short stories

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

Full Interviews Archive

Investigating Characters’ Pockets With Academy Gothic Author James Tate Hill

James Tate Hill

James Tate Hill

By Daniel Ford

Author James Tate Hill doesn’t need me to sing the praises of his novel Academy Gothic. In 2014, it won the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel and Publisher’s Weekly celebrated it as a “dead-on parody of academic jargon” and a “mystery worth reading.”

As I told Hill on Twitter recently, Tate Cowlishaw, his snarky, legally blind main character, is my spirit animal. His investigation into the death of the dean of crumbling Parshall College in Grayford, N.C. is both deliciously bizarre and scathingly hilarious. Fans of noir and dark comedy will love every page of this fantastic debut.

Hill answered some of my questions recently about how Jack London inspired him to become a writer, what inspired him to write Academy Gothic, and how it went about making his mystery tale original.

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

James Tate Hill: In seventh grade, when our English class read the Jack London story “To Build a Fire,” I was so enamored that I wrote my own version in which a man ventures into the desert to photograph a rare cactus. After losing his mind in the heat—rather quickly, if memory serves—he meets his demise by impaling himself on the very cactus he had been looking for. Fast-forward to high school, where I stumbled upon “To Build a Fire” again and was no less enthralled. This time, thankfully, it didn’t inspire me to write another awful story, but to seek out some of Jack London’s books. Oddly it wasn’t his famous dog stories—I’ve still never read White Fang—but his dark, autobiographical novel about a working-class writer who finds unhappiness in fame, Martin Eden, which tripped a switch in my brain. Reading that novel brought me the same thrill I had been getting for years from comic books. Every time I sit down to write, I hope against hope that some reader of my work will feel how I feel when I’m reading a book I can’t put down.

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

JTH: I do 90 percent of my writing in the morning. When time permits, I write every weekday. Aside from a handful of short stories, I’ve been working exclusively on novels for the past dozen years, and forward momentum feels crucial when working on something whose finish line can often seem hypothetical. Since getting my first laptop not that long ago, I’ve done the lion’s share of my writing in public places for reasons I’ll explain below. I used to allow myself the luxury of music only during revision, but fairly recently I developed the super power to write first drafts with music playing, and since then that certain dread that accompanies the blank screen has diminished quite a bit. I don’t outline, but do have destinations in mind. As often as not, however, the destinations I reach aren’t the ones I had circled on the map.

DF: What inspired your debut novel, Academy Gothic?

JTH: I don’t remember which came first, my binging on the novels of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald or the day my colleague and I arrived to the campus where we taught to find the only parking lot with vacant spaces completely cordoned off. We both started laughing—a little manically, to be honest. Think Walter White when he learns Skyler spent the money he was going to use to purchase new identities for the family. Months before, our offices had been moved from one of the campus’s smallest buildings to the side of a gymnasium that had once been a swimming pool. With state budget cuts coming hard and fast, I imagined what was happening to us hitting a smaller school that much harder. Watching faculty lose their shit, noticing students increasingly frustrated by an ever-evolving curriculum, a plot began to take shape.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters in the novel? How do you develop your characters in general?

JTH: I hope none of my former students see me in Tate Cowlishaw’s utter indifference to teaching. People who know me, however, will recognize my visual impairment, central blind spots that leave peripheral vision my only useful eyesight, in the narrator of Academy Gothic. I was 16 years old when doctors correctly diagnosed my rare condition, after which I learned to read with my ears rather than my eyes. I can read small amounts of text with a high-powered magnifier, but I consume my books as recorded audio or digital speech converted from text through a computer or Kindle. I hope I’m not as world-weary as Cowlishaw, but his sardonic sensibility probably isn’t far from my own.

As for the other characters in Academy Gothic, any similarity to actual persons, past or present, blah blah blah. Some similarities to people one knows are inevitable, but I tend to believe writers when they call their characters a composite of different people, some real and most fictional. A writing teacher once told me I should know what’s in a character’s pockets even if we never see inside them. She meant that our characters, even the supporting characters, need to have lives beyond the page, and this advice isn’t far from my mind whenever a new character enters stage left.

DF: How long did it take you to write the novel and get it published?

JTH: I think it was close to its current form after about a year and a half, factoring in edits after feedback from first readers. I spent about six months querying agents with a number of requests but no takers. Naively I had thought finding representation would be easier with a mystery than it had been for my previous project, a weird speculative novel with four point-of-view characters. With Academy Gothic, unlike with previous projects, rejection didn’t lessen my belief in the book, but the energy it takes to keep sending emails into the ether, few of which even receive a form response, can be toxic to the energy needed to write. Thus, I entered Academy Gothic in some book contests and moved ahead with another novel.

DF: Murder mysteries have certain built-in tropes that can steer authors into tired clichés if they aren’t careful. How did you ensure that your tale was original?

JTH: Good question. That aforementioned buffet of Chandler, Macdonald, and other authors who helped define and redefine classic noir made me aware of a certain voice and tone, to say nothing of recognizable characters and familiar turns in the story. If anything, instead of avoiding those tropes—those of murder mysteries as well as those of gothic novels of the eighteenth century—I tried to incorporate some of them and see how they played in a somewhat different context, namely that of satire.

DF: Academy Gothic won the 2014 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel and has garnered positive reviews from a number of literary sources. What has that experience been like?

