Writing Process Blog Tour: James Tate Hill

jt-picture copyJames Tate Hill’s fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The South Carolina Review, and other outlets. He has been a finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Hudson Prize, and in 2012 he was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. His book reviews and interviews can be found at Bookslut, and he serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle. A native of Charleston, West Virginia, he teaches writing at North Carolina A & T State University.

First, let me thank the wonderful Kathy Fish, not only for inviting me to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour, but for allowing me, blogless and Tumblrless as I am, to post this on her blog. Her own responses from July 17 can and should be read further down the blog.

What are you working on?

I’m turning the last corner of line edits on a novel about child stars with mysterious talents. It charts the stardom and complicated romance between two orphans who grow up in an abandoned movie theater. As teenagers, their talents have faded, and the former stars struggle to pull themselves from downward spirals. Seeing similarities in their stories, they wonder if more than fate and their own bad choices are behind their demise.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The novel has speculative elements in the tradition of books like Geek Love and Never Let Me Go, but I don’t—I can’t—write prose like Katherine Dunn or Kazuo Ishiguro. In fact, the novel’s coming-of-age structure might place it as firmly in the category of Young Adult as so-called Literary Fiction. I’m certain the work of writers like Kevin Wilson, Stephen King, and Shirley Jackson, ostensibly writers for an adult audience, helped to shape this novel, and I hope my work has a fraction of the psychological complexity of theirs. But as I forge my own complicated romance with more and more Young Adult fiction, I’m finding complexity is more a function of writer and story than genre.

Why do you write what you do?

All my writing projects, or the ones that work, can be traced to an obsession. Since early childhood, I’ve been obsessed with fame, show business, celebrity of just about any stripe. Why I’ve been so interested in this topic is a question for another day—I have my theories—but as far back as my early twenties, I noticed the stories I enjoyed writing most invariably involved a character, not necessarily the main character, in the public eye. Inevitably any story about fame takes place in the gap, small or large, between perception and reality, a space every writer probably explores on some level.

How does your writing process work?

In the fabled showdown of tortoise v. hare, I’m definitely the tortoise, although I’ve yet to win any races. I began the first, altogether different version of this project eight years ago, a few days after the death of the novel that came before it. I had been fortunate enough to find an agent for a love story set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, a novel whose myriad shortcomings are better left unmentioned. But the rejection of that more traditional narrative led me pretty far in the other direction—a little too far, as it turned out. Fast-forward a few years. I had just completed a mystery and had written twenty-five pages of a new novel that weren’t bad, but sitting down to work on it felt like creating a human being, cell by cell. When I heard a faint heartbeat, it wasn’t coming from the new project; it was coming from the figurative drawer in which I had buried the child stars project years earlier. An idea took shape pretty quickly, a story that ran from page one all the way to the end, which is to say a genuine plot. Only the heartbeat, i.e. the central conceit, of the earlier drafts lives on, but after eight years the book seems to be what it wanted to be all along.

The following writers have generously agreed to continue the tour next Thursday:

Valerie Nieman is the author of three novels, the most recent being Blood Clay, winner of the Eric Hoffer Award in General Fiction and a finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Prize. Her 1988 novel Neena Gathering was returned to print last year by Permuted Press as a classic in the post-apocalyptic genre. Currently a North Carolina Arts Council Fellow, she has received an NEA creative writing fellowship as well as grants in West Virginia and Kentucky. Her debut poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, will be joined by a new book, Hotel Worthy, forthcoming in 2015. Her poetry has been honored with the Greg Grummer Prize and the Nazim Hikmet Prize. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte, she was a newspaper reporter and editor for many years. She now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University and is the poetry editor of Prime Number magazine.
Find out more at http://www.valnieman.com

Ariell Cacciola is a writer based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies. She also translates from German to English and is finishing her first novel. She holds a BA in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where she received a merit fellowship and a literary translation fellowship in 2011-2012 to Leipzig, Germany.
Find out more at http://www.ariellcacciola.com

Robert Long Foreman is from Wheeling, West Virginia. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared most recently in Hobart, Fourth Genre, the 2014 Pushcart Anthology, and Another Chicago Magazine. He teaches creative writing and literature at Rhode Island College.
Find out more at http://www.robertlongforeman.tumblr.com

My Writing Process – Blog Tour

Many thanks to my friend and amazing author, Myfanwy Collins, for inviting me to participate in this Writing Process Blog Tour. (If you haven’t see it, here is her terrific post.)

