Introducing 2017 Debutante: Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

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.

First up is Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes, author of One Story #211, “The Elephant’s Foot.” Her novel, The Sleeping World, tells the story of Mosca, a university student in 1977 Casasrojas, Spain and her search for her younger brother who has been taken by the police and is presumed dead. We talked to Gabrielle about her research process, what it was like to publish a first novel, and her forthcoming projects.

Courtney Luk: Where were you when you found out The Sleeping World was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes: I was at home in Athens, Georgia and it was about a million degrees. My partner saw that my agent was calling and started freaking out for me. I tried to keep my cool on the phone but it was hard with all the ridiculous faces he was making. I celebrated by eating oysters with my friends and then I bought a gas stove.

Courtney Luk: How did you come up with the idea for The Sleeping World? What drew you to the specific time and place?

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes: I studied abroad in Spain in 2007 and I was really fascinated by the tensions between generations. I lived in a city, Salamanca, that had supported Franco but, due to its university, is home to many students who are much more progressive. That tension and the enforced silence around the Franco regime provided an emotional landscape to explore grief and protest.

CL: Can you talk a little bit about what it was like to publish your first book?

GLF: Very difficult and daunting but very exciting. Ever since the book sold, I’ve been oscillating between being overjoyed and grateful and extremely nervous. It’s so much effort and work—by so many people—to get a book published, much more than I knew. There’s a sense of relief as well. I love the thing-ness of books and holding the first copy made me feel very present in the world.

CL: The narrative in The Sleeping World maintains an authenticity of time and culture. Can you talk a little bit about your research process?

GLF: I focused on Spanish novels and art from the time period (1970s and 80s) and after the Spanish Civil War. Textures and outfits from Almodóvar and the photographer Alberto García Alix. I trusted my gut and what I’d learned from speaking to Spaniards to shape much of the narrative and then researched to make sure such a narrative was possible—thank goodness it was! I combined certain elements from Latin American dictatorships with Spanish history, so it was important to me that the novel not be considered historical fiction and therefore have to conform to the demands of that genre. But I also wanted to make sure that the narrative respected the time period and those who lived through it.

CL: The fantastical elements of the folklore in “The Elephant’s Foot” published in One Story directly contrast the realism in The Sleeping World. How did your writing process differ between writing these two pieces?

GLF: For me there isn’t much of a difference in the writing process because I don’t really see them as separate in terms of genre. The marvelous is almost always present in my work both because of what it is capable of achieving in a literary mode and because of my own beliefs. At the beginning, The Sleeping World seems fixed to the genre of classical realism, but as the book progresses, the ghosts of the story and Spain’s past become more and more present, shaping the narrative and calling previous conceptions of reality into question.

CL: Mosca’s search for her brother demonstrates a connection that transcends physical space, or presence, and becomes one of intuition. Mosca truly believes Alexis is alive. What informed this relationship?

GLF: My brother passed away a year before I began writing the novel and Mosca’s journey mirrors my own in some ways. I needed a sort of ritual, a descent into the underworld, to survive. Writing provided that form.

CL: What are you working on now?

GLF: I’m currently working on two novels, one has a working draft and the other is still in the hair-tearing-out generating phase. My second book re-imagines Wuthering Heights from a Latina perspective and is set on a religious commune during the Great Depression. My third is set in contemporary rural Northern Wisconsin and seems to be developing into a kind of literary mystery. I like to change settings, time periods, and styles a lot—each time I switch I think that this time period/perspective will be easier, but it never is!

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

GLF: I’m so excited to meet the other authors whose work I love and to hang out with my mentor Kirstin Valdez Quade. I plan on wearing a way-too-fancy dress and dancing too much.

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: 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.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Scott Cheshire

horsesbridlesOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 Scott Cheshire, a wonderful and generous person and author. Scott’s debut novel High as the Horses’ Bridles is now available from Henry Holt. The book follows Josiah Laudermilk as he goes from being a twelve-year-old prophet in a religious household in Queens, New York, to a divorced man who goes by “Josie” and owns computer stores in southern California. When his estranged father falls ill and Josie returns to New York to care for him, Josie confronts his past in ways that reverberate into his present and future. Memories of his childhood, his departed mother, his break from the church, and the early years of his marriage collide as he tries to figure out how to be around his father again and how to move forward in life with a clearer vision of his reality. It’s a very relatable family story told through the fascinating lens of religion, history, and love.

