Andrew Stancek: I love your story “Sex Studies” and even knowing your earlier writing was surprised by it. I am always fascinated by how stories come about, the original prompt or idea that began it all. Can you tell us about the origins of the story and then about the process which shaped it into its present form?
Christopher James: Andrew, thanks for the kind words. “Sex Studies” started as a wish exercise. I read Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and loved it, and wished that I could ever write so well. I saw Jonathan Franzen in an interview once saying he started off trying to write sentences as well as Don DeLillo does, and I thought that if it was good enough for the Time Novelist of Forever then it was good enough for me. I had a couple of half-baked characters, based on a shop I used to go to when I still lived in London, and I started rewriting White Noise, almost scene for scene, with my characters instead of Don’s. I didn’t think it would ever go anywhere – it was just an exercise; to figure out how great writers wrote.
Of course, it’s impossible to live with the characters you’ve created for any length of time and not see them taking their own directions. White Noise was abandoned, and the narrator and Nina came to life.
I wrote a whole bunch of scenes with these two – from after their divorce, from before their divorce, from during their divorce and had lots of fun doing it. I was able to write things with the two of them that I’d never tried before. I knew them pretty well. They absorbed everything going on in my life for a couple of months – everything I did, everything I read or saw, everything that I heard about. It was all reimagined starring these two. I ended up with a whole bunch of scenes and stories, but none was ever more than an exercise in learning how to write – they were never really supposed to see the light of day.
And then I took a bunch of my favorite parts and put them together in what barely hangs as a story and the resultant mess was “Sex Studies”. Months of work, condensed into one wild, sprawling, nonsensical mishmash. I thought it would be untouchable for publication, but I sent it off to r.kv.r.y one day on a wish and a prayer – the first and only place I submitted it – and was delighted when you accepted it.
Andrew Stancek: I love your description of “Months of work, condensed into one wild, sprawling, nonsensical mishmash…” How do you know when a story is “finished”? Do you “know”? Do you wish to continue tinkering even after acceptance and publication?
Christopher James: I never know when a story is finished!
Some stories stick in my head for much longer than others, and they’re the ones that I keep returning to, but generally I have a very short attention span. I’m lucky’ to ‘finish’ writing anything – more often I get halfway through a story and then fall in love with another idea. The first story is abandoned, never again to see the light of day.
Other stories are finished, and I like them enough that I spend a while rewriting them, until I think they’re ready. Then I submishmash them, and the second I press ‘send’ I realize how flawed and wrong and useless everything about them was. The magical oft-unmentioned side effect of the send submission button.
Occasionally, I find a story that refuses to let go of me. I might work on that for months, as was the case with “Sex Studies”, before I give up. Then I’ll try to salvage my favorite parts. All writing for me is, I guess, a battle. Sometimes I win. More often I don’t.
Every time I try to write anything longer it gets harder and harder. I have no idea how anyone manages to write an entire novel. They must be cheating somehow.
Andrew Stancek: I really wish we could be sitting somewhere across a table from each other, with a great libation and could just keep talking into the night, or many nights. I am reading a book which is a compilation of talks with the Slovak writer Dominik Tatarka and the talks took place over years. Tatarka is incredibly digressive and I think many libations are being consumed during some of the talks, and he’ll be talking about his mother and suddenly veers off and talks of his many sexual escapades and that reminds him of the time when a gun was being pointed at his head and he was sure he was about to die and then…. I suspect Tatarka might not have said many of the things he says is he knew they’d be published, or perhaps he really didn’t give a damn. The book was published years after his death.
Can we perhaps meet in Jakarta or Toronto or Bratislava for a glass or two? (Laughs)
I think we are at fairly similar stages in our writing careers and are probably of similar ages. I am still discovering what kind of a writer I am and am sometimes surprised where my writing takes me.
Where do you hope to be in your writing in five, ten, twenty, pick a number years? Do you see yourself as a short story writer with stories in the New Yorker and Ploughshares and Tin House? A literary novelist? A popular bestselling novelist? A genre writer? What do you hope for?
Christopher James: The Tatarka book sounds interesting. I think I tend to ramble and veer off too, but maybe not as interestingly as he. Makes me wish I’d had more guns pointed at my head.
Ever since I was five years old I wanted to write. I used to have a Disney book from that time and on the front page Mickey asked me to fill out a form with my name, my age and what I wanted to be when I grew older. I wanted to be an author. That word sounds so quaint nowadays. Nothing has changed since then – even my handwriting is as bad as it used to be.
Back then, author to me meant Roald Dahl, or maybe Enid Blyton, or whoever it was that wrote the Hardy Boy mysteries. The dream, one day, is to write the novel that sets me up for life, that means I can do nothing but write (and lay around on the beach reading books in-between). But I didn’t start seriously writing until four or five years ago.
I began with flash fiction, hoping it would teach me how to write. I thought smaller pieces would be a good opportunity to practice smaller ideas, and that the things I learned could later be jigsawed into a longer book. Somewhere along the way I realised that flash is rarely anything like novel writing – and takes a different set of skills. I still love it, but the things I want to do now are longer.
The ideas I have for short stories are often smaller than the ideas I had for flash, but I’m more and more interested in the smaller details – the things that don’t make a complete story but that do make a character or a scene or that describe an idea in a new way. To bring them to life the way I want to I need to write more. For now I’m happy to try and explore that. In the year dot dot dot I’d still like to be writing novels. Right now the idea intimidates me – and I do find genre attractive in that I think it’s easier to make two or three hundred pages with some of genre’s rules to guide you.
I’m rambling. The answer to the question, I guess, is that I want to write a novel in the future, but I still don’t know how I’ll get there. Maybe it’ll be a novel of flash, or a novel of intertwined short stories, or maybe I’ll piggyback on a detective novel. Whatever I do, as long as I’m still writing I’ll be happy. If I’m making money off it I’ll be even happier.
Andrew Stancek: I have had the good fortune to study writing with a number of wonderful teachers and hope to study with a great many more. Have you taken workshops or courses with teachers you’d recommend? In an ideal world, if you could study with anyone in the world, who would it be? Are there writers who have influenced you?
Christopher James: I haven’t taken any courses, but I do fall in love with writers and try to study how they write. At the moment I’m reading a lot of Alice Munro, and I heard she just retired from writing. Maybe she has the time to give me a helping hand!
The list of writers who have influenced me grows larger all the time. When I was writing “Sex Studies” I was heavily influenced by Don DeLillo’s White Noise, as already mentioned, but at least one other story had a strong impact, though I didn’t realize this until much later. The part of the story set on the train station is, I think, my attempt to channel the story “Bullet”, by Tobias Wolff. The rude protagonist, the dangerous situation, the death, the flashback in time…
I always find myself writing something that somebody else has written. It’s frustrating to feel a story come so easily and naturally and then realize it’s because I’m rewriting something I read ten years ago. Other times it becomes pretty obvious that some of the top writers out there are stealing ideas straight from my brain. I don’t know how they do it, but it ticks me off. Especially when they write their story so much better than I’d written mine!
Andrew Stancek: Alice Munro is of course a life-transforming author and everywhere I turn someone is talking about her influence on them. I remember teaching her collection Lives of Girls and Women over thirty years ago, and spending a class with a group of rural Ontario teenagers on the story “Princess Ida”, especially the passage
It took half an hour, forty minutes maybe, and we never quit watching. Then we saw the butterfly come out. It was like the cocoon just finally weakened, fell off like an old rag. It was a yellow butterfly, little spotty thing. Its wings all waxed down. It had to work some to get them loosed up. Works away on one, works away, flutters it up. Works away on the other. Gets that up, takes a little fly. Momma says, ‘Look at that. Never forget. That’s what you saw on Easter.’ Never forget. I never did, either.
What a stunning passage. I never did forget it, either. As someone attempting to write now, I examine it in awe. How I wish I could write like that. But of course we could relate the passage to the creative process as well.
Can you talk more about your relationship with Munro’s work, about stories or sentences that particularly struck you, about how you feel her impacting your writing.
Christopher James: The passage you quote is lush. Butterflies are such a wonderful vehicle for metaphor. They’re so beautiful. Slightly creepy too. I read a description someplace of baby caterpillars the size and shape of apostrophes eating each other in a desperate attempt to survive till adulthood. A memorable image, especially for anyone like me who has always been a little bit freaked out by apostrophes.
I’m still a newcomer to Alice Munro, so it’s exciting to know how many stories she’s written and how many more I still have to enjoy. I came to her through a collection called Runaway, which I can’t recommend enough. There are three stories in that collection that followed a single character, Juliet, through various stages of her life. As a young woman, on a train, Juliet is approached by a lonely man who wants to pal up with her. She’s a shy type, like me, and she’s more interested in reading her book. For the first time in her life she takes a stand against this rude kind of friendly, and rejects the man; says she wants to read, thank you very much, and heads to the dining car. I practically cheered reading the description! A little later the train stops, and some of the passengers disembark briefly. One of them throws himself on to the tracks and when the train takes off again he dies. Of course, it is the man whom Juliet had rejected.
In a later story, Juliet is hearing from her father the relentlessly sad story of the woman who looks after her sick mother. Juliet doesn’t like this woman. The woman came from a poor family, barely went to school, had a father who abandoned her, lost an older sister to a burst appendix, lost her chicken-thieving husband to an angry chicken farmer, had two kids she was afraid of losing – and one of the kids had a cleft palate. When the cleft palate appeared in the story, all Juliet really wanted to do was complain Too much.
In the third story she’s older again, with a daughter of college age who has joined a religious group. Juliet loves her daughter solidly, and is going to see her at this group. She’s very excited, but her daughter isn’t there. Instead she meets a lady who tells her how wonderful her daughter is, how happy her daughter is to have finally found spirituality. The lady is terribly polite, and says very nice things to Juliet, who by now is an interviewer on a local TV program. And Munro writes this paragraph:
Sometimes Juliet has felt, in the middle of an interview, that the person she faces has reserves of hostility that were not apparent before the cameras started rolling. A person whom Juliet has underestimated, whom she has thought rather stupid, may have strength of that sort. Playful but deadly hostility. The thing then is never to show that you are taken aback, never to display any hint of hostility in return.
I love that paragraph. I should say now that I’m not trying to apply this extract about an interview to our interview! I’ve completely enjoyed this exchange! But the feeling that Munro describes is something I’ve felt before – and never seen described anywhere else so well. Munro writes like this so often, so many insights packed into every story. She describes small emotions precisely and accurately and wonderfully and with overwhelming reality – absolutely overwhelming reality.
I realized so much about crafting a story as I read her – about including drama, which I don’t always do enough of – but also about creating true and intelligent and engaging and multidimensional characters. I can only hope to ever be so good.
Andrew Stancek: Can you tell us about the illustration which accompanies your story, how it affects you, what it does for you?
Christopher James: The Peter Groesbeck painting (I Can’t Wait) is gorgeous, but at first I didn’t think any more of it than that. The whole summer issue was illustrated by Groesbeck paintings, and I didn’t know if any special thought had gone into which painting was paired with which story.
Later, the painting seemed more and more appropriate. You know what it’s like when you’re a writer. You put two things together and after a while you begin creating connections. Some are spurious, some ring true, and some, if you’re lucky, reveal something you never knew before.
There’s the famous Jung personality quiz. Choose a colour and three words to describe it – the words you choose represent your image of yourself. Choose an animal and three corresponding words – they represent your image of other people. Imagine yourself in a completely white room with neither door nor window, and (again) three words – representing your thoughts on death. Imagine a body of water. What are the three words that describe the body of water you’ve imagined. The Peter Groesbeck painting looks like a river to me, but it also looks like a road. My words are Dangerous. Still. Changing. According to Jung, the three words that describe your body of water are the way you feel about sex.
It kind of fits the story, and I like that very much.
Andrew Stancek: What does “recovery” mean to you? Are you recovered, recovering….?
Christopher James: Life is recovery, and I’ll be dead before I’m over it. P.S. I hope that doesn’t sound too much like a bumper sticker!
Andrew Stancek: Thanks, Chris, for a most illuminating and enjoyable interview.