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Q and A

May 14, 2015; Myles Asks:

Hi. I recently heard a reading of The Minimalist on a radio broadcast which I really enjoyed. Unfortunately Im not sure which programme it was part of or even which station. I wondered know if you know where I might find it as a podcast? Ive checked the NPR website and cant find anything..

Stacey answers:

That was Parker Posey reading The Minimalist for the Selected Shorts reading series and radio broadcast. Click the Art and Artists show on their web page. And thank you so much for asking! I'd sort of forgotten about it and haven't listened to it yet myself.

Apr 26, 2015; Michael Henry Asks:

Stacey! If you had to write a screenplay about your life, what would you focus on? Any must-have songs or bands on the soundtrack? Would you invent new characters and scenes, dip your toes into fiction instead of fact? Which actresses should audition for the role? Is it even possible to make an accurate biopic about a writer? Writers spend so much time alone – reading, writing, brooding, fantasizing, masturbating, daydreaming –this is not the stuff of drama. The only scene I remember from The Hours is Nicole Kidman just sitting alone and staring off into space. I’ve read a number of your responses but there is little autobiography here. It’s as if the posts are in your voice, but you go out of your way to keep personal info off the Internet. Do you identify as bisexual or straight? Are you a loner or social? Will you continue to write and publish personal essays, mosaics, memoir?

Fiction writers can describe the thoughts of their characters, going into great detail about what a character yearns for and remembers. Playwrights and screenwriters cannot describe what a character is thinking about. How can playwrights make up for the loss of going inside a character’s headspace? I’m wondering if a play can have the same impact as a novel. Why has American drama not achieved the same imaginative stature as American prose and poetry?

I’ve been thinking about genre a lot lately. What interests me most here is what compels one writer to work in a particular genre instead of another. Fiction might be categorized into the literary vs. tension-filled works; in the latter, the central conflict moves the narrative forward to the resolution of the mystery, suspense or some other device. In the former, prose rhythm, details, a distinct voice, and a sense that the work is doing something new, all detonate to form the thrust of the book. I used to dismiss conflict, believing that language, word beauty, and sentences were what a writer had to spend time toiling over. But now I'm not as certain.

There are three things I want to know: 1. Why does a playwright write plays and not poetry and how do poets decide they must write poetry instead of essays and memoir? Many writers work in multiple genres, but usually they lean on one particular genre. This observation rings true with fiction writers that write in different forms – mysteries, crime, YA, fantasy, romance. Why does one publish crime and mystery novels and not erotica and romance? The simple answer could be that that’s what they choose to do and that is enough. But I'm not convinced. Your stories show up in all sorts of places – volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Pushcart, Fairy Tale collections, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction (I own and like this one). Do you deliberately set out to explore a specific genre?

“Caveman in the Hedges” is one of your most popular stories and l love the story as it is. But why didn’t you take the situation (cavepersons all around) and write a screenplay version of “Caveman in the Hedges”? That story could also easily be a one-act play but isn’t. Why? What makes a person use this form and not that? Why take the emotions, history, people, ideas and junk you obsess over and become a writer instead of a painter? Why does one person become a doctor and not a philosopher? And why will a philosopher teach, think and write for a living instead of steal, lie and hide in the Shadow?

I no longer like the term plot. Lots of writing advice asks us to figure out what a character desires and then insert the obstacles. While what a character wants matters in the long run, it doesn’t help much in the beginning. Just knowing your protagonist yearns for a glass of water or forgiveness won't necessarily give a writer momentum, right? Maybe the better approach is in the details, the specificity. If details are the life-blood of fiction, then the conflict might come in making those sensory details as conflicting as possible. So two questions: 1. How can I add more conflict to any piece of writing be it an essay, a poem, a monologue or musical? 2. How can writers raise the stakes? How can we amp up the tension and suspense? Stakes can be dismissed as something only hack would ever consider, but raising the stakes in a play, a novel, or TV show is a requirement that can’t be ignored.

