Conversations on Fiction: Jacob M. Appel, Mike Corrao, Molly Gutman, Chelsea Harris, and Daniele De Serto

For all of its long history, Portland Review has been publishing exceptional poetry, nonfiction, art and, of course, fiction. Portland Review’s 2018 fiction writers Jacob M. Appel, Mike Corrao, Molly Gutman, Chelsea Harris, and Daniele De Serto recently discussed the craft and process of writing fiction with Portland Review’s Fiction Editor, Jessica Fonvergne.

Molly Gutman earned her MFA at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her stories and poems appear in Black Warrior Review, Fairy Tale Review, Mid-American Review, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. Her short story “You and the Clarinetist” which is set in an opera house and explores an abusive relationship in a peculiar way, can be read online only at Portland Review.

Molly Gutman: “You and the Clarinetist” is my ultimate workshop success story. The idea started as an in-class exercise in an undergrad workshop. The setting of an orchestra has great diction—gummy candyish words—and so I played with that setting just because it was fun. I tried to piece together a story and handed in this surreal Frankenstein’s Monster of a draft, where the vignettes were titled like prose poems. And not a single person at the table knew what was going on; nobody got it, and to tell the truth I didn’t, either. So after the workshop I cried to a friend over some hot chocolate, and set to making sense of the story.

It took four years. I had to tease out what the story meant emotionally, how it lived and breathed and suggested a world outside itself. I workshopped it again, with a visiting writer (shoutout to Manuel Gonzales!) at my MFA program, and this time the table picked up on something that felt so obvious once I finally saw it—that the protagonist was in an abusive relationship. That final insight clicked the whole story into focus.

Jessica Fonvergne: “You and the Clarinetist” expands and contracts in the most beautiful way. I suppose I would classify it as realism, but there’s something about the POV that pushes it toward the surreal or uncanny. What would you classify it as? Do you think of genre when you’re writing, or is it something that’s not even on your radar?

MG: Thank you for saying so! That uncanniness appears often in my work; sometimes just in the prose, but I think you’re right in attributing it, here, to the point of view. Our access to the story is in second person, which isn’t very comfortable, and then our reprieve from second person—the majority of the story—is in third, sure, but a hypothetical third. The narrator spins a whole imaginary life for a clarinetist she doesn’t know, to work out her own problems. That’s one of the reasons I think the frame has to be in second person. Her audience is herself, like an outsized version of retracing your steps: “All right, you came home and put your purse on the counter . . . so where did you leave your keys?”

I guess what I’m saying is I think of this story as a modern-day cautionary tale, more in the vein of fairy tales than literary realism. I once had a mentor call my fiction “heightened realism,” which might also account for that sense of the uncanny in the story.

I’m pretty conscious about genre as I’m writing. I get jazzed about the tone of new projects just as much as I do about new characters. Genre, for me, has everything to do with tone. Does the story feel like a big creaking forest of trees? Does it feel like a fireplace at night? Accessing a tone we don’t expect (the unsettling creepiness of horror or surrealism, say, in an otherwise literary realist story) can be a fantastic way to stretch boundaries of genre.

JF: You’re also a published poet. How does that affect or influence your fiction? Do you cross or stretch boundaries of genres in that sense as well?

MG: Definitely some cross-contamination. I’m afraid my poetry and fiction are in a parasitic relationship. I’m a better story writer for my poetry practice, but I can’t seem to break away from narrative poetry—as much as I’d like to work in other modes!—because fiction is an invasive species, sticky on my brain. Poetry asks more from me in a shorter amount of space; every word matters, and every choice has a giant, rippling effect. It has to locate an emotional question much faster than fiction does. It makes me think about music, word play, and white space more than fiction does. There’s just no room to spell everything out in a poem; I have to trust readers to follow me, associate when I do, without holding anyone’s hand. So poetry makes me think about language and form, definitely. But it also reminds me to trust readers, reminds me to let go, in a way that’s sometimes hard for me as a fiction writer.

