Category Archives: Fiction Interviews

Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Sharma Shields

Sharma Shields’s debut novel The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac (Henry Holt) was published in 2015—and we’re still not over it. “Imagine a mashup of Moby-Dick and Kafka’s Metamorphosis (with a hearty dash of Twin Peaks thrown in),” writes Kirkus Reviews, “and you’ll begin to get an idea of what Shields’ ambitious tale of disenchantment sets out to do.” The novel, which won the 2016 Washington State Book Award in Fiction, is as delightfully weird as Shields’s other work: a short story collection, Favorite Monster (Autumn House), and stories published in places such as Electric Literature, Slice, The New York Times, Kenyon Review, Iowa Review, and Fugue. Here at Memorious, we’re happy to say we knew about Sharma Shields before she was cool. We published her short story “Morsels” way back in 2004, in Issue 2. This month, Shields answered our questions about magical beasts, creative inspiration, and what she’s working on now.

I noticed your short story collection is titled Favorite Monster, and The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac is, of course, about Bigfoot. What draws you to write about magical creatures?

My first major monster love as a young girl was Medusa. I discovered her in fourth grade while playing an old-school computer game called “King’s Quest.” My mom noted my interest and returned from the bookstore with D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Medusa really was my gateway drug to the weird and fantastical, and for a long time I became especially enamored of the monsters from Greek mythology. I wrote a lot of stories about them. I did not, I should say, write about them when I was in graduate school in Montana. I still loved mythology, but I was uncertain about how to incorporate it into my work. After I graduated, I spent three years in a really draining sales job, and I stopped writing or really even reading during that time. When I finally quit that job and started writing, I really just wanted to uncover the joy in it again, and that’s probably why I started writing the monster stuff, just to entertain myself, to have some fun with my interests and to play around with the supernatural, something I was really attracted to when I read books like Midnight’s Children or One Hundred Years of Solitude.

As a kid, I was fascinated by Medusa because of her power, her frightfulness, and her uniqueness. I loved that she could turn men to stone. I loved that she had snakes for hair. I had ratty, curly hair myself at that age, and I’d worn a bald patch into the back of my head from rocking myself to sleep at night (I had a lot of strange habits as a girl). I loved that she was ugly, and that her ugliness transformed into a respectable power, something to harness, to wield. As an adult, I’m interested in her as a character because it wasn’t her fault that she became the way she did. She was transformed into a monster because she was raped in Athena’s temple. The rapist, of course, was let off unscathed. Regarding her metamorphosis, there are tremendous metaphors and social relevance to be discussed, then and now. This is why I’ve loved writing about monsters in my work: They are ripe with metaphorical possibility. They manifest our fears and our desires. We loathe them and we covet the excitement they bring us. Seeing them, we reflect on ourselves, our heroism or lack thereof, our own monstrosities.

In his 2015 review of The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, Paul Constant writes, “Shields is not ashamed of Bigfoot—she drags him out of blurry photographs and into the spotlight in the very first chapter of the book.” Indeed, despite its magical realism, your book feels surprisingly matter-of-fact. What led you to portray Sasquatch in this particular way—as a strange, but very real neighbor?

I like it when literature doesn’t call too much attention to itself. For example, heavy-handed foreshadowing, florid language, or nudge-you-in-the-ribs humor can really grate on me as a reader. I like it dry and matter-of-fact. I also really like it when things happen. As a writer, I try to avoid drawing things out for too long or favoring description over action. I want to grab the reader and surprise them. After a rather limp first draft, I realized I needed to commit fully to the idea of Sasquatch living among us. Once I made that decision, it became clear he needed to be one of the most immediate characters introduced.

I’ll also argue that it adds depth and believability to a work—especially in the midst of extreme incredulity—to allow the characters to exist freely within their own scene, without copious explanation. I handled the monsters in my story collection in this manner, as well. They are introduced dryly, without fanfare, the way you’d introduce a new co-worker around the office. It adds some humor to the piece, for sure, but it also ushers in hyper-reality and metaphor without interrupting the storyline. I no doubt learned this from writers like Lydia Davis, George Saunders, Diane Williams, this dryness. Explaining too much or making excuses for the presence of the strange damages a story’s reliability.

How have people from your hometown in Washington reacted to and engaged with your novel? Do they agree with Constant that your depiction of Bigfoot “really gets it right”?

I’ve had comments from regional readers about sightings, either their own or a grandmother’s or a friend’s, but I haven’t had any arguments over it (so far). And I love hearing from Inland Northwest readers who are excited to see street names, parks, and inside jokes in the text. One of my favorite scenes to write was the one where Mount St. Helens exploded, which is such a memorable event in our recent history. It’s a regional novel for sure. Sasquatch, himself, his smell, his carriage, his more-animal-than-man-ness, was inspired by local tribal legends. Some of my favorite interactions between readers occurred when I spoke at Wenatchee Valley College in Omak, which is near the Colville Reservation (my mom is from a small town near Omak called Okanogan). A woman there told me about how her grandmother had been abducted by Sasquatch near Lake Chelan. She was found weeks later, wandering around in a comatose state. Another woman told me that as a girl she and her grandparents would put out gifts for Sasquatch, and in times of need, gifts would be left for them in return, berries and more. These stories show the many sides of Sasquatch, how he can be a menace, or how he can be a compassionate being. He’s like us. If you haven’t read Sherman Alexie’s “The Sasquatch Poems,” I highly recommend it. You can find the piece online at ZYZZYVA and it’s incredible and speaks to all of this. Sasquatch has a rich Native history and presence in the Inland Northwest that needs to be respected and admired. I really had this in mind while I was writing. It’s hard for me to know if I “got it right.” It’s definitely my interpretation, and it’s probably a goofy one, but I hope his humanity rings true for readers.

The novel spans nearly the entire life of its protagonist, Eli Roebuck, and shifts among many perspectives, including those of his wives and daughters. Could you talk about the journey of writing and marketing such a complexly structured book, especially as your debut novel?

This is my first published novel, but not the first novel I’ve written. The first two novels I wrote (and I even got about 300 pages into a third, although I never finished it) were long, rambling, literary tomes where little happened except in the narrator’s head. They were boring. The truth was, the first one might have been salvageable—not the second, it was total garbage, haha—but I didn’t have the maturity or confidence to approach editing them, which is really the only thing that can turn a first draft into a publishable work. Around the time I started this novel, I learned that my short story collection won the Autumn House Fiction Prize, and that Autumn House would publish it the following year. I’d also had quite a bit of luck with landing short stories in literary journals, and I was accustomed to editing those shorter pieces. I decided I would write the chapters of this new novel the same way I write my short stories. I figured it would be a more familiar landscape for me, and that I would be less intimidated by the editing process if I could tackle the chapters piece by piece. Of course, this sort of backfired in my first draft. The novel read far more like a story collection and had zero cohesive arc. Eli and the hunt for Sasquatch became that arc, although I was admittedly more interested in the satellite characters (the women) in the book as I was writing.

I really didn’t worry about marketing with the book. I usually assume while I’m writing that very few people will ever read it, and I think a part of me never believed it would be published. It is a feral, sprawling, strange book, and that’s a turn-off for some. I feel really grateful that it found such a cozy home with Henry Holt and editor Caroline Zancan.

I love the videos of you, featured on The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac webpage, walking in the woods near Spokane and in The Palouse. What went into creating these? Were they your idea?

My publisher sent me a fancy video camera and a tripod and minimal instructions. They thought it would be fun to show people where I’m from and where the novel was set. I decided on the Steven’s Creek Trailhead, the hills of the Palouse, and the Moran Prairie Grange because they show three different settings highlighted in the book, namely the forest, the farmland just south of Spokane, and the location where a funeral takes place at the end of the novel. I did all of the filming myself and it was pretty hilarious—there were a lot of outtakes. I managed to return all of the gadgets to them in one piece. It was hella icy out there and I’ve turned into a complete butterfingers these last couple of years, so I’m so glad I didn’t break that camera.

