Literary Story: Structure, Imagination, Enjoyment, Meaning
Story in Literary Fiction: essays, interviews, stories, advice
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Interview – Lydia Peelle


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What's New in Literary Fiction Read a sample story "Mule Killers"


A phone interview with Lydia Peelle, July 21, 2009

William H. Coles

Lydia Peele

Although she was born in Boston and grew up in the East, Lydia Peelle now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Her fiction has appeared in Granta, One Story, Orion, Epoch, The Sun, and Best New American Voices. She is the recipient of an O. Henry Prize and two Pushcart Prizes. Her MFA degree is from the University of Virginia.

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing

Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing

WHC

Good morning Lydia.  It’s a pleasure to talk with you.

LP

And you too.  Thank you, Bill.

WHC

Congratulations on the publication of  your new collection of short stories.  Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing.  I really enjoyed reading it.

LP

Well, thank you.  And it goes on sale today!  So this is a timely conversation.

WHC

Terrific.

You were born in Boston but you live in Nashville now.  Did you leave Boston early?

LP

No, I actually didn’t.  I grew up in the Northeast and I went to college in New York State.  I didn’t move to Nashville until my early twenties and I’d actually never been in the South before.  So it definitely was a culture shock when I arrived here.  But I have been here on and off ever since.

WHC

Have you found Nashville a rich resource for stories?

LP

For me, personally, it has been.  As I said, when I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect and was immediately struck by the differences between life here in Nashville . . . at the time we were living outside of the city—out in the country in middle Tennessee . . . to life in upper Massachusetts where I grew up.  For me, for a couple years, that was difficult . . . a difficult transition . . . and I had trouble finding my place here.  I actually started writing about it as a way to engage with the place, and with the history of the place. . . kind of to make it home.  So my writing about the South and where I’ve ended up has helped me understand it a little bit more.

WHC

And enjoy it more?

LP

Oh, certainly.

WHC

You received your MFA from the University of Virginia.  Did you enjoy your MFA?  Find it valuable?  And would you recommend an MFA program to beginning writers?

LP

That’s a good question.  I think that any MFA program that allows you a couple of years to work on your writing without having to worry about having a job and making money, is definitely valuable.  That said, I don’t know that I would pay for an MFA program.  I think the most important thing about an MFA program is the community of writers.  You, faculty, your classmates, all being being able to go to readings . . . and I think that in a lot of cities you can find that . . . you can find a writer’s group, and there are great reading series in most cities.  So you can create that community in [the place where you live], but if you choose to go to an MA program, there is that community is [already there].  I would say yes [take an MFA], but not if it is going to put you in debt.

WHC

How did you develop your style and craft?  I don’t mean in the MFA program, but more overall?  The reason for the questions is that writers seek improvement but often can’t find the resources to add skills and knowledge to their process of writing.

LP

Definitely reading everything you can get your hands on.

WHC

Contemporary and classic?

LP

It’s funny.  I certainly have my list of favorites and I know that I have a tendency to stick to those writers, to reread those books over and over again, but I think I’ve learned just as much from pushing myself to read things that don’t necessarily speak to me right away or I wouldn’t call my style or a style I’m trying to learn from.  You can learn from everything.  I also think there’s a great value to letting your own work sit.  I know when I’m in the middle of a piece I can’t identify the style or the voice that’s working through it.  I always need to go away from it for a while and come back to it.  And if you can achieve that point where it feels like someone else’s work, then you can look at it and see it for what it is.

WHC

A more objective approach?

LP

Exactly.

WHC

Where do your ideas for stories come from?  What form do they take in your mind as you begin to write?

LP

Usually, for me, a story starts with an image that I carry around for a while and think about for a great period of time before I start writing about it.  My process includes a lot of false starts.    So I will have a picture in my head, or a snatch of a conversation, or I’ll see someone in a certain place or time, and then I’ll start writing on that idea   Mostly I start doing sketches of it [the piece].  Then I’ll slowly begin to see the story and where it might be headed.  But that is a very slow process . . . with a lot of false starts.  I think for every page that makes it, there are twenty pages that don’t.

WHC

Are you developing characterization at the same time?  Or do you work on story and let the character develop?

LP

Hmmm.  That’s a good question.  The characters definitely develop as I go along.  I’ll have to write the first draft, and maybe the second draft, before I can say to myself: oh, this is who this person is.  [Then I] get an idea of how that person is going to react to certain situations.  So character develops as I go along in the first couple drafts and by the time I’m writing the third or fourth draft I pretty much know everybody well.  I think that that is very important and I think especially in a short story where you are trying to convey so much into a few words.  The better you know your characters the better your story is going to be.

