Ive spent this whole year going, What? I found out they bought the book it was probably a week before I graduated, May 2008. Its my thesis, with two extra stories. Refined and reordered. I wasnt working on the book; I was working on a number of short stories. I combined two characters. One summer I wrote the story about when Dooley was a kid. I really liked writing that story. Some of them are just very satisfying to write. I didnt know how to enter that story. Im still not crazy about the ending. Had I to do it over, I would change it.
Im always thinking about it. The other day Im walking across the living room and all of a sudden, Im like, Ohh The right ending for Keeping Her Difficult Balance. I thought the ending on that was too heavy-handed in my mind. She falls, but it shouldve been more visual about the spray, and how the flames do this. Thats always really fun for me. I love writing really visual stuff. Thats kind of how I think, in pictures. Just have to translate it into words, and that takes a certain amount of time.
That came out of an actual assignment. I was so resistant to writing a story about southwest Louisiana, who knows why. Writing a story about the gay girls? Not going to do that. Amanda (Boyden) was really good about it: She would give everybody a really specific assignment based on whatever it was she could see you were resisting. That started out as a one-page. She would give you a scene: an ugly girl on her first date. Thats not how I think. Im going to make her a kick-ass girl! The ugliness is going to be completely somebody elses assumption; that wont be her perception of herself. Im very long-winded, so that was five pages. Delia, the character, grew out of that assignment. Im really grateful to Amanda, because I really would never have written that, ever. That led to Keeping Her Difficult Balance. Then I thought, that Dooley kid could be her brother. Then this family history started evolving from there. And I had Luis and Pudge. I thought, what if Pudge was Luis father? That would be hilarious.
I got an email from agent, who Id gotten my second year. I was a finalist in a Tennessee Williams short story contest. It was for St. Luis of Palmyra, the only one I had that was really a story, in my mind. He contacted me through the university. Hes forwarding an email from an editor, and I didnt understand it. Does this mean they want to look at the story? So I forwarded it to Amanda. I said, Amanda, what does this mean? She said, You got a book deal. I said, How can you tell?
Thats where it all started. That ones really close to my heart.
Bizarre! I was a bonus story to Dostoyevsky. The concept is, read the classics, and heres a modern story that you might want to learn about. I find out a week before I graduate that I have a book deal, and that I have to say yay or nay. Are you kidding me, my thesis? I kept thinking they were going to go, We like your thesis, we like these stories. What we need you to do is, change Delia to a boy, do this, do that. We need some product endorsement. Just kidding. We thought we wanted it. None of that happened. They were refined to make it linked.
Off and on, a long time. Except for maybe seven years out of 30. Broadmoor, briefly. Irish Channel, briefly. I remember Mid-City in the 70s and 80s. It was a different group of immigrants. Lots of old people. My favorite thing in the world is to get people to tell me the history of the neighborhood, what used to be where. I taught at Warren Easton for five years. 84 to 89. There was a horrible amount of crime. You would hear gunfire every night. The kids in homeroom would teach each other how to hold up people in the parking lot at the grocery store because their arms were full, how easy that was. I was teaching people who had beaten a gay man to death because he asked them if theyd like to have sex. And instead of saying no, they got six of their friends and beat the crap out of him. But I loved the kids. I was very bad in high school, did not enjoy high school. I was very happy there. I dont do well with systems that are very broken and very resistant to getting fixed.
I was a carpenter right up until storm. Im from Lake Charles, been living here for 30 years. The storm trashed my shop. It was somewhat fortuitous. Its not like it was fun right away, dont get me wrong. It forced me to choose. The choice was so enormous; there was water up to the ceiling. I live on Palmyra, right near Jeff Davis.
I snuck in with a friend couple of weeks after the storm to see. I initially evacuated to Lake Charles. But, Hurricane Rita. That weekend I had gone to Lafayette to visit some friends. My shop was still underwater. I live on the second floor. The house had storm damage, so I lived on my balcony. Lots of people were doing that. I had a tarp. Go Red Cross! You could use it for everything.
I didnt take any (time off). It was the most miraculous, underreported, heroic thing Ive ever witnessed or been a part of. Little UNO, as broke as they can be, was completely wiped out. Were all everywhere. One person finds another person finds another person, and the entire university was reconstructed online. Sometime in September we started classes online. This was going to be my third semester, beginning of my second year. Because everybody was so crazy, including me, it was the biggest relief in the world to have something to focus on. I was just there writing, and in the day going to look for someplace to charge my computer and find some WiFi.