I also noticed the quote on your author webpage from J. Robert Lennon that says, “My favorite weirdo in American letters.” And I agree: one of the best aspects of your writing is its weirdness. Has that been an explicit aesthetic goal of your work? Or is it a quality incidental to your natural interests?

That’s a great question. I’d say the latter, that the weirdness is more organic, born of disparate interests and a lifelong appreciation of dark and frightening things. My goals, I’m sad to say, are pretty dull: Write at least four days a week. Finish this project. Now this one. I plod forward with one foot in front of the other and it amazes me when I finish anything. I’m constantly feeling a sort of, “When did I write this? How?” It’s such an out-of-body experience for me. But yes, aesthetically, I write what interests me, although that’s always in flux, too. I have to dissolve into the world I’m writing and if I’m not married to it, then I don’t enter that world properly. So yes, I think my natural interests are at play here for sure, although I feel like I’m less interested in weirdness than I am in the illogical.

What novels did you read for inspiration while you were writing this one?

While writing this, I thought of other novels written in a linked-stories manner, like Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (which is not at all fantastical), Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe (which is awesomely fantastical), and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Rumbling around in my head was also a strange hodgepodge of Shirley Jackson’s novels (I believe I read all of them, and I’m not kidding, around the time I was writing this book), Hans Christian Andersen stories and, of course, Greek myths. One chapter was even influenced by Stephen King. I really like writers who can move fluidly between fantasy and reality, humor and horror. As a rule, I typically read pretty widely, without worrying about what sort of immediate effect it has on my writing. Reading and writing are a symbiotic relationship—they really do keep one another healthy and sharp—but I definitely benefit as much from reading authors who write nothing like me as I do from writers who write in a similar vein.

This is slightly off-topic, but I saw you got your MFA at the University of Montana. I had the chance to visit Missoula for the first time this year, and it was a magical place. What was it like studying writing there? In general, how do you think place influences your work?

The writing program was great. For the first time in my adult life, I really concentrated on writing every day, and on the craft. I had a lot to learn not just from the professors, but from my peers. They were an uber-talented, kooky group. There are always issues with those programs, of course, they can become incestuous by the second year and a bit poisonous, which I think is just part and parcel of living, breathing, and sharing your passions with your professors and a small group of like-minded people. The pond gets stagnant, you know? It can bring the worst out in people, and I was a nervous, paranoid twit my second year. When I didn’t get a teaching gig, I was shattered. I felt like no one believed in me. Eventually I had to say, Fuck it, and I got over it. I knew it was silly to take rejection personally. And all of the other writers really were better than me, so it was cool. I learned so much. I met my husband there, Sam, who is still my best editor and friend, so total bonus.

My husband and I never thought we’d leave Missoula, we loved it so much, but we had to, finally, because jobs were hard to come by there and I was suffering from a wretched depression that was no doubt fueled by my job, my inability to write, and my alcoholism. I returned home. I sobered up. I got a job with the public library. I wrote and wrote and wrote. Sam and I had a kid. Then another. I was near to my mom and dad and sister and brother. It was the best thing I could have done for my writing. Much of what I write about springs from this very sense of place, the Inland Northwest, Spokane, the memories here, and the tension, the bad and the good.

Finally, what are you working on now?

I just finished the umpteenth draft of my new novel. It’s a whole other beast entirely. It’s much more focused compared to The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac. It’s told from one perspective, takes place in one year, is much more political, and is set in one (very frightening) location. It does take place in Washington State though, this time at the Hanford Nuclear Site. There are no monsters in this one, but there is a talking coyote and a clairvoyant woman, so I’ve definitely injected elements of the illogical and supernatural into what is also a historical novel.

Natalie Mesnard currently serves as Director of Programs & Strategic Communications at the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses. Her fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and book reviews have appeared online and in print with journals such as Copper NickelThe Gettysburg ReviewGreen Mountains ReviewThe JournalKenyon Review Online, and Tampa Review. She can be found online at nataliemesnard.com.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Benjamin Percy

Benjamin Percy’s stunning work of flash fiction called “Revival” appeared in the seventh issue of Memorious. At the time, his second collection of short stories was due out, after his first outstanding collection, The Language of Elk. In the decade since, Percy’s gone on to publish three novels—The Wilding, Red Moon, and The Dead Lands—with a fourth on the way (The Dark Net), and he’s worked on a slew of screenwriting projects, as well as the current DC Comics titles, Green Arrow and Teen Titans. Steeped in both the literary tradition as well as the language of film, Percy is known for his suspenseful plots, his action-packed set-pieces, and his sharply precise style, which is why Graywolf Press was eager to publish a collection of his essays on craft and technique. Released last October, Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction has received wide acclaim and is already on the list of numerous fiction workshop syllabi. In support of the book’s release, Percy was excellent enough to answer our questions about the text for his second appearance in our “Fiction Spotlight” series.

Graywolf has been a big supporter of your work for years, and you’ve published both Refresh, Refresh and The Wilding with them. How did you develop this project for a craft book on fiction?

I’m a regular at the Tin House Writers’ Workshop—and I used to teach in the low-res MFA program at Pacific University—at which I always gave an hour-long craft lecture. It became my standard to polish these lectures into essays that were then published by Kevin Larimer in Poets & Writers magazine.

I was gratified to hear from people who tore the craft essays out, photocopied them, taught them in creative writing workshops. It wasn’t my intention to write a book. I was just refining my own thoughts on fiction and sharing my half-assed wisdom with whoever would listen. But then Jeff Shotts at Graywolf approached me about the possibility of collecting the essays into a single volume.

So I worked with Shotts and Steve Woodward [Graywolf’s associate editor] on expanding some of the essays, merging others, building a toolbox of storytelling devices themed around suspense and momentum, the borderlands of genre and literary fiction.

One of my favorite quotes from Thrill Me comes from the essay, “Get a Job:” “Every story I write is a research project.” You go on to discuss various modes and methods of research you’ve had to do in order to figure out a draft’s details and mood more precisely. That said, can you give an example of some research you’ve had to perform in preparation for your next novel, The Dark Net? What would you say was a detail within the research that surprised you or changed a misconception you had?

Thanks. That was one of my favorite essays to write.

darknetFor The Dark Net—which comes out this summer—I read articles, watched documentaries. But the most helpful research came from speaking to people involved with digital security. Every tech expert I talked to—over a year ago, when researching the novel—warned me about China and Russia.

Employees at Google, Apple, Verizon, and a half-dozen hacker nerds I can’t name—they all said to wait and watch. A major attack was coming. They were certain. Not a breach, not an intrusion, as people might expect. Because the Chinese and Russians were ALREADY inside the walls of our government. The question was, what did they plan to do with the information they already had access to…

…and then came the US election and the headlines we’re enduring right now. Early investigations seem to indicate that Russian involvement with US politics could be the biggest political scandal since Watergate.

You’ve talked elsewhere that you shape your fiction around the juxtaposition of images and events until they work together, even going so far as to use the cork board and the old developer’s closet in your house as a sort of diorama of story. How does this process differ than, say, structuring a comics storyline in Green Arrow and Teen Titans, or building a TV pilot like Black Gold?

I use the same process, no matter the medium. My office closet is papered with story maps and character charts and lists of ideas. I need a visualization because I can’t keep it all in my head. I’m religious about outlining before I set out to write. The only difference is structure considerations.

If I’m working on comics, for instance, I need to keep in mind the twenty-page format, which generally equals five to seven scenes, two “splash” images, a B storyline, and a dominant action set-piece.

