Archive for the ‘Interview’ Category

Author Interview – “County Maps” by Joe Worthen

The third volume of The Masters Review, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, is available now and garnering excellent reviews. To celebrate, we’re conducting interviews with the ten wonderful authors our anthology features. In Joe Worthen’s story “County Maps,” a girl attempts to discover and make sense of herself by mapping the county. In this piece, writer Joe Worthen examines his characters by pairing them with a very clear sense of place. It is a quiet and direct piece, filled with nuance and texture. We’re thrilled to be publishing it.

Young woman walking in a wheat field

“They find an old motorboat flipped between two cypress trees, covered in algae. Jack walks out on it and smokes a cigarette. Suzanne looks at the shape of him and chews the edge of her pencil.”

“County Maps” is a story about a young woman who is attempting to map her county, including a small island. Where did you get the idea for this piece? Are you interested in cartography? The outdoors?

I’m not really interested in either of these topics directly. This story started with the image of younger children watching Suzanne wade across a shallow river next to an overpass. From there I added her motivation to map the island but I can’t remember why. I think it stuck because I liked the idea of a teenage girl with GPS technology documenting a gross, used-up place. Her mission sort of ramps up the faux post-apocalyptic vibe that strip mall Appalachia naturally produces.

In “County Maps” the story’s two characters, Jack and Suzanne, are trying to reconcile their feelings toward one another as they walk the island. Why did you choose to explore a relationship within this context?

There’s a sense of place in the south that people really internalize. Even though everything in Suzanne’s county is sort of busted and weird, polluted, Styrofoam cups and old cell phones, that’s her place and who she is (and who Jack is). So the characters and their histories are part of the landscape (not just the mountains and islands but the Chili’s and Texas Roadhouses and vape huts) in the same way the landscape is part of the characters. Suzanne thinks that knowing the county will allow her to know herself and her family. But she winds up getting to know Jack using the same proxy, which she sort of encourages/lets happen. It’s a more positive outcome for her probably, because it’s hopeful. I guess the mapping of the island also provides a pretty direct metaphor for navigating the day after a one-night stand.

Is “County Maps” similar to your other writing? What are you working on now?

I tend to write language intensive stories that are either very regional (like “County Maps” that deal with youth in SC) or totally magical where language and imagery drive the narrative to places that it would never go in a realistic story. So, sort of, I guess. It’s on the more realistic end of the spectrum of things that I write.

Which writers or stories do you turn to for inspiration? Where there any in particular that served as the inspiration for this piece?

“County Maps” definitely draws from Mary Miller’s Big World collection as well as Barry Hannah’s Airships. They write the sort of short stories I feel the most connected to. Where really raw, colloquial language meets up with extremely deliberate syntax and rhythm to the end of creating a poetic gloss over the prose and allowing for a sense of heightened meaning/emotionality even if the narrative itself is simple and the drama muted. (more…)

Author Interview – “The Turk” by Andrew MacDonald

The third volume of The Masters Review, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, is available now. (And as an eBook!) To celebrate, we’re conducting interviews with the ten wonderful authors it features. In Andrew MacDonald’s story “The Turk,” the man who operates the chess-phenomenon shares the story of his experience as The Turk. In this interview, Andrew MacDonald talks about his favorite authors, the fun behind historical fiction, and the inspiration for this story.

Turk creative

“On our third night as guests of Joseph II, Maria Feodorovna ordered the Turk to be brought to her. Kempelen roused me from my hiding place in the room we shared and installed me within. ‘The countess wants to play the Turk, he said, half-naked and putting on his suit. I slithered into my hatch and into the cabinet, and in no time at all found the cabinet being transported through the palace halls.”

The Turk is based on real historical events. Wolfgang von Kempelen’s “The Turk” or “The Mechanical Turk” was a machine that appeared to play chess but secretly hid a human player. Can you talk about your inspiration for the piece?

I was taken with the idea of blank spots in history. At the time I was considering writing a series of historical stories based on “the other woman” — mistresses in history who appear as footnotes in the stories of famous men. I wrote a couple of them, one about Diane Arbus, one about a mistress of Genghis Khan, then thought of alternative relationships where a similar kind of dynamic could be explored. For example, I thought of writing a story from the perspective of one of Ginsberg’s lovers.

I came across the mechanical Turk by accident, through one of those wacky Wikipedia-page wormholes, where you start by researching the slow loris (adorable) and end up at a page detailing how to compress the ashes of the dead into diamond. Or, in this case, a page about the mechanical Turk. Anyway, I learned about different “players” who’ve given the Turk life and was drawn to the mystery man (or woman) who history forgot. How sad — like ghostwriting a novel that hits the bestseller list and never getting any credit. That seemed like a potent emotional springboard for a story.

