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Introduction to the Interview by Justin Nicholes, Communications Director & Senior Fiction Editor

It’s a pleasure to have interviewed Richard Spilman for this issue of Our Stories. I first met him in 2004 when I started an MFA in Creative Writing at Wichita State. I had been working on a novel, which was a mess. My friends in the program might remember workshopped excerpts of what was to be my debut novel Ash Dogs. Its title then was a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 50, and its protagonist was a melodramatic militant only Steinbeck could have loved.

Working through an MFA changed things. We all soon learned that Richard had been a student of John Gardner at SUNY—Binghamton, and I hurried to the library to check out all I could of Gardner’s writing: Nickel Mountain, Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogues, The Art of Living and Other Stories, as well as, of course, On Moral Fiction, On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction. The good thing about Gardner is he incites beginning writers to talk about craft, but more importantly, perhaps, his works move beginning writers to look inward. This is also a message conveyed in Richard Spilman’s workshops. Honesty isn’t easy, especially when dealing with oneself, but through the process of writing, beginning writers begin to search in the right direction. Richard had a lot to do with those three years at Wichita State representing a critical time for me as a writer. He tirelessly worked with me as my thesis advisor on several drafts of my novel. As a teacher, he’s one of the best.

In the following interview, I posed questions that would allow Richard to express thoughts I believed would be informative to the Our Stories writing community, but also I wanted to elicit insight from a writer of prose and poetry not to be overlooked. The stories in his recently released collection, The Estate Sale, are wonderfully vivid, poetic, character-driven works. Even if you haven’t had Richard as a teacher at Wichita State, his stories illustrate all things wonderful in the short story, as well as all things poetic and mysterious in the human heart.

Interview conducted by Justin Nicholes through email in late May of 2011

Our Stories was originally conceived as an online workshop, and a lot of writers come here seeking feedback about the craft. Alexis and I, and other editors here I’m sure, have found much worth in John Gardner’s fiction and especially in his books on craft. Having known him at SUNY—Binghamton, how would you describe John Gardner as a teacher?

: John could be both a very good and a very bad teacher. He was often late, distracted, unorganized and unhelpful—I usually brought a book to our meetings so I would have something to do until he showed up. Sometimes he hadn’t read the story I’d given him. Viewed as an employee doing his job in a rigorous and professional manner, he would not have got high marks.
            But he could rock your world. For our first meeting (and I saw him mostly in tutorials), I had given him the first chapters of a novel. He dropped them in my lap and told me they weren’t any good; maybe I should find someone else to work with. I told him I came to work with him, and that’s what I was going to do. We had a fight, a loud one. I defended my manuscript, and he ripped it apart: it had no drama, no characters worth caring about—it was just a writer showing off and not doing a very good job of it.
            This, I am convinced now, was a test. He wanted commitment—to him and to the work. At the end of that fight he grinned and told me to write a short story. I was to rummage through memories of family and friends to find an anecdote that had stuck with me—preferably one that didn’t make sense to me. The story I wrote, “Someone Else,” was based on my grandmother and the uncle who lived with her. The next one was “Hot Fudge,” based on memories of a family Thanksgiving when I was ten. We worked hard together, developing drama, legitimizing character, pruning self-indulgence.
            But John also knew when to stop. One day, he handed me back a story on which he had done next to nothing. He said, “It’s fine.” I knew it wasn’t and said so, and he told me I’d figure out the rest. I felt rejected, but he was right. I didn’t need him anymore.

Let’s talk The Estate Sale. The stories mostly seem to be organized according to the ages of the central characters. How did the sequence of the collection come about?

: I had enough stories for two books and chose the stories for this collection mostly based on style. Of that larger group, these are the dramatic, character-driven tales with a social conscience. They are, I think, stories John would have approved of. Not that the others are conscienceless, but they tend to be more concept stories—plot and theme driven.
            Once I’d chosen the stories, I had no clue how to organize them. I knew I wanted “The Estate Sale” toward the end. It’s not a good idea to place your longer stories at the beginning. Roughly speaking they do move from youth to age, but they also move from young to old in terms of when they were written. “Robbery,” the first story, was written before any of the others, and “The Estate Sale,” the penultimate story, was written last.
            I often wish I could organize a collection around a single theme or character, but my stories never work that way. When I am done with a story I am done with it. I want to move on. As a teenager I wanted to be a character actor, and that mentality is still with me. I want to inhabit new people and new places; I am restless to be elsewhere.

“Robbery,” the collection’s opening story, details a vivid hold up at gunpoint. Before the robbery, our first person narrator, David, says in an opening passage that the summer of 1971 was “a time of deliberate innocence.” How important is this line for an understanding of David and the robberies he experiences?

Crucial, I hope. I see David as Adam entering the real world of work and suffering and absurdity. A world he can’t fathom and will never fathom. He loses what was never his to begin with and allies himself at the end with those who have, themselves, been marginalized.

Your story “Bella” is wonderfully vivid: we can taste the delicious, bruised peaches Bella sells. But with the final bulldozing of her store, our young narrator laments some loss. Where do we find a person like Bella now in America? Or can we?

Not any more. She was based on a real person, a Mrs. Lutz, and the descriptions, while not accurate, are fairly autobiographical. The rat on the engine of the car, that was real, but I had a dachshund, and she couldn’t catch it. Mrs. Lutz was horrible, from a child’s standpoint, but not at all mean. I learned to like her—she lived in a world that had not been purified of its flaws and wrapped in plastic, and there was more humor in her than I was able to render. She would have been happy in any barter economy. Her world was the haggling world of real community.

