On Parakeets and Writers
Over Christmas break, my family and I went to Memphis for an overnight trip to see a Grizzlies game, grab some good barbecue, and drive along the river as part of my own continued research for a novel. The day after we got home, I went downstairs to check on my parakeets and clean out their cage (one large enough to house two or three human adults) and that’s when I found that the patriarch of my parakeet family, Bam-Bam, had died. I found him sitting in a small bowl at the bottom of the cage, as if he had gone there only to rest. I can’t say that Bam-Bam was really a pleasure, but he was an impressive parakeet for his fairly long life (probably 6 1/2 years) and the fact that he fathered nearly a dozen other parakeets. His mate, Pebbles, surprised us all by laying eggs not in a nesting box (which I did not provide on purpose), but in her food bowl. The first time it happened, I really didn’t believe that the egg would result in an actual baby bird, but it did and so my adventure in parakeet breeding began…and quickly ran completely out of control.
So, why did I ever get Pebbles and Bam-Bam in the first place? Guilt, pure and simple. My kids were still young (ages 6 and 8 then) and I had been accepted to attend the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a participant. I had never been away from either of my kids for more than a couple of days and as much as I wanted to attend the conference, I was sick over the thought of not seeing my boys for 12 days. For most of the summer leading up to the conference, I had the complete inability to say “no” to anything they wanted, and that included additional pets. Not only did they successfully persuade me to adopt a second cat (who instantly upset the first cat, resulting in bad behavior that persists to this day), but also this pair of birds. The intention had been to adopt one bird, for which I had found an ad in Craig’s List, but when my husband arrived at the house to pick up said single bird, the owners insisted he take a second. (In fact, they wanted him to take a couple more; clearly, they had been victims of bird breeding themselves.) It seemed cruel to separate the two birds, who were, rather obviously, very much a couple.
I went to my conference and came home and, a few months later, Pebbles laid her first egg. But before that happened, caring for the two birds was a daily reminder of the deals I had made–and the sacrifices–to attend that conference. Were the deals and sacrifices worth it? I’m still not sure. I learned a lot during those 12 days as an underling participant, surrounded by my literary heroes and up-and-comers, but not all of it was good. I learned that there was a hierarchy in the writer’s world, one had I had been too naive to understand before those two weeks in the mountains of Tennessee. I was on a very low rung of the literary ladder and it would be no easy thing to move up. I spent the next couple of months in a bit of a stupor, unsure of my goals or my skills as a writer and a little embarrassed that I thought I was ready for Sewanee.
But there was one undeniably good thing that happened at that conference: I made lasting friendships with other writers. Now 5 1/2 years later, I still keep up with many of the men and women I met there and I’ve enjoyed watching their work and careers grow. One of those fellow writers is Vanessa Blakeslee, a fiction writer who published her first collection of short stories, Train Shots, this last year with Burrow Press. Vanessa is widely published and one of the most tenacious writers I know. If she is ever discouraged, she doesn’t show it, a quality I admire. My continued friendship with Vanessa is proof that my summer at Sewanee–and the consequent years of caring for an extended family of cats and birds–was worth it. Recently, I had the chance to ask Vanessa a few questions about Train Shots and her experience with publishing. Here’s what she had to say:
AM: Let’s start with your short story collection, Train Shots. How did that come into being?
VB: I started many of these stories as an MFA student at Vermont College. I had always wanted to include the flash fiction, “Clock-In,” as the opening, as it uses second person and literally invites the reader into the world of the book. “Train Shots” is one of my most memorable and usual stories, so we knew we’d include that one from the beginning; the tone and theme made it a ready contender for final spot, and usually the placement of the title story bears weight, so that made sense—Train Shots. But also there’s a double-meaning to the phrase “train shots.” In one sense, the collection is a journey, the reader peering in on different characters in various settings, glimpsing a “shot” of these individuals’ lives before the train zooms on. Then in the title story itself, P.T. eats dinner at a dive-bar alongside the tracks in Winter Park, where the bartenders offer “train shot” drink specials when the trains go by.
As for the order, we probably considered twice as many stories than what ended up making the final cut. We eliminated ones that would contain beats or subject matter too similar to others, and sought a balance in narrative perspectives and moods, from light to dark. I recommend to anyone who is seriously putting together a collection to get together with a trusted writer friend or teacher and employ another pair of eyes, at least, to help you select and juggle the order—doing so would have saved me a lot of grief and time.
