An Interview with Michael Ray

by William H. Coles


Michael Ray Interview 1/9/2009

William H. Coles

Michael Ray was born in Washington, D.C. He enjoys sports and played lacrosse from the third grade through college–for the Mater Dei School, Georgetown Preparatory School, and Vanderbilt–where he graduated in 1996. He is an avid fan of SEC football. Before Zoetrope, he wrote for many other magazines on music, film, and books. He started at Zoetrope: All-Story in 2002, where he is now the editor. In addition to his editorial duties, he writes scripts for films. He is married, and he and his wife, Anne, have a son.

January 9, 2009

I’m here in San Francisco above the Cafe Zoetrope at Columbus and Kearny in the office of Michael Ray, who is editor of Zoetrope: All-Story, a short story and art quarterly.

 

Thank you, Michael, for agreeing to speak with www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

MR

Absolutely.

WHC

It is exciting to be able to explore your thoughts about story and writing in general.

MR

Absolutely.

WHC

First, what is a zoetrope?

MR

The Zoetrope was a precursor to the motion picture camera, popular around the early twentieth century. It is a cylinder with viewing slats cut in it, a light in the center, and pictures inside. You spin the cylinder and it gives a semblance of motion.

 

WHC

Where do you look in?

MR

There are slats in the cylinder you look through.

WHC

In the same era, there were those stereoscopes with two slightly disparate pictures that were mounted at the end of a hand held magnifier. This gave a three-dimensional image, that was, of course, static. Was its static nature a metaphor maybe for prose, in contrast to the movement in the cinematic image that was the reason the name “zoetrope” was chosen for the magazine?

MR

The magazine was founded by Francis Ford Coppola, who had previously founded a film company called American Zoetrope in the 1970s. He is a romantic for the classic arts and was drawn to the zoetrope as a precursor to film. The name Zoetrope:All-Story takes “Zoetrope” from the film company and “All-Story” as an homage to a magazine that was produced by Munsey in the 1930s. I can show you a copy. [See illustration]

In the thirties there was great public support for the arts. You had these writers, like Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, who could make a living selling stories. Coppola wanted this magazine to work in the same ways . . . to provide a forum for people telling stories. He agreed with Hitchcock who said the short story is the art form most akin to film because as a viewer you can consume [either story or film] in one sitting. Novels are more often adapted to films, but it’s a clumsy process of conflation. However, with a story, the filmmaker can build on what’s there. Coppola also felt that in other industries there is a lot of emphasis on R&D (research and development); he felt the basis of good film is good story, and he therefore had an obligation to provide a forum for storytellers.


Original All-Story, 1936

Contemporary All-Story, 2008

WHC

What are the elements of good story as perceived by you who chooses them and publishes them?

MR

A story has two principal components: First, purpose. What is the story about? When I read stories, I’m thinking: What is this about? Is the idea interesting? The second component is the facility with which the writer achieves that purpose. I think the best stories allow a reader to look past the imposition of the page and immerse him- or herself in the world of the story.

WHC

Is this characterization?

MR

Well, yeah. Characterization and the internal logic of the story . . . the sense that things make sense, that the story is credible . . . that things operate by reason, and there are consequences for actions.

WHC

Is narration important? Are there rules you look for? Some stories are all narrator, others rely on character for telling. Are there choices in narration that make a good story, as you see it?

MR

Well, we’re open to any perspective in voice, and we want the magazine to feel diverse. There are no fixed rules.

Magazines can be more ambitious in the narratives we publish because we’re building an overarching brand. In contrast, mainstream book publishers base an entire marketing campaign on one writer. Magazines can take more chances, and we try to embrace that. We only publish thirty stories a year; and, depending on the year, we receive between 6000 to 10,000 submissions. We really want to feel strongly about everything we publish.

The process of publishing is so subjective . . . if you put somebody else in my position here, the magazine would look totally different. We want a magazine in which every story could be somebody’s favorite; if I’m publishing six stories, I’d rather publish three stories that people love and three stories that people hate, rather than . . . you know . . . six stories people feel apathetic about.

WHC

Which says you want quality stories that have memorability, some meaning, characters that will impact readers.

