Ayşe Papatya Bucak teaches in the MFA program at Florida Atlantic University. Her work has been selected for the 2013 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories and published in a variety of journals, including Witness, Iowa Review, Normal School, and Prairie Schooner. Her story “An Ottoman’s Arabesque” appears in the Spring 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “An Ottoman’s Arabesque”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
Like a lot of people I love lists, and so I love books of lists, in particular, the book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. One of the paintings in the book is L’Origine du Monde by Courbet, which rather insists on your attention. But what caught my writerly eye was the accompanying text, which said the painting was commissioned by the “wealthy Turkish patron, Khalil-Bey . . . a former diplomat and perhaps history’s most known collector of erotic art.” I had a feeling he was a story. When it came to writing about him though, I found myself writing about the art more and more—which I think would have made Khalil Bey happy. I feel like the story has a hyperlink kind of structure (to be honest, I call it a Wikipedia structure) in which one bit of research led me to another until I found myself creating a gallery of stories as opposed to a single story. The challenge was to determine how much of Khalil Bey was required to anchor the piece, and how free I could be to invent him, given that (in English at least) not much of his story has been recorded.
“An Ottoman’s Arabesque” incorporates Cupid and Psyche, Scheherazade, and numerous other references to well-known lore. How do you see the relationship of this story, in both form and content, to mythological universes of the past?
I’m interested in the way paintings that reference myth work as illustrations of stories that we know. But I’m also interested in how, even for a viewer without a point of reference, these paintings can still be very striking. I grew up going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where there is a huge painting of Prometheus having his liver eaten by an eagle. (Prometheus Bound by Rubens, though apparently he didn’t do the eagle bit: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/104468.html) And I was told the Prometheus story at some point, but I loved the image before I knew the story, because it was just so clear that there was a story. The “myths” in this story are written in answer to the paintings, rather than in answer to the actual myths. So they are a little like Echo building her own response out of what’s been said before. Yeah, I’ll go with that, my story is an echo of “mythological universes of the past.”
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
The past five years coincide roughly with two things: I drawered a novel that I couldn’t bear to go back to, and I got tenure at my university. Working on the novel, even though it didn’t ultimately succeed, taught me a lot about writing stories. I learned to write bigger for the novel, and then I realized that I had needed to write bigger for my stories all along. Stories can contain an enormous amount, far more than beginning writers realize. Getting tenure allowed me to take more time and more risks with my writing—both of which are necessary for creating bigger stories (at least for me). So I suppose during the last five years I learned to be more ambitious and to take my time.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I am a terrible conversationalist. And yet even so I get involved in great conversations which feed my writing no end. I don’t mean in the sense of stealing other people’s dialogue or anecdotes, but in the sense of an on-going grand analysis of ideas, and curiosities, and human behaviors, that keeps me interested in the world. I suspect I have just chosen the right friends, who tell me interesting things, and then I go complete my half of the conversation by writing stories that engage with those things.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
I’ve actually written about this, both here (http://brevitymag.com/current-issue/an-address-to-my-fellow-faculty/) and here (http://blogs.bedfordstmartins.com/litbits/2014/02/11/why-i-teach/cwadmin/):
But I suppose I’d add that I feel lucky that I get to write, so mostly I don’t question why, I just keep my head down.
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?
My writing credo is tortoise beats hare. But you have to actually be the tortoise—moving ever steadily forward.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
Currently I’m working on a story about the (imaginary) Trojan War Museum. Apollo is a character in the story, which has me rather nervous. It’s difficult to write the dialogue tag “Apollo says” with confidence. I am also working on a story about the years James Baldwin lived in Istanbul, which has me even more nervous. Possibly the only task harder than writing believable dialogue for Apollo is writing believable dialogue for James Baldwin. I suppose I should be grateful they are not talking to each other. I hope to also write a story about a Turkish sponge diver who lived in Key West, but that involves some research I have yet to do. There are a few other things, all of which, in the end, will hopefully add up to a story collection.