August's Author of the Month is Patti Grayson. Patti is the author of three books including the short story collection Core Samples, and a novel Autumn, One Spring. Her books have been short-listed for numerous awards. Autumn, One Spring has been translated into German. In 19 Questions about Process: An interview with Patti Grayson (below), she shares a few thoughts about her creative process and let's us peek into her studio in My Studio: Patti Grayson.
Patti Grayson's books with Turnstone Press are:
19 Questions about Process: An interview with Patti Grayson
When did you first come to think of yourself as a professional writer?
There were a number of early years during which I was working exclusively on my writing—attending workshops, taking writing classes, submitting to and receiving acceptance from journals and anthologies, etc. —but I wasn’t brave enough to call myself a writer at all. I did recognize a shift after the publication of my first book, Core Samples; it struck me that I could legitimately refer to myself as an author. From time to time, the imposter syndrome still seeps in and I have to remind myself that a third book is on its way.
What is your current typical writing routine like?
I like to write in the morning. On a good day, I’ll find I’ve skipped lunch and don’t realize it until two in the afternoon. I have made numerous attempts to adhere to the professional advice out there, either attempting a quota of 2 pages per day or 3 hours per day. I have been a great rule follower from the womb onward, but I just can’t get the hang of “quota rules” for writing. I’m either writing like a madwoman or not producing. I chastise myself for not being more disciplined and remind myself to keep my derrière in the chair.
Has your writing routine changed from when you first began to write?
I don’t believe so. I do think I have an overall seasonal consistency. I know I am much more productive in the spring and summer months than I am in the fall and winter, possibly due to day-job commitments, but I think it runs deeper than that.
What inspires you?
For me, the concept of inspiration is twofold: I am deeply compelled to write a piece after encountering certain events or images or persons. But I believe what actually inspires me to put pen to paper is art in all its forms—other books, plays, visual art, music, and movies. The thrill never gets old when I encounter the hush of an art gallery, when the new novel beckons from the night table, the lights dim in the theatre. The promise of something that stirs the imagination is what drives me forward as a writer.
You have written both short fiction and novels for Adult and Young Adult markets. While a novel and short story each has its own charms, which is your current preferred form?
My preference is to be writing novels, but the short story often rescues me from the creative doldrums, so I can never abandon it. For me, a short story is like a shower of sparks that sizzles and needs to be contained, while the novel turns to glowing embers that require tending long into the dark night. Both ignite fires for me.
Do you know at the moment you start to write something if it will be a short story or a novel when complete?
There is always a definite intention, but that line has blurred for me on a few occasions.
Do you approach short fiction differently than you approach a novel?
I believe I start out approaching them in the same way. I envision the arc of the story itself before I set out, be it tragedy that peaks upward before it collapses, or comedy that dips into the trough before resurfacing. Since I’m not one to devise a concrete outline for either form; sometimes I know how I will follow that arc and sometimes I don’t. After that beginning point, however, it very quickly diverges. For me, there’s a requirement for a different skill set to get through a novel.
What role, if any, does research play in your writing?
The research I’ve tended to do is in the realm of fact-checking and looking for specifics to flesh out part of a story along the way. There have been times when I researched first and wrote later (a recently published story that references the painter Fernando Botero, as an example), but it’s usually the other way around. I foresee an increase in research effort with respect to my work, because my spectrum of exploration is widening as I move forward. For the most part, I’ve written about what I know and now there’s a need to know more.
Some writers prefer the process of composing a first draft to a story while others prefer the editorial stage of fine-tuning and polishing. Do you have a preference? Why?
Fine-tuning is divine! First draft is torture! Apart from believing I have a somewhat obsessive nature and constant tinkering is therefore fulfilling, I cannot tell you why I have this preference. Honestly, I write very rough and needy first drafts, but I am not afraid of the labour required to try and produce polished work. It is an impediment to making progress at times, however, as I can write countless drafts of early chapters before inching forward.
Of all the characters who’ve walked through the pages of your work, who is your favourite and why?
That is a challenging question. Perhaps I’ll take the liberty of choosing one from each book.
In Core Samples, I like Quentin, the ice maker in the story entitled Ice Maker. Quite simply, I fell in love with him while writing him. That hasn’t happened in quite the same way before or since.
The title character, Autumn, in Autumn, One Spring, holds my affection because under the big chips she carries around all day, she actually has very vulnerable shoulders.
In my upcoming YA novel, Ghost Most Foul, it is the supporting character, Dodie, who I adore. She is smart, fearless, loyal, and resilient, but highly unpopular. I hope my younger readers will appreciate her.
Autumn, One Spring began as a series of short stories. What was involved in taking those stories and shaping them into a novel?
