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.