In today’s jmwwblog, jmww flash editor Dave Erlewine talks to Laura Ellen Scott about the Deadwood in their lives, MFA programs and teaching, Scott’s most excellent vsf (very short fiction) online project, and her recently completed novel, SOCIAL AID & PLEASURE. For full reading pleasure, you may want to start here:
Dave Erlewine: Hello, friendo. Not to wear my anger on my flabby arm, but you have taken me to task for “overusing” (debatable) the term “kudos” when expressing heartfelt congratulations to fellow writers on their successes. I have to say I can’t say the word “kudos” (or eat the three “health” bars I have around from the 90’s) without thinking of you. So, exactly what do you have against the word “kudos” or people who use it a tad too often?
Laura Ellen Scott: Re Kudos and Kudos distributors: I don’t know what kudos are and can’t be bothered to look them up. So my default response to kudos is fear, and like any real American I lash out when I’m afraid.
DE: Okay, that’s cool. I always lash out as well when I’m nervous. So, I’m sitting here with my wife, scrolling through shitty movies on STARZ!, thinking I have to stay up tonight to write and feeling silly for feeling this way. Do you ever get this feeling, like I “have” to write? If so, do you ever feel weird getting that feeling, like what is my deal?
LES: Oh Montana, what a layered, dangerous question.(I’m pretending you are Bullock and I’m Wild Bill, seeing as I’m only here a brief fuckin’ spell. [I got the Deadwood box set for my birthday]) I do get this feeling, and when it comes I go write. There’s no controversy. My life is a monoculture—I married a writer who teaches writing. I am a writer who teaches writing. That said, we prioritize pleasure above all—something we learned and relearn from time spent in Louisiana. When it’s TV time, I’m there, 100%. Except for Bones. There have been a couple of occasions when I miss the opening scenes of Bones because I was trying to finish an image or answer a question from a student.
DE: Deadwood is one of my favorite shows. Given my love of cursing, I’ve been called Swearengen once or twice. I should say, I am having a hard time seeing a Deadwood fan also loving Bones. Of course, I only watched Bones once, or part of one episode and I didn’t care for the chatter b/w the characters. But I’m straying. Deadwood box set sounds like the coolest b-day present ever. While I liked Swearengen, Wild Bill, and Bullock, I identified the most with George Hearst and Sol Star. Weird, I know, since the characters couldn’t have been any more different. Okay, so it’s established when you get the feeling to write you go do it. But what about when you go weeks w/o the feeling, how do you make yourself write? Do you free write? Do you start with a random sentence and go from there?
LES: Um, I read? That’s actually my problem. I don’t get writer’s block. I get reader’s block. It takes me forever to commit to a book selection, and then as soon as I start reading I get my own ideas and abandon the book. I’ve read everything, but only a quarter of the way through.
Not to turn aggressive here, but does it seem like I free write or start with a random line? Huh, punk? Nah, I don’t like prompts. I have to be more committed in my approach, seeing as we’re all going to die soon.
DE: Damn, you are ruthless. Occasionally I do prompts and sometimes good things happen (relatively speaking). A lot of times if I just sit down to write…I will end up writing a story about a father who stutters or one who fears for his child’s life and then well you know I feel like I’m aping my earlier stories. I agree about us dying soon but occasionally I get out of my head a bit using prompts. Let’s move on to something less likely to get me smacked around. You and I met at that DC conference last year. Now I see you’re participating in the Dzanc national workshop on March 20. How do you hear about these things? Do they come to you as a writer or professor or both? In other words, does being a professor at GMU lead to as many connections (or more?) as being a writer with a big online presence (yes, you are one).
LES: That’s the Barrelhouse connection; I’d placed a story in their “Futures” issue. Dave Housley asked me to participate in both events, I assume because I’m local, mouthy, and have an academic affiliation. I’m deeply honored that he trusts me with the paying customers.
Conversations and Connections was FUN, by the way. Hope you didn’t get my cold. Let’s remind everyone of that panel: you, me, Joseph freaking Young, and moderator Molly freaking Gaudry. Damn. Our room was packed and there were people sitting on the floor. Erin Fitzgerald was in the audience, thank goodness. After, she and I went to some of the other panels together and made fun of the squares. Hope she didn’t get my cold.
DE: You graduated from the George Mason University MFA program, right? do you recommend it? I’m thinking that when my kids are older and aren’t speaking to me, I can spend some nights after work getting it. should I? yes, I’m asking you to determine my future, I guess.
LES: So did Scott Garson and Tara Laskowski. Is the proof in the pudding? Probably not—MFA programs don’t “do things” for you other than give you permission to be an artistic shambles in a safe space. This is mostly a good thing. I can’t speak for Tara, but Scott and I were in the same classes, and I promise you we are not doing today what we were taught to do 17 years ago. So hell yes, you should do it. Especially since you’re a grown-up lawyer with a point of view and a life history. Plus I think it would be a riot if you let me be one of your thesis committee members.
