Thursday, August 25, 2016

Interview in Fiction Southeast

So today I'm hanging out over at Fiction Southeast, talking about (basically) how hard writing is and how much it's worth it. Cheers!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Of Wonder and Shadows: An Interview with Christopher DeWan, author of Hoopty Time Machines

Christopher DeWan's Hoopty Time Machines: fairy tales for grown ups debuts on September 22 and let me just say, you're in for a doozy. Wild, imaginative, poetic, and disturbingly familiar, the stories found in this collection are so much more than fairy tale reduxes. They are gem-like bits mined from our collective childhood imaginations, viewed through the lens of maturity and polished to a high shine. And a lot of them were written on the subway.... Christopher DeWan clearly has a fantastical mind and his interview doesn't fall short of the honesty and quirkiness that I so loved about his collection. Be sure to add Hoopty Time Machines to your To-Be-Read list, but in the mean time, sit back, relax and step into another world:

Steph Post: Hoopty Time Machines is a collection of flash fiction and what may be described as “mirco-fiction.” Several stories are only a single sentence long. What’s the secret to telling an entire story in such a condensed, limited space?

Christopher DeWan: A lot of the stories in Hoopty Time Machines got their start while I was living in New York City: I would use my morning subway commute to write, so if I stumbled on an interesting idea around City Hall, I knew I had to find a way to wrap up before my stop at Union Square. I think that really did help me hone in on an aesthetic of suddenness: how much can I squeeze in, how many worlds or ideas can I explode, in the next ten minutes?

A few years ago, I moved to Los Angeles to work as a screenwriter, and the writing I do for that is longer: nobody wants to buy a TV series that lasts for ten minutes. But screenwriting requires so much efficiency that I think my background writing flash has really helped: scenes have to start at the very last possible moment, and they have to end as quickly and effectively as possible. Screenwriting has also made my fiction tighter: there’s a story in Hoopty Time Machines that was initially around 2,000 words, and by the time I finished editing, it was 83 words long.

SP: As the complete title of the collection suggests, Hoopty Time Machines is comprised of “fairy tales for grown-ups.” Almost every story is in some way a modern re-imagining of a classic story. This includes everything from Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales to Greek myths to 20th century superhero adventures. What drew you to traditional children’s literature and why do you think adults still find these genres and stories so fascinating?

CD: You know when people say, “Write the book you want to read"? I think about the stories I used to read when I was a kid, and the way they plunged into my heart—and I really wanted the stories in this book to do that, somehow, to tap into some of that under-the-skin feeling of wow and wonder. So many books I read now, they’re so good, but I feel myself read them with my head instead of with my body. I wanted to see if I could reconnect with this other way that I used to read—with my body. My gateway into that wound up being these stories I read when I was younger—not just fairy tales and myths, but superheroes and backwoods monsters and Stephen King, too. I wanted to get back in touch with anything that gave me a vocabulary for that feeling of “Wow.”

SP: As I previously mentioned, all of the stories collected in Hoopty Time Machine are re-imagined fairy tales. Did you write these stories with the intention of putting them together in book form? Or were you just on a thematic kick for a while there and the collection grew from stories you were already writing?

CD: I don’t know how conscious this was at the beginning, but in retrospect, I think what was happening was that I hit an age where things stopped going the way I wanted. My relationships weren’t working out. I didn’t get the jobs I thought I would get. Things weren’t getting easier; they were getting harder. So my experience of the world was going through a transition from a very youthful, “fairy tale” way of thinking—the belief that I was always going to get what I wanted—into a harder, more realistic understanding: that often I would not get what I wanted, even when I worked hard, even when I thought I deserved it.

So, intentional or not, this was a theme that was on my mind: what happens to a fairy tale hero when they realize they aren’t going to get to be a hero, or at least not in the way they initially imagined. I think the stories in this book are, purposefully or not, about me learning to make that transition—learning that “Happily ever after” isn’t a place you earn and then arrive at, once and for all. It’s a place you make for yourself a little bit every day for the rest of your life.

