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Megan Giddings: Ruth, when I think about your writing, one of the words I immediately think is “smooth.” Your sentences wind and flow together, and then suddenly: you realize you’re reading about something big, something even a little ugly despite the prose’s beauty. Who are your biggest influences on the sentence-level? Is there someone who you feel like could use more attention as a sentence-level writer?
Ruth Joffre: In high school, when I started writing in earnest, Virginia Woolf was my biggest influence on the sentence-level. I can’t tell you how many winding, page-long sentences I wrote trying to imitate her style. Eventually, I gave up on that pursuit, but I retained some of the same sensibilities, and I think that accounts for the “smoothness” you mention. I wouldn’t say that I have influences on the sentence-level (that would imply that I’m trying to emulate someone, which I never do now), but I certainly admire other writer’s sentences. Of the books I’ve read in the past six months, I’m most impressed by the sentences in André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, which I’m ashamed to say I only just read for the first time. That book has some breathtaking sentences about desire. I highly recommend.
MG: One of the things that is striking — and I think makes this story feel longer, at times — is your use of a single paragraph. How do you think a paragraph’s length influences its meaning? What about how a story, especially flash, looks on the page?
RJ: Line breaks are like bone fractures: each break results in new bone growth — new material. Every new paragraph break and indent invites the story to grow, but with flash that’s the exact opposite of what I want, so I limit the use of paragraph breaks as much as possible. It looks cleaner, and it keeps me from using dialogue as a kind of crutch to move the story along. Visually, I’ve always liked the way a single paragraph looks on the page. I know unbroken blocks of text put off some readers, but they actually draw me in and make me more invested. Many of Lydia Davis’ flashes are single paragraphs, and I think they feel more complete because of it, as if she’s completing a thought or inviting the reader to stuff a whole cookie into their mouth. I want to eat that cookie-paragraph to find out what it’s made of.
MG: I really admire the way you make the extraordinary (like a girl whose body parts turn to different kinds of stone) feel so real in your work by having it often surrounded by the ordinary (a first awkward-exhilarating romantic encounter). How do you think the ordinary can enhance a reader’s belief in the extraordinary? Are there any things that aspiring writers should be conscious of us when attempting this?
RJ: This question made me think of the film Amélie — specifically, the color palette. Much was made of the sumptuous look of the film when it premiered, and for good reason: the rich reds, yellows, and greens accentuate the film’s already lush emotional palette. But what a lot of moviegoers fail to realize is that the palette isn’t uniform. There are little spots of blue that Bruno Delbonnel, the Director of Photography, deliberately introduced to offset the reds. The idea was that the spots of blue would provide much-needed contrast so that the eyes wouldn’t get tired of the existing color palette. I think that my story functions in much the same way: by introducing blue (the ordinary) into an otherwise red (extraordinary) story, I make it easier for the reader to accept the narrative as a whole. Without that contrast, it would just be too red — too extraordinary, too removed from the realities of everyday life. I think aspiring speculative fiction writers in particular should keep that in mind. Your stories can be as fantastical as you like as long as you ground them somehow.
MG: Your short story collection, Night Beast, comes out in May! For interested readers, where’s the best place to pre-order it? Is there another story or two of yours available online for readers who can’t wait until May to read more of your work?
RJ: A full list of pre-order links is available on my website, but I imagine most people will either go to Amazon or Powell’s. You can read the title story online at The Masters Review and check out a couple pieces of flash fiction at SmokeLong Quarterly and Juked.
MG: What advice would you give a writer who’s trying to put together their first collection? (this can be general, specific, etc.)
RJ: I would tell them to start thinking about publicity well in advance. What is your audience, where can you do readings and events, how can you get your name out there? First collections are hard sells, as are short stories in general, and you have to be mindful of that going in to the process so you don’t set unreasonable expectations. That’s not to say that you should write with a particular audience in mind. Write for yourself and never compromise; but be prepared to work hard to sell your book. It’s not about having a gimmick. It’s about having a plan.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her writing has appeared in Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Nashville Review, and Copper Nickel. She lives in Seattle, where she teaches at the Hugo House.