So I wind up writing a lot of background about my characters.  Maybe I’ll write about their childhood.  Maybe I’ll write about where they went to school, and what it was like; the experience they had as a kid; a dog they had once.  And all of that stuff might get thrown out, but then it’s in my head and it makes it into a story in subtle ways.

WHC

What is the relationship of narrator to story that you employ and enjoy the most?  Do you prefer a strong narrator presence in the story, or do you prefer a more distanced narrator.

LP

I really love a first person narrator.  And of course when you use a first person narrator you are setting up some obstacles for yourself because you then have limited yourself [not only] to that person’s view of the world, but also to [himself or herself].  Everything in the story has to be seen through that character’s eyes so it’s hard to really give the reader who that person really is . . . because you can’t get a view from the outside.  [But] I think that the first person narrator can give you such a driving voice and such a window into the story, if you’re having trouble getting going, it can pick you up and give you momentum if you’ve got that voice in your head.  But on the other hand, third person narration, being able to jump around in a more omniscient sense, really opens up such a scope.  I love working on stories with a sense of place and being able to jump around.  That opens up lots of avenues.

WHC

Terrific.  thanks.  You mentioned you had favorite stories.  Would you share a few with us?

LP

Sure.  Authors first.  Contemporary  writers who are masters of the craft: Joy Williams is a writer whom I admire greatly and isn’t as widely read as one would think.  Her short stories are phenomenal. Deborah Eisenberg is another one who was actually a teacher of mine.  She is one of the masters of the short story.  Classics?  I love Faulkner’s short stories.  Of course Eudora Welty.  Flannery O’Connor, although I think you have to be careful when you read O’Connor that you don’t start trying to imitate her.  It’s easy to do and it’s a trap.

WHC

Particularly with voice.

LP

Yes.  And that’s something too.  I read a lot, I read all the time, but when I’m working on something, I try not to read someone with a strong voice.  If you’re reading Cormac McCarthy, I think you start trying to write . . . sometimes it subconscious . . .but it starts coming out.  It’s best to leave his style with him because he’s perfected it.  So when I’m writing, I try to limit my reading.

WHC

Is there a definite difference between memoir and fiction in your mind?  In writing fiction today it seems to be blurring a little bit.  What are your thoughts?

LP

I think they are blurred, and I think they need to remain separate.  If someone is writing a memoir, they should be writing a memoir.  If someone is writing fiction, they should be writing fiction.  I think that the two forms fulfill different things for a reader.  As a reader, when I come to a memoir, I want an account of someone’s life . . . and I’m not interested in it being creatively embellished.

WHC

Would you agree that creating from imagination rather than experience is the strength of creative fiction?

LP

It’s definitely the challenge of creative fiction.  I know that a lot fiction grows out of a real life experience but I do believe to create a really fictional work you have to get away form every day events.  Because it’s not every day life; it’s an art form to reflect life . . . to show us life in a new light.  It’s not meant to record life.  It’s not supposed to be realistic in that way.  So I think that truly great fiction does enter that realm of the imagination that is not just a recording of real life events.

WHC

Do you believe that the fictional story as an art form should work toward epiphanies?  Maybe epiphany is the wrong word, maybe enlightenment of characters and readers?  Also theme and meaning?

LP

That’s an interesting question.  I know that fifty years ago writers of the short story would say there does need to have an epiphany.  I heard someone say once, and I think this is a good rule of thumb, that your characters need to be some place different at the end of your story than they were at the beginning.  And I think that, more so than an epiphany, is what a short story writer should strive for.  Because then your reader  . . . everyone is going to read a story differently and if you write a story with a knock-you-over-the-head epiphany . . . I guess I prefer a more subtle shift over the course of the story.

WHC

And really, enlightenment is a part of epiphany, in a sense, I would think.  The epiphany seems to be often narrowly defined, just because of Joyce I would guess.  But thanks.  I understand [exactly] what you mean.

Do you write daily?  Do you have a schedule?

LP

I do.  I do write every day.  I think it’s important to sit down every day . . . in the morning or else I’ve found I won’t do it at all.  Or if I’m doing other things, I won’t do it.

I know some writers, and I really envy theme, who really enjoy the process.  But for me, I have to make myself sit down.  It’s tough, but you do need to sit down every day.  You need the habit.  Flannery O’Connor has this great take on it: you never know when inspiration is going to strike and when it does strike, you need to be sitting there at your desk.

WHC

Do you write by computer?

LP

No.  I write long hand and then transcribe it onto the computer.

WHC

Are you a fan of electronic publishing.  Do you read on Kindle and that sort of device.

LP

No.  I am not a fan . . . to put it gently.  I’m definitely a . . .

WHC

Page-turner?