In your essay on modulation, you mention that you’re “bad about favorites” since you have so many of them, but if you had to pinpoint a craft book that was most influential on your own understanding of writing, which one would you pick? What’s a particular lesson you learned from it that stays with you today?

Like I said, I’m bad with favorites. Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext is brilliant. So is Stephen King’s On Writing. But books like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Robert McKee’s Story might have changed me more than any other. Because they gave me a language and vision for structure and causality that I wasn’t getting from any creative writing workshop, where “plot” was considered such a dirty word.

Who are some writers and artists you’ve recently encountered—in fiction, comics, or elsewhere—that are taking plot, structure, and suspense in new directions?

Check out Tom King’s The Vision (with artist Gabriel Hernandez Walta) and Sheriff of Babylon (with Mitch Gerads). He’s very particular about the paneling of his comics. I’m especially interested in his use of cyclical/repetitive designs and language.

I love the three-part design of the film Moonlight. And the fragmented mosaic featured in books by Terry Tempest Williams and Nick Flynn.

Along those same lines, which author (or director or playwright, etc.) do you wish more students of writing were reading these days? What should they be picking up from that person in terms of craft?

I could list off fifty names here, but instead I’ll say that everyone should read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. It’s so smart and witty and a perfect example of form serving function. It changed the way I watched movies and read everything from comics to novels to essays to poems.

Last but not least: in “Feckless Pondering,” you recall the legend of Barry Hannah pulling a gun on a workshop student in order to prove the point about immediate danger and introspection within a scene. From your time as an instructor, what’s a specific workshop moment you want to be known for decades later—legend, truth, or somewhere in between?

Any class I teach, I want to leave people jacked up about fiction and excited to get to the keyboard. I’m becoming more and more hermitic and am not really interested in a reputation outside of my fiction, so I’ll settle for, “He was mostly helpful and not an asshole.”

Interviewer Barrett Bowlin is a contributing editor for Memorious. Recent stories and essays of his can be found in places like Ninth LetterHobartThe RumpusMid-American ReviewMichigan Quarterly Review, and Bayou, which awarded him last year’s James Knudsen Prize in Fiction. He teaches film and literature classes at Binghamton University, and he writes inappropriate things on Twitter (@barrettbowlin).

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at http://www.memorious.org.

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Duped: Rob Arnold on JT LeRoy

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Memorious reached out to Rob Arnold, one of the magazine’s cofounders who left the magazine in 2008,  to weigh in on the controversy surrounding JT LeRoy, an author who purported to be—among many other things—a queer H.I.V. positive former child sex worker from West Virginia, but was later revealed to be Laura Albert, a 30-something woman from Brooklyn. This story has generated much attention, as LeRoy amassed a great deal of fame and a collection of celebrity admirers in the early 2000’s. The first issue of Memorious contains what we now believe is the last short story Albert published as LeRoy; Albert had also published stories as Leroy in The Oxford American, Zoetrope: All-Story, and McSweeney’s. In the wake of renewed interest following the release of the documentary film Author: The JT LeRoy Story, and the earlier documentary The Cult of JT LeroyRob Arnold shares his experience working with JT LeRoy. (The editors of Memorious would like to note that while the original story remains online, due to our policy of archiving all of our issues as they were published, we would not have published this story had we known of the deception behind it.)

Duped. That was the word on my mind the morning of November 9th, when I and millions of people like me around the world woke up to a new America. Which turned out to be the same, sad, disappointing America it had always been—the same dangerous America, self-destructive America, the same damaged and demonized America—with a horrible twist. The twist is you were living in half a country all along. The twist is you wake in the night convinced it was all a horrible dream. And then the stomach sinks, the realization dawns. Bubbles burst.

I know something about duplicity. Thirteen years ago, I answered a Craigslist ad for a writer who needed help with his website. He sounded young on the phone, frail and effeminate. Was his Appalachian accent real or feigned? I thought feigned, but over time I came not to care, taken in by the cult of celebrity that swirled around him. The feverish, almost maniacal loyalty of his fans. The writer was JT LeRoy, and his devotees included Courtney Love, Winona Ryder, Billy Corgan, Gus Van Sant and many others. At a SoHo launch party for LeRoy’s third book, I stood next to David Byrne and Jerry Harrison. I turned around and saw Shirley Manson lost in conversation with Lou Reed.

Eventually, LeRoy himself appeared, a quivering slip of a man, barely five feet tall, it seemed. When he read from his novella, he was either too shy or too wounded to project, his voice barely a whisper. The audience loved him anyway.

LeRoy was a genius at gathering people to his cause, and I was no different. People admired the prose, but they swooned for his back story. At varying points, LeRoy had claimed to be a homeless abuse survivor, a truck stop prostitute, an HIV-infected drug addicted transsexual. The adjectives piled up. He was a teenaged prodigy who escaped life on the streets, who turned to writing as a form of therapy, an unbelievable demonstration of resilience over trauma.

Unbelievable.

I met LeRoy later that night, at an afterparty in a hotel bar. It was the only time we would meet in person. I had been his web master for a year, had redesigned the site from the ground up and registered his domain name, linking the database record to my own name and contact info. As payment for my services, LeRoy told me to take credit for some photographs that COLORS Magazine was planning to use in an issue featuring LeRoy. Whatever COLORS paid for the photos, I could accept as payment. Hesitantly I agreed, worried the real photographer would somehow find me out.

COLORS never called, and I never did get paid for my time. LeRoy and I parted ways shortly after the launch party, and I moved on to other projects. But not before convincing him to contribute a story to the first issue of an online magazine I was starting with my then-girlfriend. Long after the story appeared, we would occasionally still receive unsolicited submissions from LeRoy’s fans. As an ambitious young editor, I brushed off these submissions as the price I had to pay for scoring what would become the last story LeRoy would ever publish.

Unbelievable.

Sometime in the summer of 2006, I got a strange phone call from a man who’d found my number from a WhoIs search on JT LeRoy’s domain name. He asked if I’d met LeRoy, if I knew him in person, if I was in fact JT LeRoy himself. I don’t remember now whether he gave his name or not. I answered as truthfully as I could and hung up, perplexed but convinced it was one of LeRoy’s fans, playing a prank or just trying to get close to LeRoy. Later that year, New York Magazine published an exposé on JT LeRoy, claiming LeRoy was a literary hoax invented by a middle-aged woman in San Francisco named Laura Albert. Was it Stephen Beachy who had contacted me, the reporter who finally broke through JT LeRoy’s deception? It seems likely, though what if anything he might have gleaned from me remains unclear.

The details of LeRoy’s unraveling are well known by now, infamous in literary circles. The story of how Laura Albert duped the entire celebrity establishment into believing in a figment named Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy—how she faked her voice, how she hired her partner’s sister to play the physical manifestation of LeRoy—is now the subject two separate documentaries. It will soon be a major motion picture starring Kristen Stewart, Helena Bonham Carter, and James Franco, based on the memoir of the young woman who played LeRoy in public appearances. The second documentary was released earlier this year, on the tenth anniversary of Albert’s outing. Of the two, it is the more affectionate portrait, simultaneously blaming Albert’s deceit on her own history of abuse yet somehow lauding her brilliant charade. Like clockwork, new editions of LeRoy’s books have been reissued. Laura Albert seems positioned for some kind of unbelievable comeback. Nowhere in the documentary do we hear from the kinds of fans who had looked to JT LeRoy for strength and inspiration, who had written and submitted their own stories of trauma to editors like myself, hoping they too could escape their destinies and rub elbows with rock stars, have flings with movie directors. Like many voices, theirs have been lost to time.