In “The Turk” you tell the story from the point of view of the man who operated the machine. He is the brains behind The Turk’s success. Did you always know you wanted to tell the story from this perspective? What were you trying to examine with this choice?

Yeah, definitely. The Turk itself isn’t all that interesting to me, more so its potential as a vehicle to explore some ontological questions that its “player” is forced to ask himself. Like: the Turk actually had a biography. Someone wrote him/it a personal history. Meanwhile, the man inside had his history erased. The Turk’s love-making scene, such as it is, sort of makes that inner struggle tangible, and if I’m playing armchair psychologist, the sense of being loved as something you’re not, gets echoed in his relationship with the sister of his student in the”‘present” of the story. The feeling of being a fake, an imposter, strikes me now as something everyone experiences at one point or other, and I’m sure in some way I can’t understand I’ve taken my own insecurities and grafted them onto the story’s main character.

Everyone who reads this story is so taken with it. Why do you think the idea of The Turk is so fascinating?

That’s nice of you to say! There’s a pretty long line of stories about dopplegangers (the work of ETA Hoffman, Oscar Wilde, RL Stevenson, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson and Isaac Asimov comes to mind), and I remember being terrified as a kid by those dolls with the rolling eyelids that are just lifelike enough to scare the hell out of you. Just the other day Stephen Hawking told the world that we’re not taking the dangers of artificial intelligence seriously enough. There’s something unsettling about things that look human but aren’t. (more…)

Author Interview – “Someone Else” by Diana Xin

The third volume of The Masters Review, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, is available now. To celebrate, we’re conducting interviews with the ten wonderful emerging authors it features. In Diana Xin’s story “Someone Else,” a couple moves in together for the first time. But everything, from the dead animal they find on the porch to the otherworldly actress who lives downstairs, is infused with an eerie quality. In this interview, Diana Xin talks about Kelly Link, the importance of place, and the inspiration for this story.

someone_else“Juliet explained that after she had come home from an advertising gig a few days before, she found all of their spoons lined up in a row along the countertop. George had not done it, and she certainly hadn’t. Yet there they were, the spoons all in a row.”

Your story, “Someone Else,” is set in Chicago, and it includes a clear sense of and love for place. I know that you lived in Chicago, yourself, and I’m wondering: to what extent was the story inspired by the city?

I started writing this story about two years after leaving Chicago, and while it was one of the first cities I came to know and love, I knew then that I was not interested in moving back. I suppose, for me, the city represents another relationship that is coming to an end. I was very happy incorporating some of my favorite places, describing the neighborhoods I had loved, and setting the story in a duplex very similar to two places where I had lived. I don’t think the story was necessarily inspired by the setting, but it is one of my first pieces to feature geography and place more prominently, and I hope that more stories will come out of the places I’ve been able to explore. It does seem, at times, that certain landscapes speak to us and evoke various characters and voices, in different levels of vividness. I’ve also had stories that I’ve been working on for years that perhaps never had a clear or well defined setting, and then one day I visit a new place, and I realize, oh, this is where that story lives. After that, the story gains this completely new energy. Setting can do so much for tone, and with research, it can add a lot for context and plot as well.

You also do a great job of portraying a deteriorating relationship between two young people, Holly and Sean. How did you build this relationship between two fictional characters?

I started writing this story at the final ending of a relationship that had many false endings. The relationship had gone on almost five years, and it had become like a body dead on the floor that came to life and grabbed your ankle as soon as you had one foot out the door. It wasn’t a bad relationship, just one that had no staying power. We cared about each other a lot, but never enough. Writing this story became a way for me to remember the relationship and to acknowledge its ending. I wouldn’t say that it’s biographical, but there is a lot of me in it, at least from one aspect of one period of my life. I think that’s usually how most stories work.

I really admire the way that “Someone Else” hints at supernatural elements, but doesn’t go overboard. I find several of its passages deeply unsettling, and I mean that as a compliment. What was your approach here? How did you conceive of and view elements such as the mysterious dead animal, the claw marks, and Juliet’s otherworldliness?

