Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Samrat Upadhyay: Doctor or Engineer? Neither!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Scott Loring Sanders Pulls Flotsam from the Ether

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


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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Adam O'Riordan and the Impulse to Write Prose

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Katherine Vaz on Taking Notes and Making Box Art

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


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

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

choc Guin pur/38 m
DON’T LEAVE ME! 2X
confetti
LEMON/neon
ao lado!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Drawings on Juan Martinez's Office Door

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



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

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



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



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



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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Henry Alley Finds Inspiration in His Archives

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


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

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

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

Sofia Samatar’s Ten Favorite "Quotes" About Writing

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Writing is my health.”
~ Sylvia Plath

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