1) What are you working on?

Two things: I’m pulling together a new collection which may turn out to be a novella of connected flash-length stories. It is moving in that direction and I’m excited about it.

I’ll be a little coy about the second project and just say it involves an invitation to teach flash fiction and I’m extremely excited for the opportunity.

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I’m not sure my work fits into any specific genre. I do write a lot of literary flash fiction, as well as prose poetry and regular length short stories. Sometimes I go a little experimental with my writing. I’m not really sure what distinguishes my work from other literary writing beyond my own style, which of course is unique to everyone.

3) Why do you write what you do?

I was recently asked this question for Flash Fiction Chronicles. And while I write things other than flash, much of the answer pertains to all of my writing so I’ll just link my answer here: “Why I Write Flash Fiction.”

4) How does your writing process work?

I’m constantly going over the same material. Most things I publish now I can trace back to some embryonic scribbles in a notebook from months, if not years, ago. That’s why I always describe myself as a slow writer. There is some feeling that there’s something there in a line or an image that keeps drawing me back to it.

Another part of my process is a tendency to weirdify my past (which is weird enough already). I like to look for the strangest aspect and just run with it. And I love to write down weird bits of overheard dialogue. I love to listen to strangers’ conversations. I love to watch people in airports. All pretty typical writer stuff.

I have asked the following terrific writers to go next. Look for their responses July 24th (James Tate Hill is going to honor me by posting his response here on my blog):

Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have
appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Unstuck, Birkensnake, and other
places. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was
published by firthFORTH Books in 2012, and her novel, Une Ville Vide,
by PublieMonde in 2013. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart
Prize, the British Science Fiction Award, and included in the Wigleaf
top 50 longlist. Find out more at http://beritellingsen.com.

Rebecca Meacham is the author the flash fiction collection Morbid Curiosities, which won the 2013 New Delta Review chapbook contest. Her story collection, Let’s Do, won University of North Texas Press’s 2004 Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Read more at: http://rebeccameachamwriter.com

James Tate Hill’s fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora
Review, The South Carolina Review, and other outlets. He has been a
finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award and the Hudson Prize, and in
2012 he was a semifinalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award.
His book reviews and interviews can be found at Bookslut, and he
serves as Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle. A native of Charleston,
West Virginia, he teaches writing at North Carolina A & T State
University.

Flash Fiction: The Blue of Milk

Asked by the editors of Blue Fifth Review to comment on the writing of this piece, I said, “La lecture huile sur toile is such a beautiful and ghostly painting. It evoked in me a terrible sense of loneliness. From that feeling, I created this gauzy scene with two characters: A naked woman walking in the moonlight and a small boy trailing behind her, dragging a white blanket. I wrote various observers into the story and finally settled on a man walking his dog. I wrote the story with the repetitions and flow the way it felt and sounded to my ear. Later, in revision, I found myself trying to wrestle the story from its strangeness into something safer, but it just wouldn’t take. I wrote a new ending, went deeper into the strangeness, and finally the story felt exactly true and right.”

The Blue of Milk*

There was a woman who went to the park at night and swung on the swings and drank from a bottle in a paper bag. When she became dizzy she would stand and remove her clothes and walk the perimeter of the park singing low.

There was a man who walked his dog, who saw her, but kept to the other side of the street and never entered the park. When the moon was out and shining she looked blue he thought a naked blue or silver or the blue of milk but he tried not to look at her.

There was a small child who lay in bed waiting for his mother to return. He decided one night to follow her.

The man saw the boy trailing far behind the woman. The boy dragged a blanket. The man kept to the other side of the street and didn’t enter the park.

