In the 14th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Danzy Senna, author of You Are Free (Riverhead Books) discusses how—and why—she wrote three variations on a story within a single story.
What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
A good story collection should offer distinct but cohesive set pieces of art. These stories should speak to each other – but not in unison. The stories in some of my favorite contemporary collections – Lydia Davis’ Break It Down, Amy Hempel’s The Dog of the Marriage, or Mary Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted To – don’t build on top of one another, like chapters in a novel, but build toward a center or radiate outward. And connecting all of the disparate voices and characters is a single author’s vision – perhaps ironic, perhaps brutally compassionate, perhaps willfully restrained – of the world and of our culture.
What is your writing process like?
I used to have a whole organized system for getting work done. Now that I have children, I write when I can – “by any means necessary.” Often I get the most done at night, when my little ones are asleep. I like to write by hand for part of the first draft to get myself going. Then once I feel the story gaining enough energy and focus, I become impatient with the slow pace of handwriting and switch to a computer. I also create deadlines for myself. I have a writing group of fellow writers whose work I really respect. I set myself up by telling them about a new story I plan to show them at our next meeting. Then I am driven to write it because I will be humiliated if I don’t.
Which story in your collection required the most drafts or posed the most technical problems?
My most formally playful story, “Triptych,” is essentially three nearly identical stories. Three times I repeat a simple tale of a girl coming home from college after her mother’s death and grappling with her own resentment of her father and her own sense of loss. It’s a story about grief and about leaving home. But I wrote it three times, each time changing – through small but significant details – the character’s race. In the first narrative she is white, in the second she is black, and in the third she is biracial.
I wrote it after I was asked to submit a story to an anthology about “mixed-race identity.” I was feeling tired of the “burden of representation” – that is, the way we writers of color are always being asked to represent our culture, our racial perspective. And I was tired of the fact that even when we are writing about something else – a larger universal theme or loneliness or grief or dishonesty or relationships – we are told we are writing about race. When race enters the narrative, suddenly the work is read as only about race.
“Triptych” was my attempt to address this while at the same time to write about what really interested me: memory and grief. Race enters the narrative differently in each story – subtle signifiers change with each version, cluing the reader that the protagonist is now a different race. I wanted to examine how it changes the way the story can be read. What do we project onto our characters based on their race? I knew I was taking a risk because a reader might be irritated or confused to see what is almost the same story repeated three times – and on a quick reading, they might not even notice which details change, and why. But for me it was an important exploration, and so I went ahead with that risk and had to tinker with it a lot before I was satisfied.
Have you had a mentor and who was it?
There are so many writers who have inspired me through their example. I’m especially inspired by longevity and resilience in writers. My mother, for instance, is a poet who is in her seventies now. She has written through being praised and being ignored, through being criticized and being lauded – and at the end of the day, she somehow goes back to the quiet practice of writing her next work. My husband, who is a novelist and has been writing longer than I have, has this same commitment and ability to shut out the outside voices. This is something I aspire to do: to keep returning to that silent solitary space – to be committed to writing as a lifetime practice, independent of the external reward.