• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed

BLOG-O-RAMA (not to be confused with Illinois's disgraced governor)

Friday
Jan292016

Q and A with Michael Burke about his story collection What You Don't Know About Men

Some of your stories, e.g. “The Jonquils,” “Eddie Doyle Says Life’s Been Good,” and “Keepers,” are written in sections – with headers/titles or with lines of scripture interspersed in the narrative. Did you begin each story with this structure in mind or did it evolve as you wrote? 

“The Jonquils” was an intentional attempt to craft a story using multiple points of view. So I used the headers to change gears as the narrators changed.

“Keepers” started as a parody of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” but quickly shifted to a dying young man’s painful soliloquy – and then was rounded out and much-improved when combined (at the good suggestion of an excellent teacher; Dale Heiniger, Columbia College Chicago) with another separate story I had been writing simultaneously about an old man looking back on his life. So that structure definitely evolved.

I added the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount to “Eddie Doyle Says Life’s Been Good” about halfway through the writing of the story. I always had wanted to appropriate the Beatitudes because, for me, these blessings reside in the Literary Pantheon of Great Speeches (along with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Dr. King’s Dream speech, and Noah S. “Soggy” Sweat, Jr.’s infamous “Whiskey” speech, in which the Mississippi state lawmaker passionately argues both sides of the Prohibition question.)

Plus, the more I wrote about Eddie Doyle, the more I found myself liking him, or, perhaps, feeling sorry for him. So I thought the Beatitudes might make for a provocative counterpoint to poor Eddie’s rather dreary life in Bridgeport.

One great joy of writing short stories is the fact that you, the author, get to play. You conjure a handful of characters, discover their secrets, and shape the events that strike you as most compelling to offer a reader. Along the way, you have the happy opportunity to play with the form of your storytelling – using a header to shift points of view, inserting lyrics or other quoted lines to help pace the storytelling or to deepen a reader’s understanding of a moment, and so on.

For me, it’s like dimming the lamps and lighting candles for a dinner party. Or, adding just a touch of basil to bruschetta. Or, serving tonight’s particular guests the 20-year Tawny port rather than the 10. Different people, different evenings, different parties require different special touches. So does each story.

You might know David Lodge’s excellent book, “The Art of Fiction.” Actually, there are several excellent books with that same title. Lodge’s is the best book on literary forms. I often revisit it for inspiration.

A final thought: I’ve so often used these literary effects (headers, quotes, etc.) that I now worry they’ve become a crutch. “If you were just a better writer,” the Nasty Voice of Self-Defeat whispers wetly into my right ear, “you wouldn’t need such tricks! You could just write.”

Your stories frequently feature characters who are Catholics or lapsed Catholics, and at the same time, some of these stories are sexually frank. I’m curious about how this duality affects some of your readers (and family members) – how have people responded to your stories?

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Friday
Jan222016

Q and A with Rebecca Makkai about MUSIC FOR WARTIME

 

1. Your stories are often very funny.  I'm thinking especially of "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship" and "The November Story."  Some say that a writer has to be born with the ability to be funny, but I'm not sure I agree.  Do you ever set out purposely to write a comic story or does the humor emerge as you progress? 
I've realized along the way that when I think I'm being funny, I'm actually being dark and depressing, and if I set out to be totally serious, it ends up being funny. My aesthetic is an odd blend of humor and darkness, I think... Which isn't to say "dark humor." That's something else entirely, and in my mind it involves laughing when people fall down the stairs. I do think that I edit to be funny, or funnier, if the occasion warrants. There are ways to make a sentence funnier -- like saving the joke so it lands with the last word of the sentence, rather than earlier -- and I'll notice those opportunities on the sixth or seventh draft.
2.  The first story of yours that I read was in The Best American Short Stories 2008, "The Worst You Ever Feel."  I thought it was one of the best stories in the anthology.  Did this inclusion change things for you as a writer?  (I.e. was it easier to place new work, find agent, etc?) 
I'd be curious what your own answer is, since you had a story in that same edition. I do think it made it easier to place work -- or at least to get my work read. But it had zero impact on the agent situation. I didn't have an agent then, and I thought I'd maybe hear from some. I'd heard stories of that happening. But it didn't happen for me, and it didn't happen the next year either, when I had another story selected. I went out on my own and queried my dream agent, and she took me on; and I'm sure that including those anthologies in my email had a lot to do with getting through the filter and getting read. More than one person has suggested to me that if I were a man and I'd had two stories in Best American, I'd have had agents swarming. It doesn't matter to me since I ended up with the agent I wanted, but I do wonder. And I'll never know.

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Friday
Nov132015

Q and A with Chrissy Kolaya about her new novel CHARMED PARTICLES 

1.  Tell us a little about your new novel.

Short: It’s about high-energy particle physics, gentlemen explorers, gifted and talented teenage girls, Mary Kay ladies, and one South Asian woman’s assimilation to 1980s suburban Chicago, with a special focus on her fascination with American novelty convenience foods.

