Introducing 2016 Debutante: Brian Booker

AYHFWIHF Cover finalOn May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week, we’re talking to Brian Booker, author of the collection Are You Here For What I’m Here For?, forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in May 2016. Brian published “A Drowning Accident” with One Story in 2005 and we’re pleased to celebrate his debut collection at this year’s Literary Debutante Ball.

Through hypnotic and dream-like prose, the seven stories in Are You Here For What I’m Here For? grant us access to the anxieties, fears, and yearnings of a host of unforgettable minds. Spanning time and space, from the early 20th century to the present day, from a cultish school in Southern California to a convalescents home in the Caribbean, the stories straddle fantasy and reality, with dazzling descriptions of the outer world that reflect the harrowing struggles of the inner. Unrelenting in its exploration of what we can know about ourselves, Are You Here For What I’m Here For? is an enchanting journey that lingers with its reader long after the last page.

Thanks to Brian for answering a few questions for One Story about his collection and writing.

Mark Prins: Where were you when you found out Are You Here For What I’m Here For? was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Brian Booker: I was in the San Francisco airport. I had just gotten off the plane and I saw the email from Bellevue Literary Press. I was on my way to visit family in the Bay Area. So I got on the Airporter bus feeling pretty excited!

MP: One of my favorite qualities of your characters is their willingness to approach—if not physical—then certainly psychological zones of danger. From the first story (“Brace for Impact”), when our narrator is told: “‘You shouldn’t go up there, you know'”, in the basement of an eerie mansion, the protagonists repeatedly ignore explicit or implicit warnings to stay away. How do you figure out what a particular character’s danger zone might be, and then how do you get him or her to go there? 

BB: Luring a character toward the danger zone has often been my instinct in stories. I didn’t think about it as an explicit aspect of craft until I took a seminar with Charles Baxter, who talks about the value of tempting your characters toward interesting trouble, toward that one-way gate. Baxter does this in his own stories, and he made me recognize how it is done—or that it is done—in the work of other story-writers I’ve long admired, such as Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, and Paul Bowles. You read these stories over and over, hoping to absorb the methods by which they perform their magic so that you might achieve similar effects.

But the idea of directing a character towards a goal is a more “overhead” view than I would take when I’m actually writing a story, when I’m trying to inhabit the character’s experience as it is unfolding. In the case of “Brace for Impact,” the character’s danger zone is his own body, both in itself and in relation to other bodies. But the danger zone is also, paradoxically, a comfort zone—that’s why he speaks of the “vacation in a cocoon.” What you want, I think, is to goad the character into a zone in which the internal fears are externalized into a physical atmosphere and a dramatic situation. Having grown up in Bethesda, I had been in the basements of a few eerie mansions. In those situations, in adolescence, the unsupervised basement and the upstairs can feel like worlds that don’t (or shouldn’t) intersect. The character goes upstairs because the level of discomfort downstairs is so acute that he feels like he has to flee. Where to? Upstairs. But the character can’t be let off the hook so easily. Somebody has to be waiting up there.

MP: The way you write settings is beautiful. Occasionally we are treated to a full paragraph or two of luscious, atmospheric description. Do you have a method for describing places—ski lodges, apothecaries, Los Angeles?

BB: Thank you. I think it depends on the fiction you’re obsessed with. I love the way writers such as Woolf, Nabokov, and Bowles render setting with hypnagogic clarity. And the way Bolaño and Ishiguro do a kind of expressionist thing with setting.

As to method, for an earlier story (not in this collection) I remember scribbling down many details of setting at the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk in Delaware. It was useful material to have in my notebook. For stories like “Here to Watch Over Me” and “Love Trip,” which were written in Iowa City, I relied almost exclusively on memory. I remember wishing I could hop on a plane to these places and take lots of notes, but then it turned out it was better to just sit with memory. Music also played a role in both those stories, certain songs I needed to hear over and over that seemed crucial to the atmosphere. Also, let’s admit it, there is Internet ekphrasis. When you need a picture of something to augment specificity, you can have that immediately. But I wouldn’t want to over-rely on images from the Internet.

MP: In several of these stories, we’re told that our narrator may be suffering from some kind of illness that could impair his/her mental faculties—encephalitic-induced fevers, dementia, PTSD—what fascinates you about these narrators? Would you call them unreliable?

BB: I think of the unreliable narrator as someone whose evasiveness is underpinned by a shady agenda. Brilliant manipulators like Humbert Humbert fall into this category. In a softer vein, you have Kazuo Ishiguro’s narrators—Stevens in The Remains of the Day or Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, who can’t look too directly at certain things in their lives, whose self-delusions are subtle and necessary; or Ryder in The Unconsoled, whose memory is failing him for reasons neither he nor the reader understands. These are narrators whose accounts of themselves, to varying degrees, have serious holes, but they are not trying to deceive. I’m interested in, and sympathetic toward, characters who are forced to compartmentalize because of shame, characters with secrets and contradictions. Illness can be a secret, it can be a source of shame, and it can also be a romance, as in Thomas Mann.

In my collection, the guy in “The Sleeping Sickness” comes closest to the evasive narrator, but he is something of an anomaly. In most of the stories the characters are trying their best to represent their experience with fidelity. The distortions caused by mental illness are perhaps of a greater degree, but not of a different kind, than the way any person’s perceptions are skewed by the exigencies of their particular subjectivity. Our perceptions, our memories, these things are so mysterious and often don’t work as we expect they should. Our minds are always playing tricks on us. I’m a big Oliver Sacks fan. For Sacks, the impairment to consciousness affords a window onto how miraculous and tenuous our mental representations are in the first place. The malfunction throws light on the hidden function.

In fiction, for me, illnesses are an agent of defamiliarization.

