Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Interview with Giano Cromley, author of What We Build Upon the Ruins

Today, I bring you an interview with Giano Cromley, author of the short story collection What We Build Upon the Ruins. Framed by three interlinking stories focused on one family's reckoning with loss and struggle with grief, the tales in this collection are poignant, haunting and utterly captivating. Short story collections are often hit or miss, but What We Build Upon the Ruins swings for the fences and brings it home. Read on as Cromley and I discuss writing about loss, crafting messy characters and how short stories are more like poems than novels.

Steph Post: The three stories that frame the collection- "What We Build Upon the Ruins," "Human Remains," and "The Physics of Floating"- all tell a continuing story centering on a family's experience of building a birchbark canoe as a means of healing their shared grief. I'm curious as to the development of this triptych. Was this originally one long story that was broken up or was it written as a deliberate series over a span time? And what was the need for breaking the story into separate, individual pieces?

Giano Cromley: The canoe stories started out as just a single story I wanted to tell with no idea what it was going to be when it finally grew up. As I got further into it, I started to realize it was going to fall into that weird limbo state of too-short-to-be-a-novel-too-long-to-be-a-short-story. I was also in the process of putting together a collection at the time, so I figured maybe I could write about this family but have it be three distinct, separate stories. One of my favorite collections, The Watch, by Rick Bass, does something similar. The first story introduces a couple characters and seemingly resolves itself. Then, about halfway through the collection, you come across another story with the same characters and then again at the end. Those stories aren't as narratively linear as mine are, but it's like getting a surprise visit from some old friends when you're reading that book and you come across them. So once I had that model in mind, I set about writing the rest of this family's story in three separate pieces. It ended up being liberating, in a way, because I was free to make each piece about a different person in the family, with different ideas and themes to explore.

SP: The collection opens with the epigraph, "When the angels come, they'll cut you down the middle, to see if you're still there. To see if you're still there. -Cloud Cult." What is the significance of this striking statement and how does it relate to the thematic scope of the collection?

GC: I'm a huge fan of the band Cloud Cult, and the song it's from, "When Water Comes to Life," was written as an ode to the lead singer's deceased son -- almost as a way to comfort him in the afterlife. As I thought about those lines, though, I realized they could be equally applicable to those of us who survive a tragedy. Finding a way to go on is the only choice we have, but it alters us, changes who we are in some important and essential ways. The idea of cutting yourself open to see if that essential you-ness is still there struck me as being a pretty good depiction of what it's like for the ones who come out the other side of tragedy.

SP: All of the stories, in some form or fashion, are concerned with themes of loss and/or transformation. Grief, death and loneliness weave through the pages, but there are also beautiful moments of rebirth. What draws you to writing about such heavy subjects? Are these themes prevalent in all your work, or just in the specific stories chosen for What We Build Upon the Ruins?

GC: I don't think I'm a particularly dark person. But I understand the ways that loss and loneliness make their way into every nook and cranny of our lives. To me, there's comfort, maybe even honor, in acknowledging that fact, recognizing it, tipping your cap, and then finding a way to keep living. That's what this collection is primarily concerned with: Carrying on -- sometimes unsuccessfully, to be sure, but always clawing forward. I would say my short stories tend to dwell on these ideas a little more, whereas in my longer fiction I tend to use humor as a way to confront those parts of life.

SP: One of the things I so love about your stories is that they are filled with messy, complicated characters who sometimes disappoint the reader, but ultimately ring remarkably true. How do you go about writing such authentic characters and to bringing them so fully realized to the page?

GC: First of all, thanks! That's about the nicest compliment a writer can get. I like to observe people. And I think I've got an ear for an oddly emphasized syllable or a striking word choice or a response that's not really a response. I see it as the job of a writer to pick up on those things, interpret them, and use them in a way that gives meaning to the mundane. But, at the end of the day, I think a good part of fiction writing is like being a magician. You want to get so good at pulling off your tricks that the artifice behind them is unrecognizable. That's when you've really succeeded.

