roads: writing what truly matters to them or putting aside the writing to go live inside the hopes from which they wished to be inspired. And of course the second road leads to the first and the story never ends. And we are happy for that.

Monday, August 16, 2010

David Means: Up in the Air with Joyce

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, David Means, author of The Spot (Faber & Faber), reconnects with "The Dead" at 35,000 feet.

When I’m writing a first draft I try not to think too much about what the story might, in the end, be like. I go in as hard and tight as I can—writing usually by hand—and feel myself digging—as Seamus Heaney said in his great poem—with my pen. There’s a profound feeling creating a story, a sense of honing in on a missive, a single impulse—a cohesion of vision—heading toward the final page, up ahead, not too far. I’ve heard it said that characters are what count, that plot matters most, that there has to be an arc—rising action and all of that. But really, the form is much more mysterious than that and magically open to whatever it decides it needs to be, in the end, after intense revision, in order to draw the reader through a very particular experience to that final line, which then radiates out into an infinite space of the reader’s eternal imagination while, at the same time, throwing them back in a retroactive examination of what came before; that’s the beautiful thing about a great story, and the dangerous aspect—Frank O’Connor said that a story can easily end up a complete fiasco—involved.

On a flight home from Ireland a few days ago, after a quick visit to Dublin, where my wife and I stayed—accidentally—at the Gresham Hotel, the same hotel where the final scene from “The Dead” took place, I reread Joyce’s great masterpiece and felt, once again, the beautiful enigmatic sensation of that final gorgeous scene—pondering the whole thing with the actual hotel in mind, with a sense of what it might’ve been like to go up to that room on a cold, snowy night. The beautiful, sad lamentation of that moment, and the complexity of Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, the dead memory of a boy named Michael Fury, in relation to the way time moves—“He did not like to say even to himself that her face was no longer beautiful, but he knew that it was no longer the face for which Michael Furey had braved death”—could only work in relation to what had followed, earlier, in the story, to produce one single thing—again, an impulse—that, when held in my mind, threw me forward into the infinite future of my imagination and made me sit there, on the plane, in tears.

Maybe I’m being romantic, or an old fashion modernist, but on the plane I felt again the deep power of the short story form. It was a feeling that made me want to get home and to write again.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Eleven Things Jerry Gabriel Has Learned

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jerry Gabriel, author of Drowned Boy (Sarabande Books), shares 11 points writers should keep in mind.

Here are some things I learned (or, in most cases, relearned, remembered, and/or was reminded) while writing Drowned Boy—and, frankly, since. These “lessons” are strictly for me to keep relearning, but some might find my self-talk on the subject of fiction curious.

1. Remembering about over-plotting
I always over-plot in the first draft. I blame TV and movies for this. And there may be no cure for it, because I’m doing it still, on the stories I’m working on at the moment. Perhaps it’s like knowing that you have a slice—I’m talking golf now—and aiming a little to the left. Probably it’s more like this: Drag your butt to the driving range and hit a thousand balls until your hands and back and right Achilles all ache in equal measure. Then maybe you won’t do it anymore.

2. Remember about characters
Stay focused on the characters. They’re all you have. You must let them breathe, which means tricking yourself on a daily basis, because your dumb-headed inclination is to suffocate them.

3. Remember about being clever
On a note related to No. 2, being clever will screw you every time. How some writers are able to do this successfully is not your concern.

4. Remember about not thinking
To quote my dad (and about 29 coaches I had a different points): Don’t think! React!

5. Remember about endings
Endings are the hardest part, because if the ending’s not right, then you’ve got a seriously compromised house of cards. This seems to fly in the face of the “Don’t Think! React!” dictum, but that’s a trick. Don’t fall for it.

6. Remember about getting the first line right
I only quote Frank Conroy about this one thing (though I don’t even know for sure if it was his quote or not), because I think it’s so true: The first line of a story teaches you how to read that story. Putting a story together is a lot more than thing after related thing happening; it’s echoing those first words in every line.

7. Remember about taste
There is, as they say, no accounting for taste. Indeed. And people for no reason other than this will find your work abysmal and say so, sometimes in ink, sometimes backhandedly at a party. Your job is to say: "Fair enough." Here’s the other side of this coin: People will also love your work—equally capriciously, or so it will seem—and will tell you so.

8. Remember the joy of reading fiction
Reading fiction is a joy. This weekend I was reading The Adventures of Augie March for the first time and thinking: I am so lucky! I am working right now!