It’s a vein of obsession I’ve tapped into. You try to write what quickens your pulse, what leads you toward a kind of spell or enchantment that hopefully gets transacted to the reader.

MP: Back when One Story published “A Drowning Accident,” you listed Daniel Wallace’s suggestion “not to die” as the best advice you’d received so far for writing (and it seems to be working). Have you gotten any good ones since then?

BB: I heard Donald Antrim’s conversation with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s Bookworm. Antrim says, “We all have our turn in the barrel,” meaning when our mind becomes an intolerable place. Silverblatt adds: “these stories address how to live under the shadow of a disorder most of us refuse to see.” I think that’s a great way to put it. Depression, like the writing life, can be isolating. It comes with terrible fear. So it’s very important to hear other writers talk about it.

And there is what the voice says to Amalfitano in 2666: “Calm is the one thing that will never let us down.”

I keep a post-it note permanently on my laptop. The gist of what it says is: be gentle, have fun, don’t worry about it.

MP: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

BB: I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted with the work of the other debutantes. It’s amazing, and humbling, to be in such talented company.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Kim Brooks

Houseguest CoverOn May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we have the pleasure of chatting with Kim Brooks, author of One Story issue #65, “Do You Like It Here?” Her novel, The Houseguestout this month from Counterpoint Press, examines the Jewish experience in America prior to the U.S. involvement in World War II on many, often unexamined, levels: a Yiddish actress and refugee who is haunted by her past, a rabbi who can no longer ignore the atrocities happening overseas, a Jewish junkyard owner who tries to turn a blind eye, and a secret network of organizations that attempts to transport Jews to American soil. Brooks deftly explores the subject of the Holocaust through this multi-layered narrative and in doing so, showcases themes of survival, cultural passivity, and personal vs. social responsibility. Through her characters, Brooks illustrates what it was to be Jewish in America during this tense time and simultaneously exposes the unsettling ignorance and inaction exhibited by Americans, both Jews and non-Jews. A multi-faceted story of love, politics, history, and identity, The Houseguest challenges what it means to save another.

Kat Misko: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate? How was this experience different than publishing a short story?

Kim Brooks: It was Rosh Hashanah, and I was attending a family service at synagogue, something I manage to do every four to five years whether I want to or not. I remember I was there because I left my phone in the car on purpose so I wouldn’t forget to turn off the ringer. I’d been pretty much surgically attached to this device since the whole trying-to-publish-a-book process began. But suddenly I was looking at it through the window of my parked car, and I could see that my agent had just called, but then I couldn’t find my keys for about forty seconds. It was the longest forty seconds of my life. After much hysteria, I found the keys, got the phone, listened to the message, and learned that Counterpoint wanted to publish my book. After that, I smiled for about a week. My husband and I went out to dinner and drank a lot of champagne and debated which actors would play the main characters in the film adaptation.

In terms of how the excitement compared to the excitement of publishing a story—it didn’t compare at all. I mean, I basically poured four years of my life into this book, four years worth of concentration, emotional energy, professional aspirations, babysitting money. Also, between you and me, it was not my first attempt. So like many writers, I figured that if I couldn’t find a home for it, I’d have to kill myself. Except I have kids, so I can’t kill myself, so the situation was even more desperate. All this is to say, it felt AMAZING!

KM: What I find compelling about your novel is that it explores the Jewish story during World War II from a very different perspective—those that make it to America and are haunted by their past; those that live in America and try to assist overseas through a network of organizations; and even those that live in America and turn a blind eye. What made you choose to write about this subject, which in many ways is the subject of the Holocaust? You deftly handle the notion that many people in America, even Jews, chose to remain ignorant of the issue overseas: Was it difficult to generate this subtle theme of cultural passivity that courses through the book?

KB: You know, this is the first time it’s occurred to me, but I suppose that passivity, the refusal to engage, the habit of turning away, negating, invalidating, unseeing, passivity in all its forms—cultural, individual, interpersonal—has always been a primary interest for me. But this is a problem for a fiction writer because it’s extraordinarily hard to make people NOT doing something interesting or compelling or suspenseful or all the things fiction is supposed to be. Imagine an HBO crime series that begins with a cop going to a crime scene and saying to his partner, “Meh, let’s leave this one alone.”

So in this book, I suppose the breakthrough must have been my realization that sometimes what we don’t do as individuals or as a community can have as many tangible, world-shaking implications as what we do. David Wyman writes about this in great depth in his book The Abandonment of the Jews, and that was certainly a large part of my inspiration, wanting to work through in a piece of fiction the experience of the abandonment he describes.

A number of people have asked me about why I chose to explore the events from an American perspective, about the unusualness of that choice. And I always try to challenge the question a little—this idea that there is a single, dominant Holocaust narrative. There’s this tendency to simplify or streamline what happened during this time to a few monolithic facts, but I think it’s important to try to remember that this was an event that was made of thousands of millions of smaller threads, from the individual to the collective to the continental. For me, there’s as much to learn from the stories of the victimizers, the accomplices, the bystanders, the witnesses, as from the victims.

KM: The book resonates with a deep tension between two cultural perspectives and is instilled with the fear of the Jew/immigrant on American soil. You have that great line: “…was not a Jew in America but an American Jew. These were two distinct, discrete things.” Did any current events inspire elements of this novel?

KB: Yes, unfortunately, though not one particular event. Our country and culture excels at using people’s differences as grounds for withholding compassion or basic human decency. I mean, I wouldn’t even know where to start: police brutality against African-Americans, racial profiling of Muslims, governors taking the time to announce that Syrian refugees need not apply for residence in such-and-such a state.

It’s funny, every so often, someone will ask my about my writing, and when I describe it, they’ll say something like, “wow, that sounds pretty dark.” And I always think, yeah, but, the world is pretty dark. I mean, turn on the news. I only know how to write about the world I inhabit.

