By Lauren E. Smith and Sandy Cabada
Trying to make your stories more exciting? Look no further than excellent short story author, Matthew Specktor. Also a successful novelist and screenwriter, Specktor’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s The Believer, Tin House, Black Clock, among other publications. His novels are American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, and he has written a nonfiction book, The Sting. To top it off, he was a senior editor and founding member of the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Writing Pad is fortunate to have this story master teaching Intermediate Short Story Writing starting Monday, January 26. Matthew also took time out of his busy schedule to talk with us about the craft of fiction writing and how he developed his unique voice.
1.) You have written two novels, but what appeals to you about writing short stories?
Quick in, quick out. Novels are probably my first love, if only because they allow access of what John Ashbery called “the paddle wheel of days,” the pleasure of being deeply lost in an ongoing narrative. But stories allow for a kind of compression, an intensity and completeness, that’s irresistible.
2.) Despite the realistic premise of some of your stories, how often are they inspired from fantasy, if ever?
All the time. It’s a little hard for me to determine where “reality” ends and “fantasy” takes over, insofar as there is no reality that doesn’t involve such a radical dose of imagining as to make the term a little slippery. I haven’t (yet) written one that involves too many overtly fantastical or supernatural elements, but there’s certainly time.
3.) Your short stories have been featured in The New York Times, GQ UK and The Paris Review, along with other publications. Many writers dream of accomplishing this. How did it happen for you, and did it change things for you as a writer?
Well, for one thing it happened very late. I couldn’t get arrested as a writer until I was forty. I started writing my first published novel on my 40th birthday, after a decade-and-a-half of collecting some very complimentary rejection letters. It’s not unusual for writers to experience that (though it felt unusual, and quite frankly, awful, to me at the time), and likewise, it’s not unusual for success to build on itself. Once I sold my first novel and a couple of short stories —to the now-defunct journal Open City, then to Black Clock . . . eventually to Tin House and other top end periodicals— the acceptances began to build on themselves, and I started to get invitations to write elsewhere. One success can definitely lead you to others.
4.) What do you consider to be the most important element for a good short story?
Voice, vitality, energy, surprise. You can get away with bloody murder if your voice has sufficient élan. That’s not to say that structure isn’t important —in a way, if your voice is lively, a structural harmony is almost inevitable. I spend a lot of time in my own stories trying to get the voice right, trying to locate the exact tonal range that will allow the story I’m grappling with to be told. If what I’m writing isn’t funny, it’s usually a sign that the voice is wrong. If what I’m writing is only funny, if it’s not shot through with an almost paralyzing melancholy, that’s also a sign that the voice is wrong. If I can accommodate both things? Usually, the story practically tells itself.
5.) Can you tell us a little about your relationship with the Los Angeles Review of Books and what you do for this organization?
I retired from the Los Angeles Review of Books almost two years ago, so at present I don’t “do” anything except occasionally refer writers their way. It’s an exceptional publication, and I’m very, very proud of the role I played in its construction. The editor in chief, Tom Lutz, is a tremendous fellow, and the various section editors —particularly fiction editor Darcy Cosper, nonfiction editor Dinah Lenney, and film editor Merve Emre— are exceptional. All of them take risks, and have outstanding taste.
6.) Can you share about your writing routine or process with us?
Every day, every morning, I try to get to my desk as quickly as possible. Six days a week, I write until there’s nothing left in the tank —usually six or seven hours, allowing for occasional periods of drift, the compulsive checking of email and whatnot. All the same, I develop a certain tunnel vision when I’m working on a book or a story. When I’m not? Well, then I don’t force it. I see a lot of matinees. There’s a fair amount of frittering that’s also, perhaps, a part of the process.
7.) Can you give us a preview of some of the things you will cover in your class?
For all the attention we’ll pay to the basic elements of craft —structure, characterization, dialogue, description, point-of-view— I expect to spend most of the time trying to maximize the work’s energy, trying to make it arresting, which is the one thing I think editors and readers alike can’t say no to.
Thank you for that inspiring and informative interview, Matthew! Catch his class Short Story Overdrive: An Intermediate Short Story Workshop (5 Wk) this January at the Pad.