We’re so pleased to announce the availability of our third volume, The Masters Review with Stories Selected by Lev Grossman. This annual compendium of stories reflects the best emerging writers in graduate-level creative writing programs, and continually impresses with a diverse range of content and style. To offer you a little more information on these authors and their stories, we’ve put together a series of interviews with the writers in the book. In Shane R. Collins’s “OpFor (Oppositional Force),” cadet Warren Buehler begins accumulating objects as the departure date for his commission draws nearer. It is a fantastic story and as Lev Grossman writes in his introduction the story opens with “a sentence that goes from tweeter to woofer in thirty words.” Enjoy!
“The first thing Buehler had bought was a calendar from Sports Illustrated. Girls in string bikinis. It helped him keep track of how many days were left until he commissioned. He crossed out a square each night. One hundred thirty days.”
I think the question that first comes to mind is, where did the idea for this story come from? Readers will want to know, have you ever served in the armed forces?
I’ve never served in the armed forces although I did train in Army ROTC for three semesters when I was in college. It was a strange and transformative experience. I signed up thinking it would be fun, interesting, and an easy credit. By the second semester, I began volunteering for extra training. I seriously considered joining for good—contracting so that when I graduated, I’d be an Army officer. By the third semester, however, I took a creative writing workshop and I knew the Army wasn’t what I really wanted. Sometime during my second semester in ROTC, we found out that contracted cadets were eligible for a $25,000 Career Starter Loan through USAA. When we were bored during training (which was most of the time) we’d daydream about how we’d spend that money.
This story examines an obsession with things. In the case of Cadet Warren Buehler, it is driven by an emotional need to exert control over his life. How was the use of objects (and in this case excessive spending) an effective tool for examining this?
I think a lot of twenty-something college students are practical and fiscally responsible individuals. Myself and the cadets I knew in the program were definitely not among them. Paychecks were generally spent on beer, takeout food, video games, and tobacco. If a cadet was particularly serious about ROTC, they might allocate a small amount of their money to buying some of their own equipment. There were exceptions, of course. I remember a couple of nursing student cadets who were much more responsible. When I began to write about Cadet Buehler, I recalled this erratic spending of ours but amplified it. Buehler gets the branch that he wanted, until he learns it’s not what he wanted at all. His purchases, which become increasingly frantic as his commissioning date approaches, are how he tries to make the most of the time that he has left as a civilian. The manic spending is like a defense mechanism, though not a very healthy one.
What is your writing process like? For example, how long did it take you to write and revise “Op For”? Is this typical for your process?
More and more, I’m becoming a devout believer in the outline. I used to brainstorm, lock on to an idea I was excited about, and begin writing. Now I try to have the self-control to write an outline first. I find that the more detailed I flesh out my outline, the less revising I need to do when the first draft is done. Outlines help me isolate things like flat characters, plot holes, and other flaws while it’s still easy to fix.
I used to be a plot-first kind of guy but my MFA program has really helped teach me the importance of characters. My story ideas usually still begin with a concept of “something happens” but then I focus on the character this is happening to. I ask myself three questions. What does the character want? How do they try to get it? What do they do when they do/don’t get it?
Compared to the other stories in my ROTC-Land collection, “OpFor” is a bit of an oddity. I had all of the stories outlined before I began writing it. However, about three quarters of the way through, I realized I had very few written about fourth semester cadets. I sketched out a quick outline and wrote the first draft in two days.
What are you working on now? What other themes and subject matters interest you?
I’m currently working on two different projects. I’m revising ROTC-Land, which is my thesis for my MFA program. I’m hoping to have it ready to begin querying agents this winter. I’m also working on the first draft of a dark crime noir about an army veteran who works at a brewery in Vermont. I enjoy writing about soldiers and veterans because I think they are often misunderstood and much more complex than popular culture portrays them. As far as subject matter and theme, I love any story that is dark, gritty, and raw. I like characters who are pushed by circumstances to extremes.
Do you have any favorite writers or stories that have informed you as a writer? Did any of them inform this piece of writing?
I think a lot of readers will see influences in “OpFor” to two of my favorite authors—Tim O’Brien and Ernest Hemingway. Other writers who have significantly influenced my writing are Jonathan Lethem, Don Delilo, Helen Simpson, Denis Johnson, Mary Elizabeth Pope, and Cormac McCarthy. I would love to get a beer with Kevin Powers. His debut novel about the war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds, was beautiful and tragic, the highest praise I can give a novel. I’ve also been binge-reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians series for the second time. Speaking of “dark and gritty,” The Magician King is one of my new favorite novels.
At the time of your submission you were enrolled as a Stonecoast MFA candidate at the University of Southern Maine. Can you tell us a little about your experience there?
I’ll be graduating from Stonecoast (hopefully) this January and it’s been a wild ride. For two years, I applied—and got rejected from—traditional full-residency MFA programs. It was brutal. That second year, I applied to seventeen programs. That waiting period from January to May was one of the most challenging times in my life—like a five-month panic attack. If anyone reading this is going through that now, my only advice is to keep your head high, keep writing and improving your sample, and keep applying.
After getting that last rejection, I applied to Stonecoast on a whim. I was highly skeptical and wasn’t really interested in a low-residency program. Obviously I wanted that elusive tuition waiver and monthly stipend, but I had other concerns too. I was worried that since it would be working mostly from home, it wouldn’t be very personable. I didn’t think it would be as rigorous as a full-residency program, and I also worried I wouldn’t get as much of a community. I was completely wrong.
The professors at Stonecoast are top notch. They’re all friendly and approachable. The program is extremely rigorous. During the first year of the program, students have the opportunity to write and get feedback on three hundred pages of fiction or more, depending on which professor you work with. I finished ROTC-Land during that time. And because students only get to see each other for ten-day periods every summer and winter, we make the most of it. If you go to a low-residency program, don’t expect to get much sleep during residency. And because of email and social media, I talk to my cohort just about every day.
I hate that expression “everything happens for a reason” but sometimes it does. I am much happier at Stonecoast than I think I would be anywhere else.
Thank you Shane!