9. Remember about shoddy memory
Take notes, always. Don’t say to yourself, as I said to myself just the other day: Oh, that’s a good idea. I should write it down, but then there’s no need, because I’ll definitely remember an idea that promising. This is false and pitiful logic. You will not remember it and will be haunted by this fact. Ask any cognitive scientist or judge and they will tell you what is undeniably true: Human memory sucks. This is not really even to touch on memory when you’ve had a drink or two; that probably deserves its own number.

10. Remember about “writing what you know”
When people say, "Write what you know," they mean, Write what you feel. Or possibly what you care about.

11. Remember about working
Keep your head down and work. Nobody can read about the characters dancing around in your head while you’re riding your bike or mowing the lawn. That’s because you didn’t show up for work and write the dang stories.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Adam Schuitema: How a Collection Can Be Greater Than the Sum of Its Stories

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Adam Schuitema, author of Freshwater Boys (Delphinium Books), discusses the thinking behind the order of the stories in his collection.
Over the course of my tour in support of my book, Freshwater Boys, a number of readers have come to me with a kind of confession. They approach after the reading or raise their hands during a Q&A and admit—with a kind of wince and a shrug—that they rarely read story collections. This often leads to a discussion about what a book of stories can accomplish, and how it differs from Big Brother Novel.

I don’t mean anthologies. And I don’t mean the “collected works” or “selected stories” of a particular author. I’m speaking about a group of stories that a single writer composed and assembled within a relatively defined time period. That period may span several years, as it did with my book. But in reading that work, a person experiences a kind of time capsule, discovering the themes and images and ideas that consumed the writer while he or she created it.

While reading through Freshwater Boys again, I notice several motifs reappearing among the stories: childhood, masculinity, lives cut short, courage, ritual, and nature (particularly the landscapes around Lake Michigan). Some of these I was aware of at the time of the writing. Others came into sight after I’d arranged the individual stories and set them alongside each other.

I sometimes compare the experience of story collections to that of a painter who exhibits all of her recent works in a gallery. The individual paintings can bring satisfaction by themselves. But when they're hung alongside each other, we begin to appreciate the reappearance of certain colors and images and ideas. Each painting generates greater energy due to its proximity to the others.

To borrow an analogy from yet another art form: Many of us today download individual songs for our iPods. Yet we lose the artistry of the album: the decisions made by musicians regarding which song to begin with and which song to end with and how to organize them all so that the experience of listening—from beginning to end—brings greater satisfaction than listening to the songs individually. As short fiction writers, we can create these same dynamics through the arrangement of our stories. I’ve always admired the way other story writers, including my mentor, Stuart Dybek, crafted their books with this same thought in mind, so I tried to be just as deliberate with Freshwater Boys.

Many of the stories are “coming-of-age narratives,” and so the book begins with three stories with boys as protagonists. As the book advances, so do the ages of the protagonists. Yet even these grown men continue to grapple with the same issues that the boys do—issues they’d expected to master by this point in their lives: responsibility, maturity, fear, doubt, and loneliness. One story, “Debts and Debtors,” features a boy getting a glimpse of his father’s adult world, and because of that I arranged it within the collection where it would serve as a kind of bridge between the youthful perspectives and the more mature ones.

Arrangement is important in other ways. In some cases, two stories were placed side-by-side because they dealt with similar subject matter, so the imagery of one naturally bled into the narrative of the next. For example, “Camouflage Fall” deals with a hunting tragedy. It’s followed by a story involving four deer running through the middle of a city.

To follow up on the album analogy, I paid particular attention to how the collection would begin and how it would end. I knew that the title story, “Freshwater Boys,” would serve as the final story in the book. In its closing scene, a man is baptized in Lake Michigan. The piece is the longest and—despite its tragedies—ends with the hope and redemption that I felt was important as a closing, resonant note.

To serve as a kind of “bookend” for this, I chose “New Era, Michigan” as the opening of the collection. Like “Freshwater Boys,” it closes with a kind of sacrament—a boy burning a dead man’s artistic creations and spreading the ashes in the lake. Thus, the book’s structure (I hope) has the circular feel of the life cycles described throughout the narratives.

And who knows? Maybe a reader will notice these things. Maybe not. But with any luck—on a subconscious level, at least—these decisions will make the reading experience, ultimately, more satisfying.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Traci O Connor on the Difficulties of Being Human (and of Writing)

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Traci O Connor, author of Recipes for Endangered Species (Tarpaulin Sky Press), talks process.