MR

Yes. We want stories that are going for something. There are a lot of people writing short fiction, and we really want stories that—whether you like them or you don’t like them—in the end you're glad you’ve read them.

WHC

Will short fiction survive in the way we’ve become used to over the past few decades; or will it change? Will it exist?

MR

Well, I guess I think more of . . . narratives, and I think narratives always survive. When you look at the evolution of forms, the novel was the great narrative form of the nineteenth century, film is the great narrative form of the twentieth century, and in the twenty-first century you would think it would be something else. Novels require the mediation of the intellect; whereas in film, images and sound predominate and you can connect more easily on a emotional level; your immersion can be more total and immediate. In some sense, you’re doing less work as a viewer of films than as a reader of books.

If the forms of narrative are becoming more encompassing and multidimensional, I would think the next form would be narratives you can affect . . . which you can already see developing in role-playing games on the internet. In these games you play a character and direct the path of the narrative. That’s all based on character, it’s based on an internal logic of this world, and maybe that’s the narrative form that succeeds film.

So while the forms might change, narrative seems eternal. Even the oldest religious traditions are based in narrative. It’s an elemental way of organizing ideas.

WHC

Is it true that story is an essential need for humans, in the way we all need sleep and food?

MR

I think so.

WHC

It’s a way we communicate—how we enjoy life, and enjoy the past. Story is important. As you’ve indicated, there are so many forms for delivery. I fear for fiction’s survival [as a significant form for storytelling]. Nonfiction—memoir and creative nonfiction—is replacing fiction as a writer technique and in the stories chosen for publication. Yet fiction has special qualities for story presentation not available in other forms.

MR

Well, I think it’s often hard to make meaningful distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. One of my favorite writers of the twentieth century is Richard Yates. If you look at his books, it’s hard to call them fiction. They’re so based on his own life. [And for writers] everything, at some point, is based on personal experience—or something they’ve heard—I mean, every writer I know walks around with a notebook. [A writer] hears something on the subway, or hears someone’s name and thinks that would be a great name for a character. [A writer] is always borrowing from the real world, which makes sense if the objective is to reflect the real world. It’s hard for me to think of fiction wholly cloistered from nonfiction.

People ask: Is the short story dead? Well, people are reading fewer story collections. For me, even coming from a magazine that focuses on short stories, that specific question is less interesting than the evolution of narrative. I think things are going to change as we have different ways of telling stories, but people will still tell stories.

Story starts at its really base origin, say, as people sitting around a campfire and telling stories about their ancestors that have didactic purposes, entertainment purposes, and just [to] help people relate experiences and teach that world to the next generation. The ways to do that just tend to evolve. If you look at these role-playing games, their narratives become so abstracted and mutable that it’s hard to think of them as stories in the same way you think of story in a more static form. Basically, the people who [write] these games, set out characters, [define] the rules that govern a society, and [describe] how people interact—these are their ambitions. And that’s how a story [works]; with a story, you decide the rules that are going to govern this society, and then you define two characters and you put them in a room, and, if you’ve done that initial definition well, the [characters] determine where you’re going.

WHC

Is there morality involved?

MR

You mean is there some sort of moral commentary?

WHC

No. More in the sense of John Gardner’s ideas of moral fiction.

MR

Well, I guess on a certain level . . . yeah . . . I mean, if this is realist fiction, you’re borrowing your morals from the society that surrounds you. If you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, what most likely distinguishes those forms are the rules that govern the characters who exist in that world.

I talk with some professional writers who say the hardest thing with a lot of stories is simply starting—deciding that the base idea is worth writing about. Others just decide on a setting and two characters and start writing. They assume that since there are two characters at some point there will be some sort of conflict.

WHC

And that’s how the drama evolves.

MR

Person A does this to person B; how does B react? Then you follow them along. That does not mean you end up with a story you can sell, but you end up with a story.

WHC

To make a story great, doesn’t the story have to have some idea of the morality? For consistency–to prevent moral wandering. In both the drama and the conflict, too.

