Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Kenyon Review, VQR, Five Chapters, Storyville, and The Harvard Review. His stories have won the National Magazine Award in fiction, and have been selected for inclusion in The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. VOLT, a collection of stories published by Graywolf Press, was a “Best Book 2011” selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as for inclusion in the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series. Heathcock has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.
* * *
Okla Elliott: Talk to me for a bit about the short story form, both in terms of its artistic/aesthetic merits and its place in the lit-biz industry. What particular joys do you find in the form? What limitations? Also, as your collection seems to be garnering a fair amount of attention and readers, what do you think of the received wisdom that story collections aren’t viable in today’s market?
Alan Heathcock: Recently I was asked to list my top ten favorite stories of all-time. I started by making a “short list” of stories that have impacted my life and/or art. My short list was not short at all. I had over fifty stories that have had a great impact on me, dating back to my childhood. I recall as a child being riveted by Poe’s “Tell Tale Heart”, and Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” In junior high and high school I read the ghost stories of Algernon Blackwood, and the stories of Roald Dahl. I read “Indian Camp” by Ernest Hemingway my junior year in high school and it changed my life—I’d never read anything that struck so deep into my doubts and fears. In college I read all Carver and Ford and Cheever and Flannery I could get my hands on. In graduate school I read everything else. In fact, the day I decided to become a writer, on a scorching July day, in a park in Keokuk, Iowa, I read three short stories, “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Five Forty-Eight” by John Cheever, and “Winter Chemistry” by Joy Williams, and the stories were so powerful that they shifted this boulder inside me enough that I could get (and keep) it rolling. Looking at this list of my favorite stories was a potent reminder of the huge role stories have played in my life. I wouldn’t be a writer without them. I’d be a different person without them. Because I don’t think I’m that different than others, and see myself as a relatively “normal” guy, or at least think I understand the tastes of the mainstream, I don’t see why stories couldn’t play an important role in anyone’s life. Looking around at all the university programs, at all the students out there in the world writing short stories, at the hundreds and hundreds of literary magazines that publish short fiction, it baffles me as to why short stories haven’t been seen as viable in the marketplace.
For a while, I was trying to be realistic about why there’s this bias toward short stories. If I looked at all the story collections being published, and all the very mediocre/bad collections I’d read, I’d have to admit that a quality problem exists. It’s true. Most story collections are not very good. They are first books by MFA students in a great rush to get a book out in the world (because, for some reason, we’re made to believe this is a race though it’s not). Or they are books of stories by known writers, who wrote the stories in their spare time, over a long period of time, in-between or while writing novels. Now we seem to be in a downward spiral, meaning that the perception is that publishers don’t want story collections, that story collections are viewed as side-projects, or the second book in a two-book deal, so writers don’t take short stories seriously, and because they don’t take them seriously (or not as seriously as they do novels) the quality of the work suffers, which leaves readers disenchanted, and negatively effects reviews and sales, which comes full circle to validate the publishers’ lack of faith in story collections. But…though I think this is absolutely true, it’s only part of the equation.
What I can’t rectify in my mind is the fact that most novels I’ve read in the past ten years aren’t very good, either, and nobody seems to be making a big deal about the lack of quality there. Many literary novels have been executed with the same banal competence, the same droll pacing, the same soft empathy and obvious insights I see in the mediocre story collections that too often get published, and yet these novels sell lots of copies. The best I can make of it is that somehow publishers have found a way to effectively market the mediocre novels in a way they haven’t been able to market the short stories. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say that they just don’t like short stories, and yet when I ask them about the last story collection they read they admit they really have read many. Where does that bias come from? It’s hard to say where this originates, but certainly I can say that stories have a public relations problem.
When I look at my book, and how maybe it’s been handled/accepted differently, which maybe could’ve contributed to its relative success in the marketplace, there are a couple of things I see. One, is the critical attention. I can’t comment much on this other than to say that I worked over a dozen years on a collection of stories, thought about how it would work as a collection, and tried hard to make it as potent a BOOK as possible. I thought long and hard on how to make it work as a BOOK. A certain amount of the “attention” (your word) VOLT has received has been critical attention. Especially for a collection of short stories, critical acceptance seems vital to acceptance in the marketplace. In all my years in academia, I’ve heard countless conversations as to what makes a great story, but very few conversations about what makes a great book. I feel this is a place we can immediately improve.
