Michael Ray Interview 1/9/2009
William H. Coles
Michael Ray was born in Washington, D.C. He enjoys
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
It is exciting to be able to explore your thoughts about
story and writing in general.
First, what is a zoetrope?
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.
Where do you look in?
There are slats in the cylinder you look through.
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 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
What are the elements of good story as perceived by you
who chooses them and publishes them?
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
Is this characterization?
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
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?
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.
Which says you want quality stories that have
memorability, some meaning, characters that will impact readers.
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
Will short fiction survive in the way we’ve become used
to over the past few decades; or will it change? Will it exist?
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.
Is it true that story is an essential need for humans,
in the way we all need sleep and food?
I think so.
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.
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
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.
Is there morality involved?
You mean is there some sort of moral commentary?
No. More in the sense of John Gardner’s ideas of moral
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.
And that’s how the drama evolves.
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.
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.
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.
Then you focus on consistency and how much the reader
Does fictionalization exist? Is it a process writers
What do you mean by fictionalization?
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
Anything will be based on experience. Anything you
imagine is based on experience.
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
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.
And that can be the advantage of working through a
narrator as you’re writing a story? This separates the author from the story?
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
[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
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?
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
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
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.
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
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.
All the prose needs to serve the story’s purpose. The
purpose should dictate the prose.
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?
[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
A lot of this is thinking before we write. Doesn’t that
make our writing more effective?
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
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?
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.
What the ending is?
Absolutely. They need that kind of certainty to start.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And that’s a great idea.
It’s a great idea. And then he worked toward that. And
when it happens, it’s really powerful.
That’s what can make a story great? The preordained plot
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
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
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
Clarity is a gift. A real plus. And imagery.
(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?
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.
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
Again, a narrative that is important is something that
has a purpose, something that is achieved with facility.
Isn’t the narrative you speak of a process rather than
an end product. Or is it different?
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.
You’re talking about the “telling” of the story . . .
related to process but not exclusively the “how to”?
With the role-playing games, the narrative goes on for
years; with the short story it’s confined to, say, three- to twelve-thousand
So you are using the term, narrative, as everything in
the storytelling process?
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
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
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.
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
What will be the effect of online publishing for print
publishers and for writers trying to achieve recognition if print medium?
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
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.
So how do you feel about that?
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.
Do you feel strongly enough about it that you would not
publish someone who is not a subscriber?
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.
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?
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.
Are there rules to follow when you run a contest?
Anonymity? Everything is read. Competent judges with consistent ideas about the
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.
Thanks for the clarification. The general feeling is a
distrust for the number of these contests [that now operate in literary
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
One final question. What are your educational opportunities and philosophies?
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.
I would like to personally thank you for your Belize workshops where you’ve provided access to some extremely talented writers to see how they 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.
It’s been great. I learned a lot!
I enjoyed the conversation.