Friday, August 5, 2011

Andrew Scott: "We're All in the Same Boat"

In the 13th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Andrew Scott, author of Naked Summer (Press 53), talks mentors, feedback, and being an advocate for short fiction.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
My first mentor was Patricia Henley. She taught me what it means to care about sentences, stories, and people, and how these elements might begin to coalesce into a work of fiction. But she led by example in other ways, as she endured the long process of writing her first novel, Hummingbird House, and struggled to find a publisher for it, but she always put the “habit of art” first. The book was named a National Book Award finalist in 1999. I’m excited that her new story collection, Other Heartbreaks, will be published this fall.

In grad school, Kevin McIlvoy was the most important mentor for me. He was the editor-in-chief of Puerto del Sol, where I worked as a co-managing editor, and he required new pages or revisions every week, and we’d meet to discuss them. I wasn’t the only student he worked with, either. I began to walk faster to match his swift steps down the hallway. He was always on the move, zipping around, getting things done.

At what stage do you start seeking feedback on your work and from whom? 
This part of the writing process is evolving for me. Most of the stories in Naked Summer were originally drafted ten to twelve years before the book was accepted. I’m about to turn 35, so I’m still a young writer in many ways, but when I was a young person, I enrolled in nonstop creative writing classes for seven years. So I was very much in the habit of writing a draft and presenting it to an audience. But in those long years between finishing the MFA program and publishing the book -- those “Writing in the Cold” years, as Ted Solotaroff called them -- I didn’t show my revisions to anyone for feedback, not even my wife, Victoria Barrett, who is also a writer and editor, though we certainly talked about the revisions and other works in progress. Now that I’m working on new stories and projects, I imagine I’ll want her valuable and necessary feedback as soon as I finish workable drafts.

What book or books made you want to become a writer?
Comic books made me want to be a writer. Or a writer/artist, and then I gave up the art. I started reading more seriously toward the end of high school. In terms of literary fiction, the first novel by Don Kurtz, South of the Big Four, is probably my favorite book, and because it’s set in Indiana, it gave me permission to write about the people and places I cared about and knew best. I also read the hell out of Robert Boswell’s Living to Be a Hundred, which I borrowed from a friend and didn’t return for many years, and Richard Ford’s Rock Springs. When a girlfriend and I broke up, I made her go inside her apartment and return the copy of Rock Springs I’d let her borrow. She also had one of my CDs, but I only cared about the book.

Have you ever written a short story in one sitting and not revised it later?
Not exactly. Esquire sent a cocktail napkin and asked me to write a story on it. I’d found an old file of notes I’d scribbled while working as a waiter, mostly overheard bits of dialogue, and I mashed up some of those lines with other ideas and quickly wrote “Living Guilt-Free in These United States,” what’s now the first story in Naked Summer. It came out in one big blast, but it’s less than three full pages in manuscript. I did tweak it here and there before copying it onto the napkin and mailing it back. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to a one-sitting story gift.

[Note: In addition to writing fiction, Andrew Scott also maintains Andrew's Book Club, which has advocated (and continues to advocate) short story collections from both large publishers and small presses.]

You’ve done a lot over the years to advocate for short fiction. Do you feel any ambivalence about promoting other story collections through Andrew’s Book Club at a time when yours has just been published?
Promoting story collections, especially by debut writers, is important to me. I do what I can, a little each month, to spread the word. Most of the authors seem to appreciate it. I haven’t loved every book I’ve chosen -- often I’ve read the book before selecting it, but not always -- but I’m glad to have helped them sell at least a few more copies. And choosing to not promote the work of others now that my book’s in the world won’t suddenly help it fly off the shelves. Many writers have helped me, in different ways. It just makes sense to help authors reach out to readers.

We’re all in the same boat. Maybe it’s a big boat. Maybe it’s an ark, I don’t know. There’s room for all kinds, and there’s no need to shove. We just need to ride out this flood.