Shasta Grant is the 2016 Kathy Fish Fellow for SmokeLong Quarterly. Her stories and essays have appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Jelly Bucket, Lunch Ticket, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has been a writer-in-residence at Hedgebrook. Her winning short story from the 2015 Short Fiction Contest “Most Likely To” can be found here. This story and the two runners-up appear in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Most Likely To”?
The original impetus came from thinking about high school graduations. I was interested in the moment you realize you aren’t young anymore; your whole life isn’t ahead of you.
The story was originally one thread of a longer story. There were two time frames: the one in “Most Likely To” and an earlier one when the narrator was in seventh grade. The earlier thread was about a brief friendship between the narrator and the girl who overdosed on Tylenol, which is mentioned in passing in “Most Likely To.” That friendship acted as a lifeline for the narrator after her mother walked out on her family.
I knew the seventh-grade version of my narrator well but I was struggling to understand her adult-self. I realized that tying the two stories together was holding me back from getting at the tension of her current situation. After I separated them, I was able to develop the story more fully. The earlier time frame ended up being a much longer story, which I’m still working on.
There’s a line at the beginning of your story that establishes your protagonist’s attitude toward her day job: “We were professional, or as professional as ten dollars an hour could make us.” Are there other authors who write about menial jobs or the challenges of day-to-day life who inspired you to address work in your story?
I love writers who make stories about ordinary lives interesting. Joan Silber comes to mind. She was my thesis advisor many years ago but I think she continues to influence my work. Also Alice Munro, Edward P. Jones, Richard Bausch, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Elissa Schappell.
What made you want to write about proctoring high school exams? Did you base these games around a day job of your own, where you had to come up with creative tactics to make the hours pass?
I proctored exams for a few months at an international school in Singapore. It was mind-numbingly boring. I complained about it all the time to my husband and friends and they kept saying it should be a great time for me to mentally write stories. I tried to write stories in my head while pacing the aisles but that’s just not my process. I spent most of my time calculating how much money I would make that week (fortunately for me, I was paid more handsomely than the characters in my story) or counting how many students wore glasses. It wasn’t until months later that I figured out a way to use that experience in a story. I didn’t need to take the job proctoring exams but while I was doing it, I spent a lot of time thinking about people who have to take jobs they don’t want. I was thinking about class and education as well and through that lens I was able to better understand my narrator.
How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?
I revise a lot more now. In graduate school—I’m kind of embarrassed to admit this—but I thought of first drafts as near-final drafts. Which is not to say that I didn’t revise but maybe it’s that I didn’t know how to revise. I would eagerly read workshop feedback and sit down to revise but what I was doing was more akin to line editing.
Now I see a first draft as a skeleton or a starting point. I go through multiple revisions where the structure or the story itself often changes; sometimes two story strands get pulled apart, as in the case of “Most Likely To.” Other times, the story is too one-note and needs an additional thread. Most of the story development happens in revision.
I’m more intentional with things such as motif, structure, and theme than I used to be but I let those things develop organically. I don’t know what a story is actually about when I start writing it. At some point the theme makes itself clear and that helps to push the story further. On a sentence level, I pay more attention to rhythm, repetition and variety.
Process-wise, I like to print out each draft as I go and date it on the top, that way I can revise on paper with different colored pens, and also compare revisions. Having readers to provide feedback is so important. But it’s just as important to know which suggestions to take and which ones aren’t right. Recently, I gave a story to a friend who is a terrific writer and reader—I trusted her so completely that I decided to make each and every change she suggested. The revised version fell flat. It wasn’t her fault—it was mine. I didn’t trust myself enough to know my own material.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I’m an observer. I like to watch people and try to figure out what makes them tick. That desire to understand people makes its way into my writing.
What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given?
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve received was from Caitlin Horrocks at the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop last summer. She advised us to choose a writing life of abundance over a life of scarcity. This really resonated with me.
Writers get rejected a lot and because of that there can be a certain degree of competition and jealousy. There can be a tendency to think that someone else’s success diminishes your own chances. But that’s not true.
Caitlin also talked about how success is a cup that we fill with three elements: skill/talent, luck, and persistence. Each writer fills their cup with these elements in different proportions but the cup has to be full in order to succeed. So sometimes a talented writer isn’t persistent enough to fill their cup, or a not-so-talented writer has a lot of luck and their cup gets filled quickly. All of this changed the way I think about my writing life. I’ve made the choice to live a writing life of abundance and to be persistent, because that’s the only element in my cup I can control.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m working on a collection of connected stories set in New Hampshire. I’m interested in small-town life, particularly the bifurcation that often occurs there: the poor vs. the rich, the people who stay vs. the people who move away. I’m interested in the choices teenagers make and how those choices impact the rest of their lives. The characters in these stories come from a variety of families. Some have good parents, while others have absent ones. For some, moving away to attend college is expected. For others, the path is to stay put and get a vocational job. I want to explore the choices they make and how those choices are connected to their shared history of growing up in the same town.
I’ve also been revising a memoir about my life with my mother, who died in prison. Her death left me with a lot of unanswered questions. I obsessively explored documents from her criminal trials, ranging from wiretap transcripts to psychiatric records, looking for answers. What emerges is the story of building a relationship with my mother through those documents.