12 Winters Blog

Interview with Grant Tracey: Final Stanzas

Posted in September 2015 by Ted Morrissey on September 1, 2015

I’d known of Grant Tracey and his writing for years, because of his editing of the North American Review, but I had never met Grant before this past June. A few weeks previous to our meeting, in late April, my wife Melissa and I were visiting Cedar Falls, Iowa, the home of the University of Northern Iowa, where Grant teaches; and I was sitting in on a creative writing class being taught by my friend and Twelve Winters Press author Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger, when Jeremy mentioned that his colleague, Grant Tracey, had a short story collection that he was interested in publishing, but he was disenchanted with the process of looking for a small-press publisher. In fact, even though Grant had published three previous collections of fiction, he was considering self-publishing this new book.

Final Stanzas - front cover

I realized immediately that a great opportunity for my press, Twelve Winters, had presented itself, out of the blue as it were. I told Jeremy that I was very much interested in looking at Grant’s collection, and he put us in touch via email. Grant graciously sent me a collection to read through, in a couple of installments, both published and unpublished stories (seventeen pieces all together, I believe). Then in June Melissa and I attended the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in Cedar Falls, and we arranged to meet Grant for coffee on our first morning there. By that time I’d read Grant’s terrific stories and very much wanted to bring out some sort of collection. So when we got together at Cup of Joe, it was just a matter of going over the contract details and possibilities for bringing out the book in print, digital and audio.

Grant decided on eleven stories for the collection, ten previously published and one new story. I asked the Press’s faithful and talented editors Pamm Collebrusco and Adam Nicholson to read the collection, which was still untitled. As luck would have it, the Press’s publishing schedule opened up for the fall, and we could bring out the collection quite quickly, especially in the world of publishing, where it may take years for an accepted book to see the light of day. By early August, Pamm and Adam had sent their editorial notes to Grant. We were getting close to having a finished manuscript, but the collection still didn’t have a title. Grant didn’t want to use one of the stories’ titles for the collection’s title, but rather he wanted some phrase or image in the stories to suggest the title. I thought the phrase “final stanzas” from the story “Turnstiles” would be perfect–and Grant also liked it.

On August 24, Final Stanzas was released.

It’s become a Press tradition that I interview the authors upon the release of their books, so I sent Grant some interview questions, and what follows are his unedited responses. I think you’ll enjoy the interview almost as much as the delightful collection itself.

Grant Tracey 1

What’s the time span of the writing of these eleven stories? In other words, how old is the oldest story, and how recent is the most recently written?

The oldest story in here is “Dead Flowers.” I wrote that in 2009 right around the time my last collection Lovers and Strangers was coming out with Pocol. It was a story inspired by my troubled relationship with my father and a lot of things that went down during my childhood. I thought I had moved past them, but writing the story proved to me that I hadn’t. Anyway, that’s the oldest. The newest in terms of publication date is “Ossining, 1918.” Aethlon printed that just last June. However, I had been shopping that story around for three to four years.

The newest in terms of composition is “Written on the Sky” (I wrote it about a year and a half ago and it appeared in Green Hills Literary Lantern) and “Still the Bomber,” which I revised yet again, just weeks before sending it to you. “Ossining” was an important story because it was the first one where I really felt like I was playing with time. I was free to move into the past and flash-forward into the future whenever I wanted because the narrative sensibilities were that of an artist, James Cagney. “Written” was a voice-driven piece. I’m not as comfortable in first-person—I like the control of limited third—but this was a very autobiographical story, and I felt the voice was real and honest.

It’s funny that you mentioned autobiography a couple of times. At least in one of your stories you refer to a real-life colleague at UNI (Dr. Julie Husband). I trust she’s all right with being a character in your fiction. Usually novelists and short-story writers cast at least a thin veil over themselves and friends and family. Why did you decide to dispense with the veil altogether in this case, and is this a technique you’ve used with some regularity in your fiction?

Two reasons why I dispensed with the veil: one, I respect and admire Dr. Husband so I wanted to give her a shout-out; and two, all that stuff about Philip Roth in the story I got from reading an article of hers on the writer, so I wanted to, in a sly way, acknowledge that. And yes, I asked her permission. She was amused. Anyway, many of the stories are artistic creations, imagined probabilities, not biographies, but two or three come pretty close to my life or people I know. The second story in the collection, “Seeing Red, Feeling Blue,” was inspired by the relationship between my sister and mother. The event never happened but some of the sensibilities in that story derive from the complex dynamics of their love for each other. In “Written on the Sky” the mother takes the son out of school to see Woody Allen movies. My mother did that. She somehow always knew when I was struggling and needed to get away from all the crap that goes on in junior high. But the rest of that story is a leap of the creative imagination. Yes, I had a neighbor who I had a crush on. And yes she liked to sun bathe, but we never hung out and discussed theatre. She did say I looked like Johnny Cash, however. Oh, and the scene with all the Playboy playmates fastened to the wall? That did happen. My father took me to a bachelor pad where I couldn’t tell you what the paint color a certain wall was. But all kidding aside, if there are any connections to real people in these stories, they are for the most part accidents or composites.

The actor James Cagney seems to be a hero, or at least a person of particular interest to you. You’ve published critical work on him and chose a quote from one of his movie roles for the book’s epigraph, as well as his being the main character in two of the stories (plus in a third, a character has named his dog Cagney). What about James Cagney do you find so fascinating or perhaps even inspiring?

I think he’s one of the most authentic actors of all time. Cagney had a simple approach to acting: plant your feet, look the other fella in the eye, and tell the truth. And that’s him. I also love his energy, the way he moves. He talks fast, has a territorial lean, raises an eyebrow with all-knowing awareness, and plays things big. So many actors, especially working today, go for the less-is-more, naturalism style of acting. Underplay, underplay, underplay—Steve McQueen style. That’s cool. But Cagney was like Orson Welles once said, “a thousand firecrackers going off all at once.” I also found the contradiction between his tough-guy persona and the quiet, shy person he was off screen fascinating. Cagney tired of playing the tough guy and wanted to branch out, but it was difficult. Audiences loved the tough-talking wise guy, but I’m attracted to the man who wanted more from his art. Earlier, I called him an artist and he was. He took the craft of acting seriously, read Nobel Prize-winning authors, danced, painted, and saw art as essential to living a better, richer life.

Besides the two included in Final Stanzas, are there other James Cagney stories that you’ve written? Are these stories fictionalized biographies, or wholly made up tales based on your perception of Cagney as a person?

I haven’t written any other Cagney stories, not yet, but I plan to. The two stories here are tales based on my perception of Cagney as a person. Tony Kushner, when I met him at [University of Northern Iowa], said about Abraham Lincoln (whom he’d just written a screenplay about) or Jackie Gleason (whom I was writing some stories about) that it’s okay to take imaginative leaps from the historical record as long as you don’t alter the personality or reality of the person. Stay true to the character. I like that way of thinking about it.

Both of the Cagney stories featured in Final Stanzas were grounded in some reality. Cagney was a catcher on a local baseball team that did travel and played at Sing-Sing. I took that reality and blended it with an event that happed to me. In the late 1970s, my parents ran a group home, and the social worker overseeing things arranged a softball game at a local prison. Our team consisted of a bunch of group home parents and their kids, and I played catcher against a prison team. My dad was on the field that day with us and during the game kept looking up at the turrets and guards and machine guns and shook his head, mumbling, “I hope we get out of here. Alive that is.” He was joking and not joking at the same time. I think he was feeling mighty claustrophobic.

Anyway, I took two realities and blended them into fiction. Cagney’s father in that story is, in a way, modeled on my father. Both were alcoholics, both loved their sons deeply. For “Faraway Girl” I wanted to write a kind of weird love story that was also a detective yarn of sorts. In 1932, to protest the roles Warners was giving him, Cagney walked off the studio lot and went back home to New York. What follows is my imagined probabilities of what he might have done during his “vacation.” The story and the characterization of Melissa Coors is also inspired by Shirley MacLaine’s dynamic performance in Some Came Running and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the list stuff that Missy is told to follow versus Jimmy Gatz’s lists and desires to re-imagine himself).