And where does that leave me? Is it strange to wake up in November of 2016 and feel nostalgia for past times marked by Albert’s duplicity? Real harm was done. And under the banner of this new presidency, I fear more harm is yet to come. Tangible harm. Harm that will mark and implicate us all. How do we judge somebody like Laura Albert now, knowing what else is at stake?

Maybe we don’t need to. Many years have passed, and some people loosen over time, becoming different expressions of themselves under different circumstances. In the age of Donald Trump, soon to be known as the Age of Misinformation, who are we to know one truth from another truth? Who is Laura Albert now? Who am I now? Who are we all?

rsa

Rob Arnold cofounded Memorious and was coeditor from 2004-2008. His poems, essays, and interviews have appeared in PloughsharesHyphenNatural Bridge, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston where he works at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency and coedits Grid Books.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Anne Valente

author-pic_valenteOctober 4, 2016, marked the publication date of Anne Valente’s debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins), and already the novel has been named among the “Most Necessary Books for the End of 2016” by Ploughshares Magazine and the “Best Reads for October” by Refinery 29. Valente, however, is no newcomer to success. Her recent stories appear in the Kenyon Review, One Story, and Puerto del Sol, and By Light We Knew Our Names, her first full-length collection of stories, won the Dzanc Books short story prize in 2011. Memorious happily included the final story from that collection, “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” in Issue 18, and we’ve been fans of Valente’s ever since. This month, Anne Valente answered our questions about her novel, writing process, and some of the debut novelists she’s excited about.

The novel is historically situated in time and place—St. Louis, MO, 2003—and inflected by everything from public opinion of the war in Iraq to a mention of The Today Show’s “Matt Lauer reporting on a foul ball disruption in the last night’s National League Championship Series game at Wrigley field.” How did you determine the social, cultural, and political touchstones that populate the text? 



cover-image_our-heartsAt first, I mostly wanted to avoid dealing with the clunkiness of including smartphones and texting among this group of teenagers. But in further researching a particular time period that would best suit the narrative, I was drawn to October 2003 for everything that was happening in the world at the time: the search for weapons of mass destruction had reached its peak, and it was becoming clear that there was nothing to be found. This atmosphere of responding to fear and uncertainty with force and brutality felt right for the novel, an echo of the violence of mass shootings, and also of how I feel we sometimes respond as a nation to mass tragedy—we focus on motive and retribution, a media saturation that seeks answers and often ignores the families and communities. I wanted this background to serve as a foil for this pressing need for answers, and how as a culture we’re obsessed with shooter motive and uncomfortable just sitting with grief.

In the past you’ve described your relationship to your characters like this: “In fiction, I strive to put myself in their position—understanding their emotions, motivations, world views—but also quite literally putting myself in the world of the story and its scenes.” How did (and do) you cope when characters’ circumstances are unfathomably tragic? 

For me, writing through tragedy is a practice of empathy, a way of widening my heart when it feels so easy for it to harden and shut down in the face of so much violence in our culture. In so many ways, writing is my form of coping—I feel as though I’m trying to understand a way through violence and brutality and pain and my own grief by transposing these emotions into fiction. It’s usually not an easy process, but writing is a space that I can control when so much of our world feels out of control. Writing sometimes feels like the safest space to explore what’s happening around me, and to not look away from it.

Two of the point-of-view characters, Nick and Zola, have starkly different ways of coping with tragedy. Zola finds comfort holding the pet rabbit her mother gives her, while Nick has a near-obsessive need to research and archive. How did the characters’ varied responses to trauma shape the structure of the novel? 



It was important to me that each character responded to trauma differently, and grieved differently. Point of view was the main prism that opened up the entire structure of the book for me, and in alternating between a first-person plural perspective that explores communal grief and four close-third perspectives that individualize that grief, I wanted to examine what is collective when a tragedy like this happens and what is immutably singular. As much as Nick and Zola are students at the same high school and members of the same yearbook staff, having both grown up in the same community, their responses to trauma are so singular to who they are. I wanted to explore through this book how grief is at once collective and incredibly personal.

The novel’s concept and inspiration came from the short story of the same name (published in the Iron Horse Literary Review in Spring 2014). What unexpected challenges did you encounter during the process of transforming the story idea into something much longer? 



I was never drawn to the idea of expanding a short story into a novel, but something about this particular narrative felt undone to me. I wanted to expand it further, and to explore in greater depth what happens in a community after mass tragedy—and especially once the television cameras pull away. The short story centered on an elementary school, which felt too challenging to explore in a novel. Children certainly have their own lives and perspectives, but I transposed the novel into a high school setting to delve into the lives of four teenagers, which felt more manageable without feeling cloying or manipulative, which I know narratives from child perspectives can sometimes be (though I have read many that have done it well). This was the main challenge. Beyond this, I found that I had a lot more to write in expanding the narrative, and that the transition flowed relatively smoothly.

How did your novel find a home with William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins)? And how has working with William Morrow differed from your previous experiences with Dzanc Books (By Light We Knew Our Names) and Origami Zoo Press (An Elegy for Mathematics)? 



I’ve been fortunate to have excellent experiences with each of these books and publishers. I’d published the chapbook and short story collection without an agent, but had completed a novel by the time the collection came out, which attracted the attention of my agent. Things moved relatively quickly from there, and I couldn’t be more grateful for her work as well as her kindness, and for the team at William Morrow/HarperCollins. They are true champions of the book and have understood my vision for it from the beginning, which can’t be understated for how crucial this feels in putting a book out into the world. I feel extremely lucky to be working with them, and I am very grateful to have worked with Dzanc and Origami Zoo as well.

In your 2014 Fiction Spotlight interview with our contributing editor Barrett Bowlin, you mention being “pretty obsessed with science, nature, and biology,” something that shines through the story “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” (Memorious, Issue 18) and spills into the novel with the lines: “How the octopus brain held half a billion neurons, more closely linked to humans than to the cuttlefish and snails that shared its DNA. How under pressure the octopus could transform its short-term memory to long-term recall, a response similar to human fear.” How did your research experience differ between the novel and the short stories?

The process was very similar in terms of the direction the research took me. Science and biology remained front and center in the research of this novel, just as in the past. Short story research has steered me toward octopus biology, echolocation, aurora lights, and so many other natural phenomena. For this novel, in addition to research on how a community responds to mass tragedy, I also researched chemical and biological responses to fear and trauma, as well as the particulars of fire science and crime scene investigation. This research was much more detailed and involved than researching for a single short story, but my brain took me in very similar directions in terms of subject matter.

You’re prolific and efficient, having written a collection of ten stories during the year you drafted Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down—all while teaching. How did you do it? Specifically, what’s it like to connect deeply with so many narratives and characters? 



I’ve always viewed writing fiction as a job, so I’ve worked on it as much as I work on teaching—my full-time profession, but one that is dependent on my creative work. It’s never really worked for me to wait for inspiration. I feel like I become a better writer the more I write, so I made myself write every day while working on Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down to stay within the narrative’s world, but also to keep drafting and revising until the pages were what I wanted them to be. I’m very particular and discrete about my time during the academic year—I compartmentalize everything, focusing only on the classroom when I’m there, and zeroing in on my writing each morning before I go into work. The stories I wrote while working on the novel were all about St. Louis, which helped me take breaks from the weight of the novel’s content while also delving further into the novel’s setting. I don’t know if I’d multitask in that way again, but at the time this helped me deepen my understanding of the place I grew up, from a fictional remove. In terms of connecting with so many narratives and characters, it’s a great question and one I haven’t thought much about before—it seems overwhelming to be delving into that many narratives at once, but I guess I sometimes feel deeply empathetic with people on the street even if we’ve never spoken. Perhaps that is part of my “job” as a writer too—to feel connected to a multiplicity of lives, even if all at once.

