Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Lee Upton on Obsession, Denial, and No-Guilt Naps

In the 11th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Lee Upton, author of Visitations (Louisiana State University Press), answers a few questions.

When was the first time you wrote an explicit sex scene?
That hasn’t happened yet…. I have that to look forward to…if I become an entirely different person.

What emotional states interest you as a writer?
Obsession. For example: In Visitations, a woman in the story “A Stalker” says of her obsession with a man who had once loved her: “Being wanted—it was like a worm delivers a drug right into your bloodstream. Then you’re unwanted, but the worm wants more.”

Another emotional state that interests me: Denial. In another story in Visitations, “Gods and Goddesses in Art and Legend,” a character attempts to numb her grief: “People paid too much attention to what passed for romantic love. It was sentimental, overwrought. Hyperbolic. In the end, it wasn’t profound. No, it was only regrettable, not tragic or even sad. Still, people shot each other in the head because of it.”

Are the stories in Visitations united in any way?
Yes. Many pivot, at some level, around the subject of books. About over-valuing a book and undervaluing one’s own experiences. Or undervaluing books. How myths and fairy tales and early childhood reading contour an entire adult life. Why it would be such a pleasure to join the world’s laziest book club. The crevices inside books from which we can pull fresh meaning.

What habit do you recommend for other writers?
Napping. I used to work full-time at a credit agency and struggled to stay awake. I worked my way up to eight cups of coffee a day, and I was still sleepy. I remember how desperately I didn’t want to be exhausted after work so that I could write. When the weekend arrived I was so tired that I fell asleep in the afternoon with my papers and books around me on the fold-out couch in my studio apartment. My exhaustion might have come from not only working hard and being bored while I worked, but from loneliness. Loneliness is exhausting.

The thing was, when I woke up from that first nap on my first Saturday of my first week at the credit agency, I began to write with great concentration—as if words had been assembling themselves while I slept. It was like that fairytale, a touchstone for so many writers who rely on the unconscious: “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” While the shoemaker sleeps the elves cobble shoes for him. Later I made friends, moved into a house with roommates, met others who wanted to be writers, and wept with gratitude for my new life. Those naps had helped me, but I no longer needed them as much.

Napping: sometimes a surreal experience
I’ve had children—and so like anyone else who has raised a child, I know about standing exhaustion and what a privilege it is to nap. Now, usually, I can’t nap often—because of other responsibilities. But a while back, after a series of small crises, I went to bed in the late morning and napped. After I woke up, within two hours, I napped again, and then I napped yet again. I napped so much that I dreamed I was napping. In the dream I kept telling myself “Wake Up! You’re napping too much!”

I hadn’t wanted to nap; I wanted to write instead. When at last I woke I experienced what I’d felt all those years ago: the softening of boundaries, the sense that I could easily slip through a portal into intense concentration. As if the elves had been cobbling for me. I need to find ways to nap more often.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I’m going to answer the question by asking another: How do I know when a story begins? I tend to write long fiction that needs to shrink. Often that requires deleting many pages of false beginnings and frumpy middles. When I find the true beginning I can work toward the true ending. One encloses the other, in embryonic form. There has to be a sense of movement too, a sense of the tactile. You know how a card shark can shuffle cards and the cards, splayed out, are then snapped back into one stack? That’s how it doesn’t feel, although I’d like it to feel, at the moment when a story is finished.

Where do you get your ideas?
Often I’ve heard this question referred to in terms of frustration—sometimes with a clever put down from the writer to the questioner.

Why does the question elicit such derision?

Because stories are not “ideas”? (Yet stories can’t escape ideas, and even slippery stories foster ideas.) Because there is no physical space from which the author retrieves stories? (Yet we speak of scene “building,” and aren’t we often indebted to spatial metaphors?) Or is it because some writers guard jealously their sources of inspiration? Or because the question might suggest that writing is merely a matter of finding a premise and, as such, the question downplays the diligence, discipline, intuition, and luck that writing a story requires?

But, really, the question is a compliment—you have ideas! Writing—it’s like nailing clouds. Where do you get your hammer?

I love the question even if it is largely unanswerable. It humbles us and elevates the craft. Here’s the best I can do: I get my ideas from missed connections, things that turn my stomach (oh rich source: shame, linking us all as social creatures), the chasm between what we’re supposed to feel and what we actually feel, incongruities (especially comic incongruities), the urge to reflect the dignity of those who are ignored or neglected and treated unjustly, the wish to illuminate what might be called the inner life in a way that may have a bearing on a reader’s life. Moments of gratitude and love unearned but desperately needed. And, often, affection for the stories I grew up with and the urge to pay homage to their self-renewing, thorny, perennial mysteries.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Tim Weed and the Ecstasy of Influence

In the 10th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Tim Weed, author of A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing (Green Writers Press), discusses eleven books that have inspired his writing.

Which books inspired you the most? Which authors have been your role models? I’ve been surprised by how difficult questions of influence are to answer. Even easy questions such as, “What was the best book you read in the past year?” may cause an embarrassingly long silence as I rack my brain. Putting together an accurate top-ten life list would probably take me a week of thumbing through overstuffed bookshelves—likely supplemented by visits to various online book outfits for memory-jogging summaries and reviews.

It’s just so hard to say. There are so many great works of fiction. It’s difficult to narrow the ones I’ve read down to a list of favorites—harder still to speculate about which authors have had the greatest influence over one’s work as a writer. I like the analogy of books as fossil fuel: lush vegetation trampled down in an ancient epoch only to bubble up years later in a spontaneous wellspring of newborn prose. Who can say whether that font of bubblin’ crude, that metamorphosed Texas tea, was once a royal palm or a tree fern?