When we first started talking about the Press bringing out this collection, I believe the manuscript you shared with me consisted of twelve previously published stories; then a day or two later you emailed me five newer, unpublished stories to consider as well. Ultimately you decided on ten published stories, plus “Still the Bomber.” Can you describe your thought process as to how you arrived at Final Stanzas in its final form?

Yes. There are six previously published stories that aren’t in the collection, including one, “Bright Lights,” that I’m quite proud of, but I didn’t think it fit in with the arc of what Final Stanzas became. I realized as I was putting the order of the stories together that much of this collection is, not to sound too theoretical, about the interface of life and art, how one informs the other. It’s a circle, a perpetual feedback system: we get meaning from and impose meaning on art. And all of the stories are, in some way, about seeking out an authentic existence: whether it’s a college student trying to create a student film and live life his way (“The Hermit Finds Solace”) or an actor fighting for better scripts and trying to rectify things with his teenage daughter (“Still the Bomber”). For all of the characters in these stories living in a world of art matters because it’s what sustains us.

You teach film studies in addition to creative writing at UNI. How has your love of and critical analysis of film informed your story writing? What cinema-informed lessons have you brought to your teaching of creative writing?

My experience in community theatre has improved my writing. I’ve acted in over twenty plays, most recently taking on the role of Peter in Edward Albee’s Zoo Story. What I love about acting is making the hot choice, the risky choice, and that’s what I try to do in my writing, flip the moment, find a contrary impulse, and never let the characters on the page be defined around one truth. Humans are way too complex for that. Secondly, from acting I get the central question to all art: “Where’s the love?” Stories to me are about love, how we respond to and live with or without it. Right now I’m working on a craft essay entitled, “On Method Writing,” in which I look at how to write more meaningful dialogue in fiction. Writer Ron Carlson has argued that in dialogue characters speak from their own space, freed up from the controlling voice and narrative point-of-view of the writer. Yes! But how do we create real meaning within that space?

Looking at the films of John Cassavetes, the writing of Julie Orringer and Clifford Odets, I explore how well-written dialogue creates trigger words, key bits, that characters respond to. This leads to beat changes, shifts in a scene, escalating or ameliorating the tension. As an actor, when I learn lines, I don’t necessarily focus on the last few words or “cue” of the other actor’s utterance. Instead, I ask what’s the intent behind his or her words that force a response from me. What do I want? What’s emerging here? I circle the word the other actor speaks that elicits a response or new tactic from me. That word is my trigger. For example: character A says, “You never do the dishes. I came home and this place was a mess.” Character B, me: “I didn’t know you wanted me to do the dishes.” Character A: “What do you think I wanted? I can’t write when the place looks like this.” Anyway, the trigger words here: “dishes,” “wanted” and “write.” This is a simple example, but Sidney Lumet said that acting is a verb, and I think each time we write a line of dialogue we should asks what verb best describes this utterance. Am I shaming, chastising, praising, cajoling the other person? If we look at the small sample of dialogue above us, Character A first scolds. Character B attempts to placate. Character A responds to that choice with greater anger, shaming.

If your dialogue in a scene isn’t working, change a verb, an intention. Choose a different one and re-write the line of dialogue accordingly.

You turned the story “According to Chelsea” into a stage play, which you directed in what you called a “guerilla theater” production in 2014. Talk about that experience, including the process of transforming a short story into a dramatic script.

It was amazing. There’s nothing like hearing words you wrote performed by an actor, because that actor infuses the words with life and makes them his or her own. It’s a truly collaborative experience and suddenly you realize that the art really is bigger than you. As a writer you surrender what you wrote over to the actors and engage with the choices they make and what they bring to the project. Of course to write the play I had to really expand upon a rather short short story, writing extensive dialogue scenes and developing a subplot involving Wally Bober’s brother Manny and their Zeyda. In Paddy Chayefsky’s teleplays there are always two main plot lines. Take a look at Marty. There’s the love plot: Marty and Clara. And then there’s the subplot: the in-laws needing their own space, struggling with Marty’s aunt, and asking Marty and his mother to take her in. From this subplot, emerges the desire of Marty’s mother to discourage her son’s love for Clara. I often like to have two narrative strands, like Chayefsky, going on in my stories, but for the play I really developed those two plot lines.

If a century from now the world only knows Grant Tracey, short-story writer by one story from this collection, which story would you want it to be, and why that one?

That’s a tough one. I’m fond of “Ossining, 1918” because, like I said earlier, it was a real breakthrough in terms of the art of time in fiction. I also love “Still the Bomber” because I struggled with that story for five years and found a way to tell a story with a lot of half-scenes: nine or so. “Written on the Sky” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize so I guess I should pick that one, but I’m not going to. I do like the ease with which I slipped into a first-person voice there, but my favorite of all in the collection would be the lead story and the one the book’s title comes from, “Turnstiles.” The story is personal, in the sense that it’s set in a part of Toronto my mother grew up in (and she was raised above a mom and pop Variety store). I am of Macedonian-Roma origins, and those are my grandparents in that story. “Turnstiles” also comes closest to Bernard Malamud in terms of its narrative telling voice (and Malamud is my favorite short-story writer, and I’ve always wanted to write a Malamud–type story. I was thinking of the Assistant and an early story by John Cheever the whole time I was composing this). “Turnstiles” wrote itself quickly. It was one of those rare gifts for a writer where it was just there. Yes, I revised for language but the narrative arc emerged fully upon the first draft. It has hockey in it (my favorite sport) and ends with an image that is original and kind of cool. I just really, really like it. I realize this is a personal response, but hey, that’s how I roll. It’s the one I want to be remembered by.

You’ve acted in several community-theater productions, and in fact this past summer you were on the stage again. Therefore, you were keenly interested when I talked about the potential of creating an audiobook edition of Final Stanzas for the Press. What do you have in mind for the audiobook?

I think I’d like to have members of the local theatre community read some of the stories. I’d read 3–4 of them and surrender the bulk of the project to other voices, getting actor pals to read. The variety of voices I think might enhance the work and make the audio experience a rich one for our listeners. I’ve already got the green light from five community actors. They’re ready.

It was in essence dumb luck that the Press got the opportunity to bring out this terrific book. Our mutual friend Jeremy (J.D.) Schraffenberger mentioned to me offhandedly that you had a collection you’d like to publish, but you were considering doing it as a self-published project because you didn’t want to go through the hassle of finding a publisher for it. Is that more or less where you were with this book when my ears perked up, and I asked Jeremy to put us in touch? If so, why did the process of finding a publisher seem so unappealing to you? Or, if not unappealing, how would you describe your feelings of looking for a publisher?

Honestly, I was burned out. At AWP, one of the panels I went to said if you want to find an agent or a small-press publisher you must have a web presence. Well, I don’t Facebook, tweet tweet, or blog. I have no web presence. I’d rather be writing fiction than documenting my life for others to read. Platform was the word they kept saying, platform. Well, I do have a platform, I’m Fiction Editor at the North American Review, but I don’t have a presence or platform online. So I was discouraged. I wasn’t willing to change. I’m not comfortable talking about myself. My work, yes. I tried entering contests, was a finalist at Snake Nation, but that was about it. I wasn’t getting a nibble. So I was thinking I’ll just self-publish. I’m a full professor. It’s not like I’m fighting for a promotion. And most of the stories had already been accepted in small magazines. But I’m glad I waited and Jeremy put us on touch. I was extremely happy that when I met you and we drank coffee together, you said I didn’t have to have a big web presence. You allowed me to be myself and I appreciate that. What I wanted more than anything was to work with an editor in producing a product that enhances the stories. I’m an old-fashioned, retro writer. I admire stories that have a strong narrative arc, explore the human heart and questions of love, and seek out authenticity. And working with Twelve Winters and you has really brought the stories to life. I’m proud of the look and feel to Final Stanzas and all that you’ve done to make it such a rewarding experience. The cover art; the inside font; the headers: wow. And I’ve never had my work copyedited the way Adam and Pamm did. It was awesome and a little embarrassing. I couldn’t believe all the errors they caught and I’m grateful that they did. A big shout-out to them!!

Finally, tell us about your current writing project, which you describe as a crime novel set in 1965 Toronto?