JTH: The whole process, from the first phone call from my publisher to say I had won the Nilsen Prize to the recent arrival of my own copies on my doorstep, has been surreal. Writers who publish with small presses are grateful for any kind of attention we receive, so when Publishers Weekly and Booklist both weighed in, positively no less, I literally couldn’t believe my luck. I do mean literally. I came upon the PW review during that time-honored writerly tradition of Googling myself—the review had just gone up, my publisher having not yet been notified by PW—and an hour later, trying to send someone a link to it, the review was gone. I genuinely thought I had hallucinated the review. Apparently, different Web browsers use different search engines, and what had shown up on Firefox simply hadn’t yet shown up on Internet Explorer.

What’s been most rewarding is the kindness I’ve experienced from friends, family, and fellow writers. Whether it’s a writer I admire agreeing to say something nice about my book for the back cover, Writer’s Bone asking me to do an interview, or friends I first met on Twitter posting pictures of their copy of the novel, I’m still growing accustomed to feeling so grateful so often.

DF: Academy Gothic doesn’t feel like a book published by a university press. How would you describe your university press experience?

JTH: I’ve been lucky to work with a publisher, Susan Swartwout, who both knows what she’s doing and has a progressive view of the publishing landscape. I don’t know how many university presses would be game for murder mysteries that skewer the state of higher education, but the kind of fiction being published by university presses is certainly evolving. The big five New York publishing houses, not unlike Hollywood studios, are increasingly averse to risk and unknown properties, leaving plenty of projects for smaller presses to snap up. In fact, because there’s so much high-quality fiction and nonfiction out there, the only difference between presses like Coffee House, Graywolf, Sarabande, Tin House, et al., and larger New York houses is their annual operating budgets. Some of the university presses who have been publishing interesting fiction for years include LSU Press, University of Nebraska Press, University of Georgia Press, and West Virginia University Press, just to name a few.

DF: You’re really active on Twitter and your comments about the publishing industry always make me chuckle. How do you balance promoting your work and developing your social media personality with your writing schedule?

JTH: I thank you for the premise of this question, that I have, in fact, balanced Twitter and writing. I cannot, repeat: cannot, write effectively if there is Internet on my computer. I paid $10 for that ridiculous Freedom software a few years ago, a program whose efficacy depends on one’s willingness not to restart the computer. To borrow a phrase from the great Patton Oswalt, my weakness is strong. For this reason in 2011, when I was beginning Academy Gothic, I finally broke down and bought a laptop to take with me to coffee shops and libraries. I can only visit places with password-protected wifi—my poor eyesight prevents me from seeing any posted passwords—and if I ever overhear someone say the password, I have to leave.

That said, I have met so many cool writers on Twitter. If one limits social media to the time one isn’t writing, I don’t see anything wrong with it. Interacting with fellow writers, many of us socially awkward people who wouldn’t be nearly as voluble in person, makes the necessary loneliness of the morning writing time much more bearable.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

JTH: Write a book you’d love to read, not a book you think someone else wants to read. Your first draft is the time to listen to yourself. After that, listen to people you trust. By this point, you and your readers should be able to see what you’re trying to do, and if your readers are objective and honest, they are the bridge between first draft and final. Most importantly, though, and this is easier said than done, persevere.

DF: What’s next for you?

JTH: I’m in the line-editing phase of another mystery, this one about a fame-obsessed 15-year-old whose seemingly chance encounter with an unhinged actor turns violent. I’ve begun work on a nonfiction project about the long, strange process of adapting to visual impairment. I hope I’m not done with Tate Cowlishaw, but his exploits finding their way into another novel probably depends less on my interest than that of readers.

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

JTH: Large sections of my brain are occupied by the show “Beverly Hills: 90210.” In college, my roommates and I played a “90210” drinking game we found on the Internet: Steve raises eyebrows and whisks hands together, two sips! Claire looks too alternative for her own good: three sips! On our radio show, we provided updates to new episodes as well as the reruns. Lest this feel like a hipster’s ironic love of low culture, I’ll state without shame that half a dozen episodes have made me cry. Watch the one where Dylan’s new wife is murdered, his reaction, that moment when Brandon comforts him, that Lyle Lovett song playing over the whole scene, and see if you don’t succumb. Are you truly unmoved by the episode when Brandon leaves the gang after eight seasons for a job across the country, R.E.M.’s “Night Swimming” underscoring the raw emotion of a nation’s goodbye? Well, you must be made of a steelier substance than me.

To learn more about James Tate Hill, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @JamesTateHill.

FULL ARCHIVE

Following the Story: 12 Questions With Author Jack Livings

Jack Livings 

Jack Livings 

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.

FULL ARCHIVE

Standing By Every Sentence: 11 Questions With Author Molly Antopol

Molly Antopol

Molly Antopol

By Daniel Ford

Author Molly Antopol’s short story collection The UnAmericans was longlisted for the National Book Award and was called “beautiful, funny, fearless, exquisitely crafted, and truly novelistic in scope” by author Jesmyn Ward. Antopol was also named a 2013 National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" Honoree.

The author talked to me recently about her writing career, what inspired The UnAmericans, and her love of short stories.

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

Molly Antopol: It wasn’t a conscious decision, exactly. I’ve always read a lot. As a kid, I had a bunch of imaginary friends and my mother says I used to spend full days writing myself into whatever book I was reading. But writing as a career felt to me like a pie-in-the-sky profession, like being an astronaut or a magician. I figured I’d sneak in time to write when I wasn’t working—when I was young I wanted to be a marine biologist or a zoologist.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

MA: Grace Paley has had an enormous influence on me. I admire her stories for so many reasons: for their intellect, humor, poetic compression, and emotional generosity. I first read Paley in a literature seminar in college, and it was only then that I truly understood how compassionate and direct stories can be without ever veering into sentimentality. And she writes such gorgeous sentences without ever seeming like she’s showing off. Most of all, I love how character-driven her stories are while still giving us a nuanced sense of the larger political landscape—the politics of her fiction feels like such an essential part of the people she writes about that I never feel she’s being didactic or forcing any opinions on me.

