Saturday, September 07, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Sam V.H. Reese

Hailing from Aotearoa, Sam V.H. Reese is an insatiable traveller and self-confessed short story nerd. An award winning critic and story writer, his first collection of stories, Come the Tide, was published with Platypus Press this year. When not writing stories, he is usually writing about them; his critical work, The Short Story in Midcentury America, won the 2018 Arthur Miller Institute First Book Prize. Later this year, his second critical work, Blue Notes: Jazz,Literature, and Loneliness, will be published with LSU Press.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

There were two moments with Come the Tide that really stand out. The first was when I heard back from Platypus Press and learnt that they were interested in publishing my stories. By that point I had been writing short fiction for more than a decade, and had been seriously working towards a collection for about four years. Re-reading their email, I had the feeling that some invisible threads were coming together. I’m a very self-motivated person, but I remember the deep relief and validation—the sense that I was doing what I was meant to do.

The second was the day the finished book arrived in my hands and I could see it as an object—could touch it, hold it, and read it through for the first time without my editing brain working in the background. Suddenly, I saw connections between my stories that I had not always been conscious of; repeated motifs and themes, a shared sensibility. I felt I understood my priorities as a writer much more clearly then; it gave me a stronger sense of what I wanted to do next.

This has meant that my most recent work feels much more focused and developed than my earlier stories. The initial writing of Come the Tide involved a lot of experimentation—and I was not always happy with what I produced. Even after I submitted the collection to Platypus, there was a process of cutting out stories that didn’t quite work, and adding. New pieces that would build on the existing architecture. I’d like to think I am more consistent now. Understanding my priorities and ambitions helps with this—but I also think that there’s a danger there in being too repetitive, or failing to take risks—so I’m always in dialogue with myself, searching for ways to push myself stylistically,.

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

In fact, I came to short fiction by way of poetry; my first published pieces were poems, and for a long time I didn’t particularly like short stories. Then I was introduced to the work of Katherine Mansfield, whose stories have the lyrical expressiveness and elusiveness of poetry, but are driven by this brilliant pulse of narrative and astute observation. From there, I started to devour short story collections. I found myself coming back to two particular pools: midcentury American short fiction, with its masterful storytelling and insight into the connection between place, action, and character; and Japanese short fiction, which tends to be minimalist, or deceptively simple, honing in and sharpening a single dominant feeling or emotion.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

Once I sit down to write a story, it normally comes very quickly to me. I always plan at least half the story out in a notebook first, bullet pointing the steps of the action, and I still draft most of my stories longhand first. Perhaps half of my finished stories are very similar to their initial drafts, but there are some pieces that change quite dramatically. When I started, I had a tendency to under-write my first drafts, and then expand scenes or add extra details.

Now, though, I am more likely to over-write, and then pare back the story when I come to edit—sometimes cutting it down to a third or quarter of its original length. While I don’t use extensive notes for my stories, I do keep track, obsessively, of all the stories that I am unhappy with, or that feel unfinished. Several times I have come back to a story that doesn’t work as a whole, but has a scene that turns out to be the perfect anchor for a completely different story, or else I’ve found an image that brings a new story to an interesting conclusion.

4 - Where does a work of prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I have always loved the short story collection as an object, and the biggest turning point across the writing of Come the Tide came when the moment I was able to start visualising the stories as part of a coherent whole. From that point onwards, every time I started a new story, I had a sense of where I wanted it to fit within the collection, writing quite deliberately to fill in gaps or to complement themes or images in existing stories.

From the outset, then, my next collection has been guided by a clear sense of shared themes and narrative architecture—although as I hinted before, I think there is also a danger, in such a closely conceptualised collection, of the stories becoming repetitive, or falling into predictable patterns.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I’m a very aural writer; I read my stories back to myself as I write them, and my most important editing criteria is whether I think the sentence rhythm sounds right. I haven’t had many opportunities to read my work so far—the launches for a couple of magazines, and a pre-launch event for Come the Tide—but I enjoy coming back to my work more those times where I get to sound it aloud.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Currently, I’m particularly interested in the question of mistakes and secrets, small decisions from the past or errant memories that shape character’s presence. But at the heart of my writing is the question of place. In part, I owe this to growing up in Aotearoa, with a close connection to the natural landscape—rivers, beaches, forests—and always in contact with te reo Maori, which often describes identity in terms of place (tangata whenua: people of the land; Tūrangawaewae: a place to stand). But I am also an expat—an immigrant, and part of several communities of migrants who often have fractious relationships with where they are.

But dislocation, alienation, and the question of how we build meaningful relationships with the world around us—whether in the shape of human communities or the natural world—is not just personal—in an age of increasing climate change and rising xenophobia, these are also political and ecological crises, and they sit underneath a lot of the contemporary literature I admire.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Humans are irrepressible meaning-makers; every day we shape ourselves through stories and language. Writers help us make sense of ourselves and our connection to the world around us by giving us new stories, new ways of understanding.

