Andrew Scott: I never want to get too comfortable as a writer

Andrew Scott has been working for the good of the short story for a while now – as a writer, editor and founder of Andrew’s Book Club. So it’s fitting that his own collection, Naked Summer, has just been published by Press 53.

Andrew Scott

I’ve been a reader of Scott’s, in one way or another, for a few years now. I love the idea and spirit behind the book club, and I once won a free copy of Scott’s excellent story chapbook, Modern Love, by writing an overheated mock reviewer’s blurb for it. His work has appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American Review and other publications. He co-edits the online journal Freight Stories, teaches at Ball State University and lives in Indianapolis.

Scott graciously agreed to answer these questions by e-mail.

Your new collection, Naked Summer, was just published by Press 53. Can you describe the book and stories just a bit?

Naked Summer is a collection of nine stories, all of them set in and around Tippecanoe County in Indiana, where my hometown, Lafayette, is the county seat. The shortest story is the opener, which was written on a cocktail napkin for Esquire. The longest is the closer, which is nearly a novella. In between are stories of various sizes. One of the nicest things someone has said about them—the other night, at a reading—was that they’re the kind of stories you want to read twice. That’s something I’ve always tried to do, based on advice from Lee K. Abbott.

Would you tell the story of one of your stories? How it began and made its way to its final state?

I worked on many of these stories for 10 years, off and on, so they all have long histories, and all of them taught me something about writing fiction, or about myself as a writer. One of the stories, “Uniform,” began on a winter break trip home to Lafayette during graduate school, which was no easy journey, as I attended an MFA program in New Mexico. It was a 20-hour drive, so I planned to visit for a few weeks. I stopped in at the mall to buy some Christmas presents for friends and family. This was so long ago that the woman in front of me was paying with a check—I haven’t seen someone do that for years—and the cashier kept her waiting for some reason, her checkbook open for several minutes, long enough that I saw her name on the check. I gave her name to the neighbor I created, who ends up sleeping with the teenage boy who lives across the street. It’s from his point of view, and I’d been kicking around a few ideas that found their way into the story. That’s how stories initially fall together for me.

There were many news stories about older women, especially teachers, sleeping with younger males—boys, really—and being arrested for their behavior. A lot of men joked about it, as if there could never be anything wrong in those scenarios, that it was every boy’s dream to shag a teacher or the woman across the street. So I was interested in playing with those ideas.

A famous visiting writer read my story and said, “I wouldn’t sleep with him.” I fumed for weeks. Years, really. Writers deal with rejection every day. But to say my protagonist is unfuckable? How dare you, Oprah’s Book Club author! After all these years, I need to say that my character would not sleep with her, either.

The story was published just a week or so before the book came out, in a journal I love called Booth, and superbly edited by Bryan Furuness, a friend and writer I admire, who made a few crucial suggestions that improved the story.

You’ve run Andrew’s Book Club in a couple different forms, as a way to promote work that you like and short stories generally. How did that project originate, and how has it developed?

In 2008, I moderated a great AWP panel on the American short story, and one of my panelists, Cathy Day—who now teaches at Ball State, as I do—urged the audience to find unique ways to support short stories. I was thinking of this many months later, on New Year’s Day, actually, and sort of threw the idea together and launched it online within a few hours. The first month’s response was incredible, with nearly 2,000 unique visitors to the website.

I stopped doing it for six months or so last year, and when I started up again, I wanted to also include novels, not just story collections. But I’ve only chosen one novel, and people seemed a little grumpy that I stepped away from story collections, even for a month. So I may not do that again. For the rest of 2011, I’d like to only select debut story collections, to help give a boost to writers early in their careers. And I’m now only choosing one book a month, even though that means I won’t get to support—in this way, at least—as many books and authors as I’d like.

You co-edit Freight Stories, an online fiction journal. Beyond the basic question of quality, do you think that a certain kind of story works better online—whether it’s a question of length or style or any other characteristic?