The books I read as a kid were also hugely important in my becoming a writer, in particular Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy and Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnick series. I recently reread those books and found them just as fantastic as I had as a kid—both Fitzhugh and Lowry write with so much warmth and self-awareness and what feels like genuine love for their characters. I also loved books about explorers as a kid, particularly Gulliver’s Travels and Call of the Wild—even as an adult, I’m happiest when I’m outdoors, off on some kind of adventure.

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

MA: I write on all the days I don’t teach. I write best in the mornings, before my day gets too cluttered. And I always turn off my phone and email—I’m horribly addicted to the Internet and can begin by researching one small (yet essential!) detail for a story can often lead to a three-hour black hole from which I only emerge once I’ve learned everything I can about something wholly unrelated to my book.

I don’t have a lucky pen or anything like that. If I can sit down and get something done, it doesn’t matter if I’m dressed or still in my pajamas, or have my music on or off.

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?

MA: I’ve always loved short stories. The stories I admire most feel novelistic in scope, where you can feel a writer pouring everything she has into it until there’s nothing left. I feel that way about so many writers, including Deborah Eisenberg, Alice Munro, Andrea Barrett, Edward P. Jones and Edith Pearlman. Whenever I was struggling with my book, I found myself searching out interviews with them, looking for nuggets of inspiration that might help along the way. I learned about Pearlman’s love of Dickens, that Munro doesn’t show work-in-progress to anyone, and that for Eisenberg, the earliest seeds of a story begin for her with an image or a phrase, and “sometimes a kind of tonality … almost as if I was writing a piece of music.”

DF: How long did it take you to complete The UnAmericans?

MA: Ten years. For many of those years, I basically wrote into a vacuum. I didn’t send my stories out and tried not to think about how the collection would come together as a whole—I just focused on trying to make each story work the way I hoped it would.

It was really important for me to keep my blinders on the whole time. For some reason, the excitement of seeing my friends publish never pushed me to write faster—instead, it just made me want to tune out any writing business-related noise so I could focus entirely on the book I wanted to write, regardless of whether or not anyone would ultimately be interested in publishing it.

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?

MA: Many of the earliest stories I wrote were set during the McCarthy era and inspired by my family history, notably their involvement in the Communist Party. I was about halfway into writing the book when I realized my stories all explored, in some way or another, the triangle between Cold War-era East European politics, Jewish American liberalism, and the effect they had on contemporary Israel. But that was totally subconscious. And it was only once all the stories were done that I discovered they weren’t linked by setting or character but by a question I hadn’t even realized I’d been asking myself: What are the complicated—and sometimes devastating—effects that one person’s quest to improve the world have on the people closest to them?

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?

MA: Well, my book doesn’t contain any stories about women in their 30s living in San Francisco, but I do feel that it is autobiographical in the sense that it captures what I cared about, questioned and obsessed over during the 10 years that I was writing it. It was only at that halfway mark I mentioned that I realized that all of the stories were in conversation with each other.

DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in the collection?

MA: Growing up, I’d always associated the word “Un-American” solely with the Red Scare in America, and the 1950s-era stories in my book grew largely out of my attempt to understand what it might have been like for my family to grow up under the shadow of McCarthyism.

As I wrote more stories, I became fascinated by the complicated meaning the word might have to this current generation of Israelis, forced to contend every day with their country’s messy and symbiotic relationship to America. Some of my other stories are about East Europeans immigrating to America. I was really interested in thinking about this notion of “Un-American-ness” for these characters—dissidents and academics, banned artists and writers—who risked their lives for their politics in their mother countries and are then forced to reinvent their identities in the United States, a country where they’re treated as anything but American. I kept thinking about the complicated emotional impact the fall of communism might have had on my characters during that time. I thought about what it might have felt like to dedicate oneself to a cause that, in the course of world events, comes to an end—and wondered whether some people might have had a niggling feeling of nostalgia for that bleak time, simply because they held a significant place in it. For so many of my characters, their entire sense of self is shaped by their political work, and I wanted to explore how having lived under surveillance in Eastern Europe influences their lives once they immigrate to America, where they quickly realize that not only are they no longer being watched—they’re no longer being noticed.

DF: Your book received rave reviews from a variety of media outlets and was longlisted for the National Book Award. What’s that experience been like and what are your future plans?

MA: I’ve found it fascinating to have a book out in the world and to see how people have responded to it. It’s an incredible feeling to read and hear peoples’ responses to characters who had lived solely in my mind for so long. I was incredibly honored (and surprised!) to be longlisted for the National Book Award. It was thrilling to get the news, and to be in such amazing company. Writing is often such a solitary pursuit; it was wonderful to get recognition from people who are not related to me!

As to what’s next, I’m working a novel, called The After Party. It’s set in the United States and Israel. But I’m superstitious about discussing a book-in-progress—I shouldn’t say anything else!

DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?

MA: That there’s no rush to get published, that it’s okay to spend years reading and writing and messing up, until you feel truly great about the work they’re putting out. When I was first writing stories, an older writer gave me a piece of advice that’s resonated over the years: you only get one chance to have a first book, so make sure you stand behind every one of your sentences.

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

MA: They filmed “The Wonder Years” at my high school.

To learn more about Molly Antopol, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @MollyAntopol.

