An Interview with Jason Lee Norman
Over the past few weeks, I have been keeping an email correspondence/interview with Jason Lee Norman. Jason is an author from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is the author of two short story collections, “Americas” and “Beautiful Girls & Famous Men”, as well as numerous short stories. “Beautiful Girls & Famous Men”, his newest work, can be purchased through the book’s website, www.robotsunderwater.com . I highly suggest you have a read of his work. Jason is a fantastic author, and his stories have a tendency to get inside your head and force you to think about aspects of being a human in a new way, all told through lovely prose.
We’ve talked about many aspects of writing, as well as living as a literary citizen within a global community of writers. I’ve greatly enjoyed the conversation we have had, and I think you will too.
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To start off, let’s address a common interview topic in a different way; becoming a writer. We all have different pathways concerning our falling in love with the written word. In your case, was there a single (or a few, even) specific memory, experience, work, etc. that you can trace your life as a writer back to?
In other words, was there a specific catalyst that you can point to and say “THAT is when I became a writer”, something that convinced you to take those first few steps out onto the path?
So in terms of becoming a writer, that actual decision to pursue writing came after high school. The thing about me as a kid was that as a young child I was in love with books. I loved Dr. Seuss and had many of his books committed to memory. My parents read to me as a child and this was huge. In my 30s, as I’ve looked back on the things that contributed to me becoming a writer I always start at this point in my life. In elementary school I didn’t write a lot but whenever there was an assignment where you could do some real free writing or write a little story or poem then I would love this assignment. My love of reading was always there and then in high school I would pounce on my opportunities to do creative writing. Especially writing that was good enough to be used as an example in English class. Even when that kind of thing would happen I never ever thought about trying to become a writer. I had no idea what that entailed and I didn’t really have any interest at the time in going to college or university or anything like that.
Just after high school graduation I went to live in Argentina. My dad was working there and took the whole family with him for the final year and a half of his two year contract. While living in South America I started to keep a notebook of books and songs and albums and movies that I would hear about (usually through TV or other movies and Amazon lists) and then I would start to cross a lot of books off of that list while I had this year away from everything and didn’t have to worry about work or school anymore. This is when I got into some really serious reading. Apart from Hemingway I don’t think I had really read a lot of “Literature” during high school. I was pretty all over the place. I read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie and that’s when things started to change for me. I was blown away by the possibilities of literature while reading that book. I probably didn’t really understand a lot of it at the time but I remember loving the whole journey of it. This was really the first thing that set into motion the thoughts in my head that I wanted to maybe try being a writer. Maybe one day I could write something that was one percent as good as the things Rushdie had written. When I was 19 and back in Canada I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and that was that. It completely blew me away. It created this whole universe and I realized that writers could do pretty much anything they wanted. You didn’t have to be Tolkien to create a whole universe. It wasn’t just the fantasy writers who could have magic in their books. Rushdie and Marquez did it all the time and those two guys are the reasons I thought I would give writing a real shot. Even then I didn’t really know how to do it. I finally got off my ass and got into university to study literature. I still needed to absorb the great literature out there to see how it was done and I thought that by studying writing I could get closer to figuring out what kind of a writer I wanted to be.
This is the most long-winded answer in the world but it really was reading Rushdie and Marquez that propelled me to where I am now. I still have the most vivid memories of where exactly I was, and what the rooms smelled like and what music was playing, when I was reading their books. They were formative moments for sure.
That’s a lovely answer. I often find that I can remember these formative moments myself; while I am just still sitting here at the tail end of my education, as I begin to dip into literary endeavors I can still remember specific moments. The moment wherein I realized that literature was more than simply reading for school’s sake was when on a November afternoon in 2009 (pretty sure it was a Sunday), sitting in the sun room about 4 o’clock I closed the final pages of “A Farewell to Arms” having just fallen in love with an entirely different time and the people that inhabited it. In that moment I realized I had actually enjoyed an assigned bit of reading; this was a novel concept, and I still consider that to be the moment I decided to be an English major, despite the fact that it took me four years to make it official.
