Archive | October, 2013

An Interview with Alex Perez

31 Oct
Alex Perez

Alex Perez’s story “Eggs” appeared in Subtropics, the literary magazine of the University of Florida.

Alex Perez is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His stories have appeared in SubtropicsGuernica, and Esquire. He lives in Miami, where he recently completed a novel.

In this interview, Perez discusses writing about class and race, listening to characters, puzzling out how to integrate backstory, and his pick for the next Nobel Prize.

(To read Perez’s story “Eggs” and an exercise creating the world of the story, click here.)

Michael Noll

In student stories, dialogue tends to be focused on plot (what is going to happen, who is going to do what). As a result, the characters can sometimes seem lifeless, like props being shuffled around as the story dictates. What I immediately noticed about “Eggs” is that the boys have something to talk about. Even when they’re a few blocks away from the house that they’re about to vandalize, they’re not talking exclusively about their plan. Instead they’re talking about basketball goals with glass backboards and thinking about how the houses look like castles. The narrator thinks that he’ll never live in a house with such big staircases. Even at the story’s climax, he’s thinking about class differences–which is fascinating and tells us so much about him and his world. Was the story always about class in this way? Or did you have to write a few drafts and let the boys have some random conversations and observations before you figured out what their concerns were?

Alex Perez

The story was always about class, but it took me a couple of drafts to figure out what it was really about: the realization that class exists. The concern, of course, was that a socioeconomic “theme” would be too on the nose, or too writerly, which is why it was important that the two main characters be teenagers. They were never going to have a nuanced chat about economic theory or politics. It was simple: “Look, a glass blackboard. I want a glass blackboard. I can’t have a glass blackboard.” They were awed and angered—like most young men—so the dialogue, as well as the rest of the story, is dictated by that point of view. Basically, remove yourself as much as possible. Become your characters.

Michael Noll

The opening of the story makes clear that race/ethnicity will play a big role. The first section ends this way:

“So get ready to egg the hell out of him.”

“And the white lady?”

“The white lady too.”

But, for the most part, whiteness and Cuban-ness don’t really get talked about. Instead, they get wrapped up in discussions of class. By the end, it’s almost impossible to separate the two. Near the end, just before the boys start throwing eggs, the narrator thinks about his father this way:

He was in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen, and he’d become a certifiable bitch. I didn’t know why, but as I looked around the house, at the massive staircase and the leather couches, for one second, gave him the benefit of the doubt. Right then, I knew that I’d never make it to such a house. I wasn’t good enough for Harvard, and I certainly wasn’t about to massage feet for women who weren’t my wife.

This is a pretty powerful thought. It’s all about class and the narrator’s sense of his own worth and what he’s willing to do for money. It’s also, indirectly, about race/ethnicity. I’m curious how you developed this idea in the drafts. Was it a challenge to find the right way to approach tensions of race/ethnicity?

Alex Perez

Initially, race was going to play a big factor. Surely, I was thinking about writing a story that connects class and race and makes some grand statement. Thankfully, once the boys enter the neighborhood and notice the backboards and everything else, the story really hones in on what it wants to be. Once again, this is about point of view. The writer wanted to hammer together themes of race and class—searching for the proper balance or ratio—but the narrator was focused on glass backboards. I was smart enough to go along and allow the story to move in the direction it wanted to move in. I’ve learned the hard way that too much thinking—especially while writing—can destroy a story. Don’t question the choices a character makes. They know better. If it was up to me, I would’ve probably shoehorned more “race” into the story, but the characters were obsessed with “stuff” they didn’t have, which says everything that needs to be said about race and class and America, etc. They knew the proper ratio all along.

Michael Noll

The story takes place over a short period of time (the amount of time required to drive to a house and egg it). But the story does flash back to other moments in the boys’ lives (discovering their father’s affair, the day their father leaves home). Did the story always have that narrow frame? Or did earlier drafts try to span more time within the plot? In other words, did the story always begin with the boys in the car, on their way to the house, or did it begin earlier?

