Derek Palacio is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Ohio State University. This is his first publication. His story “Sugarcane” appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of KR.
KR: Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
DP: “Sugarcane” is one of a number of stories I’ve written in the past two years about Cuba, a place my father is from (born there in 1950, emigrated from there in 1955) and yet a country I have never visited. This piece was one of my earliest attempts at writing about a place I don’t have personal experience with, and I struggled in earnest with the details: historical, geographical and cultural. It’s now part of a larger story set, and when I look back on it, I can see myself searching for authority and authenticity regarding the island; I can see myself placing my faith in the facts (the burning of sugarcane fields, my father’s memory of my grandfather on a horse, and the food rationing system of Cuba with its Libreta de Abastecimiento). However, in the time since I’ve come to realize that in actuality I am not writing about Cuba so much as I am writing about my idea of Cuba, my abstraction of the island. The people, culture and landscape of “Sugarcane” really are not Cuban, then, but are the offspring of my Cuban impressions.
KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
DP: I used to be the kind of writer who stared at a blank page until the perfect word came to mind. Over the past five years I’ve moved away from that sort of process, which can be nerve-wracking whenever the perfect word is slow to come. Basically, I’ve learned to put all the muck on the page and sift through it afterwards. Consequently I have more to cut in the second, third and fourth drafts of stories, but I also feel like I have more room for exploration earlier on. I haven’t wedded myself to any particular kind of narrative from the onset, and that means there exists greater opportunity for the unexpected to make its way into my work.
KR: Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
DP: I love reading the nonfiction found in The Georgia Review. The essays there often revolve around very specific themes or ideas, and that seems to me in line with some of the original meanings of the word essay (a trial, an attempt); those nonfictions, via exceptionally nimble prose, test the significance and weight of past experiences, abstractions and modes of thinking. Kent Meyers’ “The Makings” is a great example of this, and that’s a piece that also reminds me of Michelle Richmond’s “A Life in Pods” which appeared in this magazine in 2008, I think. I’ve also recently enjoyed the fiction in Ninth Letter, stories like Graham Arnold’s “Sushi for Fish” are really beautiful works of the imagination. They employ a certain level of magical realism or fabulism, but the charged, palpable emotional stake of the story is always foremost.
KR: Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write? Would you amend Larkin’s stages?
DP: I might amend the first stage of Larkin’s process, but only so far as to say that often I’ve found the scale of an ‘emotional concept’ too large and expansive for a single written work. By that I mean my stories (at least those in regard to Cuba) have each engaged with the same beginning concept (my father’s homeland as family, patria, exile & displacement) but have done so from different angles. In my experience, the ‘emotional concept’ is more dynamic than static, which requires constant reinterpretation. Writing about Cuba from varying perspectives has helped me clarify my own understanding of that starting notion. What brings me to the page often requires several narrative explorations before I’ve wholly unearthed what’s emotionally worthwhile, urgent and necessary about a particular subject.
KR: In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ranson invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrup 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 on the practice of writing? What core beliefs do you have regarding literature and books?
DP: The thing we hold at bay we must engage directly: I’ve had the good fortune as a graduate student at OSU to have taught two creative writing courses, and what I’ve found myself repeatedly telling my students (and then mumbling under my breath in front of my own computer) is not to delay the large, seemingly climactic moments of our first drafts. I think it’s easy during the early stages of writing to envision a big event (usually the one that comes naturally to the story or even the one that might have originally inspired the tale) as the place a plot wants to build up to. However, the more and more I do this, the more I find such moments functioning better as catalysts than conclusions. The phenomenon stems, I think, from the vague magnitude of such narrative junctures; they are interesting enough for us to want to trek toward, but they are so complex that we fear our ability to render them complete and satisfying. So we put them off and hope we can write our way to enlightenment. Eventually, though, one must enter the unfamiliar territory, and the writing that comes from such uncertain investigation is in the end, I have often found, the most satiating and genuine. More broadly, big bangs belong at the beginning of stories and novels; positioned there they can create the universe, they can act as the prime mover of plots.
KR: Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
DP: Erin McGraw has been for me an invaluable mentor over the past three years at the Ohio State University. More than anything she’s taught me how to wed plot to character, which has helped my writing move beyond description and mood and into active places and times. Basically, she has done the work of Empson’s sort of critic: she’s helped me discover how my machines work, where the parts fit together best, and how to make them run with speed and efficiency. Perhaps more importantly she’s guided me towards a finer understanding of my narrative ambitions. Consequently, I will leave OSU with a clearer idea of what fictional work I hope to accomplish, and that sort of self-awareness would not have been possible without the relentless support and critical instruction of Erin McGraw.