KM: I am always intrigued by the notion of research in a novel. As a work of historical fiction, did you perform extensive research for this book? How do you know how much research is enough and when do you sit down to write? Did you continue to refer to the research as you wrote?

KB: Like many writers, I find the process of the writing itself excruciatingly painful, even agonizing. And so I’ll generally do anything I can to put it off as long as possible. As a result, I think I do a lot more research than is necessary or relevant. But I should also say that by “research” I basically mean just reading books that interest me. I don’t have the discipline to research in any organized, professional, meticulous manner. I’m helpless with stuff like that and ask my husband to look things up for me like ten times a day. When I’m researching, I’m basically just reading widely and searching for something that sparks an idea or engages my imagination, throwing aside everything else.

KM: Structurally, your novel is divided into four sections. It’s also told from various character perspectives—mainly Abe, Max, Ana, but even at times, Judith, Spiro, Field. I love novels that experiment with form and perspective: why did you decide to have these sections and multiple perspectives play off each other? In what way did you feel this enhanced the story being told?

KB: A long time ago, back in college, I remember being stuck for the first time with a paper I was writing, and my college adviser told me, think about the question you most urgently want to answer for yourself, that you also sense you will probably not be able to answer in any definitive or clear cut way. It was such good advice that I’ve used it many times since, and when I look back at writing The Houseguest, I think I must have, at least subconsciously, wanted to explore the question of how different people deal with, respond to, incorporate, or turn away from the suffering of strangers. Are there certain character traits or personality traits that prime people to be compassionate or callous? What makes some people able to face their own fears and powerlessness productively, and others not at all? Because I wanted to answer these questions, I suppose it only made sense to have a cast of characters who are all dealing with the main disruption of the novel in different ways based on their particular sensibilities, backgrounds, values.

Of course, these are things I can only say in retrospect. As I was writing, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

KM: In the same chapter, Ana is visited by the ghost of her husband, while Abe is visited by the ghost of his brother. I enjoyed how you inserted these ghosts into their narrative realities—which can be a difficult feat—as a way of indicating that the past haunts the present, which properly reflects Ana’s journey as a Jew leaving her homeland for a strange, new home. What made you choose to use ghosts in the story?

KB: I’ve always been easily enchanted by writers who are able to blend elements of the otherworldly or fantastical into realist narratives: the two that jump to mind are William Kennedy in Ironweed and Bernard Malamud in many of his stories. It’s odd, because I’m almost never interested in the purely supernatural. For me, real life is strange enough. But some of my favorite moments in fiction take place in that borderland between dream-life and reality. I often say that I don’t think there’s much difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, and I’m sticking to this, but if there is one difference, I think it’s that fiction is slightly better equipped to forge into this territory of the strange and subconscious. Or I suppose I should say that for me, when I’m writing fiction, I somehow feel like I have permission to be associative, to let go of what I think I know, to invent my own rules and do what I want.

KM: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball? And most important, what are you going to wear?

KB: Good questions! I am looking forward to the whole shebang, but most of all to hugging and thanking and drinking fancy cocktails with all the friends who’ve somehow put up with listening to me fret and complain about “the novel I’m working on” for the past half-decade.

As to what I’ll wear, I can tell you that my editor (and Ball chaperone) Dan and I have been discussing the possibility of matching, long, white satin gloves. So I’d say there’s a high probability that will happen. Beyond that, I’ve been thinking it might be fun to wear the sort of high-baroque gown that the Yiddish-actress, houseguest-diva Ana Beidler would wear if she were coming. It would be fun, but I’ll probably wear whatever frock I find in my closet that fits and isn’t in need of dry-cleaning.

Issue #216: Catacombs
by Jason Zencka

cover_os_216On my first trip to Rome, I visited the Capuchin Crypt, beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. Inside those underground caverns I discovered a true Momento Mori—thousands of skeletons of Capuchin monks, deconstructed to form elaborate frescoes and decorative arches—as well as a sign that read: What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be. The monks, I was told, would pray in the crypt every night before going to sleep, among the vertebrae and femurs and skulls of their brothers. When I first read Jason Zencka’s “Catacombs,” I was reminded of the beauty of that cold, dark place—not just because of the reference to the catacombs and tunnels that the narrator, George, travels to over his life, but because of how perfectly this story captures the mysterious places our minds create and then wander through, when dealing with the loss of someone we love. “Catacombs” breaks so many rules of fiction, slipping through time, playing with point of view, deconstructing its own narrative voice, and yet somehow through this process, it sets its finger exactly on a difficult truth—the guilt of those of us left behind, so desperate to commune and connect that it leads us to find solace and beauty in fragments, whether they are pieces of bone or memory. That this is Jason Zencka’s debut publication makes “Catacombs” all the more special. Please read his Q&A to find out more about this remarkable story, and in the meantime, join me in welcoming a talented new writer to the literary stage.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Cote Smith

Hurt PeopleOn May 6th, at the 7th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we’re chatting with Cote Smith, author of One Story issue #118 “Hurt People” and the novel of the same name. The novel Hurt People expands on his short story, told from the point of view of a child living in the prison town of Leavenworth, as he idolizes his older brother, grapples with his broken family, and obsesses over the pool in his apartment complex—which is where the two brothers meet a mysterious stranger. Like the original short story, Smith’s novel is both grounded and suspenseful—true to its protagonist’s point of view yet imbued with poetry and tension. It’s a tricky balancing act that Smith pulls off with grace.

Jesse Hassenger: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Cote Smith: I was at home playing a video game on the couch. I couldn’t pause the game, so I helplessly watched as my guy got slaughtered while my agent told me my dream was coming true. I celebrated by hugging my wife when she got home. We might have gone to the local brewery.