MR

Yes, I think a story should be governed by a consistent set of rules from beginning to end—though I’m sure, as with every rule, there are exceptions. How many times have you read something where the rules are leading toward some resolution, and then the writer throws out some twist that seems completely ungrounded in what preceded it? That’s never satisfying. You create characters, you define some consistent rules around them, and they act within those rules. The rules can be as simple as in order to live in this town—say, New York, or San Francisco—you must make this amount of money, you have to have sufficient resources.

WHC

Then you focus on consistency and how much the reader will believe?

MR

Yes.

WHC

Does fictionalization exist? Is it a process writers should understand?

MR

What do you mean by fictionalization?

WHC

It’s a term that comes up frequently in [writing] courses. I think it means taking writing from experience and then “fictionalizing’ that experience so that it becomes ‘fiction.” Go find what’s important to you, what’s happened in your life that’s important to you, people that are important to you–then describe with freedom from the reality. I think that’s what it means. It’s somewhat similar to what you’ve described, although creating two characters in a setting seems to be all imagination, and therefore fiction.

MR

Anything will be based on experience. Anything you imagine is based on experience.

WHC

Charles D’Ambrosio has said to be careful when you’re writing from experience . . . because . . . your experience (he implies) locks in the decisions you will make about your characters and will blunt their potential as characters. And when I think about it more, writing from experience can temper drama and cloud theme–and meaning potential too.

MR

In terms of putting two characters in a room, the difference between writing memoir or a diary entry and writing a story is [with a story] you’re not writing about yourself, you’re writing about this character. It’s a difficult thing to do, and maybe that line between how you would react and how that character would react is ineffable, but I think you need to think about character as something wholly apart from you.

WHC

And that can be the advantage of working through a narrator as you’re writing a story? This separates the author from the story?

MR

It can. It comes down to your objectives in writing. Writing your own experience, if that is what’s interesting to you, is fine—a totally acceptable ambition—but don’t expect other people to be interested in it.

[One of our successful workshop teachers] advises to take some experience that is meaningful to you and then set up some proxy for it . . .because you can’t really write about your mother . . . but if you chose a proxy [for your mother], then you imbue it with all these unique qualities.

Again, I’m hesitant about identifying any fixed rules. Everybody solves problems differently. Successful writers have [found] ways that work for them. Try different ways. [For many] the most direct way is to write first person based on your own experience. Just be careful that you don’t lose objectivity.

WHC

If someone wants to write a great story—a Chekhov type of story that is going to live for generations—they have to start with, as you said, a good idea. And the idea has to be more than something that pleased me, or something I laughed at, or someone I know who was successful at something; instead, writers need to address what about this situation or event from my life will help me create a great story. Is that reasonable?

MR

Something I talk to writers about during the editorial process is reserving room in the story for the reader to participate in its understanding. As a writer, if you immerse yourself too much in the story, you risk standing between your story and your reader. The best stories stand outside their authorship, becoming interesting and powerful to people who don’t know the author, or really care about the author—or the fact that the author wrote this.

With the present educational system for writers—workshops, M.F.A.s—stories can get too worked over. In that environment, writers can become disproportionately focused on one particular impact they intend for a story to have upon a reader; they work the story to have that impact. They workshop it; other people give them advice; and they work it over and over and over.

These stories can be really polished but ultimately unsatisfying, as they lack any true sense of discovery. As a reader, you can watch the story’s various mechanisms working toward one end; and I think you then instinctively resist that end, or that feeling the writer is working so hard to create. And you know you can read the story again and its only potential is to affect you in exactly the same way. It’s been so sharpened to a single point, and that’s not the way life happens.

Think about great music. You can listen to something over and over and discover something new every time. Part of creating that [as a writer] is not working so hard to have one impact . . . not leading somebody to one specific understanding. It’s like putting blinders on somebody in trying to get them to see this one purpose, and in the process you’ve blinded, or blunted, that person’s capability to see all the other impacts the story might have.

This is something I talk a lot about with writers; especially if you’re publishing in a magazine like ours, you can rely on a sophisticated readership—people who really want to engage in stories; and if you can write the whole story to the point there is only one way of understanding it, [you may need] to strip back that exposition to a point where the does become a little bit of a risk [of understanding]. The more that process of understanding can happen off the page, in the reader’s head, the more the reader internalizes the story, imbuing it with emotions beyond anything you could fully describe.