Chelsea Harris has appeared in Smokelong Quarterly, The Fem, Literary Orphans and Grimoire, among others. She co-runs a zine and reading series in Bellingham, Washington called Wallpaper Magazine, and received her MFA from Columbia College Chicago. Her short story about a group of troubled teens, “Nowhere Girls,” can be found online at Portland Review.

Chelsea Harris: “Nowhere Girls” is made up of five other very short pieces. In undergrad I was convinced I was strictly a poet, convinced that you had to choose what kind of writer you wanted to be and that was that. Every time I sat down to write a short story, it came out as a poem, and I think that’s where the language of this piece comes from. I think a lot of my work showcases what it means, what it feels like, to exist in the world as a woman. At the conception of “Nowhere Girls,” I had just moved to Chicago and had yet to meet any new female friends, so I was thinking a lot about female friendships and how my previous ones had shaped me, how my new ones would too, and what all of that meant. I was, I am, really interested in the ways women interact with one another, specifically in situations where men have dominated them, have negatively affected their lives, and how they share in these experiences, in this darkness.

Jessica Fonvergne: The language of “Nowhere Girls” definitely has a darkness—I remember when the editors were discussing your work, the power of your language kept coming up. How long did it take you to write the piece?

CH: The process of writing it felt less like writing and more like piecing together a very complicated collage. Since I already had a lot of the words down from previous pieces, the characters with their feelings and their conflicts felt pretty evolved, it was just the matter of making them seen. Of course, technically speaking this story took years, and I think it was well worth it. I think some of my best work does take a long time, time spent tinkering, toying, and getting every word just right. I’ve changed a lot since I began writing and thinking about this piece, so when I revisited it to get it into publishable shape, it changed with me.

JF: That reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop. Apparently, she’d just leave blanks in her poems where she couldn’t find the right word to fill in the space, and then she’d just wait as long as it took until she could find the proper word. How did you know that “Nowhere Girls” was finished and ready to submit, and what are you working on right now?

CH: Oh, I love that! And honestly, I never really know. I do have a rule though, and that rule is that I won’t submit something unless I’m absolutely in love with it. That sounds pretty obvious, but I think it’s so important. I have work floating around out there that I’m not proud of, that I never loved to begin with. I was just in a rush, a rush to be published, a rush to be heard.

At the moment I’m tweaking (and trying to find a home for) my short story collection, This Could Have Happened to You, but I’ve also begun collecting stories for a flash fiction collection centered around women picking themselves up among the rubble created by men in their lives. Lately, and more specifically, I’ve been interested in the detrimental effect that religion has on a woman’s life, how power is distributed unfairly in these communities, and the ways in which women suffer at the hands of it, and I’ve been exploring that in my fiction a lot recently as well.

JF: That sounds fascinating—I would perhaps classify “Nowhere Girls” as a feminist text, and your stories seem deeply invested in exploring the role of women in the world. Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

CH: There are so many different versions of feminism floating around out there, and while I do wholeheartedly identify with the concept of equality, I also feel a lack of inclusitivity among some of these feminist communities, and that’s not okay with me. I think there is a huge difference between feminism and intersectional feminism, and worry that if I identify as a “feminist writer” I will be grouped into the former. But I absolutely support intersectional feminist ideals and am dedicated to dismantling the patriarchy in every way I possibly can.

If I’m being totally transparent, a part of me sort of wishes I didn’t have to be considered a “feminist writer.” I wish I could be seen simply as a writer, but I’m aware that my work is tackling something unpalatable to certain people and must be classified in such a way. We’re not yet at the point in society where a female-identifying person can write about misogyny and the patriarchy and how destructive and deadly they can be and not be considered a feminist writer, and that’s heartbreaking. To bring it back to this particular piece, when Mia tells Li she no longer wants to live like this towards the end of the story, Li simply replies with “I know, sugar.” These girls are obviously stuck, they’re drowning, they can’t save themselves from the nightmare these men have draped over them, and I think that can be read as feminist, but I also think that can be read, unfortunately, as reality.

