Interview by Rupert Dastur
Hello, Stephen. It’s great to have this chance to interview someone so enthusiastic about the short story. Why don’t you start of telling us how old were you when you started writing short stories and why you continue to write them today?
I delved into Stephen King’s catalog pretty early on–age 9 or 10–and yet was simultaneously enthralled by R.L. Stine so that I could hardly distinguish between ‘The Tommyknockers’ and ‘Monster Blood’ except to say one had more explicit sex than the other. These sorts of short stories – horror and sci-fi mostly – along with Twilight Zone reruns and reprints of Tales from the Crypt were early inspiration and I felt compelled to try to capture the gruesome, unsettling delights of these works in stories of my own. In some ways I was never content as mere spectator. I always felt the need to consume, process and refract whatever pop culture with which I might be obsessed at the moment and while nowadays I draw more on life experience the impulse is much the same. Like most writers I’m an observer – and yet not content merely to observe. I must record – and yet I’m not content merely to record. I must refract what it is I record through my personal – and highly distorted – lens. While sitting down at a computer to type is a conscious and deliberate act the rest of it – the hewing of existence to suit my own vision – is so habitual as to be near-instinctual and possibly no different from how everybody lives life.
What is it that draws you to the short story form?
What I find most compelling about the form is compression not only of language but of thematic content. If a short story is doing its job well not a single word is wasted nor a single idea. Often this results in the sort of story that centers upon a sole epiphanic moment – and yet I think the short story is no less capable than the novel of density of plot, shifts in tonality, and emotional depth. The short story simply must do it with a precision we don’t necessarily expect of the novel. Everything on the story’s page really should serve at least two – if not more–functions. Exposition should not only move the plot forward but serve to build a character’s identity or ideology and establish the bearing of the fictional world. Every action must generate a kind of emotional resonance. An image can’t simply exist as image; there must be deliberate shape and purpose to it. As a writer it’s challenging to think every word you write – literal, figurative or otherwise – must offer something new and unapparent should the reader peel away the surface and examine more closely – but this challenge is what maintains my interest in the short form.
Were you particularly inspired by any short story writers when you were younger and do those writers still connect with you?
As I grew older and left the likes of R.L. Stine behind certain writers were introduced to me or discovered in ways that now seem entirely formative if not outright prophetic. ‘Chosen People’ by Lisa Zeidner opens with the line “B.J. liked to pick up women at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.” The story only grows bolder, more incisive, unsettling, and hilarious as it explore how – or even if – we can process a tragedy on the scale of the Holocaust and showed me no topic is off limits as long as it’s handled with deftness and wit. Steven Millhauser’s ‘The Other Town’ was also an inspiring early read in the way it eschewed almost all narrative convention taught in writing workshops and yet maintained momentum, tension and dramatic possibility simply by means of its uncanny premise in which the denizens of an unspecified suburb come upon an unpopulated town identical to their own. Millhauser is a precisionist not only of language but of imagination as well and in ‘The Other Town’ he examines every detail of the world he has conjured–be it fantastical or mundane – yet still leaves the reader with a lingering sense of mystery. In many ways he is the sort of writer I aspire to be: methodical yet somehow effortless.
Do you have an audience in mind while you write short stories?
From a short story’s conception to the midpoint of a first draft I try not to focus too much on who the audience is for a particular piece. Between plotting the story’s arc, developing characters, honing the voice, and otherwise doing the necessary business of fiction to then add to the mix hypothetical expectations can be so overwhelming as to be crippling. Like most writers I write the sort of short stories I myself want to read – however that might be defined at the moment – and in fact I want the work initially to develop out of a sort of vacuum. That is to say I hope each piece feels as though no else could or would write such a thing. Who the audience might be then is difficult to determine. As I near the end of a short story, however, I ask myself if I’ve done my job and adequately answered every question a potential reader might ask in order to feel he or she has had a satisfying or fulfilling reading experience. Likewise I ask myself whether I’ve left open enough space in which the reader can engage with the work on their own terms. I don’t want to be too laborious in answering a story’s questions and thereby leave the reader without anything whatsoever to ponder.
What’s your writing process? Morning, evening, pen and paper, laptop?
My writing process is a pretty straightforward one: silence, solitude and a laptop. Some writers I know write with a sort of spontaneity and then go back later to clear out any clutter that might have accumulated during the act of inspiration. Others abide by a daily word count and will meet this goal whatever their feelings might be regarding the quality of output. I myself continually edit and revise as I make my way through a short story. Working on a laptop only encourages this kind of compulsion – and yet I think there’s a sort of freedom in the option of going back to the previous sentence, deleting and rewriting. Do this too often and it can engender a lack of commitment to your own work. Be content with your first or second take on an idea–rather than your third, fourth or fifth–and you might never delve as deep as you can. Not dwelling for an absurd length of time on a single sentence implies to me a sort of confidence akin to egomania and yet who but an egomaniac would care to dwell for so long on their own work?
On that note, what kinds of things do you draw your inspiration from?
