Tania James is the author of a novel, Atlas of Unknowns (Knopf) and a short story collection, Aerogrammes (Knopf), which will be published in May. Her stories have appeared or will appear in Granta, Boston Review, One Story, and A Public Space. She lives in Washington, D.C. Her story “What to Do With Henry” 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?
TJ: I got the idea from listening to a radio program about a chimpanzee who had been raised by humans for nearly all its life, and then, for legal reasons, was donated to a zoo. The chimp didn’t quite mesh with the other zoo chimps, as it had almost completely adapted to human culture, to the extent that it was only attracted to women (blondes, specifically). It was one image in particular—the chimp blowing kisses to blonde women—that kind of burrowed into my brain.
But I’d never written a story before that demanded extensive research. One of the first books I read was Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics, which is a brilliant book with a title that sounds like a joke, though in fact it’s very serious about the drama and antagonisms and alliances that occur among chimps in captivity and in the wild. My research resulted in a lot of over-sharing of chimp trivia with my husband, much of which I tried to cram into that first overly long draft. That was probably the toughest part, aiming for restraint.
KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
TJ: Five years ago, I was just out of an MFA program, where I wrote sort of furiously, like most people did, in order to meet workshop deadlines. Now I’ve come to learn a lesson that somehow never occurred to me back then, that when a story is flailing, sometimes it’s best just to shelve it for a time. Of course there are stories you don’t really want to return to, and if I find that to be the case, I just move on. I can usually tell when something is beyond redemption, or just doesn’t excite me with the possibility of what it might turn out to be. Five years ago, I suspected that I had a limited stash of ideas, so I’d keeping going back to those old stories, add a bit here, bedazzle it there. Not that I’m completely cured of the impulse because a lot of those bedazzled weirdos are still on my hard drive.
KR: Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
TJ: I love One Story’s clean and simple mission, and how they’re often introducing new voices. A Public Space has great content plus beautiful design. Granta. Guernica. The Normal School. Electric Literature. If these magazines have anything in common, it’s that they all seem bold and vital in some way, in their editorial vision and the work they put forth.
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?
TJ: I do think those steps hold true for me, albeit very loosely. That initial emotional concept is something I’m not entirely aware of, something I can’t quite articulate but that hovers above the work. I’m not quite sure if I’m trying to reproduce a specific emotional concept in the reader so much as trying to clarify my own. Perhaps, at the outset, I’m more invested in a particular image or situation, rather than an emotion, but Larkin’s emphasis on the reader’s involvement is something I care about a great deal.
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?
TJ: There are the boring parts of my writing practice credo (I believe in caffeine; I believe in no phone calls before noon, etc) but if I’m getting at the core of what I believe, in both writing and reading, I’d say I believe in the potential of words to push a reader to the precipice and look down at what he might normally ignore in his daily life. He may not come away from the experience permanently changed, but he may be momentarily awake to something new, or something slightly familiar but skewed in a surprising way. Such moments are worth all the time and sweat the writer took to produce the book in the first place.
KR: Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
TJ: In my senior year in college, I took a workshop with Gish Jen. Thankfully I don’t remember with any clarity the stories I brought to class but I do remember meeting with her after class to discuss my story. I had mapped and plotted every moment of the story before writing it, and somehow she could sense it. She suggested that I “allow the story to discover itself,” to loosen the reins a bit. I don’t think I was quite ready to use her advice back then; I was too afraid of marching off into the unknown without a plan. (Planning was sort of built into my DNA.) But those words have always stuck with me. It’s the only piece of advice from a teacher that I remember verbatim, maybe because it wasn’t just directed at my story, but at me, as a writer.