Mike Corrao is a young writer working out of Minneapolis. His work has been featured in publications such as Entropy, Cleaver and Fanzine. His first novel, MAN, OH MAN will be coming out in fall of 2018 from Orson’s Publishing. His short story “Business and Sales” is a surreal account of a businessman trying to sell a mysterious product to a forest of trees. 

Mike Corrao: “Business and Sales” started initially as a bit between myself and a couple of friends. I kept making reference to a man who sold useless shit to trees. I think it was supposed to be some blatantly false reference to a show I only saw a few seconds of. I ended up getting way too into the joke, started questioning the guy’s motivations and what brought him to be in this position. It’s kind of strange to think about where this story started compared to where it ended up. The construction of the atmosphere/setting felt so natural (bringing the businessman into this place, having him compete against this dream-manipulating salesman, cutting up the story with the interludes).

The way that I usually work is, after I have the initial idea and a couple notes, I’ll hunker down for four or five hours a day and just write what I can. Revisions happen a bit slower. I read through the story a couple times after I write it, I clean up the prose, and futz with some of the structure/form/narrative. Then I’ll take a couple days away from it, usually working on another project in the meantime, almost like a palette cleanser. I try to look at it with fresh eyes, try to view from a distance. I don’t want to be swept up in my own fantasies about the story. I want to try and see it how others might (although that’s admittedly really hard to do).

Jessica Fonvergne: That’s such an important aspect of the writing process, I think: looking deeper, like a camera zooming into a scene. You’re a filmmaker yourself. Tell me about how the two mediums come together and inform one another for you. Which did you start with, or have you always been involved in both?

MC: You’re right when you say that the two mediums inform one another. However, my filmmaking and writing processes are starkly different. The process for putting a short film together is slow and calculated. I write a script or compile some notes for an idea and then I bring them to my team. We sit down over coffee and talk about what we want to do with the idea, how we want to film it, the mise-en-scene, the dialogue, etc. Then we find actors and equipment, we schedule the dates, and then we shoot for a couple of hours over the course of a couple of days and edit the project together. Most of what we’ve done so far has been very short form (somewhere between twenty seconds and two minutes) and has had this plastic quality that I find incredibly interesting.

Writing on the other hand is a solo effort. I come up with an idea. I sit down, I write it out, I edit, and if I can talk some close friends into reading the work, I send it their way.

JF: They do say writing is the loneliest job. Are you interested in bringing the collaborative energy of film into your writing practices? What are you working on right now?

MC: For a little while, I had a friend who would pick up used journals from thrift shops for me. I’d do some erasure-type stuff, or try to make a short story using language or content from the journal. Then we’d edit it together, throw a bunch of ideas at each other, and end up with something we had fun making. We haven’t done it in a little while, but we might pick it back up in the future. I think it’d be an interesting idea for a shorter book project. It kind of reminds of the type of stuff that Sophie Calle used to do (obviously much better than I ever could).

For the last couple of months I’ve been putting together a book manuscript. The working title is The Mobile Collage. It’s a novel about city symphonies (films about cities) and about the surreal experiences that come with living in such densely populated places.

JF: And you have a novel forthcoming from Orson’s Publishing as well. Can you tell me a little bit about it?

MC: I’m incredibly excited about this novel. It comes out this fall (right now it’s looking like early October). It’s called Man, Oh Man. It’s about two pseudo-intellectual idiots who are stuck together in a cafe and have nothing to do but talk. So they end up spouting all of their absurd opinions about whatever they can think of. It was an interesting project to put together because about ninety percent of the book is untagged dialogue. It’s this constant back and forth between spiteful people. It was a lot of fun trying to figure out how to maintain a conversation for so long. The novel is a great exercise in examining how people talk to one another, what they talk about, and why they talk.

