A micro-interview with Erin Stalcup by KR Associate Leslie Lasiter.
Erin Stalcup is a PhD candidate in fiction at the University of North Texas, where she is completing a collection of short stories and beginning a novel. Her fiction has also appeared in KROnline, as well as the Sun, the Seattle Review, Puerto del Sol, and the Examined Life. She would like to thank William H. Gass, Andrew Richmond, Moustafa Bayoumi, and Juan Bosch for their work, which triggered this story. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Empire” appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of KR.
KR: Is there a story behind your KR piece? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I’ll give the honest answer to that question: there’s a fairly long story behind this piece of writing, and the hardest part was figuring out that this is the kind of writing I want to do. When I was an MFA student I read stories I adored, stories by Ray Carver, James Baldwin, John Cheever. And I tried to write stories like theirs, but I never could. Even after grad school (round one—I’m currently back in grad school again) I kept trying to write conventional psychological realism, stories that were interested in language but not too strange. My dear friend Robin Black, one of the best writers creating stories and novels today (another writer I can’t emulate, though I’ve tried), read my first draft of my first collection of interconnected stories, and she asked me, “Why do you think you need to write like this?” She said she sensed I really wanted to be a different kind of writer, but felt obligated to first learn how to write these “normal” stories. She said something like, “Go do that. Go do that other thing.” She essentially told me I wasn’t any good at what I was trying to do, and she did a good deed—because I knew she was right, and she was the first person to tell me she believed I was capable of being different, and maybe better, than I was trying to be. About that time I joined an online writing workshop of other graduates from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, and I started writing very strange stories. And all the workshop participants encouraged me to keep doing that—I specifically remember one writer telling me, “You call this weird? Give us all the Erin Stalcup weirdness you’ve got.” That encouragement was another good deed. I never would have thought to write this story (I guess it’s not all that odd, but it’s nothing like what I had been writing) if a generous community of people hadn’t given me permission to write it, and hadn’t told me it was good to be strange, to write something I couldn’t quite describe.
Then I read William H. Gass, and I’d never seen anything like his stories. I hadn’t known you could write like that. And so I started this piece, a tribute to Gass, but also an experiment for myself, to push myself into new territory. I was taking a postcolonial literature and theory class at Brooklyn College just for fun, and I read a fantastic story by Andrew Richmond called “All We Are is Heathens” (last I heard, he’s turning it into a novel), and the Red Sox went back to the World Series and won again, and I got married and realized I might not be as lonely my whole life as I once thought I would be, and all these remarkable things found their way into this story. I finished it in 2008, so it went through three years of rejections before being published here. But it was a breakthrough story for me, and my writing has gotten stranger since.
What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?
External factors are other books, other art, and conversations with my brilliant friends. I write because I want to talk to (do I really mean to? with? about?) all the things I’ve seen or heard that are beautiful, and the things about the world that frustrate and infuriate me—yes, I do want to talk to those things, even if they can’t hear me. The internal factor is that I find it really hard to be a human being. I write to try to make sense of being alive, to try to make something beautiful that makes sense of suffering—not even really my own suffering, but everyone’s: one of the things that makes being a human being so tough for me is that there’s so much suffering in other people, and I can’t fix it, or heal it, or save anyone. It’s so hard to make the world a better place. And I know my writing doesn’t make the world a better place, but I guess I go through the creative process in order to understand why I can’t make the world a better place, and why it’s worth trying anyway.
What’s one book, contemporary or otherwise, that you wish you had written?
That is one of the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked, because the true answer is “most of them.” I’m ravenous and jealous, and there’s so much gorgeous art out there I wish I’d made. But, Don DeLillo’s Underworld wins. That book is full of huge ideas and stunning sentences; few books are as beautiful to me on both large and small scales. Close runner up, Amy Hempel’s Reasons to Live. That book makes it easier to be alive.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I must generate early drafts in the morning when I’m not fully conscious yet, so that my filters are down. This story taught me that. I was living in Brooklyn and teaching in Washington Heights, so I had about an hour-and-a-half commute to work. I got up at 5:30 in the morning, wrote for half an hour, I hardly knew what I was writing, then I got ready and caught the subway at 7:15 for my 9:00 class. I know people do that every day, but for me it was crazy—my natural rhythm is to sleep until 10:00. But what happened was that I was so sleepy and unaware of what I was doing I was free to say anything, free to write down any words, free to be braver and stranger than I usually had been in my writing. I threw away most of what I wrote then, I still do, but writing early opens me up to what I didn’t know I wanted to say.
I think all writers, however they do it, need to find a way to access that deep voice—the one we don’t think, but feel. I try to teach my students that, I guess to help give them permission to say bizarre, maybe even frightening things. But I’ve also learned that to shape a story, I need to be awake. It takes a rational mind to give my raw thoughts a structure. Putting the wild generation I make in the mornings into a story form, and then revising, needs to happen a little later, after a lot of coffee. For me, it’s a really slow process. Because I often start with something I didn’t know I wanted to say, it takes me a long time to figure out what I’m actually trying to say. Lots of drafts, I don’t know, 20-30 substantial revisions for each story. This takes me years. And lots of feedback. Robin Black, who I mentioned above, and the fantastic journalist and story-writer Anna Clark, and my husband, the poet Justin Bigos, read several drafts of everything I write. I need so much help from other brains. I generate material alone, but I truly make stories with the help of a community; I’ve just begun grad school round two in the PhD Program at the University of North Texas, and so now I have access to a whole new community, who I hope are going to help me write a novel.
When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant. What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?
More people are making and sharing art than ever before, because there are more people, and because it’s easier to share. I’m not sure how much of that art will endure and actually be read (or seen, or heard) in future generations, but that doesn’t frighten or sadden me. The way art shapes us will last, we’ll hand it down to future generations, even if those generations don’t ever see it themselves. I said above I didn’t think my writing can make the world a better place—I can’t stop war, and my stories don’t feed hungry people or end racism or sexism or homophobia, but good art does the next best thing: it forms us, changes us. It matters. It makes it easier for us to endure. Or at least it does for me.
James Longenbach told some of my students—this was a few years back, when after getting my MFA from Warren Wilson and teaching for six years in New York City I got a fellowship to return and teach undergraduate writing—something that really helped them when they were wrestling with this very question. Since he didn’t tell me directly I’ll have to paraphrase, but he basically said we won’t all last. Everyone making art, the vast majority of us won’t be read in future generations. But, every artist making work today, we’re all shaping the artist who will last. We’re all part of that. It takes thousands of writers to make one James Joyce—I’m not sure what author he used as an example, he probably would have said Pound or Eliot or Yeats. And I think he’s right. I try to write things worthy of lasting, I try very hard to do that, but I’m not attached to that result. I can’t be. Art is worth making, whether it lasts or not. Technology will make art easier to archive; in future generations, people will most likely still be able to go online and read my story the Kenyon Review Online published in 2009. But will they? Probably not. Some art will endure. It’s okay if it’s not mine.