LP

Yes.  I’m a page-turner.  And I think there is so much physicality to the act of reading . . . [and] even with music these days being more and more something we get from an electronic source . . . I think there is something lost.  There was something lost when we went to CD’s because you can’t have that wonderful feeling of taking the record out of the sleeve and putting it on the turntable.  And when you download [to] an MP3 you don’t have the wonderful experience of putting the CD into the CD player.  But then again, the act of listening to music is the same.  With reading, however, there’s a physicality all the way thorough the process, and I do think that’s important [and that is what is lost with electronic publishing].

WHC

What’s your process of revision?  Do you have ways of approaching revision that you might share?

LP

Well, first and always to let it sit.  To go away form it for a while and try to forget about it . . . so you can come at it with as fresh an eye as possible.  I’m a big fan of literally cutting an pasting.  I’m a big, big fan of printing everything out, laying it out on the floor, cutting out sections and moving them around.  That [value] can’t be replaced when you’re looking at a computer screen; you need to see everything as a whole.   Another thing I’ve done in the past . . . well, I was working on a story and it wasn’t cooking, and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it, and I’d been through several drafts.  Finally I sat down and sketched out a storyboard.  I’m by no means an artist, and I have no drawing or sketching skills, but I just blocked it out–practically with stick figures–and I realized that, well, the reason the story isn’t working is that nothing is happening.  And I didn’t know that until I saw it laid out like that.  So I think anything you can do to look at it differently can turn your point of view a hundred and eighty degrees.  If it helps you to use colors, color code it and look at it–I guess I’m a visual person.  Getting it off the screen and into your hands is so important to your visual process.

WHC

Similar to a film director’s storyboard.

LP

Exactly.

WHC

Sounds useful.

Do you use a content editor or a copy editor before submission?

LP

No.

WHC

Do you have an agent?

LP

Yes.

WHC

Would you recommend beginning authors, or authors who at least have something to sell, seek an agent or approach editors of publishing houses directly.

LP

I think these days you do need an agent.  I did not get an agent until I had a book to sell. That’s really important.  You should have a finished product before you involve an agent in the process.  You need to work on your project in an atmosphere of no pressure.  Especially your first project.  And as soon as someone else is invested in it, it’s no longer yours to be creative with and to follow whatever path it might take you.  It is important for new writers to wait.  Even if you are getting queries from agents.  Write back and say thanks but I’ll be back in touch when I’ve got a book.

WHC

And you're pleased with what you’ve created?

LP

Exactly.

WHC

Is the short story a diminishing art form?  Or is it going to thrive?  Especially in prose on the printed page.

LP

I don’t think it’s diminishing at all.  I think it’s thriving.  Some amazing fiction [is] being published today and some amazing short story collections [too].  You hear all the time that short stories are dying, and people have been saying that for a while now, but I think they’re very much thriving.

WHC

You have an interesting job.  I understand you write speeches for the Governor of Tennessee, which must be a real challenge at times.  There are so many people who come to fiction from so many other sources of employment . . . such as science writers, journalists.  Did you find that your experience in speechwriting helped you in fiction?  Or is it an entirely different discipline?

LP

Hmmm.  Well, it’s an entirely different discipline, yes, and it has helped my fiction writing.  I took the job with some reservation.  I’ve been writing fiction and working on my book for some years, and I was afraid that if I took a job where I was writing all day, then I would exhaust my resources and I wouldn’t have [those resources] for my own work.  But the thing about writing speeches that has been so helpful for me is that nothing in a speech can be understated.  It is got to be stated, and stated again, and stated again.  I tend to be a writer who is extremely understated.  So I think that writing speeches has helped me just put things on the page.  It’s interesting.  If you do have a day job in which you write magazine articles, or as you mentioned, science writing, or doing anything like that, you need to be conscious of how it can help you in your fiction.  But also know that you need to keep it separate.

WHC

Thanks.

What can we expect from you in the future?  What are your career plans?

LP

Well, I’m working on a novel.  I certainly . . . you know when I started writing I was more interested in nonfiction.  I’m very interested in the natural world.  I wouldn’t call it natural history writing any more because I think it has evolved.  But writers like Barry Lopez and Gary Snyder, people who are exploring the natural world in prose but not necessarily in fiction, have always inspired me.  So I think there are books like that in my future.  And that is another thing I would say to people.  You need, first and foremost, to be a writer and not limit yourself.  A lot of times a writer says I’m a fiction writer and I’m not going to write a nonfiction book, or I write nonfiction topics so I’m not going to write a novel.  But I think it’s much more fluid than that and I’m going to write whatever sparks my imagination next.

WHC

That’s great.

I’d like to thank you very much for participating in this interview.  It’s been a great pleasure and I absolutely learned a lot.

LP

Great.  Well, thank you.

What's New in Literary Fiction Read a sample story "Mule Killers"

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