SP: Although the stories in this collection are based on stories familiar to children, your versions are often gritty, violent and not exactly G-rated. Was this part of the subversion of the original fairy tales or are you expounding upon and modernizing the violence already found in the stories?

CD: We really maybe should have boldfaced the “for grown ups” part of the subtitle…

It was never my intention to “retell” classic fairy tales; I don’t think I ever once sat down to write what I thought was a clever new interpretation of an old story. For me, it always starts with a feeling, and what I found, as I started writing about these feelings, is that often these mythical characters were great vessels to convey the thing I was trying to articulate.

I think these fairy tales and myths and childhood heroes are lodged so deep in our collective brains, but also in its murkiest unlit corners. There is so much violence, so much that’s unexplained or impossible to understand or resolve—and I think that’s why they still feel so vital to me, and maybe it’s why I find them so helpful for exploring a lot of these murky feelings: there’s so much shadow.

SP: At the end of Hoopty Time Machines, you include a section titled “Notes and Origin Myths” in which you comment on every story in the collection. I’ve never seen this kind of personal annotation included in a book of short stories. What was the reason for this section? Did you write the commentary after you completed each story or did you go back and write each piece for the purpose of the published collection?

CD: Haha—the honest answer is that my publisher was worried our book was too short. But there were already so many stories in the collection, I didn’t want to overwhelm a reader by adding more—so I thought it might be fun to offer this sort of “DVD special feature,” a little extra “behind the scenes” for people who want it.

SP: Finally, to share the love- what books are you most looking forward to reading in the coming year?
CD: Ah, I’m falling so behind on my reading list! There are so many books I’m looking forward to reading, but the next bunch on my queue are Amber Sparks' The Unfinished World, Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble, and Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot. I want to go to a cabin in the woods without internet and read all three of them in one big gulp, and probably fuel my dreams and nightmares for the next five years. Can’t wait.

Many thanks to Christopher DeWan for stopping by! Be sure to pick up your own Hoopty from Atticus Books on September 22. Cheers!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

10 Authors with Tattoos Inspired by Their Own Books

So, as I've been pretty much hunkered down in my hobbit hole writing all summer, I've missed posting a few things. Here's an awesome one... Rob Hart, over at Electric Lit, put together a fantastic piece on authors who have gotten tattoos inspired by novels they've written. I might be one of them...

Friday, August 12, 2016

A Love Letter to Lily: Steven Rowley and Lily and the Octopus

Anyone who knows anything about me knows that I am a dog person. I'm also, actually, a huge fan of cephalopods. So when I first saw the cover for Steven Rowley's recently released Lily and the Octopus, I thought, "Oh, perfect! A weenie dog and an octopus- my two favorite animals..." Then I read the inside cover: Old. Dog. Tumor. Gulp. The book sat on my dining room table and we eyeballed each other for a few days until finally I had the guts to open it to the first page. I steeled myself and started reading. And laughing. And eventually, yes, crying, and, in the end, recommending the book to anyone and everyone who would listen. Lily and the Octopus is the sort of novel that comes along every once in a while and wraps its arms around you, refusing to let go. And I wouldn't want it to.

I am thrilled and honored, then, to bring you an interview with Steven Rowley. If you're interested, but still nervous about checking out a "sad dog book," I think this conversation will alleviate some of your fears. For Lily and the Octopus so magnificently transcends that depressing label: in reality, it is a story not about death, but about life. About life and courage and the honest, raw vulnerability of unconditional love.

Steph Post: I’m not going to lie, I started reading Lily and the Octopus with some trepidation. Even before I cracked the spine I was nervous, because, well, it was obviously a book about a dog. And we all know how dog books end…. The last time I read a novel about a dog, I think it was Marley and Me, which has nothing on Lily and the Octopus by the way, I was a hot mess on the final page. I called my then-boyfriend in tears and was so upset that he thought something had happened to my real dogs who were, of course, snoozing through it all. So I knew that I was going to cry over Lily. And I did. Starting around page 250. My now-husband came home to find me curled up in a chair, with red eyes and eyeliner streaks, and all he could say was “you read that dog book after all, didn’t you?” What I’m getting at here, is that Lily and the Octopus is a book that makes a person cry. In a profound, beautiful, cathartic, but still sniffley and salty, kind of way. How much did you consider your readers’ emotional reactions when you were in the process of writing the novel? Did you ever want to not write Lily and the Octopus because of how you knew it would affect people?