The other factor is my publisher, Graywolf Press, who I think understand how to get my book in front of people who might like to read a collection of stories. Again, there’s a vast and accessible network of people who read and write short stories. Better than some other publishers who only understand the old and less nimble model of publishing and marketing novels, Graywolf Press simply knows how to market their books in circles that would most be interested in short stories. Back when we were selling VOLT, my agent very wisely told me that Graywolf was our number one pick for the very reason I’ve offered.
My book has gotten a fair amount of critical attention from newspapers and magazines and blogs, and my publisher has effectively marketed the book, and I have worked very hard myself to do guest blogs and interviews, I’ve traveled quite a bit to do readings, anything that would help the cause, and because of that the book has sold relatively well. Everybody’s very pleased with the sales. In fact, I’d venture that VOLT has outsold most novels published in the past year. So can story collections sell? Yes. Is it false to say that story collections can’t sell? Yes. Are story collections viable? Sure. That said, if I look at the sales of the best-selling novels of last year, the sales of VOLT are not even close. It’s a completely different ballgame. Which is okay, so long as we understand what game we’re playing. The main thing is to understand that the short story as a form is potent and important, and that as we champion the form we must dedicate ourselves to be patient to writing stories that matter, that are relevant and interesting. Any public relations problems the story collection has can only be rectified by readers having profound experiences from the work. If, like me, a reader has their entire world view changed by a story, has their intellectual and imaginative and emotional selves changed at the molecular level by a story, they’ll read another, and another, and another…
OE: You mentioned stories that affected you. Could you tell us a bit about your literary influences and how they affected the stories in this collection? I know writers are always at pains to be original but we also want to pay homage to our private pantheon of writers. How have you navigated this?
AH: I don’t shy away from influences at all. My writing day consists of me scouring books and films to find examples that might positively influence the scene or moment I’m writing that day. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that what will come out of me won’t just be an imitation, but a stew of influences; books, movies, plays, memories, stories told, paintings, songs, things I’ve read in a newspaper… Knowing that the work is this stew, and that this stew is a mixture of so many disparate ingredients, and that I’m not following someone else’s recipe but my own instincts for flavor (I’m know I’m straining this metaphor—ha), I’m proactive in seeking out influences without any fear that it will somehow diminish my originality. To go through my entire book and explain influences would mean me taking you scene by scene through each story, deciphering what influenced what. I can say that I’ve never said, “I want to write a story like (fill in the blank)”, and then just used that one story as a template. It’s always a stew. For example, I was working on a scene today, for a novel in progress, and in my notes I have a quotes from Thomas Merton, from Bono, notes I took after watching scenes from the films Pulp Fiction, Hadewijch, Thief, Putty Hill, notes I took after studying photos of a tree farm in Oregon, thoughts I had remembering a recent conversation I had with my uncle about strip-mines on a drive we took through the southern Indiana, and notes I took after studying the opening of the novel Twisted Tree by Kent Meyers. So you can see that by the time I’m done with the novel I’ll literally have accrued hundreds of influences.
If you’re just asking who, in a general sense, I’d like to emulate, then my greatest hero is Cormac McCarthy. If I list off my top twenty favorite books his books would take up the bulk of those spots. I also find that I’m greatly influenced by the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman—I think he’s one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, and I’ve admired his work so much that I’ve actually written out the dialog to parts or all of many of his films. In my mind, those two stand above all the rest.
All in all, I have a great passion for stories, in all forms. I’m a voracious consumer of books, and read around fifty a year. As I’ve kept a film log since September 1995, I can tell you that I’ve watched, as of last night, exactly 3,123 films in that time. While consuming stories, I’m never not a writer. Everything I read, and everything I view, I’m always open and hoping to take in new influences.
OE: You also mentioned the pressure many writers feel to put out a book too soon, before the stories are truly ready. Could you talk about your process of writing the stories in your collection, publishing them in journals, revising them for the collection, and how you knew you had a collection ready? And speak to these pressures writers feel. There are of course the issues of personal validation artists seek, but we also live in the real world where people get jobs and thereby pay their rent because of publications, so it’s a real concern. How did you deal with these very real pressures? How does a writer balance the high aesthetic calling of art with the vulgar facts of a career?