Thank you! I thought of this story for a long time as my haunted house story, inspired by Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals.” I wanted the house to speak for the relationship. Although the duplex looks great on the surface, there is something off about it that neither of them can really verbalize. That was the starting point. I went many directions from there. In the first few drafts, the supernatural sort of took over. Parallel dimensions, eyes glowing in the trees, all kinds of crazy stuff happened. Exciting, but it didn’t feel like the story I was trying to write. In the end, I borrowed from real life more than I typically do. The dead animal my ex found on his deck seemed like an appropriate image for readers encountering the story and for Holly and Sean encountering their new home. His neighbors, who had complained about their furniture being rearranged in their absence, were people I had always wanted to write about, though I’d never actually met them. In the final draft, I tried to stick with the ordinary but imbue that with a sense of unease.

(more…)

Author Interview – “A Language Translatable by No One” by Courtney Kersten

We’re so pleased to share 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 a “A Language Translatable by No One,” Courtney Kersten writes about losing her mother. It is a beautiful piece and continues to be a favorite among readers. Enjoy!
language translate
“I arrange the boots, the dress, and the swimsuit so that we can powwow together: a triage support group. She left all of us! She was supposed to wear me! The Easter dress wails Irish wake style, her boots whimper, the swimsuit has retired to the far corner of the closet to weep.”

Interview

“A Language Translatable by No One” is such a personal piece. Rather than ask you about the motivation for the story, I’m curious how the process for writing this was. How did you approach the topic?

Initially, I was fascinated by the material aspects of mourning—the things we give, the things we keep, the material things left behind that loved ones must face. Yet, as I was writing, I realized that it was about something deeper than the things themselves. Ultimately, I was trying to figure out how to reconcile this dichotomy of my mother’s silence and the abundance of material things my family had. When, in reality, I longed for an abundance of her thoughts, her words, her final goodbyes, and would’ve asked for nothing else. So, when approaching the topic, I used the material goods as a starting point to access deeper emotional truths about my experience.

To me, there is a subtle and wry humor in this essay. Even the opening line: “Obviously when you are mourning you need cheese curds.” Was this a natural choice? Did it surprise you, or does your writing style often incorporate humor?

For me, it was a natural choice. Not only did I find the gifts like the cheese curds to be sort of absurd and estranging in light of the severity of death, but I also did think it was funny. A woman is dying and you give us seven pounds of cheese curds? When it happened, of course, and we were given gifts, they were given in kindness and we accepted them so. And I’m sure that none of our friends and family gave us gifts to be funny—they were earnestly trying to help and show support. But, on the page, I think the humor is highlighted when you isolate the object apart from the person who gifted it.

One of my favorite parts in “A Language Translatable by No One” is when your mother’s inanimate object come to life. “She left all of us! She was supposed to wear me! The Easter dress wails Irish wake style, her boots whimper, the swimsuit has retired to the far corner of the closet to weep.” It offers such a lovely balance of, again humor, but it was also one of the saddest moments for me as a reader. When did this make its way into the essay. How does it elevate the piece for you?

For me, that particular part arose when I started to think about the “ripple-effect” of losing someone. In the months directly after my mother’s death (and still now), I was and am continually aware of the scale of grief and how far the loss of someone extends. Not only do you lose that person, but you lose their role and their effect in communities small and large. When tasked with the job of sorting through my mother’s belongings, her absence, for me, felt so absurd and overwhelming, that I felt it even extended to the objects and clothing she left behind. In a way, I connected to the abandoned clothing as though, somehow, we were all in this together—trying to figure out where we belonged after the woman who had taken care of us was gone. (more…)

Author Interview: Blake Kimzey – Families Among Us

Kimzey_cover-250x386Blake Kimzey’s chapbook Families Among Us (Black Lawrence Press, 2014), is a collection of stories about transformation. Six stories nod to the magic of the natural world though surreal changes in its characters. “The boy grew like a regular boy… though each successive year his back curved more noticeably and his wings became stronger and his appetite larger.” Kimzey’s changelings sprout wings, slither on ringed bellies, grow snouts, claws, and fur; they carry full galaxies in their cheeks. His stories have been called, “beautifully written universes” and they are exactly that. We spoke with the author about his collection, below.

Author Interview: Blake Kimzey

My first introduction to Families Among Us was “The Boy and The Bear,” which we published in May. It’s a story (on the most basic level) about a boy who turns into a bear. At the time I didn’t know about the other stories, but “The Boy and The Bear” is part of an incredibly cohesive collection. I’m curious: when did you write this piece? Which story in the collection was first? And when did you begin to recognize these stories were part of a larger whole?