Jumping off of that question, you mention Rushdie and Marquez in a sense brought you to consider giving writing a shot. Often we attempt to emulate our idols in order to hone our craft and learn about what works within our own styles. What were some of your earlier memories of forming your identity as a writer like? In other words, what was it like exploring your own identity as a writer (back then vs. now), and how do you feel your identity as a writer has changed over the years ?
That’s such a great question. I think the emulation process is one that everyone goes through and it’s completely necessary, but almost always it produces stuff I’d never want anyone to read today.
When I really started to give writing a shot I stayed far far away from Rushdie and Marquez. They were wizards and I knew they couldn’t be touched…yet. So I started with a lot of realism. Hunter Thompson and Hemingway. I tried to write short pithy things and I’d try to observe my surroundings the way that Thompson did but it was all pretty much garbage. I think I was about 20 or 21 when I finally started at university. I was so excited about their humanities library. I spent a lot of time in there with my notebook filled with authors and books that I’d heard about and started really crossing things off the list. That was my most productive phase of reading in my whole life. I still paid attention to my own reading assignments for class but I was getting voracious with my own personal reading list. It was pretty early on that I realized that I really liked short stories. I think it’s because at the time I knew that I could get through more of an author’s works that way by reading short stories. I discovered Borges, Graham Greene, and so many other South American writers, which was ironic considering I never read any of them while I was actually living in South America.
I started trying to write really things that would probably be considered twee. Just little vignettes that always ended up with a neat little ending tied up with a bow. There was really no teeth to pretty much everything I wrote during my undergrad. Towards the end of my time I started to write some more short pieces that had a little more edge to them but things were still wrapped up neatly at the end and it was just not that great. Thankfully there were a couple things good enough to be accepted into one of the student-run writing journals at school. This was a big boost for me. I used those stories in my grad school application and was accepted to the University of Manchester.
I tell people that my year studying in Manchester was like going from Kindergarten to 12th grade in one year. I came in just a little baby who really didn’t know how to do anything and I left with way more confidence and having written way more things than ever before. Some of them were actually decent. I started out with some heavy Hemingway inspired stuff again. I stripped words down and tried to write sentences that were honest. I received good feedback and encouragement during that point and it felt like I was starting to find my own voice in there somewhere.
Towards the end of that year in Manchester I steered away from the realism and I’m not totally sure why. I read a few Vonnegut books in between all the things I had to read for school and it was probably that mixed with some of the other writing I’d encountered at the time that made me want to write things that were a bit more absurd. I knew that short fiction was perfect for this kind of thing. I didn’t necessarily want it to be considered humour writing but I wanted parts to be funny but it was this type of writing that I thought was best for getting my point of view across. My thesis project for graduate school was the beginning of this novel idea I had and I still think about coming back to it. It felt not entirely out of place to write something more long form. I was still trying to cheat by breaking the novel up into different chunks and chapters and having different narratives like some terrible Cloud Atlas ripoff. It was after my time in Manchester that I really embraced what I would call flash fiction. I started writing a lot of short things and that’s what I still do a lot of today. I definitely have a style that people recognize and I feel comfortable writing in. I wrote my first short story collection in 2012 and it was inspired from a short story I wrote a few years before that called Honduras. It was a story about Honduras where I took facts about the country and mixed them with pure fiction. It was something I really enjoyed doing and I thought it was playful but still had some strong subject matter to it. The story collection was called Americas because it had a story in it for every country in the Americas. I liked linking all the pieces together even though the links were tenuous at times. There were other times when it seemed like one story would inform the other and if you read it all as one long story you could get something out of it as if it were one long prose poem or something.
This is so long-winded again now but my identity as a writer I think is as someone who writes these short things. Flash fiction. I’m by no means a master at it but I enjoy it and I enjoy writing that way. I do worry that I’m a little too comfortable with this style and think that one day soon I’ll try to challenge myself a bit more but what I’m aiming at these days is trying to get my work out there to more people. I am still pretty proud of the things I’ve written 5 or 6 years ago and that’s a rare thing for writers. I still think my words have meanings that people can take out of them so I’m trying to find those audiences for my work before I pull a Bob Dylan and do a complete tear down of my work and built myself back up again in a new image.
Emulation is certainly a hurdle I am forced to face currently in my writing. Since I truly began writing a few years back I feel myself slowly beginning to notice where I am emulating and where my own voice is breaking through. It’s a very cool experience when you look side by side at a piece from years ago and a piece now; I’m still the same person, and yet so much has changed.
