On Writing

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. And the contradictions, I think, are what make them so emotionally intense.

WC: Not only is this bond pivotal in your stories, but the adults also seem more childish, or at least more capable of foolish or foolhardy decisions than the children, who often find themselves powerless in light of these decisions. What do you feel these stories perhaps say about the world of children versus the world of adults?

MS: In the United States of America, so much can go so wrong. There’s no social safety net, no body of tradition. Add to that the isolation created by our competitive and paranoid culture, and the fracturing of families and extended families. The sum of these conditions makes the parent/child relationship a carnival of mistakes. But even so, children emerge as children, which means they’re still people who aren’t afraid to tell the truth. Guided by dreams and intuition, they live lives in opposition to the adults, lives that haven’t been coaxed into reasonableness or falsified into a vision of good. I see them as messengers from the land of honesty, and as a writer, I want to create those moments when the reasonableness and defensiveness of the adult is challenged by the raw, more primitive emotions of the child.

WC: One of the best examples of that dynamic is in “Daily Life of the Pioneers,” a story that combines all of the elements we’ve been talking about: an indispensable setting coupled with siblings in opposition to their parents as well as to other immature adults. What was the inspiration for that story?

MS: Over the years, I’ve brought many dinner guests to tears by turning my camp experience into stories that made people laugh so hard they cried. But I’ve never been able to write about it. I’ve tried a number of times and failed. I had to create distance between myself and my memory of the summer my parents sent my sister and me to a camp that resembled the one in the story. Every time I visited that place as a writer, I’d end up feeling sorry for those two little girls. Self-pity kills invention, and that was the problem. I had to invent the narrator, and the narrator’s only job is to tell the story; she can’t also feel it. So it was many years before I could invent a narrator who could do this, and then separate that narrator from the older sister who, of course, is a version of myself.

WC: In earlier drafts, that story was named “The Children Creature.” What led to the change?

MS: I’ve framed this story in two different ways, and an earlier version, still called “The Children’s Creature,” was published in The Seattle Review for their fall 2009 issue. It’s a more compressed telling of the camp story, and because the focus is still on the sibling relationship, it has the original title. “Daily Life of the Pioneers” frames the camp story in a different place—that is, the narrator follows the children through the entire three weeks of camp and beyond that, into their lives as adults. And in doing so, it seems to me that the focus shifts from the children’s relationship to each other, and is now on the burden of their identity as pioneers in camp, and beyond.

WC: How does your perspective on your work shift as you make revisions?

MS: The challenge of revision is to attempt objectivity, despite familiarity with the work. To try and create that objectivity, I question all of my choices starting with structure: Would the scenes be more effective in a different order? I examine the narrator’s role: Is the narrator’s voice distinct from the characters? Does the narrator modulate narrative distance effectively? I read the dialogue out loud to test its believability. I notice the visual details: Can the reader see the place and the characters? Finally, I wrestle with the characters. Are the protagonist’s contradictions revealed? Is the moral dilemma complex enough so that there isn’t a clear right or wrong choice? Do the secondary characters put pressures on the protagonist? Do they make a reader’s sympathetic or unsympathetic judgments of the protagonist possible?
I always think of revision as a process of deepening my understanding of the work. Although I’m its creator, the holder of its overriding vision, I find it helpful to pretend I’ve hired a narrator to work as the stage manager and production assistant. And also, in the case of third person—the form I most often work in—to be the voice of the story. Revision, then, is the process of checking up on this individual’s work.

WC: This is your second story collection, following the publication of a novel. What led to your return to short stories? What do you see as the advantages of one form over the other?

MS: My prime interests, in the story, are language and setting. The narrator’s voice must be distinct; the language must be vivid. The setting must have these qualities too. All of the above are a great challenge and that’s why I work with short stories. Their appeal for me is their manageability. You can come to the end of a story in one session; you can hold the whole thing in your hand and shape it like a piece of clay.
WC: How does the long or short form speak to certain strengths of yours as a writer?

MS: I am, by nature, a novelist. I speak slowly; I deliberate. Furthermore, I am
attracted to complexity and enjoy delayed gratification. I love watching suspense build and develop. When writing a short story I am aware all of the time that I must rein myself in and thwart my natural inclination to embellish and expand. I usually take a break between novels to shape an idea I’ve been turning over in my mind into a story. I also take breaks from a novel while I’m engaged with it, if the idea for the story feels insistent.

WC: Because you sometimes take breaks from a novel to work on short stories, were any of these stories written or begun during work on your novel, The Notebook of Lost Things? What are some of the challenges of doing both simultaneously?

MS: My husband and I grow pickling cucumbers and we ferment them in crocks to make crock pickles. These require substantial setting-aside periods. My work does too. I get too close to it to be able to see what I’m doing, so in between revisions, I set it aside. It doesn’t ferment, but it does grow strange, and that’s what I want. I’ve found that switching to another form during this time helps me to obtain the kind of reader objectivity I need when I return to the other project.