Where were you when you found out High as the Horses’ Bridles was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was at the Housing Works Bookstore Café, in Soho, when I got the call. Which was fitting as I wrote much of the book there. After the call, I wanted to call my wife and my friends but I resisted that and went outside. I walked around the cobbled streets out front and I tried to be very aware of the moment. I let it sink in. I thought about how long I had been working on the book, how many years. I thought about how long I had been writing. Then I called my wife. I probably got weepy. And then I called one of my teachers, who by then had become a real mentor and friend. I asked him what to do next. He said, start another book, right now, even if it’s shit. That was very good advice.

The title of your book is so perfect. How did you decide on this title and were there any other contenders?

Well thank you so much for saying that. The whole time writing it, the book was called The Ends. I had it at the top of every page. It kept me focused. Everything in the book had to funnel toward that, and so the book became about the many ends of our lives, the end of childhood, the end of love, the end of faith, the end of life, the end of time, even the opposite ends of the country. At some point I realized this was not, in fact, the title of the book, but rather its preoccupation. It also helped that everyone hated that title. I made a list of more terrible titles until it struck me that the title should come from the book of Revelation, since the book itself was birthed from that book and my relationship to it. I read Revelation again and came across the phrase. It seemed poetic, even American, it sounded like a Cormac McCarthy novel (which couldn’t hurt), but actually referred to something quite violent and nightmarish, the depth of sinners’ blood come Armageddon. I liked that tension.

High as the Horses’ Bridles is set mostly in Queens and Southern California, both locations where you have lived yourself. Can you talk about the process of writing a story that takes place in environments with which you are very familiar? And has your recent move back to Southern California from Queens affected your current writing at all?

This is an especially interesting question because I never had plans to live in California again, and yet here I am. Place, I must say, is very important to me. I mean in life and in my reading and writing habits. Place directly affects my mood. For instance, just thinking about the splintery beach of Truro, Mass., gives me peace. I have a photo of that place on my laptop screen. As far as Queens and Southern California, they were the landscapes of the most formative times in my life and so it made sense to write about them. Not to mention, for me, life is sort of a dialog with the physical world. And so my work tends to revolve around characters engaged with the world around them, the trees, the beach, the sidewalks, and subways. As far as returning to California, well, I’m writing about Queens again, but with the beach just minutes away. This makes for a better mood and hopefully makes for better writing.

One of my favorite chapters in the novel is very removed from your own experience—it’s a vivid depiction of a tent revival in nineteenth-century rural Kentucky. What kind of research did you do to create such a believable environment and characters in this section?

This was the last thing I wrote and it happened quite fast. It took about a month of long marathon writing sessions in which locked myself in the bedroom and had my wife bring me lots of coffee. But that only happened after a tremendous amount of research. I took lots of notes but mostly just figured I would use what stayed with me. After writing it, I reached out to a few historians of American religious history who not only responded, but they did so with great enthusiasm. They sent me notes and corrections on things I might consider, or about stuff I got plain wrong. I could not have done it without them.

To me, your novel is ultimately about the often unrealistic expectations that parents place on their children—or even expectations that the children perceive, whether they exist or not—and how families and individuals deal with the dynamics that result from these expectations. Do you agree with this assessment? Have you heard any interpretations of the book that have surprised you?

Well, because the book centers on one family’s religious legacy, people often talk of the book in that context, that it’s a book about religion, but really for me it’s a book about family, first. It’s about fathers and sons. Mothers and sons. So it makes me very happy that you describe it this way. I have heard many differing opinions on the novel. I have been hugged by an atheist who told me he was happy that someone finally wrote a novel about religion from the atheist’s perspective. I have received letters from people thanking me for writing a novel about religion finally from the perspective of the faithful. I have sent at least one woman back to church. All of this pleases me. Probably my favorite response though was from a man in Boston, who bought five copies, one for each of his boys. He said they were going to read the book together. It doesn’t get much better than that. I know writing the book certainly brought me closer to my own family.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story Ball on May 15th?

