Introducing 2017 Debutante: Melissa Yancy

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 Melissa Yancy, author of One Story issue #20 “Alas My Love, You Do Me Wrong” and the short story collection Dog Years, winner of the 2016 Drue Heinz Literature Prize.

Challenging the limits of physical health and everyday anxieties, the stories in Yancy’s debut collection reveal the fears we’re afraid to admit we have and the ways in which we try to control them. A molecular geneticist juggles the inevitable reality of her son’s Duchenne muscular dystrophy while planning his birthday party, a woman who runs a facial reconstruction program reflects on her relationships as she cares for her dying dog, and a former city clerk joins a strange self-help regimen after a workplace scandal costs her her job. The nine stories in Dog Years explore the different kinds of isolation we often put ourselves through and the quiet, unsettling, humorous, and deeply human insights that come from these moments.

Monique Briones: Where were you when you found out Dog Years was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Melissa Yancy: I was six months pregnant, sitting on the exam table in my doctor’s office, so I didn’t answer the phone. Just two weeks earlier, I had received the stunning news that I’d been awarded an NEA Fellowship, and when I saw the Pennsylvania number on the phone, I thought of the Drue Heinz, and then thought no, no way, not again. I didn’t properly celebrate. I was so busy, and couldn’t enjoy a glass of champagne or my favorite foods. (That sound you hear in the background is my wife playing the world’s tiniest violin for me.) It seemed like I went right into edits while I planned for the baby’s arrival, and it’s been non-stop ever since. I did have a few moments to celebrate once the book was out in the world. Going to my alma mater and celebrating with undergraduate professors meant a lot to me. And my dad came along for the prize weekend in Pittsburgh.

MB: I’m not sure if it’s possible to discuss the book without mentioning health and wellness, and how these two are often compromised and questioned throughout Dog Years. I was fascinated by how you paired certain characters with their ailments. Could you talk about how you create your characters, particularly the sort of match or mismatch you make between their personalities and their illnesses or conditions?

MY: I think some readers found that a little on the nose—the physical illnesses too neatly mirroring psychological wounds. But I never intended injury or disease to be metaphorical. Several of the characters were inspired by real people—the girl in “Miracle Girl Grows Up,” for example, was drawn from a young woman whose cancer treatments had physically stunted her. In these stories, and in others that don’t appear in the collection, I’ve explored patient exploitation (while engaging in said exploitation). But on the surface, it looks rather writerly—the character is stunted emotionally and physically. We’re all stunted in some way, and we all die of something.

There are a couple of characters I consciously complicated. The real life fetal surgeon who inspired “Consider this Case” has a beautiful wife and three children, and I didn’t think writing about how amazing he is would make for great storytelling. I was interested in what it would be like to have this specialty—there are only a dozen or so in the nation who focus on fetal surgery—and not have children yourself, and to have a difficult relationship with the idea of parenthood. “Hounds” developed in a similar way. I feel a little guilty about that one, actually. The character Jess physically resembles her real-life counterpart, but not psychologically—the events of the story are fictional. But again, a story about people doing heroic reconstruction work on veterans isn’t great fiction. And the injured faces aren’t meant to work on a symbolic level. I wanted to play with the idea of heroes and villains, and what it means to be someone heroic in one sphere of life, but experience moral grief in another. I’m less interested in the way the inner and outer wounds match up than the way the psychology of Jess’s character mirrors that of someone who has been through war trauma.

MB: How did you choose the order of the stories?

MY: By lottery. Really, there have been so many different iterations. I heard one long-time prize series editor say to front load it with the good ones, and not put anything too experimental or challenging first. A friend told me to think of it like a party, and then order it in the way you’d want to introduce someone to these characters. I did try to start with those with the broadest appeal, and put some palate cleansers in that would break up the more layered stories. I have no idea how to order a collection.

MB: One of my favorites in the collection is “Consider This Case,” because it’s very heartfelt and also has many hilarious moments. It’s a story about a fetal surgeon getting used to his father moving in with him, and there were numerous points during which I wasn’t sure if the father was going to make me laugh or cry. Could you talk about surprise and humor in your writing, and how you balance those elements in your stories?