Describe the stories in your collection. 
Every story in my collection is pretty much about this: As human beings we often fail to see other human beings as human beings. We see each other often as something less or, at best, monstrous, and, eventually, we begin to see ourselves thus. The characters in my stories all deal, to some degree, with the ways in which they feel themselves monstrous, the ways in which they act out their monstrosities – in short, they deal with the difficulties of being human.

What kind of research, if any, do you do? 
My characters almost exclusively live lives which I have never lived. When I find out a character knows something I know nothing about, I might spend fifty hours online, linking to sites the non-writer in me might be ashamed of, just to find the appropriate language for a dinner party.

My spouse claims that the stuff he pulls from the drain under the sink looks like half a dead muskrat. While most of my research is, unabashedly, internet based, I’m not above dissecting the stuff from a drain with a pair of mechanical pencils if I believe the right metaphor is in there somewhere.

If you dabble in any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work? 
I draw house plans. I smash out drywall. I garden and cook and slow the progress of the Allegheny River with a kayak paddle. I paint houses. I speak with my hands, creating enormous little signifiers that erase themselves as they come into existence. I make dolls out of old woolen sweaters and I tell their stories. I drive fast in heavy traffic.

What is your writing process like? 
In the beginning, writing is a lonely—if not downright miserable—experience. Nobody buys me a cup of coffee or asks about my weekend. Sometimes I write something terribly sad, and I feel very bad for myself and the world. Every day I sit down and ask myself, “Wouldn’t you rather . . .” and, well, hell, do just about anything? Go for a swim, for instance, or drink so much Shiraz I can hardly see? Watch a movie with the kids, drive around old neighborhoods, making plans to become an architect, go to the Ice Capades, develop my undiscovered talent for comedy improv, plant something somewhere…

Then I take a deep breath, close Facebook, and start smacking computer keys. I have no idea what will happen next. Sometimes words crop up. Once in a while, a sentence will just be there, and it will be the first time this sentence has ever been written by anybody anywhere. Sometimes I accidentally put my pointer finger on the h instead of the j, and this happens: “ut was a darj abd stirnt buggt.” And that is pleasant as well.

I once spent three straight eight-hour days researching masochism, self-mutilation, vivisection, body art, rare piercings, elective amputation—thinking that I would perhaps write a novel about a character who is deeply troubled by society or perhaps is in love with someone who wants his love but will never love him back. Meat hooks seemed somehow important to this scenario. But at the end of the third day, I wrote, “How is beauty so different than fear?” in a short story that entirely lacks tattoos et al. And every second was worth it.

There is no way to act as if this is not melodramatic, so I’ll just say it: When I write, when I turn everything else off, when I’m unconscious and the world falls out in front of me in ways I could never have imagined before, I feel the weight of everything that has come before me, everything that is not me now, channeling through me. I become much greater than the sum of my parts. My hunger goes away. I’m no longer sleepy. I forget the trivial worries that keep me from doing; I slough off the mundane detritus of the day-to-day. When I step away from my computer, I believe all the ridiculous things those sinewy people wearing nylon short-shorts in the dead of winter tell me about a runner’s high. I think, maybe I’m wrong about god. I think, maybe I’m right about god. I think, maybe the important thing is that I take a breath so deep I nearly pass out. Later in the day, I think I’ll go back to what I wrote and change every “should” to “could” or every “my neighbor Pete” to “a stray cat out back” – and that’s how I feel: as though I can do all things in my writing, as though the universe I create will shape the way my readers think about themselves and other human beings—about the ways they experience the world.

But I don’t go back. I can’t go back. And the next day, I sit down and ask myself, “Wouldn’t you rather . . .” and I close Facebook and I start smacking the keys. And, as long as the words keep coming up there on the page in front of me, I think I won’t have to answer that question.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Becky Hagenston on Serial Killers, Naming Cats, and Half Magic

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Becky Hagenston, author of Strange Weather (Press 53), answers a few questions about her work.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
In “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow,” a couple of serial killers adopt a cat (he belonged to one of their victims) and then can’t decide what to name it. The protagonist has no qualms about killing people (or letting her creepy boyfriend kill them), but she feels very protective of this abandoned cat, and it’s very, very important to her that they come up with a name that suits him, so they can keep him.