I am also not sure if I like the way we talk about voice. For me, saying that a writer has to find a voice is like saying a writer needs a head attached. Every text has a voice – a physics textbook, a prose poem – what we ought to discuss are the parts that make up a literary voice. Voice is an aggregate of word choice, sentence structure, literary devices, figurative language, sensory details, description, formatting, tone, and the stuff that makes up point-of-view—not just who’s doing the telling and to whom but also the spatial and temporal distance. Why discuss something as vague as voice when really we should be diving right into these topics? Agree or disagree? What do you think when a fellow writer talks about finding a voice? Is it harder to maintain the interest of a reader by being especially literary, intelligent, sensitive, weird, lyrical, meta, tricky, hyperbolic, political, contemporary, vampireish?

Should writers even think about genre? Are you conscious of this sort of stuff or is it best to just let the writing happen? Our impulse is to analyze, interpret, make meaning. But there are times when might it might be better to not think about the rules, the slogans (Show, don’t tell!), the contests, the writers that can afford to live in Brooklyn, the publications, the glamor. But that is so hard to do!

There is a much deeper subject at stake here and eventually I would love to address some of these questions. For now I’m happy with any response! I believe at one time you were writing poetry so I’m hoping you will want to comment on this discussion. Your last response to my ranting was great. I want to start a blog now. So my plan is to start on Twitter. I suppose one decision about blogging is deciding what subject to write about. This may not interest you but “666” was included in the ninth edition of Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway. I loved that because I went on and on about my love of creative writing books, especially the Burroway text. I thank you for your advice and wisdom and look forward to hearing from you again!

Stacey answers:

Michael Henry! Thank you for the question! It's long so I've divided it up into five subquestions.

1) What about Stacey Richter, the film?

I will be played by Sean Young on ecstasy.

2) What compels one writer to work in a particular genre instead of another?And how can playwrights make up for the loss of what’s going on inside a character’s headspace?

What compels a writer to work in a particular genre is that she loves reading books in that genre. You cannot fake it; only someone who really loves romance novels, for instance, can write romance novels—it turns into satire pretty quickly if you don’t love the format. Playwrights love theater; that’s why they write for it. You can try to write for money, but even then most people will eventually gravitate to the form and subject matter that means the most to them. Their real desires seep out. Like the Eagles say, you can’t hide your lying eyes.

There’s an amazing thing about plays and movies that makes up for the lack of interior thought, and that’s the presence of actors. We read faces; they reveal shifting emotions. We read voices and body language. A good actor can add an astonishing amount of depth to a script. Janet Leigh’s face in Psycho, when she’s checking the rear view mirror—no words could better show the complexity of her worry, guilt, and exhilaration.

3) How can I add more conflict? How can writers raise the stakes?

I like to think of stories in terms of progression, narrative pleasure, and destination, rather than in terms of conflict, obstacles, and stakes. If you think about conflict in terms of desires and obstacles, you’re doomed. Readers can feel the formula and it’s boring. In fact, let’s just forget about conflict altogether. If you have two characters who each want something, difficulties are inevitable. It helps if your story takes place at a time when interesting things are occurring—that’s why it’s a story. Fiction should be powered by the same impulse you feel when you need to tell a story to your friends at a bar—something happened. It was interesting; it bothered you. Other people were there and they said things. It meant something.

Raising the stakes is something you’re told to do when your story is not interesting. There’s nothing less rewarding than a formulaic plot plodding by with everything getting worse and worse, and I’m especially annoyed by worn devices meant to raise the stakes: the clock ticking relentlessly in the tower. Ugh. It makes me nervous, tick tick. It’s not nice, it feels like a stunt. There’s no need to raise the stakes if the story is already interesting—in fact, it would ruin it. To add a ticking clock to Pride and Prejudice would be an insult to Elizabeth Bennet. A well-formed premise (well, it’s kind of perfect, actually), like that of Pride and Prejudice, can carry a whole novel forward with apparent effortlessness.

4) Why discuss something as vague as “voice”? Is it more useful to break it down into its component parts?

Finding your voice is something you are told to do when your story is not interesting. Writers who publish books don’t talk about voice; writing teachers talk about it to their students. What these teachers mean when they say you need to find your voice is that you’re over-influenced by the books you love and your writing sounds someone else. You’ll always have influences, but once you’ve digested them and can belch out sentences that sound like your own, you’ve basically “found your voice.” It is, in fact, the one thing you can’t really think about or take apart with any success (you do just let it happen). As I’ve said in this forum before, I believe the best way to do this is by finding your truelove subject matter. When you write about matters that are of deadly interest to you, important and fraught and maybe a little unnerving, you have a better chance of sounding like yourself.