I have actually been reading “Americas” and have greatly enjoyed it! Flash fiction is something I have never seemed to be able to get into with my own writing; although I have wanted to, I seem to have a tough time trimming the fat and keeping an idea small enough to work in the confines of the medium. I’m wondering what your process is like for writing flash fiction; not the physical as much as the mental. What do you consider when writing a flash fiction piece? Do you find many of your flash stories stand alone, or do they often work in tandem with other pieces that you write (such as in Americas)?
Thanks for your kind words about Americas. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.
When I write my flash fiction I’m pretty much always doing the same thing. I do think that for the most part everything can stand on its own as its own piece. When I’m talking Flash Fiction now I’m talking about anything under 1000 words. Many people say that Flash is probably usually under 500 words or so. Anyway, I like to start with titles. A title for the Americas stories was easy because they were already set out for me. But the names of countries are like people’s names. They have meanings behind them and also there are certain things that a person thinks of immediately when they hear that name. So if someone is introduced to another person named Jason and they knew a Jason before who was an ex-boyfriend or husband or someone they used to work with they’re already going to bring that history into it when they hear that name. Names like Mexico or Argentina or Belize might not bring certain memories to people but they certainly try to bring an image to mind when they hear the name. My whole idea with those stories is to take what you think you might already know and then try to see what else I can get you to believe about each place. Some things you won’t believe but they’re actually true and some things you will believe and they’ll be completely made up.
I remember hearing people on a New Yorker podcast talking about Donald Barthelme and all the brilliant stories that he wrote that were so short. They talked about it like walking a tightrope or surfing. He just tries to stay upright as long as possible before everything collapses. You try to make the story end before everything falls apart. I do think about that way of writing a lot. I start with a premise or an idea. Just something I want to try to keep aloft as long as I can before it comes crashing down to earth. Like the tightrope walker with that big huge pole he uses for balance, if I’m leaning too far left then I try to lean more to the right and so on, until it’s time to fall or hopefully get to the other side.
With Americas I really loved using Wikipedia. I would go down so many rabbit holes. One little fact or name would lead me down a path and the whole way I would just keep collecting little tidbits and I would use as many as I could when crafting the story. I made an eBook a year after Americas called Beautiful Girls & Famous Men and the idea with that book was to do the same thing with people from history that I’d done with the countries of the Americas. I took facts about people like Leonard Cohen or Nostradamus or Glenn Gould and would weave them around some sort of narrative. It becomes a bit of a paint by numbers situation after a while and as much as I enjoy writing like that I still want to try to test myself a bit more. A story like Beautiful Girls is something I wrote after hearing someone talking and they said this ridiculous line and it stuck in my head and then it turned into almost like song lyrics. I’m no songwriter so I wrote a story that had a little song in it. I’m still really proud of that story because it wasn’t done in that same Wikipedia way and even though it’s not based on any specific or real event it still feels really real and troubling to people.
I love that analogy of “trying to stay upright” without everything toppling in upon itself. Sometimes for me it’s a weird balance of plot/idea that needs to go one way while I’m attempting to steer it in the opposite direction, it seems. But fiction’s cool like that; being able to absolutely rework something and have it be just as true as the story before lends a certain weight to each iteration of a story. I feel as if the possibilities for that are pretty numerous with flash fiction especially, considering its bite-sized nature.
Shifting gears a little bit, I would actually like to know a bit more about Words with Friends. In our class, the overarching theme is “literary citizenship”; becoming a part of this greater community, an active participant and sharer as opposed to singular little beings just puttering along. I really like what I have read from your site about WWF [Words with Friends]. How did that come about, and what has the experience of creating this community in Edmonton been like? Also, I’m interested in if you have discovered anything about Edmonton’s literary identity through this program?
So, Words With Friends. First of all, I love the title of that class. Literary Citizenship just speaks volumes to me. Such a good idea.
WWF came about shortly after I returned to Edmonton after being in England for about a year and a half. When I came back to Canada I had to start life all over again. I was no longer a student so I had to find a place to live and find a job but I was also really curious to find out where the other people like me were in the city. I wanted to find the other younger writers and see if there were any reading nights or even open mics and stuff like that but not just for poets- for people who were writing fiction like I was trying to do. I didn’t find much at first.
