To read the Best American Short Stories annual anthology is to be exposed to an echo-chamber of contemporary American fiction; stories that span a variety of voices, styles and forms. This week, LUMINA Journal is in conversation with the writers of BASS 2018, so our readers can further familiarize themselves with the minds behind this project. Check out yesterday’s interview with Roxane Gay here.
DANIELLE EVANS – Boys Go to Jupiter
Danielle Evans is the author of the short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, winner of the PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize, the Hurston-Wright Award, the Paterson Prize, and a National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ selection. Her stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including The Paris Review, A Public Space, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, New Stories from the South, and The Best American Short Stories 2008, 2010, and 2017. She teaches Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins University.
LUMINA Journal: First, I feel I need to start off by complimenting your style; the way you reveal such deep things about your characters, and the way each intense scene reads smoothly while shifting the tone of the piece. Thank you for writing “Boys Go to Jupiter” as well as “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain.”
How did you feel when you found out you had a piece selected once again for a Best American Short Stories anthology?
Danielle Evans: Thank you for that lovely reading of my work. Best American Short Stories is an anthology I’ve been reading every year since college. When I first decided that I wanted to give being a writer a serious go, I had three lifetime goals that I thought would make me feel like a real writer: one of which was to publish a book someday and one of which was to someday have a story in BASS. I didn’t expect it to happen so quickly, or to have the BASS story happen before I had a book out. And it meant a lot to have that kind of validation so early in my career. It gave me confidence, and an audience, and I’m sure it played a role in other good things that happened early for me, like having a tenure track job before I had a book out. So, I have a lot of affection for this series, as a reader, as a teacher who frequently assigns stories from the collection to my students, and as a writer who felt lucky to be buoyed by it early on. The first time I got a story picked for BASS, I freaked out and told a few people right away, and then was immediately certain that I was being pranked by someone and didn’t quite believe it until I saw the book in print. I’ve gotten a little bit better since then, but I still check that the email is real every time.
I’ve never felt any less dazzled to have a story chosen, but these last two years of having work selected meant a lot to me. For a few years, I hadn’t written any new short work. I was working on a novel, and I was in the part of writing a novel where you finish a complete draft, and then you tear it up again, so even though intellectually you know you’re building a better book, it feels, emotionally, like you’ve gone backwards. Also, my mother was dying of cancer. She spent years outlasting the predictions, but also not getting any better. When she first got sick, I moved in with her and took a semester of family leave and didn’t write anything for months. And when I started writing again, it was juggled against caretaking, both in the concrete ways of taking care of my mom when she lived with me and traveling to be with her for medical appointments and crises once she didn’t, but also in some psychological way. If I never wrote anything again, I wouldn’t have a career to keep supporting my mother while she was sick and couldn’t work. But every time I tried to get into the headspace to write, I had to think, well, if this is the last week or month or year my mother is alive, is whatever I’m working on more important than the time I could be spending with her? You can’t really force creative work that doesn’t feel urgent to you, or at least I’ve never been able to.
It was also the first time in my adult life that I had real career anxiety. I recognize how lucky it is to have made it to thirty in a career in the arts before it felt like I was floundering, and how lucky it was to be able to emotionally flounder while still having a salary and insurance and research leave. However, my job was the one part of my life I had counted on, and I felt like I had made a big career change under one set of terms, and then at various levels the terms had changed and it seemed clear the goalposts would keep moving. It was disorienting to my sense of purpose. I started to feel like not only would I not be validated by my career anymore, but things I’d already achieved would continue to be invalidated. As a person prone to extrapolation and anxiety, it was easy to imagine that this meant I’d wasted my life altogether. That I had no husband or baby to present to my dying mother because I’d put everything on my work, and after all that I was going to turn out to be a failure anyway, or spend my whole professional life trying to impress external forces who didn’t care much about fiction writing in the first place.
So, I wrote both the story that was selected for 2017 and the one from this year's edition in that tumultuous time frame while no one was really asking me for them. The blessing of that was I could spend as long as I wanted to writing and revising. I did feel early on that both stories were coming from that inspired place where I knew they were going to be good, and they were going to push me, and it was worth sticking with the urgency I felt about writing them, but it was anxiety-inducing to spend years tinkering with them, convinced they were important work, while even people who loved me seemed to be exasperated that I was wasting my writing time on a couple of risky 25-page short stories instead of my real book. However, having the stories let me take important risks in both story form and in the novel draft, because it meant neither project was the whole future, and I could get back to the pleasure and recklessness of writing. To come out of those years with both stories being selected by magazines I adore and to then have the additional honor of Best American made me feel like my work, and my investment in the story form, continued to matter, and that I could still count on trusting my instincts.