However, not everyone has something that means that much to them (or that really bothers them), and not everyone has anything in particular they need to say in art and writing. I’m confused by people like this who want to be writers—I’m not exactly sure what drives them. Writing is not glamorous Michael Henry. Ha! Maybe a few people wring some stature from it, but most of it is like always having homework you haven’t finished and never being quite smart enough to do it right and always being withdrawn into your own little world and finally putting all you’ve got into something and then being confronted by other people’s indifference to it. It can be pretty arduous. It’s nice to set your own hours though.

5) Should writers even think about genre? There is a much deeper subject at stake here and eventually I would love to address some of these questions.

There is. What I read in this long question as a whole is that you don’t know what to write about but want to write very badly, and you’re afraid of doing it wrong. Good. Everyone is. Nonetheless, you have to make some decisions. How much of yourself are you going to have to reveal to the world? How much are you going to have to reveal to yourself? Not just in terms of straight or gay, social or a loner, but what do you love and hate and will you take a stand? And once you choose something—a form, say—does everything else become off-limits or somehow ruined? The answer, Michael Henry, is no. People in their twenties like to torture themselves over life decisions: should I take this internship or that one, break up with someone or not? They can be debilitated by the sense that the smallish decisions of now will have grave repercussions for their future—but you know what? It’s not like that. It kind of doesn’t matter what you do in your twenties, not on the micro-scale of months or a few years (as long as you don’t totally fuck up—but even then, I know people who were heroin addicts in their twenties and are family men today). The things that really affect your fate in your twenties are the things that just happen—you get sick, you hurt yourself, you knock up a girl—events that are basically out of your control. So take it easy. Go ahead and choose; think about genre or don’t. It doesn’t really matter in the way you’re afraid it does. Just start with the sort of writing you like best and see what happens.

Apr 16, 2015; Fiction Class Asks:

What does Pippi do with Ivy at the end of My Date with Satan?

Stacey answers:

She steals her.

Apr 01, 2015; Fuck Mulligan Asks:

I would like to offer my most sincere apologies for what I have said in the past. I have just reread your work with a new mindset. I have found the deeper meanings within them. btw, your writing is not shit.

Stacey answers:

Thanks, Fuck. I appreciate that.

Mar 30, 2015; Sam H. Asks:

(note: I grouped the three questions below together since they're all about the same thing.)

Sam H: Is the Minimalist a love story? Also what do you mean when you say,"I was no longer picturing blue. Blue was picturing me."

Goldfish: Stacey, I read "The Minimalist" quite recently and have a couple of questions regarding the literary piece: 1) Despite the woman saying she doesn't believe in minimalism, do you think she is still a minimalist? 2) Is "The Minimalist" written as an example of literary minimalism? 3) What's the weirdest interpretation of "The Minimalist" that you have received? Do you think "The Minimalist" is heavily open to interpretation? 4) Can you elaborate a bit on the concepts behind "The Minimalist"? Thank you!!! -- G G.

Whitney: We are discussing your story The Minimalist in class. I have a question. Why does the artist go through the transition from blue to something completely different? Does it have a different meaning about identity and loneliness?

Stacey answers:

These are good questions to pose to a class of students reading this story. In fact, I emailed your teacher and told her she was doing a good job. Internet mischievousness cuts both ways, after all: you can ask me questions to try to avoid your homework, and I can search syllabuses and find out who’s teaching that story this semester.

Jan 08, 2015; Anthony Payne Asks:

Hi Stacey, Did you hear the recent announcement that Haruki Murakami will be starting a writing advice column? I've left the URL to a short web article on the matter below. I wonder if you, long-tenured advice columnist, have any advice for novice Haruki Murakami. I bet you do. Thanks! http://www.avclub.com/article/haruki-murakami-writing-advice-column-213509

Stacey answers:

It's up and it's in Japanese! I would tell him to learn English. I'd also advise him to remember that while it's just as easy to try to screw up people's lives as it is to try to help them, trying to screw things up is more fun for the following reasons:

1. People hate sensible advice and loathe sensible advice-givers. People hate advice in general, true, but there's nothing more galling than hearing what you already know from a fussy, tight-laced pollyanna bearing down on you with a platter of sensible, golden scruples with your name engraved on them.

