Friday, November 24, 2017

Timothy O'Leary Weaves Fact Into Fiction

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Timothy O'Leary, author of Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face (Unsolicited Press), discusses his ideas for stories and how he gets himself back on track.

How does a story begin for you?
Voyeuristically. I’ve always been fascinated by the often overlooked occurring around me. It might be the tension of a couple arguing three tables away in a restaurant, or the particular arrangement of bumper stickers on a car. It makes me wonder “why,” and “what if.” Right now I’m working on a story inspired by a particularly engaging sommelier I encountered—whose life I intend to make much more interesting than the one he probably lives. I feel compelled to take a little piece of fact and weave it into fiction I find entertaining.

All my stories begin with a real event. I began to formulate the title story of my collection, Dick Cheney Shot Me in the Face, when I ran into Dick Cheney at a fly fishing tournament in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He was in his home state, comfortable with the crowd, and it was interesting to watch him interact. I knew I wanted to write about that aspect of Cheney. I did a lot of research on the man, talked to a lot of people that had interfaced with him, and formed the story around the following premise: We all know Dick Cheney shot one man in the face, but what if there were more?

My story "One Star" began after I gave a restaurant in Aspen a poor review. The owner of the establishment literally tracked me down at my hotel, came to see me, and begged me to take down the entry. It got me thinking about the enormous online power each of us now has, and the much bigger “what if.”

My story "First Kill" began with a gun. When I was a kid I went hunting with relatives, who insisted I shoot my first deer with an old buffalo gun. It was a frightening and exhilarating experience for a twelve-year-old that I never forgot, and I knew I had to write a story based on that rifle, which eventually took me to a much darker place.

Sometimes it’s an old emotion I can’t get out of my head. The opening scene of my story "Impala" takes place in a bowling alley where I grew up. I always found the establishment delightfully sinister and frightening. It borders a graveyard and was a scary place to leave after dark.

The more I write, the more I search for snippets of real stories that I can make my own. I type cryptic notes into my phone when I notice something unusual in public, or hear an interesting story from a friend. Often someone begins to tell me a story, and I find myself rudely allowing my mind to wander, envisioning a much more dramatic end to the tale they are relating.

The physical practices that help me write.
Going Gaga: Set the mood
I begin every day with a long walk and a soundtrack for the day. With dog on leash, I walk for at least an hour as I try to work out an idea. Sometimes I am concentrating on language—trying to work out a passage. Sometimes I am contemplating a story arc. In any case, I find the perfect playlist to facilitate the work, that could range from 1970’s rock to Lady Gaga, to Willie Nelson. If the walk has gone well, I will have undergone some kind of emotional transition. Music often becomes the mood board for a story; a way to insert me back into the mindset I was in when I first decided an idea was worth writing about.

I started my career writing advertising and for television, and that certainly influences my work. I tend to “cast” my stories—choosing one or two actors that I am writing for—and I find that sometimes helps—especially when writing dialogue.

What to do when the writing isn’t going well.
First, I try to wean myself away from the distractions. Fast access to the Internet is incredible when I am researching or exploring, but it is deadly when I need to concentrate. When I am really writing I don’t open my email account or anything else that could pull me from the page.

When the inevitable writer’s block visits, I go to the movies or read less challenging books that I can move through quickly. I want to experience a velocity of ideas for a kick-start.

When my writing is in a difficult place it is often a function of boredom or laziness. Perhaps I have written myself into a bit of a corner that I need to escape, and there is no replacement for enduring the pain of that place until you have written yourself into a more pleasant setting. It is easy to put that off. Perhaps I am writing necessary scenes that are much less interesting to me than the core of the story, but I need to move through them.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Becky Mandelbaum's Four Simple Pieces of Advice

In the 32nd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Becky Mandelbaum, author of Bad Kansas (University of Georgia Press), talks about reading and writing.

Like many writers, I’ve received a great deal of advice over the course of my writing education, and yet these are the four pieces that have stuck with me. Like most good advice, each is more maddeningly simple than the last.

1.  Read more books, watch less TV 
Be prepared to lose a few friends with this one. While I, too, appreciate the appeal of burning through a season of Stranger Things in one sitting, I always remember what my first college writing professor told our workshop. “If you want to write good fiction, especially good dialogue,” she said, “stop watching television altogether. What you must do is read books. You must devour books.”
Stranger Things: Don't look now
She was not wrong. Over the years, the act of reading—such an obvious answer to the predicament of writing—has come to my aid over and over again. Whenever I’m at an impasse with my work, reading is always the solution. If it’s good writing, I think, “I’d like to write something that good.” If it’s bad writing, I think, “I can do better than that.” Either way, it leads me back to the page.

2.  Write
As an undergrad at The University of Kansas, I had the privilege of taking a workshop with Laura Moriarty, a killer novelist and teacher. When I asked her for writing advice, she told me simply, annoyingly, to write. “There are people out there who will call themselves writers,” she said, “but they don’t actually write. At the end of the day, the work is all that matters.”

So my advice is: Get your pages in. It doesn’t matter where or when or how. It also doesn’t matter if these pages are any good. I repeat: It does not matter if they’re any good. For every viable sentence I write, I probably write ten that end up in the trash. Those are frustrating numbers, but what is writing if not gratifying frustration?

3.  Revise, revise, revise
I once heard the writer Pam Houston tell a group of her students, “The very minimum number of times you should read through a manuscript is twenty-five.” Not surprisingly, a series of gasps and groans circled the room. Who wants to read her own book twenty-five times? Later, when I asked Pam about the advice, she told me, “The truth is, I usually read through a book fifty, sixty times before I’m done with it. But nobody wants to hear that. Twenty-five sounds more reasonable.”

4.  If you can do anything else and be happy, do it
In college, I had the opportunity to interview National Book Award winning poet Nikky Finney. Like most great poets, Finney emits a force field of wisdom you can feel on a cellular level when she enters the room. “If you can do anything else besides writing and be happy,” she told me, “then do that instead. This is not an easy life.”