JH: I heard that your book took sort of an unusual path to publication. What was that experience like for you as a first-time novelist?

CS: The book was rejected the first time around. I thought it was dead and began working on another book, writing 200 pages before my future editor called and revived Hurt People from the dead like Lazarus. Everything since that moment, even the difficult and scary stuff, like editing, has been amazing. I’m lucky to have worked with such an amazing agent, editor, and everyone else at FSG.

JH: Hurt People is a full novel version of your One Story piece, also called “Hurt People.” What made you decide to expand the piece into a novel, and what was that process like?

CS: I knew there was much more to the world that I wanted to explore. The short story only covers the brothers and the mother, and gives just a glimpse of Leavenworth. Having grown up in the area, I was very familiar with that world, and yet had never seen a prison town portrayed in a story or movie, at least not from a child’s perspective. I thought it was a story that deserved to be told.

JH: A fair amount of the dialogue in this book is between the two kids—brothers—and that dialogue drives such an important relationship. What did you do to get into that mindset?

CS: I’m a younger brother, so getting into the mindset came fairly naturally, particularly the ideas of the younger sibling idolizing the older, wanting to do whatever they do, and remaining loyal no matter what.

JH: Another small thing among many that I love about this book is the way it captures the way some kids can be absolute obsessed with swimming pools. Were you pool-obsessed as a kid? Any vivid pool-related memories you’d care to share as summer approaches?

CS: I was obsessed. My uncle had a pool with a diving board, and my brother, cousins, and I spent entire summers inventing crazy pool moves and games. We had a floating volcano that we used to play king of the mountain, where one person sat on top and the others catapulted at them from the diving board to knock them off. We strung a hose through pool noodles and had a person on each side of the diving board hold the line so we could compete in an ad hoc high jump contest. Looking back, I’m surprised no one was hurt.

JH: As a movie nerd, I have to ask: are the VHS titles you use in Hurt People real? I know I could probably Google this but I’d love to hear about your selection process—either in terms of choosing real movies, or in terms of making up movies.

CS: The VHS titles are not real, but they were very fun to write. They’re based on the terrible horror and sci-fi movies we watched as kids, movies like Critters, Ghoulies, and the entire Leprechaun series. Like the brothers in the book, we watched these movies when we were far too young. We would take turns laughing hysterically in the light, when we were together, and being completely terrified when it was dark and time for bed. It’s all fun and games until you’re trying to fall asleep.

JH: So if Lieutenant Lazarus doesn’t exist, can you maybe get a development deal have it made so I can check it out?

CS: I’m on it.

JH: What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball?

CS: This will be the second time I’m a debutante, so I’m assuming there’s some sort of special jacket, or at least a pin, that Hannah will present to me. I’m really looking forward to that.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Matthew Cheney

Blood coverOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we’re chatting with Matthew Cheney, author of One Story issue #81 “Blood” and Blood: Stories, the winner of the Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press. The stories in this beautiful collection weave together the uncanny with the deeply human. Instead of a dollhouse, a girl builds an asylum for her toys; neighbors, both plagued by grief, come across a phonograph that seems to play voices of the dead. These eloquent stories embody what it means to grieve, what it means to love, and what it means to hope.

Melissa Bean: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Matthew Cheney: The day I found out I won the Hudson Prize and thus would have a book published was one of the longest days of my life. Diane Goettel, the executive editor at Black Lawrence Press, lives in Hong Kong, and had sent an email to me during her night/my morning asking if there was a convenient time for her to call me to discuss my manuscript. I immediately suspected something was up, because why would she want to call me on the phone to talk about my manuscript? But by the time I got the email, Diane was asleep and I was on my way to work. I don’t remember doing anything that day except running endless scenarios through my mind about what she could possibly want to call me about. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I didn’t want to think, “I’m finally, after all these years, going to have a book of my own,” and then have her call and say, “We’ve got these lovely Black Lawrence Press coasters and would like to send you one as thanks for submitting your weird little manuscript to the Hudson Prize competition, which, by the way, you didn’t even come close to winning.”

Of course, as we all now know, what she wanted to call and tell me was that I won and would be having a book published.

I didn’t have time to celebrate immediately, but soon enough my mothers took me out to eat at one of our favorite local restaurants, and that was all the celebration I needed.

MB: What has happened in your life since the publication of the story “Blood” (issue 81) in One Story?

MC: When “Blood” was published in the fall of 2006, I was teaching at a boarding school in New Hampshire and, in my copious spare time, finishing my masters degree thesis at Dartmouth College and also looking for a new job, since I felt like I’d been working at a boarding school long enough. The next year, I was working at a day school in New Jersey and my father died. I’m an only child and my parents were divorced, so that meant I inherited his business: a gun shop. I quit my job in New Jersey and moved back to New Hampshire to sell off the shop. Thus, I had a federal firearms license for a couple of years. To stay sane, I taught some courses at the local university, and discovered I actually liked teaching at the college level, so once all the guns and stuff of the estate were taken care of, I paid off my father’s debts and used what was left of those ill-gotten gains to keep myself solvent while working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where I’m now completing my third year and studying the intersections of modernism, postcolonialism, and queer theory.

MB: You include a quote with the story “Expositions”, “This dream…is itself action, reality, and an effective menace to all established order; it renders possible what it dreams about” (Gilles Deleuze). It helps inform the reading of the story as it descends into dreamlike twists and turns. However, I felt that this quote resonated with the collection as a whole, where characters’ dreams, memories, and past fears continue to exert tangible influence over their lives once the event itself has passed. How do you balance the tension between past and present in these stories?

