Thank you so much, Gay, for discussing your new book, Rattle Of Want (Pure Slush Books 2015). It’s gorgeously haunting. I’ve read it all the way through and keep picking it up to re-read moments and stories. The collection includes stories and a novella-in-flash. Can you tell me how this collection came into being? The novella, “The Old Road,” sits comfortably next to your shorter fiction. Although the novella is self-contained, I find myself enjoying chapters as individual pieces of flash.
First, thank you for taking the time to talk about Rattle of Want and for liking the chapters as stand alone stories in the novella “The Old Road.” I’m particularly proud of “A Passing” and “Father and Son” in that regard.
After my novel, What Came Before, was published in 2014, I decided the best way to follow it up would be to put my strongest stories into some kind of collection. At the same time, I was part of a project called 2014, the brainchild of writer/editor/publisher Matt Potter at Pure Slush. His idea was to get thirty-one writers to commit to writing one story on the same day of each month. He requested each author to write in present tense as if the story was “taking place” on the author’s designated days. I chose the 19th.
Once the year was over, I had twelve linked stories on my hands and asked Matt if he would consider publishing it as a novella along with my collection Luckily for me, he said yes.
A few of the stories in Rattle Of Want previously appeared in your wonderful collection Pomegranate Stories (December 2009). What was the process involved in selecting stories to be included in Rattle of Want?
The first criterion for me was to include my most successful pieces. “Spring Melt” had been nominated for Pushcart consideration and “Monsoon” was a Glimmer Train finalist. Both were in Pomegranate, as was the story titled “Pomegranate,” which had never been published elsewhere. I felt all three would make Rattle a stronger book.
“Monsoon” underwent significant revision. You changed the girls’ ages, took away some of the narrator’s fears about her husband, and tightened up the narrative quite a bit. It’s sharper, the narrator’s pain keener, and the setting reflects that pain. It’s also one of the three longest pieces in the book. What compelled you to revise your flash?
April, you’ve answered your own question with “it’s sharper, keener!” The stories in this collection were written over seven years, and I felt compelled to make sure I looked critically at my work and made it the best I could, to see where I could deepen and clarify.
We grow in our craft and revisiting old work with fresh eyes not only shows us what we’ve learned, but also reminds us that we must continue to learn. The revision of “Monsoon” made it better. At least that’s my hope.
Although I like both versions of “Monsoon,” I agree with you, Gay, that the one in Rattle of Want is better. It’s an example of how revision can strengthen a fine story and transform it into an extraordinary, breathtaking one.
As with your novel, What Came Before, your novella is a domestic drama with elements of mystery and suspense. Also, many of your stories contain an element of the unexpected reveal. I wouldn’t call you a mystery or suspense writer per se, nor would I say that you are genre-jumping, yet you like to dip into fictive forms (“Doing Mr. Velvet” and “Kindling” are two stories I’m thinking about in particular). I appreciate these features in your writing. What is it about mystery and suspense that attracts you and how did you go about incorporating these elements into your characters and stories?
I look for certain elements as a reader: surprise, pacing, suspense, deep character, stakes, some kind of universal theme so when I write, I try to make my stories into something I would like to read.
I like writers who take care of the language in their work, who make reading a pleasure while still bringing genuine emotion to the characters. I want a story to reveal something about human nature, how we are with each other, both the good and the bad. And I like surprise. I like to think, “Wow, I didn’t know that” or “I wasn’t expecting that but of course, it had to happen that way!”
I used to consider this aspect of my writing, the “not-fitting-neatly” into a category, was a negative, but I try not to worry about it anymore.
Gay, your stories are highly crafted, fluid, and so beautifully rendered that it’s easy to get caught up in them. Part of this is that there’s a great deal of emphasis placed on embodiment, both with characters and with the character’s connection to the setting. Along with the other elements I mentioned, this is a lot to pull off in a piece of flash, some of which are micro. Do you have any advice to offer writers on this aspect of craft and flash?
I love the comedies of the 80s and 90s so my goal at one time was to write something Bill Murray might want to be in. I wrote six screenplays and it was working on these that I learned the discipline of choosing specific language. Screenplays can, of course be any length, but the sweet spot seemed to be 120 typed pages. My goal was to work toward placing the action where conventional wisdom dictated it should be: three acts, act one and three around thirty pages each and the middle, second act, longer at sixty.
Even though there is much distain that paying attention to page-count is too formulaic, I found it helped me to understand structure. The side benefit was that it forced me to pay attention to every word, to make certain that the brief narrative accompanying the dialogue would create a mood, an attitude, and a sense of place, and ignite interest in the screenplay.
I didn’t know this about you and your writing, Gay, and I adore Bill Murray. To think, he was your “audience”—what a great idea!
It’s rare to see illustrations in books anymore. Can you tell me about the one that prefaces “The Old Road?” Are you the illustrator as well?
The illustration came first out of a practical need. When Matt Potter said we had to have one more thing to end the book on the correct number of pages, I realized this would be an opportunity to help the reader understand the neighborhood of “The Old Road.”
I’d had feedback that these bungalows located on the edge of town across from an arroyo were hard to picture. While I worked on clearer language in the text, I didn’t want the reader to be confused for even a second. The other thing I realized is that it would act as a kind of cover to the novella, so I jumped at the opportunity to “map it” on that necessary extra page.
It’s worked out perfectly, Gay. Thank you so much for contributing your time to an interview with us and working on the Women Who Flash Their Lit forum. We are delighted to have here at Bartleby Snopes.
LIsten to Gay on
Also enjoy this interview between Kathy Fish and Gay Degani where they discuss the importance of community in Gay’s work.
Gay Degani has had three of her flash pieces nominated for Pushcart consideration and won the 11th Glass Woman Prize. Pure Slush Books released her collection of stories, Rattle of Want, (November 2015). She has a suspense novel, What Came Before, published in 2014, and a short collection, Pomegranate, featuring eight stories around the theme of mothers and daughters. Founder and editor emeritus of Flash Fiction Chronicles, she is an editor at Smokelong Quarterly and blogs at Words in Place where a