All the nights after this were the same with the woman taking off all her clothes and circling the park and drinking from the bottle in the bag and the boy trailing behind like a ghost and the man walking his dog and seeing them both but keeping to the other side of the street and not entering the park or calling out to the woman and the boy.

The nights grew colder. The woman persisted with taking off her clothes and the boy persisted with following her in just his thin pajamas and the man persisted in walking his dog but the man began wearing a coat and the dog too wore a coat that matched the man’s.

One night the man’s dog, a terrier growing old and blind, started to bark at the woman as she passed by and the woman and the boy trailing behind her were startled and for the first time noticed the man and his dog and the woman stopped and the boy stopped and the woman cried out and the terrier strained at his leash and the man felt now he had no choice but to cross the street and enter the park and apologize for his dog and get the woman to put on her clothes and maybe help her and her son back to their house and God knows what else but now he probably had to do something as they had both seen him.

The terrier stopped barking and the man bent to pick him up as he crossed the street and entered the park and approached the woman who was crying and patting the head of the boy whose arms were wrapped around her naked legs.

The man said I apologize if my dog frightened you I don’t know what got into him but see he’s very sweet really and you can pet him if you’d like. The man knelt and the boy reached out his hand to let the terrier smell it. Both the boy and the woman petted the terrier and let him lick their hands and the man tried not to look at the woman.

Ma’am he said you seem to have misplaced your clothes can I help you find them? The boy looked up to his mother now embarrassed but the mother only said yes let’s find my clothes and she set down the bag with the bottle in it in such a way that it would not tip over.

Her clothes lay on the ground near the swings and the woman pulled them on. They were only pajamas and it had gotten quite cold now and the man took off his coat and put it over the woman’s shoulders and his stocking cap he put on the boy’s head and now everybody looked quite normal and it seemed okay to walk them home which he offered to do.

It turned out that the woman and the boy lived not far from where the man lived, on his own with the terrier, though he’d never seen them during the day or any other place in the neighborhood. She asked him to come inside and she would make them all tea but she was unsteady on her feet. She said this is our abode and it sounded like a warble and she made a sweeping gesture with her arm and the boy started to cry. She went to the kitchen and the man sat down with his terrier on his lap and the boy lay on the floor with the blanket knotted in his fist.

The woman brought a cup of water with a tea bag in it but the water had not been heated. The man watched the brown color of the tea swirl slowly into the clear water and said I would like to help you if I can do you need some money or food do you have a job what can I do? The woman said there is nothing to be done or said we are fine you finish your tea and go please. The boy dragged his blanket to the other room and the woman said we need to sleep now and she came to the man with the terrier on his lap and gave him a kiss on the cheek. The man could see her breast through the opening in her pajamas and he touched it and mouthed it and she let him and she liked it and this is how they were for some time, the woman bent to the man, the long strands of her hair falling onto the little dog’s head and over his blind eyes, in the quiet of the woman’s abode.

*originally published in Blue Fifth Review: Blue Five Notebook Series, in response to la lecture huile sur toile by Francis Denis. Thanks to Sam Rasnake and Michelle Elvy for inviting me to contribute.

Reading & Books I’m Looking Forward To Reading

Doll PalaceSomehow I’ve been given the tremendous honor of reading an advance copy of Sara Lippmann’s forthcoming collection from Dock Street Press, DOLL PALACE. I’ve only just started, but, people, all I can say is…oh man. And here is just a sampling from the story, “The Last Resort”:

That was all it took. Phil rose up from the heat and left the water and ran for his son. His soles slapped the concrete. His body shook in the wintry air. He did not notice the cold. He ran. He drew in his elbows. He bowed his head. Like this, he ran, far away from the young one who touched the edge of his lip, the girl in the whirlpool making waves, the sweet flesh of a child whom he could almost hear whisper I love you.

I hope to write a full review when I’m finished. Releasing in September, the collection may be pre-ordered now from Dock Street Press.

if i would leave myself behindOh, Lauren Becker’s novella & story collection, IF I WOULD LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND, has just released from Chicago publisher, Curbside Splendor. I’m a fan of her writing and this book is right at the top of my ridiculously bloated to-read list.

