Gay Degani writes surrounded by the frantic chortles of parrots. She has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and TWO (2009). Her stories online can be read at The Battered Suitcase, Night Train, 10 Flash, 3 A.M. Magazine, as well as other publications. Pomegranate Stories is a collection of eight stories by Gay. She is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles and all her online fiction can be accessed from her blog. Welcome Gay!
Gay, you have an impressive list of short story credits. What attracted you to fiction in small packages?
Gay: Two reasons are at the bottom of my adventure into short stories. The first was to use short stories to help me learn the craft of fiction writing and the second was to actually publish something. I love movies, so when I started writing “with intent,” I wrote screenplays. I live in LA, what can I say?
I worked hard to learn the basic format—this in the old days with no Final Draft—and to write dialogue and lean narrative, and to master structure. Eventually, I decided to shift to novelizing a couple of my scripts, but I had trouble keeping track of the plot, the characters, the structure, and the language. Although screenwriting taught me some skills, I didn’t really know how to apply all of them to one integrated piece of work.
Solution: write short so I could practice using content, language, structure, and purpose all together in a manageable length. Also with the advent of online e-zines, short stories began to have real market value (if not monetary) and I was dying for a publishing credit. Not just so my family and friends would take me seriously, but so I would take me seriously.
What should a writer keep in mind when writing short stories versus longer narrative form?
Gay: The basics of short or long fiction writing are the same: tell a good story. The difference is that language, while always important, becomes uber-important in a short piece. There can be no wasted words. Vigor in verbs and specificity in nouns are essential to short fiction.
In a novel, a writer may get away with calling a tree, a tree, but in short fiction, not only does the tree have to be specific, it must do more in the story than offer the information that a character happens to be outside. It must set up a specific outside and be a tree that will suggest something else in the story, add another level, or give the reader symbolic visual. This something else may not be picked up by the reader on a conscious level, but on a sub-conscious level. A palm tree suggests California. A naked stick of a palm tree suggests something that has lost its beauty; it provides a more powerful image and therefore, does double-duty for the writer.
How long, on average, does it take to complete a short story? And do you adhere to a writing schedule?
Gay: Each story is different in its development cycle. Sometimes, but rarely, something will be fairly complete in an afternoon, but most of the time stories go through a slower writing with me.
For the last two or three years I have written something most days, either a free write from a prompt, or a piece for an e-zine I would like to get into, or because there’s some phrase or image or structure I want to play with. A part of my day is spent revising. And of course, there is the “novel” which I have written, but can’t bring myself to finish the editing process.
I go into my office in the garage around 6:30 and stay out most of the day, coming in for meals and breaks. I waste time out there too, occasionally painting or dare I admit it, napping.
Do you have several stories in play at one time or do you take one piece through the final editing process before beginning another?
Gay: As a devotee to the idea of process, I always have stories at different stages of the writing process. My first step with any story is to take whatever inspiration I have and draft a fast draft to discover where exactly it will take me. Ron Carlson’s little book Ron Carlson Writes a Story helped me to embrace this idea. Unlike Ron, however, my initial draft is never good-to-go. My work is strongest when I let something rest for a couple hours or days and then go back to it.
This second stage is when I discover what the story is really about, its purpose. This can be a single moment in a flash fiction piece, what that moment means to my character, good or bad. Or in a longer work, that purpose is what gives me the story arc. Once I know that, I can rewrite and edit so that everything in the story serves the story arc. This idea of serving the story is at the bottom of most strong short writing: no extra sentences can be kept because they are pretty, all unnecessary words are edited out, and a steady focus is maintained to achieve the impact the writer wants to leave with the reader.
In my short collection Pomegranate, the story, “Pomegranate,” is served by the story question, “Will this girl ever find her way home again and more importantly, will she be satisfied with her fate?” I didn’t know this when I started the story, especially the second part of the question. I only knew when I’d finished the first couple drafts.
The third step is to work toward the right language and tone, to make certain all aspects work, at least to me. This is the editing, revising, polishing, proof-reading stage that might take two drafts or even ten drafts.
At different stages of each story, however, I don’t count just on my own impressions. I have “designated readers” to help me see a piece the way the reader will see it and make any needed changes. Many online writing friends from communities such as Every Day Fiction, Facebook, Zoetrope, and Fictionaut have become my DRs.
Pomegranate is a compilation of short stories released in 2009. Could you tell us about your decision to put this book together and what steps you took?
Gay: Many publishers in the online writing community have chapbook contests and after entering a couple (and not winning), I decided sending off 50 pages of stories to various publishers and getting selected seemed to be a roundabout way to do this with sites like Lulu.com out there. Most convincing for me was that print publishers are even less likely to publish a collection of short fiction than online publishers because collections are less saleable unless the author is already an established novelist.
Could you elaborate on the theme of Pomegranate?
Gay: I wanted a theme for my chapbook contest entries because I thought I’d have a better shot at getting selected if I did. The most common thread seemed to be “ mother-daughters.” This made me think of Demeter and Persephone and if I wrote a story with this classic myth in mind, I would have something to tie everything together. I’d earn both my title and my theme. I made this decision at the same time that Jaycee Dugard was found. Something gelled for me and out came “Pomegranate.”
As an artist, you also did the artwork for the cover of Pomegranate. How do you turn a painting into a book cover?
Gay: I’m an abstract painter working in metallic acrylics, so I took about 20 photos of pomegranates and ran my favorite through Photoshop using several different filters. Part of this was because of time constraints since I wanted the book printed for Christmas of 2009. but also because I have less confidence creating representational art than abstract. Self-publishing, if you are cheap like me and you don’t want to hire one of the publishers’ consultants, is very demanding. I didn’t really have the time to stress about whether I could come up with a painting that would be graphically eye-catching.
Do painting and writing complement each other, or does each offer a different release?
Gay: The two arts offer me different experiences. They are a wonderful combination for me. I have no angst about painting whatsoever (unless it’s going to appear on the cover of my book!) I paint to please myself, but my ego is all wrapped up in writing. I have a desire to be good and continue to strive toward that goal.
What’s next for you?
Gay: I plan on continuing to write short fiction. It’s so much fun to experiment with different structures and subject matter that I can’t really see giving it up, but my major goal this year is to finish my novel. I’ve worked on it for a long time and I feel it can be good if I can force myself stay focused on it long enough to get it revised and polished. If anyone would like to read a version of the first chapter, I adapted it to flash form at Every Day Fiction. It’s called Stranger on the Porch.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today!