Where Are They Now: An Interview with Past Contributors (Part 2)
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!
Here's part two of our interview, featuring: Anthony Varallo, a fiction contributor in Issue 47; Hugh Sheehy, a fiction contributor in Issue 36; and Liz Prato, a nonfiction contributor in Issue 50. Check out part 1 here!
Sophean Soeun: If you could have written one bestselling book/series before the original author wrote it, which book/series would it be and why?
I don’t have a good answer for this. I mean, I feel like I should say Shakespeare, which is pretty awesome to imagine for myself, though I suspect a little boring for other people (they’d be let down to think of Shakespeare as being just five foot six, for starters). There are plenty of writers I admire--more recently, folks like David Mitchell and Jane Smiley--but I tend to read their work until I lose interest in it. (As a result, I’m always at a loss when people ask me about my favorite authors and books, or worse, about my influences, because I suspect that readers would be better at spotting them than I am.) One series of books that made a deep impression on me when I was young is John Bellairs’s Johnny Dixon novels. I haven’t read them since I was ten and eleven, and I doubt I’ll go back and look at them anytime soon, lest I correct my memory too much: I want to write books that make people now feel the way those novels made me feel then.
I just realized every title I was coming up with -- like Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret? and Ramona the Brave-- are from my childhood, so it’s not so much that I could have written those books, but that they taught me what I wanted to write. And that goes back to the question about bizarre ideas. I was never reading fantasy or sci-fi. I was just reading about ordinary people trying to figure out this being human gig, because I’ve always found that plenty mysterious. Any book that helps another person understand that better -- that’s what I want to write.
I read a lot of Hardy Boys books as a kid. They had a whole display of them at the supermarket—right at the checkout lane—for some mysterious reason. That always impressed me, that you might need The Secret of the Old Mill or The Sinister Signpost as urgently as aspirin or breath mints. I guess I’d like to write a book like that.
SS: Why is there so little understanding among beginning writers of what actually constitutes a story/plot/conflict?
I had almost no idea what a short story--or a “literary” short story--was until I got to college. I simply hadn’t read many short stories; I read novels. That’s something I remind my students all the time: those of us who aspire to write short fiction come to short fiction through the novel, which is very different from the short story. I think we sometimes forget how confusing the short story can seem to beginning writers (“Why does nothing happen?” “Why is this so depressing?” “How could that be the ending?”) who have never seen a “plot” that’s closer to “a series of ordinary events ending in epiphany.”
Funny -- my problem with a lot of short stories I see from young writers is that nothing happens. And by that, I mean there is no conflict, nothing at stake, nothing pushing against the character. I just read an amazing story by Joanna Rose that accomplishes what both Tony and I are talking about. It takes place during an average week in a small town bar, and the entire conflict is that a stranger comes in and acts like a dick. The tension comes from how these insular, dignified people will react. It’s a quiet story without enormous action and no life or death consequences, and the tension is still thick throughout. The epiphany at the end is what maintaining the integrity of their community looks like to these people. But that’s probably precisely the sort of plot that baffles beginning writers.
Oh, and I totally I agree that the issue is people try to write short stories without reading short stories, without making an effort to understand how and why they work. A lot of young writers struggling to get their work published ask me for advice, and I say, “Do you re-read your favorite stories and figure out the way they work?” and it’s not just that they say no -- it’s as if that never occurred to them. There’s a way in which writers are like astrophysicists, though: it’s not enough to imagine a world beyond our boundaries, and it’s not enough to just understand the math and the science. You have to be able to do both.
I like to think of John Gardner’s statement about fiction having a moral imperative as deriving from the Latin stem mor-, which means “custom”: so fiction has to show us a theory of what people are, how they work in a certain place-and-time (which, since we’re talking about representation here, is interchangeable with “mind”). So fiction presents us with some kind of narrative (implicitly so, if there is no story to speak of in the fiction, as you see in some of the work, for instance, of Lydia Davis) that demonstrates how an author works out tensions she perceives between subjects she imagines in a more or less verisimilar way: they might be a particular bankrupt husband and wife with only a car left to their names and the bank coming for that on Monday, or they might be a forlorn cuckolded widower and a woman who grows teeth all over her body, or they might take some other form. I think what’s difficult for a lot of beginners--I know it was (is) for me--is learning to accept and then embrace the need to keep working with the tensions between subjects until the conflicts stand out clearly and drive or order the action. This is a wordy way of agreeing with the definition of fiction-writing Liz and Anthony are discussing. It also, I think, can shed some light on why writers just starting out often traffic heavily in cliches--sometimes composing stories using cliches of speech and writing in order to tell a story that is itself a cliche. Fiction writing is a kind of thinking, one many of us have to learn.
But I think there are professional writers who are confused about this stuff. Take the “story” versus “plot” issue. The difference goes beyond terminology into realms of metaphysics and aesthetics. I teach my students that “story” refers to the larger sense of narrative created by a story’s telling: the sense we have of characters having lives off of the page. And I teach that “plot” refers to the way the story is told: the point of view, the structuring of events, the personal narrative strategies each writer fashions to make things like tone work--in short, the writing. But there’s a problem some might see with this distinction, particularly that the “story” the reader imagines is inseparable from the “plot” they read as it is embodied in the words on the page. If the language that makes up a story cannot be separated from a reader’s reading-and-imagination of the story, then it makes no sense to distinguish between “story” and “plot”. Some folks might say I am guilty of reification when I speak of a story distinct from a plot; I would say that when I am writing, I am choosing to tell some things and not others. And then they might point out that the story I speak of does not exist apart from the words on the page, and I might say that if I am reifying it is with good intentions, and so on and so forth. I think there’s a poorly articulated conflict among creative writers over whether to privilege the word or the imagination, language or story. It’s been around since at least the mid-Twentieth Century quibbles over how to write, what to write about, the political role of writing--in short, whether story itself can make a difference, or whether creative writing has to move on to other effects to do more than provide a temporary escape for readers. Today there’s a lot of vague talk about experimental writing versus conventional writing, and while there are clearer differences between writing programs, creative writing teachers need to cover a lot of terrain and accommodate students who want to write, not understand critical ideas, even if those can be very useful. Add in small (or large) differences in aesthetic philosophy between teachers, and you can get a whole lot of confusion over basic things, like what is meant by “plot” (which is, unfortunately, commonly used to mean something like “narrative stencil”). In the face of a muddle like that, some students might just shrug their shoulders and write what they intended to write when they registered for the course. That’s too bad for the less sure writers, because a little learning can go a very long way in fiction writing. That said, I think the terminology problem may fade a little as we get better at teaching CW (a young academic field) and increase our library of craft books. Still, there will probably always be some conflict over the basics, because differences in fundamental understanding make way for invention and large scale innovations in arts.