Some of them, yeah. There was one story that I wrote almost in its entirety on that balcony. (Killer Heart, about a heatstroke.) Because its kind of hot, you know? So I was just pretending in my mind to be somewhere not in Mid-City. Its the only story that is in New Orleans but not in Mid-City; its in the Irish Channel. I could visualize that. It was such a relief in mind to go somewhere. Im sitting there in the pitch-freaking-black, and it stinks stinks stinks. As a carpenter I always had a miners lamp, because I always had to be inside cabinets. Just sitting out there, typing away or reading stories. Id head out to the suburbs and download them, take them back home.
We essentially did the same thing wed been doing. Two people submit their stories. You read them, you critique them. We went back and made a new schedule, started turning in stories. Just crazy to think about. People were sleeping under their mothers dining room story with 18 other people. Nobody wrote about the storm. Nobodys writing an evacuation story. It was great. It was fantastic. Because it was so the opposite of what was actually right downstairs.
I think my niece motivated me most of all. I was getting too old to do what I was doing. Carpentry I got into to put myself through school. I got into my own business on a leap of faith. This guy told me once, I just pick up whatever I want to do with my time, and I make that a business. I dont know, that doesnt seem like it would work. All of a sudden I had a business making furniture, then I was a general contractor as well. Its so physical and so hard, and I was so injured it was making me miserable. My knees, back, neck. Tennis elbow in both elbows. Rotator cuff. There was a certain part of each year spent in pain.
I did. What would I like? Im not going to think about making a living at it. But Ive always liked to write. I had no idea if Im a good writer or a bad writer. Id never written a short story, didnt know how any of that worked. But Id written. I thought, as soon as you make one small shift in any direction, everything else shifts. Then you start coming across things you wouldnt have in the path of being a carpenter. Its the same thing, but different. Would you like to be injured in new and improved ways?
All the characters survived. The story, in Guernica, called Issue Is. That was originally set here (at Napoleon House), and the name of it was No Stupid Shoes. It was something that people do as a writing exercise. Friend having ad-hoc summer workshop. He wanted to learn how to just do dialogue back-and-forth, and communicate characterization with gesture and all the things. I have no idea what Im doing. None. One woman was trying to convince the other one to take ballroom dancing lessons, and the other one doesnt want to. Im going to workshop later tonight with people I graduated with. Somebodys turned in three chapters of a novel. Several people are working on novels, me included. Mostly Im working on getting my book launched right now.
The stories didnt start out to be connected. Dooley was this other guy who kind of merged into this other character. I had to change the name so Id stop thinking of him as this other guy. I have three brothers, so I have a little bit of insight. Things that I think are adorable, guys are like, He would never have survived the playground.
I was very surprised. People would point out the images. I dont think like that: Heres an image, or heres a theme. I dont even think of those as that. Now heres the stuff I like to write. The rest of the stuff is just story to hang on that kind of moment. The other thing everybody says is, Its so violent! Somebodys always getting mangled or dying, birds, pigs, dead babies. Thats not violent. Thats just life.
What Was Left was probably the first story. And it was probably 40 pages long. Thats what I used to do: write 60 pages, cut back to 40. Get some feedback, then try to cut it back to a story, instead of a series of episodes. Adding subtlety to the character, adding grades of meaning. Refining the character. [Pudge] was sort of laughable, and that wasnt what I was shooting for; I didnt want people to laugh at him. That one started out with a line thats not even in the story anymore. The thing that I thought about was a flashback in this guys life that I thought about when I was a kid. I was at a birthday party, and were all singing Happy Birthday, and this kid sneezes all over the cake. And I thought, what does that do to you? How do you grow up and remember that? I dont know what she did; I dont know how she managed that memory.
It kind of picks up where Luis story (leaves off), the very next day. There are going to be some new characters, but it will kind of revolve around all of them. St. Luis Palmyra. Its just another question I had: Hows that kid going to grow up? As opposed to Pudge.
I started applying for fellowships and grants immediately after graduation. As an undergrad I had gotten a grant from the Astraea Foundation. I got a $1,500 grant. The Glimmer Train thing, I got when I was in (grad) school. That was my first national publication, for Killer Heart. Most bizarre was, I made myself apply for AROHO competition, which was the most elaborate application youve ever seen. There were six essays, maybe four or five lists: school, publications, awards. It was so intimidating. I would read other peoples writing and think, Oh, well shes brilliant. Im just a little schmo carpenter.
I got some other good advice: When you sign a two-book contract, the clock starts ticking right then. I didnt think that would lead to my best work. So I signed a one-book contract. I dont write in a straight line. And apparently nobody else does, either, but I always have the notion they do sit down and go, Page 1 I almost never start at the beginning of a story. Its usually sort of auditory or visual. Its some sense not of whats going to happen, but whos in it, and what kinds of things would that person do.