Steven Rowley: This may sound terribly selfish, but I didn’t really consider the reader when I first sat down to write. Mostly, in retrospect, that’s because I didn’t set out to write a book. While Lily and the Octopus is very much a novel, I did have a dog named Lily who passed away from cancer in 2013. When she died, I was surprised by how sidelined I felt with grief. So when I decided to write about her, and about what that relationship meant to me, I was only doing so to help myself understand our bond and (hopefully) to heal. But it is the number one question I get: “Am I going to cry?” (Actually, the number one question is “Why an octopus?” But the trepidation is right up there!) And I can’t answer that for everyone. But I’m surprised by how much the idea of crying is a red flag for certain readers. I understand that for most of us our time to read is limited and there are many books vying for our eyes; life is hard and reading is an escape. But when I have such a connection with a book that it provokes a visceral reaction, I think that’s a good thing! When I finished the manuscript, I was very proud of it as a piece of writing, but even I didn’t know that it had the power to really connect with readers the way that it has. It’s been deeply humbling. And my goal was never to leave anyone despondent. If I walk you to that edge, I promise to help guide you back!     

SP: I had to open up with the tear-jerking question, but there is so much more to Lily and the Octopus than sadness. Part of the reason readers are so enamored of the character of Lily is how you clearly and simply voiced her, a dachshund, through the mind of her human, the novel’s narrator Ted. We are able to hear Lily speak because Ted articulates her thoughts for her. This includes everything from her Cate Blanchett impressions, to her barking, exclamatory reaction to dolphins. As a dog person, reading Lily as talking seemed pretty normal, as I’m the sort of person, like Ted, who carries on one-sided conversations with her dogs and assumes that my dogs are doing the same back. Still, I’ve never seen this narrative technique used in fiction. Did voicing Lily just come naturally as you developed the story, or did you have to struggle to create a way for readers to both understand, and, more importantly, bond with the character of a dog?

SR: Thank you! I actually think the book has many laughs and encompasses the full spectrum of emotions. Lily speaks in two ways throughout the book. AT! TIMES! IN! ALL! CAPITAL! LETTERS! That is meant to be a literal translation of her barking. At other times she speaks conversationally, which is the main character Ted carrying on both sides of their dialogue. I heard someone describe this as a book about a talking dog and I had to correct them. Lily doesn’t actually speak (although she says volumes with a well-raised eyebrow). Novel writing is a very solitary occupation and when you’re alone a lot with the dog, it’s only a matter of time before you talk out loud to the dog. And then it’s not so long after that when the dog starts “talking” back. Finding that voice on the page came very naturally to me, and once I had settled on two ways to represent her speaking voice I was off to the races.

SP: In addition to communicating with Lily, Ted also has conversations, and encounters, with her tumor, which he sees and experiences as an octopus. It all makes perfect sense in the context of the novel and giving the octopus a voice is one of the elements that I think really works to enamor readers to Lily. Like Ted, readers are exasperated and furious at the octopus, especially as he is, obviously, a total asshole. This takes something scary, but impersonal, (a tumor) and turns it into something which can attempt to be reasoned with (a talking cephalopod), making it more personal, but even more infuriating. Giving the octopus a voice raised the bar for me, because it added such an extra, maddening layer to Lily’s story. How did you come up with the idea for the character of the octopus? Would you have been able to tell the same sort of story if Lily was described as simply having a tumor or dying of some other sort of disease?