WC: There were many instances when I thought I knew where a story was going but was utterly surprised by the end. How do you decide when a story is over?

MS: A story creates a frame around a movement in time. It bites off a piece of life. This is why it’s necessary to read stories. Life’s constancy of movement lulls us into a soporific acceptance. If you frame a portion of it, you lift it out of context. And suddenly, it can look very different. Tragedy can frame the continuous movement of life the same way a story does. For instance, we all know what we were doing on the morning of September 11, 2001. That morning has been lifted out of our lives and will always be separate.
I know I’ve arrived at the ending of a story if I’ve taken it to a place where something has happened that removes that particular life out of its assumed trajectory. It no longer fits, and thus, hangs in suspension. A short story frames a piece of the movement of life in such a way that it can never go back into place. What will happen next? We have to go to novels and novellas to find out.

WC: That moment you’re describing seems to be the theme that connects all of the stories in Lessons in Another Language, the moment when nothing in life can go back into place. For many of your characters, that moment seems to revolve around what is revealed and what is withheld, and how and why certain characters choose to reveal their secrets at all. As a writer, how do you decide what to tell?

MS: My first impulse as a writer and as a human being is to tell everything. I am greedy for giving and getting information. I think we all are. When I became a parent I had to learn how to withhold. As a mother, I was careful about the release of information to my children. But as a writer, I imagined the reader was waiting for an orgy of revelations, a chance to know and observe all the shady thoughts and occupations my characters indulged in. After all, didn’t we go to fiction to hear what the older woman tells the boy in the garden, to see what the salesman and the girl with the wooden leg are doing up in the hayloft?

Fiction admits us to the private arenas of other people’s lives. What I didn’t realize as a young writer, giddy with the power of telling all, is that more needs to be held back than revealed, and that if a story is to have an element of surprise, every revelation is preceded by withholding. In James Salter’s wonderful story, “Give,” the reader doesn’t know the true relationship between the husband and the family friend, although the narrator sprinkles subtle clues throughout. So when the wife confronts him, we are startled. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” Hulga is expecting to maintain control and impart knowledge to the salesman when she decides to meet him for an amorous adventure. But what she gets instead is a thorough dressing-down and the embarrassment of losing her prosthetic leg. These stories surprise us because crucial information has been withheld. Aristotle called this kind of surprise a reversal. I think of it as a plunge, because when it happens, I feel my insides drop.

Every June, the snapping turtles that live in the creek near my house waddle out to the soft sandy shoulder of the road to make a nest for their eggs. They do this in such a trance-like state, they don’t seem to mind if I stand a few feet away and watch. When a female turtle is finished depositing her eggs, she’s clearly exhausted and slowly drags her body back through the grass to disappear once again into the water. Meanwhile, the eggs in the nest by the road incubate for three months—that’s a very long incubation period, and I presume some of them survive despite the cars, tractors, and animals that in one way or another disturb the nest. I have never seen the eggs hatch or any other sign of baby turtles surviving, and that situation of not ever seeing the end of the snapping turtle story is, it seems to me, emblematic of our general blindness to nature’s designs. Though we have flashes, here and there, that seem to reveal a larger pattern, we never see the total picture. In “The Kiss,” Chekhov’s officer never discovers the identity of the woman who embraced him in that dark room, mistaking him for someone else. Not knowing all of it, not ever getting the complete view, is our burden. But it’s also, in another way, our inspiration, because it obliges us to imagine.

I want the stories I read and write to contain an authority that makes me feel the balance shift between what is known and what is not known. When one character passes important information to another, that new information quickly reorders everything that preceded it; it makes me feel as though I’ve been initiated into a deeper understanding of something.

WC: What helps you decide what should happen after that moment of revelation in a narrative?

MS: When I look at my favorite stories, I see that the moment of revelation is often followed by movement. In Gina Berriault’s brilliant story, “The Mistress” (from Women in Their Beds), the sexually avaricious mistress of the title pulls a leaf off a tree after she finds out that her affair from many years ago caused great distress for an unknown woman and her son. She picks the leaf off mindlessly, but that small action shifts our attention from the subjective to the objective. It puts us outside of the closed container of the character’s mind and allows her discovery to feel familiar and vital also for us. After the wallop of the surprise in Michael Parker’s affecting and funny story, “Muddy Water, Turn to Wine” (from Don’t Make Me Stop Now), the protagonist slides down in the bed to lean his ear against his lover’s breast. He’s decided that her confession requires this pause to listen to her heartbeat, but despite his intention, all he truly hears is the sound of the motel’s air conditioner. We hear it too, and that puts us right there into the moment.

photos by Peg Prisco