Anne Elliott’s debut short fiction collection, The Artstars, was published by Blue Light Books/Indiana University Press in Fall 2019. She is the author of The Beginning of the End of the Beginning (Ploughshares Solos, 2014), and her stories can be found in Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Hobart, Bellevue Literary Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Fugue, The Normal School, and elsewhere. Elliott is a veteran of the New York spoken word circuit, with stage credits including The Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center, PS122, and St. Mark’s Poetry Project. She earned an MFA in visual art from University of California, San Diego, and is working toward a fiction MFA at Warren Wilson College. She now lives in Southern Maine.
Jen Michalski: Congratulations on your publication with Blue Light Books! Can you talk a little about the journey to publishing with Indiana University Press?
Anne Elliott: Blue Light Books is a collaboration between the Indiana Review and Indiana University Press, and they find all of their authors via contests. Interestingly, I was selected during a reading period commemorating the work of Don Belton, who was a fiction writer and beloved faculty member at Indiana University. I think it’s worth mentioning him because before the contest I hadn’t heard of him, and his work is really interesting. He was a protege of James Baldwin and his work has a similar vibe, a real consciousness of the physicality of faith and religious practice. Very much in the body. Belton died tragically when he was about my age, and I think the contest is a beautiful way to raise awareness of his work.
Before I started submitting the collection to contests, I tried the traditional New York route. I found a great agent who sent it out (under a different title) to big houses, along with a novel. She loved it and championed it but nothing quite clicked with an editor. The collection was more polished than the novel, but the editors really wanted to lead with a novel. Finally, I decided to go my own way and within a year I had found a home for the collection. So I suppose it’s a matter of timing, luck, and tenacity. And I also may not be a novelist.
The genesis of the collection is a moment I had at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, when I looked around at the interesting practitioners around me and realized I should be writing about artists. The first story I wrote is the second in the collection, the one about sculptors in an art school. As I continued writing artist stories, secondary characters would begin to suggest new stories. I wound up writing about twelve stories, then cutting a few, then adding a few to integrate the collection better. At some point I decided that they needed to be linked not just by theme but also by character. I wanted all the stories to exist in the same fictional universe.
JM: The Artstars is loosely a novel in stories, in the sense that characters who are the protagonists in some stories make appearances in others, and many are artists and writers in New York. It kind of has a Slaves of New York feel in that sense! There’s also an undercurrent of post-9/11 in the stories, in that they take place just after, and many of the characters are survivors of that day. You’re also a 9/11 survivor. On your blog, you mention that you didn’t really talk about 9/11 much, and perhaps haven’t processed it as much as you’d like to have. Did you see these stories as a way to explore those feelings? You mention having an epiphany at a writing residency about wanting to write about these characters–did you have a similar epiphany about writing about these characters and 9/11?
AE: I loved Slaves of New York! Very influential book for me.
As for writing about 9/11, I don’t think I had a specific epiphany, the way I did about focusing on artists. Subject matter is such a weird thing. Sometimes you search for the right subject matter and sometimes it just creeps in. Writing about the World Trade Center pre/post 9/11 was a matter of writing what I knew. I was a New Yorker and I worked near the World Trade Center. I made a conscious decision to write about artists with compartmentalized lives and day jobs, including jobs on Wall Street. I was also writing about an era that no longer exists, a New York that no longer exists. Those were conscious decisions. The 9/11 material was more unconscious, but practically unavoidable given my life back then.
Then, of course, once it was on the page I had to reckon with it. In that sense yes, I was definitely processing my own feelings of trauma and grief. “Pink” contains dreams, for example, that I had myself in the months after 9/11. “War” is set in the artist’s colony where I had quiet epiphanies and tried to finish a novel in October of 2001. My feelings at the colony—missing home, worrying about those at the office, missing my husband and dog—are translated straight from my heart to the page. The characters and events are what I made up. (Except the ladybugs, unfortunately. That part I did not make up.)
JM: You mention that an agent once objected to your stories about 9/11, that “she thought it was a cheap symbol I was drumming up.” Was there any reticence in writing about the event, for fear of a similar sentiment among readers?
AE: Yes, and I hope I didn’t characterize her objection inaccurately. I do worry about the tonal challenge of this subject matter, since I know people who lost people and I know people who are now gravely ill from the chemical exposure. I don’t want to hurt the people I know, nor do I want to hurt the survivors I don’t know, by presenting the events in a way that is disrespectful.