These words have followed me ever since, appearing most often in times of self-doubt. Over the past few years, as my friends have begun to settle down in their careers, writing has sometimes felt like a dubious and even reckless life path, one that not everyone understands. Sometimes, when I’m home for the holidays, my brother will encourage me apply to law school. “I’ll pay for you to take the LSAT,” he’ll offer. “I’ll pay your application fees.” His concern is not unfounded. If there is money at all in writing, it comes in random, fitful bursts, like a row of cherries on a slot machine. I try to remember that the life of a writer is not a normal one and, as Finney promised, will by no means be easy. If I could clean teeth or crunch numbers or organize fundraisers and feel even a fraction of the satisfaction I feel after falling into the heart-swallowing extraterrestrial wormhole of a short story, I would certainly do that instead. But I can’t, and so I don’t. In exchange for all the fear and doubt and neurosis, I get to be in love with what I do.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Jeffrey N. Johnson Builds on His Training

In the 31st in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Jeffrey N. Johnson, author of Other Fine Gifts (Meddler Press), discusses how studying architecture provided a good foundation for his writing.

How did your architectural training prepare you to be a writer?
In September 1981, on the first day of design studio, our freshman class was herded into an auditorium to be introduced to our professors. The volume rose as the class assembled, everyone chatty and laughing and making a general ruckus. The room felt more like a high school lunchroom than a gathering of aspiring professionals. Amid the commotion, a potbellied man with unkept curly hair stepped to center stage and surveyed the crowd. He was clearly annoyed. Most of us hadn’t heard an accent beyond a rural Virginia drawl, so his stern Swiss voice carried great gravitas. He wagged a finger in the air and said, “There is no giggling in architecture.” The room fell dead silent. At that moment I was suffused with the seriousness and importance of the journey I was embarking on—this strange pursuit of the arts.

The late Professor Olivio Ferrari is legend at Virginia Tech. He had studied under Max Bill at the founding of the Ulm School of Design and later worked for him in Zurich, then went on to help mold one of the finest architecture programs in the United States. Under his guidance, the school was a place of inquiry. Ideas were paramount and ideas were to be questioned. Design was more than just drawing up plans. We were sent to the wood shop to get our hands on the materials. You might walk out of a lecture and realize you needed to take up photography, then you ended up spending the next semester in the darkroom. Some were encouraged to go to a mountaintop and practice their watercolors. It was a holistic approach that I quickly realized applied to all the arts. Everything was interconnected. Writing included.
Author's sketch: meditation on Venice

The strongest memories of my architectural days are of time spent sketching. On the study abroad program in 1984 and later backpacking Europe in 1988, sketching became a form of meditation. I would stand in one place for several hours and work on one drawing, one space. Gradually what I was looking at became more than just bricks, stone, and mortar. I wanted to understand everything about it. What was planned and what had grown organically? Who built the space and why? How did people interact with the environment; how did they change the space, and how did the space change them? Sometimes after dissecting a building’s architectural order, I swear I felt a direct connection to the mind of its long-dead builder. It didn’t happen often, but when it did it was a revelation, to perhaps feel for just a few seconds exactly how Palladio might have felt. I imagine classical musicians have the same sensation once they have dissected their favorite composer.

Writing shares so much of all this. The constant inquiry, approaching a problem from multiple angles, the desire to get inside another person’s mind and to sense the passage of time. It’s a serious endeavor. But I don’t shy away from injecting some humor in my work – to avoid humor is to avoid reality. So I retain Professor Ferrari’s proclamation, but slightly modified. There is some giggling in writing, but not much.

Describe your writing habits.
How I write today has changed drastically from where I started. The first draft of my novel, after a few false starts, was written in a six-month fury, or at least it was a fury for me. The rule was 500 words per night, five nights a week . . . any five, so if the juice wasn’t there I could take an evening off. This discipline was tossed when my twins were born. Given the three-hour feedings x2 and a full-time job, there was little energy left for my night owl tendencies, so I began writing longhand in a notebook during any break in the day I could steal. I’ve since become intimate with every coffee shop in the DC area. Longhand has proven more difficult—the short bursts of time don’t allow for the immersion I crave, plus I end up writing multiple versions of the same sentence or scene, leaving me with too much raw material to decipher. I intend on reverting back to my evening sessions, but it’s comforting to know that either way works. As in architecture, there are many processes to explore. Whatever it takes to get the work done.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Jennifer Caloyeras Reluctantly Joins the Family Business

In the 30th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Jennifer Caloyeras, author of Unruly Creatures (Vandalia Press), discusses her writing and reading habits.

What influenced you to become a writer?
I come from a family of writers and I really tried hard NOT to be a writer because I resisted going into the family business. My father is a screenwriter and television writer and playwright and my sister is a novelist. I moved away from writing to become a teacher and then a songwriter, which I did for many years, but eventually, I couldn’t ignore my desire to write and I came back to it, but not until my late twenties. I have achieved a good balance now between writing and teaching writing at UCLA.

Describe your writing habits.
I try to write on a schedule. My schedule doesn’t necessarily include specific times. I have two kids and I feel like our schedule is always in flux. Instead, I focus on completing goals. I’ll make a set of writing goals for the year, for the month, for the week, and for each day. Whatever the goal is, I try to meet it.

Where do you do your best work?
I can get a lot of writing done in a short period of time, but I’m also easily distracted. If I could go hole myself up somewhere, I could get a ton done. Unfortunately, that opportunity doesn’t happen all that often. I have a desk in a family office that I work from when no one is home. If I get stuck, I’ll go for a walk to clear my head and work through a problem I’m facing in my writing.

How do you know when a story is finished?
It’s never done! I have found myself, on more than one occasion, still editing my writing on my way to do a public reading of my published fiction.

