Kristine Ong Muslim: Hi, Stephen. Your short story, “Coffee,” in the Winter 2012 issue is a strong piece that deals with loss and mortality. I admire the way that you pulled it off without involving any tear-jerking scenes. The incredibly suggestive statement – “Her hip aches, there in the hollow beneath the ribs” – says it all. That is brilliant. I realize that this is a standard question for many writer interviews, but can you tell us if there is a particular incident that inspired you to write this story?
Stephen Ramey: Thanks for your kind comments. There was no specific incident that led me to this coffee shop and this counter clerk, but it does echo the impression I had when I first moved to New Castle. It’s a beautiful little city that has been crumbling for years. There’s a sense of hopelessness in people’s eyes as they hurry past recently remodeled store fronts that have been boarded over yet again. But once you meet local folks, you feel their pride of place and a resolute kindness that shines through. I believe that much of what came out in “Coffee” stems from that perceived tension between the city’s surface and its beating heart. It’s a very interesting place to live as a writer.
KOM: I love flash fiction, and I can’t help but rave at your stunning short story called Leaving the Garden at The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. The visual overload is startling and unforgettable. I’ve also read several of your stories before reading “Coffee,” “Leaving the Garden,” and “A Formidable Joy.” I know that I’ve mentioned to you before that your writing reminds me of Terry Bisson. Another detail that I’ve noticed in your stories is that you excel at creating first lines. So, can you let me in on your writing process? Do you usually finish your micro-shorts in one sitting? Do you normally start with a sentence in mind or an image perhaps?
SR: Thanks for reading! I’m humbled to be compared to a truly great writer like Terry Bisson.
My process is typically this. On Tuesday morning, I sit down with a prompt at Show Me Your Lits and write for 90 minutes. Sometimes, as in the case of each of the flash pieces you mention, something worthwhile results. I revise based on peer comments, then polish and let it sit for a time. When I’m ready to submit, I read the piece again, revise, and send it off. If I receive editorial comments, I revise again, polish again, and send it back out. Every work remains a work in progress until an editor says ‘yes’, or more rarely, ‘Yes!’. I find that prompts help me to focus, or maybe it’s the challenge of constraint that pushes me to create these pieces. It seems the more I limit myself, the more strongly my imagination works to break “the rules” in creative ways.
It’s interesting that you mention first lines. That was a real weakness for me in the past. I tended to write static scene and character setting lines that provided context, but no spark for the reader. The key for me was to read tons (and I do mean tons) of opening lines. The really strong openings begin to jump out. Now, I probably work hardest on getting a reader into the story. I don’t let myself begin with simple context, but strive to command attention with a confident assertion that hints at what readers are about to experience. Then I move to more concrete context (in general). So, yes, I do often begin with a sentence that catches my interest. “Leaving the Garden” began in that manner. I was contemplating an image of a cemetery seen through a bomb scope, but it was that first sentence that launched the story. With that sentence the entire concept gelled.
KOM: What are your favorite themes?
SR: The issue that really interests me is the tension between self and other, e.g. our need for gratification pitted against a need to be acknowledged by others, our desire to remain individual against the requirement to participate in stable society. I’m also interested in the myriad ways we seek purpose in our lives. That said, I try not to write overtly about issues, but to create character driven story experiences. Theme inevitably leaks in.
KOM: What drives you to write?
SR: Now, you’ve touched a sore spot. The truth is that nothing drives me to write. I wish it were otherwise, believe me. I would be perfectly content to wile away my days reading books, watching television, playing video games. My driving force is to leave something of worth behind when I die. Sounds macabre, I know, but that has been my secret goal since I can remember. I think it’s because I read Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy when I was deeply depressed in high school. It opened my eyes as nothing before had done. I’ve always longed to create-I do have that going for me-but had not understood the power of creation until that experience. It changed me in a positive way. I think I hope to do the same for some future depressed high school student. The problem is that in order to create a master work, one has to become a master first, and one does not do that by reading books, watching television, playing video games. Once I finally pounded that truth through my thick skull, I began writing regularly.
KOM: There are so many writers who choose to self-publish nowadays. The preponderance of those 99-cent self-published ebooks is becoming the norm. What are your thoughts about self-publishing?
SR: This is a complex issue for me. On the one hand, we live in a society that values distribution over creativity, and that is a very poor model for encouraging diverse creations. We worship the Creative, but we buy product. On that point, I’m very happy to see ebooks taking hold. They bypass to a large degree the necessities of the old business models.
On the other hand, self-publishing can be an excuse not to get better at one’s craft. My view is that an artist should strive for perfection throughout his/her lifetime. Without a “quality” filter between me and publication, do I really have a an incentive to improve my craft? I don’t know. I guess, for now, I’m most interested in the legitimate small press that is emerging. I like the idea of having editorial involvement in the process of vetting works.
KOM: Can you tell us about your current writing projects?
SR: Right now, my focus is on editing the new Triangulation anthology, an annual speculative fiction collection from Parsec Ink. I’m revising an epic fantasy novel for my agent, and hope to start work this year on a literary novel that’s been brewing in my noggin for a while. For those who might want to keep up with my doings, I blog at RameyWrites.
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of the forthcoming short fiction collection We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press) and several books and chapbooks, most recently Insomnia (Medulla Publishing). Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications, from Boston Review to Southword. Her online home and blog: http://kristinemuslim.weebly.com