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[ interview ]

Quinn Dalton Talks Tips on the Craft of the Short Story

by Jessica Pitchford

(click here to read "Trigger Finger," a story from her newest collection)

Q: First, congratulations on all your recent successes and the new collection. Stories from the Afterlife makes your second collection of short fiction, in addition to your debut novel, High Strung. Your stories have been published in dozens of literary journals as well as anthologized. Do you find that you're drawn to the shorter form as opposed to the novel, and if so, why? Are you able to work on both a novel and stories at the same time, and to that end, what's currently on your writing desk?

A: I'm more drawn to the short story form because I feel more comfortable with it. Also my writing time is more fragmented than it used to be because of a lot of other good stuff going on—kids, etc. When I get stuck on a story, I can leave it for a while—months, years even—and come back to it and pick up the thread. In fact, maybe in the time away from it, I've learned a thing or two that I can apply to that story and maybe even decide to completely change my approach. With twenty pages or so, this is doable. If you're 200 pages into a novel; it's not so easy to change gears wholesale.

A lot of my stories have taken years to write—"Jimmy the Brain" is one. It probably took three years of leaving and coming back. Also I've started hundreds of stories and have finished maybe a few dozen that I feel good about. I've completed exactly one novel. But I think good writing happens when you're a little scared. So I want to get back to a novel, and that has been what I've been working with lately.

Q: In Stories from the Afterlife, many of your characters are dealing with loss of some type—life after the death of a relationship, of a family member, of a once-held notion of others. It serves nicely in unifying the stories. I'm wondering if that was a conscious decision on your part and how the title of the collection ties into that idea.

A: I didn't write the stories with any notions of how they would build a collection. But over time, I did see those connections between them, and the title came out of that. There are some stories I've published in the past few years which I chose not to include because they didn't fit. I wish I could say I started with the idea and then wrote to it, but for me the process works in reverse. I write what I write, and then after the fact I try to see how the stories might fit together. This was the case with both my collections.

Q: Your story "The Music You Never Hear" appeared in New Stories from the South 2006: The Year's Best. In an online conversation of emerging Southern women writers and labels, you said that because you don't sound Southern, spent your formative years in the Midwest, and don't really fit into the fold of the Southern literary community, you're "disqualified" from the Southern writer label. Flannery O'Connor wrote that the "serious Southern writer is no longer someone who leaves and can't come home again, or someone who stays and is not quite appreciated, but someone who is a part of what he writes about and is recognized as such." Does that sort of definition put you more at ease with the label of Southern writer, or how much does wanting to be a part of what you write about shape your work?

A: I doubt any writer feels comfortable with a label. Probably this comes from the fact that most writers are not joiners by nature. They are contrarians—they don't take things at face value; their job is to go beyond that. Also, labels feel a bit limiting, even if they're meant as a compliment. I mean, who wouldn't want to be associated with the likes of O'Connor? In my case, some of my stories are set in the South and some in the North. Some deal with issues considered to be the traditional territory of the South, like race. But racial tensions and inequalities and their fallout are not restricted to the land below the Mason-Dixon Line. What about Detroit? What about LA? I guess, in the end, the Southern Writer label doesn't feel genuine to me, and not just because I don't believe my breeding fits the bill. You can't really be concerned with these kinds of associations when you have to be alone in a room a lot.

Q: All eleven stories in your first collection, Bulletproof Girl, contain women protagonists. In Stories from the Afterlife, you boldly take on a variety of main characters with, at least on the surface level, dissimilar traits than your own: from an older man in the 1950s who impregnates his dying wife's black nursemaid; to a young college guy working at The Beer Mart who falls for the boss's emotionally fragile wife and gets robbed at gunpoint; to a middle-aged gay man who's never been able to come out to his family; to a black woman coming to terms with her own past as she tries to help her pregnant, teenaged neighbor. Was that variety something you were aiming for, and what drew you to writing such different characters?

A: This is the question I get asked often, and it always makes me scared and happy. Scared because I wonder, did I pull it off? And happy, because in my heart, with the people in these stories, I believe I did. Not because I understand what it's like to be a man, or a black woman, or gay, any more than I understand what it's like to be an elderly woman, or a child with a physical handicap, or a person who has backpacked around the world. But I knew who these particular people were. I started with a small situation, and I wrote a bit, and tried to tell the truth. And that led me to something more. Ned, the man who has a son by his dying wife's caretaker, believes himself to be a good man. He tries to be good within what he imagines are the limitations of his abilities and of the society they live in. But this effort to be good within limits is what makes it impossible for him to ever know his son, or to be loved by him. It's a great loss, and he sees this at the end. We all understand that terrible tension between what we know is right and what we feel capable of doing. It is a story we all live.

The following can be answered in a word, a phrase, a sentence:

1. Name a writer who is currently making you jealous.

Too many to mention; I'm a jealous person.

2. What kind of child were you?

Difficult. Nervous. Sometimes kind.

3. What is your relationship with rejection like?

Rejection is a huge part of the business of writing, so over time I've gotten better at just putting it behind me and moving on to the next thing.

4. What book did you suffer for the most, and why?

I don't think I've suffered an awful lot for anything, really. I work hard and try to give the writing the time it takes.

5. What was the greatest surprise for you in your most recent writing?

Getting better at looking at stories in terms of their structure. Sometimes I get so caught up in the sentences that I can't look at the piece as a whole. But I think I'm getting better.

6. What writerly habit would you most like to break?

Not doing it enough.

Lastly, and just for kicks . . .

On your website you mention all the odd jobs you've had and how they influence your work. If you weren't a writer, what occupation would you most like to have? What job would you refuse to do?

Writing isn't my full time job even now. I teach, I help my husband with his business, and I have kids. I'm happy with this. I could try to think up a dream job, but anytime you're getting a paycheck you're under someone's thumb, and then it just becomes a job—a necessity, to be sure, but all jobs include drudgery. What I'd never do is work underground, underwater, or in a strip club. The first two terrify me because of the possibility of being trapped; the last one because of being totally exposed.

Quinn Dalton is the author of a novel, High Strung, and two story collections, Bulletproof Girl and Stories from the Afterlife (new November 1 from Press 53. She lives in Greensboro, NC with her husband and two daughters. Visit quinndalton.com.

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