Describe your reading habits.
I am an avid reader and get through anywhere from two to four books a week. I am constantly adding to my to be read pile. I don’t go anywhere without a book and find that I can get a lot of reading done throughout the day: in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, waiting for carpool, next to my kids doing their homework. I made it a priority to read because I love it so much. I try to vary the material I read, although I mostly stick to fiction. I’ll move from contemporary to classic, to short stories, to young adult, to historical fiction, to works in translation. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I am going to read next! And I think that everything I read has an influence on what I write.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Susan Tepper Keeps At It

In the 29th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Susan Tepper, author of Monte Carlo Days & Nights (Rain Mountain Press), discusses what propelled her into writing.

Writers usually have some inkling, I believe, that they will be doing this work. I never had an inkling. My dream from childhood was to become an actress, and so I left Long Island for the city when I was seventeen to attend drama school. Looking back on it all, I think it was the reading of so many plays that cemented language into my brain.

When acting with its limited rewards finally exhausted me, and I had moved out of the city, and was in my yard pulling weeds, with not the slightest clue of what I’d do next with my life, I began to get a message in my mind: Write that story. It pounded me all summer long.

Finally, sometime that August I sat down and cranked out a very long story. Mostly autobiographical with some juicy fake details. Then I took it to the New School where it was massacred in the workshop. Since I’d been banging around New York and other cities for years as an actor, rejection didn’t mean a whole lot to me. It sort of bounced off. They didn’t like my story. Oh, well. Except – except I happened to luck upon a great writing teacher in that first workshop, Alexander Neubauer. And when he returned his photocopy of my story, he’d written wonderful notes and at the bottom he put: Keep Writing. He underlined those two words a bunch of times. Wow! That’s what went through my mind: Wow, I can do this! It was revolutionary.

From that point forward I was seemingly jet-propelled by an unstoppable force. I went on to take workshops with Darcey Steinke, Jeanne McCulloch, Jamie Cat Callan, and another male instructor who will remain, due to his obnoxious verbal behavior, anonymous. But even he gave me something important to take away. I was a sponge. As playwright G.B. Shaw wrote in his play Overruled: “I soak up dirty water as well as clean.” Because that is the essential role of the creative writer. To construct worlds around what is soaked up during living.

My mother, who was a poet, humor writer, and essayist, had a lengthy non-fiction piece published in The New York Times opinion page when she was seventy. She had no journalism background, she was a sporadic writer, did it when she felt like it, with no career aspirations. It proved the point that good writing will rise to the top. She tossed great books my way. Somehow, she knew what I didn’t know about how my life was going to play out. Sadly, my mother died just a few weeks ago, and that shared path feels lonely now. She must have sensed she was near death, because she kept asking me when my new book would be coming out. Thankfully, she had seen the cover artwork in advance, so she saw something of this book. That gives me consolation.

Lobbying: At the Algonquin
Being a writer is so much fun, it’s the most fun I’ve ever had, and it’s what I most enjoy doing every day. I love talking with other writers about craft and life and love and disappointments. Recently I started an author/book Interview Series "Live From the Algonquin" to bring back some of that bygone writer glam. The Algonquin lobby is so elegant, and we order Prosecco, and for those few hours, it feels like we’ve stepped back in precious time. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Louise Marburg Offers Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

In the 28th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Louise Marburg, author of The Truth About Me (WTAW Press), offers a tip or ten.

1. Read as much as you can, read every day, read all sorts of things, and especially read the genre in which you aspire to write.

2. Pay attention. Eavesdrop. Notice.

3. Do not wait for inspiration, for it will never come. Sit down and write a line, then write another, and so on. Eventually, a story will appear.

4. Train yourself to be able to write for as much or little time as you have. Don’t wait to write until you have the whole day free. If you have fifteen free minutes, then write for fifteen minutes.

5. Don’t set daily goals such as word counts and pages: Write what you can.

6. Don’t plan too much, because your plans will change.

7. Allow yourself the freedom to be surprised by what you write.

8. Make friends with other writers. Critique each other’s stories. Give and take advice. Find out what your writer friends are reading. Share tips on where to submit.

9. Don’t expect it to get easier as you become more experienced. It doesn’t.

10. Remember that every day you don’t write is a day you don’t become a better writer.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Josh Barkan Starts with Oddities

In the 27th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Josh Barkan, author of Mexico (Hogarth), discusses how instinct and curiosity lead him to write his stories.

Where does a story begin for you?
Starting a story is following an instinct, a curiosity, a small fact or small oddity that I want to know more about. A large unexploded bomb, weighing thousands of pounds, was found in the city of Niigata in 1992, one of the largest conventional bombs ever discovered, forty years after World War II. What was it doing there? Why did the Americans drop it? What if there were a Japanese intelligence officer during the war who discovered not only one bomb like this, but a series of bombs like this, dropped around Niigata, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Kyoto? What if he suspected these were signs of something bigger to come, yet not knowing what that bigger could be? What if he had a superior officer who would not let this young intelligence officer report that information to headquarters in Tokyo? Would the intelligence officer have the courage to act upon his convictions and suspicions? This was the path of the novella in my first collection of stories, Before Hiroshima, but I didn’t think about these larger themes of paralysis, and the authority of a superior officer, first. What I thought about was a two-inch news item I had found in the Yomiuri Shimbun, while visiting Niigata, about an unexploded bomb.

And what about the rumors I would hear, while living in Mexico City, that the narco El Chapo Guzmán once came into a fancy restaurant to have a meal?—even while there was a multi-million dollar bounty on his head. Why would he do that? Why were there rumors about him having done the same in his home state of Sinaloa? What if, based on these rumors, I imagined him coming into a fancy restaurant in Mexico City and my protagonist was an American chef who had to please the famous narco? What if El Chapo demanded the chef cook him a perfect meal? What if the chef realizes the only thing that will satisfy the narco is human blood? So he takes his own blood and the blood of a young girl in the restaurant and serves it to El Chapo, with the blood steeped into the fine shavings of Wagyu beef.