I like to argue with editors who suggest that readers only have the attention span online for short articles or short stories. Every day, somebody I trust shares on Facebook an interesting link to something I should read, and these articles and stories are often longer than 2,000 words. Reading longer work online might be easier, I imagine, with an iPad or any large tablet, though I don’t have one. I read long news stories on my phone, though, so I don’t understand this mindset that everything must be short.

I’m also happy to see that attitudes and stylistic expectations for online literature are changing. One of the goals we set out to accomplish with Freight Stories was to bring experienced authors to the Internet—writers who were perhaps intimidated by the prospect of their work appearing online, simply because it had never happened before, or who perhaps snubbed it, rightly, in its earliest forms. But now I think most writers and readers recognize that there are both strong and weak online journals, just as there are both strong and weak print journals.

For me, online journals provided readers for five of the stories in Naked Summer, plus a few other pieces, and helped me begin to build an audience for my work. And I’m excited about the long-delayed next issue of Freight Stories, which will be published this summer.

If I’m not mistaken, Freight Stories and the book club are labors of love for you – things that you do in addition to bills-paying work. How do you balance working, writing, editing and other work on behalf of literature – do you chip away a bit at each thing every day, or do big binges where you focus on one or the other thing?

You are mistaken. First of all, the literary journal racket is good money. I’m rolling in it. After every shower, I dry off with towels made of stitched-together Benjamins. This whole “labor of love” thing is just a cover to divert others who might be better at it, so I can keep more Bentleys (plural) in the garage.

The truth? Mostly I feel like a failure at all of the things I’m working on. Andrew’s Book Club is easy to do. But if there’s a month when the traffic falls of for some reason, or it’s clear that the selection just doesn’t resonate with readers, I feel like a big loser. That’s one problem of putting my own name on the endeavor. And Freight Stories hasn’t had a new issue in a year, which I regret deeply. We’ve been reading submissions the whole time, and our falling behind is somewhat understandable—I was finishing up Naked Summer for publication, and my co-editor, Victoria Barrett, started a great new press called Engine Books—but there are days when I regret how one effort suffers while another prospers. Right now, I’m pretty happy as a writer: my first book is finally out. A few years ago, I was not happy with what was happening for me as a writer, but the editing work buoyed me. I’m always more confident as an editor. And I never want to get too comfortable as a writer, either.

How does being an editor affect you as a writer? In what ways do you think you see your own work more clearly or less clearly than you see the work of others?

I’ve been both an editor and a writer since 1999, so it’s integral to who I am as a creative person. They’re different roles, sure, and if I had to choose, I’d choose to only be a writer. But I don’t have to choose, thankfully.

I’m able to see the work of others much more clearly than my own, and more quickly—that’s one of the satisfactions I get from this work, the feeling of competence, even excellence, as an editor. I rarely feel that as a writer, and when I do, I’m usually wrong.

Here’s an example: I asked Victoria Barrett—the co-editor I mentioned, but also my wife, who’s a gifted sentence-maker—to give my collection a hard line edit. It had been six or seven years since she’d last seen the collection as a whole. I kept reworking the stories, the sentences, and she was impressed by the improvements. But the last section of the final story in Naked Summer—the title story, actually—began, in the draft I gave her, with a sentence that used the same word three times, and not in any kind of deliberate, designed pattern. Such sloppiness, after having just gone over the pages again the week before asking for her help. Everybody needs an editor.

What stories have been most important to you as a writer – which ones made you say to yourself: I want to do that?

I’m ashamed of my first reaction to many of the stories I now think of as favorites. I remember walking into a creative writing class in college and wondering aloud what the hell was up with all of those lists in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” and bitching that  James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” was too damn long, and that Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog” was—here it comes—boring. And those are only three of the many stories I now think are perfect and will gladly re-read every few years until I die.