WHC

Do you see in your seminars and courses, a tendency to revise the prose in order to get the effect, when the improvement needed is in core desire of characters, motivations, plot structure, need for action in static situations.

MR

Absolutely. You need to work on those bigger, more fundamental things—on purpose—before you work on the way the purpose is achieved. In an ideal editorial process here, when we have sufficient time, I like to start with a writer by making a list of questions: Why does this character do this? Why does he say yes to this question rather than saying no? And then reminding the writer that even when I understand the reasons, that everything about the story is a decision, and that all the decisions should abide some kind of logic, and characters should make sense, and in essence have the writer defend the character. You can only defend it if the base motivations and the character itself are credible and interesting. Once the characters are strong, the conflict is strong, the structure of the story is interesting, then you start to deal with the prose. Obviously the prose is the easiest thing to deal with first, and I think that’s where people want to go first, thinking: If I replace this period with a semicolon, I’ll change the pacing here and then that solves the problem. But your problem might be more fundamental.

WHC

Or the need to make the prose clever—an oxymoron here, or alliteration. And that rarely fixes the problem if you’re trying to write great stories.

MR

All the prose needs to serve the story’s purpose. The purpose should dictate the prose.

WHC

We’ve covered a number of issues [about the writing process]. Isn’t it of value for each writer to address each of these issues and come to there own attitudes and directions to improve and to incorporate it in the writing process?

MR

[The only time] you need to think about other people in your writing is if you want other people to read your writing. That’s when you consider: How do people read? How do people think about character? What are people looking for? These become important questions.

Again, I think it is a totally respectful ambition to write and write and write just to improve to where you feel proud of your work with no intention of showing it to other people. In some ways that is the most direct path to a satisfying experience. But once you set up publishing as up your goal, then you’re assigning the definition of success to somebody else, which can really be frustrating. But if you do want others to read your work, you need to think about how people approach reading and what they are looking for.

WHC

A lot of this is thinking before we write. Doesn’t that make our writing more effective?

MR

Again, different people write different ways. George Saunders taught [in one of our workshops] that he starts writing and keeps writing until he decides it’s not interesting. But he works on decades of experience and tremendous talent.

WHC

Is a reader able to pick up that attitude in a writer as opposed to a writer who thinks and plans ahead? Is there a difference discernible by the reader?

MR

I think of George’s work, and [remember] he said he thinks every sentence should entertain. If a story doesn’t work, he works back through sentence by sentence until he finds where one that isn’t working. (I hope I’m not abstracting what he said.) As I understand it, you can work back on a sentence-level until you find a sentence that doesn’t work, change it, and then go in a direction that does work. [However], I’ve talked to other writers [who] think about a story incessantly and won’t start writing until they know what the last sentence of the story is going to be.

WHC

What the ending is?

MR

Absolutely. They need that kind of certainty to start.

WHC

If you consider a story as a series of interrelated scenes, and you’re creating a scene, isn’t the creation of the scene more focused to story purpose when you know the ending? The scene can’t be a boxcar in a freight train of tanker cars. A scene needs to be a stateroom on a cruise ship churning towards an exciting destination.

MR

That assumes that your first draft is your final draft. If you’re writing spontaneously and then working back through, the last scene might invalidate everything that came before. And then you rewrite to build to that last scene.

WHC

Would it help to think of a story as a matrix? If a value in a matrix changes, every other value [in that matrix] is also affected. If you have story and ending, and the ending changes, then you need to go back and address if each story element is still working for the story purpose and for the ending. Not revise in isolation.

MR

In thinking about the ambitions for a story—and again he is one of my favorite writers—Charlie D’Ambrosio wrote a story that I love called “Drummond and Son.” It was in The New Yorker five or six years ago; it’s about a father and a son, and the son has schizophrenia and the father fixes typewriters. Charlie said that when he started to write the story his sole intent was to write a story in which a father could tell a son that he loved him and it wouldn’t be sentimental. That’s where he started.

WHC

And that’s a great idea.

MR

It’s a great idea. And then he worked toward that. And when it happens, it’s really powerful.

