Adam Stumacher’s fiction has appeared in Granta, Best New American Voices, TriQuarterly, Massachusetts Review, and Sun, and won the Raymond Carver Short Story Award. After living in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, he currently resides in Boston, where he teaches at Grub Street and in a public high school, and is working on a novel. An excerpt of his story “Refuge” can be found here, and the full story appears in the Summer 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story, “Refuge”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The idea for this story came to me one morning when I was working the front entrance metal detector at the high school in South Boston where I’ve been teaching for a several years now. I was watching students and staff stream in and I began to try to imagine their lives, not just where they’re going but where they’re coming from. Teaching in an urban school means on the one hand grappling with these enormous geopolitical and socioeconomic forces, and on the other hand ignoring the big picture and focusing on the individual lives in front of you. I thought maybe I could capture this kind of double vision in a story.
So I began with the idea of following multiple perspectives through a single day in this school. But as I wrote, I realized it wasn’t enough just to paint a static portrait. I needed some sort of disturbance, a developing action. So I came up with the idea of the knife fight followed by a student smuggling in a pistol. And here’s the strange thing: this was pure invention, but less than a week after I finished the first draft, a similar incident actually occurred. One of my students—a nice kid, a newcomer from Vietnam just like in my story—was involved in knife fight down at the subway station, and he ended up in the hospital. I didn’t really know what to make of this confluence of reality and fiction—I still don’t—but it gave me a sense of emotional urgency through the process of revision.
The hardest part of writing this piece was the need to inhabit so many characters outside my own identity and experience. This is part of my process; setting up seemingly impossible challenges for myself and then working around them gives me energy as I write. But still, this story was a stretch for me, and I was aware of the responsibility to get every character, every detail exactly right. This meant many, many hours researching everything from the busing riots in Southie to refugee camps in Kenya to school collapses in the Haiti earthquake. Eventually I set aside my pages of notes and tried to imagine my way into the emotional truth of the thing, to figure out what these characters wanted and let those desires drive the story.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I have learned—and am always relearning—the lesson of patience. To focus, in the words of Richard Bausch, on “this day’s work” and forget about the rest. To treat writing like a job, where I punch in down every day, no matter how I feel. To seek out community, and to hold tight to my trusted readers. To revise like hell and be willing to throw away pages I bled for. And not to take myself too seriously.
Apart from this one—can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
My tastes are eclectic, but I am particularly drawn to journals with an international perspective and unique voice. I have been reading Granta for years and am always excited to dive into a new issue. I love the formal inventiveness of McSweeney’s, which came out with a fascinating recent issue on translation, featuring multiple versions of the same stories by some of my favorite writers. Another mainstay for me is Tin House, which I turn to again and again because of the consistently fresh, challenging work I find between its covers.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I believe that we’re trying to shape language into something of lasting beauty, but that literature has to be more than pretty words; we need tell stories that engage with the important questions of our time. We need to push ourselves, and our readers, to uncomfortable places, because that’s where growth happens. We need to acknowledge the complexity and sadness of the world without being pedantic or boring. A story can and should be many things, but it always needs to be a story.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
I’ve been lucky enough to work with many amazing authors over the years, but when I really think about how I learned to tune my ear as a writer, I have to dig further back. My earliest “teachers” were my parents, who are both professional musicians—my dad is a pianist and my mom plays the flute. I remember sitting in the back row during their concerts and imagining stories to go along with the pieces they played. Growing up around musicians taught me to listen for melody in language, and I still very much write by ear. It also taught me about discipline—nobody knows more about daily practice than a musician—and about the determination and sheer hustle any artist needs in order to survive.