The cover has grown on me—I wasn’t sure about the shoe at first. The funny thing is, I’m fairly outspoken about how I abhor the cover designs of so many books the big houses market as “women’s fiction.” Not that I would ever expect a small press publisher of literary fiction to slap a headless woman in high heels on the cover of my short story collection, but still. When Ryan broached the topic of the cover to me, we both agreed that the artwork should probably capture the title story, and one of the most striking images from “Train Shots” is the young woman’s mangled dress shoe at the beginning. Then Ryan had the additional idea of the toy cow for the back cover, as a symbol of P.T.’s shattered childhood dreams as well as the animals that fall victim to the tracks. When I shared the cover design, people reacted so positively that any lingering doubts I might have had simply fell away. And now I think it’s kind of a snarky twist on the high-heel-as-ubiquitous-cover-shot-for-female-authored-books. It’s a sharp, smart design that perfectly captures the collection’s tragedy and dark humor.
AM: How does the experience of writing short stories differ from writing a novel? Is one form preferable to you than the other?
VB: So different! For me, both forms take years of incubation and revision to achieve their full potential (and some drafts never do). But the novel is truly a marathon. I can see how Donna Tartt only publishes one every decade or so. Some of the best words of advice on the novel-writing process? “Put it away for a month or two, then dive back in”—from Andre Dubus III. It was winter, 2010. I had just finished the first draft of my novel and was in this sort of daze, which I now understand to be the post-partum funk of having just expended everything in your imaginative and emotional well. But I had no way of knowing at the time that this was normal; all I could think was, what’s wrong with me? Shouldn’t I hurry up and start revising? I staggered over to Rollins College, where the Winter with the Writers festival was happening. Andre was so gracious; he actually remembered me from when he’d visited Vermont College as a guest author a couple of years prior. When I shared with him my woes, how I didn’t know what to do now, the draft just sitting there, he proclaimed, “But how can you see it again when you’ve just written it? You can’t because it’s too soon. Put it away for a month, maybe two. Go write a short story. Then dive back in!” He wrote this in the front of my worn copy of House of Sand and Fog; for a long time I kept the book on my nightstand as a reminder. The universe never ceases to amaze me, how the right people show up at the right moment, with the exact words you need to hear. And that’s how I progressed through my novel—revising, putting the draft away, writing stories in between, then back to the novel again. And that’s likely how I’ll continue progressing through projects, for the rest of my life.
AM: You’ve published a lot of short stories; how did you select the ones that went into this collection?
VB: Ryan’s philosophy is that assembling a story collection is a lot like putting together a music album, and he’s absolutely right – we left out certain stories not because they lacked merit, but because the ones chosen must speak to each other in a particular, resonating way. I’d describe the process as very hands-on; I absolutely loved the thorough scrutiny we both brought to the manuscript as a team. On my own, I’d never been able to come up with a satisfying order, and Ryan had a terrific eye—and ear, I might add—for which stories belonged where, a vision of the book as a living, breathing whole. Whereas I’d worked on the stories for so long on my own, I think I’d become too close to them. So I’d say I was ultimately surprised and thrilled by the finalized “playlist,” not to mention profoundly grateful.
I was also surprised by how heavily we edited, and even revised in some cases, certain stories. All of them had been published before, and it’s easy for emerging writers, I think, to assume that once a journal has published a story, there’s no more work to be done. Far from the case. This is the stage where you have the opportunity to refine and bring your work to the next level, so you’re really presenting your best—to zero-in on repeated diction and unwieldy syntax, to make sure the final notes of each story truly sing. We had a deadline, of course, but we took our time. I believe our efforts paid off.
AM: Do you have a favorite story? Why?
VB: I feel a particular closeness to the title story, largely due to how it came into being. The impetus for “Train Shots” arose during a dinner conversation. A woman who was dating a train engineer mentioned how he’d been having a difficult time lately—apparently his train had struck several suicide victims within a couple of months. I became fascinated by this right away, and thought about how this was a conflict few people likely think about. My first attempts at telling the story fell flat, however.
What follows is one of the strangest experiences that has ever happened to me. One afternoon I sat down to redraft the story. I had written the first paragraph or so, where P.T.’s train strikes the young woman, but then stopped, thinking to myself, “I have no idea what comes next, how the railroad companies handle suicides. I’ll have to do some research,” and so forth. It was about four o’clock; I had a package that I needed to send to the post office, so I decided to do that.
Now the same tracks which run through Winter Park cut right across from the Maitland post office, up the road from my condo. I dropped off my package, and on the way home I noticed the train, a freight, had stopped in an unusual spot, right behind the library. Police cars parked alongside. A chill gripped my stomach and I slowed the car. It couldn’t be, I thought. But I found myself pulling over.