At the same time, cliché and melodrama are everywhere. Almost immediately after the attacks, the acceptable way of depicting and discussing 9/11 became almost standardized. That, to me, does not honor the specificity of experience of all those individuals who were there bearing witness. I see bumper stickers: “Never Forget.” What does that mean, exactly? To me, that means to keep it specific. Don’t let it turn into shorthand. Honor the experience of the individual. Don’t tell me what to feel about it. Or anyone else, for that matter.
My feelings about 9/11 are complicated. Do I think it justifies what we have done at Guantanamo? Actually, I don’t. But I’m uncomfortable saying those words, knowing that people I care about were irreparably hurt by the attacks. And I am still triggered by the imagery.
JM: You’ve mentioned that you’ve struggled with some of the opinions that come out of your characters’ mouths and whether you should reign in their thoughts for the sake of not hurting personal friendships or your reputation as a writer. I was happy to see that you left those opinions in The Artstars! It’s brave to explore people’s unrealized prejudices, and it’s certainly difficult, in the current environment, to separate yourself from your work, particularly if it’s controversial in any way. What do you feel are your responsibilities as a writer to your work and to your audience? Has it changed the way you approach your writing? (I say this because I’ve re-read stories of mine from five years ago and cringed sometimes at the microaggressions of my characters.)
AE: Great question. I have been thinking about this a lot lately.
I’ll start by saying I don’t have the authority to assign responsibility to anybody but myself. When I sit down to write, I feel my responsibility is to tell the truth, to try not to flinch, and to consider the ways in which my work might affect readers of all kinds. Not censorship. More a matter of what to include. I think it is important to bring prejudicial thoughts into the light. But bringing it into the light means paying attention to it. Problems arise when it is there but the writer isn’t paying attention to it.
I am grateful for other writers who have called me out on my microaggressive language. Once, for example, I described the ladder to a tree house where the tree had grown around the slats, resembling a “fat girl bulging out of a too-tight sundress.” It was the kind of thought my character would have had. But my friend alerted me to the way in which it was judgy and triggering and distracting for overweight women. Perhaps even misogynist. Did I want that? No. I replaced the metaphor. Another time I was writing a story about a white girl bused to a mostly African-American school in the 1970’s. I had one of the girls chewing watermelon Bubble Yum, which was all the rage back then. This was more a matter of fact, not a character’s microaggressive thoughts—which is worse. The microaggressor was me, the story maker. A teacher kindly circled the word “watermelon” on my draft and I was mortified when I realized what I had done. It became sour apple Bubble Yum, which was also popular. In both of these cases, the stories improved with the removal of unconscious microaggression. This is why workshops can be so great. We don’t always see what we’re doing.
Maybe that’s the responsibility. Seeing what we’re doing. Or trying to. I fear the burden often falls on the “other” to call out the microaggression, though. This isn’t fair, and can become a big conundrum of the writer’s community. Fixing my work is not someone else’s responsibility.
In the case of the story in The Artstars, I wanted to capture that special awkwardness of friendship across difference. Part of getting to know a new friend is learning the ways in which you were fitting them into stereotypes in your own mind. Each time they break the stereotype, you get to laugh at your own stupidity a little. These are beautiful, humbling moments, to me. Sara, my character, has a fixed picture of her new Asian friend Steve as being studious and reserved. She is intimidated by him. She is trying, clumsily, to get over that, because it is her problem, not his.
I also think I have a responsibility to let go of thoughts of my reputation while I write. All that ego stuff. It’s so hard, but it’s important to let go of worrying about what people are going to think of me, and worry instead about what they are going to think of the work, or how the work might make them feel.
JM: Can you talk a little bit about shaping the collection? Artstars starts off with “Light Streaming from a Horse’s Ass,” which is lovely. I was surprised, however, that you started with a longer story, as it can be risky. Did you want stories to inform each other a certain way, ie, introducing certain characters first, or was there a mood you were setting?
AE: A lot of it is instinct. You’re right, it was a choice of mood, primarily—I wanted to begin in a light and fun mode before going into the more depressing stories. I wonder what the collection would feel like if I had gone the other way. Would people read past the first story? I decided right away to let go of chronology too, but to make sure that the characters were introduced logically, so that I could rely on story A to provide backstory or exposition for story B. So the last story takes place in 1999, while some of the stories in the middle are in 2001, for example.
As for the length of the first story, I am constantly aware of the biggest challenge of short story collections—asking readers to reorient themselves each time a new story begins. One advantage of starting with a long story is that it gives the reader a chance to settle into the world you are creating. Since all these stories take place in the same fictional world, starting with a long one, in my thinking, makes the collection easier to read for people who prefer novels. (Which, unfortunately, is most of the fiction-reading public.)