Ethel Rohan has a short memoir out from e-book publisher Shebooks, OUT OF DUBLIN, that I’m eager to read. I’ve always admired Ethel’s fierce, brave, honest work.out of dublin

the book of laneyFurther out, I am so excited that my talented friend, Myfanwy Collins, has a new novel forthcoming in March, 2015, THE BOOK OF LANEY, from YA publisher, Lacewing Books–an imprint of Engine Books which published Myfanwy’s novel, ECHOLOCATION. This one promises to be just as stunning. UPDATE: THE BOOK OF LANEY IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER FROM LACEWING BOOKS!!!

And Lindsay Hunter’s book, UGLY GIRLS, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux. Lindsay Hunter is that combination of brilliant and prolific that astounds me. And I’ve read her story “Summer Massacre” in the latest Denver Quarterly about a hundred times (okay, three times) and it’s beautiful and I’ll stop now before I start speaking in tongues.

And wow, aren’t all these covers gorgeous?

At Flash Fiction Chronicles: Why I Write Flash Fiction

my copies of TWCBIThanks to Jim Harrington, for inviting me to contribute a short piece at Flash Fiction Chronicles about why I write flash fiction. I don’t see myself as just a flash writer, but it is what I mostly write. For me, it is the art that most closely approximates the way I see the world and how my mind works. You can read my post here at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Oh and leave a comment there, too, if you’d like. I’d love to hear what brings you to flash, as a writer and/or reader.

Segmented Structure in Flash Fiction: Rodney & Chelsea

I wrote several versions of this story, but this version, told in seven subtitled micros, is my favorite. Published years ago in Mississippi Review online, the story now appears in Together We Can Bury It. I’ve talked about segmented structure before, how the story and characterization are advanced and built-upon in short, sharp bursts and how well-suited this form is to flash fiction (see my posts about Jeff Landon’s and Myfanwy Collins’ beautiful segmented stories).

Rodney and Chelsea

1. Tangerines

Rodney and Chelsea have decided this is the day. They are sixteen years old and they are in love. Neither of them has ever done it, though Rodney has come close with a girl he worked with at Dairy Queen who smelled like French fries and who had perfect, melon-sized breasts. Chelsea’s breasts are more the size of tangerines, but he likes them. He likes that she smells like Fruit Loops and that her front teeth overlap slightly. Her mouth is glossed. He slips his tongue inside.

2. Bear Spirit

“Rodney’s an old man’s name,” Chelsea’s mom says and calls him Rascal instead. It makes Rodney feel like a Labrador.

Chelsea’s mom believes that life is a celebration and that people should live in the Now. Chelsea has an older brother named Royal. Nobody knows where the hell he is. He ran away from the halfway house downtown, the place Chelsea’s mom said was his best chance and hope. He has a behavior disorder which involves beating people up. He doesn’t know his own strength is what Chelsea’s mom says. He has a bear spirit. He is un-ruinable.

The last guy he beat up now walks with a cane.

3. The Bunnies

Chelsea’s father left when Royal was ten and Chelsea was a newborn. Every Easter, he sends Chelsea a six-foot Easter bunny and now she has sixteen huge Easter bunnies and there are no more places to sit in Chelsea’s house. Sometimes people sit on the bunnies’ laps or sometimes they just stand, looking around or sometimes they sit on the floor.

4. A Small Complication

Their first date, Rodney plucked a daffodil from Chelsea’s garden and presented it to her at the door. And Chelsea’s mom gave them Boone’s Farm, mixed with a splash of 7Up. All three of them got a little drunk, sitting on the porch watching the sun go down and a full moon rise. Chelsea’s mom insisted on driving Rodney home. Before he got out of the car, she pulled his face to hers and kissed him, hard.

5. About Rodney’s Parents . . .

Rodney doesn’t have any siblings. He feels lucky, given the circumstances. His mother died of cancer when he was five. He remembers standing on tiptoe to reach a cookie off a plate on the counter and her hand slapping his away. He tries to really see that hand, to see something about it that is especially hers, but it always ends up being just a hand.