SP: Something that drove me crazy (in a good way!), however, about these stories is that as soon as I would fall in love with the characters, the story would be over. I found this particularly true of my favorite story, "Boy in the Bubble." I wanted the story to keep going- not because it was unfinished in any way, but because I fell so hard for Max and his parents that I didn't want to close the story on them. Have you ever considered turning one of your stories into a novel?

GC: You know, I've never really felt a desire to go back to any of my short stories with the intention of expanding them. A teacher of mine once said that short stories have a lot more in common with poems than they do with novels. Which I sincerely believe. And with the characters in my short stories, I usually leave them right where I want them to be once I finish a story. One of the things I like to ask my lit students when we read "The Lady with the Dog" is why Chekhov decided to end the story where he did? Why didn't he tell us how Anna and Gurov resolved their dilemma? Inevitably, they come back at me with, "Because he wanted us to imagine our own ending." Which isn't really the answer I'm looking for. He did it because they've made the decision to do something about their condition, to change it -- and that, right there, is the most important thing. How they go about changing their condition is far less important than the decision to actually do it.

SP: I always want to pay it forward, so I'd love to hear about some of the authors who have inspired you and your work. Is there any author in particular that has influenced you or who you'd like to give a shout-out to here?

GC: As I said earlier, the collection The Watch, by Rick Bass, certainly had a hand in how I chose to assemble this collection. For short stories, I'd have to say my main influences would be Joy Williams, Richard Ford, and William Trevor. Picking up their books recharges my literary batteries. A couple hours immersed in their work, and I'm ready to write again.

Thanks so much to Giano Cromley for stopping by. What We Build Upon the Ruins hit shelves yesterday, so be sure to pick up a copy! Happy Reading...

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Interview with Kevin Catalano, author of Where the Sun Shines Out

Kevin Catalano's striking debut, Where the Sun Shines Out is a dark, dark novel. It's also unique in form, brilliantly crafted and emotionally arresting. As the title suggests, the persistence of hope is peeks out from the pages, but one of Catalano's strengths here is delving into the dark side of human nature in a tale that explores not only a terrible act, but the span and spread of its repercussions. Read on as we discuss writing darkness, violence and how to turn a collection of short stories into a novel.

Steph Post: Where the Sun Shines Out is a novel, and it reads like one, but it’s also comprised of individual short stories that have been published in other formats over the past few years. The stories all center, in some form, around the character of Dean and how he, his family and the surrounding community have reacted to a horrific event in Dean's childhood. Were all of the stories written with the intent of eventually collecting and publishing them as a novel or was the process more organic?

Kevin Catalano: It was a strange, complicated process that I don’t think I could replicate. The short answer is that when I wrote the first story in 2008, the one about the last surviving Munchkin actor from the Wizard of Oz, I did not intend on writing other linked stories that would eventually become a novel. A year later, when I got into the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark, I started thinking ahead about the final thesis project, and wrote other stories- still not really linked- that were all placed in my hometown of Chittenango, NY. Two years later, I had six stories at 140 pages with a few recurring characters and some overlapping events. When my agent looked at this manuscript, she thought it was promising, but wanted it to be twice as long (understandably) to read more fluidly, like a novel. Thereafter, in the fastest bout of writing that I’ve ever done, I wrote six more stories in eight months that filled in the plot gaps, developed more characters, and created more of a thriller/suspense mood. This method was obviously successful, but like I said, I don’t think I could do it this way again if I tried.

SP: From the very first story, which details the kidnapping and murder of a child, the reader is thrown into some deep, dark territory. More disturbing than the physical violence, however, are the ways in which the characters you write about emotionally cope with the aftermath of the event itself. In short, there aren't a lot a bright moments of hope with the novel, though when they come they are well worth it. Was it difficult exploring such dark emotions and bringing them out in your characters? Did you ever find yourself having to walk away or distance yourself from the work?