Sinagoga Maguén David, Polanco, Mexico City
I remember when I came to Mexico City, to the neighborhood of Polanco, the oddity of finding a large Jewish community with men dressed in black, Orthodox, Hasidic clothing walking to temple on Friday. I am Jewish and I had never known there was a large community of Jews in Mexico. What if a teacher coming from the United States is a secular Jew and he teaches in a high school, where the children of two narcos in his class must be separated because they are children from rival narco families, children who have fallen in love? What if the teacher has fallen in love with an Orthodox Jewish woman in Mexico City and her Orthodox father does not want her to marry a secular Jew and he tries to keep them apart at their wedding? What if the teacher—because his father-in-law will not accept his wedding to the Orthodox daughter—feels empathy for these two narco children in love and tries to protect them, at personal risk to his own life? How is this like Romeo and Juliet?

So I begin stories with oddities, with things that are unexpected, with a small detail that can then grow into questions and conflicts that I need to find out how the characters will resolve them. This is one of the things I admire about the short-story writers I like. There is a quirkiness to their writing. Raymond Carver’s protagonist in “Cathedral” ends the story on his knees, drawing with his hands in tandem with a man who is blind, to feel what it is like to “see.” Every single story by Carver is strange. John Cheever’s protagonist in “The Country Husband” is eating dinner in the suburbs of New York City, one night, and he sees a maid who was once a Nazi collaborator, who was stripped naked by the villagers of a town in Normandy, as she was forced to atone for her collaboration. The last image of the story is a cat dressed in doll’s clothing. Odd things, which feel real, and have moral significance. I look for the strangeness that will illuminate our normalcy, which will get to the center of our common pain and elate me.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Lee Conell on Spotting the Extraordinary Among the Ordinary

In the 26th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Lee Conell, author of Subcortical (Johns Hopkins University Press), describes some formative influences.

What influenced you to become a writer?
My father is a building superintendent and my room was right next to his answering machine—so I was often waking up to messages left by tenants. Sometimes, when I couldn’t get back to sleep, I began to tell little stories or to try to imagine myself into the scene behind the tenants’ calls. I am still trying to write about the scenes behind some of these calls, and about the class tensions I witnessed or was part of in that upbringing. A sense of going behind the scenes, not just in an apartment but in someone’s mind, had a definite influence on my interest in writing and storytelling.

City buses also played a role. On long bus rides, my mother would try to keep me entertained by asking me to look out the window and rank on a one-to-ten scale the weird things we would inevitably see on New York City’s streets. I have to believe that identifying the extraordinary in what seems ordinary has something to do with my becoming a writer. I also read a lot on mass transit, although most of the books I was reading (and, yes, rereading) were not short story collections but the YA science fiction series Animorphs. I was really into animals and aliens.

I didn’t really try to write short stories until a boyfriend’s aunt gifted me a brand new copy of Alice Munro’s Runaway. I hadn’t heard of Munro and I definitely hadn’t read many contemporary short stories—but I remember being blown away by all the scope a Munro story could cover, how it felt in some way like riding in an elevator that moved in all directions. Then I became more interested in the short story and discovered writers like Grace Paley, Lorrie Moore, Junot Díaz, George Saunders. I realized that inside a story you could be so funny and so moving and so weird (on a one-to-ten scale, a story could sometimes be a ten in weirdness). I wanted to try that.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written.
Since it’s around Halloween, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mavis Gallant and her fantastic story “From the Fifteenth District,” where the dead complain about the ways the living keep haunting them. It’s among my favorite ghost stories and the concept is one of those deceptively simple why-didn’t-I-ever-think-of-that ideas (although I’d imagine it seems that way in part because of how well Gallant pulls it off).

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
Taking a walk is the best. There’s something about the rhythm of walking that connects to the rhythm of writing for me. But about fifty percent of the time I’m too lazy to put on shoes. I know this will sound made up, but I’ve actually found reading television recaps oddly helpful in terms of getting back on track. Sometimes I’ll even read recaps for shows I don’t watch. It almost feels like backing away from a pool before you take a running start and dive in. Backing away from the difficulty of a scene I’m writing by reading something fun and sharp and analytical and sometimes goofy, but that is also—at least on the surface—pretty detached from the fictional world of my story, has proven helpful. When I return to the story, I know the narrative cadences are probably coming from my characters themselves and not from whatever I read last because, well, what I read last was a recap of a television show. Of course, sometimes this backfires and I end up down a serious Internet rabbit hole, but usually if that occurs I feel guilty enough to return to the story. This is probably not the most efficient way to get back on track. I should really just try to go with the walk taking.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Terry Griggs on the Little and the Large

In the 25th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Terry Griggs, author of The Discovery of Honey (Biblioasis), contemplates islands and stories.

I’ve been thinking about adjectives—well, two in particular—and wondering if they’ve influenced my writing preferences. These two are nothing grand or splashy. No, they’re the everyday, serviceable kind—useful, but unremarkable: little and large.

It so happens that I grew up in a small town, Little Current, on a large island in Lake Huron. This island, Manitoulin, is said to be the largest freshwater island in the world, with the exception of one in the Amazon River, which is sometimes larger on account of silt accumulation and possibly magic realism. As you may imagine, living on an island, no matter how large, provides a kind of formal constraint not unlike that of a short story. And not unlike a short story, an island comes with a vista. It’s enclosed, but not limited. The format encourages a larger outlook. The less-is-more thing. As William Trevor says, a short story is “essential art. Its strength lies in what it leaves out just as much as what it puts in.” And, “It is concerned with the total exclusion of meaninglessness.”

I’ve written novels, and books for kids (little ones with big imaginations), but being no sprawler nor wanderer, definitely nothing that might be defined as a verbal landmass. My preference is for something concise, yet expansive. A far-fetching that teases largesse out of the seemingly insignificant. Something trim in girth, yet rich in its implications. A compelling, if circumscribed, geography of words, lapped by waters cold and dark and mysterious. Stories, yes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Announcing The Story Prize Judges: Susan Minot, Walton Muyumba, and Stephanie Sendaula

We're pleased to announce the 2017 judges for The Story Prize: author Susan Minot, writer and critic Walton Muyumba, and Library Journal Associate Editor Stephanie Sendaula. The judges will choose the winner of The Story Prize from among the three finalists The Story Prize will announce in January.

About the judges

Susan Minot is the author of the novels Monkeys, Folly, Evening, Rapture, and Thirty Girls, as well as collections of short stories, Lust & Other Stories, and of poems, Poems 4 AM.  She wrote the screenplay for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, and her novel Evening was made into a film. She has been included in numerous anthologies, including The O Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories, and has written essays and travel stories for a wide variety of magazines and journals. She lives in New York City and presently teaches at Stony Brook University.

Walton Muyumba is a writer and critic. He’s the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism. His reviews and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The New Republic, and Oxford American, among other outlets. He’s an Associate Professor of American literature and Assistant Director of the MFA program in creative writing at Indiana University-Bloomington.

Stephanie Sendaula is an Associate Editor at Library Journal. She received her M.L.I.S. from Drexel University, her B.A. from Temple University, and was previously a public librarian.

SAVE THE DATE: Feb. 28, 2018
That night, the three finalists will read from and discuss their work at an event sponsored by our co-sponsor, The New School Graduate Writing Program.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Frederick Luis Aldama and the Active Transformation of Culture

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Frederick Luis Aldama, author of Long Stories Cut Short (University of Arizona Press), discusses his influences and aims.

What influenced you to become a writer?
I’ve been publishing on authors such as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Junot Díaz, Ana María Shua, Elena Garro, Julia Alvarez, Salman Rushdie, among many others, since my undergrad days at UC Berkeley. I feasted on the maximalist writing of a Carlos Fuentes as much as on the minimalist writing of masters such as Augusto Monterroso and Jorge Luis Borges. I greatly enjoyed reading and writing on the poetry of Julia Alvarez and Rhina P. Espaillat, as well as Rafael Campo and C. Dale Young, among many others. I am mentioning Latin American and Latino/a authors, but where would my writing be without the precedents of Rabelais, Diderot, Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Céline, Brecht, or even the Swiss Max Frisch and the sublime Yasunari Kawabata? And the powerful insights and proclivities and wisdom of Aristotle?

There is something about the concision of form in the work of Borges, Shua, and of course the great Tito Monterroso that fascinated me to the point that it triggered my own impulse to try my hand at fiction—flash fiction or microcuentos. As a result of all this, some years ago I outlined the totality of what would become Long Stories Cut Short: Flash Fictions from the Borderlands. From the very start, I knew that this work would be a series of flash fictions (with the constraint of being no longer than 750 words) and would include comic book images.

I have been reading and teaching comic books for quite a few years now, so I know well that the experience and imagination of the reader may expand when exposed to comic book images. I also know that fiction is made with the bricks (bits and pieces) of anything and everything in the universe. So from the very beginning, I figured out the whole book’s shape and contents. I wanted it to be a hybrid alphabetic/graphic narrative, and I wanted the stories to focus on the everyday lives of Latinos—from Latina infants who can read before they can speak to border-crossing teens and romancing abuelitas—that I would metabolize and give new shape to modes of writing we traditionally think of as existing exclusively in disciplines such as philosophy, biology, psychology, journalism, history. Nothing would be off limits in terms of where the stories might carry readers. For instance, the story “Lexicon” begins:

“I learned how to read before I could speak. I apprehended the world through its material manifestations, its signs. Later, black scratches and blank spaces will tell me of the absent world. Lexis: Greek for ‘word.’ And, also for 'speech.’”

My love for world literature, philosophy, and psychology have marked me as a human being and as a scholar. But in a very specific way, it was my early love of Latin American authors and visual artists that inspired me to become a fiction author, seeking to explode the microcuento form in ways that would make visceral the lived experiences of Latino/as across the Americas. I’m thrilled now to be able to contribute something to the active transformation of our culture at large.

Describe your writing habits
During the academic year, I write 3-4 hours every day, usually in the early morning before the sun rises, the email begins to flood in, and the texts ding. I also wear soundproof headphones—the kind you see folks using when operating jackhammers. The bubble of my imagination is easily punctured by the slightest noise, including even the sound of the keys clickity-clacking as I type.

Fortunately, as an academic, I have long stretches during the summer when I can up my game to 12 hours a day. I turn off the Internet so that I don’t have access to social media and email—or the Internet generally. I can’t write when there are distractions. Depending on what idea grabs me the most, I’ll work on fiction or scholarly nonfiction for a certain amount of time. I often switch from one mode to the other according to my mind’s demands. In many ways, I don’t see my fiction and nonfiction writing as somehow ontologically different. I see them both as creative.

In this bubble where I don’t let anything interfere, I live for hours with my words and images, finding ways to express feelings and thoughts—to make new readers’ perceptions and deepen their experience of the world.

I should add that because I teach literature (and comic books and film) I read fiction every day—and attentively.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written
Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Quesadillas: A Novel.

Where does a story begin for you?
Almost always a word, a phrase, a feeling, or a concept begins imposing itself as an obsession and a rhythm. This, in turn, starts growing by addition and subtraction into other words, other feelings, other images, as if the need to describe and tell about a tiny fraction of the universe takes hold of my whole mind, my whole self. That is the moment the tyranny of writing becomes absolute: Expression needs to take place, even if only as a sketch or a rough draft. Then comes the careful revision, deleting and rewriting with seemingly no end.

How do you know when a story is finished?
When I feel all the bricks have been laid and the structure holds as a unified whole. Then the universe is contained in this tiny speck.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
I write myself out of dead ends when I find the rhythm I need, when the mind tunes back and finds the right music. Then a word comes back, or a feeling, or an image or a concept that recommence the building of strings of sounds, of phrases and sentences that create new words, new images, new feelings, new concepts. And the machine gets going anew until it stops again. I have to relax to go into this process. A hot bath is an excellent way to start the flow. Eyes closed, the music in the brain churns words, concepts, images, feelings…

Describe an idea that you want to write or return to that you haven’t quite figured out yet.
An environment of incessant fear together with great juvenile expectations is the theme of a manuscript I have in a drawer, to hopefully become a maximalist, picaresque novel. I’ve got hundreds of pages written that now need some serious sculpting. On the other end of things, I’ve begun work on an interwoven flash fiction collection that can be read more like a novel; I’m working out how it can at once be read as a series of autonomous flash fictions and as a novel. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tim Gautreaux's Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Tim Gautreaux, author of Signals (Alfred A. Knopf), shares his perspective.