What question about your novel do you wish we would ask, and will you answer it for us?

Question: In Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, how did you decide upon the structure of so many fires? Where was the line for you in determining how many to include, and whether any of the families’ homes would be spared?

The house fires begin to affect the families of those who were killed during the shooting, and though this question came up in revision—the possibility of redemption, and the possibility that perhaps some of them survive—sparing anyone didn’t feel right for this novel. This was in part because one of my leading questions in writing this book was whether any of us survives this kind of grief, and I don’t know if we ever do. But I also think fiction can be a space of extremes and of exposure, when so much of the violence in our culture is already extreme but sometimes unexposed. I felt similarly about writing “By Light We Knew Our Names,” the title story of my collection, where every single woman in an Alaskan town is abused by men. Early responses to that story were, Could it ever really be this bad? And I wanted the response to be yes—it can be, and it is. At the time, I felt that misogyny was so invisible in my world, and I wanted to explode it on the page and create this atmosphere that felt claustrophobic to the reader, where no one could escape seeing this kind of brutality. I feel similarly about the number of fires and the unrelenting nature of grief within the novel, which I know isn’t for every reader. But I’m not sure what it will take for us to reckon with the inherent violence in our culture, and if burning everything down is the only way to take notice.

Finally, what’s in your reading queue now? Are there fellow debut novelists our readers should be looking out for?

It’s been a fantastic year for debut novelists, and I absolutely loved Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and am readying to read Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres and Brit Bennett’s The Mothers. In terms of my reading queue, I can’t wait to read Randa Jarrar’s Him, Me, Muhammad Ali—I absolutely adored her novel, A Map of Home—and a few non-fiction books, including Benjamin Percy’s Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction and Colin Dickey’s Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places.

Wendy Oleson’s chapbook, Our Daughter and Other Stories (winner of the 2016 Rachel Wetzsteon Chapbook Award), is forthcoming in the spring of 2017. Her recent stories appear in Quarterly West, Normal School, New Flash Fiction Review, and Carve Magazine (as the winner of the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award). She lives in Pullman, WA and Los Angeles, CA and teaches creative writing for the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Margaret Luongo

I firsSONY DSCt became acquainted with Margaret Luongo when she drove the short distance from Hamilton, Ohio, to Cincinnati to read at a literary festival. In a dark bar full of half-drunk aspiring writers, she read from a story called “The War Artist” and cast a spell over all of us. She transported her audience to a dystopian artist residency where military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about a war she has never seen. In equally beautiful and unsettling language, Luongo challenged her audience to question their own relationship to distant wars.

Later, when I was an editor at the Cincinnati Review, we published Luongo’s delightful story “Word Problem,” which is …you guessed it…a story in the form of a word problem. For this one, she assigned herself quite a doozy: Can she tell the story of ten music students over the course of their careers, in a multiple point-of-view panorama of finely observed success, defeat, compromise, and adaption, which is by turns both funny and heartbreaking, both dark and hopeful? And can she provide her answer in less than sixteen pages? Her answer seemed utterly true and absolutely correct.

In Memorious 16, we were lucky enough to publish Luongo’s story “The War Artist Makes God Visible,” a haunting and surrealist series of vignettes (based on Stanley Spencer’s Great War memorial), in which WWI soldiers are resurrected from their graves, “entwined…in their white picket crosses. Already their capes make wings.” These finely crafted stories are now collected with many others in Luongo’s second collection, The History of Art: Stories (LSU Press), published in April. In it, Luongo meditates on the relationship between violence and creation, in sharp and nimble stories that vacillate between the surreal and the real, the traditional and the formally experimental.

Luongo is also the author of the short story collection If the Heart is Lean (also by LSU Press) and has published stories in the Cincinnati Review, Granta, Tin House, the Southern Review, and the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She is an associate professor of English at Miami University in Ohio, where she teaches creative writing and contemporary fiction. She spoke to me via email about writing, the relationship between war and creation, and the current (hopeful!) state of publishing.

–Brian Trapp, Co-Fiction Editor

We were lucky enough to publish “The War Artist Makes God Visible” in Memorious 16. It changed quite a bit since you first published it with us. Can you tell us about the development of this story?

When I was teaching in London in 2010, I traveled to Burghclere to see Stanley Spencer’s Great War Memorial. It’s the mural the story is based on, painted on the walls of a chapel built especially for that work. I’d already written the version of the story that Memorious published. My feelings about the paintings changed when I saw them in the chapel. Previously I had only seen them reproduced in books, and I’d been puzzled by the religious imagery in them. Spencer had a front row seat to the misery of war, tending to wounded soldiers in a military hospital. Yet he still seemed to find solace in this idea of resurrection and redemption. I couldn’t understand it, so I wrote about it. Then I saw the paintings in their true scale and setting, and I understood that the redemption Spencer believed in came through caring for others. So I went back into the story and expanded it slightly. In no way did I capture the tenderness and generosity of Spencer’s work.

That story seems to be a companion piece to the first story of the collection, titled “The War Artist,” in which military officials lock a visual artist in a room and task her with making art about “the war,” in a sort of dystopian artist residency. An obsession with art seems to connect all the stories in this collection, but these two stories seem to ask about the connection between war and art, violence and meaning. Can you speak about this connection, and, in general, your obsession with art throughout this collection?

The two obsessions were going on parallel tracks for a while. Visual art helps me think about writing—and just helps me think. War is everywhere. Even if the bombs aren’t falling on you, with the speed of communication these days it’s hard to remain totally ignorant of what’s going on around the world. Humans have been making art and war side by side for millennia, creation and destruction—and then there’s the obsession with beautiful ruins, from tourist photos of ancient Rome to art photography of defunct Detroit. We love those traces of our faded glory, however romanticized our notion of the past may be. Hitler based his Reich on that idea—leaving a glorious ruin. We make meaning through story, and I think people believe that for the story to have a meaning, it has to end. So the link between violence and meaning does make some sense, I suppose.

Art to me is mostly about perception—how we see the world and others—in addition to those issues of craft, technical skill, and materiality. I appreciate our drive to perceive and make sense, even though we so often get it wrong. The struggle sometimes elevates us.

In one of my favorite stories, “Word Problem,” you write a story in the form of a word problem. You write another story in the form of notes on the type and another as directions for bird watching. Can you talk about how “Word Problem” developed and, in general, your interest in playing with various forms?

“Word Problem” came about partly because of that inclination and partly because I’m really horrible at math and I still resent word problems. I thought it would be a good idea to do a story in that form, but I didn’t know for a couple of years what it would be about. Then I attended a performance of John Cage’s Music for Radios at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival. That’s what set it off.

I like to create constraints for myself in writing—at least I think that’s what I’m doing—so forms that make storytelling difficult appeal to me. I think it’s just that I like the indication of a story, the fragments. I think the main thing is brevity. I really like the short story game, and I also like to think of puzzles for myself within the form: how short can I go? What rule might provide a new challenge? I like to choose forms that make telling a story somewhat difficult (like “Word Problem”). I also like to get away from traditional character development, maybe to find a balance between head and heart. I want people to think and feel.

LuongoHISTORY_covfront(HR)

Both of your books were published with LSU Press’ Yellow Shoe Fiction Series, edited by my former professor at the University of Cincinnati, Michael Griffith. What was it like to work with Michael and LSU? As someone who is teaching a course on publishing, what is your opinion of the current publishing landscape?