To go back to the beginning and make a very long answer short, I felt giddy and dazzled and grateful.
LJ: Can you please share your process when creating and writing the piece for this anthology, “Boys Go to Jupiter”? What inspired this story?
DE: The first part of the process was that kind of burst of inspiration that you can only ascribe motive to after the fact. My mom was briefly in remission, and well enough to go out of the house and run errands on her own; I had my first real alone time and sense of relief in months, and I sat down to write. As I said in the contributor’s notes in the back of the anthology, I thought I was working on the opening to a campus novel that would have multiple point-of-view characters, but it became clear to me before I’d finished the first draft that Claire was the center of the story and had enough layers to carry the whole thing, and that it was a story and not a novel. I finished the first draft in a few days, but it was three years before the story was finished and published.
Sometimes you do things instinctively, and revision is a question of whether to change them or to defend them and write toward them. Once I could see the shape of the story, I knew that its balancing act was to evoke a real empathy for Claire and also to make that impulse toward empathy feel problematic, without making either of those things feel like a trick. So, my revision was all in that direction. The story went out to a few magazines, and I took a fresh look at it when it came back. Sometimes I revised because I was reading it aloud, mostly during visiting writer events where I was talking to rooms of largely white college students. I had the chance during Q and As to see how they were understanding or investing in the story and feel out where I was inclined to edit mid-reading. I wanted a story that implicated that particular audience in our shared reality, without feeling deliberately cruel.
A few times, I came back to it after terrible hate crimes or very public conversations about the confederate flag, and I resisted the urge to try to deliberately write into the topic. I’ve been writing about confederate iconography since my very first short story, “Robert E. Lee is Dead,” and part of the impulse to revisit that territory was to write into Claire’s indignant feeling of innocence, and into the ways that the structural world of the story operated, whether or not she was intentional or particularly invested in being hateful. And so I made the decision to leave the story set where it was and not engage with more recent deliberate adoption of the flag. By the time the story came out, it felt like I could have set it in the present and Claire’s denial would still have been plausible, but I didn’t want to have to make that call mid-revision. It could, it turns out, be a story about the present moment, but it’s intentionally a story about how we got here. I turned in the final page proofs just before the white supremacist violence erupted over the confederate statues in Charlottesville.
CRISTINA HENRÍQUEZ – Everything is Far from Here
Cristina Henríquez is the author of three books, including, most recently, the novel The Book of Unknown Americans, which was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Oxford American, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. She is also the recipient of an Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award. She lives in Illinois.
LUMINA Journal: In “Everything is Far from Here,” you use the narrator’s body to track time: blisters and sunburn appear then fade; she draws dots on her arm to mark the days; her ring gets looser on her finger. Can you talk about why you chose the body as a tool to signify time in this particular story?
Cristina Henríquez: To a large extent, that's all she has: her body and what's housed in it—her thoughts, her memories, etc. She's been stripped of almost everything else. She exists as a physical being in the world, so I wanted to pay attention to her body as she would, and to show the way it withers over the course of the story so that by the end there is a real sense of dissolution of both her body and her mind.
LJ: What does your writing process look like?
CH: On an ideal day, I get up and work for three or four hours in the morning, break for lunch, then work again or read for a few hours in the afternoon. It doesn't always work out that way, but I try. For the past year or so, I have been writing by hand, which has been a revelation to me. It seems that the actual formation of my thoughts is different, deeper and freer somehow, when I write by hand as opposed to on the computer. I like to write in silence, too. No music other than the music that, hopefully, the words on the page are making in my head.
LJ: Do you know if a piece is going to be a short story or a novel when you sit down to write, or do you have to wait to start writing to see the shape of the piece?
CH: I usually have a sense of whether something is destined to be a short story or something longer before I begin. But I've been wrong on a few occasions. My novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, started as a short story. And more recently I wrote a full draft of a novel that ultimately didn't work in that form, although I do think there's something in it that could work as a short story.
Visit the Lumina Journal blog tomorrow to learn more about the BASS 2018 contributors!
Interviews by LUMINA staff members Qassye Hall and Vanessa Friedman.