Monday, July 16, 2012

Stephanie Reents' Path to Writing

Stephanie Reents has lived in a shared flat in Oxford, England, a tiny studio on the wrong side of the tracks in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a fifth-floor walk-up in the West Village, an adobe near the Sonoran desert, a garden apartment in the Upper Haight of San Francisco, and the old Hamilton Watch Factory building in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her fiction has been included in the O. Henry Prize Stories, noted in Best American Short Stories, and has appeared in numerous journals, including Epoch. Her recent novel, The Kissing List, is a collection of interlocking short stories of women who bravely defy expectations and take outrageous chances in the face of a life that may turn out to be anything less than extraordinary. Stephanie has been a Bread Loaf Conference Scholar, a Stegner Fellow, and a Rhodes Scholar. She is an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross and lives in a creaky Victorian in Providence, Rhode Island.

Where did you get your inspiration for the story, The Kissing List?

No one tells you that being in your 20s is pretty hard.  After I graduated from college and before I started a fellowship at Oxford University, I flew home to Boise, Idaho, and packed up everything in childhood room.  When I’d finished boxing up mix tapes of early 80s New Wave music, track and cross country ribbons, and funky thrift shop jewelry, I had – I told myself – completed the transformation from child to adult.  This couldn’t have been further from the truth.  The 20s are a harrowing and thrilling time; you’re figuring out your professional identity, your romantic attachments, and your personal priorities.  You have more freedom than you did in college, but not necessarily more good sense.

I wanted The Kissing List to reflect the perils and pleasures of those years.  One of the ways that my friends and I survived this time was by telling stories of our escapades.  Part dark, part funny, the stories of our adventures and exhilarations, scrapes and scandals helped us make sense of our good and bad decisions.  Storytelling drew us into permanent intimacies, helping us forge families of choice that were vital, especially to those of us who were so far from home, either geographically or emotionally.  Finally, telling these stories offered the evidence we needed to see that we’d survived.

I should also add that I got the idea for this collection when age 40 was a lot closer than age 29.  Like a lot of work, The Kissing List was born from procrastination: in search of a reason not to work on my novel or a new story, I started to roam around a folder on my computer aptly titled, “Unfinished Stories,” where I keep stories I’ve finished but never published, or finished but never revised, or started but quickly abandoned.  Some documents even include single paragraphs that skid into oblivion mid-sentence.  In the course of wandering through this fictional graveyard, I realized that I had a lot of stories about young women taking outrageous chances and merrily defying expectations, and moreover that I really liked many of these characters as well as the zany energy and language of the stories.

Which scene is your favorite?

My favorite story has always been “Disquisition on Tears.”  I started writing this story after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  I remember reading an account of two people fleeing from the World Trade Center.  They were holding hands, and then one person realized he was holding only an arm.  This imaged terrified me, and I began to think about how I would react to a scene of horror.  I started writing when the following line came to me: “A woman stood at my door with her head in her hands.”  I liked this line because I didn’t have to commit yet to a headless woman coming to the narrator’s door.  Soon, though, I was ready to face the headless woman.  What was interesting was that I quickly realized that the headless woman wasn’t as frightening as the narrator’s own situation: her fears, her vulnerabilities, and the enormous burden of facing her own impending death.

Which character was the most challenging to write and why?

I don’t remember any character being particularly challenging to write.  What was true was the more I returned to a particular story – and the challenges faced by a particular character – the greater empathy I developed for that character.   For example, in my early drafts of “Roommates,” a story in which the narrator, Sylvie, moves out of an apartment she shares with her roommates, Laurie, who is dying of cancer, I was very hard on Sylvie, and the piece took the form of an apology.  Over time, however, I began to see that Sylvie and Laurie had real friendship, and that Sylvie was both scared and heart broken about Laurie’s battle with cancer.  After much revision, the story is still part apology, but it’s also Sylvie’s account of her grief as well as an homage to Laurie’s incredible spirit.  Sylvie still makes what some readers will see as an unkind decision when she announces that she is moving out, but I think in this regard she is behaving in a believable flawed human fashion.