I’m a big fan of detective stories. But as you probably guessed I like 1950s and 60s crime noir, stuff that’s edgy and doesn’t rely on CSI to solve its murders. But as much I love the genre I’m troubled by all the misogyny that abounds. So I wanted to write something that was a nod to the retro crime noir antecedents, without necessarily subscribing to the darker elements of sexism. Moreover, I wanted to find a voice that was unique: literary but also hard-boiled. What I admire most about Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Richard Stark is that you can tell their prose style apart from all the rest. Chandler is a romantic coated with loneliness. Similes abound. Spillane, especially in the early years, revs up the anger, aggression, and male hysteria. And Stark. He’s bare and spare, full of a professional’s restraint, but every now and then he gives you a mouthful of glass.

The plot to my novel: Former Toronto Maple Leafs left-winger and now private-eye, Hayden Fuller, didn’t expect to be back in Maple Leaf Gardens, let alone mixing it up with a consortium of corrupt NHL owners and ruthless gangsters in the burgeoning permissive society of Toronto, 1965. When Cathy Stabulas goes missing, Hayden’s on the case, confronting his past while moving forward in a much different game, one involving murder. Cheap Amusements is a 65,000-word crime novel with a skate in the world of hockey (sports figures are conspicuously absent from two-fisted tales) and another in the violent undertow of the American hardboiled. The narrative is full of double crosses, liars and lies, and deadly deceptions (double twists abound). Hayden, like a pinball cushioning off bumpers, bounces from one encounter to another. Sure he’s a smart-ass, but he’s caught up in a whirl of irrational chaos and hopes—like that thudding pinball—to stay in the game. Oh, and his name? A composite of two of my favorite noir icons: actor Sterling Hayden and director Samuel Fuller.

Grant Tracey is the fiction editor of the North American Review and a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches film studies and creative writing. He has published nearly fifty short stories, as well as three previous collections of fiction. He has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. (Author photo by Mitchell D. Strauss)

Interview with Lynette D’Amico: Road Trip

Posted in June 2015 by Ted Morrissey on June 30, 2015

Twelve Winters Press doesn’t solicit submissions as a general rule. Sometimes we’ll have a call for submissions for a special project, but otherwise, as a publisher, I see myself as more of a hunter-gatherer. That is, I keep my eyes and ears open for interesting projects, and when I pick up a scent, I track it down to see if it pans out.  I believe it was in the summer of 2014 that I received the Quarterly West newsletter which included an announcement of the winner and finalists of its annual novella contest. One of the finalists was “Road Trip” by Lynette D’Amico. There were several finalists, and I’m not sure why that one stood out to me. I’m a big fan of the road trip motif — I’ve taught Homer’s Odyssey many, many times, as I have tales from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and I’m a fan of Kerouac’s On the Road, and McCarthy’s The Road . . . and so on. So maybe it’s as simple as that.

Road Trip - front cover for DIGITAL

I went about tracking down this Lynette D’Amico person on the Web (which took a little doing), and introduced myself and Twelve Winters via email. She responded, and come to find out, her novella had been three times a bridesmaid. Prior to the Quarterly West finalist finish, her little book also had been a finalist for the Paris Literary Prize and, as part of a collection, for the 2014 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. She had some other impressive writing credentials, including placing a piece with The Gettysburg Review, “Ashes, Ashes,” that had been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She said in her email that being contacted by a publisher took some of the sting out of her third close-but-not-quite finish, and she agreed to send me the manuscript.

I was blown away by her novella — its complexity, its intricate structure, its mixing of genres, its main characters who are thoroughly lovable in spite of their glaring flaws, and its offbeat humor. I very much wanted to bring this strange little book into the world. We began our negotiations. I entertained the idea of bringing “Road Trip” out as part of a collection, but ultimately we agreed that it should stand on its own as a novella. The story is highly intertextual, so I liked the idea of perhaps mixing in yet another mode of communication in the form of illustrations of some sort (at least, I think it was my idea — maybe Lynette suggested it first . . . I could easily be persuaded she did). Ultimately, Lynette found some photographs from the Wisconsin Historical Society and from a book titled Death of the Dream that she wanted to include in the book. The odd and often haunting photographs definitely added another layer to her already multi-layered novella.

I enlisted the aid of a couple of the Press’s loyal editors to read the manuscript and work with Lynette to finalize it for publication; then beginning in about March of this year I re-entered the process, and Lynette and I went about creating Road Trip in its final form, in print and digital editions. (Lynette is at work on an audio version of Road Trip as well.) On June 22, 2015, the novella entered the world. I sent Lynette some interview questions about her book and her process, and what follows are her unedited responses. SPOILER ALERT: At times the interview drifts into details of the novella you may not want to know before reading it (I wouldn’t have).

Lynette-6

The travel narrative obviously has a rich history. The Bible is filled with travel stories. There’s Homer’s Odyssey, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Gulliver’s Travels, with your own book perhaps being more closely related to Kerouac’s On the Road. Why do you think the travel narrative has been so attractive to storytellers, and what specifically attracted you to it for Road Trip?

Isn’t it a version of the travel narrative that we all see ourselves as coming from somewhere on our way to somewhere else? Well, maybe that’s a version of the travel narrative written by white men of a particular social class. When I was 21 or 22, I tried to wrangle a posse of girlfriends to drive from a first-ring suburb of St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. My friends wanted to bake on a beach, so I wrote to chambers of commerce, collected maps, a sleeping bag, and hit the road alone. I made it as far as Taos before I exhausted my credit limit and my own capacity for adventure—sleeping and not sleeping in my car with all the doors locked at state parks.

The notion of the road trip immediately inspires a sense of the unknown; it has its own engine—we’re heading out from Point A to Point B, or to points unknown. I needed a trajectory for Road Trip, something that would propel the story forward, and place the characters of Myra and Pinkie in time and space, and a literal road trip does the trick.

There’s a line in a story by Paul Yoon, “So That They Do Not Hear Us,” that I get caught on, “. . . there was a time she had departed and was now wishing to return to.” This nostalgia for returning is also a part of the mythology of a road trip: we want to go back to where we started, and the inherent sadness of the road trip for Myra and Pinkie is that even if they get back to where they started, even if they return, nothing will ever be the same again.

Some of the travel narratives I mentioned have a significant supernatural element in them—as does your novella. What do you think the connection is between travel and the supernatural?

Travel removes us from the familiar. In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, she says that “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” The expectation of the travel narrative is exploration of the unknown; to turn a corner or come into a clearing, where “I have never seen this place before” and the unexpected becomes possible.

Flimic references that inform Road Trip include David Lynch’s Wild At Heart, the Cohen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Wizard of Oz, and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. And by “inform,” I mean I paid attention that if you’re on a road trip, something’s gotta happen along the way, and I like it when the something that happens along the way is a little weird, or incorporates unreal elements.

A few years back my spouse and I were staying in a cabin in the Adirondacks. We woke up early the morning we were due to leave and rather than go back to sleep, we packed the car and got on the road before dawn. There were no cars on the road, no lights; it was foggy and misty, and all of a sudden we saw a one-armed figure in the middle of the road. Polly was driving. We both screamed and Polly, who has the reflexes of an athlete, swerved and braked hard. We looked around and there was no one on the road. We kept driving. Did we really see a one-armed man on a foggy road? And where did he go? In writing, and perhaps in life, anything is possible on the road—one-armed hitchhikers, or red-headed hitchhikers in one-piece bathing suits and flip-flops pulling doughnuts and mini-bottles of vodka out of a bottomless purse.

The structure of Road Trip is decidedly nonlinear. You have several characters embarking on various storylines, and the reader constantly shifts between these storylines, as well as back and forth temporally. How did this rather frenetic structure come about? Was it planned early on in the composition, or did it develop more organically while you were writing Road Trip?