MC: The past as dream has been a more and more important idea to me as I’ve grown older (I turned 40 this year), because now I have lots of memories that are fragmentary, vague, uncertain. I devoured piles of Philip K. Dick books when I was younger, and now I sometimes feel like I’m living in one of those books—for instance, the experience of having somebody tell me that he and I were friends when we were in 7th grade, and I have absolutely no memory of him whatsoever, though I fully believe his memory is correct because of various corroborating details. That experience could be a missing scene from PKD’s great story “The Electric Ant” (which would also suggest that I am not a person, but an android, despite my own conviction that I am human).

The truth is, my younger self feels like somebody else when I think about him, and he also feels a lot like somebody in a dream, and also my memory of my experiences is so filled with holes that I don’t trust it. And yet I also experience a continuous sense of self, an experience that continues to amaze and bewilder me.

Ultimately, thinking about my past self is not so much like remembering a dream, but more like remembering a story that I read. You know how if you think of stories you read some time ago, often what you remember are a few details, a few images, a few feelings, but the story as a whole slips away from you, becomes more like flashbulbed snapshots than a coherent motion picture… (Is this how it feels for other people? I don’t know. I say “you” but I mean “me”.) I suppose it all results from the fact that I’ve spent my life reading and writing stories, and thus the reading and writing of stories makes up much of the content of that life. There are things from Chekhov stories I read 20 years ago that are now as vivid and “real” to me as my memories of many of the things I was actually doing 20 years ago. All of that enters into my fiction, because fiction is in many ways an ideal form to explore such ideas and feelings—in so many ways, our understanding of a story is a kind of memory: a memory of the words we’ve just read. Similarly, I often feel like my memory of my self is no more real than the memory of words I’ve read.

I should say, though, that despite all that, “Expositions” came about for a different reason. I have a contrarian streak, and I often like to try to write in ways that violate supposed rules. There’s a longstanding, and quite sensible, rule that says you should never end a story with the narrator revealing that it was all just a dream. Saying “It was all a dream!” at the end messes with readers’ suspension of disbelief and it feels like a cheap, cheaty way to end a story if you don’t have a good conclusion. But I wondered if it were possible to write a story from that premise to begin with, to do it with purpose. (Going back to Philip K. Dick, Ubik accomplishes something similar to what I was thinking about.) After all, and as the story itself points out, when you’re actually dreaming it doesn’t (usually) feel like dreaming: it feels important and immediate, like life. The same with stories. A lot of metafiction plays with the fact that stories aren’t “real”, and I’ve sometimes been drawn to such metafiction, but I also think it’s kind of thumpingly obvious, like an illusionist who says, “Folks, it’s not that I actually have magic powers. I’m tricking you.” (But again, done artfully, this is marvelous, as Penn & Teller have demonstrated.) “Expositions” is a kind of metafiction, I suppose, but instead of making the breaking of the proverbial fourth wall its big concern, it starts from the premise that we all know there’s no fourth wall there to begin with.

The ultimate effect is similar to that in other pieces in the book, such as “Lacuna”, where there is a story underneath it all that gets obscured by the narrator’s verbiage, until at the very end, having run out of words, the narrator must reveal the truth of why he’s been writing what he has. Thus there is a kind of subconscious to the story, an understory. “Expositions” is a bit different because the story’s subconscious is never overtly revealed — in “Lacuna” the understory is at least as important as the surface, they’re sort of in dialogue, whereas “Expositions” makes the argument that maybe sometimes the immediate surface itself has value, substance, and power, and that in the end, the understory is not what we really need. I suppose in that sense “Expositions” is an argument in favor of psychological repression, while “Lacuna” is a story about working through what you want to repress.

MB: Your stories also have a wonderful ability to blend the mythic and the real seamlessly—how do you balance these elements?

MC: Accident and instinct. I follow language and image a lot. I don’t actually set out to write a story that’s surreal or fantastical, nor do I set out to write a story that’s about consensus reality. Once I find the tone of a story, then the rest follows. Sometimes, my original intentions are ruined.

Here’s an example: The first story in the book, “How to Play with Dolls”, began as a variation on the last sentence of the first paragraph. I wrote a sentence in a notebook, a sentence that had just come to me one day from, apparently, nowhere: “She had always wanted an asylum for her dolls.” Later, I was at a writers’ conference in Nairobi and needed something short for an evening reading. I remembered that sentence and I sat down at a restaurant and wrote the rest of the story, eventually adjusting the sentence to be about specific characters and situations. I thought it would be a realistic tale of a disturbed girl and her dollhouse. But I was in a restaurant in a city I didn’t know with people I’d just met for the first time. Everything was unfamiliar, and it was exciting but also a little bit terrifying. I felt estranged from reality, estranged even from language, and so what came out was something that was far different from what I’d initially thought I was going to write. Thankfully, at that point I was experienced enough as a writer to trust that feeling and not try to force the story to conform to my initial conception. Often, writing well simply means following the sentences where they lead you, which is something we all resist when we’re not sure the sentences are going where we think they should. We want to control, when really we should listen, because listening to our sentences is a way to listen to our selves.

MB: On that note, what inspires your stories?

MC: Daydreams and nightmares created by anxieties, fears, and desires.

I don’t write fiction for the sake of therapy, per se, but I am prone to anxiety and I have an active imagination, so it’s often the case that a story starts from one of my weird anxiety fantasies. The clearest example of this is one of the new stories in the book, “Thin”, which feels the most autobiographical of any of the stories to me, because even though none of the characters’ situations are anything like my own or those of people I know, the ways that Charles fantasizes is very much my own. So if I start thinking about all of the horrible things that can, for instance, happen to my teeth … well, I end up with thoughts not too different from Charles’s, and Charles’s fate is one that I imagined first for myself in a particularly anxious moment. Having given it to Charles allows me to then go on and have other thoughts, terrors, hopes, dreams, etc. for myself. (Similarly, “How Far to Englishman’s Bay” is all about my anxieties about growing old, getting fat, and traveling in Maine. They’re separate anxieties for me, but take all those things and stick them together and thus a story is born.)