Thank you for such kind words about the collection, Kim. And thank you for publishing “The Boy and The Bear” as part of Short Story Month earlier this year. The stories in Families Among Us are close to me, the kind of stories I write when I want a break from the longer, realist fiction I normally write (splitting my time between dark comedy and fiction about the Iraq War). With each of the stories in my chapbook I started with an image, which is not the way I usually begin (with a character or a premise). For “The Boy and The Bear” that image was simply a boy nose-to-nose with a bear. When I zoomed out they were lost somewhere in a winter-crisp forest. And then I simply wanted to know how the boy and the bear ended up like that, and I wanted to know what their relationship was. As with all writing, it became an investigation. Image led to premise and then I felt comfortable. I tried to rewind the story from that moment and I found the boy in a village and then locked in a cellar. As it turns out, this was the fifth piece I wrote in the collection, giving me a handful of stories that felt connected. All of them are set in what looks and feels like the real world, but the characters give it a magical quality. I wrote “Up and Away” first after re-reading Metamorphosis when I was waiting to hear back from grad programs spring 2011. A bit of anxiety made my writing feel stale and I needed to change things up, and so I wrote fully into a new kind of imagination for me, and it has been the best thing for my writing practice, to have this outlet. All told it took me two and a half years to write these six very short stories. They take longer for me to imagine and write than the fiction I tend to write, and are influenced by Kafka, Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aimee Bender, Roald Dahl, and Angela Carter. I don’t know what is going to happen anytime I sit down to write, a feeling that is doubled when I can’t shake an image that begs investigation. Writing a short tale reminds me you can do anything in fiction, magical realism or otherwise. I wrote “And Finally the Tragedy” last and when it was complete I knew I had a short collection I could send out to chapbook competitions.

Lets talk about some of the elements that tie these stories together. First, none of your characters have names. Instead they are the mother, the boy, the man, the girl, etc. Where did that choice come from? To me it contributes a fable-like quality to these stories, and allows characters to be any person for any reader. At the same time it develops a purposeful distance. How did you intend for the not-named characters to be received?

I wanted to keep a healthy distance from the characters in each of these stories so that the audience would actually feel closer to them. That makes no sense, but I wanted to give the reader enough room to make part of the story their own, to cede some of the imaginative work to the audience. When I encounter a character with no name I feel that gives me license as a reader to make a few of my own determinations about who/what they are within the context of everything else the author gives me. And for me the best way to do that as an author was to keep the cast nameless. It also felt like a directive for the audience to read the stories as tales, and maybe even to shoulder more of the emotional freight as they read along. This was a story-by-story decision that gathered into a meaningful choice for the collection as a whole. I wanted the characters to feel particular on the physical level and within individual family units, but I also wanted them to feel unconstrained by the specificity that naming brings. One of the things I love most about writing a great character is choosing the perfect name. A name can take a character all the way to the end, but in these stories it felt like the absence of that particularity was an essential component to sparking the emotional charge in each story. For me, the absence of a name also contributed to the sense of timelessness I wanted to convey in each story. (more…)

Author Interview – “OpFor” by Shane R. Collins

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!

OpFor

“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.”

Interview

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. (more…)

An Unfortunate Interview – A Discussion With Lemony Snicket

If you are interested in interviews where people say smart things and cover interesting topics, then you’ve come to the wrong place. You don’t want to read this interview — you don’t. It might be the most terrible interview you’ve ever read.

lemony creative

 An enormous thanks to Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, for speaking with us this month for our October Scarefest. Daniel Handler is author of the novels The Basic Eight, Watch Your Mouth, Adverbs, and, with Maira Kalman, Why We Broke Up. His novel, We Are Pirates publishes in the spring of 2015. As Lemony Snicket, he has written the best-selling series All The Wrong Questions as well as A Series of Unfortunate Events, which has sold more than 60 million copies, and was the basis of a feature film starring Jim Carrey. Most recently he was the titular editor for Best American Non-Required Reading 2014 and will host the National Book Awards this November. You can learn more about Daniel Handler and Lemony Snicket, here.

As a publication that focuses on new and emerging writers, our readership is always interested in hearing how the writers that they admire got their start. Can you talk about your beginning? Specifically The Basic Eight and the start of The Lemony Snicket books?

I had just graduated from college and stayed on campus for almost a year working in the basement of the restored mansion at Wesleyan University where they gave poetry readings and things like that. So in exchange for keeping an eye on the place, and laying out catered food and coffee and cleaning up, I had free rent. I worked on a novel that I ended up throwing away, then I moved to San Francisco, which was my hometown, and I began a series of office jobs that paid the most amount of money for the least amount of time so I could work on The Basic Eight. I didn’t know anything about anything in terms of publishing.

The_Bad_BeginningDid you have to query an agent? Was that an entirely new process for you?