Nothing was planned! I so rarely work with any kind of intentionality unless I’m writing an essay, but even then I leave plenty of space for discovery. Road Trip started as one straight-line short story called “No Brakes”—the story of Myra and Pinkie—more or less. It was a big sprawling mess, but from the one draft I had the last words, “no brakes,” and in subsequent drafts I wrote towards that line. It was always fragmented, but I had sections in it about Ed Gein, the Plainfield, Wisconsin, killer who is the model for Norman Bates in Psycho and Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, which didn’t make the cut and sections called “What Does My Mother Have to Do with This” that were kind of funny stories about my mother talking about death, but their destiny was foretold by their heading. Then my first semester in grad school I worked with the brilliant Kevin (Mc) McIlvoy, who taught me one simple thing about braiding story chords (I don’t mean that he told me one thing; he told me a million things, but I actually managed to hold onto this one right thing): He referred to the turns in the long version of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos: “You thought we were entering a pond? No. You thought we were entering a lake? No. Here: the ocean. The ocean: hear.” His comment translated into some kind of circular, touch-and-go movement in the story. Mc encouraged me to think about fragmentation­—breaking blocks of text into small islands to introduce a rhythmic discontinuity and dynamic disjunction into the narrative. To my surprise, as I broke the main narrative down and split the secondary narrative into discrete modules, I was able to see the shape of the story. In pulling everything apart, the story came together for me.

Myra Stark (the narrator) and Pinkie have a complex relationship. What do you think is at the core of their friendship? Are you basing this complex friendship on any real-life models?

In all the conversations and discussions I’ve had about this book, I’ve never tried to explain the relationship between Myra and Pinkie, except maybe to myself.  Early feedback I got on the story was that Myra was so mean to Pinkie wasn’t I worried that readers wouldn’t like her? I also heard that Pinkie was beyond believable infuriating. Beyond believable in a story with ghosts and an animated butter and cheese doll? Well, it doesn’t hurt my feelings if readers don’t like Myra or Pinkie. My interest is in creating complex, difficult characters that readers want to argue with or talk to on a long road trip. My interest is that readers keep reading.

I had in mind a complicated relationship between two women, a relationship if not as clear-cut as lovers, then maybe a friendship betrayed, or a friendship of history and habit and conflicted feelings. In my own life, I’ve had friendships that blew up, I’ve disappointed and been disappointed by friends. I wrote pages and pages, which is my way of thinking, trying to discover a relationship that existed beyond estrangement and death. What I discovered in the process was that I wasn’t really interested in Myra and Pinkie making peace. Theirs was a relationship that would extend in its contentiousness beyond death. One of my models for Myra and Pinkie’s relationship was Sula Peace and Nel Wright from Toni Morrison’s Sula. Sula is a devastating novel about the relationship between two black women from the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio. The story follows Sula and Nel from the 1920s as young girls, then young women; their falling apart, and through the death of the title character, which corresponds with the slow decline of the black community they come from. When Sula is ill and alone, Nel visits her and asks her a question she had been struggling with since the friends had ceased being friends after Sula slept with Nel’s husband:

“I was good to you, Sula, why don’t that matter?” Sula turned her head away from the boarded window. . . . “It matters, Nel, but only to you. Not to anybody else. Being good to somebody is just like being mean to somebody. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.”

“Being good to somebody is just like being mean to something. Risky. You don’t get nothing for it.” That line is at the heart of the relationship between Myra and Pinkie.

Road Trip was originally part of a collection (which was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2012). How is Road Trip similar to and different from other pieces in that collection?

Other stories in the collection, although not all the stories, use similar nonreal elements as appear in Road Trip, such as ghosts, and a couple of the stories try to be funny. I think a problem with the collection is that Road Trip was in it. The other stories are about families: mothers and daughters, sisters, and the relationships you are born into versus the relationships you choose. Road Trip might have been too much of its own animal to work with the collection.

For a long time the novella, as a form, was “persona non grata” in the publishing world—too long to be published as a story, and too short to be taken as seriously as a novel. But the novella’s status seems to have improved in recent years. Major houses are publishing them, and some have even fared well in national contests competing right alongside full-length novels. How do you personally feel about the novella form, compared to story and novel writing?

I love the novella form. I went around for a while pitching a book that was going to be comprised of three novellas! That plan fell by the wayside due to lack of interest—not on my part but on the part of every publishing venue that I approached—but I like to keep a novella percolating on the back burner, something to dip into from time to time. I’m still new to novel writing. I’m writing a novel, but I am a little shy about saying that I’ve written a novel yet. Time will tell. The only form that I feel sure about before I write it is the short story. Sure, in that I usually know if a short story is going to be a short story when I start writing, although I’m open to surprises too.

The most obvious way to differentiate novellas from stories and novels is, of course, by word count, which is typically in the 20,000 to 40,000 word range—but word count is only one indicator of what a novella is and it doesn’t address form. Author Debra Spark, who I had the great fortune to work with at Warren Wilson, has an essay about the novella in her book on the craft of writing called Strange Attractions. She refers to Howard Nemerov’s essay “Composition and Fate in the Short Novel,” and says that novellas “must represent not simply a compression but a corresponding rhythmic intensification, and not just for plot—which we expect from most fiction—but for design.” Rhythmic intensification to me means exerting pressure on every element: language, sentences, paragraphs, which is compounded by and propelled by tone. It’s a process of distillation. The best way I can think of to illustrate what I’m talking about is with these few novellas and short novels that are particularly important to me:

The Body Artist, Don DeLillo.

I am a freak for DeLillo and then I go through periods where I can’t read another word of his. The Body Artist is a drifty, dreamy book with the thinnest of plots and the first fifty pages or so is this excruciating chapter of a domestic scene that is written kind of like in real time. The book is like a dream. I love The Falling Man by DeLillo too.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

I reread or listen to Gatsby two or three times a year. I would like to write a collection of essays from lines from Gatsby. Every line opens a world.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

Another drifty, dreamy novella, and the first chapter in which the main character tells his own death in the context of the house he built falling down around him is brilliant.

Train Dreams, Denis Johnson

The main character of Train Dreams is opaque and unreflective, but Johnson evokes a whole way of life and period of history through the character Grainier—of logging and the woods and labor and heartbreak in Idaho in the early part of the twentieth century. I love this book as an example of how to tell a story through characterization.

So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell

I like my fiction a little slapdash and hard-edged, language-driven or image-driven or just voice-y—funny, snappy voice-y. So Long, See You Tomorrow isn’t that kind of book. It’s such a quiet, meditative book, but I read it, then listened to the audio file of the author William Maxwell reading it, which is an extraordinary experience, then I read it again. And maybe a few more times. I’ve heard the book referred to as a nonfiction novel because the first half of the book is written like a memoir in which the author William Maxwell is the central character. He tells an account of a murder on a tenant farm outside of Lincoln, Illinois, the small Midwestern town where Maxwell was born and lived until he started high school. The second half of the book is a fictionalized account of the murder from a third-person omniscient perspective. I love that this book tells the same story many different ways.

Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje

The subject of the novella is a fictionalized account of the life of New Orleans jazz trumpet player Buddy Bolden. The novel incorporates point of view jump cuts, lists, lyrics, descriptions of photographs, and invented and historical interviews in an attempt to enter the character and historical figure of Buddy Bolden. The presentation is disjointed and imagistic and opens up whole worlds.

Why Did I Ever, Mary Robison

Funny as hell. And sad. Written in 536 little sections. Not an extra word.

Road Trip must have had a fairly long and adventurous trip of its own before being published. Could you talk about your efforts to get it into print, and what kind of a journey that was for you as a writer, including emotionally.

Over the past several years, Road Trip was a finalist in a few well-considered contests—always a bridesmaid, as they say. Every time I got on one of those close-but-no-cigar lists, an agent or two would contact me and ask “what else you got?” Nobody was interested in a novella, or in the novella as part of a collection of short fiction. I think Road Trip didn’t really work in a collection. If the collection had won some prize, that might have made a difference, but generally, what I heard from agents was that they wanted a novel, and there’s nothing like the attention of a few publishing professionals to completely derail my writing practice and sidetrack me from the work, which is ultimately what matters. So, I tried to keep my head down and just keep focused on the page.

I had stopped submitting Road Trip to journals—the few that are open to considering novella-length work—but I’d gear up and send it around to the couple of novella contests that come around every year. After an appearance on the finalist list for the 2014 Quarterly West Novella contest (which I lost to Nathan Poole, a fellow Warren Wilson alum, which by the way, if you’re a fan of the novella or just gorgeous writing, read his winning novella Pathkiller as the Holy Ghost or his collection of short fiction from Sarabande, Father, Brother, Keeper), you contacted me. As I think I said to you in my initial response, nothing takes the sting out of losing like a query from a publisher. I was impressed with Twelve Winters’ dedication to independent publishing, your commitment to publishing literary titles that might be a little off the beaten track, as well as your plans to expand the press’s fiction list. Let me just say, too, that I have a lot of writer friends who operate like literary hoarders. Playwrights who are holding out and holding out—they don’t want their work to be produced at a small local theater in case Steppenwolf or The Public wants to consider their play, writers who have their marketing plans in place before they finish a first draft. The upshot is an unproduced play (or an unpublished book) sitting in a drawer or on a computer file. I started writing later in life, and besides feeling the pressure of age in a youthful field, I want my work to be in the world. I liked that Twelve Winters is an entrepreneurial endeavor. I liked that you are a reasonable guy who is interested in working with his authors to make the best books possible. I liked that you were willing to take a chance on my weird, sad-funny novella. I think it’s worked out.