I should also note that I greatly admire writers like Elizabeth Strout (who wrote Olive Kitteridge) and Vladimir Nabokov because of their ability to find the humanity in characters who range from unpleasant to downright awful.  To me, this is the greatest achievement of art.

How much time did it take you to write The Kissing List?

The crazy thing about The Kissing List is that it includes stories that I wrote more than ten years ago while I was in graduate school.  You might even encounter a piece that I first drafted when I was working on public education reform in New York City and desperately trying to keep thinking myself as a writer by taking workshops at the Writers Voice at the West Side Y. 

After I discovered that I’d unknowingly written quite a few stories about women in their 20s, I talked to my agent about putting together a collection.  Then, it took about another year for me to write a few more stories to found out the collection. 

Are you a plotter or a ‘pants-er’?

I’m definitely a ‘pants-er’!  The unconscious – mine, other people’s, the whole concept of it – fascinates me, and I definitely give my unconscious free reign when I’m writing first drafts.  I’m curious what I can come up with when I get out of my own way, and I’m interested in the strange connections my mind makes when I’m willing let myself be surprised.

After I’ve let my unconscious out for a romp, I have to put on my critic’s hat.  I really believe the advice (though I can’t recall who said it) that your own fiction (or nonfiction) will teach you what it’s supposed to be about.  After I’ve written a first draft or written enough pages to want to start shaping them, it’s my job to analyze them – to see what my unconscious impulses reveal about the characters, the situation, the narrator and her attitude towards the story, the setting, etc.   Your own sentences – when you read them carefully – will tell you a lot about where you need to direct the rest of your fiction. 

Here’s another lens for thinking about this – in the drafting stage, writers create problems, and in the revision stage, we figure out how to fix them, how to bring together disparate elements in meaningful ways.  Awhile back, I knew I wanted to write a story about a saboteur exterminator (a man who sometimes fed cockroaches hamburger instead of spraying them with poison) and his daughter, a young woman who stole his keys and then went on crazy treasure hunts around the city to find the doors of the apartment building his keys opened.  My unconscious told me these two characters belonged in the same story, and I wrote many scenes of them doing their thing.  The problem was I needed to figure out why the characters were acting the way they were.  What did their actions reveal about their emotional states?  What was happening at home?  What were they compensating for?  By asking these questions and others, I gradually discovered the emotional heart of the story, and I was able to finish it.

What advice would you offer to new writers trying to break into publishing?

This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but I hope it will be heartening to anyone who has been writing for a while and might even find themselves on the right side (or is it the wrong side?) of 40.

I think my writing career was helped enormously by not writing seriously when I was in my twenties. 

Of course, I didn’t know this at the time.  

Even though I always wanted to be a writer, after college and then a two-year stint at graduate school for literature, I decided it was time for me to spend some time in the really “real” world.  Earning my living the old-fashioned way.  Working.  Because I didn’t know how to do anything but write, and because I was homesick for the west, I applied for jobs at daily newspapers from Alaska to Wyoming, and I wound up at the Post-Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a town sandwiched between the Arco Desert, where the first nuclear reactor was built, and the foothills of the Tetons.  I covered everything from school board elections to bilingual education to teenage murderers.  I overcame my shyness and called people I didn’t know.  Best of all, I learned to write quickly and efficiently. 

Busy driving from small town to small town, reporting, filing articles on deadline, I didn’t have the time (or really the inclination) to write much fiction.  This, of course, didn’t stop me from worrying that I was losing my imagination, my creativity, my descriptive touch.  “I will never write a story again,” my 25-year-old self declared melodramatically.  After a year and a half, wanderlust struck.  I sold my second-hand Subaru and with the $1,600 this netted me, I moved to New York City.  I temped for three or four months before I eventually found a job working on public education reform (a passion I had found reporting on Idaho’s public schools). I stayed out late drinking cocktails, I trained for the New York City marathon by running from my office (down in Wall Street) to my then boyfriend’s house (on the Upper West Side), I embraced the crazy energy of the city.  I still wasn’t writing much.