MY: Humor allows us to access emotion. It opens up the body. And I think even people who aren’t jokesters in their daily lives develop a sort of gallows humor when life calls for it. Look at the present moment. The jokes are non-stop, which doesn’t mean anyone thinks what’s happening is funny. Some of the most devastating short stories are superficially humorous—Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” and George Saunders’s “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” come to mind. I wish I understood the mechanics of comedy more. It’s something I’d like to study. I’m not funny, but I love witty people, and I like to give my characters a little wit.

MB: Considering your background as a fundraiser for healthcare causes, I imagine that you’re surrounded constantly by your research. What is your research process like?

MY: Yes, you’ve got it. Research is basically showing up at my office. I have so little time to write that I like to imagine I’m being efficient. And bringing both hats (secretly!) to meetings that might otherwise be too erudite or overwhelming, can make the job much more interesting. When I research things for other, non-medical stories, though, I quickly fall down the internet rabbit hole. I’ve written some really weird stuff that way.

MB: You mentioned in your first interview with One Story that the best writing advice you’ve ever received is, “if you can’t write, lower your standards.” What other lessons have you learned since then?

MY: That advice is good for getting words on the page, but then the real work begins. The truest advice is the advice no one wants to hear—especially from successful writers—about the role of luck and timing. Which is why staying in the game is so important. Once the delusion of youth wears off, you need something else to sustain you. I once heard Ron Carlson say, “The writer goes to the stubborn,” by which I think he meant, it’s the people with the most grit, not the most talent, who survive.

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

MY: The as-yet unimagined ways I will make a fool of myself.

Introducing 2017 Debutante: Sam Allingham

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 Sam Allingham, author of One Story issue #97 “Bar Joke, Arizona” and the short story collection The Great American Songbook. Allingham’s debut showcases narrative versatility and range of emotion over the course of its nine stories. The opening two, respectively, introduce us to vivid fictionalizations of American jazz greats Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and a city barista who moves to bohemian western Massachusetts to practice polygamy. Allingham’s structural inventiveness is unyielding; one story builds off of a bar joke while another manages to sketch a negative of a character’s life by describing all of the other people in it. Love, mania, dangerous obsession, and devotion to one’s craft often blur uncomfortably, but there are otherwise few summary statements that could be made fairly about this heterogeneous collection.

Tyler Baldwin: Where were you when you found out that The Great American Songbook was going to be published? How did you celebrate?

Sam Allingham: I found out at work, and my wife and I celebrated that night by going to the local bar in our neighborhood, where we’d met, and where I did a lot of the joke-collection (i.e., fieldwork) for “Bar Joke, Arizona.” Since I wrote that story almost ten years ago—it’s the oldest in the collection—it felt like things had travelled more or less full circle. That felt very satisfying.

TB: Several of the long stories in your collection start off innocuously enough, only to take a dark turn when a central character develops a mania or reveals some wholly unanticipated, grotesque aspect. I’m thinking especially of “Husbandry,” but also of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” The obsessions you invent in these stories are fascinating—for example, shooting small animals for food, and unsettlingly accurate model-building. I’m curious about how you came up with them, and if, when you began writing these stories, you were aware that they would surface.

SA: I usually start a story with some sense of the central conflict. I think of this as the initial thrust required to get the story into orbit, whether that’s the initial glimpse of the model city in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” or the mother dressing up in hunting clothes in “Husbandry.” So those two manias were present as soon as I started writing; the story’s inciting incidents wouldn’t exist without them, and they represent the central desire that drives the narrative. But as for how these ideas appeared, I’m afraid I don’t really know! I suppose the desire to build scale models of the place in which you live is really just a reflection of the writing process. I can tell you, though, that you can get a lot of narrative torque out of the tension between a monomaniacal character and a so-called “normal” one; the monomaniac forces their foil to reflect on their own desires, and to react in ways the reader might not expect.

