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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Cutlass Press Gins up an Event to Launch KL Pereira's A Dream Between Two Rivers

By Nick Fuller Googins
Jamaica Plain, Boston 
Sept. 6, 2017

KL Pereira’s collection, A Dream Between Two Rivers, had its launch party at Boston’s Papercuts bookstore on Sept. 6, and it was a night of firsts: the first story collection put out by the independent bookstore’s publishing arm, Cutlass Press; the first stop for Pereira on her 12-city tour; and the first book launch I've been to that offered a preposterously large bottle of Tanqueray for the audience's refreshment.
Pereira at Papercuts
(photo by Katie Eelman)

There was also prosecco on ice, and most went for this chilled option after a brutally humid day and on an evening that wasn’t doing much to cut it. Plastic cups sweated in our hands as we waited for Pereira.

She appeared decked out a Ouija board-themed dress, appropriate given that the September moon was nearly full and that Pereira’s stories run the gamut from dark to darker to darkest. She read a “darker” one, her collection’s opening, “The Dark Valley of Your Lungs,” in which a girl with a killer voice (literally) finds a mentor of sorts in a woman with silver hands and feet. The story, creepy on its own, ends in a cemetery, and if that isn’t enough creep, know that it was written in one too: Pereira revealed during the Q&A that she’d penned the first draft one evening in nearby Forest Hills Cemetery. If there had been anybody in the audience wondering how one gets away with rocking a Ouija board dress, nobody was wondering it anymore.

Literary horror has long been in Pereira’s wheelhouse. She told the audience of an archeological dig through the mounds of school-work that her mother had saved. She’d recently excavated her earliest stories, composed at age nine:
  • “The Haunted School”
  • “The Secret of the Old Piano” (“pilfered from Nancy Drew,” Pereira confessed)  
  • “The Fishing Trip” (spoiler alert: a shark devours the young narrator and her father)
In response to a question regarding the generative process, Pereira explained that she’s “always been interested in the weird” and hails from a “family of storytellers.” Her ancestry stretches back to Cape Verde, Colombia, Italy, and the Azores, providing her with a rich library of folktales and legends to draw upon.

It was fitting that A Dream Between Two Rivers launched in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood because Pereira wrote most of the collection there in 2009. She lives now with the witches and the spirits up in Salem, but the audience greeted her as if she’d never left. When she admitted that she was pretty nervous, and a friend had advised her to picture the audience as cats to help, the crowd erupted in reassuring meows.

After the Q&A, I asked Pereira what she’d done earlier that day. She’d been selected for the MBTA’s “Books on the T” program, so she and her publishing team had been guerrilla-dropping copies of A Dream Between Two Rivers in subway stations around the city, she explained. What this means for the rest of us is that Pereira’s unique brand of literary horror is right now making its way through the underground arteries of greater Boston. Innocent commuting souls: beware.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Geeta Kothari Takes Her Time

In the 17th in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Geeta Kothari, author of I Brake for Moose (Braddock Avenue Books), discusses her approach to getting writing done.


In her essay,“That Crafty Feeling,” Zadie Smith, writes that she finds other writers’ working methods “incomprehensible and horrifying,” so I present this post with the following qualification: Tracking time works for me, in my particular circumstances, circumstances that include a spouse, a dog, full-time teaching, friends and family members scattered far and wide.

One day, around the time my parents died, I finally understood that time isn’t an infinite, renewable resource. After the grief, came the despair. I added up all the wasted hours. So many, with people I didn’t like doing things I didn’t care about. Of course, I couldn’t actually add up all my wasted hours because I never kept track of them. This was a period when I didn’t keep a journal or a schedule on paper. Even when I began writing seriously, I paid little attention to how I used my time. I measured my progress by how many pages I filled, how many drafts I wrote, publications. This last item seems a little insane now because rejections for my stories far outnumbered acceptances (and still do).

For a while, I tracked the number of words I wrote daily. Then came the day when I realized I’d written over 150 thousand words and had nothing new to read at a conference I was attending, and counting words lost its charm. I draft quickly and revise slowly. Word counts give me a false sense of progress when I’m drafting and no sense of progress when I’m revising.

Why all these attempts to measure productivity? It’s not as if I work in an office or report to a manager who wants to know that company dollars are being well spent. I report only to myself, and if I want to spend my writing time eating chocolate and watching Netflix, no one will know.

Maybe I’m trying to make sure I spend what time I have left on things I find meaningful. I wasn’t one of those children who kept a journal or wrote stories to amuse herself. I came to writing late as an adult with the idea of being a writer but no practical sense of what this meant. I had no idea that thirty years later the best birthday present would be five days alone in an apartment in Toronto where I wrote and talked to no one except strangers I met in the elevator.

Pomodoro: Break time
In that apartment, the empty days stretched before me like a crisp new notebook on which one is afraid to make a mark. I worried I wouldn’t use the time well, that I’d waste it, though without Wi-Fi in the apartment, it would take more effort. I wrote down what I wanted to do in the five days, keeping my plan modest. Instead of counting words (though I did have a word goal), I tracked time and how I spent it using the Pomodoro Technique, which suggests four timed intervals of 25 minutes of focused work with five minutes break, followed by a longer, 15-20 minute break. There’s nothing sacred about the 25 minutes. For writers who are struggling to write daily, like many of my students, 5 minutes is a good place to start. I use a cube timer that has 60, 30, 15 and five minute intervals, so I usually work for 30 minutes with a five minute break.

At home, where there is rarely a blank slate of day, I have found writing daily works best if I aim for two short sessions, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. Because I work on several projects at once and some are deadline driven, the night before I decide what I want to work on. That way I don’t waste time in the morning trying to decide what to do. I keep my list small and modest. “Work a half hour on Lahore section,” one recent entry read. My Freedom app is automatically set to block social media every morning.

I mark each interval in my journal. It’s ridiculous how much pleasure I get from making an X next to the previous X. Later—when I’m low perhaps, feeling underappreciated and scolding myself for NOT WORKING HARD ENOUGH, I’ll go back over my weekly record of Xs and reassure myself that I have spent my time well.

That younger self who wasted so much time used to believe the reward for writing was publishing. The reward, it turns out, is knowing you have spent your days well on something you love.