This story, like many of my stories, is a combination of two ideas that didn’t work on their own. The first idea came about when my husband and I adopted a black cat and spent days trying to figure out what to call him: Should we name him after a person? A drink? A candy? But that would make a terribly boring story. The other idea was about serial killers—something I’d never tried before because it seemed like it would be too easy to lapse into clichés and gun battles and police chases. But when I put these ideas together—serial killers adopt a cat—it somehow worked. I also discovered that the fate of the cat and of the protagonist are tied together in ways she doesn’t fully understand until the end of the story.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Many years ago, I stayed up all night, buzzed on caffeine and inspiration, just scribbling away (not even using a computer), got a few hours of sleep, woke up and re-read what I’d written. And it was complete and total crap. It wasn’t even salvageable for parts.

I need to work in stages--slow but steady. I’m usually working on three or four things at once, all at different stages of completion. When I get stuck on revising, I’ll go back to something I’m still figuring out. When I get stuck on that, I’ll move on to copy-editing something that’s almost finished. The fastest I’ve ever written a successful story is probably two weeks. And I once started a story in 1994 and about 50 drafts later, in 2009, it was finally publishable. But I also know when it’s okay to give up on a story and move on to something else!

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work, and from whom?
I’m usually ready to give a story to my husband and my trusted-reader-friends after about four drafts. If I tell someone about a story before I’ve written it, I probably won’t write it. If I give someone a first draft of a story, I probably won’t finish it. If I’m feeling totally unsure of what I’m doing, and my trusted-reader-friend says, “I think this should happen instead,” I may just give up. I have to be completely stuck/almost happy with a story before I can give it to someone. I have to be certain of what I hope is happening—and then I need others to tell me if it actually is.

What book made you want to become a writer?
When I was about eight or nine, my mother gave me her old copy of Half Magic, by Edward Eager, about four siblings who find a magic coin that grants only half of a wish. It takes the children a while to figure this out, and some ridiculous, hilarious things happen while they do: They wish their cat could talk, and it talks nonstop for thirty seconds, then falls silent for thirty seconds, then talks nonstop for thirty seconds, etc. They hit upon the brilliant plan of wishing the cat would say Music, hoping it will only say Mew—but the cat starts screaming, “Sick sick sick!” That book just utterly delighted me—and I wanted to create that delight for myself. So my first stories were about children who discover magic things and try to figure out the rules. I read all of Edward Eager’s books over the course of a summer, then E. Nesbit’s—so maybe more important than making me want to write, Half Magic is the book that made me obsessed with reading. I re-read it every few years, and I still love it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Morris Smith's Cheery Graveyard Tales

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Morris Smith, author of Above Ground: Cemetery Stories (Snake Nation Press), talks about her lugubrious theme.

Why did I write stories set in cemeteries? This collection simply happened. About ten years ago, I realized that I had already written three stories, all set in cemeteries or nearby, without a collection in mind. The first of these, "Son of Fire," had been based on an intriguing account in a local newspaper of an event mostly in a funeral home. The story was a success and published in a Canadian literary magazine. The next story, "Formica," written several years later, was based on a bizarre happening in a cemetery in a neighboring tow, told to me by a friend. The third story, "Elysian Fields," was written because of a personal experience.

In about 2001, I decided to add more stories set in cemeteries and consider it a collection. I asked friends if they knew of odd or interesting occurrences at funerals, or just in cemeteries, not necessarily at a funeral. A good number did!  I think most people, if they think back, have some "cemetery story" to tell. 

So over the next several years I wrote ten or eleven more stories; two of these were inspired by newspaper accounts, which I added to. "Instant Resurrection" was one. Two stories were written to feature a special location, places I particularly liked: "Boothill," in Tombstone, Arizona, was one, and "Cypress Grove," in a New Orleans cemetery was another. 

At least one of the stories came straight out of my head:"Talking to the Dead." In all the others, at least part of the story came from one of the tales I'd been told, then I created characters and added to them. These stories were fun to write. I liked mixing humor into the stories set in cemeteries.  

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Gina Frangello on Writing Binges and What She Looks for in a Collection

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Gina Frangello, author of Slut Lullabies (Emergency Press), provides her perspective as a writer and editor.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Generally, the answer any sane writer would give to this is “no,” right?  But I do have an exception: In late 2000, I went for a two-week residency at Ragdale, an artist retreat near Chicago. There I was, in my little garret of a room, with its uncomfortable twin bed and no telephone or—at that time—Internet connection on the premises, and I don’t know if it was that I was so excited at the promise of solitude, or if I was just terrified to stop working because I didn’t know what else to do with myself at Ragdale . . . but I ended up writing one of the stories in Slut Lullabies—“How to Marry a WASP,” in one fell swoop on my first day. Even more strangely, “How to Marry a WASP is actually the longest story, and one of the most structurally complex, in the collection, spanning multiple timelines—and it’s told from the point of view of a gay Latino man, so it was not an “easy” story for me to write!