AH: My kid is fifteen, and a very talented singer/musician. The Grammy Foundation named him one of the top thirty high-school singers in the country, and he’s only a sophomore. He goes to a Julliard-style school, gets five hours of music training a day. He’s passionate, an old soul. He has a great ear for music. He’s good looking, learns music at a very high level, and quickly. He writes his own songs, and even writes great lyrics. Regionally, he’s already considered one of the best musicians around. He’s told me he wants to be a singer and recording artist. I don’t see anything that will not let that happen, so long as we can navigate all the myriad ways his life as an artist can be compromised.
First off is the feeling that we’re in a race. Andrew (my kid) has been offered money to make records a number of times now. I’ve met with several parties who felt he’d make a great record, and felt we’d make money off of the fact that he’s young and talented. We must act NOW! The clock is ticking! We’re fortunate to have some very good people in our corner, famous singers/musicians to help sort things out. Recently, one such singer told me something that has set the foundation for our “business/career model”. He said that Andrew could make a cool and unique album, and it could possibly sell well, but that because of his age, and because he’s not fully formed as an artist, people wouldn’t take him seriously. “He’s a novelty,” he said. Compared against other teens he was amazing, but put up against artists of all ages he wouldn’t make the cut. This wise friend then went on to say that he believed Andrew was a rare kind of talent, maturing as an artist at an astounding rate, and that he advised us to follow the model of waiting until he’s fully formed. “Prince was such a talent that I’m sure he could’ve made a record when he was fifteen, but it wouldn’t have been Prince. When Prince did come out with his first record, at age nineteen, he was a fully formed genius, he was what we know to this day as Prince.” He gave other examples, like U2 and The Who, John Mayer, all who started young, but came out fully formed. I believe this to be the correct way of thinking, as both an artistic model and a business model. So we’ve put on hold the idea of making a record, have excused ourselves from “the race” for now, have decided to focus on Andrew the artist so that once Andrew enters “the race”, at whatever age, he’ll be fully formed, and fare well.
Another thing to negotiate is the other side of the coin, which is that most people live in the world of caution, and that caution is a kind of compromise. We’ve begun saying out loud that Andrew wants to be a musician. The typical reaction is that people give him the equivalent of a pat on the head, then immediately turn to caution. “I know a friend who makes good money giving piano lessons,” one friend said. “Andrew could always do that if it doesn’t work out.” Another friend said he knows someone who’s a wedding singer, and that Andrew should meet him. Why does this happen? Don’t they believe in Andrew? It’s hard to say, but certainly they can’t put their faith in something so foolish as being a musician. “He needs a safety net,” one friend urged. My response is always the same. If you have a safety net then there’s a part of you that knows you can fall, and when things get too tough, as they will, you’ll just flop down gently into the net. What I understand, have seen in the world, is that the individuals working without a safety net are generally very focused on staying on the wire and making it across.
Finally, I’ve simply noticed that when most people talk about Andrew, even those who’d like to record him, very few talk about artistry and standards. Is this a sign of the times? A cultural shift? Part of the “everybody gets a trophy” worldview? Do we not even want to suggest that aspiring to do something great is a virtue? So they’ll talk about how good looking Andrew is, or how his voice is marketable, or even suggest that he doesn’t have to be great? “Look at Justin Bieber”, they say, as if that’s a selling point with us. “His songs aren’t that great, but they sure know how to market him.” Very few people have suggested that the most important thing is for Andrew to write a great song, a song that comes from deep inside him, a song that will touch the souls of listeners for years to come. We all know and cherish these kinds of songs, our lives are marked by the songs that become the soundtrack to our days. Isn’t that exactly what he should be doing? Isn’t that the only advice he should hear? Is that the truest reality? Even the act of attempting such a thing adds value to the artistic pursuit, allows the work to validate the artist, as opposed to the artist looking beyond themselves for validation. The validation is the work, the song itself, not the record deal. Yet when I suggest that what Andrew wants is to write a great song, to be a great performer, to make a difference in the world with his music, people become uncomfortable. One friend even suggested it was arrogant for Andrew to have such goals. Humility is not the sublimation of ambition, but giving yourself to something bigger than yourself, of understanding that only with hard work and dedication can you ascend into your ambitions. That’s how I was raised. For some reason, this line of thinking has fallen out of fashion. It really ticks people off—I think they feel this line of thinking as a pressure instead of as a liberation, which is what is should be.
