Malahat volunteer and past contributor Cody Klippenstein talks with Cynthia Flood, fiction judge for the 2015 Open Season Awards. Flood discusses literary influences, the do's and dont's of fiction, and the need to be fearless when writing.
In one of your past interviews about your latest story collection, Red Girl, Rat Boy, you mentioned that your ideal reader prefers to work themselves between the lines rather than being handed the literary equivalent of a grocery list. I like that. As a reader, then, what do you look for in a great piece of fiction? What makes a story sing for you?
For me, reading good fiction combines pleasure in character, incident, imagery, dialogue with simultaneous pleasure in seeing how these work together. A story = a design.
Suppose that in the early paragraphs fig-tree and spoil and gave the alarm turn up. When bloom rotting deafened appear, later on, patterns start to form, like those in a piece of weaving on the loom. Some readers will now stay alert for related words and phrases, to enjoy how they amplify the pattern, but even readers who don’t consciously pick up on such elements can experience something of the design’s quality.
Surprise always delights me. I love it when I haven’t foreseen what’s going to occur in a story. Happily I page back in search of clues, and often discover that I saw but didn’t notice. A second reading of the story can be even more satisfying, because the plot’s known and all the pleasure can rest in seeing how the writer made it.
Generally I prefer reading about people unlike me (gender era nationality class age ethnicity, etc.), because unfamiliar experience is likely to interest me more. (There is no Frigate like a Book/To take us Lands away.) But I’m drawn too by stories and novels about elderly people who have contorted emotional lives and sometimes irrational opinions. There’s lots of such fiction around, in literature written in English!
Tell me about your influences. Are there any stories, collections or novels that changed the way you thought about fiction, or altered your definition of good writing? Why?
William Trevor’s short stories I’ve admired, hugely, for decades. He’s a master of the non-explicit, of keeping things below the surface. His plain, gentle style can quietly escort a reader into intense discord or emotional danger. Trevor takes his time. Makes you look at what he’s showing. He’s also good at covering many years in a short story, a fine thing if done well. Weirdly, the brevity intensifies the length.
Doris Lessing’s short and long fictions both knot together the personal and political in ways that startled me when I first read her work about left-wing political activists. Her story “The Day Stalin Died” – revelation. Scorn and anger often fuel her work, but she also writes straightforwardly brilliant realism, as in “The Tunnel” and “Coming Off the Altitude.”
In youth I read everything by Somerset Maugham. His much-used short-story narrator Ashenden, a world-weary traveller, often isn’t doing what he believes/says he is doing. He’s much more affected than he acknowledges by the events he’s observing. I first watched that self-deceit in Maugham’s character, years before seeing it in myself and others. That’s related to a theme in my Red Girl, Rat Boy—sections containing far more than the character recognizes or will admit to.
Jane Gardam’s stories open up and juxtapose the pathetic, the funny, the horrible, the noble and mean in her characters; she can make a reader feel sympathy way beyond what you’d think possible. She’s startlingly good with old people (“The Latter Days of Mr. Jones”), and with children too. She doesn’t fear wild plots, or diction that’s full of extreme contrasts, or twisty endings, or humour inside pain.
Norman Levine can show more in a few pages than many fiction writers can in far longer stories. At his best he works like an imagist painter, cracking standard prose into fragments or tiny sentences. That technique’s so common, yes, and mostly it’s used so badly…. Levine offers brilliant dialogue, often. Again, very simple. And he uses his own life as his subject-matter, with honesty and cruelty and bravery.
One common belief of writers submitting to contests or publications is that their story must have a dynamite first line and a first paragraph that "hooks" the reader. Do you agree that this is an important factor in award-winning fiction? What are the important factors of award-winning fiction? Is there such thing as a general pattern or checklist for successful writing?
Well… in my experience, judges don’t consult lists! But something must encourage reading. If an opening offers emotional resonance, suggests character, shows a situation that must change, or offers an unusual prose style, the story’s off to a good start. Who knows if it will win a prize? A crapshoot, that.
In revising my own work, I’ve sometimes found that the terrific first paragraph I drafted when I began a story, the paragraph that I retained through twenty drafts, was just a throat-clearing. Unnecessary.
Here’s a list, though, of what I do not welcome in an opening paragraph:
(1) It was or There is constructions. They delay the arrival of meaning. (2) Copula verbs, as in He felt sicker by the minute, She was late, They seem happy. (Douglas Glover’s admirable Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis 2012) treats this matter fully.) (3) Passive voice. It’s wordy and weak. (4) Second-person viewpoint – too hard to sustain, unless the writer’s guaranteed brilliant & the story’s short. (5) A huge opening sentence or a run of small fragments. Either can put up a barrier between story and reader. (6) Diction that’s exclusively casual or exotic. (7) Modifiers laid on thick, adverbs especially. (8) Lots of cursing.
Fine writers have ignored all these guidelines. They’re still worth considering.
You have written four collections of stories and one novel. What keeps you returning to the short form? And to that effect: What can a story do that a novel can't? Can stories do things that novels can't?
One of my favourite writers, William Trevor, has produced novels and novellas as well as a great many short fictions. I chose his fine novel, Felicia’s Journey, for a fiction course I used to teach. By the end of term I found that novel over-full of detail, exemplifying, subplots. I thought it would have made a better short story, with just the narrative’s essence, in 20 dazzling pages… (N.B. Don’t see the movie of FJ. It ruins the ending.)