Michael is a great editor. His focus is razor sharp and he just knows a lot about a lot of things. I never realized how important context is for editing. It’s not enough to know about literature and to know how stories are made. You also have to know about people, places, music, art, sports, clothing, religion, animals, train stations, wall-to-wall carpet—everything terrestrial and extra-terrestrial. He also trusts writers. He’s not a heavy-handed editor and seems to have no need to make his mark on a book that isn’t his. No excessive ego, just enough confidence to do right by a book and its author. LSU makes gorgeous books, and Baton Rouge is on my list of places to relocate to, mostly because I fantasize about hanging out with MaryKatherine Callaway and the other LSU people. I went there once for a book festival and I still think about the people and the place. It’s a little creepy that I want to hang out with my publisher, but it’s a good sign, I think.

Despite the corporatization of publishing, I’m optimistic. So many small independent publishers have sprung up. However strange or marginalized a work may be, its author can probably find a home for it. The independents are not so concerned with the bottom line, so they’re more free to publish books that will have a smaller audience. This means more freedom for writers, so long as they have a day job. The abundance of smaller publishers like Rose Metal Press and Black Lawrence should encourage writers to create more freely.

In the UK, independent publishers like Tilted Axis, And Other Stories, and Peirene are bringing out translated work by authors whose books have never been available in English. That could help to shift aesthetics in America and the UK. For instance, what’s mainstream in Korean fiction—nonlinear, multi-voiced, and surreal—is often considered experimental or just strange in the US. Maybe some of that will find its way to American readers and writers and inspire appreciation for more diverse forms. I’m very hopeful about publishing, almost exclusively because of the small independents.

In the UK, publishers can declare that they are a Community Interest Company, which means, among other things, that they cannot be bought by a for-profit enterprise. I find that very promising.

And now some process questions: How did you write the stories in this collection? Are you a ‘write everyday’ person or does it come in bursts? Do you have any consistent habits or rituals for when you are most productive? Any advice to emerging fiction writers?

When I first started writing, I wrote every day and that helped me learn to take myself—or the task I set for myself—more seriously. The daily work improved my writing and in general gave me some sense of purpose, as well as confidence. The mental activity kept me happy. History of Art developed over something like eight years, so I can’t say I worked every day on those stories. I’m usually most productive over the summer, and I can sustain writing through mid-October or early November. Then I won’t really write again until winter break. Spring semester is usually a loss, for the most part. I’ll give myself smaller assignments then, just to try to get some time back.

About four years ago, my husband and I rented studio space in downtown Hamilton (Ohio), and that’s been a huge help. The space is pleasant, uncluttered, and internet-free. I only write there—I do nothing else. I can drop everything, go to the studio, and almost immediately find focus. It’s walking distance from our house and it’s just a good happy space for me. I keep a little chart on the wall of all the things I could work on, in their varying stages of completion. There’s one column for stories that are just ideas. I think there’s even a poetry column, though the poems might be under another heading—“in progress” or something. There’s always something I want to work on, and I can choose whatever I like, so there’s no obstacle to working.

I also like to listen to music, but it has to be music without words. I particularly like classical guitar—Segovia, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, Christopher Parkening. I was on a Bach kick for a while during the latter stages of History of Art. I’d listen to Foo Fighters on the way to the studio, then switch over to Bach. Having that space outside the home has made a huge difference for me. For a while I was working at coffee shops and getting really angry at people who dared to have audible conversations. Even at that time I knew my anger was unreasonable.

Advice for emerging fiction writers: don’t make problems for yourself that you can’t solve. Be flexible. If something’s not working, try a different path. Be a good boss to yourself; while it’s true that discipline is important, you have to know when to ease up on yourself.

Can you tell us about what you are working on now?

I’m working on a story for the ACRE Books anthology, The Very Angry Baby. ACRE Books is a new press edited by the people at The Cincinnati Review, including Nicola Mason. That’s all I can say!

What are you reading now?

I’m teaching a London-based course in publishing, so I’m reading books published by smaller UK houses:

The Man I Became by Peter Verhelst, translated by David Colmer (Peirene Press)

Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare, edited by Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia (And Other Stories Press)

Kauthar, by Meike Ziervogel (Salt)

Our Man in Orlando, by Hugh Hunter (Monday Books)

As a supplement to this, I’m also reading Panty, by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, translated by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis) and The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books), which just won the Man Booker prize.

I also just picked up Mary Beard’s SPQR, a partial re-reading of Roman history. Beard has an easy style, and she exposes the way the Romans crafted (revised?) their own history, rewriting it through the lens of the present moment. It’s a good reminder to those of us writing historical fiction, which Henry James warned us about: We can’t really be accurate. We’re always writing through the film of the now.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Fiction Spotlight: Becky Hagenston

Hagenston_Becky_M3B1627Becky Hagenston’s third short story collection, Scavengers: Stories (University of Alaska Press) Scavengers was published mid-March, 2016. The collection won the Permafrost 2015 Book Prize in fiction, with Memorious favorite Benjamin Percy serving as final judge. Hagenston is no stranger to prestigious prizes. The associate professor of English at Mississippi State University has two previous prize-winning collections, A Gram of Mars (Sarabande Books; winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize) and Strange Weather (Press 53; winner of the Spokane Prize), and has twice taken the O. Henry Prize. Her work has also received nods from Best American Short Stories, Best American Mysteries, and the Pushcart anthologies.

Memorious is thrilled to be publishing Hagenston’s “The Celebrity,” a story that does a million things in 1,000 words, in the upcoming Memorious 26. We’re also thrilled to have the opportunity to talk to Becky Hagenston about Scavengers, a collection so jammed with great stories, it’s impossible to decide on a favorite without breaking it down further. “Let Yourself Go,” for example, takes the prize for most brilliant ending; “Ivy Green” wins most virtuosic point of view. “Secrets of Old Time Science Experiments” is a marvel of compression and a playground for the reader questioning whether supernatural forces are at work. And Hagenston makes it all look easy! Memorious fiction reader and contributor, Wendy Oleson, had a chance to email with Becky about her recent collection.

Thank you for agreeing to talk with us about Scavengers: Stories. Which story in the collection gave you the most trouble and which came the smoothest? What did the experiences of difficulty and ease teach you about your work and process?

Of course, it’s far, far from easy. I can tell you that the story that took the longest to get right is “Secrets of Old-Time Science Experiments,” which I workshopped in my first fiction class ever, in (I think) 1993. The draft was drastically different, with Aunt Julep being a trouble-maker who had recently died. But there was something I liked about the story—the narrator’s voice and her family—and so I put the story away for years but never gave up on it. I’d take it out every few years and give it another go, but it just wasn’t working. Maybe it was when I started reading George Saunders’ and Aimee Bender’s stories that I realized I could take fanciful leaps into weirdness.

“Cool” was probably the smoothest process. I wrote that in a couple of months—which is very, very fast for me. I did end up cutting a lot of backstory to make it more cohesive, and the ending gave me some trouble, but overall it came together pretty easily once I figured out how the flashbacks and current action connected.

In this collection, being seen, heard, and understood by another person can be a double-edged sword, as it often precipitates moments of painful self-reflection; the same might be true of putting oneself in the position of really seeing another person. In this light,“Good Listener” feels like the keystone of the collection: the precise unspooling of the narrative even participates in the protagonist’s struggle to communicate after a tragedy. It dares readers to pay close attention to Laura’s thoughts and fears, to believe we understand her pain. Could you talk a bit about this story—how it fits in the collection and how you found the perfect timing and balance in revealing and concealing the circumstances of Laura’s life?

This was the first Mississippi story I ever wrote, and I’d been living in Mississippi for about three years already. I think of it as a story of displacement, of trying to find your place in the world, and also for Laura it’s about the moment when she realizes what she is and isn’t ready to accept for her life. It’s sometimes really difficult for me to know what line of work my characters should be in, but making Laura a high school guidance counselor opened up a lot of possibilities. The story took off for me when I added Kayla, the high school student, and Patty, the hard-drinking engineering post-doc. I think those characters are the key to the revealing/concealing that goes on, the things Laura reveals and doesn’t reveal to them. Those characters helped me begin to understand Laura’s thoughts and fears and pain.

