Monday, 17 December 2012
Short Stories: A Technical Chat with Laura Maylene Walter
1. I remember reading the story of your winning the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction on your blog. Would you like to recap?
Good things happen when you eat fatty bread, apparently, because I was busy tasting samples at an olive oil store in California (lauramaylenewalter.com) when I got the phone call that I’d won this contest and that my debut story collection would be published. Immediately after receiving the news, I ate some vegetarian tacos, went to a couple of wine tastings, and then hopped on a train bound for Oregon. It was a surreal day, to say the least, and it took weeks for the shock to wear off.
Many of the stories in Living Arrangements (lauramaylenewalter.com) were written at a time in my life when I wasn’t actively seeking publication. Instead, I was trying to improve and grow as a writer. I churned out story after story, workshopped them in various writing groups, and revised. It wasn’t until years later that I first considered entering a short story collection contest. I went back to all my old stories, decided they could work as a collection (and felt a bit surprised that I’d written an entire book of stories without even trying) and entered three collection contests that winter. Seven months later, I got the call that I won the Chandra Prize, and I’ve never looked at olive oil in the same way since. (Okay, that’s a lie.)
2. You've been writing short stories for years now, before Living Arrangements came out, what were your feelings about submitting work? Have you submitted a lot of work in the past? How did you deal with rejection? Do you think you are in a safer place now, having published?
When I was nineteen years old, I submitted three poems to The Paris Review and had the nerve to be both surprised and disappointed when they were rejected. (I still remember one of the poems. It was about an ice sculpture of a woman. I believe she was melting – need I say more?)
Despite a few overly optimistic moments like that, I wasn’t a stranger to the submissions process, even as a teenager. Back then, I sent my work to publications geared toward students and occasionally queried or submitted to markets advertising in writing magazines. At age 16, I received my first paying acceptance for a short story (the journal is now defunct). In my early and mid-twenties, I sent out a few rounds of short fiction submissions to journals and was soundly rejected. It was discouraging, but I knew deep down I wasn’t there yet and had a lot to learn. This is what set me on the path of just writing and revising without worrying about submitting. In the end, this paid off.
As far as feeling if I’m in a safe place now that I’m published – I don’t. I still feel like I’m starting from zero and, with a very few exceptions, am submitting to slush piles like everyone else. Rejection is just a fact of the writing life. (lauramaylenewalter.com)
3. I understand you're working on a novel now. Is that connected to Living Arrangements by way of themes or place or character? How do you feel about changing genre and where do you feel most comfortable?
I’m about halfway through the first draft of a new novel that represents a departure from most of the themes in Living Arrangements or my previous novel-in-progress, OPAL, which focused on a mother-daughter relationship. I don’t want to say much about the new project right now because I’m still in that elusive magical point (lauramaylenewalter.com) of the writing process and don’t want to spoil it. But here’s a hint: If you take some of that creepy-sexy-taboo darkness in my figure skater story (“The Ballad Solemn of Lady Malena”) and twist it with the voice of the narrator in “The Clarinet,” you’ll get something a bit similar to what I’m working on now. In other words: Like many writers, I can’t escape myself.
Honestly, I think I am still most comfortable with short stories, but there’s just something about working on a novel. It becomes a part of you for so long. But I love each form for its own reasons: for the small, contained world of a short story, which makes it so alive with possibilities, and for the more complex, long-reaching scope of a novel.
4. In the UK this year has been named Year of the Short Story by some (publishers and enthusiasts), although I've always thought there was a broader appreciation for short stories in the US. Do you think that holds true?
I can’t compare the short story’s popularity in the United States to that of the U.K., but at least from a publishing perspective here, short story collections are not money-makers and are therefore not nearly as sought after as novels. In fact, part of the reason I never envisioned my short stories being published together in a book is because I had it drilled into my head that short story collections don’t sell, agents aren’t interested in representing a collection if you don’t have a novel, and big houses don’t want your collection unless you’re already famous. (Thank goodness for small presses.) I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a writer say that an agent or editor tracked her down based on the strength of her short fiction only to immediately ask: “But do you have a novel?” It’s just how the business works.
5. Most writers' first collections bring together work that spans several years, would you ever embark on a themed or interlinked short story collection? Or do you think each story has to spring from its own well?
I’d love to one day write a linked short story collection. Right now, my new stories are not closely connected and develop individually, but I’m also conscious of how they might work together in a book. It’s different this time around because with every new story I write, I consider it not just on its own but as a potential part of a collection.
