1.14.07: StoryQuarterly42: Edward Schwarzschild, Art Bradford, Jack Livings, Michelle Wildgen
1.14.07: KGB's Sunday Night Fiction Series was thrilled to feature readers from StoryQuarterly42. This issue was guest-edited by Walter Stegner fellows and featured work either from Stegner Fellows or from the contemporary writers that inspired them.
Ed Schwarzschild MC'd the evening. It was disappointing that Ed didn't read from any of his past or current projects, but he was a sweet and gracious host and his excitement about the issue and the writers representing it - Art Bradford, Michele Wildgen and Jack Livings - was contagious.
Art Bradford read the beginning of Build it Up, Knock it Down, his story featured in StoryQuarterly42. The story centered on Marvin, a deaf and blind child who appeared in Bradford's first novel, Dogwalker. As expected, Build it Up, Knock it Down had Art's deadpan humor and feckless characters.
Michelle Wildgen read a selection from the new novel she's working on. The selection followed Hal, a burnt-out community activist. Hal was delivering food to homebound adults when he got stuck talking to an ornery woman who made searing observations like, "People think less of you than you think they do."
The last reader, Jack Livings, has an excellent jump shot, if you believe what Ed says.
Jack read the beginning of A Floating Life, a story about a family embroiled in the reality television business. The story was about the powers of love, money and family, and the depth of these themes made his larger-than-life personalities sympathetic and believable.
**This evening's reading will be available soon on podcast. Please stay tuned!**
**Subscribe to KGB BAR Reading Series podcasts in itunes by clicking here; or by copying and pasting: feed://feeds.feedburner.com/kgbbarlive into your favorite podcast application (iTunes, Thunderbird, etc.) In iTunes, simply go to Advanced, then select "subscribe to podcast," and paste in the url above! ***
After the reading, our fabulous new intern Anya Yurchyshyn sat down with the readers for some fruitful literary chit-chat.
Ed Schwarzschild, a former Stegner who's work in StoryQuarterly won him the first Robie MaCauley Award, was co-chair of the committee of Stegner guest-editors.
KGB: Can you talk about your involvement with StoryQuarterly? Your writing has been featured in it and now you've worked as a guest editor.
Edward Schwarzschild: StoryQuarterly has been around for more then 30 years. Despite its name, it's an annual that publishes great fiction. It's a journal that I admired for a long time and submitted work to. Then about five years ago they took one of my stories and it won the Best Story of the Year award from them and then I became more involved with the publication. For this particular issue, Marie asked people from the Stegner Program to co-edit a special issue. We assembled a group of Stegner's and we got Stegners from the last 15 years to either submit or recommend work. We're biased, I suppose, but we're really, really happy with how it turned out.
KGB: Tell us about your current projects.
ES: I have a collection of stories coming out in September and I'm working on a new novel. I have my first sabbatical coming up at the end of the next semester and I'm really looking forward to having a clear space to devote to my work.
KGB: You do a really wonderful job of portraying the intimate complexities of family life, and a lot of your previous work has been at least loosely based on your family. Does your new writing build off those same themes?
ES: My work is definitely wrapped up in families and how they wound each other and break each other's hearts, and how they also manage to heal each other when they get things right, which they occasionally do. My first book, Responsible Men, was a father/son book. My father was a salesman so there's some biographical information there. My new collection is called The Family Diamond. It's interwoven stories about family that are less biographical but still owe a great debt to my grandmother and grandfather. I'm still figuring out my novel, but I understand it right now as a story about brothers.
KGB: Your father supported your decision to deviate from the family career path. However, do you feel there are similarities between being a writer and being a salesman?
ES: Absolutely. That's the irony that I learned in the process of my first book tour. My father would say, "You will never become a traveling salesman. It's a miserable life; I won't let you do that." And then what is a book tour but being a traveling salesman? You're going around doing old-school sales and trying to get on people's radars so they'll remember you for your next book.
Arthur Bradford's first book, Dogwalker, was published by Knopf in 2001 and is in Vintage paperback now. His fiction has appeared in O.Henry Prize Stories, Esquire, McSweeney's, Zoetrope and Dazed and Confused.
KGB: Your entry in McSweeney's Future Dictionary of America was Wankerzone, "a place where hardcore liberals and conservatives go to hit each other with pillows." Are you a fan of pillow fights and do you think that they could help us overcome some of our political issues?
Art Bradford: I am a fan of pillow fights but I'm not sure that my suggestion would really help anything. When I got asked to do that entry I had a really hard time because I knew what everyone was going to do was super left-wing, and not that I'm not sympathetic with that, but I was just so sick of everyone taking shots at each other that I was just trying to be funny about it. But I'm not sure if it was really that funny.
KGB: It was funny.
AB: Well that's good.
KGB: You've spent a lot of time working with people with disabilities. The story you read tonight featured a child, Marvin, who was deaf and blind. Was that character influenced by a particular person you've worked with?
