“One Sentence at a Time”: An Interview With Guest Reader Emma Smith-Stevens
Your first novel, The Australian (Dzanc Books), came out in May and you also recently completed a story collection entitled Greyhounds. Can you talk a bit about writing a novel vs. writing stories and putting together a story collection? How does your process/approach differ?
When writing very short fiction, which describes about half the stories in my collection, I build one sentence at a time, separated by line breaks. Then I delete the line breaks and arrange the sentences into paragraphs. Finally, I revise big picture stuff. I began employing this method after reading Susan Steinberg’s breathtaking and exquisitely gutting story collection Spectacle, wherein each sentence (or, in some cases, phrase) is granted its own line. Time elapses while one’s eyes must scan down the page. This pause gives space for the previous sentence to resonate—also, of course, a function of line breaks in poetry. In Steinberg’s stories, as in very short fiction, there can be no glut. I find that emulating her formal choices while drafting sharpens my mind and ear, honing in on diction, syntax, rhythm, concision. Every sentence in a story must have the meat and momentum to justify its existence.
While drafting my novel The Australian, I was terrified by the risk of putting so much time, effort, and heart into a single work. I composed the final three pages when I was just 15 pages into the story—but how would I get there? I often felt I was alone in the middle of a sea, doing a frantic and embarrassing doggy paddle. What if all those pages amounted to nothing? I’ve written plenty of stories that are irredeemably flawed, and it’s always disappointing; but to write a novel that is fundamentally screwed is a whole other deal. It happens all the time—to great authors who survive and go on to write incredible, published books. Still, my heart and hope would have been savagely contused.
I managed my anxiety, at least to a degree, using something like the aforementioned short story technique, but applied on a macro level: I convinced myself that each of the novel’s scenes was a distinct section. Upon finishing a section, I’d experience a sense of completion—and I needed that. This method also made the prose tighter than they otherwise would’ve been. I didn’t want anything to be baggy or slack. Each section had to be packed and would hopefully elicit in the reader both satisfaction and an urge to continue reading. During the editing process I realized there was a much better flow without the section breaks—but had I not utilized them in the first draft, the book may not have survived my nerves.
Are there certain themes or topics you find yourself returning to in your work?
Oh, yes. I write about whatever is obsessing me the most. While new fixations flit in and out, one that remains constant for me is power dynamics in all types of relationships—how and why people wield power over others (or yield power to others), how power influences character, who is powerful in a given relationship—and when and why. Another theme I return to a lot is loss—of self, of love, of others, of the familiar and comfortable, of confidence, of trust. These two themes comprise the refrain that defines Greyhounds.
I do not believe that my writing must derive from firsthand, personal experiences. I’ve certainly mined my own life for the purposes of fiction writing, but what I most want is to connect with realities that are not my own, research them, flesh them out, try to bring them to life. Along with “Show, don’t tell,” which is super confusing and often instills in writers the idea that clarity and directness are to be avoided at all costs, “Write what you know” is a tragic bit of instruction. I want to travel outside of myself when writing—to bridge my way to characters who may seem distant or opaque or foreign, and whose circumstances could not differ more from mine. Why not write into curiosity and the unknown?
What kind of story would you love to see in your queue this week?
I’d be thrilled to read stories that use language with great care and precision, and which contain unusual turns of phrase.
I also love stories with humor that aches, characters whose psychologies are rich and nuanced, prose with a strong sense of style.
I believe the strongest stories are borne of writers’ obsessions—whatever whirrs loudest in their minds—and also of curiosity. Whose life do I most want to know more about? What is X like? And Y? Z?
Finally, I hope to read work by writers who have the guts to be honest, by which I mean writing from a visceral, tactile, raw, alive, and pulsating place.
Here are a few recently published short fictions that blew me away:
What is more important for you: character or plot?
The two are equally critical, and in all the most striking stories they are inextricable. Stories must concern themselves with far more than “what happens.” A highly developed or otherwise interesting plot is great, but cannot carry a story that is composed hastily or without heart—and much attention should be paid to how each character is rendered: how they speak and behave, what they want and fear, what makes them cry or feel loved, ashamed, hopeful, or desperate. Something needs to shift, pop, build, explode, sour, end, or begin—within the character(s), in the world around them, or both. Readers need surprises, whether subtle or glaring, external or internal. (By “surprises” I don’t mean “shock value” or “trick endings,” which I find exasperating). Tension—which can stem from external or internal plot, language, style, structure, or any other element of the work—is crucial. My favorite stories combine clarity of action with psychological depth, and journey to the limits of where the writer hazards to go.
About the Reader:
Emma Smith-Stevens is the author of the novel The Australian (Dzanc, 2017). Her writing has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Literary Hub, Conjunctions, SmokeLong Quarterly, Subtropics, Wigleaf, Joyland, and elsewhere; and her essay "The Sun" is forthcoming in the anthology Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture (Ed. Roxane Gay, Harper Perennial). She's had two stories included in Wigleaf's Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions and received a Special Mention in the 2016 Pushcart Prize anthology. Originally from New York City, she lives in New York and is fiction editor at The Mondegreen.
About the Interviewer:
Shasta Grant is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She was the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow and she won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, matchbook, MonkeyBicycle, wigleaf, and elsewhere.