SR: I don’t remember the single moment that I settled on an octopus, other than it came from thinking about the story in thematic terms. I wanted to write about attachment and how difficult in can be to let go. There was something about an octopus, something with tentacles and suction cups, that lent itself so perfectly to that goal. Also, many times cancer grows in tentacle-like ways through the body, reaching and unfurling and spreading. So an octopus made sense to me pretty much from the get go. It was never Lily and the Giraffe, or Lily and the Hippopotamus. I did not know that the octopus would speak. My goal from the outset was to write the emotional truth of the story, no matter how weird or rubbery the plot began to be. I think I even surprised myself when the octopus first spoke. 'Oh! That’s… interesting.’ But octopuses are so smart and scientists say they can learn and even play, so his speaking was just one more way to needle Ted and get under his skin. I do harbor some guilt for villainizing the octopus – they really are incredible creatures!   

SP: Ted, whom Lily sometimes thinks of as Dad, is going through some of his own issues separate from Lily’s battle with the octopus. He is in therapy, very lonely and is stuck in the dating doldrums. Having him speak to a therapist could mislead the reader to think that perhaps Ted is crazy, or at the very least unstable, which would explain why his dog, and her tumor, can talk to him. The section “The Pelagic Zone” can easily be read as a complete delusion. But I think that reading Lily and the Octopus from that perspective negates the entire story. Were you ever concerned that readers might dismiss Ted, Lily and the octopus’s complex relationships as simply figments of his imagination?

SR: To me, more than it is the story about a man and his dog, Lily and the Octopus is about a man who is stuck in his life and how often the biggest obstacles blocking our paths are, if not outright imagined, greatly exaggerated. I would hope people wouldn’t think Ted is crazy. While the octopus is there from pretty much page one, I tried to introduce the other elements of magical realism carefully and integrate them naturally so as not to confuse the reader. As a writer, I am very fascinated with the human brain’s ability to create these elaborate constructs to keep us from having to face what we’re not yet capable of seeing. I think that’s what Ted is doing. Deep down he knows the deal, but the octopus and the epic battle in the Pelagic Zone are his way of processing loss. I did a lot of reading on Freud’s theories on loss, and many of us know the K├╝bler-Ross model outlining the five stages of grief. I worked hard to concoct Ted’s personal coping recipe from how the healthy brain is known to grieve.    

SP: Despite the heart-stabbing, Lily and the Octopus is also riddled with humorous moments, even if they are dark, dark moments. How important was it to balance out the gravity of the story with Lily’s silly innocence or the absurdity of talking inflatable sharks?

SR: Being able to laugh, even through the darkest moments in life, is essential to sanity and survival. Especially being able to laugh at oneself and to remember to look at the world every now and again with childlike wonder. I find so much of life to be absurd when you think about it in the context of a bigger picture, or get too stuck in the trance of small self. So I wanted the book to be funny, because I wanted the book to be like life. There’s an honesty in humor. And dogs are really funny. They just are. You can’t write about dogs and not introduce a few laughs.   

SP: The first chapter of Lily and the Octopus is pretty near perfect, but the author in me couldn’t help but imagine what your agent and editor first thought of it: A guy and his dog are discussing boys on a Thursday and then he discovers an octopus on his dog’s head. Did any of your first readers have a dubious reaction to the first few pages? Were there any odd or awkward discussions about the beginning of your novel?

SR: I’m very fond of the first chapter still, and it’s usually what I read at appearances and signings. Even through the long process of publishing a book, through endless rewrites, tweaks and edits, the first chapter is pretty much exactly what came pouring out the first time I sat down to write. In fact, before I understood that this was going to be a novel, there was a time I thought the first chapter was a short story. That it would somehow exist on its own. But I can see now how very frustrating it would be as a short story, because there isn’t really an ending or any kind of resolution. In terms of landing with an agent or a publisher, the whole book was a tough sell and the opening pages were indeed discussed. (Try reaching out to literary agencies and asking if they want to read a manuscript about a dog with an octopus stuck to her head. You can actually hear crickets in response.) What I learned was not that I needed to change the pages or alter my vision, but I had to become much smarter about how I talked about the book and how I pitched the manuscript to those I wanted and needed to read it. That meant talking about it in terms of an emotional arc, thematically as opposed to the actual plot. But the first pages are very much the book; they establish the relationship, the humor, the voice and I fought hard to keep them.      

