The Zen of Storytelling: 11 Questions With Author Amy Parker

Amy Parker

Amy Parker

By Daniel Ford

Amy Parker’s debut short story collection Beasts & Children includes a blurb all writers would kill for:

Amy Parker proves herself an unflinching, passionate, and profoundly humane writer, even as she hold a knife to your heart.”—Michelle Huneven, author of Blame

After my discussion with the author, I couldn’t agree more. The first thing I look for when reviewing fiction is whether or not there’s a big ol’ thumpin’ heart behind the prose, and Parker’s literary EKG is off the charts. She expertly drops readers into a fully formed world in her first sentence and explores familiar family themes throughout her linked stories. 

Parker recently talked to me about how an English sheepdog sparked her creativity, why authors need to finish their stories, and what inspired Beasts & Children.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Amy Parker: In third grade my teacher held a contest—whoever wrote the most stories in a marbled black composition book class would win a prize. The prize was a poster of an English sheepdog set against a very, very blue sky. I wanted that poster! You know how it is when you’re eight, and you think something is so cute that you could die? That desire for cuteness—to possess that which is adorable. That dog—textbook old English sheepdog, pink tongue hanging out, shaggy-browed, panting under an improbably blue sky. My soul cried out for it. So I cranked out a dozen stories—derivative as hell—baby’s first potboilers—one of them involved me having an affair with Superman and getting into a catfight with Lois Lane, for example. Some I illustrated. I busted my butt. That was also the first time I encountered the problem of the blank page—and the pain caused by lack of narrative invention. But I won the poster. And I still have the notebook.  

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

AP: How early? I loved Lois Duncan, in particular the book Down a Dark Hall; I also read Stephen King and John Irving probably far too early. Beverly Cleary. Judy Blume. E.B. White. L.M. Montgomery—the Emily books (Emily’s a depressive who wants to be a writer; she was my hero). Around fifth grade I started getting ambitious—Dickens—and by sixth grade I was collecting “great books”—these snazzy editions of the classics that came with their own illustrated magazines explaining the plot and characters—I read Poe and the Brontes and suchlike. But I read everything. I had very highbrow taste. But I’d also devour V.C. Andrews (and make myself ill on it) and Mad Magazine. I remember the first time I saw an episode of “Northern Exposure,” the magical realism of it, I thought wait, I’m allowed to do this? And that was game-changing.  

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

AP: I write in bursts, in a notebook, longhand, generally when I’m in the middle of something else. Then later, when I have enough raw material, I type it up, editing as I go, and then I stitch the pieces together and fill in the gaps. I can’t listen to music. It’s too distracting. And I should learn to outline, but I don’t. I’m very messy. My mind is not well organized. It is a fitful, poorly lit place. Or a compost heap. Let’s call it that. 

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?

AP: Stephen King calls a short story a kiss in the dark from a stranger. I love that.  If I were to state a preference, it would be for long, doorstop-heavy Victorian novels—but with short stories it is possible to achieve a degree of perfection and compression that a novel can’t match. Certain short stories are just complete. A short story is like an egg, self contained, shapely, rounded off. They’re very difficult to do well. The best short story writers understand timing, they know what to leave out, what telling detail should be placed where, how to go for the jugular, how to strike that secret chord, how to sock you in the gut and then pas de bourree offstage leaving you gasping in a dark theater. 

DF: How did the idea for Beasts and Children originate?

AP: I read Flaubert’s St. Julien the Hospitaler as an undergrad and internalized it so thoroughly that, 10 years later, I had a vision of animal trophies coming back to life and pursuing their hunter, and I thought it was a stroke of genius. When I reread the Flaubert, I was mortified, because I thought my idea was original. But at that point the title story had mutated so much that it didn’t matter. And honestly, credit for this book has to go in huge part to Jenna Johnson, my editor, whose vision pushed it places, pushed me places, I wasn’t sure I could go. Initially I’d sent her a huge block of unconnected stories, (I was claiming they were “thematically connected,” but they were really just everything I had ever written up to that point). Jenna saw something worth pursuing in four of those stories, and they happened to be interconnected—two were about the Bowmans, and two were about the sisters in Thailand. She asked if I could write more, and link them, and naturally I said yes. Then we traded versions of the manuscript back and forth until it came right. Pilar Garcia Brown at HMH also weighed in with valuable advice and suggestions. As did Ellen Levine, my agent, and my two sisters.  

DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to explore throughout the collection?

AP: I was, and am, very interested in the gaps between the stories we tell about themselves—our slanted version of events—and the subtext in those stories of which we’re totally unaware. I wanted to play with a set of stories where characters revise and comment on one another’s experiences, both directly and by showing them living their own lives, with their own delusions. So the power of stories to influence one another, that’s one theme. And of course the question of the destructiveness of the adult world, of adult culture, on the young and on the planet. The question of who adults really are—are they just flailing overgrown children? What does it mean to be an adult? How do we respond to violence, how do we outgrow our wounds; is that even possible? How to be a parent when you’ve been badly parented yourself? Mourning for the shrinking natural world. The deep bond between siblings. Those are some of the themes. Hopefully readers will see others I’m not consciously aware of at the moment. 

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?

AP: There’s a lot of me and my experiences in the book. Both sets of sisters are homages to my own sisters. There are three of us, and I scramble bits of us around in each character. Other characters are completely invented. I develop characters by tuning in to them—it’s kind of like trying to catch a radio station that’s just slightly out of range; I’ll hear snatches of dialogue and then I’ll know I’m onto something. When they start yapping, I take dictation. That’s usually how it starts. Hearing voices. Sometimes it’s a mood, a feeling. But usually, if I can find the voice, then the rest is just a question of examining cause and effect, and how that character would behave in different circumstances. 

DF: How long did it take you to complete Beasts and Children?

AP: It depends. With a first book, it’s honestly hard to say, I think. In one sense it took my whole life. I started working on the title story, “The White Elephant,” during a period of intense mourning at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery in 2006. That was the inception. Some of the stories I completed in grad school. Some in the first year after my son was born. It wasn’t a linear process at all. 

DF: Beasts and Children has garnered rave reviews from the likes of Booklist and Molly Antopol (a Writer’s Bone favorite!).  What has that experience been like and what’s next for you?

AP: I’m thrilled and surprised and grateful. Really, this feels like a miracle, and I’ve had a lot of help and support—from Jenna Johnson at HMH, Stephanie Kim, Ayesha Mirza, who work publicity, from Ellen Levine, my agent; from workshop peers and family. 

But also, I’ve been so busy trying to raise a kid and teach full-time and write a novel that a lot of this good stuff has been a blur. In Zen, you’re taught not to hang out in bliss, but move on to the next practical thing, and that’s been very much my experience. I would have liked to hang out in bliss for a few minutes, though! I wish I had a talent for celebration, but I don’t. I’m grateful the book has been well received. 

I’m currently working on a novel set in Ankara, Turkey. That’s what’s next. Unless HBO calls and offers me a job writing for television. (Seriously, call me.)

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

AP: Finish your stories! If they’re bad, write better ones, expose the bad ones on a hillside and move on. But train yourself to finish. Also, find a reader who will tell you the truth, a reader who is smart enough and insightful enough to grasp what you’re aiming to do, and who cares enough to read closely and tell you when your skirt, metaphorically speaking, is tucked into the back of your tights. When you find that reader ply them with gratitude and send them burnt offerings and do not let them go because such a reader is the writer’s better half. Truly. And then, and this is very important, listen to them. And rewrite. And read. Read a lot, and risk being read. Though most writers don’t have an especially hard time shoving their manuscripts under people’s noses. 

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

AP: I can do a passable impression of Tom Waits singing “Good King Wenceslas” and I believe that if I do it often enough he will wake up one day and decide to record a Christmas album. 

To learn more about Amy Parker, visit her official website

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