Originally, there were five connected stories about Autumn, which I had intended to submit as the “spine” for my story collection, Core Samples. At the last minute, I yanked them and worked for the better part of a year to replace them. I couldn’t let go of Autumn in the state she was in at the time. I realized it would take a novel to tell her tale.
The content of the very first story—Autumn returning to her hometown to attend her sister’s wedding without an invitation—became the essence of the novel. The characters of Autumn, her sister Christine, their mom, and Keefe, the ex-boyfriend, were carried forward. Dr. Jewel, Autumn’s boss, was also one of the original cast and one of her scenes survived. As for the remainder of the first five stories, they are only distant memories. The novel broke new trail and journeyed off in its own direction.
Autumn, One Spring is set against the backdrop of the Chernobyl disaster. What prompted you to bring this important historical event to shadow your narrative?
The day when the details of the Chernobyl disaster reached North America was a very vivid one for me. I was working for a theatre company at the time and seriously considering starting a family. I had very strong reactions to the tragedy, as I have Ukrainian heritage and I was concerned for the people’s suffering and the environmental aftermath. Plus, I had deep misgivings—the kind I imagine many prospective parents have—wondering about the precarious nature of the world in which I would be raising children.
I wanted the novel to be entrenched in a specific time and place that was sharply pinpointed for me and I thought that the Chernobyl events might be significant for others as well. As a result, I wrote with a heightened awareness of the parallel undercurrent of explosive threat lurking in the events and relationships of the novel.
Your work has been translated into another language. What was that process like for you?
The process was definitely punctuated by anticipation, sprinkled with disbelief. Even after I saw the contract for the translation and publication for the novel in Germany, I doubted that it would actually come to fruition (imposter syndrome strikes again). When I finally spotted the cover on the publisher’s website, I was over the moon. It’s exciting to think that an editor on a different continent had an appreciation for my work, and that a translator subsequently rendered my sentences into a “foreign” existence. I’m also quite curious about it; I not only wonder how it will be received there, I wish I could read German. [ Ed. Note: Readers curious to read Autumn, One Spring in German can check out Hochzeit mit Elch released by S. Fischer Verlag.]
What are your thoughts about social media and its related networking for writers?
I know that social media has become the essential all-in-one screwdriver in the writer’s promotional tool box. And I love to read other writers’ posts, blogs, and articles they take the time to share. I am also grateful for the chance to reach a wider audience with my own work; but personally, I have a nagging fear that the more time we spend surveying social media, the less time we devote to reading novels, short stories, and poetry, where I believe the true engagement with the writer takes place.
What are you currently working on?
An adult novel that I have restarted twice, and a noir-ish short story about a poet who is having difficulty putting the finishing touches on her manuscript. Ironic? A little too . . .
And now a few fun questions:
Do you keep any talismans or lucky charms nearby when you write?
I am surrounded by many objects when I write (as readers can discover if they visit the My Studio piece on this website), but I have never considered them lucky—just treasured.
Are you a habitual consumer of anything while you write? How about when you edit?
Here is the conversation that went on in my head when I attempted to answer this question:
me: Oooooh, I can quote Captain Picard when I reveal my preferred beverage!
ME: You can’t do that.
me: Why not?
ME: Because you’re trying to establish yourself as a literary writer in this interview. You can’t admit to being a Trekkie.
me: I’m not a Trekkie.
ME: Oh no? What’s Picard’s name when he’s captured by the Borg?
me: Locutus. Everybody knows that!
ME: What about the Data and Counselor Troi action figures you claimed you were buying for your son?
me: They were for my son! He was 8! Look, I just want to say, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” I’ve never had the opportunity before. This is under the category of “fun” questions.
ME: Go ahead, expose yourself. Are you going to mention the red wine then?
me: I wasn’t planning on it.
Favourite music to listen to while you write?
I normally work without music, but I do use music to set mood before I start to work in the hope that it will enhance or inform my current project. As an example, I listened to music from the ’80s (Cyndi Lauper et al.) when I edited Autumn, One Spring to put me back in the mindset of the time. I listened to the lyrical expressions of hardship in Jann Arden’s albums to heighten some of the work in Core Samples. When I’ve immersed myself, sung along for awhile, been inspired, maybe even danced in my living room, I turn the music off and set to work.
If you could not be involved in the literary arts, what career might you have?
I’ve worked as an advertising copywriter, puppeteer, actor, and school librarian. I’ve sold fishing lures, clerked in a bank, and been a stay-at-home mom. About the only other job I would want is professional curler (granite-on-ice, not heated-hair-tongs). It’s similar to working as a writer because the overwhelming majority keep their day jobs to support their passion.