If you missed it, the winner of our 2022-2023 Winter Short Story Award for New Writers, selected by Morgan Talty, was published on Monday. First, read Donovan Swift’s terrific “Advanced Reader,” then check out our interview with the winner below!
What sparked this story, or led you to write this piece?
To be completely honest, I wrote this story about five years ago, so I don’t really remember where the initial impulse came from. I do remember a brief period of using dating apps and feeling how awkward and dehumanizing they were, so I think that feeling was on my mind.
I like to write without knowing what’s going to happen next. I usually start with an image or a scene and try to keep my head down and explore it. So, I started with the beach date and went from there. I say I “like” to write that way, but what I really mean is I’m incapable of writing the other way. If I try to plot out a story, not only will the plot be bad, but the prose also becomes flat and lifeless. For better or worse, I have to keep that spark of discovery alive if I want to finish something. I need to be surprised by what happens next, otherwise I get bored and don’t finish the piece. I have writer friends who can plot stories out or write outlines, and I envy that. But for me, this is the only way I can actually get anything done. The downside is you end up throwing a lot of writing out.
Probably because I struggle so much with them in my own work (or more charitably to myself, because they’re the first thing a reader sees), I’ve always been fascinated by titles. Would you talk a bit about choosing “Advanced Reader?” And perhaps, your process for choosing titles in general, or thoughts about what they should be aiming to do?
I don’t really have strong opinions about titles, probably because I also struggle with them. I was semi-notoriously bad at them in school, so I just tend to stick to the Hippocratic Oath of titles and first and foremost try to “Do No Harm.” I try to keep it simple. I don’t think I’ll have the courage to pull out a “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” anytime soon, so my primary goal is to not scare a reader away. Then, secondly, maybe spark some intrigue.
This story had several titles before I landed on “Advanced Reader,” some that are so bad I’ve erased them from my memory. The adventurous “Beach Date” was probably one. Maybe then, feeling wild, I beefed it up to: “Rendezvous on the Gulf Coast.” I can’t remember.
But with “Advanced Reader,” I thought it was a succinct way of focusing the reader’s attention on a brief but integral part of the story. I guess that’s one thing a title can do. Provide a lens through which to interpret the story after the fact. Or to home in on what the writer believes to be the true core of the story. Something the writer wants the reader to always keep in mind, even if other events are happening in the foreground.
There’s also the fun of double meanings and irony, but I’ll leave that up to the reader.
I love so many choices in the piece: the opening, how it starts with the date already in process and the uncertainty of both main characters firmly established, and I love the (mostly) back-and-forth sections from present tense with Clara to past tense with Amy that gives both women significant space in the narrative. Can you talk a bit about how this story took shape, most particularly the decision to start in this moment rather than any other options and what made you decide to give Amy a few full sections rather than existing as memories embedded in Clara’s present-moment story?
I’d like to say there was a grand plan, but as mentioned above, I tend to just start and see where it goes. Most of my choices are intuitive and probably have more to do with stories I’ve liked than with conscious choices I make. For example, “The Lady with the Little Dog” is one of my favorite stories, and it’d be strange if we met the eponymous lady on page twelve rather than on page two. And I think that gets in the subconscious. In trying to create the same effect as your favorite stories, you try to mirror their structure. Or at least, that’s what I do.
I also had a professor that was very insistent on conflict starting quickly. That stuff gets ingrained, too. He would say the dreaded, “Your story starts on page three,” to nearly every story submitted for workshop. And he was right. I like novels that meander and keep your interest with voice, but with short stories, you really have to get moving. There’s not a lot of room for a six-page description of the ocean, so I think it’s partly a product of the form, as well.
As far as the Amy sections, I felt the date needed a counterbalance, some tangible background to give the present moment depth. Originally, her sections were just flashes of memory, but the past didn’t feel “real” enough. In revision, I thought the story needed some scenes to solidify the past’s significance for the reader and justify its inclusion.
My final question to students after a story discussion is always: what do you think you’ll remember about this piece after some significant time has passed? Sometimes they say larger stuff, theme or plot, but just as often it’s a character they loved/hated or a decision that was made or a beautiful sentence or a fascinating detail. For you as author, what do you most hope people will hold onto after enough time has passed that they may not be able to remember character names or full plot details or whatnot?
That’s a tough one. Maybe just the feeling that the reader’s initial impressions of the characters were wrong or, at least, incomplete. I can only speak for myself, and that’s one of my favorite feelings when reading: You start out disliking a character or thinking they’re mean or cruel, but by the end of the story, you end up feeling sympathy for them. That’s a classic trope of literature (think A Christmas Carol), but it still gets me every time. It always feels like a little bit of magic has been pulled off when you start liking a character that you previously loathed. And I can only hope to aspire to create the same effect.
I’m that annoying guy at the reading that always wants to ask the two super-cliché questions, so apologies in advance. First, can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? (mornings with coffee pecking at the keys; ten hours in front of a keyboard every day; chunks when inspiration strikes, etc.?)
When I was first starting out, I found a routine that worked well for me: I try to write in the morning for about an hour or two, then maybe do some editing in the afternoon. That routine’s not the easiest to abide by now that I have a full-time job, but that’s what has always worked for me. I can’t do the eight-hour sessions that some writers talk about. I just try to move the ball forward a little every day, hopefully leaving enough creative juice in the well for the next morning. It used to stress me out when I heard how much other people were writing per day, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re consistently producing. I’m more tortoise than hare, I guess.
Second, beyond routine, what about your writing process? Are you a seventeen drafts before your first reader sees it kind of writer, or does it all flow brilliantly to fountain pen on first thought without stopping (someone someday will reply yes to that, I’m sure), or do you write a single sentence a million times until it’s perfect, or…?
I’m definitely a many, many drafts kind of writer. As mentioned above, I move slowly through the first draft, revising and adjusting as I move forward. Then, I try to set it aside for a few weeks. When I come back to it, I can hopefully see what’s missing or what needs trimming. Then, I spend many, many drafts adding scenes, subtracting descriptions, making changes to dialogue, etc. I think sometimes we misunderstand what it means to “write” seventeen drafts. When I was younger, I thought that meant you throw out the previous draft and start from scratch—repeat seventeen times. What it really means, at least for me, is making a lot of small adjustments with the occasional large overhaul, and just doing that over and over again until you can’t bear to look at the story anymore.
And, one that you can ignore if you feel so inclined, but I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: What do you view as the function that literature plays in the current world, and what are you as a writer trying to accomplish with your work?
I think literature’s function is the same as it’s always been. First, to entertain, then hopefully to make the reader feel something deeply. The thing that’s unique about literature is that you can live inside a character’s head in a way you can’t in other art forms. That naturally leads to an increase in empathy. You’re seeing the world from someone else’s eyes, which hopefully broadens your own sense of the world and gives you perspective and makes you less quick to judge, etc.
I think the only difference today is that it’s competing with faster and more addicting forms of entertainment. If anything, I would say literature gets more and more valuable as it gets more and more fringe. In a lot of ways, reading is the natural antidote to the shallower forms of entertainment that continue to crop up today. Because reading is a way of slowing down, of living in nuance, of not leaping to judgment. Which is the opposite of what most entertainment today does. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted on YouTube or internet rabbit holes. And the time does always feel wasted after the fact. Whereas with reading, I never feel like it’s time wasted. The key difference for me is that with reading, I feel better after I’ve done it: less shallow, less alone, and more thoughtful. And that’s what makes it so valuable.
Interviewed by Brandon Williams.