Daniele De Serto lives in Rome, Italy. His work has appeared in many literary journals including Fiction Southeast, Granta Italia, Gravel, Cheap Pop, Jersey Devil Press, and Linus. He also works as an author for television shows. His short story about a boy who’s coping with the loss of his elder brother, “A Fine and Handsome Scar,” can be found in Portland Review’s 2018 issue.

Daniele De Serto: I always thought that summers spent in solitude, during adolescence, should be viewed as stripes on the shoulder. Certainly they can be formative, just as a defeat or a personal loss can be. It’s not a motivational reasoning but simply the awareness of the uniqueness of certain events and, therefore, of a potential to be grasped. I tried to put these elements together in “A Fine and Handsome Scar.”

Jessica Fonvergne: “A Fine and Handsome Scar” was originally written in Italian, and then was later translated into English, but you’re fluent in English too. How does your bilingual relationship with language inform your stories?

DDS: Thank you, but I’m not so fluent. Actually my process of writing is determined and channeled by the Italian language. When I write a story I don’t think about its possible translation. Only when I decide to have it translated do I make some adjustments, mostly cuts, of cultural references that could be incomprehensible outside Italy. Then I entrust the rest of the work to my translator.

JF: What was your revision process like?

DDS: Generally when I finish a first draft, I set it aside for some days, then I return to it and start the revision. But I don’t really have an organized process. I write the first draft the best I can and then I start an obsessive revision.

JF: How do you know when a piece is finished?

DDS: I’m never sure about it. I still would like to revise something.

Jacob M. Appel is the author of three literary novels, seven short story collections, an essay collection, a cozy mystery and a thriller. His first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up (Cargo, ) won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award. His short fiction collection, Scouting for the Reaper (Black Lawrence Press, 2014) won the 2012 Hudson Prize. He is also the author of more than two hundred published short stories. Jacob currently teaches at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and serves as an attending physician at Mount Sinai Hospital. His short story about corporate sponsored workplace camaraderie run amuck, “Time Capsule,” appears in Portland Review‘s 2018 issue.

Jacob M. Appel: The legendary Grace Paley was fond of saying that she did her best writing in the bathtub. On occasion, I have been called upon to remind my creative writing students that she did not mean that she carried her quill and parchment, or her laptop, into the bath—but rather, that she thought through her stories at great length before she put pen to paper. I generally do the same, so that by the time I start writing, I know how my story will develop and end. My general advice to writers is that you never want to sit in front of a blank page or screen without having an idea of what you want to write.

I generally know that I’m done with a story when my pen runs out of ink. In the old days, I used to hunt down a squid or two in order to replenish my supplies, but now that we’ve discovered that squids are sentient beings with IQs somewhat higher than several of my elementary school teachers, I don’t have the heart to harpoon them.

Jessica Fonvergne: Ah, so that’s why your Portland Review story “Time Capsule” is so short: ink conservation. Before you run out of ink now, let’s talk about how teaching has changed or informed your own writing. I’d also like to hear about how your work in bioethics contributes to your creative pursuits.

JMA: My bioethics work plays a large role both in my worldview and my fiction. One of the lessons of working in a hospital as an ethicist is that life is complex and nuanced and there are rarely easy answers to humanity’s larger questions. Also that we all live very close to the edge—and all it takes is one personal tragedy to push us over the precipice. These experiences form the moral core of most of my stories.

None of this has actually come together for me yet. But my hope is that it will posthumously. I’m banking on having my life make perfect sense in hindsight. Sort of like Kafka’s. I fear the choice isn’t “publish or perish” but rather it’s either “publish and perish” or “don’t publish and perish.” Except maybe in the case of Olivia de Havilland, who appears able to avoid both.

Jessica Fonvergne is Portland Review’s Fiction Editor.