Shut Up/Look Pretty: a roundtable
Recently published by Tiny Hardcore Press, Shut Up/Look Pretty is a new anthology featuring Lauren Becker, Erin Fitzgerald, Kirsty Logan, Michelle Reale and Amber Sparks. To celebrate the release of the book, and these five fine writers, we invited them to have a conversation about the anthology, writing, and whatever came up. Think of it as an interview without an interviewer — something we plan to bring you more of in the future.
EF: I was extremely busy during the back half of 2011, and didn’t have the time to read that I would have liked. I would really love it if each of you could recommend something I should check out for myself as soon as possible.
AS: I loved so much in 2011 — I ended up writing less and reading a lot more this year, maybe because I had so many friends who were putting out books and I had learned more about where to go for great off-the-radar literature. But some of my favorites: Stories V, There is No Year, Us, Freight, The Sisters Brothers, Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Wild Life, How the Days of Love and Diptheria, and — though this is not new but if you haven’t read it READ IT — Every Man Dies Alone. For non-fiction, I loved Atlas of Remote Islands, and Yu Hua’s newest book, China in Ten Words.
KL: I’m a bit of a floozy when it comes to books. I’m always reading at least a dozen books at once (AS: me, too, Kirsty! It’s so bad, I know.) (EF: I do it too, hence my question!), I constantly genre-hop, and if something doesn’t interest me straight away then I put it down. So my favourites from 2011 might seem a little eclectic! There are so many reasons to love a book, but last year I craved stories that would drag me in and hold me down, narratives that felt more real than reality. Novels that managed that: Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo, Night Waking by Sarah Moss, Angel by Elizabeth Taylor, Another World by Pat Barker, and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (I’m cheating there because in 2011 this was a re-read for me — I first read it when I was 18, and I was worried that I wouldn’t love it so much now at 27, but it was just as beautiful and horrible as I remembered).
LB: Unlike Amber, who still writes more than I do, I read less when I write more. I also read a lot of shorter work online and submissions for Corium. Some books I read in 2011 that I thought were spectacular: Later the Same Day (Grace Paley), Blue Angel (Francine Prose), There is No Year (Blake Butler) and Big World (Mary Miller). As for re-reading, for purposes of research and for guilty pleasure, I found my old copy of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (Judy Blume) in my parents” garage, and was relieved to find it stood the test of time.
EF: Let’s talk about process! Instead of “how do you get your ideas,” I want to know: What tried-and-true writing advice does NOT work for you?
AS: I suppose this one has been long disproven, but “write what you know” generally never works for me. Because my life is (luckily) incredibly placid and chill and happy, and I didn’t live in the interesting parts of history. (Interesting to me.) So I write about what I don’t know, to learn more about it and about myself. There are exceptions, of course — I wrote an almost true story about an attack that happened in my apartment building once — but generally I’m writing what I don’t know. That’s more interesting to me.
LB: I am fortunate in that I don’t know most of the rules of writing. They don’t teach those in law school. I am familiar with the near-universally accepted and proselytized piece of advice that one should write every day. I think it’s great that other people do, but I’ve tried it and found it doesn’t make a difference and makes writing less enjoyable. I write when I feel compelled. I wish it were more often, but I’m pretty content.
AS: Lauren, I agree. I can’t write everyday. I’m sure it works for some people, but not for me. I write when I feel like it, which is fairly often but not everyday. Not even close.
AS: How does the title of the book relate to your work in it? Or does it? For me, I sort of feel like the “look pretty” part doesn’t necessarily fit but the “shut up” part sure does. A constant theme in nearly all the stories I write are characters who exist on the margin, who are told to just “shut up.” How about you all?
KL: Because my story is from a male perspective and most of the others are from a female perspective, I think I look at the title from a slightly different angle. In “Local God” I wanted to explore issues of gender roles and what it means to be a man, or to appear male in this culture. There’s an awful lot of shutting up involved in being a traditional man (particularly in Scotland, which can be horribly old-fashioned at times — there’s a real tendency amongst some people to think that “real men” just stay quiet and don’t talk about their problems). The looking pretty part is there too, but it’s more about looking a certain way: strong, capable, laid-back, unruffled. I used to think that blokes really were all like that, but I soon realised that most of the guys around me at university were just as lost and confused as I was!
LB: The title fits a number of my stories. I write a lot about connection; more accurately, about the trial and failure to attain it. About the quieting of self to be part of something bigger, prettier.
I think the title also suits the book in a broader sense, in that it features five women in a unique format. It feels more like a recommendation or even command to shake its burden. To stay true to who you are, who you are becoming. My book has twenty very short pieces, Kirsty’s is a novella, Amber’s book is five longer stories, Erin and Michelle’s combine shorter and longer. We handed over our allotted word count and it’s pretty much what you see.
EF: I like to think that all of my stories (with one exception, in our anthology) have to do with people whose appearances are unremarkable and unnoticed… the kind of people you might see at the grocery store and not be able to recall ten minutes later. I suppose telling stories about them draws them into scrutiny, and their prettiness then is in the eye of the beholder.
AS: Except for Kirsty’s novella and my longer story in the collection, most of the work in the book is flash fiction. Do you guys mostly write flash, and how is the craft different for you than when you write, say, a 6000 word piece? And don’t say “it takes me longer.” Which do you prefer writing, if you have a preference, and why?
EF: With flash fiction, I enjoy the challenge of getting something to make sense within fixed parameters, and coming out on the other side of five hundred words with permanent change. For me, longer fiction is about getting to know characters. When I’m not actually writing, I’m thinking about them. Even though they’re not real people, they take places in my life. I enjoy their company (or don’t!), and I miss them when they’re gone. I don’t really have a preference for flash, short, or long fiction. If I write in one form for long enough, I start getting itchy to write in another.
LB: I love the inherent requirement of conciseness and the converse requirement that one must provide a reader with a story. And I am a little addicted to seeing the finish line from the start. A lot of it has to do with life experience and feeling a real need to hold something complete
I haven’t written a piece longer than 3500 words since I started writing as more than an occasional way to pass time. With the exception of my novel, which is 40,000 words in need of complete revision. I really do love the form and think it’s no worse or better than any other, but I find myself writing longer short fiction and going back to the novel. Even so, I know these little bursts of stories will escape my head. I hope so.
AS: I notice as I read all of your pieces in the book (and being familiar with other work you’ve done) that you are all very direct in your confrontation with the ugliest parts of life as well as loveliest. You don’t shy away from what’s unpleasant or sad or gross — you get right up that shit’s face and rip off the mask. I love and admire that about all of you. How do you guys do that and why? Is it cathartic? A kind of fictional truth-telling? Fun? Are you like that in life, too? I ask that last because I’m kind of weirdly the opposite: I tend to be very direct and terribly foul-mouthed and uncensored in real life, where as in my fiction I paint everything in beautiful baroque colors and the unpleasant becomes lovely. I’ve been trying to break out of that lately, but it’s quite difficult, and I don’t know why. It’s like knocking on wood or something. It’s like if I write bad things, they’ll come true, or something. I don’t know. What do you you guys do to get the good stuff out?
MR: You ask great questions! I am very, very shy and not at all direct in my “real life”. It is very freeing for me to be ugly, foul and direct in my fiction. I find it incredibly cathartic, actually. I just tend to see the underside of life — life in the western world requires that we be fairly schizophrenic — we are constantly denying or suppressing how we really feel. In my own case, I pretty much suppress anything negative — so I let it out in my fiction where people freely deceive, disappoint, bitch, moan, rail at the world and sometimes just give up. I read a lot of whimsical flash, flash that is incredibly clever with words, quick and snappy, and I love it — I just can’t write that way. I have tried — it just isn’t me.
EF: Everything I write is an attempt to make sense of something in the world. Everything I do is influenced by those attempts. I make messes on purpose in writing, because I know they are easier to fix. But in the end, for my purposes, sometimes it’s better to let those messes stand.
KL: As so many of the stories are written in first person, I couldn’t help wondering whether some of the characters recurred — many of the stories seemed to overlap in wonderful ways. Do you see your stories as stages in the lives of one character or snapshots of one world, or are they all different characters?
AS: This is a good question. I feel like sometimes, really, all of my female characters are the same person, which is probably really me. My male characters are usually facets of me, but for whatever odd reason they seem to be much more different from one another. My female characters seem to sort of all run together into this one giant ongoing autobio, I suppose. Not entirely a true autobio, but when are they ever?
LB: We’ve shared our books with one other. In one word or sentence describe your impression of each. As we have discussed here and elsewhere, we are great fans of all.
LB: Amber: intense
Kirsty: brash (note from KB to LB: I love this, I’ve never been called brash before!)
KL: Lauren: disconnecting
EF: Lauren: tender
AS: Ha! I love this question. In real life I guarantee you I would be none of those things, which is why I goddamn love fiction. Let’s see:
LB: I’ve been kind of surprised by my words (except jalapeño. i am totally that.). Spill it. One word you would use to describe your writing. OK, maybe three. I’ll start.
LB: honest, evocative, me
EF: Tralfamadorian romance novels. (This is not a smartass answer. Well, okay, maybe a little.)
AS: Cobwebby. Edwardian. Yearning. (Wow, that sure sounds like the worst sales pitch ever.)
KL: fantastical, queer, naked (all of which I am, haha!)