I love One Story and have been reading it for years, so it’s thrilling to be a part of this year’s ball. Not to mention I get to put on a tie, and get a haircut, although I need to get new shoes. Since the move out west, I’ve been wearing flip-flops, mostly. Maybe I’ll get a pair of fancy ones to go with my suit.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Katie Coyle

vivianappleOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 Katie Coyle, author of One Story issue #192 Fear Itself, and the debut Vivian Apple at the End of the World from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. When Vivian Apple discovers her parents are missing and two holes in the roof in their place, she sets out to get answers on a road trip across “post-Rapture” America with her best friend Harp and a mysterious boy named Peter. Vivian’s quest to find her parents brings her to larger questions about identity, belief, and growing up and highlights Katie Coyle as an exciting new voice.

Where were you when you found out your first book, Vivian Apple at the End of the World, was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was sitting on my couch, opening up my e-mail, after an aborted attempt at doing Pilates. I don’t know that I ever attempted Pilates again after reading that e-mail. I celebrated by taking a train downtown in the middle of the day to meet up with my husband, who was so crucial to me in getting the book written and out into the world. We ate cheeseburgers and laughed like idiots and later that night I’m pretty sure I got really drunk.

Your story “Fear Itself”, issue #192 of One Story, also revolves around teenage girls. Why did you decide to focus on teenage girls in both “Fear Itself” and the novel?

In both instances, it was extremely intentional. Vivian and the girls in “Fear Itself” are all dealing with the same fundamental problem, which is finding that their own wants and fears and personalities don’t seem to fit the cultural understanding of what a girl should be. This has been a fundamental challenge in my life, from my teen years until today, and I’m always fascinated by stories that touch on it. I’m really weary of the teen girl stereotype that persists in pop culture, all these ditzy and dramatic backstabbers. Having been a teen girl myself, having known so many teen girls, I’m interested in that space between the stereotype and the actual, far more complicated truth. The characters I write tend to be girls who have felt pressured to limit themselves, and then over the course of the story they inevitably snap, often in (to me) funny and compelling ways.

Throughout the book, Vivian is questioning her beliefs and religion. What inspired you to explore this?

I started writing Vivian Apple about four years ago now, shortly after a 2011 prediction from a man named Harold Camping that the Rapture and apocalypse were imminent. After his predicated date came and went and nobody seemed to have been raptured, I read an article about a family wherein the parents had believed Camping, had given him a lot of money and were anxiously anticipating being saved, and their teenage children were far more skeptical. The article was kind of jokey, but I thought the dilemma of the kids was a really powerful one. Not only were they setting themselves in opposition to these huge ideas about God and salvation, but they were taking a stand against their parents, too. I have always been interested in the way young people often have to reject the values of the generation that came before them in order to define themselves as their own autonomous individuals, and I saw a lot of potential in writing a story about a family divided along similar lines.

What are you working on now?

I’m trying to finish up a draft of my third novel, a fantasy—which is also and perhaps unsurprisingly about a teenage girl—before August, which is when I’m due to give birth to my first child.

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

I’m looking forward to meeting the other debutantes, who are all extremely talented and intimidating and good-looking. I’m also looking forward to snacks; I assume there will be snacks.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Mia Alvar

alvar_11-10On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 Mia Alvar, the charming and brilliant author of In the Country. Mia was born in Manila and grew up in Bahrain and New York City, and the stories in her debut collection follow an intriguing and varied cast of characters in each of these locations. In these stories, which are so true to life, family members show both deep love for and drastic misunderstanding of each other. Mia offers us stories of personal struggles, with vivid backdrops of politics, history, and socio-economic class differences. Her prose is deceptive in its seeming simplicity—its layers of meaning resonate long after the final page is turned.

As Mia tells us, she identifies with the narrator of “A Contract Overseas”, who has just discovered her enthusiasm for writing. The narrator’s brother understands, saying, “Now it keeps you up at night. You feel awake for the first time. Like you’d been sleepwalking through life before.” In the stories of In the Country, we are clearly reading the work of a writer who is passionate about her work.

Where were you when you found out your first book, the amazing story collection In the Country, was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

I was at home—getting updates simultaneously from my agent, who was finalizing the sale; and from my sister-in-law, who was in labor with her third child. The book deal was confirmed within a few hours of her (sister-in-law’s, not agent’s) giving birth. My husband was also working from home that day, so there was this happy embarrassment of good news in our apartment. We celebrated by passing a flask between us on the LIRR train that we rode to go meet our new nephew.

