On Writing

RECENT DISCOVERIES IN FICTION---------HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

January 1, 2014

David Haynes, A Star In the Face of the Sky
Ian McEwan, Black Dogs, novella
Paul Harding, Tinkers, novel
Pat Barker, Border Crossing, novel
Alice Mattison, In Case We're Separated, linked stories
John Gahern, Amongst Women, novel
Jane Gardam, Old Filth, The Man In The Wooden Hat, Faith Fox, Flight of the Maidens, novels
Margot Livesey, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, novel
Carol Birch, Jamrach's Menagerie, novel
Lan Samantha Chang, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, novel
Elizabeth Tallent, Time With Children, story collection
Pat Barker, Another World, novel
Pat Barker, Regeneration, novel
Michael Cunningham, By Nightfall, novel, Speciman Days, linked novellas
Liam Callanan, Cloud Atlas, novel
Michael Parker, The Watery Part of the World, novel
Kathyrn Harrison, The Seal Wife, novel
Eric Ambler, The Light of Day, novel
Shirley Hazzard, 3 novels: The Transit of Venus, The Great Fire, The Bay of Noon

March 27, 2011

THE INNER AND OUTER WORLD

AN INTERVIEW WITH MEGAN STAFFEL by Want Chyi
First published in Rain Taxi, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring 2010

Megan Staffel is the author of the new short story collection, Lessons in Another Language (Four Way Books, $18.95), a work that hauntingly describes the silences that unite us—however temporarily. In the title story, fourteen year old Nathan comes of age in an artist commune during the summer of 1967, while questions of trust plague the young protagonist in the novella “Natives and Strangers.” Throughout the book, Staffel explores our attempts to plunge into a “raw unorganized existence” where there can be “no facts at all.”
Staffel is the author of two novels, She Wanted Something Else (North Point Press, 1987) and The Notebook of Lost Things (Soho Press, 1999), and of the short story collection A Length of Wire and Other Stories (Pym Randall Press, 1983). She teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and lives with her husband on an old dairy farm in western New York.

Want Chyi has an MFA from Arizona State University and was the International Fiction Editor for Hayden's Ferry Review. She has taught composition and creative writing in Indiana, Arizona, Illinois, and Singapore and currently edits for the online literary journal Our Stories. She is working on a novel.


Want Chyi: Much of your writing features the environment as a central character. This is particularly true in Lessons In Another Language in which the ways people choose to interact with the natural world affect their fate. How important is setting to your work?

Megan Staffel: I live in a landscape-rich part of the country and take great pleasure in my surroundings. For me, place is more than location. It’s topography, climate, geology, flora, and fauna, as well as the economic and social institutions that arise from these elements. Two of the pieces in this collection, the story “Salt,” and the novella, “Natives and Strangers” are set in or near the fictional town of Paris, which is similar to the towns I live near, and is also the setting for my previous novel, The Notebook of Lost Things. My intention, in these fictions, is for setting to be not only the backdrop for my characters’ histories, but an element that shapes them as much as family and culture.
In contemporary fiction, the urban-suburban setting is often taken for granted, and although I have spent many years in cities and have an interest in the kinds of pressures that the anonymous life in a city places upon a character, I feel a particular calling to write about places where true physical isolation is a factor, and where ironically, anonymity can’t exist because people are known and always watched over. This more public but limited existence profiles the existential questions of our lives in a very different manner.

WC: There are several stories in this collection that focus on sibling relationships. What interests you about sibling relationships? What makes them a ripe topic for fiction—specifically yours?

MS: The sibling relationship, by its very nature, is filled with drama. Two people who have the same parents share the same house and the same general period of time, nevertheless are completely different human beings and have completely different memories and relationships with those parents. My sister and I are close and my son and daughter are close; we are for each other a witness to the very same troubles and mysteries . And yet, despite that common territory, a huge chasm separates us. These relationships interest me because they contain these contradictions. (more…)

March 27, 2011

CLOSING REMARKS


I was the keynote speaker at The Alfred Literary Festival, held at Alfred University on May 2010. It featured readings by poet Jim Shephard and fiction writer Rahul Mehta. My reading was the final reading and these are my introductory remarks:

In 1927, in his seminal work, a collection of lectures on the novel called Aspects of the Novel, writer EM Forster said, “In daily life, we never understand each other, neither complete clairvoyance nor complete confessional exists. We know each other approximately, by external signs, and these serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner as well as their outer life can be exposed. And this is why they often seem more definite than characters in history, or even our own friends; we have been told all about them that can be told; even if they are imperfect or unreal, they do not contain any secrets, whereas our friends do and must, mutual secrecy being one of the conditions of life upon this globe.”


In 2010 I don’t think novelists want to reveal all of the secrets of their characters. We know that it’s important to withhold almost as much as we reveal. In this way, we create surprise, build tension, increase narrative momentum, those aspects of the novel that keep the reader turning pages.

But also, we have a different relationship to life now. We know we can’t know it. We know how very small we are, how very insignificant. We know that life is time and that time never stops. When Frank Sinatra, having left Ada Gardner, gazes down at the naked body of Lana Turner reclining in her bathtub in Jim Shepard’s poem, he says, “Nothing stays the same for very long.”

And because nothing stays the same for very long, we need literature. (more…)

photos by Peg Prisco