It was entirely new and not only was it new to me it was new to anyone I knew — I didn’t know anyone who was doing it. I would read these kinds of magazines that are helping you to be a writer and that always felt to me kind of like scams. I couldn’t put my finger on it. They’re focused mostly on genre writing and the kind of a quasi-professional writing as opposed to artistic writing. I wish there were a nicer way to put it because I have nothing against any of it, I just didn’t think that’s what I was doing.

 

<< To read the full interview click here >>


Part One: Daniel Handler On His Start as a Writer:

“I was working on a mock-gothic novel I was calling A Series of Unfortunate Events. And it wasn’t for children and it wasn’t about children. It wasn’t working at all. That was kind of a terrible time because I had this novel that wasn’t selling and I had maybe 100 pages of a novel that wasn’t working. Even I knew it wasn’t working. As opposed to The Basic Eight, which I thought worked fine but which no publisher had bid on yet. So that was really terrible to think that I was getting worse as a writer. You know, less sellable.”

Read this section of the interview here.

Part Two: Daniel Handler On Writing For Kids:

“I was trying to do kind of gothic oversized things that were happening to adults over and over and over again and it just became this sick joke.”

“It’s just that the world is complicated and you can’t make a really clear rule about it. That the Baudelaires end up choosing to light a hotel on fire in order to serve as a signal is a terrible choice. And every kid kind of knows that. They know that the rule isn’t hard fast, and yet we pretend that it is, which is weird.”

Read this section of the interview here.

Part Three: Daniel Handler On His Next Novel:

We Are Pirates is about some teenage girls and some old people in a retirement home who would both like to get away from the surveillance of their very narrowed and surveilled worlds; they’d like to escape and they’d like to escape somewhere off the map and do something forbidden. And they do and it’s terrible. The moral is: there is no place outside the world. We’re all in it. So you can escape from your own circumstances, but then you’re invading someone else’s.”

Read this section of the interview here.

Interview: Award-Winning Editor, Ellen Datlow

An enormous thanks to Ellen Datlow for agreeing to discuss horror with us this month. Ellen has been editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror short fiction for over thirty years. She was fiction editor of OMNI Magazine and SCIFICTION and currently acquires and edits stories for Tor.com. She has edited more than sixty anthologies, including the annual The Best Horror of the Year, Lovecraft’s Monsters, Fearful Symmetries, Nightmare Carnival, and The Cutting Room. Forthcoming are The Doll Collection and The Monstrous.

She’s won multiple awards for her editing. She was named recipient of the 2007 Karl Edward Wagner Award, given at the British Fantasy Convention for “outstanding contribution to the genre”; has been honored with the Life Achievement Award given by the Horror Writers Association, in acknowledgment of superior achievement over an entire career, and the World Fantasy Life Achievement Award for 2014, which is presented annually to individuals who have demonstrated outstanding service to the fantasy field.

ellen datlow

This month The Masters Review is focusing all of our content on horror and scary stories, of which I consider you the authority. Can you talk about your specific preferences in the horror genre? How they’ve changed, grown, or even simplified? What must a story evoke to be considered horror?

I’m afraid I’ve got to disappoint you—I have no specific preferences in horror. I love stories that stick with me because there’s more going on in them than just a one-note “scare.”  For me, great horror fiction has the same elements as any great fiction: A unique voice, characters that keep me interested, and a believable plot that forces me to continue reading. With the addition of an underlying sense of dread.

You’ve edited more than sixty anthologies, have over thirty years of experience editing science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and have numerous awards to your name. What have you learned about the genre in this time?

One thing I’ve learned is that the borders are fluid. Many of the most interesting stories combine science fiction and horror, or drift uneasily between dark fantasy and horror. There is science fiction that feels like fantasy and fantasy that feels like science fiction.

And some of the best writers dance around the genres gracefully by creating disturbing horror, compelling fantasy, or realist science fiction depending on where their muse leads them.

I often think horror is misinterpreted. What would you say to someone who doesn’t like it? Who would you encourage them to read? What does horror offer readers that is unique (beyond the obvious thrills and chills)?

I’d advise them to ignore most of the movies that refer to themselves as “horror”—they’re not. Most of what’s out there debases the entire genre with its graphic violence against women and its slasher mentality. That type of sensation horror is the lowest form of the genre.

To me horror often overlaps with the weird, in that it’s creepy and gives you a chill. (Although as I mention below, some weird work isn’t dark enough for me to consider it horror.) A movie might keep you on the edge of your seat (which doesn’t mean there should be no violence—John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the most effective pieces of horror film making I know).

