SmokeLong Quarterly

Share This f l Translate this page

Smoking With Patty Petelin

Interview by Gay Degani (Read the Story) December 18, 2012

Patty Petelin

art by Karrah Kobus

Language and rhythm in your story “The Speed of the Sound” carry the reader along to the end in much the same way as poetry does. How did this story evolve for you? Did it begin more prosaic or was it the language itself that provided the lyrical impetus?

Yes, language and rhythm are important to me, but they’re not the starting place. I start with an image or situation that has resonance for me, and the task of writing becomes finding out why. It’s just a matter of building the associative context that surrounds the image so that (hopefully) the simple thing—two people watching a storm—carries its own complete reality. Sometimes the building of this context moves more like a story than other times. That’s not a big concern for me.

The lyricism is the result of a love of the sound of language in motion and a slow, recursive writing process. It has to sound right. It has to sound right in relation to what comes before and what comes after. I read slowly, too; I sound out every word in my head. I’m still scared of long novels for this reason.

You describe your process as “a matter of building the associative context.” This is a wonderful distillation of process and the genesis of stories. It sounds so logical. What do you do when that “associative context” is elusive?

In that case I would return (in my head) to the point of origin. Is the original fixation as rich as I thought? How far is the image from wholeness? But I’m risking making the process sound more orderly and logical than it is. I don’t actually ask myself these questions; they’re more felt as tensions. I rarely sit down to write without having something in my head, something that has been there for a while, rolling around in the earth with sprigs and burrs sticking to it, waiting for me to talk it into sitting still so I can get a good look.

I’m relieved it isn’t always “orderly and logical!” You mentioned a possible novel. What lessons have you learned about the craft of writing from your experience with short stories?

I’m still intimidated by long novels because I’m such a slow reader. I’m not working on a novel, or, I should say, it’s complicated. I’m quoting someone here from a writing conference years ago, and I think this person is Antonya Nelson, and she said that whether one writes in longer or shorter forms is really a matter of disposition. The impression I received from this is that you are primarily one or the other. Of course there are problems with thinking this way, but I have experienced some truth in the assessment. I’m working on a body of little things that share the same questions and doubts about the world. I’ve been calling it a body of work, not because the terms are important to me, but because it seems that those who want to discuss genre generally want to defend boundaries.

What writers inspire you whether they write long or short?

I tend to read more in depth and less in width. I will often forego reading something I “should” in order to read something I love a second (or third or fourth) time. In no particular order, here are some writers I find myself consistently returning to: Lynda Hull, Carol Muske, Jo Ann Beard, Bachelard, James Baldwin, Marilynne Robinson, Clarice Lispector, Wanda Coleman and W.G. Sebald.

What advice would you give a writer who has just begun to think seriously about writing?

Advice part one would be to be careful about advice. I mean this mainly in terms of how one conceives of strengths and weaknesses and direction; be careful to whom you grant the authority to speculate about these things. Advice part two is related, and it is to know yourself, or know yourself more. I don’t know what writing is, but I think it has something to do with recording a relationship between a self and the world. Know what you love and what you fear and what you despise and try to figure out why. Literature and other arts do far more than provide one with examples of formal options, which I find is often how the conversation is framed. Writing and art you respond to reflect versions of yourself back to you, so give them that opportunity. And listen.

About the Author

Patty Petelin is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She lives and writes in Chicago.

About the Interviewer

Gay Degani has been nominated here and there for Pushcart consideration, Best Small Fictions, and a few various and sundry honors including the 11th Glass Woman Prize. She is the author of a full-length collection of short stories, Rattle of Want (Pure Slush Press, 2015) and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). Her micro “Abbreviated Glossary” appears in the anthology New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fictionedited by James Thomas and Robert Scotellaro. She occasionally blogs at Words in Placeand is currently working on another novel of suspense.

About the Artist

Karrah Kobus is a conceptual portrait artist and wedding photographer from Minneapolis, MN. Karrah stumbled upon the magic of photography while studying for an anthropology course—she came across a photo created by Rosie Hardy and knew immediately that she was meant to be a photographer also. With her budding career taking her across America and to Mexico and Canada, it has been an adventurous two years for Karrah. She’s driven across the country to meet perfect strangers and bathe in waterfalls after covering herself in mud. She’s spent countless nights, mornings and afternoons running around aimlessly and just because she had her camera; everything was, and always will be, okay. Sometimes she feels like photographers have uncovered a special secret. A crazy, amazing, and beautiful secret. The key to truly living. And all she wants is to be alive.

This interview appeared in Issue Thirty-Eight of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Thirty-Eight

Support SmokeLong Quarterly

Your donation helps writers and artists get paid for their work. If you’re enjoying what you read here, please consider donating to SmokeLong Quarterly today.

A SmokeLong Summer 2023!

Book Now!

From June 5 to August 27 2023, SmokeLong is going to host the superworkshop, A SmokeLong Summer for the second year. We want to spend the summer with you, the flash community. Our asynchronous workshops take place on a devoted website where you can create a profile, interact with the flash community, and take part in group discussions on craft, but A SmokeLong Summer is much more.