Rodney’s father is a podiatrist who is working on his overall fitness. Every day at dawn, he walks the perimeter of the cul-de-sac, gripping fifty-pound dumbbells in each hand. In warm weather he goes without a shirt, his burgeoning muscles gleaming. He makes three trips around, bobs his chin to Chelsea’s mom who watches from her kitchen window, and lays the dumbbells on the porch in the special box. He consumes nothing but protein: lamb chops, sausages, steaks as thick as two hands clamped together. He will never love another woman, he promises Rodney, who really doesn’t care if he does or not. Rodney only wants his father to be happy, which his father assures him he is.

6. Clinical

Two bunnies sit in opposite corners of Chelsea’s bedroom. One is missing an eye and one’s polka-dotted ear is nearly torn off. Rodney and Chelsea undress in a clinical manner and fold their clothes as if, together, they have decided to join the Army. Rodney has seen parts of Chelsea but never the whole and now he stands before her and reaches out to touch one tangerine breast. Unsure of what to do with her own hands, Chelsea simply places them on Rodney’s shoulders.

She’s afraid to get closer because his thing is standing up. She digs her toes into the pink shag rug and closes her eyes. The breeze through the window is making the shutters flap against the window frame and Rodney’s breath smells like oatmeal and grape jelly.

7. The Now

At this moment Chelsea’s dad is getting fired from his job selling tires in Terre Haute and her mom is hunched over a patient, scraping plaque in an office downtown, thinking of that kiss and Royal’s getting the shit kicked out of him in a bar in Tucson. At this moment, Rodney’s dad’s outside on the curb, sweating, coughing, turning blue, as Rodney kisses Chelsea. Like howling into her mouth.

A Conversation with Gay Degani, Author of WHAT CAME BEFORE

gay-aug-2012

“I’ve grown to trust that I have the answers to story problems somewhere in my head or at least in some brainstorming activity I can employ. Trusting that I will solve the problem allows me to let go of the problem and once I let go, answers start bubbling up. This comes from the act of working at craft over a period of time, failing, and then eventually succeeding. It works for writing, it works for life.” ~Gay Degani

Gay Degani is a writer and friend whom I’ve had the pleasure of knowing for many years. We first “met” on the Zoetrope Virtual Studios site where we were both writing flash fiction. She is well-known and respected in the lit community and manages to do so many things I suspect she has cloned herself. I was eager to get Gay here on my blog to talk about her new novel, What Came Before, and just to chat in general about the craft of writing. Life kept interrupting us both, but we enjoyed a fun email exchange over the course of a few weeks.

Get the book!

Get the book!

If you aren’t familiar with the book here is a synopsis from the jacket copy: “A literary suspense novel sparked by racial tensions and family history. Fed up with being tied down by twenty-five years of domestic bliss and everyone’s expectations, Abbie Palmer is struggling to assert some independence from her husband Craig and find her creative self. When he tells her, “No man is an island,” she flings back, “That’s exactly what I want to be, an island. I’m sick of being a whole continent.” But breaking away from her mainland isn’t so easy, what with cops, Molotov cocktails and Hollywood starlets, lost memories – and maybe an unknown half-sister…”

KF: Gay, my first question comes from having read a blog post of yours about an incident from your young life that I’ll quote here:

“I stood in front of two water fountains. I’d never had a choice like this before. Not in California.

One was labeled “white” and one was labeled “colored.” What would most little kids choose? I chose “colored,” of course, because to my mind that meant the water would come out like a rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. When it didn’t, I was disappointed. I tried the white one. The two sprays of water were exactly the same. I was confused and angry.

I ran back to my grandpa. He said one was for white people, the other was for “colored” people. When I asked why, he just shrugged. I don’t remember for sure, but I think it was my father who explained it to me, that this kind of thing existed in the world.