Still, I’m going to give it a try. So here are eleven books that have most influenced me as a fiction writer (I tried for ten but just couldn’t squeeze 'em in):

Looking back on these books, and thinking about the reasons they have stuck in my mind, I think of irresistible characters, high stakes, and immersive storyworlds. I think of Tolkien’s wondrous Middle Earth, of LeGuin’s bold reimagining of human sexual dynamics, and of the unforgettable sunlit intimacy of Renault’s mythohistorical vision. I think of the limpid, merciless clarity of Paul Bowles’ exotic tales, and of the storytelling genius of Robert Stone and Edith Wharton: the relentlessness of her ratcheting tension and the pitiless journeys their protagonists must undertake. I think of the profoundly affirmative versions of human consciousnesses passing through rich sensory worlds painted by Jim Harrison, John Cheever, and Larry McMurtry. And, especially with Cormac McCarthy and Peter Carey, I think of the sublime possibilities of language. Its sheer, terrible beauty.

I note somewhat sheepishly, that only two of these books are story collections (three if you include novellas). The truth is, while as both a reader and a writer I love short fiction, I’ve been more influenced by novels, possibly because the form allows for a more profound immersion in the storyworld—or, if you prefer, for a more intense and long-lasting measure of escapism. I use the latter word intending none of the negative connotations often associated with it.

The poet David Baker once said that all poetry can be divided into two categories, the ironic and the ecstatic. If we assume a continuum rather than a dichotomy, I think the same can be said of fiction. The Greek origin of the word ecstasy is “ekstasis,” meaning “to be or stand outside oneself.” Ecstasy is transcendent, implying a state of trance, vision, or dream. Irony, on the other end of the continuum, is social, worldly, and rooted in the intellect. Irony is essential in literature of course, as an antidote to sentimentality. But for me, the best-remembered fiction—the work that sticks with me long after I’ve put it down—is to be found on the ecstatic end of the continuum. The kind of story where one forgets all about those black marks on the page and enters the narrative as one would enter a trance, a vision, or a dream.

At various times and in various ways, all of these authors have done that for me. It is a gift for which I owe them a lifetime of gratitude. And I hold out the cautious hope that I can, therefore, claim them as influences.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Describe Your Reading Habits: An Interview with Deb Olin Unferth

In the ninth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Deb Olin Unferth, author of Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press), answers questions about what and how she reads.

Unferth: Well, I have a fairly complex system for reading. This may surprise you to learn, but I keep a list of every book I’ve read or listened to for thirteen years now. I also count every hour I read.

Unferth: No, alas, half-read books do not count as read books. If I read a few stories from a volume, I don’t get to list it as a book I’ve read. I have to read all the stories. If a book is incredibly long and I only make it three-quarters through, too bad for me. In December I am often hurrying through a few books I tossed aside months before in order to make my goal by the December 31 deadline.

Unferth: I never reach my annual goal. Or I should say I have never reached my annual goal. I may yet.

Unferth: Yes, well, I have other goals, rules, and suggested guidelines for reading too.

Unferth: A guideline is different from a rule in that I don’t absolutely have to follow it. There is some flexibility there. For example, I keep the books I’ve read separated from the ones I haven’t read. That part is a hard and fast rule. The guideline part is that if I haven’t read a book, it’s not supposed to go on my nice bookshelves in my office. It’s supposed to go out on one of the hallway bookshelves. But that part is merely a guideline, you see, because I do have books on my office shelves that I haven’t fully read, only I keep them on a different shelf. These are dictionaries, reference books.
Pictured: (left) an Unferth office bookshelf,
(right) a pile of rule-satisfying books

Unferth: Sure, some people read whole dictionaries.

Unferth: I do have a dictionary system, but that’s a different topic. Beyond our scope here.

Unferth: Yes, I count audiobooks as books I’ve read, though they don’t go on a shelf, but I am nervous about it. I had never thought much about it until my colleague, Lisa Olstein, pointed out to me that I do not read the audiobooks, but rather they are read to me. It was a good point, and disturbing, but I have not stopped counting them.

Unferth: Yes, I did say that I also count the number of hours I read. And I count the number of hours I write. And the number of hours I exercise, do school work, volunteer, clean, and several other activities. I keep it all arranged in Word docs and I keep printouts on my desk in a folder. I review it every day.

Unferth: Correct. Every day I read over how many hours I’ve read since 2004.

Unferth: Correct. And how many hours I’ve cleaned.

Unferth: In all recorded categories I’ve gotten a little worse as I’ve grown older.

Unferth: Well, I feel a bit foolish to reveal all the rules on my list of rules for reading. I will say that I have two rules designed to keep me from reading more than 25% white men. That percentage has lowered by about 5% per year for many years. Other rules have to do with when books are written (it’s easy to be too contemporary top-heavy), what kind of books they are (I have several categories and subcategories here), and rereads (I require myself to reread a certain number of books each year—I believe there’s value in it).

Unferth: Absolutely it’s confusing. I spend a significant amount of time arranging piles of books and figuring out which requirements they fill.

Unferth: No, not enough time that it warrants its own category but enough time that I sometimes feel like I should be getting “credit” for it in some category or other, though I’m not sure which.

Unferth: Don’t be cute. There is no “waste of time” category. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Siel Ju and the Suitable State of Mind

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Siel Ju, author of Cake Time (Red Hen Press), discusses her writing and reading habits.

What influenced you to become a writer?
I feel like my becoming a writer has happened through a series of serendipitous accidents—and perhaps some laziness. For example, I decided on English writing as my major simply because I had the most AP credits in that subject going into college. Then I decided to go to grad school mainly because learning seemed preferable to working a "regular job"—and I applied to writing programs since that was what my major was in.

Of course writing is something I've done and enjoyed since I was young age—which explains to some extent why I had the AP credits and how I got into grad school. But honestly, when I look back not only on this but most other aspects of my life, chance and circumstance seem to have played a bigger role than anything else.

Describe your writing habits.
My habits vary quite a bit depending on what else is going on in my life. Right now, with promoting Cake Time while also considering a day job shift, I write fiction just an hour a day, between 1 pm to 2 pm. I used to think I wrote my best fiction first thing in the morning and so for many years always tried to write then—but I've chilled out on that a bit. Hopefully my writing hasn't suffered; I'm not the best judge of it at this point.

The only real constant with my writing habit is the sense that I could and should be writing more, and faster too. I feel I spend about as much time worrying about my writing than as I do actually writing—but I'm working on changing that.

Where do you do your best work?
I feel I'm most focused at home, when I write in silence—but this is something else I'm trying to chill out about a bit. I'm kind of at the point where I feel that if I'm less rigid about what I believe to be the perfect, most conducive circumstances of my writing (the where, when, how, with whom, etc.), I'll be more apt to write whenever and wherever more easily and joyfully.

That said, I do most of my writing at home, alone, in silence.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
I have a whole semi-elaborate morning routine. First, I  journal for about 45 minutes—with a green smoothie, then coffee, and then either a smoothie bowl or oatmeal. Then I mediate for 15 minutes (I recommend the Headspace app!). Then I do some type of movement—lately, yoga—to get the blood moving. After that, I can sit down to write.
Morning routine: Drink of green

I'm actually not sure that these practices are specifically about getting into a state of mind to write. Even if I didn't write, I'm pretty sure I'd need to do these things to be in a suitable state of mind to live.

Describe your reading habits.
Thinking about my reading habits brings up a lot of emotions for me; I do enough of it that I go through periods where I actually worry my excessive reading is a sign of something, I don't know, bad. Reading's such a calming activity—and one that feels vaguely productive, too, while being simple and easy—so I find it very addictive. I'm often tempted to read instead of write, which is a real issue, if you're working on a novel.

Right now, I'm more or less a full time writer—and once in a while, all I'll do in terms of "work" in a day is read—then I'll go out to socialize in the evening. Those are the days when I worry a bit about what exactly I'm doing with my life. The days are fun, but a bit unanchored, basically.

Other times I feel like all the reading's fine. I mean, what else am I going to do with the time I get to spend at home? Watch TV? Raise kids?! Reading seems a lot more rewarding and pleasurable. I keep a reading journal of sorts on Instagram, and I'm part of a handful of book clubs ,and I love all of it. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Reflections on the Tin House Summer Workshop: “An Amazing Display of How Many Ways You Can Do This”

By Drew Ciccolo
Reed College, Portland, OR
July 2017

Rapt attention: Workshop participants
On July 9, along with upwards of 250 other odd ducks, I arrived in Portland, Oregon, for the 15th annual Tin House Summer Workshop (THSW). In a packed Reed College lecture hall, the magazine’s editor and co-founder, Rob Spillman, reminded us that all writing is political and to take care of ourselves over the course of the next week before introducing the workshop’s hard-working director, Lance Cleland, who bears a strong resemblance to the late actor River Phoenix.

Lance is frequently likened to a ship’s captain, and in his welcome speech, he joked that some of us might be thrown overboard, that we only had so much food. He also characterized his relationship to the workshop as a marriage, and since it was his seventh year as director, he said he’d felt compelled to spice the marriage up this year by role-playing with our manuscripts. But what I found most interesting was his elucidation of the Tin House aesthetic, which informed the difficult choices made while culling the 212 participants from a record-number of applicants (just over 1300, if I heard correctly), as well as the selection of faculty. Briefly, this aesthetic might be defined as one focusing on writers who exemplify the idea that there are a multitude of ways to write compelling work that demonstrates a spirit of generosity. He urged us to help shepherd others in our workshops down the path they want to forge, not the path we think the market may dictate or a path we might, for whatever reason, be tempted to impose on their work, to be kind to one another, to be critical of the work and not the person, and to let everyone in the room have a voice.

The Workshop

The short fiction faculty this year was comprised of Aimee BenderAnthony Doerr (whose collection Memory Wall won the 2010 Story Prize), Danielle Evans, Manuel Gonzales, Kelly Link, Jim Shepard (whose collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway won the 2007 Story Prize), and Claire Vaye Watkins (whose collection Battleborn won the 2012 Story Prize). When a writer applies to THSW, they’re asked for their top four preferences. Though I’d read and liked stories by almost all these writers and had a hard time ranking my preferences, putting Manuel Gonzales at the top turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent memory.

Workshop pilot Manuel Gonzales (green cap)
and the eclectic dozen (Drew in red cap).
In line with the Tin House aesthetic, our workshop consisted of an eclectic dozen, including: a tax accountant with five graduate degrees living in Chattanooga; a Pakistani journalist and fiction writer who now lives in Dubai; a woman from Salt Lake City who now lives in Maui (with goats); a writer, playwright, theatrical director, and producer living in LA; and a woman born in Thailand and raised in Hong Kong who now lives and teaches in San Francisco. Ages ranged from early-twenties to early-forties. Some had MFAs and some didn’t. We quickly developed a strong sense of camaraderie, in large part because Manuel—a wry, easygoing bear cub of a man whose voice reminds me of Jerry Garcia’s—created a warm, down-to-earth, frequently funny atmosphere.

On the plane to Portland, I read a story of his, called “Pilot, Copilot, Writer,” about passengers on a plane that’s been circling the Dallas/Fort Worth airport “at an altitude of between seven thousand and ten thousand feet for, according to [their] best estimates, around twenty years,” which, along with other stories in his debut 2013 collection, The Miniature Wife, placed him high in my pantheon of great speculative fiction writers. Most of us in his workshop submitted speculative stories—to wit, five dystopian stories (three of them post-apocalyptic), a story containing a portal to another world, a ghost story, a story narrated by a woman with wings, and a story in which the narrator inadvertently kills a gnome.

Over the course of the week, we delved into a slew of craft considerations. Among the topics we discussed were:

•  Methods of inspiring a reader to suspend disbelief, taking care not to cause a reader to ask superfluous or distracting questions about the story-world; 
•  How a reader can feel satisfaction when a narrator brings up the very doubt the reader is harboring;
•  The idea that if a conceit or phenomenon in a story is far-fetched, there doesn’t necessarily need to be an answer as to why what’s occurring is occurring, but a character or characters should, generally speaking, have questions akin to those a reader would have;
•  The relationship between a given character’s level of self-awareness (especially in terms of how s/he comes across to others) and a reader’s inclination to sympathize with said character;
•  How the oldest story can be opened up in a different way and made new when it’s being processed through eyes that are not our eyes;
•  Using a negation of normal reality or an unreal proxy—like the protagonist’s interaction with his father’s ghost in Ethan Rutherford’s “The Peripatetic Coffin,” or a meditative dying moment like the one in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain”—to trick your reader into believing they’re in a situation that allows you to just “come right out and say the shit you want to say” and not have to rely on metaphor or subtext;
•  How it can be a good idea to be sappy and over-the-top in terms of emotion and sentimentality in a first draft, then pull those elements back in future drafts, which is usually easier than going back in and injecting emotion and sentimentality later;
•  Raising your freak flag and raising it high by digging right into any bizarre conceit(s) or phenomena at the beginning of the story; and
•  Not being afraid to ask a lot of fundamental “what ifs” during revision, e.g. “Instead of [this], what if [that]?” (this advice came from Manuel via Ramona Ausubel’s fall 2015 craft lecture at the Institute of American Indian Arts).

We also talked about putting together story collections with overarching narratives, so that they’re cohesive collections as opposed to The Collected Works of [You, Me, Whoever]. 

Craft Lectures

In “This Lecture is Like a Smoldering Rabbit,” Anthony Doerr, who’s become concerned of late that similes have fallen out of favor, energetically sought to “examine the power of similes, study a few good ones, marshal a defense of them and, by association, their more capacious kinfolk, metaphors, by suggesting that they present to us as writers a unique superpower, a superpower of connectivity that, when used well, like all superpowers, might just save the world.” He began by citing Frank Jenners Wilstach’s A Dictionary of Similes (1916), the 540 pages of which contain “thousands of unattributed, folksy, weird, and futilely sexist similes” (“quiet as a woman the first day-and-a-half she’s married” inspired quite a ruckus), to show that “language, like biology, is subject to the forces of natural selection,” that “the fashion for combining certain words in certain combinations comes and goes and no cliché is a cliché forever.” So, even hackneyed “analogies such as ‘cold as ice’ or ‘busy as a bee,’” Doerr explained, “given enough time, perhaps after the polar ice caps have melted and the bees have gone extinct, might become fresh and interesting once more in the way that, say, ‘bright as saucepans’ or ‘hot as the hinges of hell’ probably sound more strange and interesting to our contemporary ears than they did to Wilstach’s readers a century ago.”
Anthony Doerr talking about simile
like someone with a point to make

Doerr also provided us with a couple of honorable mentions from The Washington Post’s twice-run painfully bad analogy contest:

“McBride fell twelve stories and landed like a Hefty bag full of vegetable soup.”

“She walked into my office like a centipede with 98 missing legs.”

Doerr went on to discuss the use of simile and metaphor in the Iliad, T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and George SaundersLincoln in the Bardo.

One of the biggest highlights, though, for me, was an analysis of two similes in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (which uses nine of them in total, each brilliant). Doerr focused on four images of the woods, the second and the third of which are similes, in order to show that they do an immense amount of work (in very few words) and substantially affect the way the final, simile-free image of the woods functions. The first image of the woods (simile-free) alongside the road the grandmother and her family are stranded on comes just before the car carrying The Misfit and his accomplices appears: the woods are “tall and dark and deep.” A little later, after The Misfit and Co. have arrived and as the family sits vulnerable in the ditch, O’Connor, as Doerr put it, “smacks us with her biggest simile so far”:

“Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” 

For Doerr, what this simile “allows O’Connor to do is open a second eyeball in our mind—an open mouth overlays the woods, and now the threat that surrounds the grandmother and her family and surrounds us as readers is both amplified and complicated.” At this moment, he explained, “O’Connor needs us to see a line of trees but she also needs the trees to become more than trees; she needs us to see the woods while simultaneously seeing something darker, something more chilling, something that devours.” Two pages later, after Bailey Boy has been taken into the woods and two gunshots are heard, “just in case the first simile has started to fade from our attention,” Doerr explained, “O’Connor invokes the magic again—again she starts with the trees (a) and ends with the body (b)”:

“She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath.”

“For a second time,” Doerr noted here, “trees (a), become linked to something strange (b),” and  “through the magic of simile, the connection is buttressed.” Nature, he enthusiastically continued, “is activated, the woods come further to life—they’re insucking, they’re salivating, they’re gonna eat the whole family,” and “weirdly, the woods and the devouring mouth become of the same kind,” so that “by the time O’Connor again allows the woods their own sentence…

‘There was nothing around her but woods.’

… she no longer even needs the simile at all. In the system of imagery O’Connor has built in our mind,” Doerr concluded, “the woods have already become far more than woods—they’ve become oblivion.”

Aimee Bender gave what may have been the most ambitious of the lectures I attended: “Pace, Suspense, Locomotion: What Makes Something Move on a Page?” In this talk Bender ruminated on how certain writers work with pacing and gave some helpful tips on how to most effectively pace a narrative—essentially, she sought to de-abstract the idea of pace, and, to my mind, she succeeded brilliantly.