Obviously, too, a lot of my inspiration comes from other writers — it would probably be fair to say my stories are awfully writerly. I became a writer because I wanted to do what the writers I admired did. Franz Kafka is everywhere throughout the book, as is, less obviously, Virginia Woolf. I wanted to be a playwright for a number of years, and I hear echoes of Christopher Durang, Mac Wellman, and Suzan-Lori Parks throughout the book’s pages: with Durang, the echoes are tonal, especially in “Getting a Date for Amelia” and “A Map of the Everywhere”; with Wellman the echoes are of his delight with vernacular language; with Parks it’s in the structure. (I recently re-read her “Elements of Style” essay from The America Play and Other Works for the first time in at least 15 years and realized just how deeply it affected my sense of what writers can and should do — I used to read that essay over and over again when I was in my late teens and early twenties.) “Where’s the Rest of Me” took the form it did because I happened to be reading Guy Davenport’s stories at the time I wrote it. “Blood” takes some of its approach, particularly the descriptions of violence, from the work of Paul Bowles. “The Last Elegy” owes some of its rhythms to Jean Rhys. “Lacuna” is about Poe. “In Exile” contains traces of Samuel Beckett and Ursula Le Guin. “The Lake” got written because for whatever reason one day I asked myself, “What would’ve happened if Ray Bradbury and James Joyce collaborated on a story?” — though the finished story itself isn’t quite that, that inspiration is still obvious. (I’m afraid I find Joyce much more interesting than Bradbury, so his influence took over.)

MB: What does writing about LGBT experiences and relationships mean to you?

MC: On the one hand, it’s just the material of my life—I’m a queer writer with mothers married to each other and a bunch of friends who are every sort of not-or-not-entirely-heterosexual there is and/or who are transgender or genderqueer. That’s my world (plus various token unimpeachably cisgender hetero folks). In that sense, it’s no more remarkable that my stories often include lgbtq experiences and relationships than it is that John Updike’s stories often don’t.

On another hand, it means everything to me because I owe my life to the lgbtq writers I read throughout many difficult, or at least confused, years. To be aware of queerness is, for me, very much tied to being aware of certain ways of writing. Paul Monette and Sarah Schulman and Samuel Delany and David Greenspan and—well, the list goes on and on, but writers made me see queerness as something that is complex, profound, weird, wonderful even when it is so often, yes, terrifying because it is outside social and sexual norms. And of course, I’m of the generation that hit puberty just as the AIDS crisis was hitting the general public’s consciousness. My sexual awareness could not be separated from a political awareness. This is what happens to anybody who suddenly realizes “I am the them people talk about, not the us.

When I was in college, I did some stuff with ACT UP in New York, and their motto “Silence = Death” is one of the guiding principals of my writing. So while the lgbtq content of my writing is there because such experiences and people are the experiences and people of my life (warts and all), it’s also a political choice on my part to write about such material in the way I do, because this is me saying no, I will not consent to the silence that kills us. (Along with “Silence = Death”, my other favorite slogan from my formative years is that of Queer Nation: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”)

MB: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

MC: A great friend of mine who is a metalsmith and jeweler has told me she’s going to make me a tiara. I don’t know if she’ll actually have time, but if she does, I’ll wear it. I’m not really one for fashion (I really have no fashion sense), and I often feel awkward at parties, and I’m the worst dancer you’ll ever meet, but if I have a tiara, I will be one fierce debutante!

 

 

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Charles Haverty

Haverty_webOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

This week we’re chatting with Charles Haverty, author of One Story issue #202 “Storm Windows” and Excommunicados, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press. In his award-winning debut collection, Charles Haverty explores the ways in which people can be excommunicados—from a lapsed Jew who devours all-you-can-eat crawfish to an alcoholic son and his absentee father. Within each story are unexpected moments of honesty that illuminate the ways in which feeling like an excommunicado and an outsider make us human.

Adina Applebaum: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Charles Haverty: I was at my desk, going through the final page proof of “Storm Windows” for One Story. It was January and snowing, and my wife was in San Francisco. Our car had been in an accident (I’ll spare us all the details) and I got a call from an insurance adjuster informing me that he was declaring it a total loss. Midway through the conversation, the caller ID showed a call from the University of Iowa Press. I took it and was told that my collection had won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and would be published in the fall. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh awayeth. I called the insurance guy back, contacted some people who’d had lots to do with the writing of those stories, and later, after salvaging license plates, registration, and whatnot from the wrecked car, I went to dinner with my friend Lara.

AA: The South plays a prominent role in several of your stories, but I see that you grew up in Queens. Is the South a place of special meaning for you, or just a place of interest? How did it come to be the setting for so much of your work?

CH: This is a complicated question. I was born in Queens (where my father was born and raised) but grew up on Long Island and in the suburbs of Chicago. My mother was born in St. Louis, and I had relatives who lived on a farm in Hickory Ridge, Arkansas, and I spent a healthy amount of my childhood in both places. When my wife and I got married, her parents were living in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and we drove down there frequently. So it was more or less impossible not to set at least one story there. Another answer is that I’m someone who’s always been moved to tears by Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” Lyndon Johnson’s speech to Congress about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem.”), and the ending of Absalom, Absalom!, where Shreve asks Quentin, “Why do you hate the South?” and Quentin says (“quickly, at once, immediately . . . panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark”), “I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!” I could go on and on here, but it’s probably a mistake to think too hard about questions like this.

AA: One of my favorite stories in the book was “Whan That Aprill.” It struck me because there’s something a bit more dystopian about it, a world slightly more mythical than the other stories in the collection. Can you talk about your writing process for this piece?

