Introducing 2017 Debutante: Clare Beams

On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine 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 Clare Beams, author of One Story issue #166 “World’s End” and the short story collection We Show What We Have Learned.

We Show What We Have Learned is a masterful collection that features nine stories, many of which combine elements of the realistic and the fantastic, while contemplating the human condition. Beams’s fully-realized worlds provide each story with an almost novelistic scope, allowing the reader to become immersed in the narrative. The writing is precise and strong; the characters perfectly nuanced; and the stories unpredictable, haunting, and true.

Laura Spence-Ash: Where were you when you found out We Show What We Have Learned was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Clare Beams: My family and I were visiting my parents in rural Vermont, and it was my birthday (this was in August of 2015). Emily Smith and Beth Staples, who became my publisher and editor at Lookout Books, had scheduled a phone call with me for that day, and while I’d always gotten fine cell reception at the house before, it picked this moment to quit—so I was scrambling around and trying to call from the landline, etc. Once I recovered from the stress of trying to make the call happen, I got to enjoy the conversation itself, during which it became clear that Lookout saw the book just the way I’d hoped somebody would and that they were in fact going to publish it. I think I walked around the rest of the day just saying “I can’t believe it” over and over again. This might not sound celebratory, but it felt that way.

LSA: Your stories often take wonderful, unexpected turns as we move out of the realistic world that we know and into a place that’s filled with mystery and possibility. How do you decide the balance between the realistic world and the speculative? Do you tend to start with the realistic world and move into the speculative, or are your initial story ideas rooted in the fantastic?

CB: I think I usually do have some sense of just how large a role the surreal is going to play in a given story before I begin—since some of my stories are much more fantastical than others (though I’d argue there’s something a little strange about the world of each of the stories in the book). When I start a story, I usually don’t have much more than an image—one central picture of some kind that sparks the rest—but I find that the picture does usually tell me a lot about how speculative the world of the story’s going to be.

LSA: Several of the stories take place in the past—as far back as 1665 in “Ailments”—and here, too, we are faced with multiple worlds as we implicitly compare the world of today to the world in the story. What draws you to write fiction placed in the past? Do you ever get stuck in the research phase and find it difficult to transition to the fiction?

CB: I grew up in a house that was built in the 1730s in Newtown, Connecticut, a town that has houses even older than that. Living there, I think I just felt continuously surrounded by the past. As a kid, too, I was always drawn to old books—Louisa May Alcott, the Brontës, Frances Hodgson Burnett—and I was the kind of reader for whom those worlds sometimes felt more real than my actual life. So it’s probably not surprising that my own preoccupations as a writer tend to steer me into the past, at times. There’s also something about moving into different historical moments that somehow feels a lot like moving into the fantastic for me—in each case I have the sense of entering a world that runs alongside ours, beneath it, inside it, and that informs it in interesting ways. I tend not to let myself do too much research ahead of time, for the exact reason that I’m always afraid I might research for years and years and never write anything. I try to make myself write until there’s a question I need to answer in order to move forward, and then I dip into the research just long enough to answer it before I go back to writing. The bulk of the research then comes in during later drafts, as I try to make sure I didn’t get anything wrong.

LSA: Four of the nine stories in the collection take place in a school setting, with several featuring teachers as the protagonists. I know that you taught high school for six years and now teach at the collegiate level. How did your experience in the classroom feed these stories? Do your students worry that the disintegration that happens to the teacher in the title story, “We Show What We Have Learned,” will happen to you?

CB: Ha! Well, first of all I should say that I really love teaching and always have, and my real teaching experiences don’t have much to do with the fictional experiences I present here, thankfully. (Though I do think it’s possible that the students I’ve had who’ve read “We Show What We Have Learned” look at me a little differently afterwards!) But all that time I’ve spent in classrooms has made me think a lot about their inherent power structure, which I find fascinating: this idea that the teacher’s job is to shape and change his or her students. It’s an idea I find dramatically rich. I also find classrooms themselves, the actual spaces, to be fertile territory for fiction—because they’re such self-contained little worlds, in some ways, and events can reverberate in ways that interest me.

LSA: I first read “World’s End” when it was published in One Story in 2012, and when I reread it in the collection, I was amazed at how familiar the landscape seemed to me, almost as though I had actually been there before. Your narrative descriptions are always vivid and precisely rendered. Do you see the landscape of the story before you begin writing or does it slowly take shape as you write, the details becoming clearer as you move through multiple drafts?

CB: The landscape, or the story’s setting, is often one of the first elements that comes into focus for me. It’s often connected to the kind of image I mentioned before, the kind that can spark the rest of the story and that I often have in my head before I have any kind of clear sense of characters, plot, etc. “World’s End” is a bit of a special case just because it’s based on a real place, in Hingham, Massachusetts—though I took many liberties with its reality and history in using it in the story.

LSA: Lastly, what are you most looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?

CB: Meeting the other debutantes! And getting to thank my mentor, Megan Mayhew Bergman, whom I first met because our husbands grew up together in Vermont, but who has become a great friend and advocate. She has been so wonderfully generous to me.

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