Q & A for Natanya’s Creative Writing Class

Natanya Pulley, gifted writer and teacher extraordinaire, in a moment of what can only be described as incredible folly, perhaps after stripping a good deal of paint in an unventilated room, decided to give her Creative Writing students two of my stories, “Coping with Common Garden Pests,” and, “Each Terrible Wall.” I am incredibly honored that she did so, even as I feel I should buy her a fan for her paint booth.

Her class came up with some questions for me based on those stories. What follows are my answers, available in a public forum with a built-in commenting tool so that if her students have any further questions, or would just like to ridicule me anonymously from the relative safety of the internet, they can engage at their leisure.

If anyone else cares to read or comment, they too are welcome…too. Too’s a funny word, isn’t it? Too. Tooooooo.

Ahem, anyway, I hope I will not prove a staggering disappointment to anyone.

  1. In “Coping with Common Garden Pests,” we don’t have the bigger picture about the world of the story. We don’t know the details/timeline of why the world looks as it does or what is happening outside of the protagonist’s experiences. What was your purpose in withholding this information or in keeping a tight lens on the narrator’s understanding of the world?

I touched on this a little in my interview over at Unlikely. First, the story came from an attempt to dream up a podcast. I’d been binge-listening to Welcome to Nightvale, and I loved the way they told a very broad story with a single voice. That sort of format made for a great podcast platform…I just can’t help but make things short stories when I get around to fleshing them out.

Second, I’d been reading a lot of classic SFF/Weird stories, by which I mean, late 1800’s/early 1900’s (there’s some great early 20th century stuff in the VanderMeers’ The Weird), and I was really interested in the way authenticity was established in those stories. I mean, it’s the same way authenticity was established in, say, Robinson Crusoe, but in a less hateful package. Personal testimony and the found document were big deals, and I think we’re seeing a resurgence in that kind of presentation today. Just look at the popularity of the memoir, or the way most diet or self-help books require the author to not just present a course of action, but to testify to its success in their own life.

Ultimately I wanted to play in that structure, see what I could get from it, and what it could teach me.

I’m also much more interested in the individual experience than the global experience. I don’t really want to write the story about the one guy or gal who learns all the secrets and saves the world, because all the rest of us aren’t that guy. We just have to live in the apocalypse. I am, after all, ultimately writing about the world I live in, and The Hero isn’t my world.

  1. Does the setting create the story for you or is it a background for your ideas? (In both works and in general)?

I tend to think of the world itself as a setting. The physical space the characters inhabit is generally less important to me, in part because in a short story I can often economically offer just enough detail for people to “get it.” I mean, the garden in “Coping…” and the the apartment and house in “Each Terrible Wall” are both pretty vaguely drawn, maybe just one or two concrete details to make them real enough.

But when I have an idea for the world as a whole, for what makes it different from anywhere else, that’s where I really try to set the story. I try to give the characters a story that could run independently of that world, but then let the world intrude, let it change the course of their conflict.

 

  1. In both stories, the conflict arises out of the protagonists’ relationships amid destruction. What pulls you toward the relationship as a storytelling energy?

It’s something we all get, something easy to sympathize with. More than that, though, is that when I put a character in an alien situation, the relationship becomes even more important. A person who feels estranged somehow from or by the world is going to have an even higher investment in the normalcy of human contact. And I think that’s an important juxtaposition these days; I’m doing my best to write about the world I live in and it’s problems and triumphs, and my world has a lot of problems with isolation and interaction. There’s quite a distance between a tweet and holding hands with someone, and I think it’s worth grappling with the tension between an encroaching, invasive yet alienating world and the heimlich interpersonal relationship.

 

  1. Can you speak to the futility your protagonists face? Do more of your stories gravitate to this theme and how do you see yourself as a writer who speaks for characters facing their own ineffectiveness?

I’m bad in bed so I feel compelled to write about impotence.

No, kidding. I hope. I’ll ask my wife later.

A lot of my stories include a sensation of powerlessness in the face of the world. Because that’s the world I live in, that we’ve all always lived in. The world changes and we are powerless to stop it. The biggest victory comes in shaping the direction of that change, but so few people earn that opportunity. Most of us do our best to just keep going, and at best pretend there’s not something deeply traumatic about being born in a world where no one even owned a personal computer and then waking up to find Facebook listening in on your conversations from the rhizomatic node you carry around in your pocket.

I also think there’s something about this day and age that gives us the illusion of choice and control. I mean, the core of genre fiction is the character with the power to change something — solve the mystery and catch the killer, defeat the dark lord and save the world, whatever. That’s not where genre fiction started, but now those are the most popular examples. Also, memoir and self-help are all about triumph, about having power, changing yourself and calling that a victory equivalent to changing the world. But we’re just as much as ever at the whims of powers so far above us that when they shit on us we think it’s a shooting star and make a wish, and I feel a perverse need to remind people that just because Cheryl Strayed can survive nature for a while without proper preparation doesn’t mean that, as individuals, we’re not still slightly less influential to the course of world events than the seventeenth pawn in a chess-set is to the course of the game.

