An Interview with Anabel Graff

5 Mar
Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World" won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize.

Anabel Graff received her B.A. from Vassar College and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Texas State University. She has lived in London, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and New York City. She is the winner of the 2014 Prada Feltrinelli Prize. Her work has appeared in Amazon’s literary journal, Day One, as well as Prada Journal.

To read her story “The Prom at the End of the World” and an exercise on writing human stories in the face of cosmic disaster, click here.

In this interview, Graff discusses getting readers to forget logistics, stealing from writers (especially Ramona Ausubel and Amy Hempel), and why writers write the same story over and over.

Michael Noll

As it’s title suggests, “The Prom at the End of the World” strikes a balance between the normal (prom dates and dresses) and the apocalyptic (asteroid). Mostly the story sticks to the prom, and the asteroid stays in the background, informing the choices that the characters make. It’s the opposite of how the film The Day After Tomorrow operates. Did the story always have that balance, or did the asteroid ever take over in some drafts? In other words, did it ever threaten to turn into The Road or The Walking Dead?

Anabel Graff

It’s funny, but despite the topic, “Prom” was never really concerned the particulars of an apocalypse. I had no interest in writing that story—it’s one we’re almost too familiar with. The circumstances of “Prom” didn’t really feel like that much of a stretch to me. It’s hard not to feel like the world is on the edge of the apocalypse anyway (just turn on the news). Instead, I was fascinated by the emotional territory the apocalypse allowed me to explore: How would we act if we knew the end was near? And how would that reveal what we value? Who we were? Jenny’s answer is connection. That would be my answer, too.

That answer was satisfying to early readers of this story, and I revised “Prom” to strengthen that effect. In many ways, this was a test of narrative authority. I wanted to write a story that felt so emotionally true that people wouldn’t feel the need to ask logistical questions. It will resonate for some readers and not for others. But that’s okay—those are the limitations we must accept when we venture into writing stories that aren’t strictly realism.

Michael Noll

Even though the prom dress and date take center stage, there is a certain amount of general action going on in the background. For instance, two consecutive paragraphs begin this way: “The men bought supplies” and “The women made plans.” Each paragraph tells, generally, about those supplies and plans. This seems like a pretty succinct way to capture the larger commotion caused by the asteroid without getting sucked into the details. I’m curious if this strategy simply occurred to you while writing or if you borrowed it from another writer or story.

Anabel Graff

I wanted to write a new story for the Prada contest, but I had a hard time starting that first sentence. So I turned away from my blank computer screen and dove into the books on my shelf. I read. That’s the best advice I’ve ever received to overcome writer’s block, and I would tell anyone who would listen to do the same. I think I read about ten books the week before I returned to that blank computer screen. When I read fiction, I always pay close attention to how it is made. I look for tricks to steal (I’ve always believed that great writers are great liars and thieves)—this is how I’ve been taught to read like a writer (like you do on your site!). When I finally sat down to write “Prom,” those tricks were at my fingertips. It was quite astounding actually how quickly I wrote this story, especially after being stalled for so long.

A review in The San Francisco Chronicle said that "No One Is Here Except All of Us contains so many achingly beautiful passages, it’s as if language itself is continually striving to be a refuge."

A review in The San Francisco Chronicle said that “No One Is Here Except All of Us contains so many achingly beautiful passages, it’s as if language itself is continually striving to be a refuge.”

One book I read that week was No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel. It’s narrated in the third person plural, though the narrative sometimes shifts to a first person. This is done to great effect—the combination makes the narration at once authoritative (the power of the “we”) and personal (the intimacy of the “I”). After I read this book, I was inspired to try this device, and I felt the freedom to play with point of view in this way.