Compromise, compromise, compromise. How does anybody ever make it through?
Instead of discussing myself and my career, as you’ve asked, I’ve used my kid as an example because I’ve found that writers get prickly when you directly suggest such wild and romantic notions as patiently working toward a fully formed version of yourself, disengaging from the “race”, to not yield to caution, to work without a net, to not look beyond yourself for validation, to write something that means something and allows the work to validate the artist, and to try and write something great, something that will mark our times and last for years to come.
The little I will say about my own “career” is that I’ve published only six stories in sixteen years, all of which found homes in top tier journals, a few of which were recognized in anthologies and/or won awards. Agents read my stories and sought me out. My book, which took me over a dozen years to finish, was the exact book I wanted to write—I stand by every word of every story. My agent sent the book to one publisher, our top choice, and they took it. The book has won awards, critical acclaim, and sold well, all despite people saying short stories would be ignored in the marketplace. During all the years before the book’s release I taught classes in fiction writing, though, by choice, no more than two classes during any given semester. Until the past year, I’ve made very little money, had my family make many sacrifices. Things were often tight financially, but we were never unhappy.
A few years ago I was offered a job. The job was, in part, to be an advocate for the arts. It was an interesting job. The pay was good. I’d have benefits. Upon hearing the job offer, I told the individual that I already had a job, that I was a writer. They said that they understood that, but that only 5% of all writers got to just write, and 95% worked a job and wrote on the side. To that, I thanked them for the offer, and declined the job. I said, “If I accept your offer then I’ll immediately be a part of the 95%. I want to be a part of the 5%.”
I don’t think I’m a hero, and maybe, in fact, I’ve been reckless in the way I’ve handled things. Maybe I’m lucky it’s worked out. My mother claims that my best (and worst) attribute is that I’m extremely stubborn, and I’m sure that’s true (ha).
As for my son, I drive him to and from school every day, a thirty minute drive each way, and many of our conversations are about these romantic notions I have. He gets it because he’s seen me walk the walk, and now he lives it himself. He’s leading the charge in his own life, his own dreams. Even with all of his natural talent, he works hard, pushes himself every day, with absolute focus, to develop his talents so that he might someday write a song that’ll change the world. He’s happy, wholly inspired, lives his days with purpose. I know the feeling. I’m very proud of the kid, and I have no doubt he’ll succeed.
OE: You’ve recently been an advocate on NPR and Facebook for poetry, suggesting that people should try reading a poem a day. What joys do you find in reading poetry that you don’t find in fiction? Who are your favorite poets? Do you write poetry—that is, can your readers hope one day for a collection of poems from you?
AH: As I suggested in my NPR piece, a poem can be a magical thing because of its ability to make me contemplative in a short amount of time. That’s not to say that fiction can’t do this, but only that it takes me less time to read a poem than to read a story. I find I can fit a poem into my busy mornings filled with getting three kids up and fed and off to school, while also offering me something lasting. I read a poem each morning, have this beautiful moment of meditation, and then kind of chew on the words all day—the words are sustenance, bolstering me for the trials of a day. A poem each morning has become a daily ritual, and a comfort to me. I’ll add that reading poetry has also inspired me to try and write prose with a certain power and precision, and I’ve studied poetry, filled my notebooks with great lines I’ve found in my favorite poems. Some of my favorite poets are James Dickey, Richard Hugo, Galway Kinnell, Mary Oliver, Carolyn Forché, and Anne Sexton, to name but a few of many (these are the first six authors I saw on the book shelf closest to my desk). The contemporary poetry scene is so vibrant that I discover a new great voice regularly—if I mention one burgeoning poet I admire, I’ll have to mention fifty. Poetry means a lot to me, and in such a basic human way—a poem stirs my mind, my emotions, my imagination, makes me feel more alive—that I feel the urge to push poetry on everybody I know. I’m as passionate about poems as I am about stories. In fact, I’ll say that my greatest hope, an actual goal I have, is that my fiction operates with the kind of potency I’ve experienced in the best poems. That said, I don’t actually write poetry. I once took a poetry workshop and every poem I wrote was basically a three-hundred word story with line breaks. It seems as if I’m hard-wired for stories. At least for now—never say never. Maybe I should add to my bucket list that before I die I write at least one great poem. In my opinion, that would be as worthy a bucket-goal as any.