FULL ARCHIVE

Short Stories and String Cheese: Author Kirstin Valdez Quade On Her Debut Collection Night at the Fiestas

Kirstin Valdez Quade (Photo credit: Maggie Shipstead)

Kirstin Valdez Quade (Photo credit: Maggie Shipstead)

By Daniel Ford

I gushed over Kirstin Valdez Quade’s debut short story collection, Night at the Fiestas, enough in last month’s 5 Books That Need To Be On Your Radar, so I’ll just say it was a true pleasure to read cover to cover and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Quade graciously answered some of my questions about her early influences, why she loves short stories, and what inspired Night at the Fiestas.

DF: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Kirstin Valdez Quade: I’ve wanted to write since I was a child. I don’t exactly know where the impulse came from, since I didn’t know any writers, but I was an avid reader, and I always identified with the characters who wrote: Harriet the Spy, Anne of Green Gables, Jo March. While I wrote short stories and poems throughout high school, it wasn’t until college that I took a creative writing workshop and began to make a more serious study of craft.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

KVQ: In high school I first encountered Graham Greene, Tobias Wolff, Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Carver, Sandra Cisneros. Each of these writers influenced me and made me think about the kinds of stories I wanted to tell.

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

KVQ: My process is pretty dull: no music, no cafes, just me at my desk. I have a parrot, and he’s often in the room, rustling around behind me. Occasionally I’ll wear headphones, but just to tether me to my computer. I never outline, mostly because discovering what will happen is what keeps me engaged in the story. The couple times I tried outlining, I felt like I was just filling in the blanks; the writing was a slog and not very good. My way is pretty inefficient, though—it takes a long time to feel my way through a story, and I take wrong turns, and have to backtrack.

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?

KVQ: I love the short story, too! As both a reader and a writer, I enjoy the variety. I can try on a character’s experience, and then, in the next story, explore the experience of someone completely different. I think of the story collection as a box of truffles. Each offers its own surprises, but they complement and echo each other.

DF: How long did it take you to complete Night at the Fiestas?

KVQ: I’m almost embarrassed to say! I started the first story, “Nemecia,” in 2005 or 2006, so I worked on the book for nearly 10 years. But in the beginning I wasn’t especially aware that I was Working on a Book. Rather, I was learning how to write stories, figuring out my material, getting a sense of my interests.

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?

KVQ: I really just wrote the stories that presented themselves to me, the stories that felt most exciting and urgent. In the beginning I didn’t think of them as part of a whole, but from the beginning there were thematic connections between the stories. Most were set in the Southwest, and in New Mexico in particular. Many showed a concern with the pressures exerted by the past. I began to think of the collection as a fractured and incomplete portrait of the place my family is from.

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?

KVQ: We (readers and writers) get to know characters the same way we get to know the people in our lives: by spending time with them, by seeing how they act under pressure, by watching how they navigate the relationships in their lives. What I love about fiction is getting to play pretend, getting to try on different existences. I am in all of my characters—or at least some version of me is in all of them. I am as much the beleaguered eldest son in “The Guesthouse” as I am the artistically frustrated retiree in “Canute Commands the Tides.” People have asked which of my characters is closest to me, and my answer changes every time.

DF: What are some of the themes you tackle in Night at the Fiestas?

KVQ: I find myself writing about family and the little betrayals that can occur between parents and children, brothers and sisters. The family is such fertile terrain for fiction, because there’s shared history there, such intimacy and love, and yet our families are forced on us. No one knows quite how to push our buttons like our family members, and small gestures can take on huge resonances.

DF: Your stories are set in New Mexico and have a very distinct, Southwestern United States feel. How were you affected by the region’s culture growing up and how did you go about recreating it in your stories?

KVQ: I am from northern New Mexico, and my family has lived there for centuries. I’ve always been really close to my older relatives and interested in their stories, and because of this I have felt very connected to the landscape and history of the region. When I was a child, my parents and I moved away, and we lived all over the Southwest—Nevada, Utah, Arizona—but through all the moves, New Mexico was the place we returned to, the place that felt most like home.

DF: Your book received a rave review in The New York Times Book Review and garnered other high praise from a variety of sources. What’s that experience been like and what are your future plans?

KVQ: I am incredibly, incredibly grateful. It’s scary to send work out into the world. Writers depend so much on the goodwill of readers, on their willingness to give generously of their time and attention. It means so much to me when a reader says that something I’ve written entertained or resonated with them, because one of the reasons I became a writer was to make that kind of connection with a reader. My plan for now is to keep my head down and to work on the next project.

DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?

KVQ: The advice that I keep in mind as I’m working comes from Alice Munro: “The only choice I make is to write about what interests me in a way that interests me, that gives me pleasure.” Staying faithful to your interests is really liberating, and allows you to takes risks in your work. Plus, if you’re interested in the story you’re telling, that energy and urgency is bound to come through, and it’s far more likely your reader will also be interested.

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

KVQ: I once came in second place in a limbo competition at the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 124. The man who came in first was a foot shorter than I am, so I consider it a victory. Plus, the second place prize was a beer cooler, which is also great for transporting string cheese.

To learn more about Kirstin Valdez Quade, visit her official website.

FULL ARCHIVE

In the Business of Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Anne Leigh Parrish

Anne Leigh Parrish (Photo courtesy of the author)

Anne Leigh Parrish (Photo courtesy of the author)

By Daniel Ford

From MBA to short story artist and novelist, Anne Leigh Parrish took an unconventional path to becoming an accomplished storyteller.

Her work, which has been featured in The Virginia Quarterly Review, New Pop Lit, and Crab Orchard Review, typically features family drama, love, and humor, and has resonated with both readers and literary critics.