DE: Scott and Tara are both wonderful writers. Both are slated to appear in the all-flash Spring issue of jmww. Ha, I’d love you to be on my thesis committee. I could see the phrase “abuse of power” coming up quite a bit, like you’d have me washing your cars or checking your SS collection for misplaced commas. I might bring this up with my wife, maybe when my daughter is fully potty-trained. How and when did you begin teaching at GMU?
LES: I’ve been Term faculty since 1993 when I completed my MFA. I’m not sure how I got in the door in the first place, seeing as I promoted my writing as “erotic feminist” and Mason’s fiction program is notoriously traditional. My position combines teaching and administration, and I kind of love it, even the parts that require math. I’ve never had any other full-time job.
DE: Last year a number of your students got published in places like Dogzplot and elimae. Did you work with them in class/after class on learning about places like duotrope or did they find such journals by themselves? I’m old school and when I was in college there were no online journals so any “subbing” advice was theoretical as my professor wasn’t telling us to submit to the New Yorker or Prairie Schooner, etc.
LES: I stopped being circumspect about student publishing last year, especially after one of my students placed a story in Robert Swartwood’s Hint Fiction anthology for Norton. Why should I to perpetuate humility?
All outside readings for my workshops are online accessible and free. I haven’t used the university bookstore in years, so we read 19th century public domain classics along with the StorySouth and Wigleaf ‘best of’ lists. Last semester I began the VIPs on vsf blog with craft notes by writers and editors like yourself sir, and this semester I’m using the Kim Chinquee edited issue of The Mississippi Review. (Kathy Fish’s “Rodney and Chelsea” and Peter Ramos’ “Smoke on the Water” were very well received.) My students see more literary galleries than we ever did, and publishing is a natural part of the discussion.
DE: “Rodney and Chelsea” is one of my favorite Kathy Fish stories. I also loved her piece in Wigleaf called “Swicks Rule!” So, on the subject of Wigleaf, talk about your Wigleaf story that recently went live. A number of writers I know LOVE it and I have to say I don’t fully “get” it. Can you talk to me like I’m one of your students or like the Josh Baskin character in “Big” saying “I don’t get it! I don’t get it!” (hmm, no intentional comparison of you to John Heard).
LES: Thank you for letting me do this! I love horror, but I find most horror narratives more annoying than thrilling. I actually don’t like the stories. Go figure. What I do like are the objects and settings of horror; I get more chills looking at animal portraits, metal sheds, all those bean tins in Death Valley, etc, than I do reading Poe and Straub, writers I dearly love. So I thought I’d like to use very short fiction to do for me what longer forms seem to do for everyone else. That’s the collection I’m working on now, a bunch of creepy vsfs. “Bog Redaction” pulls together several images in the form of a recovered, translated fragment of an authoritative text, part of which describes a natural history of ghosts. At least that’s the first column. The second column is modern, a researcher-educator’s notes on the fragment. I think notes are scary, too.
DE: Okay, I just read it again and I “get” it. It’s funny but I “liked” it during my initial first reading but also felt a bit confused. In the past I used to just blame myself and say “get smarter!” or “figure it out!” but I’m realizing sometimes it’s okay to ask questions like this and learn more … instead of moving on with a vague sense of being an idiot. Thanks for explaining it and best of luck on this collection. Sounds really exciting. One of my favorite stories is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” I still get creeped out picturing that ending.
On htmlgiant you mentioned having a story in Plougshares and how no one ever contacted you about it, unlike your recent online publications where you get much more feedback. A lot of writers responded (quite vocally) to your experience. I’ve heard Rusty Barnes speak similarly of his story in Post Road. To be honest, I haven’t mailed one sub out since I began writing again in late 08. Every sub of mine has been online, even to print journals. I keep thinking I will sub some things via regular mail but just haven’t yet. What % of your subs these days are electronic versus regular mail? I recently read “Big Bad Love” by Larry Brown and a number of his stories are about writers waiting for the mail to see their rejections/acceptances. The book is from ’94 I think. I remember in 02 when I wrote a lot, nearly every sub was through the mail. I spent a lot of time in the post office (never bought my own letter scale). I’m rambling. Help me here.
LES: I haven’t mailed anything out for probably two or more years now. My most recent print publications in Barrelhouse (issue 7) and Gravity Dancers: Even More Fiction by Washington-Area Women were emailed submissions. You are right that I stopped sending stuff out for many years after the Ploughshares publication because I felt that no one was reading my stuff. Later when I started publishing online I was a dabbler until I got an email from Dorothy Allison saying how much she liked “Rot,” from Identity Theory. She is a hero of mine, but I’d never met her. It came out of the blue. Huge, important moment for me, and from then on I was convinced.