CH: “Whan That Aprill” might be the earliest story in the book and took the longest time to write. It began, I think, with the image of the abandoned Ferris wheel and led to an accretion of images—the strawberries, the doll’s head, the broken bits of porcelain—but over time I found it all so dark that I had to put it away. I didn’t quite understand what the story was about. After the events of September 11, 2001, this came more into focus, and the atmosphere of those days bled into those pages. I finished a draft, put it away for a couple years, and spent the better part of a summer rewriting it. I’ve always felt variously uneasy about this story, so it’s gratifying to hear that you liked it. It also happens to be my wife’s favorite.

AA: Three of the stories in the collection are clearly linked, and I had a fun and interesting time imagining how the others might fit into a narrative about Lionel— one that he imagined, maybe, or one that he doesn’t know about. Can you talk more about the format of this collection, and why you chose to include those three linked pieces among the stand-alone stories? 

CH: Overall, I was shooting for variety of subject matter, setting, point of view, tense, age, gender, etc., and hoped that those Lionel stories, placed where they are, might give the collection a sort of spine or sense of progression. You know that Jesuit business, “Give me a child of seven, and I will show you the man”? Those three stories let me play out that notion by following Lionel’s progress from his Catholic school boyhood through middle age. The simpler truth is that it’s always fun to write about Lionel. He allows me the freedom to live a sort of alternative life on paper in a way the specific demands of other stories might not. (“Storm Windows” is a Lionel story, and even as we speak, I’m working on another.) So your imaginings about his imaginings are quite on the mark.

AA: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

CH: I’m a very shy person (which might be one of the reasons I write), but I welcome the chance to meet and thank Will Allison and Hannah Tinti—and, of course, you.

Introducing 2016 Debutante: Naomi Williams

Landfalls coverOn May 6th, at our 7th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 6 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.

First up is Naomi Williams, author of One Story issue #131 “Snow Men” and Landfalls from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Landfalls is a kaleidoscope tale of the ill-fated expedition of the ships Boussole and Astrolabe, which set sail from France in 1785 in an attempt to circumnavigate the globe and map the unknown parts of the world. The voices that populate the novel speak from locations visited along the journey—from the ports left behind, settlements visited, and journeys by dogsled across continents, and each chapter creates a new world, driven by individual desires and conflicts but all reflected in the larger story of the exploratory endeavor. Williams’ masterful narration pulls us into the individual lives affected by the voyage, but the expedition itself remains the central character as those lives intersect and diverge across the globe, and we arrive at the final page with sense that we, too, have gone on a great journey and are still yet a long way from home.

Torrey Crim: Where were you when you found out your first book was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Naomi J. Williams: Hm. I’m not sure when that moment was. I do remember where I was when I learned my agent, Nicole Aragi, had agreed to take me on. It was early morning, and I was checking e-mail over my tea, which is what I always do first thing after I wake up, and there was her “yes” e-mail. My husband had just left for work, but I ran to the garage and he was still there, so I told him, and then we both cried a little. The book then went to auction, and that was very heady in its way, but I relayed the decision to go with FSG over the phone, and then I’m pretty sure the rest of my day went as originally planned—bugging my oldest child, a high school senior then, about college applications, and my younger one about homework, then enjoying a dinner that my husband probably made. Perhaps I had an extra glass of wine that night.

A few weeks later, though, before I’d seen a dime for the book, I did celebrate by shutting down my small private tutoring business. I was a good tutor, and fond of most of my students, but whereas I’ve always loved teaching classes, especially college classes, I never really enjoyed one-on-one tutoring, which often involved trying to cajole a few sentences out of children who didn’t like to write and didn’t want to be there. Once I knew the book was coming out, the tutoring became intolerable. That was a good day, when I sent out my “Dear Parents: I have some good news and some bad news….” e-mail.

TC: Landfalls is a dense collection of experiences all influenced by the Lapérouse expedition; crew members, scientists, family members left behind, inhabitants of the places the expedition visited. What was the first seed of this story for you? How did you decide to tell the story this way, from all angles?

NW: The idea for this book came from an old map that my husband gave me many years ago. It was supposedly an 18th-century map of San Francisco Bay but turned out to be a map from the Lapérouse expedition of a bay in Alaska. (That bay is the setting of “Snow Men,” the story that appeared in One Story in 2010.) I started Googling the expedition, which I’d never heard of before. The idea for the structure of the book—a series of stories or chapters, each set in a different part of the expedition and told by a different narrator or group of narrators—sort of came to me in a flash, either that first day or shortly thereafter. I’d always liked nautical fiction and stories about explorers, but I didn’t want to write another story that centered around the great white captain and his exploits. I wanted to mess that up a little bit and include voices we don’t usually hear.

TC: One of my favorite chapters is “Dispatches,” which follows Barthélemy de Lesseps as he crosses Russia. He’s cut off from the knowledge of what his former crew-mates are going through even as he makes a perilous journey of his own; we’re able to see the story as a whole, even though he can’t. It seems that some of the pleasure of historical fiction is that the reader always knows a little more than the character; for instance, that the French Revolution is brewing while the explorers are away from home. What drew you to this particular voyage and this particular historical moment?

NW: It was pure chance that drew me to this particular voyage, as I describe above, but I think it fascinated me right away—and continued to fascinate me for the decade I spent working on the book—in part because for its time, the expedition was quite progressive. It wasn’t about claiming land for France or about extracting gold or about missionizing people in faraway places. While the ships were charged with looking for economic opportunities for France, its primary goals were scientific and cartographic. A delegation of scientists and artists accompanied the expedition. Even the chaplains were also naturalists. It was also very high-tech for its time. And yet those Enlightenment ideals and idealism and advances didn’t really protect them in the end. I was really interested in exploring that. I’m so glad you liked “Dispatches,” by the way. I’m quite fond of that chapter myself.