Alex Perez

I read a lot of stories that sputter along and take a few scenes to get going, so I always try to start a story with as much immediacy as possible. In “Eggs,” it seemed logical then to open with the boys in the car, the plan already in motion. We’re right there with them, listening in, wondering why they want to egg their father and this mysterious white lady. I also wanted the reader to feel like an accomplice, so trapping everyone in a car was the only way to go. The problem, as always, was what to do about the backstory. You can have chunks of backstory in a novel—such is the form—but short stories are all about forward progression. It was even trickier in “Eggs,” because the boys are in a car—literally moving forward—and I didn’t want the momentum deadened by the backstory. So the question was: to backstory or not to backstory? In the end, I realized that some history was indeed needed, so I had to write a couple of “background” scenes and somehow intersperse them into the narrative. Always a bastard, that backstory.

Michael Noll

In the spirit of the recent Novel Prize announcement, if you were able to give out an award for lifetime achievement in literature, who would you give it to? Which writer has most shaped both your conception of yourself as a writer and also your sense of what a good story/novel looks like?

Alex Perez

Philip Roth. Nobody does the combination of comedy and pathos better than Roth. I read Goodbye, Columbus, and that was it for me. His stories are fearless. He’s like Dylan in that they’re going to do whatever they want, and you either come along, or you don’t. That seems like the way to do it.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Create the World of the Story

29 Oct
Alex Perez's story "Eggs" was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

Alex Perez’s story “Eggs” was published in Subtropics, the literary magazine from the University of Florida.

The writer Ron Carlson says that every story has two parts: the story and the world that the story enters. Another way of saying this is that the characters involved have concerns and obsessions that existed before the story came into their lives.

Alex Perez has created this fictional world beautifully in his story “Eggs.” It was published in Subtropics, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

It’s not actually enough to create a world for the story to enter. That world must lean on the story, shaping it so that the story isn’t generic but specific to that place. Perez does this by giving his narrator an attitude about certain aspects of his world: poverty and ethnicity.

Notice how the narrator immediately compares his mom to the woman his father is sleeping with:

“My mother, always working in the kitchen, never wore anything that called attention to her. This woman, this white lady, must have dipped her entire wardrobe in glaze or something.”

This class difference gets picked up in every section of the story. Even when the the narrator’s father moves out and the narrator and his brother drive to his new house to egg it, they’re thinking not just about their plan but the class distinctions that inform it:

It’s a testament to the craziness of a city like Miami, how all the hoods, rich and poor, are connected by the highway, but people only get off where they’re supposed to. But here we were, on the side of town all the immigrants wanted to get to. Ten minutes from our place, and this was the first time Ricky had seen driveways littered with the finest in German engineering.

“All the backboards are made of glass. Like the NBA,” he said.

“You haven’t played basketball until you bounce it off the glass,” I said.

One problem that many beginning writers have is a tendency to write only about plot. In their stories, once the plot gets rolling, nothing else appears on the page. But good stories move in and out of plot. They advance it for a while and then step out for a few moments to talk about something else. Such moments allow readers to catch their breath, to absorb what is happening. Giving the characters in a story something to talk about besides the immediate plot also allows the story to gain meaning. It allows the story to have a paragraph like this one in which the narrator peers through the windows of his father’s mistress’ house and sees him rubbing her feet:

He was in one of the biggest houses I had ever seen, and he’d become a certifiable bitch. I didn’t know why, but as I looked around the house, at the massive staircase and the leather couches, for one second, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Right then, I knew that I’d never make it to such a house. I wasn’t good enough for Harvard, and I certainly wasn’t about to massage feet for women who weren’t my wife. Maybe all those other women had been preparation for this moment, for the day that he’d finally make it to a house that justified his exodus all those years ago. I didn’t know, probably would never know, but I had to tell myself a story.

That passage that isn’t possible if the story doesn’t create its world and its characters’ attitude toward that world.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s create a world and a character’s attitude toward that world, using “Eggs” as a model:

  • Describe two characters from the viewpoint of a third character. When Perez compares his mother to his father’s mistress, he notices the difference in their clothes, and it bothers him. You’re looking for those kind of distinctions that bother the third character. So, you may want to describe characters who are not equally close to the third character: a family member and a stranger, a close friend and an acquaintance, a spouse and a co-worker. We tend to associate ourselves with people from “our world” and who have similar attitudes toward that world—and we often judge harshly the people from other worlds. Here are some ideas for distinctions you can make: class, ethnicity, geography, education, intelligence, athletic ability, attractiveness, sexuality, or even just likability.
  • Put your third character into the world that isn’t his/her own. When Perez’s characters egg their father’s mistress’s house, they leave one neighborhood and enter another. Because class distinctions weigh so heavily on them, everything they see is seen through that prism: the basketball backboards, the bases on the baseball fields. What details does your third character notice as he/she enters the world that isn’t his own? The key is to find a plot mechanism that will force your character into a world to which he/she doesn’t belong.
  • Filter everything through the difference between the worlds. We judge others most harshly—or become most conscious of distinctions between us and others—when we’re upset. So, as you write the story and approach the dramatic high points, find ways to return to the distinctions you’ve created. In Perez’s story, the narrator looks into his father’s new house, aware of how much bigger and fancier it is than his own. But his feelings toward those differences have changed. Very often, the reversal in plot or the epiphany will be accompanied by a similar reversal or change in the way a character views the world you’ve created.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Mũthoni Kiarie