Writing can be comforting, and there are definitely books I turn to when I need some solace, but I think that the writer’s most important role in the world today is to shake us up, to make us look at things around us differently—to see ourselves afresh.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Working with a sensitive editor has made an enormous difference to my writing—not only sharpening the finished stories, but changing my process for the better. Like lots of the young writers I teach, I used to be quite resistant to external critique. To a certain extent, I actually think that can be really helpful—it gives you the space to discover what’s important to you as a writer, what you like and dislike, what you want to achieve.

But once I opened myself up to a strong external editor (and I’ve been very lucky; Michelle, my editor at Platypus, is superb—as attentive to each line of a story as she is to the lines of a poem) my writing took on a new clarity and, as a writer, I found a vulnerability that

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

To try and keep a ‘beginner’s mind.’. This is the idea that you should try to approach whatever  you do with the openness, flexibility, and enthusiasm of a beginner. Sometimes I think about this as ‘child’s brain,’ too—a playfulness and willingness to make mistakes.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

Sometimes I think that, in the anglophone world, we make too much of the difference between fiction and non-fiction. At the same time, I also know that I find it really helpful working both worlds, so there must be some difference! When I’m stuck with my criticism, I can always work on fiction, and in the same way, I find that when my stories are starting to get repetitive or predictable, switching to non-fiction allows me some big picture thinking—a kind of critical distance from my own work. That ability to look at similar subjects from two different standpoints—I think that’s the biggest appeal.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

At the moment I spend half my time in York (in the UK) and half my time in a semi-nomadic itinerancy. When I’m migratory like that, I write in extreme spaces: very early in the morning, before the sun has risen, or late at night. But when I’m settled I follow a steady pattern: I’ll wake, go for a walk, make coffee, and then write for four hours, often in a café. If I’m continuing a story that I’m partway through, I always read the first few paragraphs to myself, to get into the story’s rhythm.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Sometimes, I’ll turn to a writer with a strong style or voice—Yoko Ogawa, Laura van den Berg, Paul Bowles, or Diane Williams normally—to remind myself of the clarity and intensity I love in short fiction.

But normally, when I’m feeling stalled, I go for a long walk, near trees or water if I can. My wiring has always been fuelled by a close connection to the bush and the ocean; returning to green and blue always helps me feel anchored and alive. But even walking through a city helps. I get most of my ideas for stories when I’m moving.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

The smell of the ocean.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

My stories always come from places—scratch the surface, and you’ll find the smell and taste of the natural world (and a little further down, always the sea). I draw inspiration from music, too, particularly jazz. I normally have jazz playing in the background while I write, and there are certain artists—Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus—who do things with sound I long to realise in words.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are some incredible contemporary short story writers who have really shaped my sense of how to tell a story: Ogawa and van den Berg, but also Prabda Yoon, Margarita Garcia Robayo, and May Lan Tan. I also have a shelf of mid-century US writers—Paul and Jane Bowles, Mary McCarthy, James Baldwin, Richard Yates, Eudora Welty—to whom I go back again and again.

Outside of my work, I find books that I connect to a specific place or time exert the strongest hold on me. I can recall exactly where I was and how I felt the first time I read Julio Cortázar’s short stories; what was happening in my life when I read Jose Saramago’s History of the Siege of Lisbon, or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Great writing has the ability to sharpen your real life, to bring emotions and experiences into clearer focus, or to shade them with another meaning.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I would love to write an intricately interwoven series of short stories that feature overlapping characters and settings. Something like Olive Kitteridge or Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

When I started university, it was to train as a lawyer, and the first job I had was as a researcher at a commercial law firm. I was good at it, too, and by the end of my first year had built up enough momentum that it felt difficult making the choice to stop. If I hadn’t taken some time to really assess what I wanted to do, that’s where I would have ended up. I still love legal dramas—The Good Wife and its successor, The Good Fight, especially—so something about that world must still appeal to me! But if I were to retrain now, it would probably be as a psychologist or counsellor. I love teaching and working closely with my students, and I can easily imagine helping others grow outside of a university setting.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

From a young age I have felt a deep desire to tell stories, and I know that I am at my happiest and most sure of myself when I am working closely with language. There is an immense satisfaction in taking the time to make something good—something that has beauty or integrity.

19 - What was the last great book you read?

I thought Alia Trabucco Zerán’s The Remainder (translate by Sophie Hughes) was astonishing; I also really loved Norman Erikson Pasaribu’s deeply moving collection of poetry Sergius Seeks Bacchus (translated by Tiffany Tsao) and, having owned a copy for years, have finally been reading Yasnuari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories—the most beautiful, precise, expansive little pieces of prose.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on a second collection of short stories that all focus on past secrets, inheritance, and dislocation from the world, tentatively titled I Go Astray.

I am also working on a co-authored literary biography of Paul and Jane Bowles—a hybrid book bringing together literary history, biography, and travel writing.

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