DE: Oh yeah, “Rot” was a huge hit on Fictionaut. I remember reading it and thinking nasty and great…just the kind of story I love.
The second paragraph sucked me right in–“I am the most death-filled person I know, which makes me an ideal political operative. I can say no without looking back; saying yes makes me cramp up. My first wife said I had a rictus smile.” Vintage LES right there.
Switching gears a bit, can you talk a little about your vsf (very short fiction) online project? Lauren Becker got the Granta editor to weigh in and, while he was there, Joe Young called him out! It was a lot of fun. What prompted you to move the project from “protected” (only your GMU students could see it) to public?
LES: Yeah, the blog was one of those hormone-induced, hare-brained ideas that turned out brilliantly. I asked a bunch of editors and writers of vsf to dash off some notes about craft for my advanced undergraduates. I could not believe how generous everyone was! The special thrill for me was Kathy Fish’s and Joseph Young’s collaborations:
At first it was private because I thought it would be very limited in scope and appeal. I never expected to get more than five of six entries. Plus I was a little paranoid about duplicating the intent, if not the effort, of other sites and recent publications. But enthusiasm for the project was too strong to keep under wraps.
I don’t intend to add very much to what’s up there at the moment. The blog seems like the right size, covering a wide range of issues. In the last two months I’ve been posting vsf experiments by my former students. If anyone out there is interested in turning the blog into a print pub, I have ideas . . . .
DE: Wrapping up, would you talk a bit about your novel? Maybe share any experiences with agents. I seem to recall one agent contacting you after seeing an excerpt on Fictionaut.
LES: My query for SOCIAL AID & PLEASURE works, thanks to Steve Himmer. Starts off like this: —If you had one wish to change the world, what would it be? Now what if it had to be your dying wish? In post-Katrina New Orleans, final words can cure cancer, wreck economies, and eliminate house cats . . . Can’t you just hear the “In a world” guy? Anyway, I’ve gotten several requests for the full manuscript, but no takers. I do get the best rejections: “I LOVE the writing and the concept, but I just can’t sell something like this.” So I’m hopeful. That said, the agent path seems less tenable these days, and I wonder if literary agents aren’t going the way of their counterparts in travel and real estate. I’m now researching independent publishers. I know what I’ve written is good and weird. I just need a good and weird backer.
DE: I hear bad things about literary agent prospects (both being one and getting one) these days. Sounds like tough times right now. Turning to happier things, we recently published your piece called “The Dusty Bastards” which is dedicated to Erin Fitzgerald and includes lines like “Shards of bone, flakes of skin like heavy paper, failing and breaking into pieces.” Please tell us how this story originated and why it’s dedicated to Erin. Also, please discuss why this creepy actor in the story is named David.
LES: I spent last summer finishing and revising my novel SOCIAL AID & PLEASURE, which is about dying wishes coming true in post-Katrina New Orleans. I wanted to make the catalyst for the phenomenon more, uh, catalyst-y, and as a joke, my husband suggested I go all X Files on it. Then Erin, who was helping me think through my opening strategy, sort of encouraged that notion. She has a kid, right? You’d think she’d know better. Eventually, my cooler head prevailed—there’s room for Elvis in the novel, but not Elvis and Duchovny. The David is you, of course. All Davids are, eventually.
Q: That sarcasm smells like sirloin. Thanks. So, Michelle Reale dedicated her story about librarians to you in Eyeshot. This followed you dedicating your piece in Everyday Genius to her. That story of yours in EG was wild. Please talk a bit about it. Also, can you help me understand, as someone who has never dedicated a story to anyone or, cough, had one dedicated to himself, how all this stuff happens. Do you give a “heads up” that the dedication is coming?
LES: I’d been trying to get “The Temple Dog” placed for frickin’ years, no kidding. Michelle and I were goofing around on Facebook IM, sharing submission miseries and gossiping about you, when I pledged that if I ever got this dog of a librarian story placed I dedicate it to her (there may have been wine involved). When Adam asked me for a contribution to EG I only had two pieces for him to consider, including “TTD.” I felt so bad asking him to read it, and I was shocked by his enthusiastic response. I think the only warning I gave MR was a cryptic note on FB along the lines of “Prepare to be embarrassed.” Which a few people “liked” even before I posted the link, oddly enough. Michelle’s story, “Unbecoming a Librarian,” is the best thing Eyeshot ever published. Shutting down was probably necessary after that.
DE: Hmm, I’ve been confused about Eyeshot’s status and I just checked their site. It does appear that they are no longer accepting submissions but you can send in stories to get “Klein mauled” (my words) in the name of charity. I did love Michelle’s story. I’d like to unbecome a bureaucrat.
Thanks so much, Laura. To paraphrase Cusack at the end of “True Colors,” see you around campus.