I read Richard Ford’s Rock Springs a dozen times. I loved Raymond Carver’s stories, with a preference for his post-Lish work, such as “Errand” and “Call If You Need Me.” Andre Dubus. Jhumpa Lahiri. Junot Diaz. William Trevor. Alice Munro. Paul Yoon. I feel like I’m just naming the obvious story writers everyone should read. I love Colum McCann’s stories and wish he’d publish another book of them.

I wish I could write a story as good as Mona Simpson’s “Lawns,” Jean Thompson’s “All Shall Love Me and Despair,” or Michael Cunningham’s “Mister Brother” or “White Angel,” for instance. Or, to name a few I’ve read recently, Alan Heathcock’s “The Staying Freight,” Barb Johnson’s “Killer Heart,” and Jonathan Lethem’s “Super Goat Man.” I love all of the stories in Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, plus his story “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot” from Tabloid Dreams.

Now that I’m also working on a linked collection, I’m going back to books from 15-20 years ago that deserve even wider audiences, like Debra Monroe’s A Wild, Cold State and Tom Chiarella’s Foley’s Luck, which were published as linked collections before we knew what to do with them as readers, really.

There’s no shortage of good, or even great, short stories in the world today, especially since I always dig around for writers whose work I should have read by now, such as Mavis Gallant or Mary Lavin. There will always be another great book to pull from the shelf.

——————

To read past interviews in this series, go here.

Follow me on Twitter, if you’re into that, at @vestal13.

 

6 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I was lucky enough to have my book of stories, Drift and Swerve, picked for Andrew’s Book Club, and I remember thinking how cool it was that this guy, who I didn’t know, was promoting this huge variety of short fiction, including mine. So I’m really glad to see Naked Summer and Andrew Scott featured on Bark. As is the case with so many of the interview subjects in this series, he just feels like one of the good guys, someone who’s doing all kinds of cool work to promote community and bring readers and writers together. I’ve also heard great things about Naked Summer. And it’s kind of weird how many good writers are at Ball State — Andrew Scott, Jill Christman, Sean Lovelace.

    • Christopher says:

      You just wait. Ball State is going to take over the world. You forgot about Mark Neely (poet), Peter Davis (poet), and Cathy Day (like she needs a parenthetical introduction).

      I never thought I’d really be proud of my alma (I’ve never really been one for school pride), but I have to admit, there are amazing things coming out of BSU right now. Not only at the faculty level, but I look at the Chick Litz bloggers making their mark, and Tyler Gobble and Layne Ransom doing some amazing work starting their journal Stoked, and Tyler’s work at The Collagist and all his help and enthusiasm helping me with Vouched, and ol’ Sam Edmonds who you guys know so well for his words and excitement for life and writing, and Kyle Winkler coming out with some amazing work getting published, and the vibrant student writing community. It’s amazing how much that program has grown in just the few years it’s been around. I’m really glad and proud to have been there at the ground level, and continue to be as I watch it grow.

  • Shira Richman says:

    This interview is very inspiring and funny. This short paragraph made me laugh out loud–more than once:

    “A famous visiting writer read my story and said, “I wouldn’t sleep with him.” I fumed for weeks. Years, really. Writers deal with rejection every day. But to say my protagonist is unfuckable? How dare you, Oprah’s Book Club author! After all these years, I need to say that my character would not sleep with her, either.”

    Also, I’m writing a story right now about a woman who has relations with a teenage boy and am curious how people respond to this sort of behavior. I’ll have to check out how Andrew Scott explores this in his stories. Thanks, Shawn, for showing the way to all the coolest work happening right before our very eyes.

  • Christopher says:

    Great interview, Shawn and Andrew.

    Thanks for reminding me about “White Angel!” That story has been popping up in my head for months now, and couldn’t remember the name of it, and when I just read it here, I got all excited and might have even said, “Fuck yeah! Thank you, Andrew!” to my computer screen.

    I’m going to read that tonight when I get home.

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