I also immersed myself in Amy Hempel’s short stories. In an interview with the Paris Review, Hempel talks about the notion of moving plot in terms of moment building. And that was another technique I was interested in, in terms of the construction of “Prom.” Hempel also discusses letting white space speak through the story’s transitions. Can I just quote her here? She says:

Transitions are usually not that interesting. I use space breaks instead, and a lot of them. A space break makes a clean segue whereas some segues you try to write sound convenient, contrived. The white space sets off, underscores, the writing presented, and you have to be sure it deserves to be highlighted this way. If used honestly and not as a gimmick, these spaces can signify the way the mind really works, noting moments and assembling them in such a way that a kind of logic or pattern comes forward, until the accretion of moments forms a whole experience, observation, state of being. The connective tissue of a story is often the white space, which is not empty. There’s nothing new here, but what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say.

Much is left unsaid in “Prom,” and that silence speaks volumes. The story, in a weird way, is all about what’s not being said. That thought’s in every line—what people are too scared to say is as important as what they say out loud.

Michael Noll

In his introduction to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, George Saunders writes that every writer has “The Thing This Writer Loves To Do, and Does Naturally” and that the “writer started writing so that he or she could endlessly and effortlessly do this thing and nothing else—be funny, say, or verbally brilliant, or write lush nature vignettes, or detailed descriptions of the interiors of rich people’s houses.” As I read your story, I noticed two things that you seem very good at: inventing wonderful details about teenage sensibility (the term promapocalypse and the last-minute decision to decorate the auditorium like outer space) and also capturing those universal moments of teenage uncertainty that we all experienced and recognize immediately. How much of your writing process is simply finding a plot that will allow you to do these things?

Anabel Graff

Wow, thanks! Well, I first have to credit Jane Hawley from my cohort with the “promapocalypse ” line. A lot of the details I labor over as I build the world of the story never seem to get noticed, and the ones that come easily are the ones that some readers hold onto (like the prom decorations, for example). Debra Monroe, my professor at Texas State, taught me about the importance of specific details in fiction, and she brilliantly explains how they constellate to create the tension of a story and reveal its meaning. So that’s something I always work towards in my writing—how I can be as particular as possible, by using a lot of specific details, to capture the universal, to create meaning.

Which brings me to the second part of your question—I believe that a writer writes the same story until she has answered the question the story poses. All of my stories are about these moments of uncertainty of adulthood—whether my characters are 8, 18, 28, or 88. I don’t ever start writing with a theme in mind—I always start writing with plot. But I am interested in these particular moments because they have both meaning and dramatic potential. Will Jenny find a date for the prom? That is the plot. What does it mean to take a risk to connect? Therein lies the theme.

Michael Noll

The story was written for a specific prompt: “What are the signs of a changing world? And what situations can we envision? Taking a good look at the details might give us the answer.” Did writing for those questions change your process at all? Did you write a story that is unlike your normal subject matter, or did you simply adapt the kind of story you usually write to the prompt?

Anabel Graff

Anabel Graff's story, "The Prom at the End of the World," won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

Anabel Graff’s story, “The Prom at the End of the World,” won the Prada-Feltrinelli Prize and was published in Prada Journal.

I think I was the only winner who wrote a new the story for the contest. Since this prompt was inspired by Prada’s latest eyewear line, I always knew that the idea of vision (what we see and what we don’t) would be central to the story. But I was having a hard time finding a plot to lay over that as a backdrop. Sometimes, when I am looking for inspiration, I read weird news sites for ideas. I came across a story about a meteor that was supposed to hit Earth. As soon as I saw that, I knew my story would center on a teenager’s last night on Earth. From there, the prom seemed an obvious setting. It’s a night full of expectation, and these expectations were intensified by the impending apocalypse. But, honestly, this process is similar to how I begin many of my stories—I like the idea of taking two or three ideas, images, thoughts, and figuring out a narrative that weaves them all together to make the fabric of a story. This how I always feel like I’m writing towards something. And it’s how I try to bring richness and texture to my fiction, by finding images that fascinate me, that I can imbue with meaning to function as a central metaphor for each story.

Prompts are a helpful tool we have as writers. It’s a way to explore ideas that may lie outside our regular instincts, thought processes. They provide structure and limitations. For me at least, when I have those kind of limitations, I’m always trying to figure out how I can bend them. And that’s when I’m the most creative.

March 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: