Bartleby Snopes has been lucky enough to publish a few of Gary V. Powell’s short stories in the past. This fantastic and prolific writer has an excellent new short story collection titled Beyond Redemption. We recently had a chance to sit down and talk with Gary about his work. Here’s what he had to say.
BS: The title of a short story collection often draws from a particular story or reflects a particular theme. Tell us, why “Beyond Redemption”?
GVP: A flash piece that appears in the collection by that title originally appeared at Prime Number Magazine. In the story, the narrator’s uncle, an evangelical preacher, endeavors to save the narrator’s family from sin. The irony is that the self-righteous uncle has no clue as to the family’s real troubles—the father’s a closet alcoholic, the mother’s seeing another man, and the teenage son is engaged in that sin of all sins, premarital sex with a neighbor girl. The further irony is that although the mother, father, and son attend the uncle’s tent revivals with apparent enthusiasm, they have no intention of repenting of their secretive lives and “sinful” ways.
Like many of the characters in my stories and flash, these characters have found personal redemption in a place that is beyond the redemption offered by the preacher, yet their compromises and choices allow them to survive this difficult condition we call daily life. That, I suppose, is the final irony.
BS: You open the collection with a story about hunting and lawyers. I know you used to be a lawyer. From the story, I’m guessing you aren’t a big hunter. (But I’m not a hunter, so what do I know?) How does personal experience play into your stories in general?
GVP: Nearly all of my stories originate from memory—an event, a scrap of conversation, a character, or a place. Yet, none of my stories are what I would call autobiographical. I use personal experience as a launching pad, but nearly always move past the memory in order to satisfy the demands of the story, For example, the story you mention, “Miller’s Deer,” has its origins in my experience as a young lawyer. For a couple of years, I worked in a firm where each year the senior named partner invited a select number of associates and clients to his north woods cabin for a raucous weekend of drinking and deer hunting. Much like in the story, one’s chances of “making partner” depended as much on garnering an invitation to that event as on one’s legal skills. But the need to create tension, action, and eventually resolution, or something like it, caused me to abandon my pedestrian personal experience in favor of a more dramatic and satisfying story line.
While real life, if thoughtfully observed, is a good starting point, it’s only that. What matters is creating an entertaining story by placing characters in challenging situations while using well-constructed sentences and engaging language. If, in the end, some truth about the human condition emerges, that’s an added benefit.
GVP: When I set out to assemble Beyond Redemption, I quickly realized I had enough previously-published content for two full collections. I decided to assign my earlier content to this collection and more recent work to the other collection, which I’m shopping around and subbing to contests.
I think the first story in a collection should be one of the strongest, but it should also be accessible, and should tip off readers as to what’s to follow. My story, “Miller’s Deer,” which was runner-up for the 2008 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and was originally published in the Thomas Wolfe Review, met those requirements. It’s not only a pretty good story, but just as importantly (at least to me), it’s a story that most readers can relate to—bottom-line, it’s about a young person in an untenable work situation forced to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life. Also, the story sets a tone for the balance of the collection—like “Miller’s Deer,”most of the stories in the collection are realistic, gritty, and traditional with a beginning, middle, and end.
I interspersed flash pieces among the longer stories also with the reader in mind—the flash pieces represent a “breather” between the longer stories. And, while the stories as a whole are, as you say, thematically diverse, the pattern of long and short is consistent throughout.
As the reader progresses through the collection, the stories and flash become somewhat more demanding. For example my story “On Horicon Marsh,” takes two families on a day trip in a mini-van to an inhospitable place. There’s alot of dialogue going on at once. The story is not an easy read, but overall I think it’s one of my better stories. Hopefully, by the time readers reach this story, I will have earned their trust.
The story ends with a flash piece entitled “Dancers: 1969.” It’s an affirming piece, and over all, while many of these stories have dark aspects to them, I consider the collection to be affirming. I want the reader to finish reading the collection feeling good about the effort and wanting more.
BS: Were there any stories you wanted to include that just didn’t make the cut for one reason or another?
GVP: The greater challenge was choosing whether to assign stories to this collection or the other collection. Once, I decided to collect mostly earlier stories in Beyond Redemption and assign more recent stories in the other collection, things pretty much fell into place.
BS: In “Snow Day,” an adolescent boy has a thing for his friend’s mom. Did you ever have the hots for a friend’s mom? How did that play out for you?
GVP: Oh, boy, that’s a dangerous question. I did have it bad for one of my friend’s hot mom. But like the character in my story, I kept that little secret close to my heart. The thing is, I wasn’t the only one who thought Mrs._____ was hot. I mean, she was blonde and pretty and had a good figure—especially for a mom, right? All my buddies said that. Moreover, she was friendly to me, friendlier than she had to be. She no doubt screamed at her own kids when I wasn’t around, like all the other moms, but she was always asking how school was going, how sports were going, how things were going with my girlfriend, assuming I had one.
Maybe, because her husband was never around, I thought I had a chance. Maybe, because I wanted to take her friendliness for flirtation, I thought I had a chance. Maybe, because I was always horny at that age—that’s no secret is it—I let my fantasies run wild. The interesting thing is, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Like the mom in my story “Snow Day,” Mrs.______ probably was a little lonely. Like the mom in my story “Snow Day,” Mrs.________ might have been flirting, you know, just a little. Or, maybe I want to believe that, even after all these years.
BS: Your stories often end right at the point of tension or realization. What do you think makes a good ending?
GVP: Endings are really tough. More often than not, after I’ve written a story and think that I’ve ended well, the ending can be improved by lopping off a couple of sentences.
In general, I tend to subscribe to the David Mamet school of thought—arrive late and leave early. For writers, it’s hard to resist the temptation to explicate, to patter on, but stopping writing at the moment of realization or release of tension is important because encourages readers to think about what the story means. As writers, it’s our job to ask questions, not provide pat answers.
A few years ago, I attended a workshop run by Narrative Magazine editor, Tom Jenks. In workshop, Tom eviscerated a story I’d submitted, using my story as an example of how not to end well. In a nutshell, the story ended with my protagonist running out of options and basically throwing in the towel. Tom used the story to teach the class that the best endings are those that open up instead of wrap up. The best endings are those that suggest movement forward, however subtle, through action, or more powerfully, through images that readers can’t get out of their minds.
It didn’t feel very good to have my story butchered like a fresh carcass in workshop. I try to remember what that felt like with every story I write. I try to make the endings open up and I try to challenge my readers. That doesn’t mean making readers write the ending, but it does mean making readers think.
Who among us has read James Joyce’s “The Dead,” and not marveled at the incredible imagery and language of the story’s ending. Who among has not been made to think about what it all means, the snow falling, falling. We may not achieve that level of success with our endings, but we should strive for it.
BS: You’ve had many stories published in lit mags. What do you see as the value in lit mags for an author today?
GVP: I was advised early on that if I took myself seriously as a writer, I should read the “little magazines,” and try to publish in them. That was a long time ago, when those little magazines were exclusively published in print and mostly by graduate programs at a few universities, when all submissions were by snail mail with SASE, when editors threatened against simultaneous submissions with death or worse, and when it took six months to a year to receive an often hand-written rejection.
I subscribed to the Missouri Review, the Mississippi Review, and the Indiana Review, as well as The Atlantic and New Yorker. Then, as now, the work I found in these magazines was, for the most part, much more interesting than the work that made the best-seller lists. I cut my teeth on Ray Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Charles Baxter, and Ann Beatty, among others.
Following a hiatus in my fiction writing, a time during which I raised a family and ran a business, I started writing again and discovered a brave new world of lit mags online. Hundreds, if not thousands, of internet venues welcomed submissions and responded quickly, sometimes within hours. Simultaneous submissions were welcome, so long as….(we all know the drill).
One thing hadn’t changed—lit mags, whether in print or online, whether independent or affiliated with a university program, were not driven by a profit motive. This allowed them to offer beginning and emerging authors an opportunity to reach an audience appreciative of intelligent, experimental, and gutsy writing.
That was, is, and will continue to be the value of lit mags for authors.
BS: You’ve done very well in several major writing contests (Glover Prize, The Press 53 Prize, Glimmer Train Short-Short Contest, Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize). What’s your secret?
GVP: When I started writing again, about twelve years ago, I realized that I was at a disadvantage. First, I was old—over 50. Second, I lacked a MFA—seriously, who would take me seriously. Third, I lacked confidence in my writing—it had been twenty years since I’d published a short story. Finally, I lacked connections—I no longer knew anyone in the literary world. So, I decided the best way to overcome those disadvantages was to win a notable contest or two or three.
I submitted to, and continue to submit to, quite a few contests. I’ve had modest success, winning one contest, and placing in or being chosen in a finalist in several more. That success gave me confidence and provided me with some credits that took the place of an MFA in my bio. It also provided recognition, credibility, and connections. Who among us doesn’t want that?
I don’t have a secret formula, but I will say this. First, comply with guidelines—you’d be surprised at how many others don’t. Second, submit your best work, because only your best has a chance. Third, read what the final judge has written—if she writes mostly surrealistic stories in an urban setting, it’s unlikely she’ll select my realistic story set in the rural heartland as a winner. Fourth, consider who the contest is dedicated to. For example, I’m guessing that The Raymond Carver Fiction Prize is more likely to go to a writer whose work celebrates the virtues present in Ray’s work—clean prose and beaten-down characters—than it is to a writer whose work more closely resembles something Gabriel Garcia Marquez might write. Finally, check and re-check spelling and punctuation—we all know why.
BS: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us. What’s next for Gary V. Powell?
While working as a lawyer and business owner, I learned to juggle a lot of different projects at the same time, so it should be no surprise that I have a lot on my plate. When I’m not wrangling my fourteen year-old son, I devote full-time to my writing.
I recently completed my second novel and am shopping it for representation I consider it a literary work with cross-over commercial potential. For anyone wondering, my second novel is not a sequel to my first novel, Lucky Bastard. The second novel is set in a different time and place with a whole new set of characters.
I’m also shopping and subbing the second short story collection that I mentioned earlier.
I’m currently serving as guest editor for MadHat Lit’s annual fiction contest, and that means reading a lot of submissions.
Also, I’ve got new work in progress. I’m taking a break from short stories and flash this year to work on a third novel as well as a novella. I’m about 2,000 words into each.
Finally, if anyone is interested, autographed copies of both Beyond Redemption and Lucky Bastard are available by order through my website at www.authorgaryvpowell.com.