KC: Strangely, it is never difficult, and I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why not. One possible answer is I’m a psychopath who lacks empathy, but that’s too easy. I think what’s really going on is that I know I’m in control, to some extent, when I’m writing these scenes; and I believe I write so much about dark stuff because I’m afraid of and fascinated by death and violence. The two brothers in my novel are modeled, in part, after me and my younger brother. We were (and are) very close, and even at a young age, I must have feared something terrible would happen to him. Now, as a father, this fear extends to my children. So my guess is that I’m exploring these fears through narratives of which I am in relative control.

SP: In reading Where the Sun Shines Out, I immediately drew comparisons to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge. This novel, too, explores a town and a character from many different narratives and is written in a very unique format. Did Strout's style have any influence on you? Or are there other authors you could point to who have affected your writing?

KC: Kitteridge has been on my to read shelf for too long, so Strout, unfortunately, didn’t influence this writing. There are a bunch, however, that did. One of the earliest ones was Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, which follows two characters in linked-stories format throughout their lives. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried also profoundly influenced the mood and style of my novel. Later, while reworking my book, I read Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff and Frank Bill’s Crimes in Southern Indiana, which helped with my understanding of place.

SP: Everything and everyone in Where the Sun Shines Out is complicated- reactions to grief, sexuality, coming of age, love and remorse- and this is one of the things I so love about the novel. The characters are gritty and messy and sometimes hard to root for, but this is why they combine to tell such a compelling story. I'm curious as to how you go about character development. Do you keep notes on your characters? Have conversations with them in your head? Because they are so authentically drawn, I think it must be a challenge.

KC: Thank you for saying so. I had an art teacher in 9th Grade who said you can’t draw a realistic face without basing it on a real person. I don’t know whether this is true, but it’s something I take to heart when creating characters. Everyone in my novel is either based on a singular person, or is a composite of people I know. I’m sure this is the case for very many writers. But that’s just the starting point. I then add fictional layers to the real person to make it a character. From here, I put the characters in various situations to see what they will do, how they will react. It’s kind of like a sick obstacle course to test their fears and limits, to see what they’re made of. All this happens in drafting. The more I draft, the better I understand the characters.

SP: Though it's certainly not gratuitous or excessive, there is a fair amount of violence (both physical and emotional) in Where the Sun Shines Out. Do you think violence is necessary to tell a powerful story?

KC: No, but I think it’s necessary for me to tell a powerful story. Incidentally, when our first child was born, a harrowing and miraculous birth, I felt obligated to write something nice and inspiring as a way to honor the life of my daughter. I never had writer’s block the way I did in that time. After a month of getting nowhere, I said fuck it, and I wrote probably the darkest and bleakest story (which ended up as “Where the Water Runs North” in the novel). Sometimes I wonder if relying on violence for drama is too easy- that a better writer could turn up the emotional heat with other techniques. But I’m not a better writer. Maybe I’ll get to that point in a few decades. Until then, there will be blood.

SP: And finally, what novels or collections have you read this past year that you would highly recommend? Any fellow authors you'd like folks to have on their radar?

KC: There are so many! I just read Simeon Marsalis’s debut As Lie Is to Grin, which is a fantastic, dreamy, original short novel. Kelly J. Ford’s Cottonmouths is a gritty country noir about lesbians and meth labs. And right now I’m reading Andy Davidson’s literary horror, In the Valley of the Sun, which I’ve heard described as Cormac McCarthy writing a vampire novel; I think that description is pretty spot-on.

So many thanks to Kevin Catalano for stopping by! Where the Sun Shines Out is now available and not to be missed.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Lightwood in Atticus Review

I LOVE it when a book reviewer really "gets" a story and so I can't thank Eva Raczka and Atticus Review enough for this fantastic review of Lightwood. Here's a snippet...

"Not only a badass modern love story, Lightwood is engaging and unpredictable with some brutal action scenes and great dialogue throughout. Lightwood has the best of the southern crime and southern gothic, and rises above the genre."

And you can check out the full review over at Atticus Review's site. Cheers!