In “In Particular, the Universal,” Manuel Gonzales contrasted contrasted the lyrics, all vague and abstract, of a popular song from 2013 with the poem “A Woman with No Legs” by Natalie Diaz, one of the poetry faculty at THSW, in order to show that a writer must earn abstraction by first digging down into the concrete particulars of a given narrative. At some point in the lecture, maybe during the Q&A, he also offered the following wisdom: “Write better shit.”

In “Structure Where You Least Expect It,” Jim Shepard opened up his late friend Denis Johnson’s short story “Emergency” by giving it an awe-inspiring close read, contrasting Fuckhead and Georgie by tracking their dreams of themselves and their probable realities, then showing, having broken the story into distinct sections, that the nuanced disruptions of linear chronology in the story have huge implications.

Closing Thoughts

Reed College: Seeing the light
By the time July 9th rolled around, I was already feeling a good deal of apathy toward the story I submitted to be workshopped. On the second or third day, though, I was walking back to campus from Safeway when I had a revelation concerning how I want to approach my writing going forward. This revelation, which has to do with voice and form (I’ve got plenty of content in my head already), shook loose for myriad reasons and had been, I think, a long time coming, but reading stories by Manuel Gonzales and workshopping with him was what finally sent it over the transom into my conscious mind. It seems to me this is the sort of thing that spending a full week thinking about and discussing the craft of writing can bring about, a fresh take on one’s own work, and though the revelation I had is difficult to communicate, of all that happened during my week at THSW, it’s what I’m most grateful for.  

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Samrat Upadhyay: Doctor or Engineer? Neither!

In the seventh in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Samrat Upadhyay, author of Mad Country (Soho Press), discusses his journey from Nepal to America and from studying business management to establishing a writing career.

When I visited Nepal in 1987 after completing my B.A. from the College of Wooster in Ohio, a cousin of mine scrunched her nose, as though I’d brought back disagreeable smells, and said, “You went all the way to America and didn’t study something technical?” What she really meant was that I hadn’t chosen a lucrative academic subject, despite studying in such a lucrative country. I sputtered and stammered, and couldn’t manage to convince her that studying English literature was something I wanted to do, that it was a move born of pure love—love of language, of Dickens, and Michener, and Rushdie. The disappointment in her face deepened, and I left the encounter slightly miffed at myself for being such a dunderhead that I’d wasted time writing papers on George Bernard Shaw and penning tiny, awful poems in my first creative writing class at Wooster when I could have been doing something, well, technical. But my self-flagellation didn’t last long, and vanished by the time I boarded the plane back to Ohio, where I commenced on a year-long internship at the college’s news services, where, for a pitiful stipend that barely paid my rent, I wrote feature articles profiling the college baseball team or Ohio Light Opera.

I came to America in 1984 to study business management. At that time I couldn’t even conceptualize a career in literature or writing, even though I was already deeply in love with books and the wonderful worlds they opened in my mind. During my first semester in the U.S., all it took was an accounting class, in which I was bored to tears and in which I failed miserably, for me to know that I didn’t have a management bone in my body. I drifted toward literature classes, and I never stopped.
The author receiving a blessing from his mother
before journeying to America in 1984

But the going wasn’t so easy. My early years in America were marked with money problems. During my first summer in 1984, I took a Greyhound bus to Midland, Texas, where an uncle had kindly offered me room and food while I worked. I found work in a fast food place called Grandma’s Chicken. Having grown up in a middle class Brahmin family in Nepal, I had never worked before, had not even done chores around the house. Throughout my childhood, my parents had emphasized education, and there was always a hired help at home to do the cooking and cleaning, even though my family wasn’t wealthy by any means. Yet I hadn’t, as they say in Nepal, “lifted a filament” my whole life, and here I was, thrown into the working world of America.

Since I had no transportation in Midland, I used to walk a mile or so in the Texas heat, in my work uniform, to Grandma’s Chicken. I never got used to my job in all those three months. I frequently over-fried the chicken, I got the wrong items from the walk-in freezer, I confused the orders. One day I was asked to mop the floor. I’d never mopped anything in my life, so instead of using the wringer to squeeze the mop, I clumsily used my hands, which drew much mirth from my coworkers. I was a slow learner. I was often yelled at by the manager, whose patience I taxed with my ineptitude. Sometimes I didn’t understand the heavy Texan accent, which led to even more confusion or laughter.

Now, years later, I still see myself: walking to work in that incredible heat, wiping sweat off my forehead, dreading the faces of my manager and coworkers, jeered at by teenagers in passing cars—wondering if this was my fate in America.

Although I was on a generous scholarship at Wooster, I still struggled to pay the remaining few thousand dollars that I owed the college. I worked hard at the cafeteria, turning into a superfast dishwasher who washed, rinsed, and stacked dishes before they gorged the end of the conveyer belt. I rose rapidly through the ranks of the food services, was promoted to a vest-wearing Student Supervisor. One semester I worked close to forty hours a week while taking five courses; I remember sitting in my classrooms, bleary-eyed, my clothes splattered with food particles and my body reeking of the dish room. Notwithstanding my hard work, my financial troubles hounded me. I was a frequent visitor to the admissions office, where I begged and pleaded with the officials to allow me to enroll in classes for the following semester despite being in arrears. My fiscal woes followed me to Ohio University, where, although on a graduate assistantship at its Scripps Journalism School, I still struggled. I recall the day when a few of us international students emptied our pockets, collected enough pennies to buy one packet of Ramen, and made a large pot of watery noodle soup, which we slurped as we recited Lao Tzu.

But throughout this time, I never regretted my pursuit of literature. Not once did it occur to me to switch to an academic career that would eventually, and literally, pay off. In dormitory conversations, some of my friends, especially those from South Asia, discussed the kinds of professions that’d make them the most money. They never spoke of what excited them; they never spoke of their obsessions, their fervor. I felt alienated from this type of thinking, even though it was something I had grown up with in Nepal. During my childhood, all I heard from my elders was, “Doctor banney key engineer banney?” Now, those Ohioan days of mental anguish seem far away, and I don’t know why I had to suffer for so many years. What I do know is that I’m glad I didn’t allow anyone else’s notions of prestige and profitability to decide my career for me. Now I am professionally engaged in doing two things I love the most— writing and teaching.