How did a Midwesterner with “a prairie eye” end up in Boston? Does your writing tend to focus on the Midwest, or do you sometimes find your East Coast environment an appropriate setting for your fiction?

I lived a lifetime in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Then my spouse, who works in theatre, got a job offer in Chicago. While she was in Chicago interviewing, my mother died. We sold our house, I quit my job, and we moved three months later.

After kicking me around for a year or so, Chicago became my best friend. I came to think of Chicago as my place. And then we moved again. To Boston, following Polly’s career again. We’ve been here now for three years. Boston has been a culture shock, more so even than the traffic in Chicago, where I drove for three years without ever making a left turn. There’s the cost of housing in Boston and the contrast with all the hardscrabble Massachusetts hill towns and then all these tiny, tight New England states. I can drive for twenty minutes and cross three state lines. I miss having an uninterrupted view. I miss driving for hours and hours and the unchanging landscape. I miss parking. To find my place here, I’m considering the ocean, which is right across the street from where we live in South Boston. I’ve lived with Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, both beloved to me, but the ocean requires a different relationship. I haven’t written anything yet about the East Coast, beyond ranting emails, but I likely will.

Could you talk about your writing process? Are you someone who consistently follows a routine, or do you write more in fits and starts as ideas and inspiration come to you?

I try to write everyday, which some days is more aspirational than realistic.

I think of it as exercise—another aspirational pursuit. If I don’t have a couple hours to write during the day, then I at least try to engage my current project in some way—through research, which can include reading, watching movies, listening to podcasts, music, eating whole boxes of dry cereal and bags of chips—I’ll use anything. Of course having an open-ended definition of research sometimes means that I lose days on the internet reading about how to frame a door, or birds of the prairie, or just googling writer bios in publications that have rejected me and comparing their lives to my own.

What are your current writing/creative projects?

I’m presently finishing a novel called The Third Twin, which is about renditions of home, how to make a home, homesickness, homelessness. It might be a reaction to moving around so much. Myra Stark appears in The Third Twin too. I also have a collection of short fiction called Below the Surface.

You’re a graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. There’s been a lot of discussion of late about the escalating number of MFA programs, and whether or not they actually help someone to become a better writer and establish a career as a writer, etc. What are your thoughts on the “MFA question”? How did Warren Wilson and its instructors nurture (or hinder) you as a writer?

I spent years trying to write over weekends, or in one-week or two-week increments—my allotted vacation time—or early in the morning or late at night, between working full-time. When I met Polly, I was introduced to the work of some of the best theater artists in the country—Lisa D’Amour, Deborah Stein, Kirk Lynn, Dominic Orlando, Sherry Kramer. My proximity to the world of theater and playwriting allowed me a fuller understanding of what it means to be an artist and the odds against gaining any kind of recognition or audience for your work. It was the example of many of these theater artists that pushed me to consider what I was doing with my own writing and what it meant to pursue a career as a writer. I saw the value of formal training in my chosen field, the necessity of credentials, and the importance of being connected to an academic institution or a professional organization. I decided to pursue an MFA. Writer friends, who had gone back to school later in life, recommended low-residency MFA programs.

My MFA program was a great gift to myself. Since I had been making my living as a writer in advertising and marketing communications, I came into the program thinking that I really didn’t have much to learn. It took one residency to disabuse me of that particular delusion. I listened to James Longenbach deliver a lecture on the excess of poetry to show how excess can be used to heighten a poem’s meaning, citing examples from Ezra Pound’s Canto 74, Emily Dickinson’s “The vastest earthly day,” John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” and my head blew off. I realized I didn’t know anything. But I knew the difference between inspiration, a first draft, and material that was ready for an audience. I didn’t take rejection personally. I trusted my skills and I was prepared to start over every day. With the help of brilliant mentors and an intentionality that considers the arc of a student’s development as a writer throughout the program, I cultivated a craft lens to consider what I’m doing in my work and how to look at the work of other writers. I came out of the program a better writer, reader, and editor, and I’d also say, a better cultural citizen as part of a community of Warren Wilson alumni that extends after graduation.

So to get back to the question, earning an MFA changed me as a writer and a person, and it allowed me entrance to a supportive and far-reaching community of faculty and alumni.

I don’t pay much attention to the pervasive rhetoric that circles around every season or so, calling out that MFA programs in creative writing are mass producing mediocre writers who support the uninspired and uninspiring literary journals and elite publishing venues that publish work by the same crew of insiders from insider MFA programs. I am mostly indifferent to the ongoing MFA controversy. Where I’d shed blood is over the line that creative writing can’t be taught. Teaching is complicated, writing students are varied, and my life is forever changed by the dedication and generosity of my teachers.

Who are some writers or works of literature that have been especially important to you? What have you learned from them, either about writing or about living?  

In addition to the list of books above, I’ll add a few others: Lewis Nordan, author of (among other titles) Wolf Whistle, Music of the Swamp, and Lightning Song. Some time ago, I heard Lewis Nordan read in Minneapolis with Dorothy Allison. I was at the reading for Dorothy Allison, but what I remember was Lewis Nordan reading an extended scene from Wolf Whistle, which is a fictional account of the murder of Emmett Till. The scene Nordan read was from the point of view of Bobo’s—the murdered child’s—“demon eye,” the eye that is knocked out by the killer’s bullet. Nordan gives Bobo a voice in death that was not available to him in life. Not only does the dead boy’s vision expand to see past his own death into the lives of characters he hadn’t encountered previously, he also sees into the future and the significance of his murder, “worlds invisible to him before death.” The scene is devastating and out of place and so audacious. I read Nordan to model how to tell a sad story funny. Ditto with Lorrie Moore, Mary Robison, Sherman Alexie, and—Samuel Beckett? I saw a production of Endgame at Steppenwolf Theatre when we lived in Chicago. There was an Eastern European woman sitting next to me with her grandson, I presumed, who looked to be about 11 or 12. Before the show started, she leaned over to her young companion and said, “To understand everything, you must first understand the Nothingness. This is the Nothingness.” I think the Nothingness is pretty funny.

It wasn’t until I traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, for grad school that I was anywhere south, but I read so many Southern writers, like Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Tennessee Williams to understand the use of voice, language, tone, velocity, and relationship to place.

An author that I turn to often is Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping is my version of a perfect book. I like imperfection in novels, sideroads, an authorial breakdown or two. If a work is shorter, I have higher expectations. Perfection is realized in Housekeeping. It’s just a book that I love so much. I love those sad sisters, I love the elegant, image-dense sentences, I love the lake, I love the name of the town—Fingerbone! When I was writing many of the stories in my collection Below the Surface, I looked at Housekeeping for a view of another version of family, and on the first page of my novel, The Third Twin I have this quote from Housekeeping, “Memory is the sense of loss, and loss pulls us after it.”

Books that I’m living with at the moment, and by living with, I mean literally, the books I have piled on every surface in my apartment:

Snow Hunters, Paul Yoon. This is a beautiful novel where the pressure on the language drives the story. Not much happens. Almost no dialogue. Close third POV. A North Korean war refugee is relocated to Brazil. On a sentence by sentence level, an exquisite book.

Citizen, Claudia Rankine. My particular interest is in how Rankine incorporates visual art into her poetry. She and her husband, the videographer John Lucas, made a series of video “Situations” that are referred to in Citizen. The book is a living document, or art installation.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. I’m not a theory head. I like to read bits and pieces of theory to sort of launch off of, but mostly it’s not my thing. My thing is story. I write creative nonfiction too, so when I’m reading The Argonauts, I’m considering the story first, then form and structure, POV, language, and then somewhere down the line, if I get around to it, I’ll think about the ideas. Nelson’s subjects—falling in love, making family, motherhood, change and transition inherent in any relationship and the queering of those constructs—are reflected in the form of the text which are short little paragraphs.