Your endings are, to borrow Brad Watson’s term,“heart punches” as much as gut punches. They’re both startling and satisfying, an effects coupling so difficult to achieve. How do you write endings? Do they ever come first?

I do a lot of rewriting when it comes to endings. Sometimes I’ll think I have it, and I’m completely wrong. On more than one occasion, I’ll have what I think is a brilliant—evocative but not overstated—ending, and I’ll give the story to a trusted reader who will say, “Huh? This makes no sense.” And then as I’m trying to explain why it does make sense, I’ll realize: Hey, I shouldn’t have to explain the damn ending! Back to the drawing board.

Sometimes the ending will shimmer in the distance when I’m about halfway through the story. Sometimes it’s a mirage. The endings that I love the most are the ones that surprise me as I’m writing them, and this did happen with “Let Yourself Go.” I think endings should make a story feel complete without tying anything up or solving anything. And that, as I’ve discovered, is really hard to do.

I love what Flannery O’Connor says in Mystery and Manners about the ending of “Good Country People”: “I didn’t know [the Bible salesman] was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realized that it was inevitable. This is a story that produces a shock for the reader, and I think one reason for this is that it produced a shock for the writer.”

The story “Cool” first appeared in One Teen Story (One Story’s magazine for the many, many passionate readers of Young Adult fiction). How, if at all, did you revise the story for Scavengers?

Patrick Ryan, the editor of OTS, is such a great editor that there wasn’t really anything left to change! He was great at pointing out some confusing moments in the story, and he suggested perfect ways of rewording clunky lines. He suggested changing the title from “Cool Mom” to “Cool,” which I thought was an excellent idea. The only real change I made for the story collection was the name of the mother. Her name was originally Patty, but there was already a Patty in “Let Yourself Go.” So now she’s Jenny. That’s one of the unexpected challenges of putting together a story collection: realizing how often I reuse names!

Your characters behave idiosyncratically—even eccentrically—without it feeling forced. They drink too much at a dinner party and end up under the hosts’ kitchen table kissing the Labrador. They say things like,“‘Oh ho! That’s cranberry sauce!’” They tweet and take great pleasure when a stranger tweets back. Their vulnerability and disillusionment forge humor and pathos. Even when the stories skew fantastic, there’s an emotional honesty present. Your work evokes a dazzling range of contemporary authors, from Lorrie Moore to Aimee Bender, Ken Liu, and Carmen Maria Machado. Who and what inspired you as you wrote these stories?

I am absolutely a fan of Aimee Bender and Lorrie Moore, and I haven’t read Ken Liu or Carmen Maria Machado but now I’m definitely going to. I teach great stories like “Sonny’s Blues” (speaking of brilliant endings!) and “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and every year or so I read “The Dead” out loud to myself. The ending of that story actually had a huge influence on the ending of “The Afterlife.” I was inspired by Kevin Brockmeier’s fables to write “Puppet Town.” And maybe it was when I started reading Haruki Murakami’s, George Saunders’ and Aimee Bender’s stories that I realized I could take fanciful leaps into weirdness.

I wrote and revised these stories over a span of many, many years. I wrote them in grad school in Tucson and New Mexico, and I wrote them as a newbie and then a not-so-newbie to Mississippi. I wrote them in between travels to Russia, France, and England. Travel always inspires me, as does talking to people. I’m very, very nosy!scavengers

And I’m always reading: fiction, nonfiction, poetry, occasionally graphic novels. I love biographies of doomed royalty. I’m addicted to gruesome true stories of adventures gone awry. For me, it’s about just filling my brain with stories all the time. I just finished reading Kelly Link’s new collection, Get in Trouble, and that inspired me to go down a much weirder route in a story than I’d planned to.

Would you be willing to share a bit about what you’re working on now?

I think I’m finished with collection #4, which mostly takes place in France and Mississippi. So now I’m just working on more stories, and I like to have stuff in every possible stage of the process. There’s one I feel pretty good about, and I’m revising two that I think have potential, and I’m also taking notes for stories that may or may not turn into anything—or may turn into something years from now. And even though I’ve written five novels that don’t have enough plot to be publishable, I’m still always trying to get that right!

 

Wendy Oleson’s recent stories appear in Cherry Tree, Quarterly West, and Carve Magazine (as the winner of the 2015 storySouth Million Writers Award). A 2015 Vermont Studio Center fiction fellow, Wendy teaches creative writing for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and writes about people who do very bad things for Bellum Entertainment. Visit her (@weoleson) on Twitter or her handsome dog (gr8winstoni) on Instagram.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, art, and more interviews, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

 

 

 

 

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Fiction Spotlight: Ranbir Singh Sidhu

rsnewheadshot-smallWe were lucky enough to snatch up Ranbir Singh Sidhu’s hilarious short story “‘Cross-eyes’ Thorpe Hits The Mark” for Memorious 25. Though he has spent the better part of the last two decades in Brooklyn and Crete, Sidhu is a writer with California in his blood. This is a component of his backstory—Sidhu was born in London and raised in the Bay Area—but also a central focus of his remarkable debut novel, Deep Singh Blue.

Sidhu, the author of the short story collection Good Indian Girls (Soft Skull Press) and a recipient of both a Pushcart Prize and a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, presents us with a version of Northern California in the mid-80s as experienced by Deep Singh, a complex and highly-charged narrator. At the start of the book, he has transferred out of high school to enroll in a community college, hoping to put some distance between himself and his suffocating home, where his parents, first-generation Indian immigrants, subject him to their own ideas of the good life. Indeed, the California of Deep Singh Blue, with its cheap motels, liquor stores, and rent-by-the-hour hot tubs, seems a place where ideas of the good life have festered and soured, a place that contains within itself many of the forces that would come to characterize the country in the decades that followed. Kirkus calls the novel a “heart-wrenching coming-of-age tale in which survival depends more on compassion than rebellion.” Sidhu was kind enough to talk with Memorious fiction reader and contributor Chris Arp about his writing process, the state of the novel, and his weird home state of California.

 From the very first pages, the Northern California of Deep Singh Blue is an awfully claustrophobic place, both in Deep’s home and the wider environs. I’m thinking also of his driving trips, which seem to promise freedom but also an aimless kind of wandering.

 It’s set in the middle of the 1980s, in the heart of what was Reagan’s America, and even in California I think you felt the chill of that world. Certainly to me, as a recent immigrant at the time, I remember finding that world still closed in on itself and that surprised me. I knew kids in school who had never left the city limits, let alone hopped on the BART train and taken it to San Francisco or Berkeley, which was only a half hour away. And in such an enclosed world, which I think is what so much of American suburbia was back then, an aimless kind of wandering was the only real recreation, beyond drinking or making out, the latter if you were very lucky.

As far as how I approached it in the novel, I wanted Deep’s wider world to reflect his inner, and not so much as a literary device but to reinforce that this is how he sees the world because this very much is the kind of world he’s grown up in, if that distinction makes sense. He isn’t yet able to imagine a wider, more generous reading of what the world could be, even in the admittedly claustrophobic universe of the Northern California I paint here.

screen-shot-2016-01-21-at-3-09-44-pmOne of the triumphs of the book, to my mind, is the way the environment can be read as both subjective and real. Deep’s world is symbolically resonant, while at the same time drab, under-stimulating, and altogether uninterested in our protagonist. And isn’t that exactly what it feels like to be a teenager?