  1. When you plan to write a piece of fiction, begin with this attitude: You have been hired to read an 8,000-word short story in a hot meeting room at three in the afternoon to a large class in freshman English. Your fee from the university is $10,000 to be paid with the caveat that each student who falls asleep during the narration will cause a $1,000 deduction from your fee.

  2. Understand the value of compassion in writing fiction. With this in mind visit a Wal-Mart in late morning and walk through the store observing the customers carefully until you can do so without condescension.

  3. Always keep in mind that whatever you write will be thrown into an enormous pile of competing manuscripts and that your writing has to kick all those manuscripts off an editor’s desk. Understand that an editor is always looking for a reason, any reason, to throw one manuscript to the floor so he can get to the next one in the enormous pile.

  4. If you choose to write a depressing story in which the main point of view character is something like a drunken father who is cruel to his children, try to make the reader see that he is not totally invalid as a human, that there is maybe some small bright spot in his being. Otherwise, you’ll be creating a one-dimensional troll that will annoy the reader, who in turn might suspect you of grinding an axe instead of telling a story.

  5. You are an entertainer. You have a responsibility to get and keep the reader involved in the narrative from the first paragraph on. A good story is a warm bath in a well-lit room.

  6. Don’t ignore your family history and where you were raised. It is your unique territory as a writer. Only you own it, so it can be made exotic to anyone else.

  7. Controlled and complex humor is the yeast that gives body to fiction, but remember that what is funny in a story causes the reader to laugh, but never the characters.

  8. Theme is automatic and something you concern yourself with only after your first draft.

  9. Don’t confuse fiction with autobiography, but do inhabit the physical world of your point of view character who should probably not share your personal history but can own your heart. You are what you write.

  10. The prose should be glossy. In either simple or complex sentences needless repetition, stale phrasing, or any degree of wordiness is a rock against the toe of the reader. The quality of your writing is determined by what is not in it as much as by what is. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Zach Powers' Thoughts on (In)visible Prose

In the 22nd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Zach Powers, author of Gravity Changes (BOA Editions), touches on transparency and astonishment.

Way back when, studying saxophone as an undergrad, I encountered a strange pedagogical sentiment. One was supposed to play the instrument in a way that emulated the human voice. My immediate response was to ask: Why the hell wouldn’t I just sing, then?

I was young and shy and probably never asked my question aloud. Partly that’s because the sentiment isn’t entirely wrong. Most musicians I know would agree that their goal is to make their instruments “sing.” Western music is derived from voice, after all. But it’s been twenty years, and I’m still not sure why voice should be both the starting and the stopping point when it comes to creating a melody.

Now that I’m in the world of creative writing, I’ve encountered a similar sentiment. I hear over and over that prose should be transparent. Here again, my inner contrarian rises to the surface. Why would you spend so much time putting words on a page only with the goal of making a reader ignore them?
Wonder Woman aloft: Merely a vehicle?

I once wrote: “The words are merely the invisible jet of writing meant to carry the Wonder Woman of emotional urgency to a reader.” That sentence is terrible on so many levels. If I’d written it in a manuscript, I would have deleted it even before I started writing the next sentence. But it’s also one of those things I might have cut and pasted into a Twitter post. Terrible as that sentence is, it also contains something I think worth saving. Energy, mirth, the dreaded cleverness.

I came to literary fiction by way of sci-fi, and I was first drawn to writers who carried speculative elements into their literary work. I read Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in one sitting. I spent a good year writing only self-referential works inspired by Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. I discovered Aimee Bender’s “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” in an anthology and then sought out every story she’d ever written.

Bender, in particularly, writes transparent prose. I’m constantly awed by the efficiency with which she crafts sentences, a place for every word and every word in its place. I reread one of her stories whenever I feel my own writing getting bogged down in invisible jet metaphors. But as exceptional as her prose is, it’s the more visible moments that draw me into her stories. For example:
My lover is experiencing reverse evolution. I tell no one. I don’t know how it happened, only that one day he was my lover and the next he was some kind of ape. It’s been a month and now he’s a sea turtle.
That’s the opening paragraph in Bender’s “The Rememberer.” This paragraph both pulls me out of the story and deeper into it. Initially, I’m forced to retreat into my own mind, to acknowledge the impossibility of the premise and suspend my disbelief. But once I’ve made it through that process, I’m more deeply invested in the story than I would have been otherwise. Bender uses opaqueness to get my full attention.

It doesn’t matter to me at all if a premise is “contrived” or prose “visible.” Yes, those are helpful concepts to be made aware of in a writing workshop. The tendency toward simplicity and concision should be learned and internalized.

However, emotional weight doesn’t come only from characters acting as if in a stage play. But I think that’s the implication hidden inside talks of transparency. The reader is meant to co-opt a character’s feelings or react to a character’s thoughts and actions. But I can look at a sunset and feel something without somebody else feeling it first for me. I can ponder the vastness of the universe and my own speckness and feel swallowed and boundless at the same time. I don’t need an intermediary.

I guess my point is this: Astound me. Whether it’s a poetic turn of phrase or a mind-blowing premise or an everyday scene written to perfection, I want to be astounded. Astonishment can’t be contained in a piece of writing advice. Good advice is, by its very nature, common. Great writers recognize when the uncommon is more interesting and effective.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Daisy Johnson Plows Ahead

In the 21st in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Daisy Johnson, author of Fen (Graywolf Press), discusses her best and worst writing days and how she stays on track.