WHC

That’s what can make a story great? The preordained plot idea?

MR

My purpose in bringing it up is that he set out with a specific objective and was never distracted from that purpose. And that is what the story builds toward. With him, it’s an interesting idea. But put it in another writer’s hands, it’s a different idea. He was able to pull it off in a really powerful way. Stories have a gestalt; it’s not just one thing. You can have a great conception and fail. But Charlie’s immensely talented, and he succeeded.

WHC

He has a great imagination. He creates wonderful scenes. It’s a lesson for all of us struggling along to study someone with that degree of imagination.

MR

You mentioned those little prose tricks some writers are really fond of—like alliteration and excessive description. Charlie’s work is beautiful on a prose level without any of those tricks. He’s writing in plainspoken ways.

WHC

Clarity is a gift. A real plus. And imagery.

MR

Yes.

WHC

(pause) I have a number of specific questions I’d like to ask before we end. First, what about a story submitted to Zoetrope; All-Story makes it acceptable for a screenplay? What are the thresholds? Isn’t that what Coppola was looking for originally?

MR

I should clarify our relationship between story and screenplays. When Francis founded the magazine, the idea was [to find] stories that filmmakers would adapt into films. So he was trying to collect these great stories. And over the years that has evolved simply to a focus on stories.

So when we’re publishing the magazine, we’re not thinking about: would this story make a great screenplay? We’re thinking: is this a great short story? The things that make a story great are the things that make a narrative great, and the things that make a narrative great make a great film. In film there are specific endemic needs that don’t apply to other forms of narrative. But at the base, it has to be a great story.

The only thing in the magazine that relates to film in every issue is our Classic Reprint, which is a story that inspired a great film. That is, again, to underscore this relationship between different art forms—short story and film—and what really is important in narrative. Even in a magazine of short stories, what we are really focused on is narrative. And understand that narrative can appear in many different forms.

WHC

Narrative is a fuzzy concept for me. You can define it differently. It can be a noun or an adjective, and sometimes carries the verb form of “to narrate.” When you say narrative is important to you, what is really important?

MR

Again, a narrative that is important is something that has a purpose, something that is achieved with facility.

WHC

Isn’t the narrative you speak of a process rather than an end product. Or is it different?

MR

I guess it depends on where you set your bounds of a narrative. Like in modern role-playing games, those narratives play out continually. The story evolves over years and different players.

WHC

You’re talking about the “telling” of the story . . . related to process but not exclusively the “how to”?

MR

With the role-playing games, the narrative goes on for years; with the short story it’s confined to, say, three- to twelve-thousand words.

WHC

So you are using the term, narrative, as everything in the storytelling process?

MR

Yes. And it’s all storytelling. Think about it with your kids. The purpose of telling them stories is to teach them things and to organize morals, and to entertain them. It has the same purpose as a short story.

WHC

The problem with the word seems to be in definition. When we think of narration in a story we may think of a narrative passage, in contrast to dialogue, in scene, internal reflection, or transition. It’s a point of confusion for me when you use narrative to mean the way a story is delivered.

MR

Right. I’m thinking about the whole narrative arc.

We focus on short story. There’s a Faulkner quote that all novelists are failed poets. He believed that ambitious writers start with poetry because it’s the most direct and most unrelenting form of narrative. Failing at poetry, they try short stories, and then they try novels. A short story is so compact that every sentence needs to serve some purpose.

WHC

With clarity.

MR

Yes. With clarity. And maybe each sentence will not serve the same purpose, but each needs to be there for a purpose. Great short stories can be intense, sentence-to-sentence, because you can be in control of all components throughout. The novel needs ebb and flow, because if you take a short story’s intensity to 350 pages [novel length], people are going to crack. What we do in the editorial process is strip back everything that isn’t purposeful to get at the core, constantly asking if you can tell this in fewer words.

WHC

What will be the effect of online publishing for print publishers and for writers trying to achieve recognition if print medium?

MR

Online publishing creates more venues for writing. This is great. It allows more opportunities to reach an audience. But it also splinters the audience.

People are now reading in all sorts of venues. In the writing community there is still a premium to publishing in print—I think because there are fewer venues for it.