The first story in your collection is “The Kontrabida” was issue #165 of One Story in the summer of 2012. Were you working on other stories from In the Country around the same time? Can you talk a little bit about how you put together this collection of stories?

I did have other stories in the works alongside “The Kontrabida,” but at first I didn’t think much about how they’d all come together. I somewhat naively thought the setting(s)—this loose triangle of Filipino communities in the Middle East and America and the Philippines—would be enough to make it a collection. But over the years—and especially after Hannah Tinti worked with me on “The Kontrabida”—it became clear to me that those details of place and culture were more like points of entry than a subject. I realized that the stories I most wanted to tell were all in some way about the tension between cleaned-up “official” histories (whether in textbooks and newspapers, or in heavily curated family albums) and people’s messy, more complicated experience. After I knew that, I could see more clearly which stories belonged in the collection and which ones had to go.

Your stories so effectively explore the working lives of characters with a wide range of professions: medical doctor; special education teacher; fashion model; oil industry worker; nurse; journalist; etc. How did you go about preparing to write these characters, who are all so different and so convincing?

I’m glad you were convinced! To be honest, I find it extremely hard to sound authentic about people who do things I don’t in real life—but at the same time, I’ve never felt inspired to write from the perspective of a Filipina-American fiction writer in her thirties living in New York City. Maybe someday. But for this book, because I was drawn mostly to characters who are different (at least in surface ways) from me, I tended to over-prepare, wrapping myself up in a cocoon of research and interviews and prewriting and obsessive, borderline-Method techniques for getting inside their lives. Almost none of that material ended up in the stories, but it did give me a way into the voice or inner life of each character, which then allowed the details (work-related or otherwise) to fall into place. It’s not really necessary to describe what a nurse does at her job with which tools, but somehow having that information beforehand helped me figure out how that nurse might speak to her journalist husband at breakfast.

Many of your stories explore the role of the mother within a family, including the influence a mother has on her children, and the ways that mothers can surprise their children’s expectations of them. Your title story, which ends the collection, explores Milagros’s identity as a mother as one of its central themes. What most intrigues you about exploring motherhood in your writing?

This actually surprised me. I’ve only ever experienced life on the daughter side, so motherhood wasn’t a theme I consciously set out to explore. But mothers do come up a lot in the stories, and I guess that this goes back to my obsession with official narratives vs. real experience, and how those things pull against each other. Motherhood seems to be one of those ideas that we humans are most tempted to sentimentalize and oversimplify and “scrub,” so that space between the pretty mythologies and the complex, more gnarly aspects of it turned out to be rich and fascinating territory for me. And the writerly-craft nerd in me must have recognized on some level that motherhood—where the pressures are so intense, and the stakes could not be higher—is just a really great source of chaos, conflict, trouble…all of the things you don’t want in real life but do need in fiction.

Your stories take place around the world, with characters who are struggling with leaving or returning to their native Philippines. In “Shadow Families”, ex-pats in Bahrain throw parties for their fellow Filipinos and help each other out in an attempt to make their borrowed city feel “like home.” What does “home” mean to you?

It almost feels easier to define what home isn’t. At least in my experience, it’s hardly ever the place we’re physically and geographically born into—as many of my characters discover, either by choice or by accident or by economic/political necessity. I identify more than a little bit with the young girl narrating “A Contract Overseas,” who finds a sort of home in fiction and storytelling and other writers, after feeling basically like an alien within her own family and neighborhood her whole life. As sappy as it sounds, that whole “where the heart is” cliché rings very true for me. Even as they keep trying to recreate all the details of their original home, I suspect that what the women in “Shadow Families” are really after is the kind of connection and sense of belonging that two people—born in completely different countries and circumstances—find with each other, improbably, in “Esmeralda.”

What are you most looking forward to at the One Story ball?

Meeting my fellow debs. Getting all cleaned up (I hear the dress code is “Brooklyn fancy”), and toasting to the One Story crew, who always know how to throw a party.

Introducing 2015 Debutante: Diane Cook

ManVnature HCOn May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 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 Diane Cook. Diane Cook’s short story collection Man V. Nature is full of stories that are disorienting yet somehow recognizable and telling depictions of very human characters in extreme situations. A widow moves to a facility where she is expected to forget her late husband and prepare for her official placement with another man. A woman refuses to resign herself to the tradition that a mysterious man will kidnap her newborn children as soon as she drops her guard, though the rest of the neighborhood urges her to accept the inevitable. A group of ten-year-old boys who are declared “not needed” escape their state-mandated destruction and must fend for themselves in the forest. As Ira Glass said of Diane Cook’s stories, “Many of them are dispatches from the end of the world, and it turns out to be a surprisingly familiar place.”