I first heard about these things called story slams that were happening at a couple places in town. They were a monthly thing and the idea was that you would go and read a piece, have a five minute time limit, and there would be random people in the audience chosen as judges and they would score your story, sort of like figure skating or something like that. I thought the idea was pretty cool and I thought it would be a lot of fun. I did these story slams for a long time. For a majority of that time I was not having fun. I was pretty much the only person who was reading a piece of fiction. Most people were telling a funny anecdote about a road trip they took or an accident they had when they were a kid. These people weren’t really in my peer group either. I didn’t care about winning that much but I did think I had a decent story from time to time but the order of readers was chosen at random and things always sort of favored the writers who were at the end of the order. Basically the judges liked each story more than the one that came before it. It was kind of bullshit. But I kept going to these. Basically once or twice a month for a couple years. Every now and then there would be someone that I thought had some talent or was doing something similar to myself or at least was in the same ballpark. These story slams were the only thing I’d heard of in the city that had any prose writers at all at them.
Edmonton is a city in Canada that is pretty far north but we hover around a million people which is a fair size in Canada. There are a lot of writers here. Lots of poets and a lot of genre writers and things like that. We’ve had our fair share of people that are more literary-type writers that have come through as well and some have received varying degrees of national recognition, and a couple even won the Giller Prize which is basically Canada’s Booker Prize. Edmonton is not a wasteland as fair as writers and artists are concerned. There are a lot here but many of the writers are pretty reserved and keep to themselves but the younger ones just didn’t have a place where they could go and meet other writers and share their work in an environment that didn’t have any pressure or competition to it. This is where Words with Friends came in. In Manchester I was fortunate enough to become good friends with some absolutely amazing writers. That kind of peer group is what I’ve essentially been chasing ever since I came back to Canada.
I think it was around 2011 or so and I’d been spending a lot of time on Twitter, again trying to find where all the writers in my city were. I finally just reached out to a girl who said she was a writer and poet and asked if she wanted to meet and go over some ideas I had. In Manchester, right before I left the city, there was a writer who started a monthly reading night where he would invite writers he knew to read stuff and also have a little open mic portion. There’d be 6–8 writers in a little bar somewhere and people would listen attentively and then drink beer afterwards and chat and that would be it. That was what I wanted WWF to be. I didn’t want to just host an open mic. I wanted to know some of the people who would be performing but also open up the stage to others. So I met with this girl and she was reminiscing about her time as an English major and the poetry nights she used to go to. We decided to organize our first night at the end of the summer and later came up with the name Words with Friends. We found a space to use for free and invited people to come read. Most of these people I’d seen at a story slam or had recommended to me or something like that. We mixed poetry and prose and even a little music and comedy. The first few events had a bit of everything and I think that’s why people liked it. It felt like we had a little audience of people who were interested in what we wanted to do and also we now had a small group of writers who kept coming back to support the event as well. We tried to keep building and changing the event by having it in different locations or having different theme nights and stuff like that. It felt really good to have something that was finally starting to resemble a community of writers that I cared about and respected. Like I said before, Edmonton had no shortage of writing communities. They were all just fractured. There were the slam poets, the older poets, the fantasy writers, other genre writers, etc, and all of them kept to themselves and their own little groups. WWF was meant to bring everyone together but my selfish purpose was to find the younger writers who were trying to do something a little differently.
We did lots of events and then people get busy so we paused for awhile and then resurface every once and awhile to do another event. Things are pretty irregular now but it’s still nice to know that we can raise it back up from dormancy anytime we want.