I recount this story as a way of illustrating what I found in America: a generosity of knowledge. More precisely, it was the liberal arts education that opened up its arms and allowed me to find my calling. One question that I get asked now often when I give talks in Nepal is: would you have been a writer had you not left Nepal? And the answer to that question is: I don’t know. What I do know is that it was America’s openness, its encouragement of inquiry and experimentation, that became my lodestar.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Scott Loring Sanders Pulls Flotsam from the Ether

In the sixth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Scott Loring Sanders, author of Shooting Creek (Down & Out Books), discusses how he comes up with and develops story ideas.

Usually, the first spark of a story for me begins with a random question that mysteriously pops into my head. Almost always that question begins with, "What if?" followed by some dark situation where I throw a character into a difficult scenario. I tend to work outward from there. What I’m most interested in when writing stories are the ethical and moral implications of a character’s actions and decisions. I also generally have my characters do the opposite of what I would do.

For example, if I was walking through the woods and happened upon a dead body, my first inclination would be to call the police. I’m assuming that would be the natural response from most people. Which is fine and good and respectable. But it’s not overly interesting. What is interesting, however, is the person whose first instinct is to not call the police. Why? What must have happened in their past to not report it? And then, “what if” the character goes a few steps farther? What if they proceed to hide the body? Or steal from the body? Or crazier yet, what if they take the body with them? See, now I want to go write that story! So that’s often how it begins for me. A character is faced with some sort of serious dilemma, and then they react in a way that is surprising and not expected. But there is always a plausible reason for their actions/reactions. And if I do my job correctly, the reader will fully buy-in with that reasoning. They might not agree with it, but at least they can understand it.

Hidden body? The woods
A lot of those scenarios appear in my head when I’m exercising, often while riding my bike or walking my dog or maybe hiking through the woods (minus the dead bodies—see above!). I do a lot of my best thinking that way, and that’s where I mentally work through plot and/or generate ideas for stories.  It’s not a conscious decision, by the way. Ideas randomly pop in from who knows where. That’s part of the magic of writing, something I’ve just accepted and no longer try to explain or understand. Ideas pop in, ideas pop out. If you think about it (whether you are a writer or not), how many ideas and thoughts go through your brain on any given day? Hundreds? Thousands? Over the years, I’ve trained myself to recognize particularly intriguing ideas, and if one really grabs my attention, I write it down. Or, these days, I speak it into my iPhone using my Notes app. I might not ever return to the idea, or I might come across it years later and start writing about it. I’ve definitely written stories (or novels, even) that began with one random note scratched down from years ago, and for whatever reason, it kept nagging at me, like an itch that just wouldn’t go away.

So who knows?  It’s all a mystery to me, but that’s what’s so fun about it, too. Pulling flotsam from the literary ether, then attempting to create a story that is both entertaining as well as thought provoking. Ultimately, my goal is to somehow turn it into art, into literature, into entertainment, in one form or another. And preferably, if all goes according to plan, into a combination of all three.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Adam O'Riordan and the Impulse to Write Prose

In the fifth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Adam O'Riordan, author of The Burning Ground (W.W. Norton & Company), discusses what led him from poetry to fiction and how he approaches his work.

What influenced you to a write short fiction?
Spending time in America—in New York and then Los Angeles—is what moved me from writing poetry, which is where I began, into writing prose. The plurality of the place, the patent sense of possibility, the promise of it and the way in which promises are broken there all conspired to make me into a writer of prose. And glad I am they did.

Describe your writing habits.
I try to write on the majority of working days, so three days writing in any given week will be a good week for me. If something is going well, I’ll write on weekends, too, both Saturday and Sunday. I usually write for around three hours and always in the morning, from about 9 a.m. after coffee until 12 p.m. when I start to want to eat lunch. If something is going really well, I’ll write again in the evening from 6 p.m. until 9 p.m. or from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. For me, it’s about getting runs of days together. That’s when things start to happen.

Where do you do your best work?
SoCal beach: Running into ideas
Without exception, my clearest ideas have come to me while running along the stretch of sand from Venice Beach to the Santa Monica pier; the mixture of sunlight, sea air, the vast space out to sea and big crowds nearby on the boardwalk. Though these days, it is only an annual or biannual pleasure at best. Here in Manchester, England, where I live, I write between a number of places: my apartment in an old cotton mill in the center of the city, the Portico Library, and Central Library. More and more these days, I write in the lobby or the bar of the Principal Hotel, another grand Edwardian building from when the city was in its pomp—lots of space and friendly waiters and waitresses. I like to arrive early as the guests are finishing breakfast and be on the edge of that sleepy, pleasantly displaced and transient energy that always seems so full of potential.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written.
"The Dead" by James Joyce, the final story in his collection Dubliners. A story so full of rich life and sadness, so grounded in the detail and lived experience of a place, yet rising above and beyond it right out into the eternal.

Where does a story begin for you? 
With an urge, sometimes in the form of an image or a phrase, sometimes in the form of a voice, a voice that might be trying to work something out or arrive at some form of clarity about something, after which comes, on my part, a desire at first to hear it or, if it’s an image, see it as clearly as I can and then to elaborate on it, to invent and to embroider. To take a good look around the life that I’ve found.

How do you know when a story is finished?
I think it’s perhaps a question of density—at the end of the story when it’s done, I’ll be feeling denser or lighter depending on the kind of story it is. I suppose by the end I’m often feeling sadder too.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
Listening to music is often a good preparative; physical, mental, and spiritual in one. Philip Glass or Max Richter, things like William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops hitting that same note of trance-like melancholy over and over, which you notice and then don’t notice.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Little by little, day by day. A few minutes at a time at first, until it takes again and some sort of rhythm is rediscovered and you ride it for as long as you can until life usually intervenes and then it's back to getting going again.