Long: Rural Nicolet, Illinois, is a city anchored between two opposing forces, a living history museum devoted to the American frontier and a laboratory for experiments in high-energy particle physics. When a proposal to build the Superconducting Super Collider under the town sparks debate between the scientists and the locals, two families find themselves on opposite sides of a controversy that fractures the community, exposing deep cultural rifts between longtime friends.

Abhijat, a scientist from India now working at the National Accelerator Research Laboratory, has a sole obsession: making a name for himself as one of history’s great theoretical physicists. The search for answers to questions about the creation of the universe blinds him to the burgeoning distance between him and his wife, Sarala, who devotes herself to their daughter, Meena, and to assimilating into suburban America. In the same neighborhood, Rose Winchester strives to raise precocious Lily, stitching together an unconventional marriage from the brief visits and vibrant letters of her husband Randolph, who fancies himself the last great gentleman explorer.

Based on real events surrounding the Superconducting Super Collider, a facility begun in the U.S. but never completed, Charmed Particles traces the collisions of past and progress, science and tradition.

2.  You must have had to do quite a bit of research for this book - what were the rewards and challenges of the research experience?  I know you made a visit to the FermiLab, for example.  

Yes, this project involved a lot of research, which I loved getting to do. I spent time at Fermilab in 2010—it’s the inspiration for the book’s fictional National Accelerator Research Lab. There, I interviewed theoretical physicists, tagged along on a field trip, and worked in their archives. I also got to tour a living history facility in the area and read lots and lots of books, articles, and government documents (Environmental Impact Statements, transcripts of public hearings, etc.). While the latter may seem like they’d be dry, they really helped bring the conflict over the Superconducting Super Collider to life for me. Here were the actual voices of the people whose lives were being impacted by this potential project. Here were the things they worried about, the things they hoped for. It felt like I was listening in on a conversation my own characters were having.

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Monday
Nov092015

Q & A with Scott Nadelson about his new novel BETWEEN YOU AND ME. 

Tell us a little about your new novel.

I think of Between You and Me as the chronicle of a nebbish, a nobody; it’s a combination of episodic comedy—a Quixote of the New Jersey suburbs—and existential exploration of a very ordinary life. The novel tells the story of Paul Haberman, lifelong city-dweller and bachelor, who, at forty, finds himself thrust suddenly into family life, marrying a divorced mother of two young children and moving to the suburbs. There, he confronts enraged teenagers and shady mechanics, sadistic comedians and obese rabbis, discovering in each of these encounters unacknowledged fears, conflicted desires, and the mysteries that come with living among the human race. The book follows Paul over twenty years, through a series of misadventures and ethical quandaries, from the uneasy onset of middle age to the first hint of approaching autumn.

I love the way you've structured Between You and Me, with each chapter set in a different year. Did you know you would employ this structure before you started writing this book? 

This structure evolved over a long period of time. When I started writing, I had no idea what shape it would take, or even that it would be a book. I wrote an initial draft of what would become the first chapter about six years ago, as a stand-alone story, and though when I finished it I knew I wanted to write more about Paul, I was in the middle of another project and set it aside for a while. When I came back to it, I wrote another episode about Paul and his family that took place two years later. It was as if I needed to catch up with these old friends and see how they were making out. The next piece I wrote took place when Paul’s stepkids were off at college, and only then did I realize I was writing a chronicle, examining the lives of these characters over a long period of time rather than in a concentrated dramatic arc. After I had about eight or nine episodes, I started looking for gaps, stretches of time that needed filling in.

The structure that eventually developed arose partly from the desire to explore Paul’s life from different angles and partly from obsessively re-reading some of my favorite chronicle novels and linked story collections—Leonard Michaels’s Nachman Stories; Wright Morris’s The Works of Love; Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid; Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing; Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade; Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge; V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas.

 

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Wednesday
Aug262015

Q and A with Michelle Falkoff about her novel Playlist for the Dead 

Tell us a little about your book. 

Playlist for the Dead is about a boy named Sam whose best friend Hayden commits suicide and leaves behind a playlist of songs to help him understand what happened. While Sam is delving into the playlist, he learns that Hayden had secrets and meets a girl who helps him uncover some of them.

You divide the book into 27 chapters, each paired with a song that's a part of Hayden Stevens' playlist for his friend Sam Goldsmith, who is the person who finds Hayden, after Hayden has taken his life.  (A very sad story but at the same time, also a witty, romantic, unsentimental, and wise one).  Did you know from the beginning that you would structure the novel this way?

Yes, that was kind of the central conceit from the beginning. But the playlist originally was going to be a little more straightforward--it was initially all about suicide in a much more literal way, and eventually I decided it would be more interesting if the songs themselves hinted at some of the things going on with Hayden. Of course, the playlist ultimately doesn't have the answers Sam is looking for--he has to find them by actually talking to people, and that was always the plan.

 

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