As far as Edmonton’s literary identity, things have changed a lot since I first started WWF. I think we will always be chasing the success of some of those big names that are still associated with Edmonton. The things I’m most interested about right now is how people in Edmonton want to support all things local. Being a local writer still means something to the people here. Now, they still want their Jonathan Franzens and Margaret Atwoods but they will definitely give you a shot-especially if you’re writing about Edmonton or using Edmonton in your fiction. That part is interesting to me. There are now more places for writers to find an audience within the city. I will take credit for some of that. There was WWF and I created this program where I print tiny stories and poetry onto cardboard coffee cup sleeves and distribute them at cafes across the city. There is also more local poetry on bus ads and other public places than there used to be. The University of Alberta now has its own student writing journal that publishes a beautiful magazine a few times a year. Many fiction journals have come and gone that were run by students but this one (called Glass Buffalo) is run by former students but has received some indirect support from the university and I believe they will be sustainable for a long time. Story slams are still going strong in the city, although I have retired from those, and also our slam poetry community is very strong in the city as well. This has been growing for years as well. The younger people are finding their voice and their community and some people in my peer group (the 30 somethings) have had novels published with some really good receptions. People are also thinking differently about publishing and the publishing industry now. They know that becoming the next Atwood is a tough road but if you can sell even a couple thousand copies of a book in this country then you’ve done better than probably 80% or 90% of the field. Self-publishing isn’t such a bad word anymore and people realize that you need to be your own marketing team, no matter who your publisher is.
Identity is such a big word here in Edmonton as it is. We’re constantly navel-gazing, trying to figure out who were are and what we care about. There is a lot of momentum for the smaller movements and collectives out there and now that there is an economic downturn right now in these parts it will be interesting to see how the artists band together and support each other or if they just fade away into their own little cliques again.
I seem to be writing not as much as I’d like to these days and that’s mainly because I’ve been working hard to try to be some sort of a mentor or leader out there for writers who are looking for support. I didn’t have that when I came back to Canada and I felt so lost and frustrated. I don’t want people to feel like that if I can help it.
Yay long answers!
Here in Tuscaloosa there is a strong local community of writers, but in the past it has been geared more toward the MFA crowd. Many younger writers are not exactly sure of where to look for these types of events, open mics, readings, etc. As I have only recently begun probing the idea of literary community, I’ve found that there is more than I initially thought but the problem is finding those opportunities. I am a musician as well, and while I don’t play many gigs, I have loads of friends who do and that community seems to be much more prevalent. I think that definitely plays into the art itself; whereas live music is a very group-oriented activity, reading is very personal, and many people are less willing to go to a poetry reading than, say, a concert at the local watering hole. Still, I love the idea of just getting out there and forming what you want to find.
That said, I have a bit of a deviation from my planned interview topics. You’ve mentioned your grad school in Manchester; I am currently looking in both Ireland and the UK for graduate programs (not for next year, but the following year). How did your experience doing grad school abroad shape you either as an individual or as a writer (you’ve touched on these a bit already) and is there any insight you would give to a student considering doing graduate school abroad?
I have to say about grad school abroad that for me it was the greatest thing I ever did. Not that I had much of a choice of what to do at the time but my time in Manchester changed pretty much everything for me. The experience was invaluable for me. The professors I had, the friends I made, the peer groups that were helping me workshop my writing- pretty much everything about it was a positive experience for me and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
That was an MA program which was pretty similar to an MFA in the States so it had some academic elements to it in addition to the workshop stuff. For me I thought that this was a really important thing to do to improve and mature as a writer. I thought that my career after graduate school would also benefit from having an MA but that never really panned out.
The thing I would tell people thinking about studying abroad are to make sure they realize how much money it will be. For myself it was significantly more than I would be paying for grad school in Canada to study in the UK. I think if you do your research and you find a school that you want to go to because of a certain program or professor or things like that and you’re prepared for living in another country and possibly paying more money to do so.
Things worked out well for me and most people I met while studying in the UK in other programs were enjoying themselves as well but there is definitely the sense that you need to do your research to make sure you’re making the right choice. Also doing your research into things like what your daily living will be like, just to be prepared.
So after that little detour, back to a few more questions I have about writing. This one is a bit more technical. In reading your stories from Americas, I’m struck by not only the stories themselves but the beauty of the language. Yet the sentences are not simply sweet when taken out of context — they all are necessary and add to the overall stories. When you are writing, how do you strike a balance between style and simply telling the story? For many authors (I am certainly guilty), it’s easy to drown in crafting beautiful sentences, often losing sight of the overall goal of actually telling a story. I’m just wondering if this is ever an issue for you, and if so, how you overcome it?
Wow! You said a whole bunch of nice things about my sentences. Thanks very much.