Describe an idea that you want to write or return to that you haven’t quite figured out yet.
Autumn, 1934, a shy man, careworn and a little run to fat, somewhere in late middle age, named Wallace, is driving a Chevrolet Open Tourer he has rebuilt from scrap, from Caddo, Oklahoma, to the Great Lakes. He is looking for his father.

Describe your reading habits.
I try, whenever I can, to give an hour from any given day over to reading, usually in the late afternoon —and sometimes at night for twenty minutes or so I’ll read aloud or I will be read to—I think this is probably the most intimate form of luxury known to man.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Katherine Vaz on Taking Notes and Making Box Art

In the fourth in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Katherine Vaz, author of The Love Life of an Assistant Animator (Tailwinds Press), discusses the importance of jotting things down and also finding nonverbal means of expression.

When my father was dying, I moved from New York to my native California, the Bay Area, to be with him alongside my mother and five siblings. I ended up writing a story about him published recently in Guernica, and it reminded of the strange route I took to get it from my heart—and bones and nerves—onto pages.

As writers, we often cling to process and result. I use the Pomodoro Technique happily. But spelling things out in the throes of loss felt distasteful, even if I could have borne it; I needed to spend as much pure time with him as I could, though I also wanted to jot down what happened, knowing my foggy mind might obscure it later. I kept the sort of record Joan Didion talked about in her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” which to her could mean a box with flotsam tossed in. A magpie’s nest, I think she called it. My result was all shorthand:

choc Guin pur/38 m
ao lado!

And so on. Dropping these desiccated word-tablets in water later would yield: On St. Patrick’s Day, I fed him puréed chocolate Guinness cake, and it took thirty-eight minutes. When my mother and I left him in the special dining room for those requiring extra assistance, he yelled, “Don’t leave me! Don’t leave me!” His diagnosis of “aging brain” made me envision his comments as confetti. On a day he improved, the lemon tree in the yard dazzled me, because false hope made it—made everything—seem backlit in neon. When nurses asked what direction he wanted to go, he said, “Ao lado,” and I explained he meant “to the side” in his native Portuguese.
Shadow box: Writing the Lord's Prayer
on a Grain of Rice—A Kit

When he died, on a warm, September afternoon, we were all there as he slipped away, and my fragment was “crying not leave.” To trigger the remembrance of that morning, when he’d sobbed about not wanting to be done with the world.

In a manila envelope that held my scrawls on pieces of paper, on receipts or corners of pastry bags, I also placed a plastic ring off an orange-juice bottle, because while running on the Castro Valley High School track, I asked the universe to send me a hair bow or fastener, a sign that a prayer could be answered, and my lack of glasses produced a joke. I’d thought it was a ponytail tie.

But instead of hammering out sentences—writers can jump too swiftly into Getting This Done—I switched gears because I believe writers should explore directing their senses toward actions that plumb toward painful subjects, toward emotions that roar in protest if funneled too soon into the practical, obedient service of words. I’ve always done box-art, thanks to my adoration of Joseph Cornell and my father’s constant painting. He always delighted in a language of color.

Box-art deals in the blessed relief of abstractions, tints, and juxtaposed forms. In hours-long sessions, never pausing to “think,” I constructed nine boxes about my father. One is called “Writing the Lord’s Prayer on a Grain of Rice—A Kit,” and I have trouble even glancing at it because there’s a picture of him in his last week that nearly destroys me. But that’s one of the few concrete images in this series; the constructions are mostly instinctive and non-photographic. I moved with ease and fervor, producing collages and shadow boxes that magically held together.

And then I took a breath and wrote the story of my father’s death, called “Grief: A Coloring Book.”

Shadow box: Saudade
The artwork was not a sidetrack but a conduit to forcing my sorrow—how I miss him still!—to pool in a groundwater I could siphon upward, into words that connected to—expanded—those cryptic original notes. Writers do well to find off-center, nonverbal, active ways of letting reservoirs collect. His own practice of painting suggested my pathway; find whatever suits your own depth-work. I searched for items to fit the shadow boxes; I went out walking to find what might, for instance, symbolize his love of gardening. It is a lesson we forget at our desks: How vital it is to keep the blood flowing in our veins while we are yet alive; to stretch; to enjoy how non-narrative falls into place, whether with thread and glue or something else. After all, the world uses color and shape to infiltrate our sensibilities that proceed to color and shape our words.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Drawings on Juan Martinez's Office Door

In the third in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Juan Martinez, author of Best Worst American (Small Beer Press), talks about how he rewards himself for getting writing done by allowing himself to draw.

The goal is to cover the entirety of the office door with drawings, but there are rules, the most important of which is that I only get to draw on days I’ve revised or written. The other important rule is that I can only draw on Post-Its.

Also, I’m not allowed to draw anything that’s in any shape way or form related to what I’m writing. I did not know that was a rule until I drew something that was related to what I was writing and—the moment I was done doodling—the part of me in charge of these things knew I had crossed a line, and I crumpled that Post-It and tossed it into the blue “We Recycle” bin that the university supplied me with, and I drew this haunted pantsuit

which was not writing-related but 100% election-anxiety-related. I suppose a lot of the drawings are negotiating some anxiety or other. I drew this dude shortly before having to do a reading:

And I’ve noticed that a lot of my drawings attempt to mess with Chicago’s scale. I had never lived in anything as massive as Chicago before I moved here. So I put the Willis tower in a bag. I drew a blackbird that dwarfed the tower.

Those I can explain. I can also explain this cow:

I drew it on the day a cow broke free from a slaughterhouse and down a St. Louis street. Easy!