I was doing a talk at Stanford on a Saturday, and I went into the auditorium and there were maybe a hundred people, and I was thinking: Gosh, this is great . . . people say no one reads short fiction anymore . . . look at all the people here! Coming on a Saturday. But as we got to the Q and A it became clear that the people were not readers but people who wanted to appear in our magazine and others like it. This was at the time when The Atlantic was no longer going to do a story in every issue, and Philip Gourevitch had just taken over the Paris Review and people thought he was going to do less fiction. And people were still decrying the loss of Story magazine.

WHC

And StoryQuarterly.

MR

And I asked them, these are the venues for your work, how many of you actually subscribe to these magazines? And there were very few hands that went up.

WHC

So how do you feel about that?

MR

As much as people talk about the decline of print and that there are not enough short story magazines around and that no one is reading—the people [who are] most concerned are the writers. If you [as a writer] want print to survive, you should read it. Subscribe. We get more submissions than we have subscribers.

WHC

Do you feel strongly enough about it that you would not publish someone who is not a subscriber?

MR

No, we wouldn’t. We want to produce the best work that we can, and any limit upon the pool of stories from which to select undermines that intention. People always feel that my one subscription is not going to make a difference, but it’s like any other public art . . . if it’s not supported and consumed, it’s not going to last. I do understand there is only so much time in a day, and you have a job, have a family, and you want to write, then where does your reading work in? But if you want these forums to survive you have to support them.

WHC

This leads to a delicate question. What is Zoetrope’s attitude toward contests, and what is your philosophy for the future? The reason I ask is that many print and online magazines are beginning to shift the burden of operating costs from subscribers and donors to those who submit their creative work necessary for the magazine. The cost can be significant. Hundreds of dollars a year. It seems unfair. How are you dealing with it?

MR

We don’t charge for regular submissions. People need to understand the economies that govern literary magazines. I don’t know of any literary magazines that support themselves on subscriptions and sales alone. And it’s getting more difficult. We do host a contest. It’s a part of keeping the magazine around.

And we’ve designed the contest to serve writers as best we can. We submit the winning and finalist stories to the top literary agencies for consideration. Every year a few of these emerging writers attract agents as a result. And we publish the winning story as a supplement to our spring issue.

WHC

Are there rules to follow when you run a contest? Anonymity? Everything is read. Competent judges with consistent ideas about the contest.

MR

Yes. That is something we take very seriously. We do the same with stories submitted. When we accept contest stories, we log each one, then assign the story a number—the contact information is stored separately so that all reading is absolutely anonymous. 

WHC

Thanks for the clarification. The general feeling is a distrust for the number of these contests [that now operate in literary publishing].

MR

I certainly can’t defend the concept of contests. I can only speak to how we conduct ours.

As much as writers decry the winnowing of print platforms for their work, if you want to appear in magazines—I’m not saying you should subscribe to Zoetrope—but you should subscribe to or otherwise support some magazine. Otherwise, these publications won’t last. This is a very, very challenging economy for magazines, particularly those that aren’t product-focused.

WHC

One final question. What are your educational opportunities and philosophies?

MR

We offer online writing workshops in short story writing and screenwriting. Information is available on our website. We conduct a story workshop in Belize every summer. We haven’t hosted the screenwriters’ workshop for a couple years just because—as our staff is only two people—we couldn’t manage to work of planning two international workshops. We might restart it in the future. We’ve talked about doing in-person workshops in New York, San Francisco, and LA, but again it gets back to a staff of two and our purpose of generating the magazine.

WHC

I would like to personally thank you for your Belize workshops where you’ve provided access to some extremely talented writers to see how the think, and, of course, thank you for your contribution.

[Our time is up.] Many thanks for doing this interview, for taking your time, and for sharing you ideas and thoughts.

MR

Absolutely.

WHC

It’s been great. I learned a lot!

MR

I enjoyed the conversation.


Read other Interviews by William H. Coles


One comment on “Michael Ray

  • Tommy Noland

    All-Story Magazine was published January 1905 monthly for 11 years. Its name changed to All-Story Weekly and was published until the mid-1920's when it was merged into The Argosy.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>