I’m going to try to answer this question as best as I can and with my head not up my own ass. So first of all, when you say that my sentences make sense in the story but there’s also a beauty to them that is a great compliment to receive. It’s hard to answer why this may be the case without sounding full of myself. There’s probably a lot of luck involved. There have been a few times where I’ve had a sentence in my head that I thought was really great and I tried to find a way to jam it into a story. That usually doesn’t work. Usually I let that line, or sometimes it’s just an image, inspire its own story. I think I said before that I like to start with a title or sometimes a first line and that’s usually before I have an idea for any kind of a story at all. I let the words and the images they conjure help me think of something. With Americas there was so much information floating around my head about these places. Some of it was real information and then I’d let my imagination mix with these facts or trivia about a certain place and I’d make sure my sentences helped to paint a picture of what I wanted to show people.
I’m getting dangerously close to having my head up my ass again. Since you’ve read Americas I think you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that I tell stories in a different way. It’s not groundbreaking or anything but things aren’t really driven by plot. My stories are driven a lot by ideas and the images they conjure. I like to let the reader fill in the spaces in the fiction and create their own narrative. I just want to paint a picture that is most interesting. It doesn’t have to be the most vivid, just the most memorable.
I think some of it is just knowing yourself as a writer. I don’t really know how beautiful of a sentence I could just create out of thin air and out of context. I think of my favourite sentences from literature and I don’t think I’ll ever come close to those type of sentences, but then I’ll read something by Shane Jones or Ravi Mangla or even Brian Oliu and I think that maybe I could come close to that, maybe one day. I think that part of me wants a reader to love something I wrote but not in such a way that it gets put on a pedestal. I want it to be a real place that they can visit over and over. There, I’ve gone all the way up my ass now.
I’ll also say more generally that this is obviously a constant battle for all of us writers. You want to write something beautiful and strong and sometimes you know just what to say but then some time passes and you look a page over and it all just looks awful. That’s probably why it’s so important to make these stories that you tell as real as you can in your head. Make everything about them real so that when you’re writing it you’ll feel obligated to paint a clear picture.
Having other writers that you know and even look up to around to help you read something over can keep you in check from time to time. You just can’t be too precious about your writing.
That slow progression of the head up the ass throughout that answer was riveting; almost like its own subplot to the overall answer. This aside, I totally get it. It really does seem like sometimes certain sentences and images are best left to create their own story because while you KNOW they’re good, they simply aren’t working for a specific piece. I like that whole “kill your darlings” maxim in a certain sense; I don’t tend to fully kill them, though, so I like to send the sentences that I love but just don’t work off to a Google Doc prison to sit and wait with all of the others until I find the right time to use them. Every now and again it’s fun to wade back into that pool of cast-off words and images and see what comes out of it.
Jumping off of that, there’s a certain feeling we get after writing something that we know is a true reflection of ourselves that makes us feel good…do you have a single piece (or a few) that you think define your style? In other words, if someone asked “Who is Jason Lee Norman as a writer?”, which of your pieces would you have them read?
I think I do have a few pieces that I really like and would like to be the ones that really define my writing style- or at least stand as an example of stuff I wrote that was actually good and people liked. There’s only one thing from Americas that I’ll name and that’s not because I’m not proud of Americas. I really am. I just think that in hindsight I probably wrote it too fast. I was working to some deadline that I made up and I think I probably rushed through the last half of it. But I think all the pieces on Central America I really like. Probably because they’re shorter. The piece Honduras is one of my faves. That’s the first story I wrote and the story that gave me the idea for Americas. That’s an example of a story where I had this one sentence that I thought was really good and tried to build a story around it. The prayer that sounds like screaming line. It just sounded good and I like the repetition in the story. I like repetition a lot. Maybe that’s because I was doing so many live readings all the time. I thought it had a a good effect. I was also channeling Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle a little bit. If you’ve read it I’m talking about the end part. I have this image of people lying flat on their backs on the ground to pray or scream or whatever. I still really like reading that story aloud. Sometimes people laugh when I tell it and sometimes people don’t. I never even thought it would ever elicit laughter — except maybe in one or two lines- but I think sometimes people are laughing because they’re uncomfortable or an image catches them off guard. I like that.
