LUMINA Journal in Conversation with BASS 2018: Part Eight
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 get to know the minds behind this project. Check out yesterday’s interview here.
MARIA ANDERSON – Cougar
Maria Anderson’s fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in Mississippi Review, The Missouri Review, The Iowa Review, and The Atlas Review. She’s an editor at Essay Press, and she has been awarded residencies from Joshua Tree National Park, the AMK Ranch Research Center in Grand Teton National Park, and the Crosshatch Center for Art & Ecology. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.
LUMINA Journal: How did you feel when you found out you had a piece selected for a Best American Short Stories anthology?
Maria Anderson: As Brad Watson, who taught me at the University of Wyoming, put it when we were having drinks, I threaded the eye of a needle with this one. I’m honored to have a story among the beautiful people in the anthology, and grateful to my friends and teachers along the way, including Gordon Lish, Daniel Long, Brad Watson, Rattawut Lapcharoensap, and Brian Evenson. And I’m incredibly grateful to Heidi Pitlor and Roxane Gay for choosing my story.
LJ: In your contributor’s note, you said that it felt easier for you “to focus with people drinking beer and playing cribbage around” you. Can you elaborate on this and talk about what inspired this piece, as well as the inspiration for Cal?
MA: Some of our minds aren’t quiet; for us, there’s a type of focus that involves ignoring our surroundings. I used to read on the bus as a kid, an hour out and back from the ranch I grew up on, with a lot of vibration and bumps from the dirt road and hollering kids. Those were my most peaceful reading hours.
Writing is lonesome. If you’re out, you get points for being out, even if you aren’t speaking to anyone. You know? Staying in all the time, alone, it can be harder for me to focus. I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the world. Then again, maybe I couldn’t focus very well at all at that bar and I’m misremembering how pleasant it was to write there. But I don’t think so.
LJ: Living in Bozeman, where “Cougar” takes place, have you experienced any wild animals that helped you convey real emotional experience and turmoil that is felt, so heavily, in this story?
MA: Any animal can convey a real emotional experience, if we’re willing to have one. As Joy Williams has said, if animals could talk, it would be real awkward with what we’re doing to them in the name of capitalism. Any animal is, in a sense, wild. There’s a squirrel that teases our German Shepherd daily—she’s fairly radical, jogging around on top of our fence. But sure, I’ve seen wilder ones. As a kid I’d feed porcupines peanut butter sandwiches. They’d come right to our door. The porcupines would solemnly accept these gifts with their tiny hands, then piss and scream at each other on our porch. Those sandwiches probably weren’t the best thing to give them, but it felt so good to give them something. A bobcat ate two barn kittens I tamed. Almost got bit by a rattlesnake this summer, but all it gave me was an adrenaline rush. A moose surprised my mom off her paddleboard on the Jefferson River. These sightings and experiences are important to me. Do you know some cultures don’t even have a word for nature? It’s time we stop separating nature from ourselves because we’re part of it.
JAMEL BRINKLEY — A Family
Jamel Brinkley is the author of A Lucky Man: Stories. His fiction has appeared in A Public Space, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Threepenny Review, Epiphany, and LitMag. He has received scholarships and fellowships from Kimbilio Fiction, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, Tin House, Ragdale, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was also the 2016–17 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. He is currently a 2018–20 Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University.
LUMINA Journal: What emotions did you experience and what thoughts did you have when you found out that you were chosen for Best American Short Stories 2018?
Jamel Brinkley: I was thrilled and surprised. Having one of my stories selected is definitely one of the highlights of what has been a really incredible year for me as a writer. Some of my favorite authors and stories have been chosen for the anthology—including works by James Baldwin, Grace Paley, Jamaica Kincaid, Robert Stone, Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, Edward P. Jones, Danielle Evans, Yiyun Li, Charles D'Ambrosio, Lan Samantha Chang, ZZ Packer, and Ron Rash—so to have my work in any sort of proximity [to them] feels really special.
LJ: Can you please share your process when creating and writing “A Family”? What inspired this story?
JB: I wanted to write a story that was somehow in conversation with "Three People" by William Trevor and "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl" by Yiyun Li. My goal, insofar as I had one when I began, was to write a complicated love story that was, at the very least, a triangle, if not a quadrilateral. The love that Curtis and Lena share is one that will always involve either Andre or Marvin, probably both. In terms of process, I simply followed Curtis as he followed Lena and Andre. I was curious to see if he would get what he wanted. He does get what he wants, in a way, but also gets much more than he could have anticipated.
LJ: I have not stopped thinking about the last sentence of this story. "He and Lena wouldn't love each other, but there was love they openly shared, and that would be enough, for now, to make a kind of family." As the reader, I felt happy that Curtis finally found some form of happiness, yet I found myself wanting Lena to love him with everything she had. As the writer what were the thoughts and the emotions you experienced when Curtis and Lena finally ended up together, knowing that these characters could never truly love one another?
JB: The ending of the story felt right and true, to me at least. In life, love has so many shades and variations. The love that binds people often isn't the simple romantic version we see frequently depicted. The love between people can be routed through others, it can spark in the affection and concern people share for someone else. Similarly, families can take many forms, beyond that of the heteronormative nuclear family. The family in my story resembles that dominant conception of the family, but of course the truth of Lena, Curtis, and Andre is much more tangled than that.
EMMA CLINE — Los Angeles
Emma Cline is the author of The Girls, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award, the First Novel Prize from the Center for Fiction, and an LA Times Book Prize. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Tin House, and The Paris Review. In 2014 Cline won the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review, and in 2017 she was named by Granta as one of the Best Young American Novelists of her generation.
LUMINA Journal: Using Los Angeles to convey the nexus between “cost” and “price” was brilliant. I’m curious to know what the inspiration was for this story?
Emma Cline: I liked the idea of a character who didn’t quite inhabit her life, didn’t feel like she had much agency, but still had to face the reality of her situation. I remember a certain orientation I had towards my life in my early twenties—it was easy to feel like everything was okay, no matter how much evidence there was to the contrary. How much better to believe that pain might just be fodder, that nothing would really hurt or affect you. I wanted it to be obvious to the reader of the story, if not to the main character, that these things might leave some mark.
LJ: Is your approach to your writing process different when creating a short story versus a novel?
EC: The great thing about writing a novel is that sustained creative experience, like going on a long trip. I found it to be something that required full attention, in a way that was both deeply pleasurable and also deeply isolating. Stories ask both more and less of you—there are fewer balls in the air, less of a world to build and track, but language is parceled more sparingly. I love how stories engage with the most granular realms of emotion and tone, whereas with a novel you have so much more space to build, blunter tools to work with.
LJ: Do you ever use your short stories as a way to personally workshop ideas/characters/scenarios for longer pieces?
EC: Definitely. That’s the pleasure of short stories—dipping into voices or lives, testing the waters. In some cases, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the scale of the idea is better suited to something short. I’ve had ideas for novels that ended up becoming short stories and sometimes characters or settings from stories echo in your mind enough that you think it’s worth spending longer with them.
LJ: In the first few pages of “Los Angeles,” you use some rather brash language: “slutty” clothing, “big-titted” porn star, “pervs” loved Oona. This language disappears after the story has been established; was there a deliberate choice in the usage of these words?
EC: It wasn’t a conscious decision. Generally, I wanted to set up a sort of casually cruel world of judgment via the narrative tone. Words like that, while not coming from the actual main character of the story, indicate the kind of world she operates in, and the harsh value system that she participates in.
Visit the LUMINA Journal blog tomorrow to learn more about BASS 2018 contributors!
Interviews by LUMINA staff members Qassye Hall and Chris Rowland.