by Jack Strange
Blue interviews Strange for the "Short Story Newsletter"
Blue: Tell me about YOU. Where do you live, what do you do, is your favourite animal a python or a goat? Introduce yourself to our readers!
Strange: Happy to meet you. Call me Strange.
I live in the South, around New Orleans, where most of my stories are set. We have some big shoes to fill down here.
I've had occupations in the fields of lawn care, food service, sales, education and law. Writing has always been my avocation, and is to a large extent my current vocation.
My favorite animal is the human being.
Blue: What are your goals in writing short stories? Do you aim to get published? Are you trying to teach a lesson? Are you writing for your kids or your family?
Strange: My goal in writing short stories is to have written them. Once they're written, they exist independent of me, like children. Even if I go away, they'll still be there.
I consider posting items on Writing.Com to be a form of publication. Otherwise, I've had stories and poems published here and there, but I'm not very diligent about submissions. Regardless, I'm happy to write.
I don't try to teach lessons. I write about life experiences, and although life experiences are usually learning experiences, life teaches the lessons. Good stories reveal the lessons taught by life.
I write for anyone who cares to read.
Blue: Tell us more about you. Describe a dream, a wish, a hope for the future.
Strange: Hopefully my stories are more interesting than me.
My dream is to write fiction full time.
I wish I could do more fishing.
My hope for the future is that we will not be bound or divided by space and time. No one anywhere will be poor, sick, alone, or unhappy. We will be an internet.
Blue: Who are your favourite short story authors (onsite or off)? Is there a particular story that moved you? Why?
Strange: My favorite short story authors are Herman Melville, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, and Stephen King. Each has written stories that moved me, including Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener," Joyce's "Araby," Faulkner's "Barn Burning," O'Connor's "Good Country People," Welty's "A Worn Path," and King's "Hope Springs Eternal." Reading these stories is like virtual reality--like stepping into the shoes of a nineteenth century lawyer with a mulish scrivener, an Irish schoolboy with a crush, a Mississippi sharecropper's son with a conscience, a jaded New South intellectual with something to lose, a caring grandmother with a mission, or an innocent inmate with a plan. Such stories should carry a label that says: "Warning: Reading this story may increase your vision."
Blue: What's your Muse? How do you decide what to write? Do you stare at the ceiling? Do you just pick up a pen and see what happens?
Strange: My Muse is Perplexity. She teases me with mysteries of human behavior, and sometimes imagination offers the only solution to such mysteries. I once read a newspaper article about a woman who gave birth in an airplane restroom and then left the baby in a trash can. Perplexed, I asked myself, How could she do such a thing? The struggle to answer that question produced "California or Bust," in which similar, imaginary events at least seem plausible, and perhaps a little less perplexing, than the actual events.
I decide what to write when I encounter a human mystery which moves my imagination to unravel it. In "The Woods," I wrote to understand why a boy would throw a brick through the window of a vacant house; in "Hands," how a woman could believe she was visited nightly by ghostly hands; in "1:00 A.M.," why a man would sneak out of his wife's bed to ride his bicycle at an early hour; in "How I Lost My Baby Girl," how a man could lose his baby daughter forever to his ex-wife and her lawyerly lover; and in "Trick Wedding," why a man would marry a woman he knew for a fact cheated on him.
I don't think I've ever stared at the ceiling, but I've stared through walls. That's when my imagination takes over--envisioning, pondering, empathizing, and plotting. At such times, I find it helpful to type or jot notes to record details about imagined people, places, and events. Sometimes I resort to the internet, encyclopedia or other reference sources to learn more about a character and his or her world. As I collect details, people become characters, places become settings, and events become plots. Through this process the story evolves like the outline of a dream.
I've written poetry by picking up a pen to see what happens, but I don't believe I've ever written decent fiction that way. To write fiction, I usually have to know where I'm going just to write the first sentence. And rarely does that first sentence even make it into the story.
Blue: What genres do you focus on? What are your favourite topics to write about?
Strange: I'd like to think all my stories have an element of suspense. Whatever the genre, the reader has to want to keep reading--to learn what happens next. Otherwise, the reader will stop reading, and I wouldn't blame him or her one bit.
My stories also have a regional element. It seems in order for characters to come to life, their feet must be planted on solid ground in specific places. Being from the South, I tend to write about characters whose feet are planted on southern ground. As Southerners, the characters inherit and embody the whole history and culture of the South. Thus the regional element defines character as well as setting.
Additionally, I strive for an artistic element in my fiction. "Artistic" does not necessarily mean "literary." For me, "artistic" means "organic." A story is artistic when all its parts function together in harmony, like the parts of an organism. Remove any part, and the organism suffers. Add a part, and the organism suffers. All the parts are functional, and none are superfluous. I don't pretend to achieve such artistic, organic perfection, but I continually strive for it.
Subject to the foregoing, I've yet to settle on any particular genres or topics I'd call favorites. I've written stories involving action/adventure, comedy, death, family, fantasy, ghosts, law, love, money, nature, parenting, psychology, relationships, religion, romance, satire, sex, teens, tragedy, and vampires. I expect the list will continue to grow.
Blue: Plug an item! Something you need help with, something you think deserves five stars, whatever. Just make sure it belongs to YOU. (This is, after all, YOUR interview)
Strange: I'm usually partial to the story I've written most recently, and right now that's "Desmond Rex," my first attempt at a vampire tale. When I started it, all I knew about vampires was what I saw in movies. I haven't read Bram Stoker's Dracula or any of Anne Rice's novels or any other vampire novels--not even Stephen King's Salem's Lot--and as I began to conceive my own idea of a vampire, I chose to avoid such influences. Instead, I approached the problem of vampires the way I approach other human mysteries: by asking questions, like Why would someone become a vampire, and how? What kind of person would they be before the transition, and what kind of creature after? Could they really transform into a bat and back again? How would that work? Would they hunger for blood, or would they lust for it? How would they stalk their prey, and would their victims really turn into vampires? How would they live among non-vampires? If they couldn't see their own reflection in a mirror, how would they shave and comb their hair? Would they associate with other vampires? And on and on. I imagined answers to all of these questions, not by reference to vampire literature or legend, but by reference to nature, and particularly human nature (and a bit of bat nature). In the end, I learned a lot more about "vampires" than appears in the story, which on the surface portrays Desmond's incarnation and self-realization as a vampire. But beneath the surface, the story explores human mysteries even non-vampires may be familiar with.
Blue: What defines a good short story in your view?
Strange: In my view, a good short story entertains and enlightens. It's okay for a story to entertain without enlightening, and okay for a story to enlighten without entertaining. But when a story both enlightens and entertains, that's a good story.
A story entertains when it stimulates the imagination and emotions. It stimulates the imagination through description and narration. The reader sees, hears, smells, tastes, and touches enough select details of the world of the story to understand and believe in it. A story stimulates the emotions through characterization and plot. As the reader experiences the events of the story through the eyes of a character, the reader shares the character's desires, fears, despair, grief, guilt, hope and relief. How well the writer executes description, narration, characterization and plot determines how successfully the story stimulates the imagination and emotions, and hence how entertaining the story is.
A story enlightens when it stimulates the intellect. It stimulates the intellect through symbol and metaphor. No less than description, narration, characterization and plot, symbol and metaphor obey an organizing principle. But whereas the organizing principle of the former is apparent on the surface of the story, the organizing principle of symbol and metaphor is embedded below the surface, in the "deep structure" of the story. To divine the story's deep structure, the reader exercises his or her intellect to identify and interpret the symbols and metaphors by reference to the concrete surface details of the story and to what he or she knows about world culture, human nature and the nature of the physical world in general. The deep structure of the story, as revealed in symbols and metaphors and the reader's personal knowledge and experience, subsumes the fictional experience to the universal, human experience shared by the reader. The symbolic and metaphoric story enlightens when it becomes the reader's story.
Blue: Last of all, give us a bit of whimsy. What more should we know about you/your writing habits/your quirks/your most embarrassing moment/your pet iguana?
Strange: As I write this, war--surely among the most perplexing mysteries of human behavior--is scheduled to commence within twenty-four hours. I hope that as you read this, war is over, forever.
March 19, 2003
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