By the time I was finished, I was crying, and so completely exhausted that I was almost like a shell-shocked vet for the rest of my stay at Ragdale. In the 13 days remaining, I did not produce another written word (although I read quite a few wonderful books, like Coetzee’s Disgrace and Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.)  I had spent everything I had in my on that first day. “How to Marry a WASP” later appeared, unchanged, in Blithe House Quarterly, and also won me an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship the next year, which remains the single largest sum of money I have ever received for a piece of writing. I did finally end up making some revisions before Slut Lullabies came out, but for nearly 10 years, the piece had remained in identical shape to the way it just poured out of me at Ragdale.

What is your writing process like?
Well, as I guess the answer above illustrates, I do tend toward an “all or nothing” approach. I’m a binge writer. When I’m writing, I give it everything I have. I do not spend a rational hour or two, poring over one paragraph and making it perfect and beautiful. I am not measured. I’m more likely to spend ten hours producing many pages, not answering my phone, forgetting to eat, reneging on appointments, and giving myself a backache from a ridiculous failure to stand up out of my chair. I get manic and the people around me seem surreal or illusory, and I only sleep a couple hours a night. I may be like that for a few days, working on a story, or for months on end in the final stages of a novel. Then—as is the case right now—I may not write fiction regularly for six months or even a year, coming down and focusing on other things, both personally and professionally. Part of me has always wanted to be a more “disciplined” writer, with a set routine and a more predictable output of material that correlates to how much actual time is passing, but—like wishing for a good singing voice, or long legs—I’ve had to accept that this is just not who I am.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
I love research! Not all fiction requires it, but I like it when a longer piece demands at least some. I did extensive research on both Freud and the ballet world for my debut novel, My Sister’s Continent. For the novel I just completed, A Life in Men, I had to do a ton of research on the disease Cystic Fibrosis, as well as on a lot of countries because my protagonist is a traveler. Most of the cities she visits are places I’ve spent extensive time, too, but we weren’t always there in the same time frame so things may have changed politically, and one of her destinations—Bogota—was someplace I had never set foot, so I needed to see it even more clearly, in a way.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
As an editor at Other Voices Books, championing the short story in book form is our prime mission, so I read a lot—lot!—of collections. Very often, I’ll start a manuscript and be blown away by the first story. But then, as I progress, the problem emerges of all the stories striking an almost identical chord: The characters, the situations, the dilemmas and emotions all begin to feel too much the same. Every story in the manuscript may have already been published by a solid literary magazine—but that’s the difference between publishing one story vs. publishing 10 or 12, all between the covers of a book.

A book requires not just range, but also a sense of something cumulative and building, which is extremely difficult to achieve in a collection as opposed to a novel, but just as necessary. Many collections, even by talented writers who are publishing their work regularly, can feel claustrophobic and limited. Short story collections are tricky. I think most writers realize they are harder to pull off than novels. They don’t permit many missteps. They are full of paradoxes, such as being much stronger if there is some kind of over-arching “theme” that contributes to cumulative resonance—and yet the existence of themes making it possible for the stories to feel repetitive.

As an editor, when I hit on a truly outstanding collection, I cannot stop turning the pages. Even though the characters and plot change every fifteen pages or so, still, I’m gripped with the need to know where this is leading, what will happen next. That’s a kind of alchemy and magic that is hard to explain in words, but when you get to the final story in the best collections—such as “The Third and Final Continent” in Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies or “Heaven” in Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, you should be knocked on your ass and feel you have traveled an immense distance with the book.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Evgenia Citkowitz on Staying Attuned to Language

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Evgenia Citkowitz, author of Ether (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), tells how she works and where she has found inspiration. 

What is your writing process like?
I’m more instinctive than analytical and need to feel my way around a subject, so my process is slow and not terribly efficient. I start with an amorphous feeling then I’ll keep refining, building, mostly destroying until I have found the story’s shape and core. On good days I’ll take a craftsman-like satisfaction that I have made something that stands; on others it seems like it's obsessive-compulsive to be chipping away at something that only exists in my head. I do a lot of rewriting as I go. I find it difficult to move forward until the sentences are somewhat working.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
I wait until the story is so worked that I think I can’t go any further and give it to my husband, my first responder, and some writer friends—it’s always interesting to see how different responses can be and where there’s consensus. I’ll extract what I can from their comments, then I’m galvanized to go back in to make more revisions.