24 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. A finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest, she lives in Oakland, California.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story, “What We Left Behind” was a finalist in the Narrative Magazine Spring 2012 Story Contest.

Mũthoni Kiarie grew up in Nairobi, Kenya. She earned her MFA from Mills College and is an alumna of the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation. She lives in Oakland, California.

In this interview, Kiarie discusses her approach to intensely emotional moments in a story.

(To read Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” and an exercise based on the story’s indirect treatment of emotion, click here.)

Michael Noll

This story is about a mother and her two children who flee their village after it’s violently attacked by armed men. Though the story describes the attack, it only focuses on certain parts. So, for instance, the mother’s torn dress and bloody lip are clearly and specifically described, but the body of the murdered father is described less directly as “painting the ground a lush red.” Did you make a conscious decision to show certain people and things in greater detail than others? In other words, how did you know what to describe clearly and what to suggest more indirectly?

Mũthoni Kiarie

When writing this, I knew the story was going to be focused more on the mother and that the father would sort of fade into the background. However, it was important to show that his was still an important role in the story. The way he died to me showed in a restrained way, how that community was decimated. I also wanted to make sure that his death was also lovingly portrayed, while still showing that it was a violent death. The mother’s details, the dress, the bloody lip I almost felt were even more subtle than the father’s because she underwent what was possibly an even more violent experience that I didn’t necessarily talk about but give my reader a strong sense of what may have happened.

Michael Noll

The story begins with a list of the items abandoned in the desert, and great care is taken to distinguish between the different types of baskets and different sizes of sandals. The list is powerful–and the power doesn’t abate even after several reads. The items that are shown reveal so much about the characters’ live, and the fact that we see these items and not the people who left them is chilling. It reminds me of one exhibit at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. It’s a room filled with children’s shoes—for some reason, when I visited the museum, those shoes affected me more than any of the horrifying photographs that I saw. Why do you think personal items like shoes or baskets or sandals have this effect on us?

Mũthoni Kiarie

I think as human beings, the value that we attach to material possessions defines our existence. Like your example of seeing the children’s shoes in the Holocaust Museum, you attached a certain child and their life to those items. This is really where this story came from. Thinking about these material things that hold so much value to us when we are alive and all is well in our worlds. But then, what do you take with you when you have three seconds to get out of the house? Your child or your shoes? That’s kind of an obvious question, but you get what I mean. I imagine that at each step when my characters or others who’ve been faced with a similar journey, have to chose what to leave behind. And those decisions must be excruciating.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Convey Emotion Indirectly

22 Oct
Mũthoni Kiarie's story "What We Lost" appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind” appeared in Narrative Magazine as a Story of the Week.

Sometimes the best way to approach important moments in a story is indirectly. To that end, the writer John Gardner gave his students this exercise: Write a paragraph about a farmer grieving after his son’s death. But you can’t mention the son or his death or any words that signal emotion. Instead, you must describe the barn and, in the details you choose, convey the farmer’s sense of loss.

This can be a difficult exercise because we realize how dependent we are on direct treatment of everything in a story. If you try to describe the barn, though, and if you continue to find indirect approaches to key information in fiction, you might be surprised at the effect on your writing. You’ll also begin to see the strategy everywhere in stories.

A great example is in the opening paragraph of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story “What We Left Behind.” It was a finalist in the Spring 2012 Story Contest from Narrative Magazine, where you can read it now. (Note: Sign-in is required, but it’s free.)