Effective horror explores the truths that humans are loathe to face: death most prominently—the fact that we’re all going to die. The loss of loved ones, losing one’s control, fear of the unknown, pain. These things scare us whether couched in the supernatural or psychological. (more…)

Author Interview: Julia Elliott, The Wilds

We sat down with Julia Elliott whose short story collection The Wilds debuts with Tin House later this month. Elliott’s fiction has appeared in Tin HouseThe Georgia Review, Conjunctions, Fence, Puerto del Sol, Mississippi Review, Best American Fantasy, and other publications. She has won a Pushcart Prize and a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her novel The New and Improved Romie Futch will be published by Tin House Books in 2015.  Learn more about Julia and The Wilds here: www.juliaelliott.net

wildsThe Wilds comes out later this month. What was the first story you published that appears in this collection and can you tell us about its path to publication?

“Jaws” was originally published in the “Politics” issue of the Mississippi Review in 2004. I, like most progressive types during this era, was all fired up with anti-Bush outrage, and this story was my response. The original narrative contained some pretty stilted political discourse between father and daughter, most of which I cut when radically revising this semi-autobiographical narrative for inclusion in The Wilds. I even changed the point of view to second person and focused more emphatically on the daughter’s emotional struggle with her mother’s onset of dementia.

The texture of your writing and the use of your language has been called gothic, macabre, or even grotesque. (To me this is a wonderful compliment!) What do those labels mean to you? Do you agree with them in the context of your writing?

Okay: I will admit that I have a ghoulish fascination with phenomena like brain parasites, feral-dog packs, and lunatic levitating grandmothers who rave about apocalyptic cannibalistic dragons, but the linguistic excess toward which I’m inclined might be more fairly described as “purple” or “hyperbolic,” a sensibility that definitely includes the “grotesque” and the “macabre,” but that also celebrates “comic” and “sublime” elements. I am comfortable with the term “gothic” as an evocation of both medieval/renaissance and southern nuances. One of my grad-school phases, for example, involved binge-reading antiquated medical texts, like “leechbooks” that juxtaposed cough-syrup recipes with potions that would keep the devil from visiting one’s bed at night. While I have (hopefully) shed the cheesy archaisms and Tolkienesque dorkiness that used to taint my prose, tempering these inclinations with dystopian and satirical elements, my delight in verbal excess, uncanny fairy-tale moments, and gritty sensory detail can be traced back to the ridiculous quantity of medieval and early modern texts I consumed in grad school. Although I admire writers classified as “southern gothic,” particularly Carson McCullers, I think that growing up in a humid, mosquito-infested swampland infects the brain with obscure yet-to-be-discovered parasites that can, when combined with decades of ancestral looniness, create a sensitivity to a particular species of fecund strangeness that can be described as “southern gothic.”

The Wilds is such a cohesive group of stories. Do you utilize language with the same texture that we see in this collection in all of your writing? In your forthcoming novel for example, can we expect similar things?

My forthcoming novel, The New and Improved Romie Futch, does evoke the “fecund strangeness” of the South with linguistic gusto, but in a much more self-conscious way. The novel describes the plight of a divorced taxidermist who participates in an “intelligence enhancement” study at the Center for Cybernetic Neuroscience in Atlanta Georgia. After neuroscientists download a range of hifalutin humanities data into Romie’s head, he returns to his hometown to confront his failed marriage (among other things). For the first chapter of the novel, I had to struggle to keep Romie’s diction under control, and then, as various texts and data sets are downloaded into his brain, his language becomes fuller, incorporating flashier rhetorical tropes, “SAT words,” and terminology from contemporary literary theory. In some ways, this novel explores my own journey as a skeptical Southern person encountering the joys and absurdities of academia.

Your stories reflect an interest in the natural world—many of the characters are scientists, for example—but also contain elements of the absurd and surreal. In your opinion, how close does science land to the surreal? Why is it so effective to use science as a vessel for examining the absurd?

What a great question! As an amateur primatologist who is attempting to write a novel about a “real” primatologist observing baboons at a strange research institution in the desert, teasing out the interplay between science and the surreal is one of my key obsessions. Moreover, if you look at just about any out-of-date scientific theory, “knowledge-set,” or data array, you will find plenty of absurd elements. Again, my grad-school binge-reading of scientific texts included renaissance gynecological and obstetric manuals that blended “clinical” descriptions with superstitious absurdities and wild imaginings in the most breathtaking ways. For a while, misogynist theories of monstrous births were my specialty, and pre-fallopian ideas about clammy, insert, spiritually-vapid “female seed” are not much more outlandish than the Freudian “vaginal orgasm” or evolutionary psychology’s semi-current beliefs about “hard-wired” gender traits. All discourses boil down to a historically-bound, limited human being (or group of human beings) attempting to make sense of an incredibly strange and complex universe that they experience through five senses. Not only are all observations subjective, but even the most “technical” language is laden with poetry, emotion, and the whole sad history of human aspiration. To me, every text—whether religious, artistic, or scientific—is a reinvention of reality. (more…)