1) Where were you and what were you doing when you found out your first book was going to be published? What did you do to celebrate?

I believe I was in my apartment on the phone. I remember it being kind of fraught and me feeling a bit frantic. You could imagine me like Johnny from Airplane! in this scene.  On second thought, you should imagine I’m all the characters in it. In fact, I believe this is a documentary someone made about the process of trying to sell a book.

You know, we were so broke at the time I’m pretty sure we didn’t even celebrate properly. We probably drank a reasonably tasty reasonably priced bottle of sparkling wine and watched free Hulu. I feel so boring right now.

2) As you said in your One Story interview about “Meteorologist Dave Santana,” the stories in Man V. Nature are about characters giving free rein to impulses people generally feel social pressure to quash. At what point did you recognize that the stories you’d written shared a theme that could bundle them into collection? How did the book come together after that?

I was just writing stories for a couple of years. Then I began to formulate this series of questions for myself about the world and these questions led to certain story ideas. This work built a kind of web of ideas that a few stories lived in. Then, looking back I could see that a couple of stories I’d written in the past seemed to act almost like the delicate anchors to that web. Then it became a book to me and I wrote more stories from there. But really, even though I grouped the stories and called it a book, it wasn’t until I had given the book to others to read and they responded, “This really comes together as a book” that I believed that it actually DID come together as a book.

3) Many of the stories are set in worlds that are only different from ours in one highly specific, brutal way that the characters take for granted. (I’m thinking of “Moving On,” “Somebody’s Baby,” “A Wanted Man,” “The Mast Year,”
and “The Not-Needed Forest” in particular.) What draws you to these situations and how do you come up with them? Did you have any ideas that didn’t make it into a story?

Some of these stories came from me asking What if questions about the world. What if things happened that way instead of this way? What if daily life looked like this and not that? And whatever lens I’m looking through is kind of dictating what I’m seeing, what I’m wondering about. Most of the stories you just named came about that way. It’s fun and fascinating to think about the world this way. But one story—”The Not-Needed Forest”—came about from reading about a lot of deep wilderness living and from trying to write an homage to an homage while at the same time homage-ing the original homaged story (specifically “Young Goodman Brown” by Hawthorne and “The Man in the Black Suit” by King.) What came out of those initial thoughts all swirling around wasn’t that different from the story you can read in the book but it was a shell, lifeless. You ask what makes it into a story and what doesn’t. I think at some point no matter your goals or hopes for the story were, you have to let the story take over. The early draft was really homage-y. But there were these little bubbles coming up, trying to lift the story out of itself, trying to take advantage of what I’d gotten on the page. So I let them come up. You have to if you want to be really surprised by what you’re working on. The best parts of that story came from letting my original intentions go.

4) If you could meet one character from the book in real life, which one would you choose? What would you want to say to or do with them?

Even though I put them through some extreme paces, I love my characters. Gary from “The Way the End of Days Should Be” and Janet from “Meteorologist Dave Santana” are two favorites. I know people can read Stan and Susan in “It’s Coming” as a bit comical, and I used to too, but now they make me weep. I probably relate most to Jane from “The Mast Year.” But if I could meet anyone I’d want to meet Beatrice, the daughter in “Somebody’s Baby.” I want to follow her through her day and see if she is as mysterious and unsettling as her mother thinks she is, or if she is just a little girl.

5) What are you most looking forward to about the One Story ball?

I’m really looking forward to meeting people I only know by name or avatar. A few months after I sold the book we moved to California. It was unplanned and unexpected and pretty stupid timing. We’d lived in New York for a decade and I’d wanted to leave for half those years, but just when living in New York might actually be fun and useful—like, now that I’m a writer maybe I’ll get invited to literary parties!—we bailed. It was probably for the best. I’m a terrible party-goer and pretty timid in crowds. But it was a weird thing to feel like a New York writer (I’d written the book in New York after all) but not actually be one anymore. Imagine all the people I might have met this year if we’d never left. I hope to meet some of them at the Ball.