How the Story Works

The premise of the story is very simple. A Kenyan village is attacked by armed men, and the survivors flee. Notice how long the story waits to state the premise—not until the fourth paragraph. What precedes that paragraph is, in part, an indirect description that conveys the survivors’ depth of loss:

“In the beginning, the sandy ground was littered with the things that those who went before us had abandoned: sisal sleeping mats, many with the threads that bound the fibers together loosening as they flopped in the wind; suitcases; water troughs; beaded jewelry; tin cooking utensils; thin cotton dresses, skirts, shirts, and trousers; woven baskets, the kind that carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day; rubber-soled sandals, ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned. But as the days went by and we continued to walk, there were fewer and fewer of these things, and instead we began to see a scattering of carcasses from animals left to die in the dry desert heat.”

At first, the description merely lists the objects that litter the ground. But as the list proceeds, it begins to offer greater detail. For instance, it distinguishes between baskets that “carried cassava crops from one home to another, and bigger, more elaborate baskets, the kind that were given to a new bride on her wedding day.” And between types of sandals: “ones for tall men and ones for smaller men, and thinner ones for women, flimsier ones for children, and all black, blacker than the people whose feet they had once adorned.”

The passage ends by upending the list: the items are gradually replaced with animal carcasses.

Though the paragraph never shows the people fleeing the village, we get a strong sense of their presence (and of the narrator’s emotions) through the attention given to the objects on the ground.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try to convey important emotional information without approaching it directly. We’ll use Mũthoni Kiarie’s story as a model:

  1. Choose an event that produces strong emotion. Ideally, the emotion should last for a while, as opposed to a flash of anger or frustration that is quickly forgotten. Examples of events include these: death, marriage, divorce, birth, moving to another house or city, losing a job, changing jobs, professional disappointment, professional success, winning the lottery, or your team winning a big game.
  2. Try the John-Gardner exercise. Describe the contents of a room or place that is significant to your character. Don’t state the emotion or anything related to the event. (And no cheating with synonyms or giving animals or inanimate objects human dimensions—ducks skipping, walls smiling, that sort of thing.
  3. Add an element of time. How does the room or place change as the minutes/hours/days pass? This may be easier since it makes the description active rather than static.
  4. Optional: End the passage with a single line that states the emotion or something related to the event. Sometimes a line that bluntly states what has become obvious after an indirect description can shake the reader a little. For an example of this effect, read the last paragraph and sentence of Mũthoni Kiarie’s story.

Remember, the idea is to get inside the character’s head. Bad fiction tends to state what it cannot show. It tells the reader that a character is excited or sad or angry, and it’s no accident that the prose in such fiction is mechanical. But when you read good fiction, you’ll notice passages that are not directly related to plot or character development—they’re simply the book/narrator telling us about things in the character’s world. It’s the ability to write passages like these, without falling into dull description, that opens up the range and possibility of a prose voice.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with Mary Miller

17 Oct
Mary Miller's debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture. A recent Publisher's Weekly review said that Miller has created a "narrator worthy of comparison with those of contemporaries such as Karen Thompson Walker and of greats such as Carson McCullers."

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, follows a 14-year-old girl whose father takes the family on a road trip from Montgomery to California in anticipation of the Rapture.

Mary Miller’s debut novel, The Last Days of California, is finally out, and it’s already getting rave reviews. A reviewer for The New York Times wrote, “Why worry about labeling a book this good? Just read it.”

Miller grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. Her collection of stories, Big World, was published in 2009 by Short Flight/Long Drive Books. A graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, she will return to Mississippi in the fall of 2014 to serve as the John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. At this cool website, she discusses the stories she’s read lately.

In this interview, Miller discusses misunderstanding and subtext in dialogue and the challenge of transitioning from story writer to novelist.

(To read Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” and an exercise based on the story’s dialogue, click here.)

Michael Noll

I love the dialogue in your story “I Won’t Get Lost.” The narrator has to explain gentrification to a man who’s never heard the term before. The basic premise of the conversation is weird–who hasn’t heard of gentrification. But instead of closing the distance between the two people (the man saying, “Oh, so that’s what gentrification is. Thanks for telling me”), the dialogue actually pushes them farther apart. By the end of this early portion, the man stops talking and takes out his phone to verify what he’s just been told. I’m curious how you approached this piece of dialogue. Our natural tendency is to make dialogue function as it does in the real world, which is toward understanding. Did you have to consciously make this dialogue work against that tendency, or did it move that way on its own?

Mary Miller

Thanks, Michael. This is a pretty much a conversation I had on the bus one day. I guess I thought it was odd, as well, because the gentrification discussion inspired me to write this story. And then it became more about the narrator, and how talking to this stranger made her feel exposed and self-conscious.