Parrish recently answered some of my questions about her early influences, her writing process, and her debut novel What is Found, What Is Lost.

Daniel Ford: First things first, since you’re a native of the Finger Lakes region in upstate New York, I have to know your favorite winery! 

Anne Leigh Parrish: Well, to be honest, I left that region a very long time ago, although obviously it continues to be a large presence in my fiction. I’ve lived in Washington State for more than 30 years, a place also well-known for its wine. My favorite wineries here are Columbia Crest and Chateau St. Michelle. But let me commend the Oregon and California wineries, too. From Oregon I love Willamette Valley, and from California Grghich Hills tops the list.

DF: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

ALP: I wrote at a very early age, in elementary school. A fourth grade teacher was impressed with one of my pieces, and had me read it aloud to the class. Some of my progress reports from that time mentioned a gift for storytelling. However, I went in a different direction when I started taking piano lessons. My father bought a Baldwin baby grand piano from a store in Syracuse, and played regularly, until he moved out. He was a gifted musician, and I remember thinking that I wanted to be able to sound like him one day. For the next 10 years, my passion was all for classical music and performing, though I did manage to keep the love of writing alive through the books I read. Stressful family issues in high school made pursuing music very difficult, so I walked away from the idea of attending music school and applied to liberal arts colleges instead. I ended up majoring in Economics, a far cry from either creative writing or music, then went on to earn an MBA. By then I’d realized that I needed to get back into writing, which I did at age 27. I’ve been writing ever since.

DF: Who were some of your early influences? 

ALP: William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf because of how they manipulate language, particular Faulkner. His The Sound and the Fury absolutely fascinated me when I first read it in high school, though I didn’t really understand it fully at the time. I really admired how he time completely fluid in the first section of the book to underscore the feeble mind of Benjy. Virginia Woolf also focused hard on what an actual thought process was like, and tried to capture that in words. After those two would be Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, and Alice Munro. In fact, my linked story collection, Our Love Could Light the World was compared to one of her story collections by Kirkus Review. 

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

ALP: No, to both. Sometimes I think I should be more dedicated to outlining, and realize that I do, in fact, outline, but mentally only. Rarely do those thoughts find their way to the page or screen. I always begin with one idea–a revelation someone has, a scene, often between two people, something unusual that I want to expand on. From there it tends to flow easily enough at this point, though not always!

DF: What’s your approach to character development? How much of yourself and your interactions with your family and friends do you put into your novels? 

ALP: In my early writing years, my characters resembled members of my family very much. My first published short story, “A Painful Shade of Blue” (Autumn 1995 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review) was based on my parents’ divorce. My mother, father, and sister were all portrayed very realistically. Even my father’s future wife, then his girlfriend, was easy to recognize. After that I wrote a long series of stories featuring a protagonist named Nina, a sort of alter-ego, who had trouble finding a focus in life. But then I moved into wholly new people, unknown to me in life. This I found much easier, because even though they were completely invented, there was no risk whatsoever that anyone would recognize himself on the page.

DF: We’re huge fans of the short story genre here at Writer’s Bone, and your second published work, Our Love Could Light the World, features 12 short stories featuring a dysfunctional family. What drew you to short stories originally and why did you make the decision to switch to the novel format with What is Found, What Is Lost? 

ALP: I’m not sure why I developed such a fondness for short stories. I guess I read a lot of William Trevor, Louise Erdrich, and, of course, Alice Munro in The New Yorker. Over time, I reached a point where I wanted more room to roam, as it were. The Dugan family, in Our Love Could Light the World, offered me this opportunity. Each story is a stand-alone piece, yet connected by the characters, and events which had taken place before. Writing a novel seemed like a logical next step to first a collection of unrelated stories, followed by a collected of linked stories. Then, frankly, there was also the marketing aspect of a novel itself. I’d long been told–and suspected–that novels sell better than story collections do.

DF: What inspired you to write your novel? Was it an idea you've been thinking about for a long time? 

ALP: I’ve been bothered by religious extremism for a long time, and this is one of the main tenets I address in the novel. Also, the first idea of the novel came in the form of a short story I wrote called “An Act of Concealment” (Crab Orchard Review). In the story, a newly married couple comes to Huron, S.D., from Constantinople where they met. This is the story of my own grandparents. My grandfather was a professor at Huron College for a brief time. My grandmother, Anna, for whom I’m named was Armenian and raised as a Catholic. My mother inherited a menorah from her, which never made sense to me, given her childhood religion. While my grandfather was Swiss and presumably a Calvinist, his last name was Jacob. I then wondered if the menorah had actually been his, that he was in fact Jewish, and asked Anna to assume that identity. This is where the reality ends and the fiction begins. Both are long dead, as is my mother, so the truth of my suspicions will never be known. But they made for the short story, and later the novel, though the novel spans four generations–Anna, her daughter Lorraine, Lorraine’s daughter’s Freddie and Holly, and. Lastly. Freddie’s daughter Beth.

DF: How long did it take you to complete What is Found, What Is Lost, and did you have to change anything about your writing process? 

ALP: I’d say it took me about 15 months. It came very easily to me. One thing that did slow me down was completely restructuring the narrative because I was concerned that my reader might have a hard time staying grounded. So I lumped scenes together by time frame. In terms my actual process, I had to work very hard to keep all the many details straight and consistent. That took a great deal of time and intense editing.

DF: Now that you have your debut novel under your belt, what’s next? 

ALP: Probably another novel. I’ve got two ideas I’m playing with at the moment. One is again multi-generational, though the women aren’t related by blood, only circumstance. The other features one protagonist, Nina, from years past, though she is more interesting now, or so I hope. I also am writing the occasional short story. I just had a new story appear in New Pop Lit called “An Angel Within.”

