By Daniel Ford
Author Jack Livings’ short story collection The Dog, which explores contemporary China, won the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut work of fiction and has received copious amounts of praise throughout the literary landscape.
Livings graciously answered my questions about his writing process, why he enjoys writing short stories, and how his experiences in China inspired The Dog.
Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
Jack Livings: In high school I spent most of my time playing basketball and writing bad poems. I had absolutely no sense of how narratives worked, and I knew it, so when I did try fiction, I’d be deliberately obscure or quirky to try to hide my technical failings. By the time I was 20 years old, I had only a loose grasp on how to make a story, but I definitely wanted to be a writer—of course, by then, the question had become, “When do you get to call yourself a writer? When you’ve published a book? When you’re writing a book? When your only means of income is your keyboard?” I still hesitate a little. I write, and I consider that work to be the most important work I do, but I have a day job. Not sure I’m a writer yet.
DF: Who were some of your early influences?
JL: Raymond Carver, Rick Bass, Tobias Wolff. Almost anyone in Best American Short Stories between 1987 and 1992 got my serious attention. They were my first guides to writing fiction—this was when I was in high school. I still remember certain stories. “The Black Hand Girl” by Blanche McCrary Boyd. Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel.” “The Pugilist at Rest” by Thom Jones. Denis Johnson was always in there. Alice Munro. Wolff’s “Firelight.”
It’s funny—there are only a few literary novels I can recall having read in high school. The usual Twain and Orwell assignments, Salinger and Thomas Hardy. It was short stories almost exclusively until I got to college. Then came the novels—Kafka and Nabokov and Joyce and Dos Passos were in constant rotation.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
JL: I try to be regular about it—just sit down every morning and do the work—and I usually fail. Getting down a first draft can require all sorts of tricks, like special pencils and sketch paper or index cards or the pen my wife gave me, which is a Parker 51 that I maintain has some powerful first-draft magic. Once I have a draft, I tend to be able to show up at the desk more regularly. I need silence to work. The apartment has to be empty, or else everyone has to be asleep, and even in a quiet room I’ll sometimes put on noise cancelling headphones. No music for me. I’m writing a novel now, and I’m constantly modifying the outline, trying to keep chronologies straight, but with stories I can generally do without one.
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?
JL: A story really has to grab you by the collar and not let go—it does have to forcibly arrest your attention, I think, because as readers we won’t give a story the same room to develop that we’ll give a novel. Our expectations are different. We expect compression, which requires a precision in the language that I love. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s an entirely technical process, but to me a story works like a clock. There’s no room in the cabinet for a spare flywheel whirring away at its own pace. All the gears have to mesh, and they’d better all be working together flawlessly or the whole thing will seize up, and I like the challenge of trying to build that. When I’m reading and get to the end of a story, I want to feel like I’ve been dealt an emotional blow. When I’m writing, that’s the reason for all the revision, all the time spent on mechanics—it’s all so I can convey something to the reader that can’t be done any other way.
DF: How did the idea for The Dog originate?
JL: I had been a student in China in the 1990s, but it took me a while to get around to it because I had this idea that fiction needed to be purely fictional—I somehow felt it was cheating to write so plainly from my own experience. I don’t know how or why I developed that crazy idea, and it really weighed me down. I certainly don’t feel that way now. I probably started writing the first story about seven years after I’d studied in China.
DF: How long did it take you to complete the collection?
JL: The stories trickled out over a period of about 10 years. At the same time, I was working on other stories and didn’t really conceive of the “China stories” as a collection until I had five of them. FSG took a leap of faith and bought those five and I promised I’d write three more in the next year. That might be a normal output for another writer, but I’d taken nine years to write the first five. There’s nothing like a deadline, though. One of the stories I wrote during that last year was “The Crystal Sarcophagus,” which is about a team of glassworkers who are given 10 months to build a flawless coffin for Mao. Probably not a coincidence.
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?
JL: I more or less wrote each story as it came to me, with no larger design in mind. Once they were all finished, though, I tried to arrange them in such a way that the collection crescendos and then spins down to a quieter finish, but I don’t know that it comes across to the reader that way. I wonder sometimes about the efficacy of these large structural choices. I’m not sure I yet know how to properly arrange the entire orchestra, if that makes sense.