Author Interview – “Go Down, Diller” by Eric Howerton

Get ready. Our third anthology, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, publishes on October 1. It showcases the best emerging writers in graduate-level creative writing programs. In anticipation of publication, we are conducting interviews with our ten fantastic authors. This week, we talked to Eric Howerton, author of “Go Down, Diller” about Faulkner, talking bears, teaching fiction, and living with his characters. Howerton spent five years crafting this story, and it came to us as a flawless, complete world. You don’t want to miss this one. Pre-order the anthology here.

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       “Which is stranger?” Diller asked. “That the bear can talk or that he’s working fast food?”
        Shelly chewed her salad slowly. “Why would it be weird for him to talk?”
        He stared at her as constellations of freckles jounced in rhythm to her chewing. “Because bears can’t talk.”
        She looked at him quizzically and swallowed hard. “Of course they can.”

Interview

What are some of your all-time favorite stories?

As you can probably tell from “Go Down, Diller,” I gravitate toward stories that dabble in the strange and off-kilter. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” is one of my all-time favorites. Hoffmann wrote the story that The Nutcracker ballet is based on, and every time I read “The Sandman” I get chills. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” is a classic, and I teach it to every creative writing student I encounter because of its ambition, intelligence, and economy. Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” also tops the list. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is also one of my girlfriend’s favorite short stories, and we named our dog Bartleby as homage. The name fits too. He’s a beagle, so you can try and give him a command and what you get in return are these large eyes staring back at you, as if to say “I prefer not to.”

Other short story authors who have influenced me greatly and give me endless enjoyment are Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, Haruki Murakami, Aimee Bender, Roberto Bolaño, and Etgar Keret.

Your characters in “Go Down, Diller” are so clearly drawn: Diller’s critical and sweet daughter Shelly; the annoying and endearing Wine Guy at the hotel where Diller works; even the talking bear, whom you introduce flawlessly. Where did you come up with these personalities?

They were completely made up. I have the bad habit of not basing my characters on people I know (which my friends and family probably appreciate!), so it can take a long time for me to bring characters to life. I can churn out a story draft in a week or two, but to really make the characters speak and feel whole I have to welcome them as imaginary friends in my head for an extended period. How long this occupancy takes place is unknown at the time I start revising, so in order to “invite a character to stay” I have to really believe that the story has merit and is worth cohabitating with for months or years. As I’m revising the story—which in the case of “Go Down, Diller” took about five years—I’m sort of remembering these characters in my spare moments. I check in with them, see how they’re doing, talk to them, put them in scenes and play those scenes over and over again, tweaking little details here and there until those characters feel like they’re naturally acting of their own accord. That’s sort of how this story—and a lot of my non-flash fiction pieces—work. I grew the characters in my head like plants. What kind of fruit those plants produced was a surprise even for myself.

Now that this piece has finally been published, I’m evicting Diller et al. and leasing that headspace to another tenant. But Diller, Shelly, the bear, and even the Wine Guy will be missed. Maybe someday they’ll send me a postcard from wherever it is they go.

(more…)

Author Interview: Arna Bontemps Hemenway

Every now and then a debut comes along that simply stuns us. We felt this way about Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s collection, Elegy on Kinderklavier, out this month from Sarabande Books. Masters Review editor Andrew Wetzel discusses the collection with Hemenway, which is described by his publisher as a disquieting exploration of loss in wartime. What’s clear from our interview is how taken Andrew was with Hemenway’s stories, which should be an indicator to you, dear readers, that this debut is something special, and is a story collection that should not be missed.

Hemenway.ElegyKinderklavierAlthough the stories in your debut collection Elegy on Kinderklavier (Sarabande Books, 2014) focus on war and the shadow it casts on the individuals involved and their families, you certainly don’t stick to one writing style or category. “The IED,” my favorite piece in the book, manages to subtly combine a handful of angles and writing styles without feeling gimmicky. Another outstanding story, the Tartar Steppe-esque “The Territory of Grief,” leaves the present reality and veers into, I don’t know how one might categorize it, PoliSciFi? Is varying your style important to your writing approach, or was it a necessity in writing a themed collection?