DF: What advice do you give to up-and-coming writers? 

ALP: My bullet points would be: Keep at it until it starts coming more easily; be open to feedback but know when the feedback is useful and when it’s not; focus on exactly what you want the reader to take away from your story (or novel); learn to switch sides of the table when you’re editing–become the reader, in other words; try not to get too hung up on how the marketplace is treating you–this is more for writers with a book out in the world; and, lastly, always stay true to yourself as a writer, how you define that.

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

ALP: In between high school and college I went to a local community college in Colorado and learned how to rebuild a car engine.

To learn more about Anne Leigh Parrish, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @AnneLParrish

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Author Judy Chicurel On How Everything Should Start With Your Writing

Judy Chicurel (photo credit: Marcia Klugman)

Judy Chicurel (photo credit: Marcia Klugman)

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.

Cover photo courtesy of Judy Chicurel

Cover photo courtesy of Judy Chicurel

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.

To learn more about Judy Chicurel, check out her official website or like her Facebook page.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Maybe I’m A Panda: 8 Questions With Author Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

Stuart Dybek

By Dave Pezza

After reading a rave review in The New York Times Book Review for Stuart Dybek’s Ecstatic Cahoots, I picked myself up a copy and fell in love with his beautiful prose.

Dybek answered some of my questions recently about his style, Chicago, and creative writing’s place in the age of advanced technology.

Dave Pezza: Was writing always an ambition of yours? Was there ever a decisive moment when you knew crafting stories was a calling?

Stuart Dybek: I actually have an essay on the subject of discovering metaphor in fourth grade—but it is too long to reprise here. Writing caught my attention as an art around 17 in senior year of high school, around the same time I fell in love with jazz. The two have always felt related to me on a purely subjective level.

DP: I’m just about finished with one of your latest collections Ecstatic Cahoots, where you have managed to beautifully blend piecemeal narrative story telling with a poetic style of diction. There seems to be so much worked into such a small amount of words. Do these vignettes take a long time to develop and mold?

SD: Those short pieces are often worked over the way a poem is, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to single them out, as longer pieces can take as much work. One hopes the short ones, like poems, will invite a reader to reread them.

DP: Chicago is a reoccurring setting in your fiction; the city’s almost a character of its own in some of your stories. Does the Windy City still draw a lot of creative power from you?

SD: I grew up in a very urban inner city area, and so it is probably safe to say that by nature I’m at heart an urban writer, and depicting the city—for me, it’s Chicago—is akin to creating a huge back drop canvas whose imagery and mood both expresses and impacts the story. But it doesn’t have to be a city. Some of my stories depict other places.

DP: Speaking of Chicago, you are the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University. Tell us a little about working closely with the University’s writing program?

SD: NU is a school that is deeply invested in writing of all kinds. There’s an MFA program that I teach in Continuing Studies. Most of the students are older and working day jobs—cops, reporters, librarians, high school teachers. It’s a pleasure to teach because it’s a population that has work to write about. I also teach an undergrad workshop in writing fabulism that I pretty much developed for NU, and that class has been a revelation. Each quarter at least one student at age 20 or 21 writes a publishable story. I tried it as an experiment, but now I won’t teach anything else.

DP: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers looking for writing programs in either the undergraduate or graduate level?

SD: One learns writing as one learns the other arts: by doing. Want to play sax. Get a sax and start practicing. A good teacher can help make you better, accelerate the learning curve. Same with writing, only your medium is abstract: words. The craft isn’t so obvious as it is for music, but it is there, and you need to learn it by writing, practicing—i.e. rewriting—and reading like crazy.

DP: Many of your stories are set in a pre-technologically saturated America. Is that time period you’re most comfortable period of experience to draw from, or do you think there is something more romantic about landlines and photographs hidden in drawers instead of in digital clouds?

SD: I think we’re living in an age when the old and new technologies are cohabiting. The story you are referring to actually had a version in which the nude photo is hidden on a computer. I liked that one particular piece better with a hidden photo so that affected my choice, but only in the case of that particular story. What I love about your question though is its implication, which I totally agree with. You mostly can’t simply trade one for the other. Changing the technology in the story usually changes the final effect.

DP: Do you have any good book or poetry collection recommendations? We’re always looking for a good read here at Writer’s Bone.

SD: Edward Hirsch’s book-length poem Gabriel and Fady Joudah’s book that won the 2007 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition with an introduction by Louise Gluck who judged it wonderful. It is called The Earth in the Attic.

DP: Last one, swear. Can you tell us something random or surprising about yourself?

SD: I can leave you with a haiku I wrote at a Japanese restaurant with my two little grand kids, Nat and Jules:

I look into my bowl of miso soup
And see a panda.
Maybe I’m a panda.

To learn more about Stuart Dybek, check out his biography on Northwestern’s website or like his Facebook page.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

The Cat’s Meow: 13 Questions With Author Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino

Marie-Helene Bertino

By Daniel Ford

It was the title of Marie-Helene Bertino’s book that caught my eye. 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas is not something you encounter on every walk through your neighborhood Barnes & Noble. The novel’s lime green back cover did the rest of the work, pulling me in like a tractor beam.

Degenerate music club. Broken characters. Dark Philly streets. I was 10 pages deep before I remembered I had to go back to work. I was all in.