My natural tendency in writing is toward misunderstanding and confusion. When people speak to each other, particularly those who know each other well, there is typically a lot of subtext. I’m at home right now visiting my family, and when we talk I notice all of the things we aren’t saying, or how we’re saying one thing and meaning something completely different. In life, this kind of sucks, but it’s great for dialogue.

Michael Noll

The story’s title is “I Won’t Get Lost,” which is appropriate because every piece of dialogue, every internal thought, and every observation in the story is about dislocation and disconnection. Did you start with this theme in mind, or did it surface through various drafts of the story?

Mary Miller

I don’t think about theme when I write. I feel when something is coming together and creating a larger story, or when it’s not, but it’s not something I think about. I don’t ever want my writing to feel heavy-handed, for the reader to see me guiding him or her to some conclusion.

Michael Noll

Your first novel, The Last Days of California, will be published in January. It’s about a 15-year-old girl whose evangelical father takes her on a road trip across California to save as many souls as possible before the rapture. On one hand, a novel is always a big jump for a story writer, especially when the stories are often quite short, as yours sometimes are. On the other hand, a road trip novel has a unique structure: many short, sometimes disconnected scenes. Did you choose this structure on purpose? Was it a more manageable way to approach a novel for the first time? If so, that would seem like an awfully smart decision.

Mary Miller

Yes, yes, yes! I really don’t feel like I could have written a novel, at least not at the time, without this rigid structure. I had to keep moving the characters from Point A to Point B, which created a certain amount of tension. They’re behind schedule! They must keep going! They need to eat and use the bathroom and look at all of these odd things and people they’re coming into contact with… Each night, there’s a new motel, a new environment for them to explore. The structure certainly provided me a frame within which to work. It made it easier and more fun to write.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Write Away from Consensus in Dialogue

15 Oct
Mary Miller's story "I Won't Get Lost" appeared at New World Writing, an online journal founded by former Mississippi Review editor Frederick Barthelme.

Mary Miller’s story “I Won’t Get Lost” appeared at New World Writing. Her novel, The Last Days of California, is out now from Liveright.

In real-life conversations, we almost always seek common ground and compromise. Like the advice for married couples, we try not to go to bed angry. We want to leave a conversation having agreed upon something or with some shared understanding. But fiction is not like real life. In stories and novels, dialogue between characters who are seeking mutual understanding is boring. It kills, rather than heightens, tension. This means that good dialogue in fiction is actually the opposite of a good real-life conversation. It must veer away from consensus and not toward it.

Mary Miller demonstrates how to write dialogue that moves away from understanding in her story, “I Won’t Get Lost.” You can read it now at New World Writing.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman riding a bus. A man asks her about the neighborhoods in the city, whether one of them is dangerous, and she says no, the area has been gentrified. Here is the conversation that follows, beginning with the man’s response:

What’s that?

Gentrified?

I’ve never heard of it, he says.

It’s when rich people move into a poor neighborhood and buy up all the houses and make them nicer. And then the property values go up and the poor people can’t pay their taxes and have to move out. He’s looking at me like I might be brilliant. It’s controversial, I add.

I’ve never heard of it, he says. Is that a real thing?

Yep, I say, gentrification.

I’m going to look it up, he says, and takes out his phone.

The dialogue begins with a simple question, which receives a simple answer. Normally, the natural, logical next step would be consensus. The man would say, “Ah, now I understand.” But that’s not what happens. First, he expresses disbelief. Then he steps out of the conversation in order to verify the answer on his phone. He is resisting the basic human impulse to agree. As a result, tension is created. In the next paragraph, the woman worries about her appearance. She’s disconcerted, and though the story doesn’t draw a direct line between the unresolved distance between the two speakers in the conversation, the discomfort is clear—and discomfort is one way to push a story forward, to create tension.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s write dialogue that veers away from understanding using “I Won’t Get Lost” as an example. The dialogue in Mary Miller’s story is between a person of authority and one with questions. The woman has the authority of knowledge (she knows the local landscape and the definition of gentrification). The man doesn’t have this knowledge but wants it. Let’s do something similar in the exercise:

  1. Choose two characters, one with authority and one who is requesting something of that authority. You could choose someone with an authority of knowledge, like the woman on the bus in Miller’s story, or you could choose a literal authority (teacher, police officer, administrator, parent, preacher, politician, or someone with the authority that comes with a particular expertise such as a scientific researcher, engineer, or car mechanic).
  2. Choose a place for the dialogue to occur. Keep in mind the way that place can enhance or diminish authority. So, if the dialogue takes place in the person of authority’s office or workplace, that person’s authority is enhanced. But if the dialogue happens in public or in some version of the private sphere, the authority might be diminished. In other words, on whose turf is the dialogue taking place?
  3. Begin with a question or request. Miller’s story begins with a request for information: Where should the man go that isn’t dangerous? It’s a simple question that assumes the other person’s authority—the man asks the woman because she’s from the city in question and, therefore, knows where to go. So, in your story, consider what question might be posed to the person of authority. The question might be posed out of necessity or out of curiosity. You might try posing a couple of different questions until you find one that you like.
  4. Supply an answer. Let the person of authority respond to the question.
  5. Ask for clarification. Let the questioner ask about part of the answer. In Miller’s story, the man asks about gentrification, which was part of the answer to where he should go. In your story, you might let the questioner ask about a term used by the authority or the rationale behind part of the answer.
  6. Supply clarification. This one’s easy. Let the authority answer again.
  7. Ignore or deny the answer. This is where the dialogue swerves off track. The normal expectation is that if a question is posed and an answer is given, then some level of understanding has been achieved. But we’re actually aiming to avoid understanding. So, let the questioner refuse to accept the answer by denying it’s accuracy or rationale or by acting as if no answer has been given at all. (If you have kids, then you’re familiar with ignored questions and requests and the tension that creates.) In Miller’s story, the man essentially ignores the woman’s answer and seeks out the same answer on his phone.

Your goal in this dialogue is to break the societal expectations for a certain kind of exchange. We expect to be listened to, to have our expertise respected, and when that doesn’t happen, it’s as if civilization itself has, in some small way, failed. The best dialogue is not an argument but rather a conversation in which one of the sides denies the other side’s authority or right to speak.

Good luck and have fun.

An Interview with the Editors of American Short Fiction

12 Oct
The latest issue of the Austin-based journal American Short Fiction features a story by Roxane Gay and a Pushcart Prize winner "Teen X" by X. ASF also publishes work online, such as this story by Anthony Abboreno.

The last issue of the Austin-based journal American Short Fiction featured a story by Roxane Gay and the Pushcart Prize winning “Teen Culture” by Elizabeth Ellen. The next issue will feature Joyce Carol Oates and Kevin Wilson. ASF also publishes work online, such as this story by Anthony Abboreno.

American Short Fiction was founded in Austin, TX, in 1991 by Laura Furman (editor of the O’Henry Prize Story Collections) and has published stories that have found their way into most of the big, yearly story collections. Like most literary journals, American Short Fiction gone through multiple incarnations. After a brief hiatus in 2012, ASF is publishing once again. The forthcoming issue features work from Kevin Wilson, Joyce Carol Oates, Kellie Wells, and others, including Barrett Swanson. The journal also publishes web-inclusive stories and essays at americanshortfiction.org. One of those stories, “Filler” by Anthony Abboreno, was featured this week here at Read to Write Stories.

In this interview, American Short Fiction co-editors Adeena Reitberger and Rebecca Markovits discuss the editing process, the limits of readers’ attention span for online fiction, and the advantages of publishing online content as well as a traditional print journal.

(To read Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” and an exercise based on the story’s character development, click here.)

Michael Noll

The funny thing about reading published stories is that you can’t imagine them existing in any other version. At least, that’s how I feel about Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler.” And yet I know from experience that most stories that are accepted by journals are usually revised before being published. As a result, I’m curious about your role as an editor for this story. How close to the published version was the first draft that you read? What sort of suggestions did you make?

ASF

A huge part—in some ways the most important part—of an editor’s job is simply being selective. And “Filler” was definitely a case where this was the most important part of our job—choosing to publish the story in the first place. Filler came in already as very clean copy, which is lovely for an editor. I seem to remember we made a couple of tiny changes for clarity, added or removed a comma here and there for technical, grammatical reasons, maybe turned one sentence into two, or two sentences into one, but nothing which would have made you respond any differently to the story than the final version you read on our website. That’s not always the case, and sometimes we do make some significant changes to stories that come our way (especially, sometimes, stories we really love), but we try to trust the authors’ instincts as much as possible, and if we have too big an issue with something, simply choose not to publish the story, rather than trying to “fix” something that may in fact just be a question of taste preferences. We fell for “Filler” right away, though.