Describe your writing habits.
The answer to this question changes often. Some weeks are dreamy, rushes of productivity at my desk or on the sofa, occasionally meeting writing friends in a local pub with big, empty wooden tables. I write 2,000 or more words a day, finish reading three or four books a week. I read and write from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon. I am a god of writing, I am unstoppable.

Mostly it is not like that. I lounge miserably around the house, empty and reload the dishwasher, watch Netflix, open my favorite books to try and osmosis their power into me. I write, a little, alone in cafes or run along the river trying to summon language. There is a framed sign on my desk that was something I apparently once said and my partner wrote out for me. It reads: I think this book is going to be really fucking good. Writers are needy, self-conscious and whiny. At least half of the day is filled with telling myself: You can do it, you did it already, you can do it again.

It is different for every book and story but mostly I am a catastrophic first drafter. I am a cow-first drafter, plowing it out, oblivious to quality. I am a better, if grumpy, rewriter. Each story in Fen, was rewritten three times at least. Unfortunately, though I had hoped to learn, the same is true of my novel, Everything Under, which was begun from scratch maybe seven times.

Name something by another author that you wish you’d written.
There are so many, but one answer has remained the same since the first time I read it at fifteen. Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow,* by Peter Høeg, is one I still reread every couple of years, and it continues to evoke a feeling of awe and jealousy.

Where does a story begin for you?
Mostly a story for me begins with the idea of something weird, a strangeness in the form of a what if. Stories in Fen began with: what if a girl turned into an eel, what if language physically hurt us when we heard it, what if an albatross came to steal a baby.

How do you know when a story is finished?
A story is never finished but I’ve started to come to recognize the feeling of utter nausea that comes from looking at something a final time. That doesn’t mean that I won’t return to it at a later date, do another read through, but if you know the opening and closing words off by heart it’s time to give it a break.

How do you get yourself back on track when your writing isn’t going well?
You’ve caught me on the right day to answer this question. I’m 80,000 words into a new novel and it was going swimmingly until yesterday. The trick—which I do not always follow—is to change scene and to work on something else. I always have a couple of new short story ideas to jump into. I was happy to remember I needed to answer these questions. If that fails, then reading is always a good way to get your head back into the game.

Describe a physical, mental, or spiritual practice that helps put you in a suitable state of mind to write.
It’s too easy to think of writing as a magic that will happen only when the perfect state is achieved. That’s a sure fire way to make sure no writing happens. I write wherever I am, and I try to write however I’m feeling. Running helps, as does not having a stinking hangover. I like having days off to build the anticipation, but mostly what helps is to think that the only way to do it is just to write. Even if what you’re writing is rubbish and won’t make it past the second draft. Don’t worry about the rest of the stuff. Cut out the noise. Write as fast as you can.

*Published in the U.S. as Smilla's Sense of Snow.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Matthew Lansburgh Finds Time to Feed His Soul

In the 20th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Matthew Lansburgh, author of Outside Is the Ocean (University of Iowa Press), discusses the process of writing and publishing his work.

What is the best piece of writing advice you've ever received?
When I was a student in NYU's MFA program, I was lucky enough to be able to work with Zadie Smith. She read an early version of what became Outside Is the Ocean, and we met for coffee twice. She gave me a lot of helpful feedback, but one of the best pieces of advice I gleaned from our meetings was the importance of putting your work aside so you can come back to it with fresh eyes. She told me she sometimes puts drafts of her work in a drawer for several months before picking them up again. I now try to do the same thing, and I've found it to be incredibly helpful.

Did the stories in your collection go through many drafts?
I started working on Outside Is the Ocean over a decade ago. The stories I worked on when I began the project went through a huge number of drafts. I revised some of them dozens and dozens of times. The last stories I wrote—"Buddy," "Outside Is the Ocean," "Amalia," and "Clear Waters Below"—went through fewer revisions. I guess the earliest stories were the vehicles I used to learn how to write a story.

Were there times when you felt like giving up on the book ?
Without a doubt. For many years, I kept coming back to the project again and again, trying repeatedly to tackle various problems. Occasionally, a journal would publish one of the stories, and that gave me a boost of confidence. Most of the time, however, it felt like I was just wandering blindly through an endless desert without a compass or sense of when my journey would be over.

What's your writing routine like? 
Unfortunately, I've never been one of those people who's had a set writing schedule. I admire people who are disciplined enough to get up at 5:30 every morning and write for six hours. I've spent most of the past twenty years working full-time as a lawyer, however, so there have been many long stretches during which I just didn't have the energy to make meaningful progress. I did most of my writing in spurts—vacations, weekends, residencies. Currently, my day job allows me to work just three days a week, so I'm able to devote a lot more of my energy to something that feeds my soul rather than drains it.

Have you shared your work with friends and family?
My partner Stan has been there from Day One, and he's read so many drafts of most of the stories, that he could probably recite certain passages by heart. I've told my siblings about the book, but I still haven't shared the news with my mother. Although it's fiction, some of the dynamics mirror dynamics in my own family, and I'm not sure what my mother's reaction would be. In general, she's very supportive of my writing, and she often asks whether I've written anything I'd be willing to share with her. On the other hand, she and I have had a challenging relationship, and I'm afraid some of the stories might be unsettling to her. People who've read the collection say they find the portrait of Heike to be very sympathetic and nuanced. My hope is that one day my mother will read the stories and see the tremendous love Stewart has for his mother.

What are you working on now?
A few years ago, I started writing a novel, the tone and subject matter of which are quite different from Outside Is the Ocean. The new book is a lot funnier and zanier than the story collection. It has a strange cast of characters—including a woman with wings who works at Coney Island—and the protagonist is a complete misfit.

Has the transition from stories to a novel been difficult?
I think all writing is difficult. One of the things I love about the writing process is that I can always create new challenges for myself, new problems to solve. In some ways these two projects aren't as different from one another as one might imagine. The stories in my collection are linked and, like Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, examine the lives of a recurring cast of characters from various perspectives. So it posed some of the same challenges I'm facing in writing my novel. 