Rarely do I ever write anything directly autobiographical. That being said I draw a lot of inspiration from the sort of small town in which I grew up and returned to for a period as an adult. This serves as the initial lens through which I view any story idea no matter how fantastical the conceit. Those who have spent most or all of their lives where the only option for work is menial and low-paying, neighborhoods are abundant with empty, foreclosed homes and there is – in my view – a general atmosphere of weariness, despondency and disinterest in the outside world – those who live in such a place will undoubtedly process and experience the machinations of each story in a very different way than, say, those who live in a less homogenous, less impoverished, more emotionally and intellectually-stimulating environment. Factoring all this in provides a solid foundation for my work and sometimes determines the very direction of plot. On that note I often find myself writing characters who are saddened or made regretful by their small-town existence and are driven by the suspicion that life was once better or could perhaps by some elusive means be made so. I tend to see myself more in such characters and am apt to project my own ideas and emotions into their fictional DNA. On the other hand I quite enjoy writing from the point of view of those who are so content with the narrow, clearly-defined boundaries of their world that they derive a sense of power or control from the familiar. The fun as a writer is then divesting them of that familiarity.
Some of your short stories demonstrates some pretty esoteric knowledge – do you do much research before, or after, you begin writing?
These days my writing entails quite a bit of research as I endeavor to include details that are not accessible through my own limited knowledge of the world. I’ve become particularly interested in issues of spirituality and existence – and yet rather than come at these themes through, say, the direct route of organized religion I choose to filter them through the likes of esoteric philosophy, pseudoscience, metaphysics, conspiracy theories, and cult organizations. All of these – even the most bizarre-seeming notions regarding low-level frequencies and brainwashing–are as indicative as the principles of most mainstream religion of some deeply held system of belief and faith in that which is not objectively provable. Ultimately it’s a fascination on my part with the various strange, convoluted ways with which we cope with the inexplicable.
Many of your short stories – ‘About the Smell’, ‘Skip Class, Hang Out, kill Time’ stand out – are lyrical and rhythmic. Do you think about sound and linguistic pace while writing or edting?
Sometimes I write short stories narrated by characters with an extensive vocabulary and it can be quite entertaining to devise as diffuse and idiosyncratic pattern as possible for their voice.
Other times I write characters with a more limited vocabulary and while this can be more challenging I still feel it’s my duty to find a way within the confines of that particular narration to provide a certain lyricism. Like many writers I often read my work out loud to myself and though realism is not necessarily my goal I think there must be a certain cohesion to the language so that it all feels as though it is spoken by a singular, defined voice. The deeper you get into writing a short story the more apparent it should be if a particular word or syntactical construct is incompatible or incongruous in regards to that piece’s narrator – or if it’s somehow counterproductive to the short story’s pacing and overall arc. That being said I often find myself formulating certain sentences simply because I like the sound or the look upon the page and will push myself to strip away as many familiar phrases as possible so that the reader is not only surprised by the turns in a story’s plot but by its language as well – and yet these considerations are only important to me insofar as they serve to ultimately define a character’s voice or the world he or she inhabits.
What do you think the short story offers writers that the novel doesn’t?
Currently I’m at work on a series of interconnected short stories. Each work can be read on its own and yet there is an overall arc to the collection which expands the deeper the reader delves. All of which is to say I am interested in a novelistic-like framework and yet I really have no interest –in this instance anyway – in molding this series into a more traditional novel. Characters who make brief appearances in early stories often become the focus of later stories and even narrate their own experiences. Similarly, the subplot of one story may become the central plot of another. This approach allows me to continually re-examine the main themes from various angles until they evolve into something entirely new – and by eschewing a more linear format in which one chapter answers the questions of the previous chapter I can shift between events, jump in time and allow the mysteries of each short story to linger in a way I don’t think is possible – not in the way I conceive of it – in a novel. This then is what the short story allows me that no other medium does: I can adopt the guise of a particular character and inhabit it to its full extent or shed it as quickly as need be. I can explore a world for as long as it remains interesting and then remove myself before I’ve exhausted its resources. I can come upon an idea, allow myself to revel in it, then move onto the next without the solemnity nor grandiosity I tend to find in longer works.
Thank you Stephen for your time – we wish you every success with your work.
Stephen Langlois is a writer of the fantastic and absurd. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Glimmer Train, The Portland Review, Monkeybicycle, Profane, Phantom Drift, Burrow Press Review, and Gigantic Sequins, among other places. He is also the recipient of a 2015 NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Center for Fiction. He grew up in Vermont and currently lives in Brooklyn. Visit his website here or follow on Twitter @stphnlanglois.
Rupert Dastur is a writer, editor, and founding director of TSS Publishing. He studied English at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and is Associate Editor at The Word Factory, a leading short story organisation based in London. He’s also Events Coordinator for the Society of Young Publishers (London) and Curator for WritingCompetitions.org. His own work has appeared in a number of places online and in print and he is currently working on his first novel.
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