What compelled you to use historic photos in the novella? What do you hope they add to the novella as part of the reading experience? How’d you go about finding them?

For me, the photos are all about entering the story. I visited the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin, this past spring to do photo research.

A book of photographs by William G. Gabler of abandoned Midwestern farmplaces was one of the inspirations for Road Trip. The book is The Death of the Dream and two of the photographs from that book appear in Road Trip. When I came across Gabler’s book I was living in Western Wisconsin on 20 acres in an L-shaped farmhouse. I had grown up living in new houses, built to order. Living in a rural area in a house that was built at the turn of the century, on land that had been cleared and cultivated and then gone back to woods, excited my imagination. From Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, “…the house shelters day-dreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.”

In that farmhouse I dreamed and those dreams enter everything I write.

I came across another book, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, which is a collection of photographs by the nineteenth century photographer Charles Van Schaik taken in the city of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. The photographs are paired with news reports of suicides and murder, infant death, crime, mental illness, and business failure. The images cast a spell. The first time I looked at Wisconsin Death Trip, I kept the book in my car. I didn’t want the book in the house, I didn’t want it in the place where I ate breakfast and slept; the book is at odds with the idea of shelter.

When I started thinking of Road Trip, I used Death of the Dream and Wisconsin Death Trip to set the scene, so to speak, for the story. Then I became fixated on a photo of threshing from the Wisconsin Historical Society. This photo evoked Road Trip for me, which is kind of funny because it’s not an image of a wagon train or any other kind of a road trip—it’s a photo of threshing with horse-drawn wagons in the early 20th century. The photo ultimately didn’t make it into the book, but it was an early contender for the cover image and it was my screen saver while I was writing Road Trip. Then I saw the image of the mannequin in the window of a hat shop in Black River Falls. I wrote the scene of Carmella shaping a butterhead girl/man with a mustache based on this image. The photos in the book are not necessarily specific to the time period of the Starks’ story line, but I was more interested in conveying atmosphere rather than hyperrealism. So in some instances, the photos informed the story and in others, the story is enhanced I hope by the photos.

Lynette D’Amico worked in publishing and advertising for a decade. Today, she is a former ad writer and graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, The Ocean State Review and at Brevity and Slag Glass City. She is the content editor for the online performance journal HowlRound. Born in Buffalo, New York, she has lived in St. Louis, Minneapolis and Chicago. She makes her home in Boston with her love Polly Carl.

(Author photo by Meg Taintor)

When Not to Edit

Posted in May 2015 by Ted Morrissey on May 18, 2015

I’ve been writing for publication since high school (I graduated, ahem, in 1980), and I’ve been editing publications since then, including scholastic publications and the literary journals A Summer’s Reading and Quiddity. In 2012 I founded Twelve Winters Press, and I’ve had a hand in editing each of the books we’ve published (we’ll be releasing our ninth title next month). Editing a book is different, of course, from editing a piece for a journal — but no matter the context, I’ve come to believe that there’s a right time to edit someone’s work, and there’s most definitely a wrong time.

It’s the latter that has prompted me to write this post, and in particular an encounter with the editor-in-chief of a well-respected literary journal which ended in her withdrawing my piece due to “Author unwilling to cooperate with editorial process.” About two years earlier I had a similar encounter with a literary press — but in that case I had signed a contract allowing the press editorial control of the piece, never imagining how far its editor-in-chief would take liberties.

I’m not going to identify the publications and their editors.  Even though I disagree with their approaches, I respect that they’re doing important and largely thankless work.  I have no interest in blackening their eyes, but there are a lot of editors at work — what with online journals and print-on-demand publishers springing up daily — so I think it’s worth discussing when the right and wrong times to edit are.

I had very similar experiences with the journal and the publisher, so I’m going to focus on the more recent experience with the journal.  Last week I received in the mail the issue that my short story “Erebus” was supposed to appear in (I generally try to support the journals that publish my work by buying subscriptions).  It’s an attractive little journal, which no doubt contains some very good pieces.  It would have been a nice feather in my CV cap.

The problem, as I see it, is one of timing.  The story was accepted for publication with no caveats whatsoever on November 29, 2014.  Months went by, during which time I supported the journal by including the forthcoming publication on my website and in my bio to other journals — some free publicity if you will.  Then I received the following email with my edited story attached:

[March 21 — 7:16 p.m.]

Dear Ted,

I’m sending out copy edits for the upcoming issue, and have attached yours to this message.

My edits are made using the track changes feature, and comments/questions/suggestions are included in comment balloons in the document. Please make any changes within the document with track changes turned on. Please do not accept any of my changes or delete comments, as I will need those to remain in place as references. If everything looks okay to you, please let me know by e-mail (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes).

Thank you and I look forward to including your work in the upcoming issue! Just let me know if you have any questions.

It was obviously a generic email sent to all contributors (which is understandable) because when I opened the document I found there were numerous changes and requests for changes — so “[i]f everything looks okay to you, please let me know by email (no need to send the document back unless you have made changes)” didn’t even apply because there were places here and there where the editor (or another editor) wanted me to replace a word or revise a section to make some other aspect of the story plainer — things to that effect.  Also, someone must have read Stephen King’s On Writing and really taken his disdain for adverbs to heart because every adverb in the 3,300-word story was deleted, regardless of how it impacted the meaning of the sentence.  Moreover, I’ve developed a style for my literary work that uses punctuation (or doesn’t use it) in nonstandard ways; and the editor had standardized my punctuation throughout.

I was flummoxed.  Here are our verbatim exchanges over the next few weeks:

[March 21 — 8:31 p.m.]

Hi, [Editor]. While I can see some improvements here and there, in general the editing is too heavy-handed, for example, the addition of quotation marks and tinkering with italics.  I’m well aware of conventional rules, and I’m breaking them.  I’m not sure why journal editors accept pieces for publication, then find so much fault with them before publication.  I’m ok with considering a wording change or two, but I’m not comfortable with this amount of editing.

If you didn’t care for the story in its original form, you should have rejected it.  I’m not sure where that leaves us.  Thank you for the time and thought you’ve put into my story, but I disagree with much of what is suggested here.  Not angry, just disappointed and a little frustrated.

Ted

* * *

[April 1 — 12:09 p.m.]

Hi Ted,

While I’m aware that you were intentionally breaking stylistic conventions, I added things like quotation marks because they were needed for clarity, i.e., to separate narrative from dialogue. There were some sections where the distinction wasn’t clear without them. Many of the other changes I implemented were for our house style. However, those edits are minor in light of many of the other edits that are suggested, notably in the comments. I edit every piece before publication…that’s what editors do. So, that is to say that the edits aren’t personal, and in my experience, that is the reaction of many new writers, to take edits personally somehow. So the bottom line is that if you’re not comfortable making any changes to your work, then I’ll withdraw it from the issue and you’re free to shop it elsewhere.

Let me know.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:42 p.m.]

Edit “Erebus” however you see fit, [Editor]. Thank you for including it in the journal.

* * *

[April 1 — 1:50 p.m.]

There are editorial suggestions in the comments that require your feedback. I have attached the piece again. Below are the instructions for editing in track changes:

Edits are made using the Track Changes feature in Word. Please look over the edits and changes I have made, and let me know if you accept these or have any questions. Of course, if there is anything you disagree with, please let me know and we can discuss it to try to reach a mutually agreeable solution. If you make any further changes, please make sure that you do so with Track Changes toggled on, so that I can be sure that your work makes it into the final copy; otherwise, I may not see it.

Please have edits back to me by 4/5, if possible

* * *

[April 1 — 2:09 p.m.]

Gosh, [Editor]. You guys seem to be making this as difficult as you can.  I don’t agree with any of the editorial suggestions/questions, so it’s difficult for me to find a better way of saying things.  I did all that work before I sent it to you, so now we’re into potay-to/potah-to, and I don’t know how to say things the way you want to hear them.  I looked at your comments again to see if I could get into the spirit of things.  I’ve been publishing my writing (fiction, poetry, academic writing, essays, reviews) for thirty-five years, and I’ve been editing and publishing other people’s work for nearly that length of time, and I’ve never experienced a process like this one before.  I disagree with your comments on the story, but I’ve given you free rein to edit it however you like.  If you feel like you can make the story better, please do so.  I’m generously putting my faith in your editorial skills.  I don’t know what more I can do than that.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:10 p.m.]