OE: I understand that you’re working on a novel now. What new challenges do you find in the longer form? What new pleasures? And are you working on stories at the same time, or are you laser-focused on the novel?
AH: The biggest challenge in working on the novel is to find a story that’s expansive enough to warrant its length. In a general sense, I don’t see any difference in how I think about my work when writing short stories or a novel. My job is still to give a moment by moment empathetic accounting of the life of a character, capturing the truth of their experiences as vividly and potently as possible, and having those experiences add to a whole that is a story. For the novel, the big challenge is to understand how one significant dramatic movement enables/produces another significant dramatic movement, and another, building, deepening, into an escalation of events and then ends in a way where the greater arc is complete. In these terms my job is not difficult to understand. A short story would be one full dramatic movement, whereas a novel would be several. The difficulty comes in being able to understand and hold the entire novel in my head. It’s a huge logistical challenge. With a short story, I could more easily hold the story in my head, working out the fine details even before I write them. I’ve found that I have to focus all the more on the novel, really concentrate, even to hold a sense on one full dramatic movement, let alone the greater story arc. Every day I think something like, “Man, I wish I were smarter…” Of course, I’ve had to employ all kind of tricks to help with the logistics, using story-boards, filling a bulletin board with note cards containing significant details I shouldn’t forget. But, really, this is also the great pleasure of the novel. I feel like I’m steeped in the new world, and it’s exhilarating as it all comes to life in my mind. For now I can only work on the novel, and short stories have gone off the burners. Even if I wasn’t wholly invigorated by this new novel, I’m not sure my brain could properly hold another narrative—I’d have to stop writing the novel to write a short story.
OE: Okay, I am going to go a little fantastical for the last question. If you could magically change one thing in the writing world, what would it be?
AH: Since we’re talking magic here, I’ll go total faerie-dust-big on you. The main things I see getting in the way of people (myself, my writer friends, my students) are money and insecurity. I spoke earlier of compromise, and I think 99% of compromise is somehow attached to our need for money, to make a living, earning money in ways that distracts us from writing, and our desire to be externally validated, our compromising by writing stories we think others will praise as opposed to writing the stories of our own subjective preoccupations. So…what if, by magic, anyone who agrees to devote themselves 100% to the creation of literature receives a place to live, has clothing and food and transportation, and all other “life-needs” provided for them. And what if, by magic, the race/competition that is the world of publishing is replace somehow, maybe by magically having an artist’s novel or story magically transferred into the minds of any and all for whom the story would work (and never delivered into the mind of someone who wouldn’t “like” the work). How can we magically steal away the rat race, the external competition, the need for validation beyond the art itself?
What I’m posing is that the world of literature would greatly benefit from authors who can purely express themselves, without fear of professional failure, without distraction, without all the goofy mind games and insecurities. If the highest purpose of literature is to see ourselves more clearly, more deeply, then the words must come from a place of truth and vulnerability. Any sliver of self-consciousness or doubt erodes the potency of that truth. We become shy. We become demure. We become lesser. Or we struggle, while working ten jobs to supplement our incomes, to find the time for the kind of concentrated meditation required to potently investigate the truths, and find the words to express them. When I teach, I try as hard as I can to keep my students focused on the art itself. It’s an uphill battle. Last summer, I taught at an exclusive writers’ conference attended by many of the finest writers we have, and yet when I conferenced with the attendees many couldn’t answer the most basic and important question: “Why are you writing this?” All but a few times the writers would attempt to answer by telling me something about the business of writing, giving me their “pitch” (as if I were an agent or editor), as opposed to expressing the subjective purpose of their story, what it means to them, why it must be told.
Oh, by stars, to have all the life pressures removed, the silly insecurities that too often ravage our spirits, to have all the time in the world to sit and dream and turn inward to discover the stories of who we are, to express the things of the world that scare and confound us, that make us hope and swoon and love and hate. That’s all I want for myself. That’s what I want for all of us. Is that too much to ask?