Today, I’m talking about short stories with another friend from VCFA, the awe-inspiring Val Howlett, whose story, “The Arf Thing,” has been published here at Lunch Ticket. Val’s story also won a coveted scholarship at VCFA in 2011! So go on. Read it, then return here!
El Space: Congratulations, Val! Please tell the readers about yourself.
Val: I have lived in five different states in my adult life; I studied fairy tales in college; I’m very close to my three younger siblings; and my girlfriend is also a writer.
El Space: How about a brief synopsis for those who haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing”?
Val: “The Arf Thing” is about the “bullying” of a boy named Adam Mavis, told through the perspectives of seven people at Adam’s school.
El Space: What inspired you to write it?
Val: I wrote the story in late 2010/early 2011, when a string of “gay” teen suicides started a conversation about bullying in the media. I put “gay” in quotes because in some cases, we don’t know if the victims were gay; it was more that much of the harassment they experienced were attacks on their sexual orientations.
I remember being frustrated by the simplicity of the media rhetoric following those tragedies. There was a lot talk of our nation’s “bullying problem” and our schools’ tolerance policies for bullying. Not that teachers shouldn’t be held accountable for prohibiting harassment in their classrooms—they absolutely should.
But I think harassment is more complicated than that. Particularly in this case, when the very media that discusses our country’s “bullying problem” is at the same time perpetuating the cultural assumption that homosexuality is shameful and attack-worthy by portraying gay and trans people as caricatures or not portraying them at all.
I should probably stop and get to your other questions. Clearly, I could go on about this for a while. But all that stuff was bubbling up in my brain as I wrote “The Arf Thing.”
El Space: Understandable. What’s challenging or exhilarating about short story writing?
Val: The room for experimentation is exhilarating. A lot of narrative techniques that could grow tedious over the course of a novel are exciting and interesting in a short story.
What’s challenging is there’s no room for excess—you want every element of your story to serve the effect you’re trying to create at the end. I’m long-winded, so my short story process is to write a lot, and then cut, cut, cut.
El Space: Which authors get you pumped up?
Val: Francesca Lia Block and Kelly Link. Also Laini Taylor’s story “Goblin Fruit” in Lips Touch: Three Times. All three are young adult writers whose stories are full of juicy prose and strange otherworldly tones. And they all deliver those punch-in-the-gut, tears-in-your-eyes endings that great short stories are famous for.
El Space: In an article in Publishers Weekly entitled “The State of the Short Story,” Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, stated:
[W]hy do so many readers and critics today seem to divide their time between novels and essays—those first cousins of the short story—and leave short fiction alone?
What can be done to draw more attention to the short story?
Val: It’s no secret that a very small percentage of our population reads short fiction. I am fully aware every time I am working on a short story that I am shrinking my potential audience. It makes me a little sad!
I’m going to gear your question to YA short fiction in particular, because that’s the kind of story I have experience writing and trying to submit.
One problem with YA short story visibility is there are barely any journals that publish specifically YA content. I can only think of six journals off the top of my head. And you have to wonder how many actual teenagers read those publications.
So there need to be more publications that feature YA short fiction. Also, more attention should be given to those publications by educators and librarians—possibly in the form of yearly short story awards, like the awards offered in the scifi/fantasy community.
El Space: Great ideas! Stein also stated: “You can’t relax and lose yourself in a short story. Short stories bring you up short. They demand a wakeful attention.” Would you agree or disagree?
Val: I think Stein does a pretty good job of discussing that elusive, nebulous concept that short story writers and critics have been trying to explain since Edgar Allan Poe: that the experience of reading a short story feels different than reading a novel.
While I definitely have “lost myself” in short stories—forgotten everything around me, became immersed in the story’s world, all that good stuff—I like the idea of “bringing you up short” as a way to describe that jolt you feel at the end of a good short story, the way it leaves you thinking about the whole piece for an hour or for days.
El Space: What’s the best writing advice you’ve received recently?
Val: I keep returning to the advice my VCFA advisor, A. M. Jenkins, gave me last year, which was to not compare yourself to other writers because it’s a waste of your finite writing time.
As a slow writer, it can be tempting to watch my grad school colleagues submit their novels and see it as a sign of weakness that I’m not doing that yet.
But then I admonish myself in a Jenkins-esque way, saying—probably out loud because let’s be honest—“You could use the time you’re spending thinking you’re not good enough to actually write something! And you should be writing, because you’re slow!” Seriously though, everyone’s process is different. It’s good to remember to accept your process and give it hugs every once in awhile.
El Space: Any advice for those who want to tackle the short story?
Val: Don’t assume that just because it’s a short story, it’ll take a shorter amount of time to write. It took me four full months to write a draft of my most recent story. And that draft was a radical revision of a story I wrote four years ago.
El Space: What do you plan to tackle next?
Val: My goal for the summer is to finally pump out a full draft of the novel I’ve been working on forever, called Underdog.
Thanks, Val, for being an awesome guest!
If you haven’t yet read “The Arf Thing,” don’t miss out! Click here. Questions for Val? Please comment below.
Book cover from Goodreads.com. Poster from zazzle.com. Poe photo from Wikipedia. Book hug from cathryno.global2.vic.edu.
Will check out The Arf Thing, sounds like my kind of story. I love short stories – Ray Bradbury’s shorts are incredible. This blog made me wonder if there wasn’t a discussion to be had about creating an App to deliver short stories to the intended audience?