But I don’t know why I drew a giraffe driving a tank:

I’m pretty sure I meant to draw a goose driving the tank, and I messed up the neck and thought, Oh well, It’s a giraffe now. But even so. Why a goose? Why a tank?

And why did I want to re-do the Tischbein portrait of Goethe with Goethe as a handsome pig?

I love to draw. I’m not alone. Goethe himself was an inveterate sketcher, as I learned from the Italian Journey. We draw, all of us. You too, I suspect. We mostly draw or scrawl on the margins -- during meetings, maybe. Or maybe when taking notes or waiting for an appointment or as a final desperate measure to stave off boredom once our phone battery dies off and we’re still in the waiting room. We reward ourselves with these little creative acts. We all do it, I’m sure. And we all grow frustrated with our efforts, Goethe included: “I can see clearly what is good and what is even better, but as soon as I try to get it down, it somehow slips through my fingers and I capture, not the truth, but what I am in the habit of capturing.” Don’t we all? Goethe reminds himself of his steady improvement, however, of the power of practice.

The drawings on the office door do serve as a reminder and a tally. All art, all creative work, is built out of accretion and repetition. You do a little bit at a time. You write a scene. You tear a page and try something else. You see what sticks. You do your work for the day. It all adds up, you hope.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Henry Alley Finds Inspiration in His Archives

In the second in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Henry Alley, author of The Dahlia Field (Chelsea Station Editions), explores how going through his files feeds his creative process.

It is as though when beginning a piece, I need to take time off immediately and thrust myself onto the back roads of notebooks, old letters, post cards, family photographs, photostats of old newspapers and even phono albums, tapes, and CDs. I have often thought that a story is what happens when you are thinking about something else. After I start a piece, the main point is, I keep adding to the archive, because the distraction brings on those important, apparently irrelevant details and associated words, moods, and characters. 

When I was a child, my parents gave me a box Kodak camera. I still have the album I kept during that time, from about 1952 to about 1956.  In it, there is a snapshot of the Liberty Theatre in Yakima, Washington.  I took it while I was on one of my father's trips he made as a shoe salesman. In looking at the photo, I remembered seeing It Came from Outer Space at the time, even though the marquee featured another film. Eventually I found the newspaper ads for the film, which I clearly recalled from 1953—Xenomorphs from Another World. There was the thrill of having a boulder come out of the screen and into the row just in front of me. The movie was in 3-D, and was well acted and well made, and the plot, in my mind, began to parallel the one I had in mind for the story. I started to see that the distance-remembering narrator carried with him the sense of being alien to the world of standard male expectations and that the brother of his stepfather had been consumed by them. The narrator finds a reconciliation by switching from his actual father, who has gone mad with the militarism of the times, as well as the scars of World War II, to his new stepfather, who was once harsh and has learned how to be tender.

All this came up while I was doing research during the course of the story, "Girl on Ice," which is in my collection, The Dahlia Field. Once again I found the most important sleuthing happened in the midst of composition. It was like being on a treasure hunt. Eventually, the poster of the film of 1953 led me to look at certain newspapers in that era, ultimately pointing to the work of combat photographer Al Chang, who took the visionary photo of one soldier comforting another during the Korean War, which appears in the collection The Family of Man. The inexpressible tenderness and compassion caught in that photograph also became a kind of road map for how the narrator could work himself out of his conflict with his father and with the American macho that was part of his upbringing.
Korean War photo by Al Chang
One seed from an archive has led to other stories and in one particular case, a novel. I have all my saved letters—those I received and wrote myself—all organized in trays in my study, each tray spanning one to three years. When I was sorting through them one day, I found a letter from my mother written in 1964, when my father had had his first heart attack and was recovering in the hospital. He had been there some time. The letter was in response to my question about what she was doing—in other words how her days went. With decades separating me from that time, I found myself reading with great fascination the description of the life of a woman who had been engulfed for years in the concerns of others but now had something of a private world of her own—sleeping late, writing letters, helping out at the family shoe store, having dinner with friends, doing book-keeping, all while, of course, visiting my father. The recovery, after thirty years, of this disclosure of a realm of a woman newly out on her own prompted me to write my last novel, People Who Work, whose heroine finds, under similar circumstances, a sense of psychic and vocational direction in the late 1960s, as paralleled by her son, who is doing the same by struggling in school and coming out as a gay man. This letter thus inspired me to write about my favorite subject, which permeates The Dahlia Field as well—people who are just getting on their feet, no matter what their age.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sofia Samatar’s Ten Favorite "Quotes" About Writing

In the first in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Sofia Samatar, author of Tender (Small Beer Press), shares some pearls of wisdom.

“For me, it all begins with a notebook: it is the well I dip into for that first clear, cool drink.”
~ Rita Dove

“A writer looking for subject inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all.”
~ Annie Dillard

“As in everything, so in writing I am almost afraid of going too far. What can this be? Why? I restrain myself, as if I were tugging at the reins of a horse which might suddenly bolt and drag me who knows where. I protect myself. Why? For what? For what purpose am I saving myself?”
~ Clarice Lispector

“And why don't you write? Write! Writing is for you, you are for you; your body is yours, take it.”
~ Hélène Cixous

“I shall not finish my poem.
What I have written is so sweet
The flies are beginning to torment me.”
~ Hafez

“God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draft—nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!”
~ Herman Melville

“I’m always astonished whenever I finish anything. Astonished and depressed. My desire for perfection should prevent me from ever finishing anything; it should prevent me even from starting... This book represents my cowardice.”
~ Fernando Pessoa

“I write only for my shadow projected by the lamp onto the wall. I need to introduce myself to it.”
~ Sadeq Hedayat

“Writing is my health.”
~ Sylvia Plath

“Of course there is no more beautiful fate for a story than for it to disappear...”
~ Franz Kafka