What book made you want to become a writer?
I never had a eureka moment with any one book, my development as a writer has lagged way behind my reading, but the first works of literature that excited me were by George Orwell: Animal Farm, Nineteen-Eighty Four, Burmese Days, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Down and Out in Paris and London. The same year I had my Orwell passion, we read Graham Greene’s “The Third Man” at school, and that also made a big impression – the dramatic power and the acuity of the writing was thrilling and I remember thinking, Wow. I was twelve at the time.

If you practice any other non-literary forms of expression, what do you do and how does it inform your work?
I studied the piano as a child and more seriously in my teens, and I still play, although not as diligently. Learning music is like knowing a language: Once you reach a certain level, your ear is attuned and that stays with you. When I’m writing, I’m conscious of the musical aspects of a sentence, it’s rhythmic and tonal possibilities. The process of shaping a sentence is the same as a musician coloring a phrase. In longer form writing is contrapuntal: You try to sustain and give clarity to different voices as you would in a three part invention or fugue, with the art lying in the balance of them.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
My piano teacher, Natasha Spender, has been a lifelong mentor to me. She still is, at the grand age of ninety-one. She was exacting and taught on a level far above my ability—she would often stop and correct me after every note. But it was an education: She taught me to listen, and her support and generosity gave me confidence and a sense I might have something worthwhile to offer that has resonated throughout my life.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Yes, with some minor punctuation changes, but it was short, I mean one single-spaced page short.  “Careful Mummy” was an attempt to tell a story in dialogue and interior dialogue, a bedtime conversation between a mother and child that’s both candid and revisionist.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Pinckney Benedict's Funny Pages

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Pinckney Benedict presents a cartoon he created that lays out his struggles to write Miracle Boy (Press 53) and his aim to make the stories fun.
© Copyright 2010 by Pinckney Benedict

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What Energizes and Inspires Stella Pope Duarte

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Stella Pope Duarte, author of Women Who Live in Coffee Shops (Arte Público Press), talks about how she works.

Describe one of the stories in your collection.
The first story of my collection, "Benny," is told through the eyes of Maria, an eight-year old girl who lives with her mother along Van Buren Street in a run-down apartment in the projects. She has never seen her father, and discovers that his name is Benny, just like one of the heroin addicts who populates the rough, inner-city neighborhood. Her mother is adamant that Maria does not need to know her father, and she is possessive and controlling.

While playing with friends in an empty warehouse one day, Maria meets her father. He helps her climb out of a broken window and greets her by name, which surprises her. He kneels at his daughter's side and asks her to place her hand flush with the palm of his hand. Then he says "Another piano player..." She realizes their hands look the same, except her fingers were smaller and neater. And she notices he has no shoelaces.

Later, her mother confronts Maria for playing in empty warehouses, and she is angry that she spoke to her father, whom she tells Maria is a hopeless drug addict. In a conversation with Mom at bedtime, Maria discovers that her mother still loves him...the Benny she never knew who happens to be her dad. She tells her mother she'd like to get him shoelaces as he has none, but her mother tells her she doesn't know where to find him. The story ends with a surprise gift, a piano, "kind-a beat up" but "tuned to perfection" is delivered to their apartment. Maria's mom has to tear down the front door of the apartment so the piano can be moved in. When Maria wins her first blue ribbon in competition, she nails a pair of shoe laces next to her prize…in anticipation of someday seeing her father again.

What is your writing process like?
My writing process is pretty much out of my control. My whole writing life started by way of a prophetic dream in 1995, in which my father related to me by way of a "spiral staircase" that I was to write. Stories may begin as an isolated image, or a sense of something, a movement or an energy I can't describe. At times, the character's name will surface, and the story will begin, often so vividly I can see it like a movie in my head. The story energizes me and begins to emerge, often with great urgency. Of course, there are many drafts, and revisions, as the story takes form—and many surprises, laughs, and tears along the way.

What kind of research do you do?
For my novels I do extensive research, often several years before the novel is complete. For my short stories I do brainstorms, in which I seek to discover the hidden memories, longings, and conflicts that my characters will face. Who are they? How do the stories fit together? Where are the characters leading me? If my own memories get involved, I visit places where visual clues can come alive, and help me understand the characters and the places they inhabit. The best thing I can do for short stories is to STAY OUT OF THEIR WAY. 

What inspires you?
I love art in all its forms and often will get an idea from paintings, sculptures, or photographs—or by just watching people in action. At an intersection, for instance, watching people at a stop sign, I can make up an instant scenario for who they are and where they are going.