I’m very happy this week to share an interview with author and creative writing teacher (and Chair of the English Department at Case Western Reserve University), Professor Mary Grimm. In full disclosure, Mary was one of my first writing teachers and she’s simply one of the smartest, most generous writers and teachers I’ve ever met. When I asked her some questions about her writing and teaching, here’s what she had to say …
KC: You have written both novels and short stories. Which format do you prefer? Which is the most challenging to write, and why?
MG: I think that I prefer novels when I’m writing short stories, and stories when I’m writing a novel: the grass is always greener. I love writing novels because of the scope and the possibilities – always expanding. If I want to add a new character or introduce a new meander in the plot, there’s room for it. But stories are appealing because of their shapeliness, their movement toward resolution. It’s feels wonderful to finish something, even provisionally, and stories offer this satisfaction more readily than the novel.
Both are challenging, of course. The novel because of its size, its ungainliness, because of the time involved, because it eats up your life for a while. The story because it’s like a poem: everything has to fit, everything has to be curving toward the ending, so that when the reader gets there he or she will sigh because of the rightness of each word and image (or so you hope).
KC: You have tended to write contemporary stories, but I know you have an interest in fantasy and the paranormal. What do you think are some of the main challenges of incorporating the supernatural into a fictional narrative?
MG: This is something I’m thinking about a lot right now, as a writer and as a teacher. I’m teaching a course on fantasy next semester, with an emphasis on world building, and I chose the books we’ll read with that in mind: each one has outstanding and unique world building. I marvel at Neil Gaiman’s creation in Neverwhere, Philp Pullman’s in The Golden Compass, and Holly Black’s in The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. Their alternate worlds are so impressive because of their “reality” – paradoxically so essential to stories of the fantastic and the paranormal. The more bizarre and exotic a fantasy world, the more essential it is to make it real and logical in its own universe.
As a writer, I’m working on a novel and a number of tangential stories in a dystopian, slightly future world. The characters are easy. They come right up and introduce themselves, panting to get on the page. The settings are fun to devise: nothing more pleasing than using the trappings of our world and making them suitably ruined and shabby. The plot is moseying along with not too much difficulty (or no more than normal). The difficult thing is figuring out how the world works. I might have thought that it would be easier since it’s different in only a few respects from our world, but somehow that makes it harder!
KC: You’ve been teaching fiction writing to graduates and undergraduates for some time now. What are your favorite things about teaching?
MG: I love reading students’ writing and watching them, over the course of a semester, finding a voice that is their own. I love the dynamic of the classroom. It’s always a surprise and an exploration to see what each new group of fifteen or twenty will shape up to be. I like the give and take of workshop. I like introducing stories and books and writers to students who might not have come across my favorites: anything by Alice Munro; Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”; John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”; the stories in Richard Ford’s Rock Springs. Teaching creative writing is one of those jobs that you can hardly believe you’ve been lucky enough to get, a job where you are paid for what you would have wanted to do anyway.
KC: Have there been times when a student’s work has really surprised you in some way? Care to share any anecdotes (without naming names of course!)
MG: Sometimes student work surprises me with its maturity and unique voice. I’ve had a few students over the years who came into my classroom already making use of a considerable talent, and some of them have gone on to publish books and stories, which makes me immensely proud. Sometimes students surprise me by waking up partway through the semester, as if suddenly they see the potential in the words and sentences they’ve been trying to produce – they make a leap right before my eyes.
The most astounding example of this is a student of some years back (who is now a friend and writing colleague) who wrote one story at the beginning of the semester that was as tight and buttoned up as an outgrown coat, well written on the sentence level, but boring and formulaic. Her main character (who I suspected was based on herself) was unhappy and trapped, both in the circumstances of the plot and in the flat, ungiving prose. We had a conference, and I asked her what proved to be the question (she tells me) that unleashed her considerable gift: Is this what you want to be writing? The next story she turned in was passionate, the words rushing one over the other, the characters involved and real. I felt honored to have been witness to this sea change in her writing life.
KC: The ability to quickly and cheaply self-publish stories and novels has blossomed in recent years due to new digital publishing platforms. A lot of folks say that the dramatic rise in self-publishing is bad for the publishing industry and for the standard of work being released into the market place. What is your take on self-publishing? Do you ever advise your students to self-publish?
MG: I think that the bad rep of self publishing is a little dated now. It used to be the mark of someone who just wasn’t good enough to get someone else to publish their work. Now, this has changed. It’s true that there’s a lot of bad stuff being self published. But honestly, there has always been a lot of bad stuff floating around. Having a publishing company and setting yourself up as an editor doesn’t automatically gift you with good taste.
I find the democratization of publication pleasing. Everyone has a chance if they want to take it, and in the end, the good stuff will float to the top. I advise students to try everything: send your stories to well-respected journals, to new magazines, to online journals; try the big publishing houses and the small ones, and if you have a notion to put together a book of your own, why not?
KC: Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?
MG: Right now I’m reading, as I said, for my fantasy class, so I’m reading Doris Lessing (who is a perennial favorite), Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Mike Carey, Holly Black, and Lev Grossman, as well as some fantasy authors who are new to me, like Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin. The best book I read recently by an author who was new to me was Euphoria, by Lily King – a novel based on the life of the anthropologist Margaret Mead.
My perennial favorites (besides Doris Lessing) are Tolstoy (especially Anna Karenina); Virginia Woolf; and the amazing stories of Alice Munro.