In an eerie, dream-like daze, I walked up to the front of the train where a railroad employee stood. I asked what had happened, if someone had been hit. And he said yes, a young man from the neighborhood, apparently going through a rough patch in his life, had committed suicide not forty-five minutes before. And then the railroad worker, with hardly any prompting, proceeded to explain to me exactly what happens when a person commits suicide on the tracks—how the engineer slams on the emergency brake, and issues an immediate statewide alert. He told me everything I needed to know to write the story. In disbelief, I wandered to my car, past the yellow tape and the tarp covering the spot where the body had lain, went home and finished the scene.
As writers we speak all the time about the process of writing fiction—of what we are doing to form it. But what we speak of far less is how the daily happenings of our lives work on us and breathe into the vision taking shape, because there’s an uncanny interplay between the two. Writing, like life, has a way of working on you, no matter what your spiritual beliefs.
AM: How did you find your publisher?
VB: In the 5 years post-MFA, I kept revising the stories as they were accepted for publication in literary journals and along the way, kept sending out the manuscript to small press contests for book-length collections. Twice the full manuscript placed as a finalist, although under different titles—I kept playing with the stories to include, the order and the title. Just as I found myself exhausted of submitting it through the contest system, Ryan Rivas, the editor at Burrow Press, approached me about possibly launching my debut collection. At the time I was writing a craft blog for the Burrow Press Review, and he had come to know me as a hard worker and an active member of the literary scene, and he knew I’d been publishing in well-regarded places. He read the manuscript in January, 2013, and afterwards contacted me with a firm offer. For the next several months, we went back and forth deciding which stories to swap out and which to include.
AM: What’s your approach to social media? How has it helped you as a writer with an independent press? What has the last year of promoting your story collection taught you about the literary world?
VB: My advice to writers just starting out is to cherish your obscurity and make the most of this time. Produce as much creative work as you can, and save the blogging and tweeting for later. I’ve loved publishing with a small press, but that’s meant that nearly all the promo work I’ve orchestrated myself—lining up reviews, interviews, book events, and I even have the part-time assistance of my fabulous aunt, who retired last year from a 30-year stint in publishing just before the release of Train Shots. Sadly, I’ve hardly written any new fiction as a result. This may sound precious and I don’t want it to by any means, but for me to really focus and dive deep into imaginative territory, I can’t be living so much on the surface of life, which is the Internet’s domain. So I’m hoping to land more residencies in 2015 where I can regain that focus and return to projects for a few weeks here and there, uninterrupted—before the promo for Juventud kicks into high gear. You sell books at readings and speaking events, so you’ve got to say yes to those, and each one has got to be promoted. A social media presence is essential, as is guest blogging and having essays published at highly-trafficked sites. Look at Roxane Gay’s success—I firmly believe she’s the model for the future. If you can persuade an intern, friend, spouse, or relative to help you with the publicity, by all means, do it. In just a short time, my life has changed tremendously. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the events; I’ve always enjoyed reading to others. If anything, all the publicity makes me realize what I most love to do is to write fiction. The act itself trumps the end product.
AM: What are you working on now?
VB: Edits for Juventud, my debut novel forthcoming later this year – which has turned into much more of a revision than I anticipated. But the editorial process is your last chance to get the words right. You don’t get a do-over once the book is out there.
AM: You’ve had a lot of success, but I’m sure you’ve experienced your fair share of rejection. Talk a little bit about your best tips for moving past rejection to do your best work yet.
VB: As a child I made up stories constantly—whether by play-acting with Thundercats action figures or sitting down at my mom’s electric typewriter until I used up all the ribbon. But by high school and my first year of college, I had largely set aside my own imaginative writings. My sophomore year I studied abroad in Australia, and I can only describe my time there as a spiritual awakening of sorts, the kind born from travel and spending time intensely with a congenial group of very different people. When I came back, I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop and within the first few classes, knew that this would be my path. The comment on that early story draft I recently posted was from Phil Deaver, my first writing instructor, and I can remember stepping out of class, reading those words and the affirmation they gave me about where my talents and sensibilities remained. I must have saved his remarks for a rainy day when I needed encouragement, although of course that old story draft had long since been forgotten, until I cleaned out some files recently. Taking that photo of those prophetic words next to the ARC of my book was one of the most surreal and quietly powerful moments ever—proof that against all odds, you have the power to realize your wildest dreams. Success is a matter of focus and action.
I also think it’s crucial to mark those moments of affirmation on your journey. Because the road is a long one, and not for the faint of heart, though you don’t realize this when you’re young, and it’s perhaps better that you don’t. Celebrate your successes, even those as brief as a remark on a job well done, for they have the potential to fuel you as an artist for a long time, months even. The most important thing, if you’ve got the talent and an attitude that’s open to growth and grunt work, is perseverance.
Learn more about Vanessa and her work over at her website at http://vanessablakeslee.com and watch for her debut novel to be published by http://www.curbsidesplendor.com.