SP: Finally, I have to ask, how much of Lily and the Octopus is true? Lily was obviously your real dog and even now, looking back at your dedication to her in the acknowledgments section, I feel that choking around my heart that accompanied me throughout much of your novel. I’m assuming that the Trent and Byron mentioned are also the same as the two characters in the novel. Despite some of the departures from strict reality in the story, could Lily and the Octopus be considered a memoir? Or is more along the lines of an ode or a love letter, rendered in novel form?

SR: There’s no denying that there are elements of the book that are autobiographical, and that the work is deeply personal – but I don’t consider it a memoir. To me, as you say, it’s a love letter to Lily and to the spirit of our relationship. I do have a best friend named Trent and my boyfriend’s name is Byron; I borrowed those names as shorthand when I was developing those characters and they kind of stuck. And there are some similarities there. But in order to spotlight the relationship between Ted and Lily, I tried to remove Ted from humanity as much as possible. Ted has one friend, and one sibling, and one parent, whereas I am blessed with many friends and a large family. The Lily that’s in the novel, however, is exactly the dog that I had. And now I’m grateful to have this beautiful catalog of memories printed and sandwiched between two hard covers that stands alongside my most prized possessions – my collection of books.

Much love and many thanks to Steven Rowley for stopping by! And please be sure to check out Lily and the Octopus. It will be worth all the tears; I promise.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Writing Wild: An Interview with Beth Gilstrap

I've made no secret of the fact that Beth Gilstrap is one of my favorite short fiction writers. I fell in love with her 2015 collection, I am Barbarella, and didn't think the prose could get any better. And then I read No Man's Wild Laura. With her most recent release from Hyacinth Girl Press, Gilstrap proves yet again that she is a master of the short story form. The four stories of No Man's Wild Laura are haunting. They ring out with the unmistakable Carolina voice Gilstrap is known for, but they also dig deep. Down to the bone deep. Marrow shattering deep. The women of her stories are difficult, complicated, raw and, above all, rendered with a striking honesty. I'm thrilled to bring you another interview with Beth Gilstrap and certainly hope you will check out her work. Enjoy!

SP: One of the things that I loved about your latest collection is the slight dark turn your work has taken. The four stories collected in No Man’s Wild Laura all resonate with themes I’ve come to expect from you- loss, family, the search for identity, connections with the natural world- but they all seem to carry a bit of a darker tone than the stories of your previous collection, I am Barbarella. “Regarding Suebelle,” in particular, is downright gothic. Was this change in tone deliberate for this collection or does it reflect a new direction in your writing?

BG: The tonal shift has been intentional to some degree—I’ve always loved southern gothic fiction and most of what I read tends to be on the darker side—but the stories also reflect a great deal of personal grief. My grandmother became ill and passed away during the writing of these stories. This has been grief on a level I still cannot fathom a year later. I figured I might as well work with those heavy emotions since I was unable to put them aside. I’m willing to bet I won’t be writing any lighthearted work in the near future. I write the stories I have to in order to work through my many issues. I don’t know if it works or produces anything of value, but I know my mental state is always better when I use the work as a way to deconstruct my feelings. I break and am rebuilt in the process.

SP: My favorite story in the collection, and I’d have to say my new favorite story of yours period, is “Go Off In the World Violet.” Without giving too much away, it’s the ending, the final line, that packs a gut-wrenching punch. From a craft perspective, how important is a story’s ending to its overall narrative? Do you ever start with a final sentence or image in mind and use it to guide the creation of the story?

BG: The endings are crucial for me, as I’m sure they are for most writers. I have had final images in mind for some stories, but most of the time, I fail miserably at the ending moments in early drafts so I spend a good deal of time cultivating the final lines. My goal is to leave readers with an image and feeling that resonates long after they’ve finished the story. And if I’ve really done my job, the reader will want to revisit the whole narrative. The whole reason I put “Earth to Gracie” last in the collection is so the reader would be left with the image of those little girls and their Christmas tree.

SP: The protagonists for all of the stories in No Man’s Wild Laura are women and given the title of the collection, this seems fitting. You and I have talked before about the idea of needing more “wild women” in fiction. Why do you think there aren’t more characters like this in the literary world? Why do we need them? And why do we need women writers to be wild as well?