Well, basically, I think when I started writing these stories, I was really tired of a certain kind of short fiction—both reading it and trying to write it. A great deal of what I was seeing (in magazines, in anthologies, in workshop) seemed to have been bled of its imagination (meant here as a kind of appetite), more or less. I began to notice that the fiction that really interested me as a reader was in some way alive to the modern possibilities of style and form. I wanted to write stories that were responsive to that potential, if that makes sense.

But also, I had developed a strong belief that in order to write meaningful, realistic fiction about something as definitively modern as a twenty-first century war, you really had to try to escape the way people had been writing short stories for the last fifty years. It started that way: Iraq as a subject struck me as fundamentally different than anything that had ever come before, so it required at least the attempt to form one’s stories differently.

I think this idea sort of expanded in my head to include all modern trauma. I’ve heard that The Tartar Steppe was important for Coetzee in writing Waiting for the Barbarians; one thing those books are about, for me, is questioning the reader’s narrative expectation, or maybe highlighting the discrepancy between a reader’s narrative expectation and an honest fiction about the current age. That they are also, in many ways, very strange books is not incidental. For my own stories, I wanted to try and get out into that territory that is maybe not dictated by what has become traditional narrative expectation. One of my teachers at the time, Kevin Brockmeier, helped a lot, as did reading the work of a couple of my classmates who seemed interested in something similar and were doing it a lot better than I was.

But, to be honest, a lot of my varying of style or approach probably just comes from how quickly I get sick of myself. (more…)

Interview: Laura van den Berg

The amazing Laura van den Berg, whose second collection The Isle of Youth just made the Frank O’Connor shortlist, talks with The Masters Review about paving her own path in the arts, her upcoming novel, and her constantly shifting writers office.

vandenBerg_interviewOne of the reasons I find your career remarkable is that you, so far (and I know you have a novel out soon) have gained success purely as a storywriter in a publishing world that seems skewed toward the novel. You had a chapbook of stories with Origami Zoo Press, then What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, another story collection [with Dzanc Books] and this past year The Isle of Youth, with FSG. I guess my question is: how did you do it? Did you find it was more difficult to publish a debut collection of stories, in particular? Did you ever feel pressure to write a longer work?

I mean, the most straightforward answer is that I just did it because that was the form that was speaking to me at the time. I think sometimes it can be difficult to engineer a particular path in the arts, as much as we might want to. I love reading novels and I just finished a novel. I started with the first chapter of that novel in 2008. So certainly as I worked on the novel, I’d been writing stories along the way. For me the two forms were kind of bleeding together at a certain point, as opposed to making some sort of holistic gearshift from storywriter to novelist. Everything was a little bit more mixed together than that.

I went to an MFA program and I wrote stories for workshop and my first collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us . . . my MFA thesis was an early version of that book. And then what happened with the second collection, Isle of Youth, was that I started a novel in 2008 and I was working on it, and I had never written a novel before. And so it just took me much, much longer than I ever could’ve anticipated. And meanwhile, you know, I was writing stories and sending them out, etc. At a certain point I felt like the novel still wasn’t quite there, but that the collection was pretty well done, and I showed them both to my agent, and she agreed. We made the decision to send out the second collection in its completion with the first hundred pages of the novel. And certainly we heard from some editors who had difficulty with the idea of doing a second collection and thought that it would be better for me to wait until the novel was done and have a novel be my second book. The idea of doing two back-to-back collections didn’t seem viable to them. They sort of felt like it wasn’t a good strategy for me career-wise. But I don’t really believe in thinking about it that way. I was just sort of like: well, this is the book that’s finished. And I fell in love with fiction by reading short stories. The story is a form that’s very, very close to my heart. And so, I love the idea of getting to build a body of work as a storywriter. And then my editor at FSG just had a completely different take. She thought having a second collection of stories was a great way to build a readership as a storywriter before they publish my novel.

So I think that’s the thing about publishing: it’s a very rare situation where the views are going to be completely uniform. You know, you don’t need everyone to say yes, and you don’t need everyone to think that the path you’ve chosen is the right path. You just need that one person who sees things in a way that you do and I was lucky enough to find that.

I think story collections . . . there’s a lot of bad press for them in terms of salability, and it’s true that there are particular challenges with selling collections. But I think the honest truth is there are particular challenges with selling anything. So a little part of me dies when I hear someone say something like: “Well, I wrote a story collection but I know it’s not salable, so I’m working on a novel instead.” I just think of all of the people I know who have unsold novels or unsold memoirs, which are supposed to be the easiest thing to sell. The reality is that it’s all extremely difficult to sell, and so I’m not really convinced that one form is more difficult than another. (more…)