I was 29 when I decided to reorient my life and apply to grad school.  If I didn’t get in (which was nearly the case – I was accepted at just one MFA program!), my fallback plan was to quit my job at Teach For America and become a bartender and write during the day.  What I learned when I wound up in Tucson, Arizona, with my cat and all my worldly possessions, was that all those years of not writing but working were actually quite useful.  I had experiences and material that were interesting; I had a semi-OK work ethic; I was unbelievably grateful not to have to go to an office every day; and I had weaned myself away from my painfully slow, overly precious approach to writing.

So, looking back, two experiences seem to have helped me “break in”: the varied experiences of my 20s and my willingness to take a risk and change everything about my life when I was 29.  I’ve also been lucky to have a number of very fortunate things happen to me.  After finishing my MFA at University of Arizona, I won a Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University, which essentially extended my MFA experience (and my avoidance of a full-time job!) by two years. The Bread Loaf Writers Conference also offered me a waiter scholarship one year and a straight scholarship another. Both summers, I met super nice people who helped me hone my writing and find places to publish some of my stories.  Still, all of the fancy fellowships and good friends mean nothing if you aren’t pacing the always unfamiliar rooms of your imagination on a regular basis.  I’ve learned that again and again during the last ten years. 

This brings me to my final piece of advice: write more!

Even though I’m glad I spent so much time not being a writer when I was in my 20s, I wish I’d written more – or rather, been more disciplined about sitting down at my computer every day and putting in the hard work of getting words on the page – once I’d embarked on this life of letters in my 30s.  It’s easy to get distracted by grading student papers, fighting with your boyfriend, whipping up a batch of ratatouille, painting the medicine cabinet in the bathroom red, and so on.  And, to be honest, juggling everything is something I still struggle with.

On this year’s list of New Year’s resolutions, I’m sure I’ll scribble: “Get up at the crack of dawn every morning and write.” More realistic would be: “Write, even if it’s just a little, every day.”  Similarly, I’ll also be trying to write more loosely – that is, I’ll be trying to let go of my inner perfectionist who thinks every sentence, scene, or page, or whatever the unit of measurement happens to be, needs to be perfect before I can move on.  Raymond Carver said he filled up pages as rapidly as he could when he was writing a first draft.  I’ll be working on doing that.    

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a surreal novel called The Claustrophobic House that explores some of the BIG, FUN metaphysical questions: What is the relationship between the body and the spirit?  If a man dies alone and unnoticed, was he ever really alive?  If you are spiritually, or emotionally, dead, what kind of existence do you have?  Set in Oxford, the book follows four characters – a William Morris scholar who dies and whose body disintegrates into blue dust, a scout who finds severed body parts in the students’ rooms that he cleans, a professor of Medieval literature who specializes in the female mystics, and a misanthropic American graduate student.  As their lives intersect more and more, the book asks whether there is still a place for mystical experiences in Western culture, or whether we have we come to believe that everything must have a scientific or rational explanation.

If you could have coffee/tea/martini with any person (living or dead), who would it be with and why?

I’d love to drink a martini with Haruki Murakami, who has written many surreal novels that leave me breathless, including The Wind-up Bird Chronicles.  He also happens to be a runner, and I am, too, so it would be fascinating to talk to him about his training schedule, his favorite writers, and how he gets the ideas for his incredible novels.

Where can we follow you on the web?


Thank you so much for sharing your writing path with us today, Stephanie! Readers: Post a comment for Stephanie, and be sure to come back this Friday for an excerpt of The Kissing List


Thorne said...

Great writing advice. It's all about discipline and honing your life experiences into stories even if you took the long way around!

Laine said...

Thanks for all of the good advice. This was a nice interview. You sound like a risk-taking adventurous woman. Not sure I could have traveled around to all these places without a bit more job security.
Looking forward to your book.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Stephanie! Great advice and I'm looking forward to reading The Kissing List.

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