6. First person, second person or third person? You work with the second person very capably - not easy. Do you have a preference or a way of deciding which person to use?
I recently poked fun at the second-person point of view in a blog post, (lauramaylenewalter.com) but as anyone who reads Living Arrangements knows, I haven’t shied away from writing in this point of view. The second-person stories in Living Arrangements just poured out of me. The voices came through really strongly and I felt, at the time, that there was no other way to write those stories. But since Living Arrangements, I’ve largely left this point of view behind. I’m not saying that I’ll never write another story in second person again, but I’ve moved on for now.
I don’t know how to explain my POV decision-making process. I suppose it’s dictated by the character or a larger vision for the story itself. It just seems to happen organically for me.
7. I particularly enjoyed some of the strange turns your stories take, which crystallise the character for the reader. What do you ask yourself when you are halfway through a story? Do you usually know where you're headed or do things come together unexpectedly?
Many of the story endings in Living Arrangements surprised me as I was writing them. I love that. I’m not a writer who sits down and makes outlines and knows exactly what will happen. That’s the joy in writing for me – surprising myself and watching as the work takes over in ways I never imagined. I think I’m at my best when I’m not afraid to explore, let things happen, and maybe even get a little lost.
8. Some of your endings seem like soft landings but instead pack a hard punch during their evolution. There often seems to be an undercurrent of sexual danger, violence, the starkness of death. How do you feel when you finish a story? Do you revise a lot? Immediately or long afterwards? Have these stories undergone much rewriting and how long do you think it takes to get a story shipshape?
I revise in layers over a long period time. It’s like one big onion – layer after layer covered with a messy skin and causing lots of tears, not to mention all the bad metaphors that need to be cut (see: revision is like an onion). I will revise pieces over a period of years, but the drive to revise almost never goes away, even after publication. For example, I’d probably make changes to many of the Living Arrangements stories right now if I could. Having a book published is terrifying because you can’t make any more improvements, but it’s also a relief for the same reason – you can finally move on for good.
When I finish a draft of a story, I feel satisfied. I feel most like myself.
9. I'm not sure how you feel about this but I shy away from questions such as, Where do your characters come from? Or, Did this happen to you in real life? I prefer to let the work stand on its own. How do you feel about these questions?
Sometimes I kind of love it when people ask if something in my fiction happened in real life, (lauramaylenewalter.com) because then I get to tell them “No.” I find this really satisfying for some reason. Of course, it can also be frustrating, and I have to remind myself that this question isn’t really an attack on my imagination but rather just curiosity. And am I really going to complain that there are people out there who think I was once an elite figure skater or worked as a lingerie shop model? No. It’s hilarious.
10. Have you enjoyed book promotion so far? What has been your most fruitful experience? (And your most fruitless if there have been any?)
The words “book promotion” make me feel guilty because there’s probably so much more I could have done. They also make me want to lock myself in my writing room and avoid all interaction forever and ever and just write, but then I have to get over myself.
Blogging has probably worked best for me and has introduced a fair number of readers to my collection. (My mantra for the blog is “Don’t be boring or too promotional,” which I constantly try to live up to.) I’ve also written articles for Poets & Writers and other writing markets, which led some readers to Living Arrangements. Reviews help, too, but that’s largely out of my control. I’m not a big Twitter fan – I keep trying, but I’m just not – and I use Facebook primarily for personal reasons, not to promote my book. I get social media fatigue fairly easily and have found the blog is what interests me the most and is what I can do best.
11. Briefly, for those who haven't yet read your very earnest and cool blog, how does Laura Maylene Walter the blogger differ from Laura Maylene Walter the author?
The blogger is goofier, more self-deprecating, (lauramaylenewalter.com) and a lot drunker (lauramaylenewalter.com) than the author. I also try to take my husband’s advice when blogging, which is to “keep it real” at all times. Apparently, being true to myself on my blog means attempting really bad jokes and posting photos of my cats. (lauramaylenewalter.com) So be it! The author side of me, meanwhile, is quieter, more serious, and won’t shy away from writing about sex or politics like the blogger might.
Also, the blogger is willing to say, “Please buy Living Arrangements immediately” while the author just wants some quiet time alone with her cats and the writing desk.
Thanks so much Laura for answering my questions and I invite you all to order a copy of Living Arrangements.