TB: This collection is bookended by stories about several famous American Jazz musicians of yesteryear. The way you write their characters, it seems almost as if you’re a historical biographer, like you have intimate knowledge of their habits, foibles, and dispositions. What sparked your interest in fictionalizing this particular group of people, and how fictional are they?

SA: Almost entirely fictional! I did read a biography of Artie Shaw, and I listened to some interviews, but my Artie is in no way an accurate depiction of the man himself. He’s much more an homage to certain books by Thomas Bernhard than he is a real person—or, I guess, an attempt to turn a first-person rant into its own kind of music. I was interested in Shaw because of his intense hatred towards popular music, his great talent and also his sense of the insufficiency of that talent. All the other biographical stuff struck me as mostly incidental.

As for Rodgers and Hart, I did essentially no research, other than listening to their songs. I still know next to nothing about them, but the piece isn’t really about the context of their lives as much as it’s about the collaborative relationship between artists of two particular kinds: the one who finds his work fluid and easy (perhaps too easy), and the one who finds himself tortured by it. Also the relationship between music and language, composer and lyricist, fluency and neurosis.

TB: In your jazz stories, Artie Shaw and Lorenz Hart are so embittered. They end up hating not only the music industry—with the way commerce, friendship, and art strain against each other—but music itself. I’m used to authors waxing poetic and celebrating music as this higher sublimated language, but Artie longs for silence. A former music teacher and Oberlin student yourself, how do music and musicianship inform your writing?

SA: In my experience, writing that waxes poetic about music is usually extremely unsuccessful, and people who celebrate music for its communicative powers are often non-musicians! The musicians I know get intensely frustrated by the structure of music: its limitations, its repetitions and clichés. Like all artists, they’re leery of repeating themselves, trying to push through the limitations of the form and into some unexplored realm. That’s Shaw’s trouble, in the title story of my collection. He can feel the limits of his own playing, even if nobody else seems to notice, and it drives him half-crazy.

I think it’s easy to overstate the relationship between music and language. No worse critical cliché than calling someone’s prose “musical!” Of course, I pay attention to rhythm in my prose, maybe more than the average writer; I did start my musical life as a drummer—but I think a lot of the stories in the collection that are about musicians dramatize the unbridgeable differences between the two forms. Music occurs in time and space, it’s outward facing, and at its best (during certain improvisatory moments) it can feel almost unconscious. Language, on the other hand—by this I mean written language—sits outside time, in the exchange between writer and reader; it’s inward, ruminative; it has a tendency towards obsessive neurosis, extreme self-consciousness.

That being said, what unifies a song and a story is that both forms are highly structural. There’s an architecture to each, whether the audience recognizes it or not. I think being a musician taught me respect and also a certain frustration with form: chord changes, rising and falling action. It taught me that the best way to treat such a structure is to stretch it to the breaking point.

TB: While reading The Great American Songbook, I found myself unable to pin down your style or classify your stories. The collection contains one or two traditional, realist short stories, but also the likes of “Bar Joke, Arizona,” which is quite literally a bar joke that, with some narrative propulsion, becomes something entirely new and different. Is there a particular style that you’re most comfortable writing in? Which of the stories in this collection was most challenging to write, and why?

SA: For me, the joy in writing a story is figuring out the particular way it wants to work. A good story builds its own form, sort of mollusk-like; ideally, the thematic core builds outward, either from a scene or a premise or a character. I often stop after the first few pages of a story and think: what does this one need? It’s like you’re confronted with a marvelous new animal and you have to figure out how to feed it, keep it alive. So I would say that there’s no particular style I feel comfortable writing in because each animal has its own particular needs. That being said, the hardest story in the collection to write was “Stockholm Syndrome,” simply because it’s by far the longest, and because it was very difficult, emotionally, to live in Valerie’s head. She reminded me of unpleasant aspects of my own world vision.

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

SA: I’m looking forward to reading the books by the other debutantes, and re-reading the ones I’ve already read. I don’t get out into the NYC literary world much, so I’m excited to wear a nice suit and drink cocktails and have lively conversations about literature!

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.