The best thing I can say about Bertino’s book (for now, I’ll have an official recommendation coming in October) is that it is a constant surprise. Sentences hit you with left hooks after you’re punch drunk from right hand jabs, multiple storylines dance nimbly to the accompanying music, and Bertino writes with a confidence typically reserved for seasoned masters. I’m less than 25 pages from the end and am reading a page at a time because I don’t want it to end.

Bertino talked to me recently about her early influences, her writing process, and the inspiration behind 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas.

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

Marie-Helene Bertino: I decided when I was 4 years old, and I decide again, every day.

DF: Who were some of your influences?

MHB: My brothers were my first influences. They are older than me, and I saw them writing when I was a little girl. There was such mystery and delight surrounding the activity of them scribbling into their copybooks, and I wanted in on that. In grade school, the stories of Lloyd Alexander and Madeleine L’Engle and the fantasy genre in general were huge influences. In high school and college, poets were my biggest influence. After college, I went to London to study Shakespeare. Later, irreverent surrealists like Etgar Keret, Aimee Bender, Amy Hempel, Jim Shepard, and Raymond Carver guided my first forays into fiction.

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

MHB: I don’t normally listen to music or outline, unless I need a jolt back into the story. When I’m “composing” a new piece if you will (will you?), it needs to be quiet in the palace. Nothing louder than my cat padding across the floor. When I’m writing non-fiction or revising, I listen to NPR all day. I do a fine impression of Lakshmi Singh if I may say so (may I?), and groove without realizing to the Brian Lehr Show theme song.

DF: You teach at NYU, The Center for Fiction, The Sackett Street Workshops, and the Emerging Writer’s Workshop for One Story. How have all of these organizations influenced your writing?

MHB: My students at NYU are brilliant and energetic, willing to fearlessly try new things. I leave class inspired and chuckling a lot. This semester I began teaching in the low-residency program at IAIA (Indian American Institute of the Arts), based in Santa Fe. IAIA’s mission is “to empower creativity and leadership in Native arts and cultures through higher education, lifelong learning, and outreach.” It is a new M.F.A. program built out of deeply ingrained tradition and feeling, and I am already learning so much from the other faculty members and students. In the workshops at IAIA, CFF, Sackett, and One Story the students are sometimes several years past college age. They normally work day jobs in unrelated fields before coming to class each night. I have a very real understanding of the sacrifices they make to be there, and their determination and talent stokes my own desire to keep writing.

DF: Your first published work was a collection of short stories titled, Safe as Houses. What drew you to short stories originally and why did you make the decision to switch to the novel format?

MHB: I like the canvas of short stories, that they are in essence a magic trick. Other magic stories compelled me to write my own. “Why Don’t You Dance” from Raymond Carver was the first one I remember giving me that gut punch—only not the story. It was produced as a short film at The Tribeca Film Festival years ago, and I liked the film so much I sought out the author. The last lines of that story still hold great alchemy for me. While I was writing the stories in Safe as Houses, I switched back and forth to 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. The scope of the latter’s story overflowed a story container. It took a long time for it to teach me how to write it.

DF: How long did it take you to complete your first novel 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas?

MHB: That’s a tricky question to answer, because I didn’t work on it for hours every day for 12 years, though all in all, from first word to publishing, it was that long. During that time I wrote a children’s book, another novel, my short story collection, in addition to becoming the person I had to be to write the novel. So, that’s a loose figure, at best.

DF: Did you know you had something good when you finished?

MHB: I knew I had something that was exactly what I wanted to say.

DF: How did the idea for the story originate?

MHB: I was having a string of late nights in Philadelphia, hanging with friends and hearing music. Then I moved away and became homesick. I wanted to write something that felt the way I felt when I was in the city with these friends. But it took a long time to figure out how to do it. It’s not a one to one ratio. And, music is deceptively tricky to write about.

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?

MHB: I am lucky that I was raised by a woman who has an uncanny knack for understanding a broad variety of people. My mom worked for forty years for people living with severe mental disabilities. She taught me to be a people person, in the true sense of that word. This includes the world-weariness that only people who truly love other people encounter. In any case, I’ve always been interested in other people’s experiences. I’ve held two jobs that required me to interview people—in one case, musicians, in the other, people living with TBI, but I’ve been informally interviewing people my whole life.

DF: 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas has gotten great reviews. What has that experience been like and what’s one memorable moment that will stick with you?

MHB: I hesitate to admit this, but I don’t read reviews. I hesitate because sometimes this seems to invite people to tell me what they think about me not reading reviews. But I decided long ago to put to route anything that is bad for my writing. And, I can’t see how an overly positive or overly negative review could help my writing in any way. I also decided never to walk in anyone’s shadow. If I fail, if I succeed, at least I lived as I believe. No, wait. That last part was Whitney Houston.

DF: What’s next for Marie-Helene Bertino following the success of your first novel?

MHB: Oh, you know. Writing, writing, writing. I’m puttering right now, on a book and stories, the way a gardener putters in her garden. I’m doing a lot of readings—which is a lot of fun. I’d like to do more readings, visit schools, talk to emerging writers. I’d like to visit Arthur Avenue in the Bronx for the first time. And India. I’d also like to figure out how to make a flower crown, and teach my dog to turn around while standing on his hind legs. I don’t know about that last one. He just doesn’t seem interested.

DF: What advice would you give writers just starting out?

MHB: I have so much advice for new writers, but here is one specific tidbit: Ask yourself, what am I avoiding in my writing? And, force yourself to write it. Maybe it’s dialogue, sex scenes, descriptive scenes, scenes where more than two people are speaking, dialogue beats, whatever have you. Force yourself to write two pages of it. Again, and again. Work to refine that skill like you would a weak muscle. And keep doing that every so often, no matter what level you reach.

