Mini-interview with author Samantha Dunn about her short story anthology, WOMEN ON THE EDGE

John Fox, a most excellent writer I have had the pleasure of teaching over at USC, has kindly invited me to guest blog. Thanks, John! Kudos to him for launching a blog that focuses on the short story form. I have been teaching writing since 1995, and I have always believed that mastering this short form enables a writer to shine more in all other forms. If a writer can compose a powerful short story, they are more apt to be able to pull off a free-standing, satisfying chapter in a novel. I think short stories – reading them, writing them, dreaming them – train a writer to pay close attention to language, to story arc, and to editing. After all, in a short story, every word counts. I even nudge people to go shorter and mess with the short-short, which is the closest prose gets to poetry. And of course, poetry I feel is the most evolved of all the forms. To me, it is the pure distillation of language, emotion, spirit – and full of mystery. I have no idea how to write poetry – I’m not evolved enough yet – but I bow down to it, as I do to the short story form and its masters.

John was tickled when I confessed that I was a virgin blogger, though I have just launched my first attempt at blogging on Amazon connect. I did that because I have a new book coming out with Bloomsbury this fall. It’s called LOVE JUNKIE: A MEMOIR. The release date is 11/11/08. Auspicious! The quick catalog description is: “One woman’s dangerous addiction to love and sex threaten to ruin her life in this powerfully written memoir.” I am cautiously optimistic. The book is getting wonderful blurbs thus far, so that is exciting.

Here’s one:
“Reading LOVE JUNKIE is like watching a sleepwalker taking a stroll on a freeway. All you can do is pray. Gorgeously written, piercingly honest.”
– Janet Fitch, author of WHITE OLEANDER and PAINT IT BLACK

And another:
“Provocative. Striking. Resnick’s fearless examination of the desperate thirst to find love is guaranteed to break your heart…yet inspires hope that through committed self-understanding, maybe each of us can change toxic patterns.”
– Samantha Dunn, author of FAITH IN CARLOS GOMEZ and NOT BY ACCIDENT

I wouldn’t have written this book if it weren’t for my good friend, the exquisite, accomplished, fiery and talented Samantha Dunn. Sam used to live up the road from me in Topanga in a charming trailer she called the Cowgirl Palace. Now she has moved up north near Sacramento to Cool, California, where she lives with her lovely husband and a menagerie of animals. Only it’s not so cool there right now, what with the raging wildfires. I decided to kick off my guest blog stint with Sam, and to focus on the short story anthology she edited called WOMEN ON THE EDGE.

BF: How’s the weather up there?

SD: Hellish. As in, Dante’s INFERNO hellish. Not only is it 104 in the shade but the wildfires all around here means the sky is a thick gray sludge. How’s L.A.? Wait, don’t tell me. I’ll get homesick.

BF: I’ve been invited to guest blog on the venerable Book Fox, which spotlights the short story. What’s your feeling about the form?

SD: The short story for me is the fiction twin of the essay. It’s probably my favorite form. I find myself reading and rereading short stories more than novels, frankly. Versatile, complex, challenging for both writer and reader. When it’s done brilliantly there is no more satisfaction—literarily speaking, of course.

BF: Aren’t you saucy. What’s the first short story that blew you away?

SD: Wow, that’s hard because I’ve had a few “ah ha” moments with short stories. I remember even in junior high being completely creeped out and bothered by Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” In high school I found poetry and novels, but in college found Hemingway. Make all the fun you want of Hemingway — I know he’s a white guy out of style — but he’s a freaking genius. “Hills Like White Elephants” and “The Killers” and “Snows of Kilimanjaro” are still taught for reasons that have nothing to do with anything other than his brilliance. Says me. Anyway, then Flannery O’Connor was my love, then for a little time in the ‘80s I wanted to be as remote as Ann Beattie, and I still have a major crush on all things by Lee K. Abbott. Oh yeah, and I have to mention an early mentor of mine, the black widow otherwise known as Kate Braverman. You know Rach that I have lots of problems with many things about her, but she wrote a brilliant short story that I still keep at my fingertips, “Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta.”

BF: Do you come from a family of storytellers?

SD: Let’s just say one of my mom’s favorite sayings is, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Stories were the medium we used in my family for communication. My grandmother in her later years never left the house, but she had a new story every day. Just the way she could describe the mailman putting a letter in the box had tension. I learned quickly that if I wanted to enter the conversation I better have a good story, or at least a joke. It’s an Irish thing. I really think it’s cultural.

BF: You have written two bestselling —-

SD: Really? Tell my agent that, please.

BF: — critically acclaimed memoirs, as well as an award-winning novel, FAILING PARIS.

SD: OK I’ll take the critically acclaimed part.

BF: I know you’ve also ghostwritten a couple of others. Then after writing all those long-form books, you edited a short story anthology, WOMEN ON THE EDGE, which came out in 2005. How did that come about?

SD: Kind of a long story. I had a few short stories but other things had kept me away from doing much with them. Meanwhile the Toby Press, the wonderful little indie press that published my first novel, contacted me to see if I had enough short stories for a collection because they were looking to do a few short story collections. I said no, but then I thought about this story I had read in a workshop once. I could never get it out of my head, and the writer, Karen Horn, had never published much. I knew that story would probably always stay in her desk drawer. I figured there were other wonderful stories that hadn’t seen the light of day or that had been published but could use a wider audience, so I went back to Toby and said, “What about an anthology?” And they said yes, sight unseen! See why I love the guys over there? What other press does that?

BF: How did you solicit writers?

SD: Begging, mostly. No, seriously, only a little begging. I knew right away I would need help —- the catch was we had very little money and a tight deadline —- so I asked my brilliant pal Julianne Ortale-Cohen to co-edit with me. She had just come out of UC Irvine’s acclaimed MFA program and knew some great writers I didn’t. Then we worked the viral angle—sending emails to friends and friends of friends. We didn’t have time or the resources to do a general call for submissions. It was like putting together a great party —- the associations just worked.

BF: How did you order the stories you received?

SD: Julianne and I talked about that. First we were going to do it alphabetically, but then agreed that didn’t feel right. Instead we went by mood, as in the mood of the stories. She made a list and I made a list, and the two were very similar, so we split the difference and that was that.

BF: How did you pay writers?

SD: Um, poorly? Really it was only an honorarium, hence the begging part. We did it more as a project and a labor of love. I so wanted to get some of these stories out in the world -— Julianne did too — and I’m happy we did. Oh, and in case some are wondering – —yes I do have a story in the collection, and no that wasn’t my idea. Toby Press required it.

BF: How did you reject writers?

SD: Because we knew who we were asking, we didn’t have the need for the mass rejection process most face, thank god. We did have the choice between stories sometimes, but that wasn’t nearly as difficult as rejecting someone. I think if you are a writer and move into editing you’re always more empathetic to how it feels to be rejected, having been through it so many times yourself!

BF: How is getting work published in a fiction anthology different from being published in a literary magazine, or did you not go that route?

SD: Maybe a wider audience reads it. At least one would hope.

BF: Have you been published in other short story anthologies?

SD: Can I say not yet? I’m lucky to have my nonfiction anthologized in a lot of different places, but I just haven’t concentrated on the short story. I’d like to, eventually. You know, for all the money and fame. No, really, I so love the form I would like to apprentice myself to it more. I just wish there were more venues for publishing it, like back in the magazine heyday. Maybe after the next book.

BF: What are you writing now?

SD: It’s called TRAILER TRASH: AN AMERICAN STORY. It’s looking at this much maligned and mythologized class — where it comes from, what it means in our culture — through the lense of my family story. It’s something I have wanted to write for six years and haven’t known how. I don’t know that I know how yet, but what the hell. Speaking of short story, the form it’s taking is in fragments, or short vignettes. Stories, really.

BF: What has that got to do with short stories?

SD: More than it has to do with essay, most of the time. Or at least that’s how it’s evolving. Every point, every fragment, has an emotional arc, a tiny bit of resolution, or perhaps ends on a bigger question, much like the short story.

BF: What do you look for in a short story?

SD: I call it the goosebump factor. Somewhere along the line I should get a little shiver of excitement -— even if it is just over an amazing turn of phrase.

BF: What makes it effective?

SD: Magic. Really, I’m not being facetious. You can read some stories twenty times and not be able to say exactly why the end result is so devastating, so amazing, so unforgettable. That’s the beauty of it. Like, c’mon, explain to me at exactly what point Joyce’s “The Dead” becomes genius? Or why Sandra Cisnero’s “Woman Hollering Creek” stays in my head for two days after I read it — every frigging time?

BF: There are criminal profilers, who figure out the psychological make-up required for various crimes. What kind of writer writes poetry versus short stories versus memoirs versus novels?

SD: This is a great question. I don’t know how to answer it without falling into big fat clichés like “poets are more arty” or whatever. Really I think different forms choose us at different times. Some writers stay within one genre but I think most of us stretch the repertoire over our careers. I have to say, one form I never appreciated until I tried to do it was screenwriting. Truth: I always thought they were kind of the red-headed step children of literature (and being a redhead and a stepchild myself I know exactly what that means, but that’s another story…). Then I tried it and realized what an arrogant pig I had been all these years. My hat goes off to the pros of that genre, I tell you…

BF: How would you profile a short story writer?

SD: Hmm. Fingerprint, mostly. Then I’d pull their driving record, talk to witnesses…

Samantha Dunn is the author of FAILING PARIS (Toby Press), a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award in 2000, and the memoir, NOT BY ACCIDENT: RECONSTRUCTING A CARELESS LIFE (Henry Holt& Co.), a BookSense 76 pick. Her most recent memoir, FAITH IN CARLOS GOMEZ: A MEMOIR OF SALSA, SEX, AND SALVATION, is published by Henry Holt & Co. Her work is anthologized in a number of places, including: ANOTHER CITY (City Lights); THE TIME OF MY LIFE (Dolphin Press); DAMAGE CONTROL (St. Martins); and the short story anthology, WOMEN ON THE EDGE: WRITING FROM LOS ANGELES (Toby Press), which Dunn co-edited with writer Julianne Ortale.

Dunn’s essays have appeared in numerous national publications including the Los Angeles Times, O (Oprah) Magazine, Ms., and Shape. In 2000 Dunn received the Maggie Award for Best Personal Essay in a Consumer Publication. A widely published journalist, Dunn’s bylines are regularly featured in InStyle, Glamour, SELF, Men’s Health and a variety of other consumer magazines. She has also written for the stage, as a co-creator of the show “American Ese.”

Dunn is currently at work on her next book, Trailer Trash: An American Story. She lives in northern California with her husband, three dogs, two horses and two baby goats.

Website: www.samanthadunn.biz and www.myspace.com/samanthadunncamp

FYI, Sam and I are joint-teaching a class at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program this fall, Sept. 20-21. Here’s the description:

Digging for Memoir Gold: A Life Story Weekend Boot Camp
Writing about your life is called journaling. Crafting a meaningful story from your life experiences for readers is another form entirely and is a challenge for even seasoned writers to master. Memoir has to deliver vivid characters, evocative settings, and pitch-perfect dialogue just like fiction, but does so within the constraints of fact. The first day of this course explores the particulars of memoir as an art form from its roots as a religious practice, while helping you to uncover key issues in your work, create a compelling storyline out of life experience, and cast yourself as a narrator that appeals to readers. The second day focuses on in-class writing exercises and group critique, all aimed at improving each writer’s skill.

And I forgot to put in my bio. Whoops! Also, full disclosure, I have a story in WOMEN ON THE EDGE. Sam was a fantastic editor! She cut the hell out of it, and improved it vastly. The story is called “Meat-Eaters of Marrakesh” and appeared first in its longest form in the lit mag Chelsea, then in shorter form on the online lit mag The Barcelona Review where it was also translated into Spanish, and finally, in WOMEN ON THE EDGE. Actually, you’ll see when you compare our bios, we have a few overlapping anthos. Why? Because we both like to share opportunities with fellow writers we admire. That’s one reason forging a community of writers, who’re roughly at the same stage in their careers, is so important on this challenging writing path.

Bio: Rachel Resnick is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller GO WEST YOUNG F*CKED-UP CHICK. She has published articles, essays, and celebrity profile cover stories nationally in The Los Angeles Times, Women’s Health, and BlackBook. She is a contributing editor at Tin House magazine. Her essays and stories have appeared in THE TIME OF MY LIFE, DAMAGE CONTROL, THE DICTIONARY OF FAILED RELATIONSHIPS, THE BEST AMERICAN EROTICA 2004, WOMEN ON THE EDGE, L.A. SHORTS, and ABSOLUTE DISASTER. She is also the founder and CEO of Writers On Fire, provider of private writing coaching and luxury writing retreats both here and abroad.

What did you think of this mini-interview? Did you agree? Disagree? All comments welcome. Since I’m guest blogging, I’d also love to know what you want to know more about. I am planning to cover a couple of book parties, share some e-mails my colleagues wrote about time management when writing on deadline, and whatever else seems right. I’m in the process of shifting gears from book writer to book seller, a necessary step for authors these days. So I can talk a bit about that, too. Or I can focus on short stories more. Speaking of, What was the first short story that rocked your world? What about the most recent one? What about the most obscure? And what psychological profile do you think the short story writer has?

Rachel Resnick
www.rachelresnick.com
www.writersonfire.com

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