Carolyn Percy chats to journalist and author Carole Burns about her debut short story collection, The Missing Woman, which was recently awarded the prestigious Ploughshares John C. Zacharas Award.
Carolyn Percy: The unifying theme of your collection seems be people whose lives are missing something – be it tangible, intangible or both. How easy or difficult was it to come up with this? Do you think that there is a void in today’s society – be it spiritual or something else – that makes people more likely to feel that they are missing something, or is this an essentially human phenomenon?
Carole Burns: The theme came about quite naturally – it wasn’t a conscious decision. As I was working on stories which I realized could become a collection, I’d been struggling to think of a title. I came up with wonderfully entertaining titles that were completely inappropriate for the book. The Ten Commandments for Girls, for instance – great title, but it doesn’t fit my stories. There’s a theme there I suppose of womanhood, if you will – I was toying around with something, but it wasn’t right.
The title story was written perhaps at the midway point. It’s one of those titles that was immediately obvious – some you struggle with, but there was no other title possible for that piece. After that, I quickly realized how easily the idea of the missing woman would fit a lot of the stories – and it became the book’s title.
I don’t know if today’s world has more “missing” from it than other worlds – it would be easy to say it does. We have a lot of things. The arts, learning for learning’s sake, are undervalued; Donald Trump just won a primary to become president of the United States, because he’s rich, and made himself a celebrity by erecting buildings emblazoned with his name. Not because he’s qualified to be president. But it’s too easy to think worlds we never experienced were better. “To live is the rarest thing in the world,” Oscar Wilde said. “Most people just exist.” I think that’s one idea my stories are about, and that’s not unique to our age.
How did you balance making sure that the stories all kept to the same unifying theme but, at the same time, didn’t sound too similar?
Even the stories I wrote after “The Missing Woman” weren’t written with that theme in mind. I don’t think every story in a collection has to “fit” exactly anyway… and I’d never try to force a theme into a story. I don’t think fiction works that way – at least not for me. The stories I wrote after I had my title just happened to fit – strangely, two of the Imagistic stories, where the inspiration was the image only, carry that theme the most strongly. I think theme works on a subconscious level. Which is not to say I don’t tease it out more once I have a first draft, once I know what a story is about. I absolutely do. But it can’t be pre-supposed, or superimposed.
A lot of the stories seem to be set in America. Was there a particular reason for this, or is the advantage of a good short story that it can be set anywhere?
Of course a good story can be set anywhere! But the answer to Why America? is simply that I’m American, although I’ve lived in the UK now twelve years. The novel I’ve just finished is set in America; the new one I’m starting is, too. I’ve never felt as American as I have since moving here. I’m very aware of my nationality, and my American characteristics, because they’re now set against a contrasting background. So I suppose that’s still an obsession, more so perhaps than when I was living there.
What are the differences between writing a short story, or a collection of them, and a novel? Do you think there are any similarities?
It’s so different I don’t even know where to begin. First there’s just the time required – with luck, I might write a first draft of a story in a month or so. You just can’t do that with a novel. Well, I can’t. And there’s the hugeness of a novel itself. My first novel was at one point 400 double-spaced pages. Imagine laying out all those pages end to end – it felt like that’s how much space I needed in my head to make it work. A story is intricate, and huge in its own way, but not like that. And of course there’s tons of similarities – structure and character and themes you try to connect without letting the reader know you’re connecting them. All that craft is required no matter what form you’re working in.
Did you have a favourite story to write?
I do remember having a blast writing “The One I Will,” though it’s not my favorite story now. This voice just came into my head, this angry, challenging, playful voice, completely unlike my own, and I was pushing myself not to do the obvious thing with the plot, I just kept trying to upend my own expectations. It was really fun. I liked the way some of the other, more delicate stories came in little sections that I then needed to put together like a puzzle with pieces that float around one another instead of snapping into place. And then I loved writing the Imagistic stories. I don’t usually set myself writing exercises – maybe I should – but these were a bit like that. Paul Edwards and I paired writers and artists for this project, and once paired, the writers had about a month to respond to the images with a new flash fiction, and of course I had the same deadline. Did the unknown story inside prompt me to choose the image, or would it never have existed without the image? Maybe it preexisted in some way, but I wouldn’t have written it, and certainly not in that way, without the image, and I like knowing that.
Do you have a particular writing routine?
On a good day, I get up, have breakfast, and write as much as I can until lunch, and I try to push lunch as late as I can (partly because I’m not the earliest riser). The less interference I have between waking and writing, the better – I don’t put on the radio, or read the newspaper, though sometimes, when I’m stuck, I might read, but only an absolutely fabulous book. God forbid if I check email – always a mistake. It’s harder when my partner is around – he’s distracting because I like talking to him, and being British he can’t not turn on the BBC. This summer, since I was at the very beginning of my new novel, when I don’t use a computer, I began escaping to the Canton library with my notebook, a few pens, and a book or two, and writing there. It was a glorious few weeks! They throw you out at one, and so I had an excuse to stop, and have lunch with a friend. In the afternoons, I’ll read, or do some freelancing, or exercise… when I’m teaching, all this goes to pot, though I did write this morning, if not for long.
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Read and write, read and write, read and write. See if you can find a job that’s self-contained, that doesn’t seep out of the hours you’re working and into the hours where you might be able to write. And don’t keep too busy. Henry James said a writer is one upon whom nothing is lost. I’m too busy now. I’m losing too much. Make sure there’s time to notice things.
What’s next for you?
As I mentioned, I’ve finished a novel, which I’m sending around, and I’ve started a new one. It’s hard to find the time and the headspace for a novel while I’m teaching (think of all those pages!) so this morning I was working on a short personal essay about Mrs. Dalloway. I’m teaching a narrative non-fiction module now, and thought that short non-fiction pieces might be do-able in the middle of the semester – though occasionally those turn into fiction after all.