LUMINA Journal in Conversation with BASS 2018: Part Five
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 has been 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 here.
Read the final installment of this week below!
ALICIA ELLIOTT - Unearth
Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer, living in Brantford, Ontario with her husband and child. Her writing has been published by The Malahat Review, New Quarterly, The Walrus, Globe and Mail, VICE, and many others. Her essay “A Mind Spread Out on the Ground” won Gold at the National Magazine Awards and was published in Best Canadian Essays 2017. Most recently, she was the 2017/18 Geoffrey and Margaret Andrew fellow at University of British Columbia. Elliott is the current Creative Nonfiction Editor at The Fiddlehead, Associate Creative Nonfiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and a consulting editor at New Quarterly.
LUMINA Journal: There are many stories about the loss of a child and how that affects a family. With your short story “Unearth,” what made you want to approach it from 55 years later, after Mary’s brother goes missing?
Alicia Elliott: The first thing that came to me was the opening line of the story: "They found him while laying the groundwork for a fast food restaurant." It was a matter-of-fact voice that interested me and lead me to the character of Mary. I didn't understand why she was so removed from the discovery of this boy until I continued to explore her character in the writing. I realized that her brother was killed in an Indian Residential School and she was a displaced member of a Haudenosaunee community. So many of our elders who have gone through residential schools or other trauma have a very difficult time talking about what happened to them. They have to build a wall around those experiences to keep moving forward. It's a survival mechanism. I wanted to show how these awful policies – which were acts of genocide against Indigenous people – had impacts that reverberated through lives and generations. I wanted to honor our elders who have survived genocide and show them the understanding and love that they so rarely receive in fiction.
LJ: Roxane Gay also published your essay “Half-Breed: A Racial Biography in Five Parts” on The Toast’s essay series, The Butter, several years ago. How does it feel to now be included in this year's BASS, edited by Roxane Gay?
AE: I was just as honored and humbled this time as the first time Roxane Gay chose to publish my work. There's no way she could possibly know this, but when I received my acceptance from her for "Half-Breed,” I was working at Starbucks after being rejected from every MFA program I had applied to. I was feeling really hopeless and considering giving up writing and focusing on moving up at Starbucks, so I could provide for my family. Getting that acceptance from Roxane Gay gave me the confidence and support I needed at the exact time I needed it. I'll always be thankful to her for that.
This time, with “Unearth,” I needed affirmation that my short fiction was still worth pursuing. That particular story didn't get much attention in Canada, so even though I loved it, I was questioning my judgement and my plans to continue with my short story collection. Then I found out Roxane Gay chose my story for BASS, which is a series I never imagined I'd be included in. Her acceptance helped me in a crucial way again. It was a beautiful, meaningful full-circle experience. I hope I can thank her in person one day.
ANN GLAVIANO - Come On, Silver
Ann Glaviano is a writer, dancer, DJ, and born-and-raised New Orleanian. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Ninth Letter, Prairie Schooner, Fairy Tale Review, The Atlas Review, Slate, and the anthology Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina (University of New Orleans Press), among other publications. Her novella, Dickbeer, was published by Amazon’s Day One. Glaviano is an alumna of Louisiana State University and the MFA program at Ohio State.
LUMINA Journal: It was fascinating to read that you have hated epistolary stories your whole life. Do you feel that writing “Come On, Silver” as an epistolary story allowed you to develop the storyline and characters differently than if you had written this story in a more “traditional” method?
Ann Glaviano: Well, the epistolary device in fiction is so old that I would be remiss to claim it as “non-traditional.” But I have noticed that some very old fictional devices are sometimes out of vogue, and more or less abandoned, for so long that they can feel fresh to a contemporary audience.
At any rate, I didn’t choose the epistolary device for its tradition or non-tradition – truly, as I said in the note in BASS 2018, I love the Donald Barthelme story “Me and Miss Mandible” so much that I wanted to write my own version of it. The upshot of that story is an insurance claims adjuster has been sent back to elementary school, and he chronicles his time there earnestly and self-seriously in a journal. I suppose Barthelme could have written that story with that protagonist, in that voice, without the epistolary device, but having this mechanism that foregrounds confession seems to really heighten both the stakes of the story and the silliness of it.
Logistically, using the epistolary device was a total pain in my ass. The character is writing the letters in story time, so you have to account for pragmatics: where is she? What’s she writing in? Why is she writing at all? What’s going on around her? For my purposes, Fin mostly writes during “quiet hour,” where the campers were expected to write letters home, to their future husbands, et cetera. Eventually the letters become more like a diary, though Fin won’t cop to keeping a diary (she says she recently relinquished her diary, along with her Barbies – but clearly this is a girl who is in the habit of having an outlet to vent on the page).
Then you have to consider that the character is, in writing the letters, reporting on events that have already happened – events for which she already knows the outcome by the time she is chronicling them. So you as an author have to keep in mind what has happened in story time between the last letter and this one, and figure out how to offer that information to the reader in a way that maintains plausibility (i.e. a person would conceivably write it down like that in their journal) while also maintaining readerly suspense. For example, after her private lesson with Andrew, Fin goes back to her cabin and writes down what happened. I didn’t have her lead with the most obvious information (that she had a terrible time and her hopes were crushed) – because that would kill the suspense for the reader. How might the protagonist write that journal entry in a way that feels authentic to the character and the situation while also delivering key information in a way that excites the reader?
So, in these ways, the epistolary device puts a whole lot of pressure on the conventions of the genre. In contemporary fiction, we are used to narrators telling the story to an unidentified “narratee.” We don’t require the narrator to have a particular reason to tell the story; we don’t need to imagine the narrator writing down, at a particular time or in a particular location, the text we are now reading. We don’t wonder how the text was preserved so that we might find it in the future. But the epistolary device makes the author account for all these aspects of the narrative that readers are otherwise happy to let go unexamined.
It was a lot of work, but I do like to approach each new writing project as an experiment where I get to try something I haven’t tried before. I don’t think the published version of the story is bulletproof; it’s just the best I could do at the time that I wrote it. If I get to put out a story collection later, I might take another crack at it.
LJ: Fin is a fascinating impressive character. Can you tell us a bit more about what influenced you in your creation of this protagonist?
AG: I started with my premise (“wife camp”) and a model structure (the Barthelme story). Then, as I explained in the BASS note, I did some research on issues related to wife camp, along with a lot of careful structure planning. When I finally started to “actually write” the story, Fin’s voice arrived first. Her character developed around her voice. Her voice was surely influenced by the Barthelme story, but also, she has a kind of bizarre high-low register mix that I was afflicted with when I was her age—a consequence of reading Victorian novels alongside Archie comics. I caught hell for it from my peers. But for Fin, I exaggerated it, and this enabled me to give her language that exceeded, in complexity, what you might expect from a realistic character her age. I liked having that freedom, and I really liked having her make some lyrical observation about what horses smell like, and then in the next breath call her bunkmate a wisenheimer. I don’t know, I just find that hilarious.
LJ: How do you prepare for writing a story like this? Do you chart out what you are going to write, or do you allow your thoughts to guide you through the process?
AG: I always work from an outline, even for short stories. I don’t have a particular knack for shapely stories, so I can’t just let myself ramble and then magically arrive at a beautiful story form. I have to put some elbow grease into it at a structural level, and I pretty much have to do it at the outset. Apparently, there are writers out there who can wing it, rather than doing a bunch of planning about where they want to go and how they want to pace it. Sounds cool, but it just doesn’t work for my brain. Maybe I’ll get better at it over time.
The chief complaint I hear about working toward an outline is that it “kills” any spontaneous discoveries you might make about the characters or the story. You know, the story should be leading you, not the other way around – you should be listening to your characters and letting them tell you who they are.
I believe there is truth to this, but I also know from experience that one can discover plenty in-process even while working to an outline – including character, setting, plot, how the story actually ends. So, I chart it out, and then I allow the material to guide me, and I let stuff come up from my subconscious that I could never have planned for.
Visit the LUMINA Journal blog to read previous interviews from other BASS 2018 contributors, and be sure to check back soon for upcoming installments!
Interviews by LUMINA staff members Joanna Bettleheim and Chris Rowland.