Michael Noll

American Short Fiction is a traditional print journal, but it also publishes stories online. Do you think there’s any difference in the way readers approach stories in print versus online? It would seem that someone who picks up the print journal has made a firmer commitment to the work than someone who happens across your website. Does that mean that an online story must have a catchier or somehow sharper-edged first paragraph?

ASF

That’s a great question. And as more and more print journals (both fiction and non-fiction) are being driven, by economic realities, to online-only existences, one wonders to what extent that’s changing the nature of our reading content. The easiest answer to your question is that our policy is fairly simple: we limit our online fiction to stories that are roughly 2000wds or fewer. Now, we might well publish a story that’s 2000wds in our print journal, but you won’t see us publishing a story that is 7000wds long online. I don’t know if it is so much a question of attention span, but it is simply physically a little unpleasant to focus on the same backlit computer screen for that long. And, as you say, relief is such an easy click away. But there are probably more complicated answers to your question, as well. The fact that our online fiction changes every month somehow gives us a little more freedom to experiment in that space than we perhaps feel we have in the tri-annual print edition. And of course the online space has dynamic potential that print lacks: our current online fiction exclusive, for example, was written as a companion piece to a track on an album, and we were able to embed the SoundCloud of the music file right there next to the story, which was great. We love how the online space gives us the opportunity to have fun like that.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about how a journal’s identity and mission are shaped by its online presence. In the past, a print journal needed to offer content only a few times a year. But being online requires you to offer new material on the website with enough frequency to keep people returning to it. Does this new publishing schedule change the way that you approach submissions or editing? You’ve run a literary NFL preview (which was great, by the way), and this is probably something that wouldn’t happen in a strictly print journal. On one hand, some people might say this is watering down the “literary” content of the magazine, but on the other hand, a feature like that one broadens our sense of what it means to be a writer (we don’t often think of writers as die-hard NFL fans). It also gave you the chance to publish a lot of writers all at once.

ASF

I’m so glad you enjoyed that NFL preview—it was a lot of fun, all credit to our fantastic managing editor Jess Stoner, whose brainchild that was. Jess actually offers me a good way into answering your “pretty big question.” She’s a great aficionado of Internet culture (do I sound geriatric enough yet?) and has what I think is one of the most important qualities in an editor: an always-open mind. That means that she’s full of ideas about how to use the web to expand the often too-narrow idea of what a literary journal can do, which can result in fantastic surprises like that NFL series. In our case, I think it would be accurate to say that our website and our print journal have pretty separate identities. For one thing, other than the monthly fiction web exclusive, the website features entirely non-fiction, where as the print journal is fiction-only. That makes it pretty easy to separate out the two without feeling anxious about image questions. To a certain extent, the audience for the website is also probably a little different than the audience for the print journal. The website offers us a chance to join in the conversation about wider cultural issues that aren’t necessarily fiction-related (we have a regular series called “Things American” that gives us a great outlet for that sort of thing). But most of all, we like to use the website as a compliment to the journal, so that if we publish an author in the journal, or have published someone in the past who, say, has a new collection coming out, we feature an interview with her on the site. Or we can use the site to add a fresh dimension to the content in the journal, in the way I discussed above, by having, for example, playlists or visual material that might compliment a story in print. Ideally, a reader of both the print and online versions of American Short Fiction will find the two experiences not redundant, but also not add odds; companionable; two sides of one coin.

Michael Noll

American Short Fiction is located in Austin, which has always had a strong literary community. But it also seems to be a community that is growing and developing a stronger national reputation. What does it mean to be an Austin literary journal?

ASF

We LOVE being an Austin literary journal! As you say, the writing scene here is lively and growing quickly, with new publications and independent bookstores springing up all the time, and it’s great to be a part of that. We’re also excited about getting involved with the artistic community in general, so, for example, we try to feature art by local artists on our covers, and local musical acts at our events, etc. Literary hubs like New York obviously present their own advantages, but it’s nice, as a national journal, to swim around in a smaller pond too, sometimes, especially as the other fish are so colorful, and we like the relaxed atmosphere down here in Austin. It just feels nice and neighborly, and it’s great to have a local community that’s really invested in what you do. Plus, the tacos are just better!

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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