:The opening of “Where the Spiders Sleep” details, from a boy’s perspective, a mother drowning rabbit kittens and the boy later trying to revive them. It seems to serve as both characterization as well as a sort of metaphor that lends meaning to the rest of the story. How did this image come about through the writing of the story?

Like many of my images, it was imported from experience and then changed. I am that woman, only I drowned kittens we couldn’t get rid of. They fought like hell, and my daughter did not approve. Another image was the house itself, which was based on the house of my babysitter, when I was a child. The spiders came from a famous bar in nineteenth century San Francisco, The Cobweb Palace, one of those oddities where reading connects with experience. I don’t think the story created those images; the images created the story. That haven beneath the porch seemed the perfect space for spiders.

To get into a craft question, some beginning writers find writing description to be tedious. In your stories, details such as the ones we’ve touched on are vital. What’s your take on the writing of description?

I think a story cannot function without poetry, and the poetry of the story comes from its physicality. Voices in an empty room—that’s a good working definition of madness. I need a story that feels and makes me want to feel in a very tactile way. A good story always takes my hand and says, “Touch this,” even when I want to avoid the touch. It’s all about making contact.

: Some of the most moving stories in The Estate Sale concern elderly characters, such as in “Pie,” “Speaking in Code,” “The Estate Sale,” and “Light,” which are the final four stories. A certain loneliness permeates these works, but also a vigor and affirmation of life. At several points, we enter the perspectives of characters, such as Vivian in “Light,” in which a beauty or clarity of perception comes with a growing disconnect from the outside world. Why were these stories important for you to write?

I’m 64. The disconnect happens. Everyone talks the same, and you have the same friends, but there is always death, just over the horizon, speaking to you, and you are like someone listening to two conversations at the same time. Everyone over 60 is a mystic.
            A lot of what I am saying in those stories comes from the last nine years of my mother’s life, after a series of strokes, when she was my mother but someone else, and we could no longer entirely talk to each other as we once had. “Speaking in Code” was written in first draft at my mother’s bedside during one of her three miraculous recoveries from pneumonia. The others take up a lot of personal space as well. That is another thing about the selection of stories for this collection. I seem to have chosen stories in which there were moments, at least, of strong personal connection. Not autobiography, but people or situations to which I had strong personal ties. It is, in some ways, an exorcism of the past.
            “Pie” is the only story of that group that does not come out of those experiences and is something of a paean celebrating the farm women I grew up around.

In your story “Light,” Mrs. Powell works with elderly folks in an assisted living community and suffers for it, emotionally and physically. The stress she feels is tangible. What was the inspiration for a character like Mrs. Powell?

As my mother’s dementia progressed there were dozens of Mrs. Powells and dozens of Joes in her life, people who devoted themselves to the elderly, which when you think about it is very much like working in a cancer ward from which no one ever recovers. It wears on the staff, who must be caring and realistic at the same time. I learned a lot from these people.

When your short story collection Hot Fudge was released, what was the literary environment like that moved The Los Angeles Times to declare that your collection is proof “The short story has made a comeback”?

It hadn’t, but inexplicably short story collections were selling well in the Eighties, and publishers were paying more attention to the story as a form. My collection came out and the bottom dropped out of that market; I hope there isn’t a connection.
            What the Los Angeles Times reviewer was talking about had less to do with the short story and more to do with a form of realism. I suspect he felt that postmodernism might obliterate realism, but that sort of thing never happens. In literature, dinosaurs still roam the landscape, and in this collection I suspect I am one of them.

           
In your experience teaching creative writing, what seems to be the greatest challenge to the beginning writer?

The greatest challenge for young writers who have mastered the basics is to find an emotional core to write from. It is impossible to write well without having a personal stake in what you write—so that in some way or another you are putting your life on the line. Beginners often write as if they were landscape painters trying to get the leaves right. More experienced writers tend to cultivate a sense of surprise. There will come a moment when an idea veers off into vision, where you literally feel through the words. Often that means discarding the original intention, but it also means you have found a way to see through the details of the story: the claritas Joyce talks about. Like craft, that comes through practice, but not the sort of practice you read about in textbooks, and for me it almost never comes through the original inspiration. It is not so much a matter of rewriting as it is of re-feeling. It’s a little like photography. Any damned fool can take a picture of a rock, but in the eyes of some photographers that rock becomes as dynamic as dance. Only then do you have art.

Finally, and most importantly, what is the current state of college baseball as you see it?

Aha! At last, relevance! I am a little worried about college baseball. It is becoming popular—bigger stadiums and more TV coverage. But there is greater parity than there used to be, and that is a good thing. The great programs still dominate the rankings, but it’s rare for a team to end the season with single-digit losses. Certainly the game is better with the new aluminum bats. With the old ones, even Justin Nicholes could have hit a home run, especially in Wichita.

 

     

Richard Spilman

RICHARD SPILMAN’s recent short story collection, The Estate Sale, won the George Garrett Prize from Texas Review Press. Within it, “Robbery” won the Greensboro Review fiction award, “Pie” received special mention in the Pushcart Anthology, and “Where He Went Under” won the Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award. His short story collection Hot Fudge was a New York Times Notable Book and includes the story “Hot Fudge,” winner of the Quarterly West Novella Award, and “The Old Man Tells His Story and Gets It Wrong,” recognized in Editors’ Choice as one of the best stories of the year. In addition to fiction, he has written award-winning poetry collections: In the Night Speaking won the Sacramento Poetry Center Book Award, and Suspension won the New American Press Chapbook Award. Recipient of an NEA Fellowship and a Fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Spilman lives in Wichita and is a faculty member in Wichita State’s MFA program.

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