By Daniel Ford
I have a process when browsing in a bookstore. I start with the new releases, best-sellers, and new paperbacks and work my way to all the older paperbacks I’ve been lusting after for years.
At the end of my journey, I tend to gravitate back to authors and titles that caught my eye that I had previously never heard of before. Recently, I became ensorcelled by Judy Chicurel’s short story collection, If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go. Beautiful cover, intriguing coming-of-age tale set in Long Island, and a New York City writer’s debut? Yup, that’s about all I need.
I couldn’t be happier that Chicurel’s collection now occupies a space on my bookcase, and that she took some time from her schedule to talk to me about her writing process, the challenges of the short story genre, and her future literary plans.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Judy Chicurel: There wasn’t a defining moment; I just loved to write as far back as I can remember. As a kid I was always scribbling something and I loved writing assignments in school. I got my first rejection letter when I was 11 years old.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
JC: John Steinbeck; Nelson Algren, Toni Morrison; Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
JC: I can’t listen to music while I write, it’s too distracting. I end up either daydreaming or dancing or both. I was never much of an outliner, though I’m getting more into it now while working on multiple projects. I like to write outside the house; I write almost everything long hand first and then edit on computer. I like to write in cafés or on the subway. For years, the only writing time I had was while commuting to various jobs and I’ve grown somewhat used to it.
DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone. What is it about the format that appeals to you?
JC: I’ve been asked this question a couple of times since writing If I Knew… I think short stories are really satisfying when you want to shift around a bit, hear multiple voices, gain introduction to different characters and situations for short intervals of time. I think it’s an interesting challenge to make the characters as compelling as possible within the confines of the format. I’ve always loved stories, listening to them, telling them, but I love novels, too, and plays. Every format offers something unique.
DF: How long did it take you to complete If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go?
JC: About a year and a half, give or take.
DF: Did the ideas for each story originate differently when you were planning out the collection, or did you find ways to connect them during the writing process?
JC: This wasn’t a planned collection; the connection definitely came during the writing and afterwards. I was writing with a specific setting in mind but I hadn’t figured out how it would all come together. The last chapter of If I Knew… was one of the first ones I wrote, and I had no idea what was going to come before or after. I had been sending individual stories to my agent and was actually working on a novel at this time as well. One day she emailed me, “I think this is your book,” meaning If I Knew…, which was definitely coming out ahead of the novel in terms of output.
DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?
JC: I know someone who teaches memoir writing who says she’s convinced that whether writers are writing fiction or non-fiction, they always bring something of themselves to the writing. I tend to agree with her, up to a point, though I think I brought more emotional realities to these characters than things that actually transpired in most cases. That’s what’s great about writing fiction. I’m very character-driven. I don’t want to sound unnecessarily mystical but sometimes a character just comes to you, just starts living inside your head for whatever reason, and then you have to write it out. Sometimes characters come out of the blue and surprise you; Mitch and Luke, the Vietnam vets in If I Knew… were surprises, as were some of the other folks.
DF: I ask every New York City-based author we interview this question because I think about it a lot when I write about the city. Do you have to work at avoiding clichés when depicting the city and the surrounding area, or do you feel comfortable in your knowledge of it that you don’t really think about it?
JC: If I Knew… really isn’t about the city, except for a few short scenes in several of the stories. I don’t think these incorporated clichés, but we’re also talking about a time period of more than 40 years ago, when New York was a very different city than it is now. But I am pretty comfortable writing about the city, having lived in the New York area most of my life.
DF: You’ve also written plays that were performed in New York City. What are some of the differences—and difficulties—that you came across when writing outside the short story genre?
JC: I believe writing across mediums has its advantages and isn’t all that difficult. You always start with a character or characters, or an idea, and proceed from there. I think you have to ponder what it is you want to reveal and then determine whether or not you can do it effectively in the more compact space provided by the short story form. I’ve been a journalist and a grant writer, so I’m well-used to the confines of the word count and I’m always thinking of the most compatible medium that will allow my characters to be themselves with as little restriction as possible. I’ve always loved writing dialogue, so the plays were a natural extension of that for me. And there are some narratives that just need more space than a short story will provide—hence the novel, or the novella. I’m really happy to see the novella making a comeback; I never fully understood why it went out of vogue in the first place.
DF: Your book has gotten some great reviews from the likes of Booklist and Kirkus Reviews. Now that you have your first collection under your belt, what’s next?
JC: I’m currently working on two novels simultaneously, one about an intergenerational group of women living in a small town and how their lives and circumstances intersect over the course of a year, and one about New York City during the 1980s.
DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?
JC: Try to seek out situations where you can get your work noticed by people who are willing to help you and where you can build a supportive community. And this advice was given to me by a friend’s father years ago at a track meet when we were in the sixth grade: I was running a 50-yard dash and I came in second, and he told me afterwards, “You know, you would have come in first but you were too busy looking around to see who was ahead of you.” I remembered that years later and I think it applies to many situations where there are competitive elements. Don’t look around at where everyone else is or where you think you should be and neglect the writing in the process. Everything starts with the writing.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
JC: I’m a huge walker. I still love walking in New York City. I love landing in a strange city and just hitting the bricks. And I love walking beaches. I’m fortunate to live near several.