And I wish I could say I knew instinctively at that young age the wrongness of it, but I didn’t. It’s something I have learned as I’ve grown into myself, through reading, through the experiences of the growing up in the fifties and sixties, through watching the news filled with civil rights marches, the Watts riots, and assassinations (MLK, Medgar Evers, Malcom X), how human beings tend to exist in a real world. “What Came Before” springs from a desire to show that people are more alike than different and that our differences enrich us.”

So could you talk a little about what went into your decision to have the character of Makenna be African-American?

GD: Originally, my concept for this story was simple: write a fast and funny story about a woman whose life goes awry when a sister she didn’t know existed is murdered and she’s stuck with her “niece,” me thinking “Ruthless People,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” something reminiscent of an 80′s comedy.

I’d been writing screenplays and had turned one of them into a novel when I realized how hard it is to negotiate around in the movie business and I was totally inhibited by pitching stories and selling myself. Novels felt safer and more clear-cut with less schmoozing. Little did I know…

At first, the “niece” character was white and the whole thing felt flat to me. There was no surprise. I’d been interning at Chaffey College to teach English and the woman in charge of the program was African-American and did a class on some of the things she felt white people didn’t understand about racism, addressing the subtle cues people send out even though they think of themselves as open-minded liberals, but often say or do things that are offensive to people of color. It was an eye-opening for me. I decided to make the niece African-American, though for me, a timid soul who steers clear of controversy, it was a somewhat frightening idea. What if I unintentionally wrote something that would anger people? But I wanted to do it, needed to do it for my own growth, and suddenly, a whole new, deeper story began to emerge.

KF: What happened that made you move away from the original fast and funny idea to something deeper, Gay? (take this question any direction you want).

GD: The simple and most accurate answer is that the story became deeper through my own growing love for my two main characters and wanting to tell their story in a way that would make readers love them too. And I wasn’t sure how to do that.

Honestly, it’s taken me a long long time to understand what elements a story must have to be “good,” and like so many writers who just start writing without the benefit of a structured program, I didn’t “get” that there are common elements in most successful stories, including a need for tension between the two main characters. Lesson: Two characters who get along from the get-go are boring, therefore if you have two protagonists, they cannot get along. And it was from seeing the world from my two characters different viewpoints that made me care about them.

I figured this out by taking screenwriting guru Robert McKee’s advice. (He wrote a terrific book on structure called Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting). He suggests that by studying movies to learn how story and structure work, you will begin to understand that the audience (or readers) have certain expectations and how good movies (and good books) meet those expectations. “Outrageous Fortune” and “Trading Places” were perfect illustrations for me to figure out how the main relationship in a piece of fiction should work. Once I realized the story needed to have tension between the two main characters, I knew I wanted to find ways to cause friction between Abbie and Makenna.

I wanted to create characters–especially Makenna–who would be believable and not trite. The only way I could do that was to write about her as a person, a teenager, as I understand teenagers. My emphasis had to be on her humanity, flaws and assets, not on her race so I made her middle-class. I know the middle class. I am in the middle class. She became real to me, like a daughter, just as she became real to Abbie.

I owed both of them a good, strong story where their weaknesses are acknowledged, but also where their humanity triumphs. The original text is the skeleton to final work with many, many changes. I left in the original yoga scene with its slapstick elements, though I felt I’d eventually have to take it out, but then it occurred to me that the books and movies also need surprise, and that perhaps that scene should stay. Writing is, after all, a process of creating, filtering, excising, and adding, and by mindfully allowing that process to do its job, a piece of work you love may result.

KF: Fantastic, Gay! I’ve heard so much about the McKee book…do you recommend it? Even if I’m not interested in writing a screenplay? I’ve heard from others it’s a great book.

GD: Kathy, I found him a revelation. Because I have a knack for words (or thought I did), I used language to drive story which is okay, but you still need to know how to go back and create purpose and sense out of the language. I really didn’t know how to do that. I ended up with convoluted stories to save all those paragraphs and details I loved. Reading McKee helped me to understand how structure is really the thing that should drive the piece. Not like an outline and not like a formula, but more as a guideline to what expectations the reader has when he or she picks up a book.