Monday, October 2, 2017

Josh Weil and the Scent of Sagebrush

In the 19th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Josh Weil, author of The Age of Perpetual Light (Grove Press), talks how his parents, books, reading aloud, and a high school teacher led him to become a writer.

What influenced you to become a writer?

First there were my mother’s stories: She told them to my brother and me while sitting in the hall between our bedrooms’ open doors. She was a good storyteller; she read good books. And expected the same of me. As a pre-teen I read some of what you’d expect—Jack London, Robert Newton Peck, books about dogs and boys—but my mother never imagined that I could only read work written specifically for kids, never assumed that I would only relate to a protagonist my own age, so I grew up also reading what I pulled from her bookshelves—complex, classic stuff: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Shakespeare—and I suspect there was no more important influence than that, those early experiences with getting swept up in story that formed for me the sense of what a good story was.

Of course, I was influenced by less literary authors, too, but they were always damn good storytellers: Leon Uris, say, or Frederick Forsyth. Often, I’d fall most deeply for books I read aloud to my father and brother on car trips we took each summer: a month or more in my Dad’s green Mazda station wagon, driving from research station to research station, his work as an agronomist guiding us all around the country. We’d read books gripping enough to make the miles roll by, to make us crack them open again in the tent at night. So I experienced in a communal way the power of story (I still remember reading A Day No Pigs Would Die aloud to my father, both of us crying so hard he had to pull over to the shoulder). There was the shared experience, the comfort of falling into a world alongside family, but at the same time that singular and solitary co-creation that a book requires from the reader—the need to imagine aspects of it, make it your own—struck me more powerfully than anything else. Long after we’d shut the book, I’d carry it with me, lying awake in the tent, or staring out the car window, seeing the characters in details not taken from any book, constructing new scenes that might take the story somewhere else.

Until I began writing my own stories down. The first was a western, a melodrama about a man named Buck: He’d knifed a guy in a bar fight (it wasn’t his fault!) and fled, a posse hot on his heels, only to be caught and hung till dead from a cottonwood. I was twelve and I’d just read The Oxbow Incident­ and it was haunting me (it still does) and I guess that’s why I was drawn to the tragic stuff (and still am), because it haunts you, makes you feel things you wouldn’t want to have to in reality, lets you know the corners of your heart you otherwise might not, gives you a more full experience of life.

Still, it wasn’t a book that turned me irrevocably toward life as a writer. It was a high school English teacher, tall and thin, his name lost to me, a massive blond beard all I can remember of his face. I don’t remember the assignment he gave us either, only how it felt when he pulled me aside after class one day and told me that the scene I’d written had moved him, that he wished that I’d write more. Such a wondrous thing. (I still find it humbling when a reader tells me something sprung from my imaginings has somehow touched them.) That night I went home, went to work. The scene became a chapter, the chapter a novel. Another western: The Scent of Sagebrush. Cue the harmonicas, the jangling spurs! Now I smile, but at seventeen it was the most serious thing I’d found in life. Every night, after I’d finished my homework, I’d bang out pages, more engaged than I’d been all day, existing in that fictional world until it became, for me, more real, more present, than the one everyone else could see. By the time I graduated, the book was done. By the time the summer was over, I’d written a second one. How, after experiencing such a thing, could I not go back in, and in, and in, trying each time—as I’m still trying, some twenty five years later—to transfer what I found inside my mind into words on a page, to work just well enough to somehow bring a little of that feeling back.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Rob Davidson Finds Inspiration in Images

In the 18th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Rob Davidson, author of Spectators (Five Oaks Press), discusses writing stories in response to the work of visual artists.

What inspires a new story? It can be anything—a fleeting glimpse, an overheard bit of gossip, a memory. Sometimes it’s another work of art.

The stories in Spectators began as ekphrastic exercises. Ekphrasis, a Greek word meaning “description,” is a literary response to an artistic production, typically a piece of visual or conceptual art. The resulting story, while inspired by the work of art, is not mere summary or objective description. The best ekphrastic works are richly subjective, presenting idiosyncratic responses that could only have been penned by a particular writer. There are countless examples, from Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” to Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night” (inspired by Van Gogh), to Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Exiles” (inspired by Edvard Munch’s "The Scream").

Floating in Time © Sara G. Umemoto
Many of the flash fictions in Spectators were inspired by the photography and visual art of Stephani Schaefer, Sara G. Umemoto, and Tom Patton. The process is simple. In each case, I sit with the chosen image, studying it intensely before beginning composition. This might involve minutes or hours. Only when I feel I have fully entered into the world of that image do I begin to write. It begins as a kind of dialogue, with me going back to the image frequently. Eventually, I quit looking at the image and focus solely on my text, which develops its own dreams and aspirations.

Naturally, some readers want to see text and image side-by-side. When it happens, the experience is powerful. Tom Patton and I mounted a joint gallery show at the Morris Graves Museum of Art in Eureka, California, in early 2017. Seeing Tom’s excellent photos paired with my flash fictions, printed as broadsides, was grand; we both saw our own work in a new light.

So why not do a book together? A couple of reasons. First, not every fiction in the book is in response to visual art; some are homages to other writers, like Borges, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James. Second, I always intended the fictions to stand on their own merits. Seeing the image alongside the text I wrote might be interesting, but I don’t consider it essential.

I wrote these flash fictions to challenge myself to do something new. After three published books, I am a mid-career author who has learned he’s good at some things. There is a certain temptation to keep doing those things because you think you know what you’re doing. And there is another temptation to challenge yourself to cross lines, to cultivate what the Zen Buddhists call shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind”: an openness to new things; a willingness to try those things; an eagerness to learn; and the absence of preconceptions. Let go of the presumption that your wisdom counts for something. Look anew, as if for the first time.

While drafting Spectators, I had a few rules in mind, rules I made for myself solely for the reason of cultivating a beginner’s mind: to dispense with plot (go ahead, try it); to be more lyric and less narrative; to experiment with genres other than realism; to make each piece a response to another work of art; and to write nothing longer than a page.

It all started with those wonderful images by Stephani, Sara, and Tom.