Melinda Moustakis was born in Fairbanks, Alaska and raised in Bakersfield, California. She received her MA from UC Davis and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, her first book, won the 2010 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She is currently a visiting professor at Pacific Lutheran University and was recently named a 2011 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Writer. She originally published “MooseBlind” in KROnline. Her story “Miners and Trappers” appears in the Fall 2011 issue of KR.
KR: Is there a story behind your KR piece(s)? What was the hardest part about writing it?
MM: “MooseBlind,” (now titled “Trigger”, in the collection) was written as a short short exercise assigned by Jess Walter at a writer’s conference. I had just taught Sharon Old’s poem “I Go Back to May 1937″ in a poetry class so that piece was swirling around in my brain. Also, there was a family homestead joke that I had always wanted to include in a piece. All of these things collided and formed “MooseBlind.”
“Miners and Trappers” came about because I had family members who went to the Miners and Trappers Ball at Fur Rondy in Anchorage. My aunts sew and one of them made a mini-skirt out of a pair of Carhartts. I had always wanted to include that skirt in a story and when I started writing and realized that I was continuing the story of the siblings Gracie and Jack, who were in a story called “The Weight of You,” the story took off. I ended up with three stories about Gracie and Jack in the collection, and the final one is called “The Last Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show.” The most difficult part about writing “Miners and Trappers” was earning the dramatic moment in the middle of the story which may be one of the most dramatic in the collection. I had to make sure this story, which was Act II of the Gracie and Jack sequence, linked together the other two stories about the siblings and served as a middle post for the whole collection. This story is also brings together key images that are seen in other stories and I had to make sure that the recurring images in “Miners” had different meaning and resonances.
KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?
MM: I know that I learned to write voice and dialogue from listening to my uncle and his fishing buddies tell fishing stories on the river. Fishing and fishing stories taught me how to structure tension, how to have that element of risk and surprise. I also love to sit around a campfire and listen to stories and often I have to hear a voice, a perspective, the rhythm of it, in order for story to take hold. Another influence has been the stories I grew up hearing about Alaska and hunting and fishing and my grandparents’ homestead. Often there is this small diamond of truth I know I want to include in a story and I have to write the coal, wrap the whole story around this diamond in order to make it glimmer. By the end, what I started out with has completely changed and become something else. I often use the process of how one tells a fishing story to explain how I write fiction. You go out on a fishing trip. You catch a decent rainbow trout, maybe 28 inches, and the weather is fine. Every time you retell that story the fish gains a few pounds and inches, one day the trout turns into a king salmon, then a moose appears on the bank, and a bear, and suddenly the story has grown and stretched. The fish stretches, the story stretches. I like to write in that slinky space of possibility.
KR: Nicole Krauss said in a recent Guardian column that “We’re programmed to do the ‘easier’ thing… People no longer have the concentration to finish things; we skim along the surface, and it’s miserable.” Do you see this absence of ambition in the literary audiences of today? How do modern attention spans affect your writing?
MM: I actually, so far, have had a welcoming reception to the more “experimental” or modular fiction in the book. When I write, I try to keep in mind that I always have to have engaging characters that will convince a reader to keep reading. Reading is an experience and some of the best advice I received while putting together the collection was about the order of the stories. I was told that I needed to create a map for the reader and to really think about progression–the book opens up with the aforementioned poetic short short that introduces the wilderness and lyrical, concentrated language. A literary snack or appetizer of what is to come, if you will. In the end, I do want people to read my work, to enjoy it, to be moved, to laugh and gasp and think about my characters for days afterwards. I also know that perhaps people don’t have the concentration to finish things because they’re tired and overwhelmed right now and aren’t in the mood for Faulkner. This does not mean the proverbial Faulkners need to stop writing or change their writing–Faulkners make the world a better, more beautiful place. Moods change. How comforting to know Faulkners will always be out there. For me, as I start my next project, I am trying to not put too much pressure on myself or to think about the imagined expectations of the industry. To say, this is not my second book, this is the next book, and there can always be another next book.
KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
MM: That it’s longer than I ever thought. And messier. And you need patient, saintly friends to help you through it.
KR: 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?
MM: I think there will always be books and printed matter. At least I hope so. Books might become more of a collector’s item someday. We are physical beings and we’ll always need to use physical objects and have physical works of art in our lives. A picture of a sculpture can never live up to the real thing. Of walking around it. Of seeing it take up space and light in a room. A virtual projection of a sculpture can never fully capture the actual sculpture. But this technology could expose this sculpture to a larger audience who will now someday try to see the sculpture in person, or who could never see the sculpture in person. There are pros and cons. We’re going to need sustained art even more in the future–if just to remind us that we are physical, not virtual, beings. And to remind us of the more permanent things.