As part of my ongoing guest post series in this blog, we recently heard from Pippa Goldschmidt. Today, it is my pleasure to welcome established author, writing teacher, and contributor to the Cooked Up anthology, Roy Kesey. He would be answering questions on writing, his career and his advice for those starting on the writing journey.
Roy Kesey gives very useful, practical advice, some of which I’ve highlighted for you in blue.
1. You’ve lived in a lot of places, and written stories in varied settings, with very diverse premises. What are your tips on research for fiction?
Do as much as you can, and then do some more, and then keep on doing it, for the rest of your life. Really, there’s no other way to keep from producing the kind of thing that will have locals (and anyone else who knows how things really are) rolling their eyes. Also, it will give you access to so much material you’d never have come across otherwise. For example, no matter what kind of job you give to a character, that field has an extraordinary lexical wealth to it, and there’s no better way to give authority and texture to your writing than to have your character think and talk about his or her work in authentic ways.
Another thing I like to do is track down the names (and email addresses) of experts in the field I happen to be researching. They are almost invariably generous with their time and knowledge, and many consider sharing what they know to be a kind of public service. Talking to a top-drawer glaciologist, for example, will not only enrich your story set in the Arctic; it will also help the glaciologist to share good information about how our planet is changing, and what we might hope to do about it.
2. Your stories have been widely published and anthologised. To an aspiring writer submitting to magazines, what would be your advice?
I wish there was some magic formula I could share, but as far as I know, there just isn’t one. There’s only the work—always the work—plus a certain amount of bookkeeping savvy and diligence. Over the years I’ve developed a sense of which magazines are likely to be interested in a given kind of story, but there’s no way to get that except by reading those magazines regularly—if not cover-to-cover, at least the work on their websites. If you do that, and you follow their guidelines carefully, and you’re producing good work, it’s going to find a home. It may take a while—an unfortunately long while, in some cases—but sooner or later an editor will fall in love with it. I realize that’s not a particularly fashionable thing to say these days—you’ll hear others claim that it can’t be done without contacts and an MFA from the get-go—and certainly there are magazines that solicit all or most of the work they end up publishing, but there are also plenty of magazines out there with editors who love nothing more than pulling a gem from the slush.
3. Which of your books would you point to someone unfamiliar with your work?
If a given reader happened to enjoy “How Things End,” they might also like the collection in which it appears, Any Deadly Thing, and maybe the novella to which it is, in a way, related—my first book, Nothing in the World.
4. Who are your writing influences, the authors whose work has inspired you?
I think that most of the instincts that can serve you well as a writer are born out of your experiences as a reader, especially as a young reader. The electric current that surges through you when you happen upon an amazing plot twist or characterization or insight or line of dialogue—that’s where everything starts. A proto-writer is just someone who decides to break the sentence or paragraph apart to figure out how the author managed to produce such an extraordinary affect.
The stuff I read as a kid was pretty standard, probably. Tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur; Dahl and Tolkien, Bradbury and Costain and Rawlings; The Swiss Family Robinson and Watership Down. As for the work that I go back to now to be reminded of all the cool things that fiction can be asked to do, you’re looking at Donald Barthelme and Flannery O’Connor, Borges and Calvino, Cortázar and Gide, Anne Carson and Nathanael West, and lately an increasing obsession with Virginia Woolf.
5. When planning a short story collection, what factors do you keep in mind?
The factors differ from book to book, but my guiding principles usually involve variety and pace. Many collections consist of stories that are excellent when taken individually, but are so similar in terms of voice or plot movement or character type that they all start to run together in my mind if I read more than one or two at a time. My hope is that both All Over and Any Deadly Thing can be read start to finish—that each story is unique enough to stand apart from the others, even while preparing the reader in some sense for the next story in line. It’s often just a matter of paying attention to logistics. I like to vary from story to story especially in terms of length, setting, point of view, and diction. It isn’t always possible to ensure that a given story won’t share any of those elements with the stories right before and after it, but that’s what I’m aiming for.
6. What’s the latest book you’ve read that you would recommend, and why?
I’m crazy in love with all nine of the books I’m teaching this semester as the writer-in-residence at Washington College. The course is called “Non/Fiction,” and we’re working with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, George Trow’s In the Context of No Context, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and Anne Carson’s Nox.
It would be an exercise in futility to try to choose a favorite from among them. The Carson and the Sebald were particularly overwhelming as re-reads. And the Fusselman text, while perhaps less well-known than some of the others, deserves a special shout-out. It’s novella-length nonfiction—not the most common of forms—and it’s wise and brave and funny and heart-breaking. Its two through-lines are interwoven and layered with etymology and parallels gifted by the world, each short section adding good meat. It’s really a very fine book.
7. Please tell us about your story in the Cooked Up Anthology, and what inspired you to write it.
“How Things End” got its start all the way back in the summer of 1990. I was in love with a woman who happened to be staying in a small town on the Adriatic coast, so I made my way down there from Lithuania, where I’d been teaching. The war in Croatia hadn’t begun, but you could feel it coming. And that summer I made friends whom I went back to visit during the war in 1992 and 1993.
The first bit of writing that came out of all that was an episodic, unsuccessful story, which later became an unsuccessful novel, which, several years later, became my first book, the novella Nothing in the World. Of the half-novel that got cut in the process, some of its bits still interested me, two of which happened to be based on episodes from the original unsuccessful story: one about a soldier’s funeral, and one about a badly damaged young man that I met in the course of a gathering in a village on the Cetina River.
“How Things End” grew out of an interest in bringing those two episodes back together. I’m glad that it finally found a home in the world, both for its own sake and because it serves, as I mentioned above, as something of a coda to Nothing in the World.
Roy Kesey‘s latest books are the short story collection Any Deadly Thing (Dzanc Books 2013) and the novel Pacazo (Dzanc Books 2011/Jonathan Cape 2012). He is the winner of an NEA grant for fiction and a PEN/Heim grant for translation. His short stories, essays, translations and poems have appeared in about a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and New Sudden Fiction. He is currently the Writer-in-Residence at Washington College.
Do you read or write short stories? If you do enjoy them, why? And if not, why not? Checked out the Cooked Up anthology? Find interviews with other authors from this anthology HERE. Do you have questions for Roy Kesey– about his work, the publishing scene or his experience and advice as an author? Drop them in the comments!