As I put together the sequence of stories, I did look at a few models (Elizabeth Strout, Stephanie Vaughn, Denis Johnson, Tama Janowitz) where a clear protagonist stands out in the collection. It dawned on me that I didn’t have a clear protag
onist, so I had to think about story arrangement carefully. I tried, in the transition from one story to the next, to put so
mething in common between the stories, whether it be a secondary character or a setting element, so that the reader could be oriented more quickly into the new narrative. For example, Sara the sculptor is the primary character in “Three Lessons in Firesurfing,” then in “War” as a secondary character. Virgil the IT guy is the protagonist’s boyfriend in “War,” and then a different protagonist’s colleague in “Pink.” I put these stories near each other in the chronology hoping to give impatient readers enough of the familiar to keep going. For me, remembering characters from fifty pages ago can be difficult. I figure I am not alone.
I must confess that recycling characters like this made the writing process easier. I didn’t have to come up with new names and quirks every time. And it provides an opportunity to deepen characterization, which for me is the pleasure of this art form.
JM: God, yes! The perfect name just blends in seamlessly with the story, whereas the wrong one really takes me out of the reading experience sometimes. Where there any other challenges to getting the collection together?
AE: It took me a while to find a title. It was originally going to be Light Streaming from a Horse’s Ass, which fit because so many of the characters are in the midst of ‘horse’s ass’ moments in their lives, clumsiness mixed with humbling epiphany. Though that title fit, it also prioritized the first story which isn’t the heart of the collection (to me). It also prioritized that story’s main character, who doesn’t feature much in the other stories. Plus it had a three-letter word in it that some people don’t like to say aloud. And, it was hard for people to remember the title when they were referring to the collection. That’s the problem with long titles. I love them, but you have to make your peace with other people remembering wrong.
So what then? One of the other story titles? Nothing spoke for the whole collection. I wanted something with both a celebratory and ironic feel, and so one day, after stewing over it for weeks, The Artstars came to me. Celebratory, because the people who make art in obscurity are rock stars to me. Ironic, because these people are well-kept secrets. There is so much beautiful art out there that we never see/hear/read.
I suppose there are a lot of stars in the sky too, including the ones we don’t see, especially if we’re in a bright city. So maybe the title isn’t so ironic after all.
JM: I feel like we’ve both come up the same time and in the same writing community—what has changed for you, around you, the past ten years in the industry, and how have you adapted as writer?
AE: The democratization of media means we have a lot of options. Many of my friends grew frustrated collecting rejections and turned to publish-on-demand outlets and other kinds of self-publishing. Some of them have done quite well at it. I was a holdout. I was afraid if I self-published something I was sure to go out there with half-baked prose and regret it. I may eventually change my mind on that. I certainly publish blog posts without a copyeditor, and I like the immediacy of it.
I also think that the platforms people use online have changed. Ten years ago there was a lot more activity on bulletin boards and blogs. I was on Zoetrope.com, where I met writers from all over the world and we exchanged critiques. Most of those writers don’t spend much time there anymore. Now it’s mega social-media platforms. I swore not to use Facebook and now I rely on it to communicate with other writers. I worry about getting addicted to it, in the sense of mediating/reporting on my experience instead of living it. I have a minor presence on the other big social platforms but Facebook has been really helpful, especially the closed groups where people exchange ideas and opportunities.
Along the same lines, the experience of publishing a book means a lot more time doing publicity in front of a screen and a lot less time shaking hands with prospective readers. I’m doing what I can to meet readers face to face, but there is a reason publishers don’t rely on book tours like they used to. You can reach so many more people virtually with almost no cost. And with the reading public shrinking, and with print books taking up less market share, publishers have to go with the most cost-effective approaches.
I am a writer who needs the support of the writer’s community as well. So I do attend conferences (I am at one right now! Hi, Lit Youngstown!) and I go to readings a lot to meet new people. I like workshops too. My current in-person writer’s group picked me up in a bar. (Hi, Pine Nuts!) I was there for a reading. I am addicted to readings. It’s my favorite way to be a literary citizen—I love listening to literature in the author’s voice.
The major way I have adapted lately, though, is going back to school. After years of hemming and hawing I finally took the plunge and applied to one school—and I got in! So I am working on my fiction MFA (finally) at Warren Wilson College. I mention it because school is a great way to build community among writers in a cohort. The low-residency model means you do get to connect with people in real life, but you don’t have to leave your regular life behind. And suddenly you have another network of writers spread out all over.
This writing thing is a lonely business, so connecting with other writers is the key to my sanity. Both the sharing part and the listening part.
Intrigued by what you’ve read? Enter to win one of eight copies of Anne Elliott’s The Artstars from Goodreads! You can enter the giveaway here.