I wouldn’t think of Deep’s world as “symbolically resonant”—I’d just think of it as Deep’s world, and painted as clearly as I can with a mind to how he interacts with it. This is his world—whether the world he sees is different from some idea of a so-called “real” world I couldn’t answer. But that particular agony of teenagehood interested me, and in particular, Deep’s teenage years as a child of immigrants and growing up in a world that had absolutely no room for that experience.

It’s an interesting tension. He is at times explicitly interested in his parents’ lives, and at times not. On the first page, he says of his parents, “They weren’t doctors or engineers, neither had much of an education, they were the other Indians, the ones that don’t get talked about and whose stories don’t get written…” Now, this is told from a position of the somewhat older Deep, and when I read it I was prepared to learn their stories. Yet Deep spends most of the novel regarding his parents through the haze of his own frustration and rebellion. Sympathy only comes at the bitter end. Why portray his parents’ experience through such a narrator?

 I wanted to anchor Deep’s voice in that moment of his teenage years, and paint the world through that lens, which seems to me very interesting. And Deep’s older voice, which only comes in a few brief times, does give a larger sense of the world, or of a person who’s come to see the world as larger, but he doesn’t yet. I don’t want to undermine how horribly enclosed his world is and how intensely he finds himself shut out from larger conversations. That’s a very real experience of the world, and I didn’t want to devalue it by suggesting it was a false experience—it’s not, it’s as real and valid as any other, just more painful than many.

Yeah, the outside world trickles in, and is somehow twisted in the process. References are made, throughout the book, to the Sikh and anti-Sikh violence in the Punjab in the 1980s. Yet Deep hears about all this through Uncle Gur, whose reactions seem as outsized and impulsive as his comical business dealings. Who is Uncle Gur? How did his character come about and why was he chosen as the conduit for so many of the larger conversations?

 He grew out of a lot of people I know personally I suppose—and his reactions don’t seem particularly outsized to me frankly. As far as this question of why he was “chosen”—I really have to say he wasn’t chosen at all. I mean he’s just one of the characters in the extended family, and he certainly has a presence and a far greater interest in what’s going on in Punjab than Deep’s father does, say, but he wasn’t written in for that reason, rather all of that grew out of his character. I never write with an idea that I have something to say about a particular subject, and any larger meanings or connections come late in the process, and are usually a surprise to me.

You must have access to more passionate uncles. The only one I’ve ever known rarely spoke above a murmur. That’s interesting about your process. Who were the first characters in the genesis of the novel? Did it grow out of the central storyline between Deep and his initial love interest, Lily, or was the family there from the start? Or both, or neither?

 It very much grew out of Deep and wanting to look at his life, and actually the relationship with Lily came in quite late in the process of rewriting. It was their relationship that catalyzed so much of the novel for me, and made it considerably stronger, and she also gave him so much to play against and allowed him to look at some really quite dark parts of himself.

She’s a dark character. In one of the novel’s most electrifying sequences, she nearly runs a car off the road. She is half Chinese—“a fucking half-Chink, half-cracker,” is how she introduces herself—and so is the family in the car. Afterwards, she says, “At least the Chink had balls…Usually they shit their pants.” Deep’s reaction is really interesting. She insists that he refer to himself as a Paki. “‘Paki,’ I agreed, thinking there it was, the cages we both lived in, for her Chink, for me Paki, like she was shining a light on the bars.” You say the relationship with Lily came in later, but she reads as essential to Deep’s development, as well as a central and uncompromising character in her own right.

Of all the characters in the book, I think I have the deepest affection for Lily, and the true disaster she’s made of her life, or is making of it. Not that you can blame her, I don’t, and I find a lot of myself that lies buried is expressed rather forcefully on the surface with her. She’s obviously self-destructive, but I think a lot of people who act in outwardly self-destructive modes often understand intuitively that this might be the only viable escape route for them, by that I mean it’s almost a rational choice—whether they can clean themselves up before they do actually destroy themselves is another matter.

And what is she escaping from? We learn a good deal about her home life and her past, both of which are very hard, but is there something more? Early on, Deep wonders if it is a “rootlessness of the soul” that makes him most properly a Californian. He seems to find a kindred spirit in Lily.

 Definitely he does, and yes, to me California felt very much like a place where you wandered rootlessly to, and got stuck because often you couldn’t wander any farther. That’s not the case any longer, as it’s become so expensive, at least in the cities. In some of the desert communities you still have that feel, but it’s also a feeling of crushing economic hardship as there are few jobs. I think of this California, the 1980s version, as a last holdout of a dream California, but it was one that was already dying or dead. Then the 1990s tech boom came along and basically just tossed the body over the cliff and into the ocean. As far as what Lily’s running from, other than how it’s described in the book, I feel that’s very much the reader’s decision to ask themselves if that’s whey want to find out.

And what was the dream California? What was killing it by the mid 80s?

 I doubt there ever was such a California, thus the dream part—but there was a much more working class California, and a working class Bay Area, and a much more multi-layered city (I’m thinking mainly of San Francisco here), which was swallowed up by the tech boom. These things happen, and that city isn’t ever coming back—it’s one of the reasons I don’t live there anymore. But there was a time when money didn’t have to be such a determining factor in where you lived and who you knew and what you did with your life. I think the latter is so much the case now, and not just in large parts of California, but across this country. I miss that other world where money mattered less, even though we had so much less of it in general.

Forgive me widening the lens here, but do you think this shift in America has changed the novel? Do we need different kinds of novels? Has it changed you as a reader, or as a writer?

 No, please do. And I don’t know if it’s changed the novel, or how it would, but I do think that how we imagine America has changed dramatically. In that sense I hope the novel, for all it’s surface bleakness, brings to life a more potential time, a more possible time. I feel these days we find ourselves pushed into ever narrower realms, into ever narrower ways we are described and how we describe ourselves. This happens in fiction in the abundance of genres and sub-genres, which I find troubling, because it posits a world where we read with expectations of a particular experience, and also in the larger sense, live with expectations of how we will experience a certain moment. I’m all for cross-genre writing, multi-genre writing, but I’d much rather break the back of genre altogether and watch it happily die. I like writers who try all types of different books, and different stories, and ways of telling stories—but that’s a tough sell in the bottom line-driven world of corporate publishing.

And do you see these tropes or types cropping up in literary fiction?

 I find much literary fiction these days to be highly genre-defined. For me good writing breaks boundaries, and these days I feel few established writers, especially at the major houses, are interested in that at all—they want to rehash the same book that was written twenty years ago, maybe fifty years, or longer. That’s fine, but let’s say it’s a genre as much as self-styled romance novels are, and in the larger sense of whether it moves the form forward, then let’s agree that it most definitely does not. There’s a lot of really great writing out there—I’m currently totally hooked on Ron Currie’s extraordinary Everything Matters!—but we’ve allowed literary culture to be largely defined by the marketing departments of the big houses and the soporific tastes of pretty much universally white, privileged editors, and much of what they put out is as dull as wallpaper paste.

Amen. And aside from Currie, where else might the desperate reader turn for some originality? What other writers do you see as fighting the good fight?

 Two books I recently read that I think push hard against how we imagine modern literary fiction are Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, and Jan Morris’ Last Letters from Hav. They’re very different works, and imagine two very different approaches to writing, but both engage with literature from the sentence level upward. Two of the writers I grew up reading are both British experimenters—Alasdair Gray and Brigid Brophy. Again, they produced very different works, and with both authors, each of their books is often very different from previous ones, but they’re enlivened by a spirit of pushing against form and expectation. They struggle with the material at hand.

Chris Arp is a graduate of NYU’s MFA program in Fiction, where he was a finalist for the Axinn Foundation / E.L. Doctorow Fellowship. Since then, his work has been published in Storgy Magazine and the Cumberland River Review, and is forthcoming in Memorious 26. One of his stories was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

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