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?
JL: The situations these characters find themselves in are certainly reflections of the emotional and dramatic states I find most perplexing and want to explore. Sometimes I’ll borrow characteristics from people I know, but if I base a character on someone I know, the more I write, the farther that character drifts from the model. The characters in the book who are the most faithful portraits of people I knew tend to appear just for a flash, and usually only because their presence helps characterize the protagonist. They’re details, of a sort. As far as I can tell, developing characters isn’t anything less than the process of writing the story—there’s nothing else to a story but the characters. There’s setting, of course, and philosophical asides, and questions of voice, but for me, those things develop in lockstep with the characters. I don’t know that I’m capable of separating any of it when I’m working on a story. If I change the scenery, that will inevitably change the character who’s walking through it, and vice versa.
It’s been a slightly different process with the novel I’m writing now. The characters seem to be less at the mercy of the language, the setting, and so on. Possibly because I’ve been thinking about them and taking notes on them for years now, these characters feel more like wholly formed entities who exist as themselves regardless of the situation they’re in. They’re the center of the novel’s motion, and the story is entirely theirs, but they’re not woven into the landscape in quite the same way the characters are in the Chinese stories. Working on the novel has been looser experience—for better and worse, I’m not writing with the same formal restrictions I’ve put on myself when I’ve written stories. Part of this came from having felt like I was playing soccer with my legs tied together for the ten years I was working on the Chinese stories. Not only did those have to be formally tight, I chose to write some of them in a voice that came to me as a translation from Chinese, so there were linguistic restrictions. And then I was crosschecking details constantly, something don’t have to do (as much) for a book set in New York, even one set in the 1970s. I told myself when I started the novel that I could do anything I wanted. We’ll see how it turns out.
DF: What are some of the themes regarding China that you wanted tackle while writing these stories?
JL: None, really. The stories come out of my confusion, usually, about how a character got him or herself into a jam. I’ll imagine a situation and then have to write a story to figure out what’s happened. Any larger themes that appear are incidental. I don’t mean to be disingenuous. I can see themes in the book—people acted upon by forces beyond their control is one—but those appeared to me only after I’d finished. There are so many ways to spoil a good story, and writing from the top down is a great one. Starting with a political motivation or some message—for me, at least, that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s an essay or a position paper. Fiction is about people who might live under the umbrella of some larger political forces, for instance, which will be borne out in the way they eat their oatmeal, how they sit in a chair, what they say when someone steps on their toe. As I’m writing, I try to blind myself to certain areas of the story so as not to disturb the currents that flow beneath the surface of the action. When I try to direct my fiction to say something, it always turns out rotten. I have to force myself to follow the story and let the action unfurl and once I’m done, then I can step back and see what my subconscious was up to.
DF: The Dog won the 2015 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for a debut work of fiction and has garnered rave reviews from a variety of media outlets. What’s that experience been like and what are your future plans?
JL: I have been very, very lucky that the book has been written about in some of the places readers look to for guidance. I’m just happy people have been reading the book, and I’m thankful that they have been. I’m working on this novel now, and holding on for dear life. It’s really all I can do to stay on top of it.
DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?
JL: I doubt I’m qualified to give anyone advice, but you can’t go wrong by reading lots of good literature, and by trying to understand how it works. If you fall deeply into a section of a book and you’re blazing through it, enjoy yourself but then go back and read it again. And then again, and look hard at the points you found most engaging. Take apart the structure of the passage. Same for the sentences. Look at the punctuation. Check out the rhythm and figure out where it pauses for breath. Apply any information you have at hand to the passage to better understand its mechanics. The second part of this is, read the classics whether you like them or not. Part of learning to write is discovering that it can be a real struggle and requires intellectual and emotional stamina that we don’t naturally possess, and there’s no better training than working your way through something you’re not crazy about, but need to get under your belt because you want to be a serious writer. Why do we need to get these things under our belts? If for no other reason than not to reinvent the wheel. I’m not speaking from a high pulpit here—I’m only repeating what I tell myself all the time.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
JL: My left leg is longer than my right.
To learn more about Jack Livings, visit his official website.