Writing Stories from the Level of the Sentence

The following interview with Laurie Stone about her book My Life as an Animal was conducted by Flash Frontier and appears online in their September Feature.

Flash Frontier: This is a collection of interlinking stories. The chapters revisit themes, characters, and locations. Did you set out to write such a collection, or did the idea occur to you when you discovered your stories were overlapping?

Laurie Stone: I don’t write individual stories with the idea of building a book, and yet a book has to be something different from a bunch of pieces arranged next to each other. Once I had a critical mass of writing connected to leaving and returning to New York and to falling in love, I began to move the stories around like puzzle pieces until a structure emerged. Each piece earned its place by either making something strange feel ordinary or by making something ordinary seem strange. Really, I do not think the order matters as much as the consistency of the narrative voice. I like to imagine a novel as a bowl you smash against a wall. The shards are these stories.

FF: The stories reflect different kinds of ‘dislocation’. Tell us more about that. Why is dislocation compelling for a writer? Is it compelling for you as a woman?

LS: The narrator of the stories, like the author who wrote them, lacks a sense of home in physical locations. She likes being a guest, a visitor, while looking for the next bed (preferably in a hotel room). The streets of New York City come closest to being a home, but more often “home” is people she loves. I do not know if dislocation is compelling as a subject for writers, but I think arrivals and departures provide plot elements. That and bond-and-betrayal. I don’t know too many plots. I am happy when I can seize on any.

FF: Humour runs through the stories. When for example the narrator goes to the hospital to see her mother for what will be the last time, she writes, “When I enter the room I see a pile of sticks. She screams, ‘Get away’. Her voice is so loud the woman in the next bed pleads with me to stop her. ‘How’? I say, ‘I’m open to suggestions’.” What is the role of humour in your writing?

LS: I work with Mel Brooks’ definitions of comedy. He says, “Tragedy is when I have a hangnail. Comedy is when you fall off a cliff and die.” He says, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” I like to dramatize contradictions that cannot be resolved. Human beings desire to be in two places at the same time: here and somewhere familiar we have never seen before. I am on guard against writing stories that portray a hero and stories that portray a victim or a victim-hero – the most common form of the memoir. These are stories, in essence, that flatter the narrator. My narrators need to be vulnerable and limited. Comedy is about limits. Tragedy is about transcendence. I do not believe in transcendence. I am pretty sure a story has shaken loose the human’s needs to look good and show off when the story generates laughter.

FF: Tell us about your title. Did you come up with it before you’d written the stories?

LS: I mostly use one-word titles for my stories, and the titles are descriptive, i.e. ‘Catch’, ‘Dog’, ‘Happiness’. I do not want to suggest meaning for the reader. The job of the writer is not to organize meaning. That is the job of the reader. The job of the writer is to seduce the reader into thinking the story is about the reader. In other words I try not to tell the reader what to make of anything on the page. I only want to keep them reading. The title “My Life as an Animal” seemed descriptive of the narrator of these stories, a person who feels herself an animal riven by a brain that allows her to think about “not here” and “not now”—the tenets of language and of symbolic thinking.

FF: You recently had a story published at Blue Five Notebook. There’s sparseness in that story that we’ve seen frequently in your writing. You even go so far as to write in that flash about what was not said (reflecting the oft-quoted truth about flash, that the essence is often in what is not there). How does writing flash fiction differ, for you, to writing a set of stories like these?

LS: The process of writing longer pieces does not differ much from writing very short pieces because I work at the level of the sentence in everything. I work as the end of the pen or the finger tips on a keyboard, meaning a strong, sexy sentence conveying ambivalence or beauty leads to the sentence that follows it. For me there is no pre-writing. There is no outlining. I work with layering. Something happens in a sentence. The narrator tells the reader about the narrator’s reaction in the moment of that event, and the narrator also tells the reader about how the narrator feels now, looking back, from the vantage point of time passed. There are always two time frames at work: the immediate reaction (the present) and the reaction that has probably changed in looking back. The look back could be 5 minutes later or 25 years later. It does not matter. The story is not really about what happened. It is about what the narrator makes of what happened, that quality of thought and speculation and memory and joyous discover and make it up, sentence by sentence. Sometimes you get the job done in a few sentences. Sometimes you need thousands of words to exploit the possibilities your sentences have stirred up. It’s all invented in the moment, and it is all fiction in that the world you have produced is entirely composed of language.

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Laurie Stone is an author, most recently of My Life as an Animal, a series of linked, comic stories. She won the Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics. She participated in “Novel,” living in a house built by architects and situated in an art gallery in the Flux Factory. Her work has appeared in Fence, Open City, Anderbo, Threepenny Review and many other journals. Her latest collaboration with musical composer Gordon Beeferman, “You, the Weather, a Wolf,” will be presented in New York City on December 21 2016.

Laurie will be the visiting author at the Women At Woodstock Writers Retreat on Nov 3rd.

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