You can consider “Erebus” withdrawn from the issue.

* * *

[April 1 — 2:40 p.m.]

Thank you.  That’s been my inclination too.

All the best,

t

In offering her carte blanche, I wasn’t trying to be a smart-ass (ok, maybe a tiny bit).  After all, her original email said I didn’t need to return the edited document.  But, truly, I didn’t see the point of attempting to guess what wording would make her happy, like trying to sell shoes to someone — “Something with a heel perhaps?  No, a loafer?  Maybe a half-boot?”  There were two aspects of the exchange that I found particularly baffling (and they parallel the experience I had with the literary publisher a couple of years earlier).

One thing I’m baffled by is her surprise (and irritation, I think) that I would take the edits personally. She characterizes it as a shortcoming of “many new writers” (rather condescendingly, I feel).  Well, I ain’t no new writer, so that’s not the problem. I think all writers and poets of literary work take their diction, syntax, and punctuation choices seriously, so why wouldn’t they be emotionally invested in those choices?  And having those choices edited to conform to “house style” is especially irksome, which brings me to the second thing I’m baffled by:  house style?!?

Why in the world would a literary journal have a house style that applies to the actual content of its stories and poems?  Of course they would have a style when it comes to things like the font they use for titles and authors’ names, and they should be consistent in placing a translator’s name at the head or foot of a published piece — things like that.  But a style for the content of the literary work itself?  It’s, well, ridiculous.  “Dear Mr. McCarthy, please insert quotation marks in your dialogue … and Mr. Joyce, no more dashes in your dialogue … and Mr. Shakespeare, stop making up words! — if it’s not in the dictionary, we won’t publish it … Sorry, our hands are tied, house style and all.”

The publisher I had a run-in with two years ago insisted on editing my literary book according to the Chicago Manual of Style.  The CMS, really?

All right, so I disagree with editors imposing arbitrary styles on literary work, but that’s their prerogative, I suppose.  What I find downright unethical is accepting a piece for publication without any reservations, waiting several months, then making significant edits that the author is supposed to accept or else (the publisher flexed her contract language and forced CMS on my work, while the lit journal editor-in-chief withdrew my story, in something of a snit I think).

A better approach, I believe, is the one we use at Twelve Winters Press.  Our editors and readers offer authors feedback — food for thought, as I call it — but the decisions when it comes to the final presentation of the work rest with the writers and poets.  If there are reservations about some aspect of the work, those should be ironed out before it’s formally accepted.  There should be no surprises and heavy-handed editing months and months later.  When our contributing editor John McCarthy was reading submissions for his Extinguished & Extinct anthology, he had some suggestions for authors in a few instances, but they were made up front, before offering publication.  Obviously there are many editors and publishers who operate this way, and as a writer I’ve had the good fortune to work with several of them.

What is more, in the case of the literary journal editor, she took my story out of circulation during the peak reading months of the year, from November to April.  Most lit journals, due to their being affiliated with universities, follow an academic calendar and many begin folding their tents for the year in April or May.  It seems odd to me, also, that the editor felt I was over-reacting to changes that were, in her view, minor — yet she couldn’t see fit to letting the story run in its original form when I expressed my strong preference to leave the story be.  Pulling the story after five months due to a disagreement over minor edits could be seen as an over-reaction too.

It’s my impression that with both the literary publisher and the editor-in-chief, the problem arose in part because another editor had acquired or accepted the work; then someone else took charge of it before it was published.  If so, then the problem is in-house.  If the readers and editors acquiring and accepting work have different artistic sensibilities from the top-dogs on the masthead, it’s going to create problems for the authors they’re publishing.  Ultimately, though, I’d like to see all editors respect their authors and their authors’ work enough to give them the benefit of artistic doubt.  In the commercial, mass market world of publishing, I can see where publishers and editors may feel the need to pull rank since capitalism drives their decisions.  They may well know better than the author what phrasing, what title or what cover image may enhance sales.

But literary publishing isn’t about sales — and don’t I know it!  It’s about being true to the work and respecting the author’s artistic vision . . . or at least it ought to be.

Interview with Beth Gilstrap: I Am Barbarella

Posted in February 2015, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on February 20, 2015

In 2011 Beth Gilstrap, an MFA candidate at Chatham University, contacted me by email about interviewing me (ironically) for The Fourth River literary journal. My first novel, Men of Winter, had been released at the end of 2010, and I was anticipating my publisher bringing out another book, the novella Weeping with an Ancient God, so our conversation focused mainly on writing those two works. Beth and I exchanged a few emails, and then wrapped things up with a phone conversation. My publisher reneged on bringing out my second book, and things ended badly between my publisher and me — but it was the proverbial final straw in convincing me to establish my own press, which I did, Twelve Winters, in 2012. I eventually brought out a revised and expanded edition of Men of Winter and also Weeping with an Ancient God. I wanted to reprint the Fourth River interview in each of the books, so I contacted Beth asking for her permission. I checked in on her website in 2013 and again in 2014 to update her biographical information that I included when I reprinted the interview, and I noted each time her growing list of publications.

I Am Barbarella front cover

Then, in 2014, I was reading fiction submissions for Quiddity literary journal, and a familiar name popped up in my Submittable queue, Beth Gilstrap and her story “Juveniles Lack Green,” which I admired very much. And I obviously wasn’t alone in that opinion, as it was given the thumbs up by several readers and ultimately the fiction editor, David Logan. The story ran in issue 7.1 of the journal. Beth’s story appearing in my reader’s queue was serendipitous because not long after that I was scouting around for projects for Twelve Winters, and I recalled Beth’s story. Given the number of published stories that she’d accumulated I figured she must have a collection ready for publication. I emailed her to see if that was the case . . . and the rest, as they say, is history. I was impressed by the composite collection that she’d created, and I’m very happy to say that I Am Barbarella was released in print February 19, 2015. Digital editions for Kindle and Nook soon followed, and Beth is working on an audiobook as well.

Turn about is fair play, so I sent Beth some questions about her collection and the writing of it. What follows are her unedited responses.

Beth author photo

I Am Barbarella is a composite collection (or short story cycle), where we have a fairly large cast of characters who show up in various stories, or are alluded to, or events in their lives from other stories are alluded to.  What drew you to this form for the book?

I went into my MFA program with a novel chapter and an idea for a fairly complicated story told in the first-person plural point of view. It was an attempt to capture a sort of Southern noir small town groupthink as I saw it. As you might expect, there was little left of my self-esteem or the story by the end of my first workshop. I still like the idea of that story, but I was nowhere close to being able to tackle something so left of center. Then, my mentors (Sherrie Flick, Diane Goodman, and Robert Yune) suggested reading books like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, and The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat and that was when I decided I loved this approach to longer works. This type of book is a hybrid form. I set out to write stories that would be able to stand on their own and have been able to place a number of them as short stories, but they also work thematically in the collection.

It was my intention from the beginning to explore the impact these characters’ actions had on each other, the sort of ripple effect of secrets and heartache. Even the stories that aren’t interconnected on a character level are spiritually connected. I fell in love with the mosaic form. I like how the picture looks when you pull the camera back to reveal the structure in its entirety and I like moving in and looking at the individual tiles such as the elderly neigbhor’s lifelong secret from her best friend or the Dad’s desire to finally leave now that all his family duties have been fulfilled. It felt more playful than a traditional narrative form and I hope I structured it in a way that builds tension — a sort of slow reveal of each character.

How do you think a composite collection differs, in the writing of it, from a collection of independent stories, or a full-fledged novel?

I think it’s an extremely difficult form for a first book. It’s a bit like juggling and having someone on the sidelines who keeps throwing other objects into the mix. Maintaining consistency with such a large interconnected cast of characters and a broad timeline takes major organization and commitment. It is something you must set out to do. What I lacked in organization in the beginning, I made up for with a general idea of what I wanted to achieve and a rabid determination to make this book in this form work. This is my first book and writing it taught me so much about how to approach the novel I am working on now. In some ways, it made writing straight short stories more difficult because I tend to get attached to characters and want to spend more time with them.

