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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Video: The Story Prize Event on March 8 at The New School with Finalists Anna Noyes and Helen Maryles Shankman and Winner Rick Bass

Here's the video of The Story Prize event on March 8 at The New School. That night, the three finalists—Rick Bass, Anna Noyes, and Helen Maryles Shankman—read from and discussed their work on-stage. And at the culmination of the event, we announced the winner for books published in 2016: Rick Bass's For a Little While.


Saturday, March 11, 2017

(Real) News About The Story Prize Event

Finalists Rick Bass, Helen Maryles Shankman, and Anna Noyes
(photo @ Beowulf Sheehan)
Here are links to some of the news coverage that The Story Prize event on March 8 at The New School has garnered—none of it fake.

The San Francisco Chronicle
Library Journal
Poets & Writers
Publishers Weekly
Associated Press

That night, we announced Rick Bass's For a Little While as the winner for books published in 2016. He received $20,000 and an engraved silver bowl. The other two finalists, Anna Noyes for Goodnight, Beautiful Women and Helen Maryles Shankman for They Were Like Family to Me, each received $5,000.

What the Judges Had to Say About Helen Maryles Shankman's They Were Like Family to Me

© Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Harold Augenbraum, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Daniel Goldin. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

“The stories in They Were Like Family to Me are connected around the Polish town of Włodawa, which the Nazis occupied during World War II. The stories dance around Reich Regional Commissioner Reinhart, the bureaucrat who has a taste for the finer things and is willing to protect his most talented Jews. The author weaves in Jewish folktales, making them seem like family legends. Several of the incidents, like the merchants forced to do jumping jacks for the amusement of Nazi guards, appear in several of the stories. And minor characters in one story take center stage in the other. There’s no question that Helen Maryles Shankman had my attention in the first story, when the brutal Nazi officer Max Haas hires a Jewish man to paint his apartment, only to realize the man is the illustrator of his child’s favorite children’s book. At one point, I gasped and had to talk about the story to just about anyone I came in contact with for the rest of the day. I couldn’t help it. And I loved the classic way that the Reinhart character plays at the periphery of so many stories before we finally get his perspective.”

Friday, March 10, 2017

What the Judges Had to Say About Anna Noyes's Goodnight Beautiful Women

© Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Harold Augenbraum, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Daniel Goldin. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

"All the women in this book are beautiful, even when they aren’t. In their femaleness, they so overwhelm the men that you can almost smell and touch and hear their yearning, their disappointment, their recognition that “it will be all right” (in most cases) even when it probably won’t. As with the great mistresses of the short story—Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro—each story is structured to invisibilize the structure itself, so that as a reader you end up drinking in a series of raw feelings hung terribly on the balloon structure of the Goodnight, Beautiful Women’s home."

What the Judges Had to Say About Rick Bass's For a Little While, Winner of The Story Prize

© Beowulf Sheehan
When the three judges for The Story Prize make their choices, they provide citations for the books. This year's judges were Harold Augenbraum, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, and Daniel Goldin. We include the citations in congratulatory letters we present to each finalist, along with their checks ($20,000 to the winner, $5,000 to the other two finalists). To protect the confidentiality of the judges' votes and the integrity of the process, we don't attribute citations to any particular judge.

“Rick Bass’s gift at conveying the vastness of the American wilderness through a form as compact as the short story is a cause for wonder. Again and again in this collection his stories demonstrate the form’s elasticity and expansiveness, its ability to evoke greatness of scale and time using little more than the seemingly modest tools of close observation, clear language, and rich sensory detail. His characters are forged in the fire of extremes: loggers, boxers, dog trainers, competitive runners, and horse breakers, they experience extreme weather and terrain, extreme solitude and loss, as well as moments of intense, transformative connection. Sentence by sentence, story by story, he does the patient, passionate work of awakening his readers to the innate wildness, mystery, and beauty of the world, and of the people who inhabit it.”