The story Beautiful Girls is probably one of the best things I’ve written. It has that same repetition to it as well. It also started with this one sentence running over and over in my head. This is about as political as I can get in a story. I think it had a really strong message but it was still a really good story. I think people immediately get what’s going on in the story but they have no idea what will happen next. My brother actually wrote a song about this story and used some of my lines from the story as lyrics. That was very cool to hear.
I used to joke all the time that Best was the best story I ever wrote. I called it Best at the time because I was trying my best to rip off my writer friend Crispin Best. I was trying to echo his style as much as I could at the time. This was almost ten years ago now. His style is really something that can’t be copied. Crispin is the real deal. I look up to him so much and his friendship in Manchester was such a gift. This story also started with a line that I had running around in my head. It hit me in the shower.It was also similar to a line from a story Crispin read to me in his living room one night. He was just reading things aloud to see how people reacted. My story wasn’t really copying him or his style at all but there’s lots of intertextuality in how the story came about. I wanted to write something that felt hyperactive and alive and bright and shiny. I also wanted it to be about sports and being in love. I thought that people didn’t really like stories about sports so I wanted to make the sports crucial to how you felt about what was happening in the story. Like Beautiful Girls I was really writing from the heart in Best. Not that I don’t always write from the heart but I was really trying to cultivate something in both those stories and I was working from something from the heart instead of the brain.
Cultivate is probably a really good word that I should use when I’m giving writers advice from now on. Cultivate! I’ll always say it with an exclamation mark.
All those stories you can read online somewhere I think. Now, with all that being said, I think that is who I am as a writer but it’s also who I was. I want to capture that same magic I did with those stories I’m so proud of but I still want to evolve a little bit. There are a bunch of stories in Beautiful Girls & Famous Men that are similar to those pieces and I think it’s because they were all written around the same time period and I was once again trying to cultivate! an idea or a feeling out of all the images and ideas I had in my brain.
When I wrote Best I was worried for quite awhile that I wouldn’t write anything better. That’s a really scary thought and a really dumb thought. It’s dumb because Best is only like 800 words. That would be a tragedy if that’s the best thing I ever wrote. Then I wrote Honduras and I felt better about things. I thought that maybe my best story was still in my future and not my past. Then I wrote Beautiful Girls and I felt really good again. It’s been awhile since I’ve captured that same feeling but I think I’ve gotten close a few times and I definitely think my best stories are still ahead of me but I am absolutely fine with those three examples I gave you standing as the works that define me as a writer.
I love the idea of Cultivate!; I think I might abuse that word in random conversation now, so thanks for that. But I really do love the idea of cultivating thoughts and ideas into what we write. In the end it’s about the ideas behind a piece, so it seems only natural to continuously be working the literary soil and, if things go well, to start an orchard.
You mentioned feeling as if your best stories are ahead of you; hopefully we as writers always feel that way. In a prior email you mentioned having focused more on helping other writers/the community in the present as opposed to working on a lot of new projects. That being said, is there anything that you are working on currently that you’re especially excited about (or especially frustrated with, even)?
There are a couple things that I’m working on that are projects by other people. It’s exciting to me to try and build this mini publishing empire. There are so many problems to try and solve along the way but I feel like I’m in a good position right now in my life that I have the time to help others. I know I’m not always going to have that time but if I get things started now then there will be something already established when I eventually have to get a real day job of some kind.
On a personal level, something happened to me just recently. I applied for a writing fellowship at the Disquiet Literary Program in Lisbon. They have these scholarships for writers of Portuguese descent. I won one of these scholarships so I get to go to this two week program in Lisbon. It’ll be sort of like going back to school for me. I’m going to have to kick my writing into a different gear to get ready for this program so I don’t look like a complete chump. It’s a very exciting opportunity. This is basically my moment to decide what kind of writing I want to bring into these workshops and have critiqued. Do I keep with my flash fiction stuff and try to elevate that material or do I use this opportunity to be more vulnerable and try something different. Who knows what the hell I’ll do but I’m going to have to start getting stuff ready right away.
I think a lot of writers work best when there’s some kind of looming deadline and pressure and I think I probably do better under some pressure as well so we’ll see what happens.
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