KF: I think that’s very apt what McKee says about “expectations” and that it may be the reason why a reader or a movie goer might not enjoy a book or film, saying well, everything was great (like the prose, or the acting, cinematography, etc.), yet they just didn’t end up liking it. Those ingrained expectations of how story works have not been met.

Once you read McKee’s book and felt like you “got it” regarding necessary elements of structure, did you find yourself going back to unpublished work or other works in progress to “fix” them?

GD: You say, after I “got it!” This made me shake my head because there is no way I can pinpoint this. The process has been so slow. Maybe it’s because I haven’t been in a structured program focused on learning the craft in a given time frame within a community of writers. For me, everything has been stretched out and amorphous, a kind of made-up-as I-go-along MFA, so going back to fix both works in-progress and published pieces is woven into my learning curve. Very little that I’ve published has been left untouched. Understanding structure is key to my writing and without that ability to question my text with structure in mind, I don’t know if I would still be writing. It’s what allows me to layer in meaning, and without meaning, without some emotional resonance, at least for me, lovely words just aren’t enough.

KF: Did it change your reading of other people’s stories or your experience watching films?

GD: Understanding structure has made me a smart-aleck. When a conversation about the strengths or weaknesses of a movie is going on, I can’t help myself. I pipe up with all the structural reasons it did or didn’t work. “Die Hard” works because it has such a solid structure. “Iron Man 2” doesn’t because it has no structure. Structure isn’t linear. It’s not the same thing as a string of events. It has set-ups and pay-offs which need to be employed to reveal character and meaning. It fulfills the expectations we have when we read, watch, or listen to a story.

It’s made it very difficult for me to finish reading a book that rambles on and on without telling me what the character wants or needs. I don’t need to be hit over the head with it, but I have to have a sense of inner conflict. The art on the part of the writer is letting me know this is happening on some level and then showing me why the character can or cannot change.

KF: Also, you said: “Writing is, after all, a process of creating, filtering, excising, and adding, and by mindfully allowing that process to do its job, a piece of work you love may result.”

This is excellent. I love “mindfully allowing that process to do its job.” And how you mindfully approached this novel. My next question is, this sounds so lovely, and so natural and smart. I envision you calmly and mindfully writing, revising this novel and loving every aspect of the process. Is that the experience you had?

GD: Ha! I hope you mean you envision me “calmly and mindfully writing” over a twelve-year period because that’s how long it’s taken me to get this novel right. And I’ve been “writing” one way or another since the fifth grade, most of that time scribbling pretty sentences, nice images, in stories that were convoluted and unsatisfying.

I was a mess of self-doubt for most of the last 40+ years, and it’s only been these twenty years or so that I’ve made real progress, when I cobbled together my self-propelled “MFA,” and began to understand structure. I’ve grown to trust that I have the answers to story problems somewhere in my head or at least in some brainstorming activity I can employ. Trusting that I will solve the problem allows me to let go of the problem and once I let go, answers start bubbling up. This comes from the act of working at craft over a period of time, failing, and then eventually succeeding. It works for writing, it works for life.

KF: Thanks so much, Gay!

Readers, What Came Before is published by Every Day Novels, an imprint of Every Day Publishing, Ltd., and has been serialized on its site. The book may be purchased from Amazon or Barnes & Noble and I highly, highly recommend it!

Gay Degani lives in Southern California with her husband in an old Victorian house where parrots congregate at dusk in the oaks and camphors around her neighborhood.

She has published fiction online and in print including her collection, Pomegranate Stories. She is founder and editor-emeritus of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles, a staff editor at Smokelong Quarterly, and blogs at Words in Place where a complete list of her work can be found as well as her social media links.

Three times nominated for Pushcart consideration and winner of the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize, Gay has won or been a finalist in contests sponsored by Women On Writing, Glimmer Train, Writer’s Digest’s Short Short Competition, and Bosque (The Magazine). Her novella, The Old Road, has been unfolding in Pure Slush’s 2014-A Year in Stories project. She blogs at: Words in Place.