You were rethinking the order of the stories up until a few weeks before the book went to press.  How difficult was it to come up with what you felt was the proper order?  What were some of your guiding principles in ordering the stories as you have?

It was all about the tension for me. I had a handful of other stories from the Loretta/Hardy/Janine cycle, but once I took those out and put in some of the shorter flash pieces, I liked the conversation the stories had with each other. These stories move along a continuum of existential angst. I originally had “Spaghettification” last because I felt the last line of that story was a hopeful way to end. Last lines matter as much as first lines. I tend toward the dark side of the force, but not always, and I wanted to highlight that fact, but in the end “B-Sides” was the natural ending of the book. Thematically, the book needed to end with Janine’s point of view. There’s a line in an earlier story, which reads, “You can get so much from B-Sides.” How can you not end with the story with a title built from that line?

How much time have you spent with these characters?  In other words, when did you start writing about them?  Do you plan to return to some of them in future projects?

I wrote the first draft of the first story (“Paper Fans”) in 2010. Four and a half years. I am finished with most of these characters, but my novel does include Dim and Sunday from “Yard Show.” It’s a tiny story that has led me into writing a rather large book.

Charlotte, North Carolina, where you were born and raised and still live, is a common setting for the stories.  Some of the characters have also spent time in Pittsburgh, where you earned your MFA.  How important is “place” in your writing?

For me place is as much a character as a walking, breathing person. It shapes everything: plot, character, atmosphere, you name it. I grew up reading Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, Carson McCullers, and Alice Walker so place was already vital in the literature I loved. Chatham’s emphasis on place-based writing was one of the reasons I chose their program. My bones, my heart are the South, for better or worse, whether I like it or not. I am built of this land and all the ghosts that accompany it.

Sometimes a character says things that aren’t kind about your hometown.  How much of that criticism of Charlotte is purely fictive, and how much is your own sense of the place?

Some of it is fictive and based on the perception of Charlotte as nothing but banks, barbecue, and Nascar (Even The Onion did a piece on Charlotte), but a great deal of it comes from a natural desire to break away from my hometown. Most people I grew up with have moved away. When I meet someone and tell him or her I’m from Charlotte, I am usually met with shock. Most folks who live here aren’t from here. I started this book immediately after our plans to move to Pittsburgh fell apart. I was heartbroken. As I wrote the book, I realized I had not ever committed to my town. I had not tried to find kindred spirits here or participate. I no longer take my beautiful city for granted even if I still long for more of a literary community here. As a vegetarian artist who has never been terribly interested in sports, it has been difficult, but I also recognize how much I tend to isolate myself. That’s the tough thing about connecting with other writers. I know there are some here, but we’re all so terribly introverted we never socialize.

How do you think the book will be received by residents of Charlotte?  Perhaps even family and friends who may see themselves reflected in your writing?

I hope people will recognize the truth in the book’s (and its author’s) complicated relationship with Charlotte. As far as friends and family, I hope if they see themselves, they’ll recognize that I’ve tried to draw each character with empathy. Most characters are not based on any one person, though. These characters are processed in my brain blender. They are little bits of me and everyone I’ve known swirled together into a version of truth. This is why I love fiction.

Music plays an important part in many of the stories — and in fact you compiled a playlist to accompany the book.  Where does that emphasis on music come from?  Are you a musician yourself?

I am not a musician, but I’ve always wished I’d learned to play an instrument. My older brother is the musician in the family. He got his first guitar when I was ten. His learning to play and compose and write was my background music. I watched and wrote in my notebook. There were times, like when he went through his black metal phase, that I wanted to take a chainsaw to his guitar, but now I am so grateful for it. It was such a unique experience. We were alone a lot since we were children of a single mom and we challenged each other to be creative. He encouraged me to tell stories. I listened to everything he did and all the records he played. I dated his band mates as a teenager and went to their gigs and though I rarely talked, I listened and wrote. I wrote my first album review for the high school paper. I married a man who worked in a record store when he was young. Music is vital in our home. I cannot write, cook, drive, or take a walk without it.

You’ve taken on the role of editor-in-chief of Atticus Review.  How does that role impact your own writing, or your artistic sensibilities?

Well, as I’ve adjusted to the job and addressed a submission queue of greater than 600, I’ve definitely spent less time on my own writing. I’m still trying to find the balance between being an editor and being a writer. I am a work in progress, but I am proud of what we’ve done at Atticus in a short time. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to put other people’s work into the world, to give back in that way. It is so exciting to discover a story in the slush pile and to be able to make someone happy. It has taught me to be more patient with my own submissions and it has also taught me patterns in what types of stories are overdone. I won’t be writing any dystopias anytime soon. And I always valued personal rejections before, but now that I’m an editor myself I value them even more. It really is a big deal to receive one.

Describe your writing process.

When I am at my best, I am extremely diligent about my process. I have a schedule for myself and I stick to it. I read early in the morning, walk my border collie (when it’s not in the single digits outside), and write for the rest of the afternoon — usually 4-5 hours. Lately, it’s been taken up with editing work. I hope to get back to my regular schedule once I have my sea legs as an editor.

You’ve been working on an audio edition of I Am Barbarella.  Do you tend to read your work aloud usually?  Describe the experience of recording the stories.  Do you think they’re well-suited to oral performance?

I always read my work aloud. It’s part of my editing process. If I trip over words or don’t like the way a sentence flows as I read aloud, I revise. Recording is frustrating, but I think the final product will be great. I don’t think my book would sound right read by someone else. Maybe that means I have control issues, but most of my favorite recordings are author-read — they’re these little time capsules. Nothing compares to being able to hear that rare recording of Virginia Woolf’s or Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” And yes, I think most “Southern” literature is well-suited to oral performance. My grandfather never learned to read, but he was the best storyteller I knew. We’re trained for it, whether we realize it or not.

Beth Gilstrap’s stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, among them Ambit, Superstition Review, Quiddity and the minnesota review. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Chatham University in Pittsburgh and serves as editor-in-chief of Atticus Review. She was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she still lives with her husband and enough rescue pets to keep life interesting. (Author photo by Tatyana M. Semyrog)

William H. Gass at 90: Passages of Time

Posted in September 2014 by Ted Morrissey on September 28, 2014

I’ve just returned from Washington University in St. Louis where I attended “Passages of Time: A literary event marking the 90th birthday of celebrated author William H. Gass.” The reading and reception were held in Umrath Lounge from 4 to 6 p.m. After welcoming and introductory remarks by Jeffrey Trzeciak, University Librarian, and Dr. Gerhild Williams, German professor and vice provost, Gass read from several of his works for about 40 minutes.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

William H. Gass preparing to read for the celebration of his 90th birthday at Washington University.

Gass, or “The Master,” as I call him, arrived via wheelchair and gave his reading from a chair, but while his mobility was impaired, he appeared sharp of mind and his voice was clear and  robust–not remarkably different from other readings of his that I attended in 2008 (AWP Conference in Chicago) and 2013 (Left Bank Books in St. Louis). For the most part, Gass read from his works in published chronological order, beginning with passages from the novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966), followed by selections from “Order of Insects” (in 1969’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country), The Tunnel (1995), “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s” (in 1998’s Cartesian Sonata), Middle C (2013), and concluding with his translation of Rilke’s “The Death of the Poet” (in Reading Rilke, 1999).

Between selections, Gass spoke briefly about each piece, often humorously. Upon finishing his reading, the large gathering gave the author an enthusiastic standing ovation. When the crowd quieted, Gass said, “Rilke is good.”

Several of Gass’s books have been re-released and were available at the reading and reception in autographed editions. Unfortunately, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country had not arrived in time for the event. Gass has supposedly been working on a new story collection as well as a new collection of novellas, a form that he especially likes.  I hope to hear the author reading from those books at his 100th birthday celebration.

I recommend the following links to learn more about The Master:

Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections (the William H. Gass Papers and International Writers Center)

“William H. Gass: The Soul Inside the Sentence” (digitized manuscripts, photographs, readings and more)

And keep up to date on Gass events and happenings at ReadingGass.org

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass's reading.

Outside of Umrath Lounge just following William Gass’s reading. (Photo by my wife, Melissa)