TC: Can you talk about how research influenced the writing of this book? Did you find that research opened up how you thought about the novel or did it create unforeseen roadblocks?

NW: I love doing research. I have a lot of faith in the creative possibilities that open up when you combine artistic curiosity with scholarship. I veered from the historical record as little as I could—not because I thought that was my “job” as a writer of historical fiction, but because that was the challenge I set myself; it was just more fun that way. I never saw the research requirements as roadblocks. On the contrary, when I felt a little stuck in a particular story or chapter, I often found that doing more research would suggest something that lit the way forward. Of course, one can do too much research. I often had to tell myself to just stop already and start writing. Enough fussing about with what people ate in the 18thcentury or how they dressed or the obscure backstory of someone who never even makes an appearance in the novel! So yeah, in that sense it could present a roadblock. Because researching was always easier and more fun than writing.

TC: “Snow Men” was published in One Story in 2010, and the story makes up a chapter of Landfalls. Did you already know where it stood in the novel? How did having that story published change your writing life?

NW: “Snow Men” was the third piece from the book to find its way into print (the other two had appeared in “American Short Fiction” and “A Public Space”). I already knew where it would be in the book, but it had been a difficult story to write, and I was aware of some risks I was taking by adopting the point of view of a young native Alaskan girl. She’s one of the few characters in the novel who is entirely fictional, yet I felt a great obligation to her to get her as “right” as possible. So the piece’s appearance in One Story was an enormous shot in the arm.

TC: What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

NW: Oh, I love parties and I love dressing up. My life in a laid-back Northern California college town affords me relatively few opportunities to do either. But contrary to the usual stereotype about introverted writers who find other people exhausting, I love being around people—new friends, old friends, the works. I can’t wait.

Issue #215: Case Studies by Charles Bock

215.coverA few years ago, two close family members of mine were diagnosed with cancer. I’d lost other relatives, friends, and co-workers  to the disease before, but this was the first time I was dealing with the day-to-day and sometimes hour-to-hour intricacies of care-taking, surgeries, treatment side-effects, hospital visits, and health insurance. The anxiety, strangeness, intimacy, love, helplessness, humanity, and at times, God-help me, dark humor of that experience came rushing back as I read Charles Bock’s “Case Studies.” Set as a series of fictional medical histories of patients, each record moves quickly from the hard facts of diagnosis to the existential questions of healing, building a mosaic of the daily, quiet heroism of patients and their caregivers, while at the same time condemning the bureaucracy of our current health care system. I encourage everyone to read Charles’s Q&A with us as a companion piece to this extraordinary story, where he talks about his own experience caring for his late wife Diana, his decision to explore this subject matter via fiction instead of memoir, and how “Case Studies” fits into the larger narrative of his highly anticipated forthcoming novel, Alice & Oliver. To steal a phrase from Charles—dealing with cancer sucks rocks. But “Case Studies” is more than just a cancer story. It asks: How do we face our daily lives with dignity and hope when our bodies begin to fail us? Every one of us will have to answer that question someday. But we don’t have to do it alone. One of the magical things about fiction is how it creates a mirror of interior worlds. Moments of recognition. When you find one of them on the page, you feel it in your bones. Yes, you think. Exactly. That is exactly how it feels. And you know that you have found a fellow traveler. In these brief medical histories, “Case Studies” introduces us to six such fellow travelers as they navigate the treacherous path of illness, exploring the failures, sorrows, hopes, and mysteries of the human experience.

One Story’s 2016 Mentor of the Year: Jim Shepard

Jim_ShepardOne Story is thrilled to announce our 2016 Mentor of the Year: Jim Shepard.

At One Story, we believe that being a part of the literary community should include helping others. In that vein, each year at our Literary Debutante Ball we honor one established author with a “Mentor of the Year” award for their extraordinary support of fellow writers. Past honorees have included Ann Patchett,Dani Shapiro, Cornelius Eady, and Toi Derricotte.

Mentoring is the kind of work that happens behind the scenes, but is vital to keep the literary world alive and kicking. It comes in all forms—from teaching, to blurbs, to recommendation letters, to late-night reads, agent advice, one-on-one conferences, career guidance and inspiration. Behind each book on the shelf is an unseen mentor, giving an author the help they need to make their work better, to keep writing when they are ready to quit, and eventually give them a boost over the publishing wall.

Jim Shepard exemplifies this kind of gallant hard work, and we’ll be honoring him, along with our Literary Debutantes, on May 6th, 2016  at the One Story Literary Debutante Ball at Roulette in Brooklyn.  Sponsorship level tickets are available now. General Admission tickets will go on sale on April 1st.

Jim Shepard has written seven novels, most recently The Book of Aron (2015), and four story collections, including Like You’d Understand, Anyway, a finalist for the National Book Award and winner of The Story Prize. His previous novel, Project X, won the Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, One Story, Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, Playboy, and Electric Literature, and five of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories, two for the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, and one for a Pushcart Prize. He teaches at Williams College.

Announcing One Story’s 2016 Literary Debutantes!

classicchicagodebutantes-9One Story is thrilled to announce our 2016 Literary Debutantes: 

SAVE THE DATE and raise a glass as we toast these six One Story authors who have published their first books in the past year. The One Story Literary Debutante Ball will take place on Friday, May 6th at Roulette in Brooklyn, NY.  We’ll have live music, dancing, hors d’oeuvres, and specialty cocktails. It is our most important fundraising event of the year. VIP Tickets are available now. General Admission Tickets will be on sale April 1st. To discuss sponsorship opportunities for the One Story Literary Debutante Ball please contact: maribeth@one-story.com.