Ian Stansel is the author of the short story collection Glossary for the End of Days (Acre Books, 2020) and the novel The Last Cowboys of San Geronimo (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2017), named a best book of the year by Amazon, as well as another book of stories, Everybody's Irish (FiveChapters 2013), a finalist for the PEN/Bingham prize for debut fiction. His short fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals, including Ploughshares, Crazyhorse, Bennington Review, Joyland, Ecotone, Cincinnati Review, and Antioch Review, among others. His nonfiction has appeared in Poets & Writers, CutBank, Salon and elsewhere. He holds an M.F.A. in fiction writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing from the University of Houston.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
It’s hard to compare to a first book. In some ways, that one legitimizes you. It gives you an answer when distant relatives at family gatherings ask you what you do. It gives you the confidence to say, “I’m a writer.” Or at least it did for me. With a third book it’s more like settling in for the long haul: this is what I do. I also feel like having a collection of stories come out after a novel (my second book) confirms a commitment to the form. The first collection wasn’t just practice for the “real thing.”
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I always preferred fiction, both as a reader and writer. I love the other forms, but fiction is just the art I’m drawn to. I tend to think in narratives. It’s how I make sense of the world. And I like the freedom of fiction. I like not being beholden to specific facts.
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?
I usually think about a project for a long time before I write anything down, even notes. I guess in part I’m testing whether or not the idea has staying power. I very much enjoy being in the thick of a writing project, so being between projects tends to be a pretty frustrating time. I will go through dozens of possible ideas, each one trying to convince me that it is the one to spend the next years of my life on. But most, for whatever reason, aren’t the one. It’s usually at the point where I’m fantasizing about buying an apple orchard or becoming an oyster farmer and giving up writing altogether that one lands. It’s a happy moment when I start to write a thing.
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 tend to think of story collections as slightly accidental books. I look at my files and see, whoops, I’ve written nine or ten stories I don’t hate, and maybe they would fit together in a book. Then I have to figure out if they make any sense together—rework them and reorder them to see if there is any kind of satisfying journey through them. With a novel, one tends to know from the beginning. It isn’t a series of visits to friends’ houses—it’s a long trip, and you need to plan accordingly and pack enough snacks.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I don’t hate public readings, but I don’t love them either. I hope that doesn’t sound cranky. I guess what I mean is that once I’m doing a reading, or even more so the usual Q&A part, then I enjoy it. I just get very nervous in the moments before the actual reading part of readings. I can yammer away well into the night, but reading the words on the page gives me anxiety. I do like to go to readings, though, and hear other people’s work and their ideas about writing. I tend to find these inspiring.
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?
I try not to have these concerns. They often crop up, of course, at some point, but when I’m writing, especially in early drafts, I’m just trying to tell a good story. That’s all. If I’m thinking deeply about character and story then the other stuff will happen naturally. If I try to impose certain abstract ideas on the story, then they always feel forced and artificial. I try to just trust that the story will be what it needs to be if I write it with care and respect.
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?
I think the writer needs to be honest in whatever way they define that word.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I like a very hands-on editor. They see things I do not, and I like hearing perspectives outside my own head before putting something out into the world. We all have blindspots, and if someone can point mine out and help make the work more complex and engaging, then yes, please do!
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I remember hearing a poet once say that you should know how to chop an onion well before trying to be a writer. I’m not sure what one has to do with the other, but instinctually that sounds right.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to the novel to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
The different forms offer different pleasures, and different opportunities. I’m glad to have both forms to work in. It isn’t difficult to switch between them. One offers relief from the other.
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?
If I could get up at seven and have some coffee and start writing and keep going until 11 or so, that would be a dream. But I have two kids and a teaching job and there’s a pandemic on, so that dream routine ain’t going to be happening anytime soon. But in more normal times I do try to carve out a couple dedicating writing slots in my week—ideally in the morning. And then I’ll do a bit here and there in the evening after the kids are in bed. But generally I feel I’m at my best first thing in the morning. (Twenty-five year old me could not have predicted ever saying that.)
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
These days I like to garden. It allows me quiet time to accomplish something, and that can help pretty much any creativity issue. Or, if not, at least the garden will look nice.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’ve moved around so much in my life that I’m not sure what “home” is anymore, but the smell of eucalyptus trees reminds me of the years I spent in Northern California.
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?
Music inspires me daily. I don’t tend to go more than a few hours on any given day without listening to something. The last couple years my focus has been on building my jazz record collection. I also find that a trip to a museum will get me itching to do something. All art can feed into art-making, regardless of form, genre, or media.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write my next book.
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?
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I love stories and I found I was okay at it, and I enjoyed trying to make myself better. The process and craft of writing a story is endlessly fascinating to me. I guess it might just come down to the fact that I’ve lost interest in everything else I’ve ever done, but writing still gets me going. I really enjoy doing it.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
Sight words with my five-year-old