AB: For a while I worked at the Texas School for the Blind where there was a guy that I was totally baffled by how to communicate with because he was deaf and blind. I was amazed by what his world must be like. I've written about him a couple of times because I think he's so crazy interesting. I actually have friends who still work there and he's doing pretty well. But I know so many people with disabilities that sometimes their personalities make it into that character, too.
KGB: How else has your experience working with people with disabilities influenced your work?
AB: For a long time I worked with a group of older men with Down Syndrome. They had this sort of funny way of phrasing things and a lot of times I would write dialogue as if they were the ones talking. I'm not sure that the characters I was writing about in those instances actually had disabilities, but they would have these funny speech patterns. I'm sure every part of my writing is affected by experiences like that. My book, Dogwalker, has a lot of mutations in it. I just think it's interesting to look at the different ways people come out and it's especially fascinating and uplifting when you see a disability or a variation on the norm on somebody who is really doing well and leading a very fulfilling life. I think that is inspiring to everybody.
KGB: What are you working on right now?
AB: I'm working on a novel right now. I was supposed to finish it before our daughter was born two weeks ago. Hopefully I can finish it before she can talk.
KGB: Good luck with that. You probably won't be getting too much sleep this year.
AB: Yeah. We'll see how it goes.
Michelle Wildgen's first novel, You're Not You (St. Martins/Dunne,June 2006), has been praised in People, O Magazine, Elle and The Believer. She is senior editor at Tin House Magazine and at Tin House Books. Her work has been anthologized in Best New American Voices 2004, Best Food Writing 2004, Death by Pad Thai and Other Unforgettable Meals, and Food & Booze: A Tin House Library Feast.
KGB: Tonight you read a selection from the novel you're working on. Like your first book, it had someone who was in a care-giving situation, though more informally as a community activist. Have you had experience as a caregiver or is there something about that emotional relationship that particularly interests you?
Michelle Wildgen: I don't have experience as a caregiver. I think the reasons I end up writing about it are that I have never done anything like that and I think it's really fascinating. I also feel sort of guilty that I've never done anything like it so it's a way of grappling with it without actually having done it. Someday soon I'll actually go and volunteer to find out if I'm completely wrong about everything I've imagined about this type of relationship.
KGB: Where are you with the novel you're working on now?
MW: It's early on. I have the characters and luckily they're interesting enough that every time I sit down to write about them I can see a few pages into the future.
KGB: You do a lot of food writing. Do any of your characters have a love affair with food the way you do?
MW: They do. It's a big theme running through my first novel. I've always kind of used it because when I'm reading books I love to hear what people are eating. I think it's a useful as character tool and it's just pleasurable for me to write about.
KGB: Do you ever find that your ability to write across genres creates a conflict when you're trying to focus on one area?
MW: I try to focus on one thing at a time. If someone asks me to write an article it means I'm not going to work on my novel for a few weeks. It's more of an issue of time. And, actually, when fiction isn't coming well non-fiction will come very easily, so it can be a really nice change of pace.
KGB: How are you enjoying working as an editor for Tin House?
MW: I love it. I don't know any other job that would allow me to work on the kind of writing that I get to work on there. I get to work on exactly the kind of fiction and non-fiction that I love.
Jack Living's work has appeared Story Quarterly, Tin House, The Paris Review and Best American Short Stories.
KGB: Tonight you read the first part of A Floating Life, the work featured in this issue of StoryQuarterly.
Jack Livings: The seven pages that I read tonight are actually ten pages from the magazine. I don't do that thing that people always say you should do, which is read your stories out loud. And I guess with this one I didn't do that or else I wrote it so long ago that I am removed enough from it now that when I went back and looked at it I thought, "Oh, I can cut that page or that graph..." And I feel bad about that because I actually think it reads better now.
KGB: How are you as an editor of your own work? You said that you don't read your work out loud.
JL: I over-edit, and I think my big challenge in life is to learn how to know when to stop. It takes me years and years and years to write a story. I wrote the first draft of that story in 2001 and then drafted it on and off all the way through 2004. Then I just let it sit and then it got published in 2006.
KGB: Is that how you work all the time?
JL: I can't even write an email without revising it. I don't think it's the best way to work, but it's the only way I know how to work and I've tried to work other ways and it's even worse.
KGB: A Floating Life was at least indirectly about reality television. Do you watch a lot of reality television yourself?
JL: I don't. I wrote it because when my wife and I lived in San Francisco we'd both be so exhausted by the end of the day that we would lay on the bed and just rot and watch TV and I thought, "Hmmm, I'll write about that."
KGB: The main character of the story worried that she didn't have maternal instincts and that she wasn't a proper mother figure to her step-son, even though she acted quite maternal toward him and clearly loved him very much. Why did you choose to make her self-conscious about that topic?
JL: Her voice wrote that story so entirely. She kept saying stuff and I didn't really put much of a filter on it. I think she had a lot of self-doubt. She's enormously enamored of her husband and by extension she loved his son. It's a very genuine love but I suspect that she said that to take the edge off of it a little bit, to say, "I don't actually love him as much as I say I do." I like when characters say contradictory things because people say contradictory things and they act in contradictory ways.
-- By Anya Yurchyshyn