Our third anthology, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, is available now. As part of a continuing series of interviews with our anthology authors, we talked to Amanda Pauley. Her story “Braids,” which alternates between the point of view of a man in prison and the point of view of his wife on the outside, is full of texture, detail, and depth. Here, we talk to Amanda Pauley about research, her MFA, and her writing process.
For the most part, Graydon liked his job. Barbering had advantages over working in the cafeteria, machine shop, or janitorial services. The barbers were a mainstay for prisoner communication, and they earned tips in the form of packets of mackerel or tuna, postage stamps, or X-rated magazines, cigarettes having died out with the smoking ban.
One thing that I found so remarkable about your story “Braids” was the incredible detail; the prose was full of texture. One of the most detailed parts of the story, for example, takes places in a prison hair salon. I’m wondering: how much research did you do for this story, and how did you go about incorporating it? For example: is there a lot of research you didn’t use?
Research is probably my favorite part of writing. For two years, I worked at the Department of Social Services, which is a hotbed of material and characters. While there, I worked with a woman whose husband had been in state prison and was about to go to federal prison. I was fortunate in the fact that both were quite willing to discuss their situation. Hollins University provides travel grants each year to students in the MFA program, so I applied and received funding to go to the federal prison in Morgantown, WV, and spend the day in the visiting room with the inmate.
While I already had much of the story in mind, I wanted to learn more about daily life to keep it authentic. I wanted to know the first thing an inmate heard in the morning, or what he had to do in order to move about the building. Did he have a choice in what job he worked while there? I wanted to experience the visitation room for myself and see the interaction. I could make up stories all day long, but keeping them realistic was another task. I was lucky that I had someone willing to talk and who had spent time in both state and federal prison. I also had the perspective of his wife on the outside. While “Braids” is not this couple’s story, it certainly pulls from their circumstances a great deal, and I am grateful for their willingness to share.
From the information they gave me, I wrote with true detail. Of course I only used what supported the story. So yes, there was plenty of detail left over for other stories.
“Braids” also shifts between the points of view of a husband and wife, and it includes several flashbacks and intertwining narratives. This makes me wonder: do you plot out your stories before writing them? We’d love to know about your writing process.
I love structure and order, and I have often tried, and still do, to plot out stories ahead of time. While doing this is generally helpful to me in getting started, testing out ideas, and brainstorming, my plan rarely syncs up exactly with the final result. Even if I have a plan, I have to be ready to leave it when I come to a place that begs for backstory or a cut to another scene.
While “Braids” is full of detail, every word is there for a purpose; it’s an incredibly dense, well-paced story. Of course, this makes me wonder about revision. How many drafts did “Braids” go through? How did you approach revision?
I began the story with a couple paragraphs in pen on scratch paper while I was staying with someone in the hospital in 2011. After a rough draft and several revisions, I sent it through a student workshop in the MFA program. After visiting the inmate and also interviewing him through correspondence, the story went through another revision, another student workshop, and then two professors, one of whom continued to encourage revision still more. While the plot in this story, which is extremely simple, has remained the same, the details and the backstory were revised extensively.
Do you follow a strict writing schedule? What is your writing routine like (time/place/etc.)?
None whatsoever. I write when I am moved to do so, and fortunately that is fairly often. When I am not writing, I am submitting to journals.
What are some of your favorite short stories?
“Where are You Going, Where Have You Been” and “Amputee” by Joyce Carol Oates. “Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Conner. “The Ledge” by Lawrence Sargent Hall. “55 Miles to the Gas Pump” by Annie Proulx.
You recently completed your MFA at Hollins University. What was your experience like and what do you think makes Hollins different from other programs?
I went to Hollins twice, once for the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, the second for the MFA. I don’t think I can compare it to other programs since I haven’t been to any other, but I can say the MFA was by far the most satisfying and wonderful educational experience I’ve had yet.
I often hear the argument, “to MFA or not to MFA,” or those who say an MFA is only useful if you want to teach. I beg to differ. The MFA gave me the feedback that you cannot find outside of this kind of program, or if you do it would take years of searching and trials to find readers who can critique in a helpful way. I also had the wonderful experience of working with Carrie Brown, an author and professor who goes above and beyond in order to encourage every single student, and continues to offer encouragement after your graduation. Before the MFA, I had never received that kind of attention and encouragement with regard to my writing.
How do you feel that your writing life has changed after the MFA?
It has changed in the sense that I now have to work my writing in between more hours of paid employment. I miss workshops/tutorials, and of course the entire point of an MFA is to learn to workshop your own work, but now I know people who are willing to read my work and do workshops when I need it. Post MFA, I feel inspired and much more confident in my own revision skills. I submit like a crazy person, and point of view is my favorite thing to explore!