I grew up reading Ray Bradbury stories, Highlights, and any book of short stories I could find at the library. But whenever I sit down to write a short story, I wind up with twenty to forty pages! I’m um not great at the short story form.
I have to try Bradburry’s shorts!!
You won’t regret it!
Hey there! Devices like smartphones are my big hope for short stories. I think they’ll eventually make make short stories more relevant, but it’ll take some time.
I used to work at a publishing house, and occasionally we were able to release short stories or novellas by an author as an e-reader edition only. Whereas we wouldn’t have been able to publish those at all 15 years ago.
Great interview!! I love what Val said about being frustrated about the “simplicity of the media rhetoric” following tragic, high-profile bullying incidents. As a teacher, I’m also sometimes frustrated by the simplicity and out-of-touch nature of some anti-bullying resources. I had 7th grade students read “The Arf Thing,” and I think a big part of the reason they enjoyed it was that it isn’t too clear-cut or simple in its depictions of characters (and that Val manages to weave in humor, even when her subject matter is heavy). I also really like Val’s ideas about how there should be more publications for YA short stories and more attention given to them. Relatable, thought-provoking short stories are so effective to teach, and I wish it were easier to find great new stories like Val’s!
I’m glad to know that middle grade students are reading Val’s story, Laurie! And I sympathize. It can’t be easy for caring teachers who watch kids being bullied and who try to work through the system to get help for them.
Laurie, thank you so much! I was thrilled when you wanted to show the story to your class. It was so interesting to hear how actual middle schoolers reacted to it and compare that to the adults in my workshop group.
I agree that short stories are really good to teach because they can be taught within a class period or two. And why should we privilege essays over short stories in discussing topics like bullying?
Just read “The Arf Thing”. Absolutely brilliant. Having experienced bullying a lot, when I was at school, but more recently through my children, this felt very real. Telling it from all the different POV’s works perfectly. It works as a story device, but also because bullying is a group thing, a virus hat infects our society, spread by inaction and cowardice.
Adam reminded me of a boy with Aspergers that I knew, who killed himself. What I found so galling was that many of the Facebook tributes that followed were from the same people who helped exclude this kid because of his difference. That was his big crime. He was not like them.
Anyway, before I go into one… I’ve had a quick think about this short story deficit… and think that one way we* could address this is by creating an app for smartphones where stories like yours could be delivered to YA audience. I have an idea – Short stories read by the stars. We select the best short stories out there, get a star to read the first chapter, to encourage the kids to download the story to their device.
I’m so glad you read Val’s story! I agree–it is brilliant. Val will stop by the blog at some point to address comments. But good idea about the story app.
I’ve been bullied also, so I’m sorry you experienced the same. And I’m sorry to hear about the young man who killed himself. This is a sad story that has been played out many times unfortunately. 😦
Thanks for stopping by.
So glad you liked the story! It came into my head with multiple POV’s. I don’t think I could have told it any other way.
And I think your short stories read by the stars idea is great!
I’ll look into it. I make mobile games as well as write, so it’s only a hop, skip and a jump…
L. Marie — great interview! LOVED the hug a book poster and especially the key 😉
Val – thanks for answering L. Marie’s questions with such thought and honesty. “The Arf Thing” was fantastic and what impressed me most was your restraint. The story held an authenticity and an emotional impact that would have been thwarted had your adult judgement crept into the character’s voices. Brava! Can’t wait to read your next work.
Restraint–that’s a great thought, Laura. One aspect of what makes the story so brilliant.
Thank you! *blush*
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Val, you already know I love the Arf Thing, gonna say it again nonetheless. Thrilled to see we both love Laini Taylor’s Goblin Fruit. That short story compilation is still one of my all time favorites. I think we’ll see a big resurgence of the short story, in the same way it was popular in magazines in the turn of the century, it will resurface as a genre well suited for ereaders.
Thanks, Linda – for another thoughtful interview.
And thank you, Nicole!!! You guys are the best!
Thanks Nicole! One day, you and I totally needs to discuss “Hatchling” from Lips Touch, Three Times and Daughter of Smoke and Bone. They share a very interesting plotline!
Wonderful story and wonderful interview! Thank you both! I love all the different voices in the story and how authentic they all are.
I’m so glad you read Val’s story. Thanks for stopping by!
Thanks so much!
About more publications for YA short stories-what would come first for this to happen do you think? The publication or the demand for a publication? The old chicken and egg thing!
There was a time when I never read short stories (hangs head in shame) , I guess I thought they wouldn’t engage me as much as full length novels. But I was guilty of doing what I always tell my children not to do-
” Never pass judgement on anything without looking into it first, be it musical genres or subjects, etc. Because if you do you are speaking in ignorance. And you may just discover something that you learn to love.”
Now I do love short stories, (I am fully engaged!) and I loved The Arf Thing too
Glad you enjoyed it, Andy. And you raised some interesting questions. I think with the advent of the iPad and other devices, short stories are ideal. Perhaps the phone app that beatthemtodeathwiththeirownshoes mentioned will be the catalyst. There are also sites like Figment.com that promote short story writing. And many people write flash fiction. Bloggers like those participating in WIPpet Wednesday regularly post short fiction on their blogs.
Thanks for reminding us that everyone writes at a different pace. 🙂
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Yay, Val! I just read this story and loved it! I really appreciated the nuance and complexity that came from the multiple perspectives. I can also sympathize with being a slow writer. I still haven’t finished a full draft of any novel I’ve attempted. But we’ll get there eventually… *crosses fingers*
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