2. It's fun to have an evil plan. We all have one anyway, why not just come out with it? (Murakami probably knows this already--he's a big Jungian shadow guy, as demonstrated in IQ84.)

3. There’s no such thing as good advice.

Dec 19, 2014; Medicine Manatee Asks:

Curious about a definitional clarification. Maybe you can assist. If a person has sexual relations with a conjoined twin, does that constitute a menage a trois? I only ask because I am not well-versed in French. At the very least you present yourself as having a French outlook and I presume you can shed light on this vexing question. As always, merci.

Stacey answers:

Yes and no. According to my sources, ménage à trois translates to “household of three,” and indicates a domestic arrangement involving romance, sex, or both. So if you have congress with a conjoined twin—one or both—a few times, it wouldn’t count as a ménage à trois, since you’re not setting up a household. But if the relationship is intense or long term—even without living together—it would qualify if we allow the “household” to be metaphorical, the house of the heart.

Ah, but what if one twin doesn’t want to participate in the relationship? That’s an interesting question. What if they’re conjoined at the foot and can do things in different rooms? What if you’re involved with Abigail of the Abigail and Brittany Hansel pair, and whenever you and Abby do it Brittany goes to sleep? I’d say both cases still constitute ménages à trois. Though only one of the twins is doing the love, the other would always be present while the lovers were having sex, even if she didn’t assist. While the unloved twin might not like this, there’s nothing inherent in the term ménage à trois to imply that it’s a pleasing arrangement for the parties involved. I’m sure it’s not unusual for ménages to be full of bitterness and end badly.

Dec 19, 2014; Scobbard Murcholomey Asks:

(1) If you only could eat one vegetable for the rest of your life, what vegetable would you eat for the rest of your life? (2) How would you prepare it? (3) If you had the option to change its color to some other color than its natural color, what color would you like it to be? I would appreciate a timely response to these questions.

Stacey answers:

I wish I could answer avocado, but the avocado is a fruit, more specifically a singled-seeded berry (I just learned). So I will choose cauliflower. Life without lettuce will be hard, but I'm going with cauliflower. I would change its color to yellow. I would almost always prepare it as a hot mash. Like this:

Cut up 1 large cauliflower and steam it until very soft. While still hot, put it in a food processor with 1/4 stick of butter, 1/4 cup of heavy cream, 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese, and whatever other hard cheese you have moldering in the refrigerator that you want to get rid of. Pulse until smooth. Then add 1/2 teaspoon of Dijon mustard (this is very important), salt, freshly ground pepper, and some green herbs if you have them (last night I used parsley and oregano from the yard). Run the food processor until the vegetable is smooth, like mashed potatoes. This is where you can stop and appreciate the bright yellow pop of color. If it seems chunky, you can add a little more cream; you can also add anything else that seems like it might be good in there, like a clove of garlic or a squirt of Worcestershire sauce. Serve and eat.

Dec 04, 2014; Frappucheeto Asks:

Hello, I am Frappucheeto. Stacey Richter, how do you stay sane in an insane world? Since you won't be able to answer that question, do you have any recent recipes to share? I like to make butternut squash.

Stacey answers:

What makes you think I'm sane? Heavens.

Oh, okay. I see. Ah ha! You pretty much have my number there.

Here's how to make guacamole. The trick is to use fresh lemon juice. Don't use lime juice. You might as well just grind up some dirt and throw it in there--lime juice ruins it. Mash up an avocado or two--they should be soft and all bright green on the inside with no brown; brown tastes bad--then add lemon juice, salt, cilantro, and minced jalepeno peppers to taste. You can add a little minced onion if you want, but it is not necessary, you who are Frappucheeto. Don't put hot sauce in it or tomatoes. They make it look brown and barfy and it will taste less good. Chips are optional. Spoons work.

Nov 20, 2014; JP Asks:

Hi Stacey! I'm covering a few of your stories for a group discussion at school, and I just wanted to know if you would identify yourself as a feminist! Love your work.

Stacey answers:

Yes.

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