BG: I think the main reason there aren’t more “wild” women in fiction is because women writers and writers of color are not given the same publishing opportunities, so naturally the varied voices are not represented as they should be, but I hope, with books like “The Vegetarian” we are starting to see a shift. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about this. Every year we are reminded by the Vida Count, numerous essays about likability, invisibility, and voice, etc. It’s exhausting to see the same battle for agency year after year, decade after decade. I don’t know if I know how to improve the situation, if we will ever move beyond interviewers asking women writers ridiculous questions about themselves or their characters, but I strive to write women who explore their world, women in poverty, women who make dreadful decisions, who have the audacity of ambition, who encompass the whole spectrum of goodness, wildness, and anger and yes, even women who are at midlife or beyond and have not had children. I think we’re still at a place when we need to work hard to challenge the ridiculous notion of being likable, sweet-natured, and nurturing as the ultimate goal of womanhood. I don’t know. I’ve never been one to latch onto traditional gender roles. The feminine or masculine ideal? Fuck that. Humanity with all it’s ugliness and unexpected tenderness is what interests me. The bottom line is I want to read characters who destroy things and the same characters capable of healing them.

SP: While there are certainly lyrical elements in your work, especially in your crafting of voice, No Man’s Wild Laura is clearly a collection of short fiction. How then, did you hook up with the poetry-publishing Hyacinth Girl Press?

BG: I am a fan of their poetry chapbooks. I love that they are a small, feminist press, which consistently puts out provocative work. I also loved the design of the books and the fact that they’re handmade. It seemed like a perfect fit for my little collection, and when I saw they were accepting prose manuscripts, they were one of three places I sent it. In the acceptance letter, they told me the prose was gorgeous and I felt, coming from poets, that was the highest of compliments. It’s pretty cool when someone else sees the effort I put into the music of the language.

SP: In addition to writing short fiction, you are also the fiction editor for LittleFiction. What does it take for a submission to really knock your socks off? Have you ever found a short story in your inbox that absolutely took your breath away?

BG: For a submission to knock my socks off, the language, voice, and character must be crisp and original. I look for music. I look for tension. I look for an emotional connection. I look for atmosphere. I want to be unable to stop reading. It’s extremely rare to find all of these things in one piece, but when you do, it’s a glorious feeling. It snaps you out of your angst or ennui and gets you excited about stories again. You forget all the difficulties of this writing life and remember why we are all still fighting the good fight and trying to make art. Of course I love all the stories we’ve published since I joined the team, but there was one in particular last November that still floors me. I think about “Dive” by Daniel Knowlton often. The attention to detail, right down to the lexicon of the sea and of science, the extensive research he conducted, the atmosphere he created, and the utter despair I felt at the end, these are not things you see in your average story.

SP: I’ve heard a few rumblings in the air that you might currently be working on a novel. If so, what’s the biggest difference between writing short and long forms? Is the process itself different? Does one or the other make you want to tear out more or less hair while you're writing?

BG: Well, since I’ve been working on the novel off and on for 4 ½ years, this venture has definitely been more difficult for me than short stories. I can usually puzzle out a short story much easier than this process has been for me. I’m not a planner. I have to get a story out and then try to make sense of it and find its best structure after the fact. When I start thinking too much, the thing (whatever the thing is) is lost for me. So, I’m back at it now after months away and am trying to trust my process, trying to put in the hours every day with the faith that it will all turn out okay eventually. It’s also a much different pace, a novel. You have to allow moments to linger. We’ll see what else I have to say on this subject if I ever finish the damn thing.

SP: Finally, because you have amazing taste, I’d love to know what you’re currently reading. Any books on the horizon you’re waiting for as well?

BG: I finished The Vegetarian by Han Kang yesterday and am now starting Home by Marilynne Robinson, which after reading Gilead a few months ago, I am ecstatic to get to. I’m going to take my time with it and try not to read Lila as soon as I finish. I’m letting them linger, too.

Did I also mention how completely badass Beth Gilstrap is? Yeah... So, check out her work and keep her on your radar. Cheers and happy reading!