But it’s great to be deep in a long novel! This summer I re-read Middlemarch and read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Hundreds of pages, days and days to read through years, decades even. Big casts of characters, strong swimmers in tides of words. I like seeing a fat novel on the coffee-table, its marker not even half-way through, and knowing there’s lots still to read. Such pleasure can’t come from a short story.
What short fiction can do better, though, is to suggest. Fast. An hour of a person’s day can present a whole life’s quality – but, to recognize and feel that quality, close attention’s required. With a book of short fictions, it’s best to stop after each, to understand, absorb, re-read. (That’s hard, for fast readers. I’ve failed with many stories by galloping through them, the first time around!) Short stories lie closer to poetry than to long-form fiction. They make more demands than novels do. More depends on the reader.
Let's talk about your drafting and revision process for stories. Do you think it’s important to have a daily writing routine, or is it more productive to write only when the story “finds” you? How do you know when a piece is finished?
Writing regularly is crucial for me. Otherwise ideas & images disappear, people and dialogue fade. Habit’s a great strength. Writing itself opens up the story, shows what’s possible or not. Ideally I write for 2-3 morning hours, five or six days a week. Ideally…
I like having several stories underway. If I check out of #1 for a month or so, the staff in the back rooms of the brain work on it while I’m attending to #2. Often I’ll come back to #1 – anxiously – and at once can see what must be discarded or added. Or discover the story’s dead.
As for the story “finding” me – that’s lovely! When the whole thing alights in the head like a bird, and all that’s necessary is to take dictation… It’s happened maybe four times in my life.
Mostly, some image or phrase or line of dialogue has energy, feels important. Alice Munro has referred to these bits as “magnets.” They pull other material to them. You might find yourself with pages full of little magnetized chunks that lack, as yet, any connection. Let them sit. Work on something else. Then go back, to see what’s happened.
I begin by handwriting but soon get impatient for the keyboard. First drafts: very hard. Almost every word’s tentative. Revision’s completely absorbing, often fun – tuning the voice, cutting a word here or there, finding unexpected turns, inserting layers of imagery, dumping pages that turn out to be irrelevant. Again and again.
A story’s “done” when I can’t see anything else to do. Then I leave it. A month at least. Often, after revising, I set it aside for another month or two.
It’s easy to fall in love with our own writing. Obsession, desire to be with the story, to be entranced by it – in order to get through making a fiction, we may even need to have those feelings. But at some point the story must become separate. It’s a thing in its own right, with an internal logic and wholeness that demand the writer’s respect as s/he works.
Hemingway believed it was best to never think about a story when you're not working. Steinbeck would imagine he was writing for a single person, and that person only. What's the best piece of writing advice you've heard? Anything to add for aspiring writers who are currently submitting to publications or working away on their first collections or novels?
How can a writer not think about what s/he’s writing?
Often good ideas come while we’re standing on a bus, or in the grocery checkout line. States of suspended animation like those can welcome images, dialogue, perceptions that conscious thought didn’t reach. Sometimes valuable material arrives at night, too, or on waking. Some writers – poet Jane Munro, for example (her latest book is Blue Sonoma) – consciously work with dreams in their creative process.
Keep a notebook handy, and use it. I can’t count the times I’ve been sure I’d remember an insight. Or a plot point. Or an odd statement made by someone standing by me on a street-corner. If I didn’t write it down at once, though, write it legibly and without too many idiosyncratic abbreviations, it’s probably gone down the drain for ever.
As for Steinbeck’s idea: peculiar. Wouldn’t choosing one person limit what I could say/write?
Read, read, read. Eclectically, through the centuries, in every language you know and in translation. Read poetry, plays, fiction whether short or long, and nonfiction. Figure out how certain writers draw you in and others don’t. Whose work do you re-read? Why, exactly?
Learn, learn, learn. My own education was heavily literary; math bewildered me, science I hardly encountered. Such ignorance is a handicap for a writer. Over the decades I’ve become more knowledgeable, but worlds of imagery and metaphor exist that I’ll never use with confidence.
The way people actually talk, here and now, isn’t fictional dialogue. Record a casual conversation with friends or family, to hear how repetitive, sloppy, imprecise our ordinary speech can be. It doesn’t move.
“How come you’re so late?”
“Traffic.” Direct info only. Ball dropped.
But obliquely, with the ball thrown back – “You never heard of rush hour?” – comes an emotional charge, plus a demand for another answer.
If you really admire a writer, copy out by hand several pages of her/his fiction. You’ll be required to notice every comma, paragraph break, line of dialogue, modifier, change in diction, sentence length. You’ll be puzzled. Maybe you’ll disagree. If so, you’re identifying your own style and fictional stance, as well as learning skills and techniques from another writer.
Read your work aloud, when a draft feels close to finished. Katherine Mansfield did so with “Miss Brill,” one of her best stories, to ensure that the cadence of each sentence matched the emotion, right then, of her character. Caroline Adderson (she’s just published Ellen In Pieces, a novel in stories) suggests reading a story draft backwards, from the end, sentence by sentence. You’ll hear the rhythms better, and you’ll pick up on repetition, wordiness, redundancy – all those evils.
Write what you want to write, in your chosen way, not what your friend or instructor or lover or mother would like you to write. Their views don’t matter. If other people fail to make constructive comments about your work, keep your work to yourself. (Yes, in CW courses you can’t do that, but formal education’s temporary.)
Protect your writer self. Honour your imagination.
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