Where Are They Now: An Interview with Past Contributors (Part 1)
With fifty-three issues published, nearly twenty-five hundred contributors accepted and tens of thousands of submissions read, we start to wonder where our previous contributors have run off to. Fortunately, I was able to catch up with a few of them, and we were able to go through a round-table discussion of questions and answers in order to find out what some of them have been up to!
Sophean Soeun: What are you currently working on? What have you accomplished since your publication in HFR?
I am currently working on a novel and a collection of short-short stories. Since publishing my story “No One at All” in HFR, I’ve published my third collection of short stories, Think of Me and I’ll Know (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press). “No One at All” is included in the collection—thanks, HFR!
I’m nearly finished with a collection of stories and in the process of drafting a novel. Since publishing in HFR, I’ve published a first book, The Invisibles, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award in 2012. I’ve also made a sort of half-hearted run at reviewing books and drawn up plans for a few essays; I hope to get to those when I finish these next two books.
I’m editing a short story anthology for Forest Avenue Press, which comes out in May 2014. I’m working on strengthening my short story collection, and have had a couple of stories and essays published, including a piece on The Rumpus which is an excerpt from my memoir-in-progress. So, yeah -- that’s the big thing I’m working on, a memoir, which I swore I’d never write. It surprised the hell out of me, but there I was one day -- writing a memoir.
SS: Where do some of your ideas originate from? Has there ever been a time where an idea came from somewhere you least expected? Do you have an idea you know you have to write but haven’t figured out how to do it yet?
My ideas usually come from a) some small recollection of something in my past and b) other short stories I love. So, for example, “No One at All,” is a story about two boys vacationing at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, a place I remember visiting when I was a kid, a place where I used to see all these beach shops selling hermit crabs, even though I never bought one. But I remember those hermit crabs clinging to the sides of their cages--that memory was the point of departure for the story. The rest was me wanting to write a story about childhood in the style of John Updike (especially stories like “Pigeon Feathers” or “A Sense of Shelter”), James Joyce (“Araby,” of course), Sherwood Anderson (“I Want to Know Why”), and every other great story I’ve ever tried to shamelessly imitate in my writing. I have one story that was given to me--I mean just given--to me by my then 5-year-old son. One day my son started referring to one of his kindergarten classmates as “my enemy” as in “today at lunch I sat with Mark, Allison, James, and my enemy” or, referring to a TV show we were watching: “This is my enemy’s favorite show!” Well, even though I told my son we should not refer to people as “my enemy,” I secretly loved the idea of that, and ended up writing a story, “My Enemy” about a guy who believes his enemy is out to get him. I always credit my son with the idea, though. He’s kind of proud of that.
I’m kind of always on the lookout for an idea. I can definitely identify with the motivations and process Anthony describes; that said, I look for stories most actively in my interactions with others and experiences of place. The other day, I made a discovery of a story idea I’ve since begun working on in the sparest of my spare time while talking on the telephone with a hotel receptionist who made an offhand comment about international tourism. I suspect that the mechanism for recognition of a potential story is, in my case, literary in a some way, though whether that’s primary or secondary is harder to say with much certainty; I think I recognize the structures and materials of my favorite works of fiction in my observations. But I’m never sure what came first: the fiction I read before I came up with the idea or the story I made out my experience and imagination. Beyond that, though--the grasping of the idea--I use whatever comes to hand to get the story drafted, then go back and refine, whether junking useless additions or working up weak parts into something strong, until the story seems to read itself to me when I look it over again, which is a way, I hope, of replying to your last question, a way of saying, yes, I never know how it’s going to happen on the page except in some general way.
Ideas are rarely a problem. It’s just a matter of paying attention to my surroundings and actually writing stuff down. I tend to get these really great ideas when I’m lying in bed at night -- you know, when the subconscious mind is starting to creep in -- but I’m too stubborn/stupid to get up and write them down. I always think, “Oh, that’s such a great idea of course I’ll still remember it in the morning.” And I never do. Lather, rinse, repeat. I went through a LONG stretch after my dad and brother died when I had no ideas. Zippo. Zero. Nadda. That scared the living crap out of me. As far as an idea I have that I can’t figure out how to write about, yes -- I have a novel like that. I get back to it every two years thinking, “I know how to write it now!” and do a total re-write and take it to writers group or workshop or wherever, and hear, “Nope. Still not working.” I recently mentioned that project to a friend who I met in workshop 10 years ago. She sighed and said, “That poor novel.” I think Anthony’s onto something though . . . maybe I need to get a kid to steal some ideas from!
How do you title your pieces? (Is it a process? Does it just come naturally? Are they usually relevant to the piece or irrelevant? Do you do it before? After? During?)
It depends on the story. Sometimes the title just sort of presents itself, ta-da, as you’re writing, but sometimes you finish a story and realize you are writing a Story That Has No Title. So, for example, one of the stories in my new collection, was titled “Story With a Gun in It,” which was the filename until I realized I couldn’t possibly call it that, and changed the title to “Time Apart Together” after I’d revised the story a few times. I once published a story under the title “Places of Comfort,” until a writing friend of mine said, “Dude, you cannot call a story ‘Places of Comfort.’” He was right; I changed the title.
I title my stories after I’ve written them. I prefer titles that reveal a second meaning once one has read the story, titles that close a piece, like a coda. So I usually have to wait to figure out that part.
I like titles that are voicey or idiosyncratic in some way, so it usually involves writing and understanding the language of my piece first. I often end up taking a line from the story itself. There are times, though, when I’ll just default to something sort-of-descriptive, but easy. One of my best experiences is when David Leavitt asked me to come up with a different title for a story. The previous title was really received -- something like “What She Left Behind,” and what David’s urging brought me to was “Underneath the Magnolia Trees When Magnolias Were in Bloom.” It has more words in it, which must mean it’s better, right?
What is the most bizarre idea you have written about or thought of writing?
That’s really hard to answer. I mean, all ideas seem pretty bizarre—or do I mean bad?—as you are writing them. The only thing I know is that if the idea seems somehow “unworthy” of being written about (hey, like two kids going to Rehoboth Beach!) that usually means it’s actually a pretty good idea for a story, but if the idea seems like a GREAT idea that everyone is sure to LOVE, that usually means you’re about to write a terrible story. It’s kind of cruel, when you think about it.
I can’t be too forthcoming here because I’m still hoping to make several strange ideas I’ve found spellbinding for several years work in various pieces of fiction. But I will tell you that, as an undergraduate, I wrote very strange allegorical stories for my workshops, one of which ran to sixty pages (or would have, had I not handed it in 10 point font, and single-spaced--I was kind of a brat and feel I should go on apologizing): in one of these, four nearly identical figures make a road trip to California, only to discover, among many other things, that the state has fallen into the sea, and that, on the new western coastline, a very large orgy is underway.
Well, I’m instantly jealous of Hugh, because I seriously lack bizarre ideas. It’s a big fear of mine, that one of my greatest failings as a writer is my lack of imagination. I keep writing about the same themes -- love and loss -- again and again. There are no mystical portals or creatures which transmute, or really, any laws of the physical universe being broken. There is just someone losing someone they love and trying to figure out how to survive -- or not survive -- in that new world.
It’s funny. I think writers who lean toward the visionary tend to envy writers who strive primarily for verisimilitude. In the end, though, I think the deep subjects Liz mentions tend to maintain pretty consistently across the spectrum between the visionary and the verisimilar, which disappear into each other anyway, or at least tend to in the literature I love most--the way Hemingway’s “The Killers,” to cherry-pick my example, reads as both a vaudeville act and a ‘realistic’ representation of possible events.
Check back here next week for part two!