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.