I swear it’s not just because a bunch of my early training in writing short stories involved studying the long, proud tradition of post-war white dudes with dick issues.

 

  1. Where (why and how) does sci-fi and absurdist fiction meet for you?

I don’t really like to read efforts at mimesis. I was started down this path as a child by myth, fairytale, legend, fantasy, science fiction, etc. Nothing is more boring to me than a writer trying to faithfully represent external, shared reality with clear, concise language.  So I read all sorts of stuff across a host of genres so long as it’s doing something different.

To me, SFF and absurdism meet at the recognition that story or reader or writer or the world or meaning or etc. is not best served by attempting to faithfully represent reality. Straight literature has this notion that the only way to address problems or beauty or whatever else it to reproduce it as narrowly as possible, and readers love putting down a book like that and feeling like they’ve learned something, but in the end they’re just having their preexisting structures reaffirmed.

Books that succeed the most wildly, books that become necessary classics, are books that give the reader new tools to address reality and all its components and subsets. This is why, four hundred years later, we still read Don Quixote, and why, even though there were things in existence prior to Don Quixote that you could easily pick up and mistake for a novel, we call Don Quixote the first novel (yes, I know, western bias, cut me some slack, I’m an English major).

Don Quixote built or refined a lot of tools that we still use in reading, writing, thinking, interpreting prose. Non-mimetic fiction, at its best, is a likewise attempt at toolmaking.

 

  1. How did these stories start, change, evolve for you while writing them? Is there a fuller picture of the worlds in each of these stories?

I’ve mentioned where “Coping…” started. I think “Each Terrible Wall” started with me sitting around in front of a blank word document, forcing myself not to do anything but stare at it until I was bored enough to be creative.

I’m not sure that there’s anything interesting about the way these stories changed and developed as I wrote them. Maybe the best way to put what happens is as a reduction in possibilities.

As far as a fuller picture of the world…maybe? For a short story I feel like the world only needs to exist enough to hold the story together. I may have a slightly fuller picture of the world in my head than the brushstrokes on the page indicate, or I may have a poorer understanding. I mean, if you think too hard about the world of “Each Terrible Wall” it turns into a practical nightmare. In contrast, the world of “Coping…” is really easy to imagine on a global scale because it’s exactly the sort of thing that plays out in movies and books all the time. Narrowing the field of vision on that world is what makes it feel unique, insofar as it is unique…which is not really all that far.

 

  1. How do you see your personal experiences come up in your work?

As I’ve suggested, I’m doing my best to write about the world I live in. Part of my project is trying to write about living in the internet age. A lot of straight literature being written now is either set pre-internet, set in places where the internet is not commonly available, or uses some contrivance of plot to avoid the issue entirely. Part of the problem is that writing with the internet is boring as shit. There’s no action in a scene of a person sitting in front of a computer tapping at keys (which is also why most sci-fi books about video games or online communities make use of suspiciously immersive VR), so no one wants to try. Sure, we get some epistolary novels that use e-mail or website clippings or whatever, but writers still need to spend the bulk of their time in scenes where something is happening beyond screen-staring.

My other personal experiences certainly come through. Whatever I can write about loss, love, hope, ineffectiveness, jealousy, regret, desire, etc. comes from my experiences of those emotions. I draw on personal experiences to provide sensory details. I draw on personal experience to help me think outside of day-to-day norm — travelling helps a lot, spend a little time in Cambodia with your eyes open and you too might start to feel that maybe there’s some futility to the project of American realism.

“Write what you know,” is one of those pieces of advice that’s both true and not. Your writing can’t exist independent of your experiences, but I’m not sure I’d call it writing if all you’re doing is transcribing your experiences.

 

Well, I’m pretty sure that I’ve overreached my…what’s the fucking word? Something official, like prospectus or writ, but, you know, more about boundaries. Goddammit.

Anyway, thank you so much, Natanya and Natanya’s class, for reading, and for asking questions, and for reading all this rambling, if you read all this rambling. I can’t express the honor and privilege of being read in a classroom, and having that classroom be interested enough to ask questions.

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3 Responses to “Q & A for Natanya’s Creative Writing Class”

  1. Frank Turner Says:

    I really like your ambiguous approach to setting. It really allows the reader to extrapolate the ideas into something even more relatable. That and your subtle humor is a nice touch.

  2. Vicki Weldon Says:

    Thanks for responding so thoroughly, and for bringing us such fresh and funny, witty, clever and silly (absurd is the word I’m supposed to use here) content. I found your works we read for class to be delightful surprises…though the subject matter was pretty serious. This response as well-very funny while managing to deliver some relevant and helpful, contemporary insight. I am always surprised when people follow through these days, answering questions seriously (while entertaining easily-it appears), recognizing the honest intentions of the asker. I personally appreciate your professional, literary generosity.

  3. Jake Dempsey Says:

    I am stoked about this!! I love it when people actually answer letters!!! I really liked what Kaufman had to say about “The normalcy of human contact.” He points out that in new or uncomfortable situations, those you are closest to suddenly become your lifeline. I think that exploring intimacy in this way is crucial to a writer, as a writer seeks to define what ultimately constitutes the human experience.

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