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

MHB: Besides the Lakshmi Singh thing? I am preternaturally adept at parallel parking.

To learn more about Marie-Helene Bertino, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @mhbertino.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

Upheaval and Innovation: Author Shawn Vestal On Writing and the Current State of Journalism

Shawn Vestal

Shawn Vestal

By Daniel Ford

Perusing through The New York Times Book Review recently, I came across a book with a title that I loved instantly.

Godforsaken Idaho.

I don’t know why it hit me the way it did, but when things like that happen, you don’t question it and immediately email the writer to see if he or she is willing to sit down for an interview.

Author Shawn Vestal was more than willing and provided insight into his praised collection of short stories, his writing process, and the current state of journalism.

Daniel Ford: When did you start writing? Was it something that came to you naturally or was it developed over time?

Shawn Vestal: I always had an interest in language and reading, from a very early age, and my teachers often encouraged me and praised my writing. So I would imagine it was kind of twofold—I had an interest/aptitude, and then I developed it. I wrote my first poems and stories when I was in high school and college, but I sort of dinked around with that kind of writing while working as a journalist as a young adult. I didn’t work on it as hard as I could have.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you outline? Listen to music?

SV: I just open the laptop and go. Usually, I’m sitting on the little couch in my office at home, but sometimes I’ll move around. I never listen to music while writing, and I try to write for a sustained period before ever dipping a toe into email or the Internet. More and more, I recognize the crucial importance of the time I spend away from the keyboard, thinking about what I’m working on, unconsciously preparing for the next burst of writing. Because my week is divided between journalism and fiction-writing, I usually have gaps of a few days between fiction writing, and in those gaps I try to think through problems or spend time in the mind of the characters. Often, I write quickly and for an appallingly short period of time –a three-hour bout at the keyboard is about as far as I can go, in terms of breaking fresh imaginative ground—and I often write less than that in a sitting, though I can edit and tinker for longer.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

SV: I fell into journalism accidentally. I was an English major at the University of Idaho in the 1980s, and I dropped out, intending to earn money and return. Instead, I took a job at my hometown weekly newspaper and found that I really loved the work. I moved around the West to different papers, and have now settled at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. , where I am a columnist. It’s a pretty great job. I feel very lucky to have it.

The current state of the business is, of course, struggling. I think that newspapers in particular have seen their means of earning money—and therefore paying for journalism—suffer, and we’re going through a time of all sorts of upheaval and innovation. It’s been bad news, so far at least, for the kind of deeper, investigative reporting at the community and state level. But I’m not sure what journalism will look like eventually. Those of us weaned on the old model frankly don’t have the eyes to imagine it. I think that the essence of journalism, and not the business of it, is what is crucial: reporting on the powerful, serving citizens, and holding government accountable. There is too little truly excellent journalism in the world, but that is not new. I think that the demise of old forms of media don’t at all mean that journalism will go away.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters?

SV: I suppose I put only myself into my characters—it’s all I have, really. But I very rarely do it directly and I have never “fictionalized” a real person who I know—taken a real person or circumstance and made a story out of it. What happens is, in the course of invention, I draw upon my own experiences, and so I use bits and pieces of people and my past to patch things together.

DF: We’re big fans of the short story here at Writer’s Bone. What drew you to write short stories originally and why do you think this mode of storytelling is so compelling to readers?

SV: I loved Flannery O’Connor in high school, and Raymond Carver a short while after that. Both made me want to write stories myself. I think there’s something about the compressed impact a great story can have—such potency and such brevity—that I simply want to keep trying to write a great one.

DF: Your collection of short stories “Godforsaken Idaho” has garnered positive reviews since its release in April 2013. How did you go about compiling the stories you wanted to include?

SV: I looked at the stories I had published that I thought were the strongest, and then tried to consider how, or whether, they fit together. Several of my stories have Mormon elements in them, and that became a unifying thread. Ultimately, I organized the stories to move backward in time – from a future afterlife to a fictionalized story about the founder of the Mormon Church in the 1800s. The stories are loosely connected and organized. I want it to feel unified, but it stops well short of a strongly linked collection like Jesus Son or Olive Kittredge.

DF: Having never been to Idaho, what, if anything, do I need to know about the state before I dive into “Godforsaken Idaho?”

SV: For one thing, the Idaho of the book and the title is not the Idaho. It’s not my comment on the state; it’s meant to convey two elements of the book: a sense of existential isolation of many of the characters, and the surreal or extreme types of things that are included, whether it’s an afterlife or a haunting.

DF: When you finished “Godforsaken Idaho,” did you know you had something good right away and how did you go about getting it published?

SV: I never know if I have anything good. I still wish I could revise some things in the stories. The book was published by the more or less traditional route. I got an agent, who submitted the book to publishers, and she persuaded one of them to bite.

DF: What’s next for you following the success of “Godforsaken Idaho?”

SV: I’m trying to write a novel.

DF: What advice would you give to up-and-coming writers?

SV: A lot of very mundane things. Read and write a lot. Work hard. Do not wait around for inspiration—inspiration comes more often when you’re working than when you’re waiting. If you find yourself stuck or blocked, allow yourself to write lines of nonsense, to invent ridiculous scenarios, to write something very, very bad. Lower your standards to get yourself moving, and then raise them again in editing and revision. Find writers you can share your work with and share honest critiques with.

DF: Can you tell us one random fact about yourself?

SV: I stopped having anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared on the final day of class as a student, and started having anxiety dreams about showing up unprepared for the first day of class as the instructor.

To learn more about Shawn Vestal, visit his official website, like his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter @vestal13.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive