In a recent email interview, Courtney Harler and Giano Cromley discussed the craft of the short story and the challenges of the writing life.
CH: Congratulations on the publication of your first short story collection, What We Build Upon the Ruins. If it suits you, I’d like to begin our chat with the “triptych” of stories mentioned in your press release. In your title story, Jack narrates: “What happened to our sister would always be at the center of our lives. My family, the four of us now, would be planets forever revolving around that moment” (19). At this early point, readers don’t know exactly what happened to the “lost” sister (11), and I don’t want to give spoilers here. Without revealing too much yourself, might you comment on your choices behind the triptych? For instance, why three shorter stories, instead of one longer one? Also, does the grieving process itself influence the chosen structure, and if so, how so? These are just a few of my ideas, of course, but I’m more eager to hear your thoughts.
GC: The canoe stories were germinated when I visited the Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St. Ignace, Michigan. They had this DVD running on a loop of a tribal elder making a birchbark canoe. It was riveting. We wandered into the theater space when the video was halfway through and we ended up staying for two full rounds of the video. Even as I sat there on the bench, I knew I had to make this into a story. I started with the brothers, Jack and Marty, and one-by-one the rest of the story began to take shape. And as it did so, I realized it was going to be too long for a simple short story – at least the types of short stories I like to write – and too short to be a novel. Then I thought back to one of my favorite story collections, The Watch by Rick Bass, and I recalled that he did this thing where you read the first story and it’s great and it feels like a self-contained piece. But then about halfway through the book, you come to a story that has the same characters as that first one. When you’re reading the book for the first time, it feels a bit like getting a surprise visit by an old group of friends. That crew makes one more appearance at the end of the collection as well. Once I began to consider my canoe story in that same vein, it was liberating because it allowed me, in each separate piece, to focus on different sets of characters and explore different themes.
That’s an interesting idea you brought up about the structure mimicking the grieving process itself. I think that’s true in the sense that the grieving process is long – very long. So by splitting those stories up, I was able to maybe hint at its length, while not forcing the reader to be confronted by their grief for such an extended period. I firmly believe that you need to regulate what you ask of the reader. To spend sixty-some pages immersed in the concerns of this family might be a bit of a slog. Whereas, by splitting the story up somewhat, you’re much more able to absorb it without being overwhelmed.
The last thing I’ll mention, which you alluded to in your question, throughout the entirety of the first story, the reader never fully understands what happened to the lost sister. This was a highly intentional choice. I think in life, the unknown things are so much more terrifying than the known. Once you know the problem, you can diagnose it. Not knowing what’s exactly wrong makes you feel helpless. That’s the feeling I wanted to recreate, at least in the first of the canoe stories.
CH: I’ve been thinking about the lost sister. A lot. Her presence in the triptych is so looming, yet so minuscule. She barely has a voice; she barely has a body. The most substantial part of the lost sister is her record player (61). She haunts the stories, haunts the family, but can’t manifest, and I don’t truly mean in a ghostly way, but in a narrative way. Have you ever written her story? If so, why, and if not, why not? Likewise, boys and men of various ages shape all these stories, either as narrators or protagonists. I don’t mean to imply that the collection is unbalanced—I think your female characters are developed with respect and care (even if, or especially when they can’t materialize in a solid way)—but I’m curious, still. Without invoking a binary model, I’d like to ask about your personal experience writing from the female perspective—what are the possible issues, or perhaps, the potential rewards?
GC: It’s interesting to hear you use the word “ghostly” because that’s exactly how I think of Collette. There’s a line in one of the other stories in the collection that goes, “Ghosts, he knew, were nothing more than powerful memories.” That’s exactly what I think she has become. And yet, I think we underestimate just how powerful memories can be – they can trigger our senses: sight, sound, touch even. If you think of someone really intensely, suddenly you might recall the way they smelled when they came inside from the cold, and you might “hear” the way they stamped their feet to get the snow off. Collette is a ghost who resides inside the minds of the characters who knew her best. So I would argue that by writing this story, I am, in fact, writing her story. She is now what her family remembers of her. Their struggle, the one they’re all dealing with, is how to hang on to what remains of her while forging ahead with the rest of their lives.
You also noted how she seems to have an outsized impact on the stories despite such little time on the page. I think that’s due to the fact that literally, every single thing the family says and does is contingent upon her absence. We may not be told much specific about Collette, but I think we can infer a lot based on how everyone else acts in her absence. Not to sound too pat, but sometimes the most powerful things you can write are the things you don’t put on the page.
As for the larger question of writing from a female perspective, I guess I’d have to honestly say I’m not very good at it. I’ve tried with quite a number of stories, but it’s important to know when you haven’t succeeded as a writer, and I think those attempts demonstrated that lack on my part. I wish I could; it would certainly broaden the parameters of what’s possible when I sit down on the empty page. To be clear, I don’t think writers should ever limit themselves to what they try to do and who they try to embody, but they also need to know when it isn’t working.
CH: Speaking of which, what are you trying to do now? In other words, what are you working on now, if you don’t mind sharing? A new project? A new narrative technique? From your bio, I see that you work in higher ed and have a busy family, too. How do you balance your writing life with your other responsibilities? Do you recommend any specific strategies for building and maintaining the momentum of your writing projects?
GC: Right now, I’m just finishing up a year-long project of renovating a house in Woodlawn, which has demanded a great deal of my free time and energy. So I think it’s fair to say I haven’t had much of a balance with my writing life at all. But now that the house is almost done, I’m very much looking forward to getting back to writing.
I’ve got a manuscript, which is a sequel to my first novel, and it’s about ninety percent done, so that’s the next thing that’ll probably be coming down the pike. After that, I’m wide open – which is a feeling I’m very much looking forward to. I have a vague notion that the next thing I work on will be a novel about Bigfoot and friendship. At least that’s the vision for it now. (I’m kind of a Bigfoot nut, so I feel like this might be fulfilling some kind of cosmic destiny.)
As for advice about how to balance your writing life with other responsibilities I think what I’d say runs a bit counter to the conventional wisdom. Most writers will tell you that you have to write every single day and give you a word count you have to hit every week and so on. I think holding yourself to arbitrary goals like that can be as much of a hindrance as a help, at least if you’re like me and feel horrible when you miss your goals. So I’d say, yes, you have to write, but don’t beat yourself up if you miss a day, or if life intercedes and you have to go a month between projects. I remember one of my best friends in college wanted to go down to the river one spring day to swing on the rope swing. I told him I couldn’t because I had to work on a story. He ridiculed me mercilessly until I gave in and joined him. While there, I saw these youngsters playing on the shoreline and that became the subject of a poem I wrote later on. Writing needs fuel, and the fuel for writing is living. Sometimes, you just have to go down to the river.