COUNTRY ROADS: AN INTERVIEW WITH AUSTIN SMITH

Imagine seeing your work in the iconic New Yorker font. What was once scribbled in your favorite notebook or typed into a Word document now looks sleek and confident in that special type that you associate with Zadie Smith, quippy opinion pieces and political cartoons. Now picture that same name and bio in Harper’s Magazine, the Yale Review, Poetry Magazine, ZYZZYVA. . .

 

For fiction writer and poet Austin Smith, this hypothetical is a reality. He graciously agreed to chat with us about growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois, his creative process and post-Stegner life.

 

Austin will be teaching a one-day short fiction intensive at Writing Pad San Francisco on Sunday, June 4th (your only chance to study with him this summer). If you’re serious about literary craft, be sure to check out his workshop !

 

1. You were raised on an Illinois dairy farm. How do your roots inspire and impact your work?

 

My dad is a poet, so I was exposed to poetry at a really young age. I still have my first notebook. On the back cover, on the Subject line, I wrote “Poetrey.” I don’t know how old I was – apparently not old enough to spell the word correctly. My dad would give readings at the local art museum, and poets like Gary Snyder and Michael Mott would visit us on the farm, so from an early age I understood that being a poet was about more than just writing poems, but was also participation in a community. I’ve always thought that the phrase “giving a poetry reading” is a particularly beautiful expression, with its suggestion of offering something to others. So that was the context in which I first encountered the writing life.

 

My roots in Illinois certainly continue to inspire and impact my work. Though I’ve lived in California going on seven years now, the Midwest is still my subject matter. The place and the people of that place, are what I’m most interested in exploring, both in fiction, poetry, and in more recent nonfiction projects. One of my favorite writers is William Maxwell. He was the fiction editor for the New Yorker for a good part of the twentieth century. He grew up in Lincoln, Illinois, a town he left when he was fourteen. Until his death in his nineties, he wrote mostly about Lincoln and his memories of the place. I expect my career will follow a similar trajectory (minus being the New Yorker Fiction Editor and assuming living into my nineties).

 

2. Tell us about your creative process.

 

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately because my creative process has been thrown off a little by my obsession with the news and my teaching duties at Stanford. I’ve learned that one must be absolutely fierce in carving out time for one’s own writing. It’s not so much a matter of writing a certain number of words a day as it is giving oneself permission to sit at a desk and perhaps do nothing at all but daydream. I usually try to make time for this early in the morning, when I feel most alert. The prospect of drinking coffee is the thing that draws me to the page more than the idea of writing, which can be surprisingly intimidating considering how many years I’ve been doing it. I try to set aside all distractions and write by hand in order to make stronger my connection to the words appearing on the page.

 

It helps, I think, to be writing towards a certain moment, particularly when working on a longer piece of prose. But when it comes to short stories, I feel that one must really work swiftly, in a kind of desperation to reach the end or else risk losing the thread of the story. When I’m really working on a story (and I’ve only had this experience a dozen times in my life), the story will demand my full engagement and attention until the first draft is done. Then I can work it over in a more leisurely way. Finishing that first draft feels like tightrope-walking –hurrying across, trying not to lose momentum or look down for fear that you’ll realize that you have no business being way the hell up there in the first place.

 

3. How do you land on a story and how does it evolve?

 

My head is filled with what I’ll call, for lack of a better image, “story spheres,” situations that suggest the possibility of interesting and dramatic writing. For instance, there was a haunted barn that my friends and I used to go to at Halloween when we were in high school, and I knew that I had to set a story there, and tried to get the story off the ground for a couple of years before it finally took shape. So perhaps my idea above about writing the story in one sustained effort over the course of a few days is misleading, as one has likely been working on the story for some time (years, perhaps) before one lays the first word down.

 

4. Your stories and poems have been featured in massive publications like The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Kenyon Review, Poetry Magazine, and the Yale Review. Do you have special tips on how to appeal to A-list editors? How do you manage the submission process?

 

I’m really fortunate to have had work appear in the places listed above, but I think of the total amount of effort I exert as a writer, only 10% or so goes towards submissions. I submit work when I have the flu, am home for the holidays, or am in the midst of a busy teaching term – in other words, when I can’t write. I think at some point I grew tired of having work rejected that I myself believed was strong and deserved to be out in the world, so I started posting my poems on my website. I would suggest using caution when publishing one’s own work online, as it can lead to copyright issues, but for me it’s been a nice way to place my work in the world without the barriers of the submissions process.

 

My submission process has become much more organized since I started using a site called Duotrope, which helps you keep track of where you’ve sent what. This is particularly helpful for submitting poems.

 

5. Endings are notoriously tricky for writers. How do you approach finishing a piece?

 

It’s difficult to let go of a piece, whether letting go means deciding what image to conclude the story or poem with, or deciding the piece as a whole is ready to submit or send off to one’s agent. When I’m really working on a story I’ll begin, about halfway through the draft, to see where the story might end, and will begin writing towards that place. Upon finishing the story, I’ll go back over it quite obsessively, maybe twenty to thirty times, smoothing out the sentences. I’m not a big ironer but I imagine the process is akin to ironing a shirt. Eventually there are no wrinkles left and you know that anything you do from there on is probably going to harm rather than help the story. When the story starts losing my interest and my mind is wandering off towards the next one, I know it’s time to let it go. 

 

6. In 2012, you were one of ten writers chosen for the prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. What’s it like to be surrounded by so much talent?

 

It was a huge honor for me to be awarded the Stegner Fellowship. And quite a surprise. For several years I had applied in poetry. In 2011, having written one short story and part of a novel, I applied in fiction as well and was accepted. All my life, through my two graduate programs in poetry, I had considered myself a poet, and had never been very interested in fiction. I turned to fiction when I found poems insufficient vessels for the things I wanted to say.

 

My interest in both genres has kept me from fully committing to either. I never finished the novel I was working on as a Stegner Fellow and have since taken up other projects. The best part of the fellowship was working with teachers like Tobias Wolff and Elizabeth Tallent and reading the work of fellow Fellows.

 

7. As a Jones Lecturer at Stanford, what is one thing that you prioritize in your classroom?

 

There’s quite a bit of laughter in my classes. I try to get my students to loosen up and have fun, because I think that only when young writers are comfortable with one another are they going to be willing to be courageous and honest, both in taking criticism and doling it out. But “criticism” is probably too harsh a word for the sort of feedback I give, and that we give one another. Having had some quite withering workshops in my own life as a young writer, I’m leery of giving young writers the opportunity to lay into one another. In a speech she gave called “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” Flannery O’Connor compared this workshop model to the blind leading the blind. I think when people don’t know what to say about a piece of writing, the default is to criticize it, if only to make oneself feel better about one’s own work. So I try not to let a pecking-order sort of hierarchy develop in my classes. And I also make sure to let everyone know that poets and writers do not necessarily have to be “smart,” or have lofty philosophical or literary ideas. Taking away this pressure tends to make everyone feel more comfortable and open, so that the real work of figuring out what makes a piece of writing great can proceed.

 

8. Who are you reading right now? Who do you admire?

 

I’m pretty bored by most contemporary fiction and have a hard time getting into most new novels, which feel to me too packaged and artificial. Honestly, I don’t read much fiction at all. Maybe one reason I can’t finish my own novel is that I can hardly finish anyone else’s. Right now though I’m reading a really good novel by Walter Tevis called Queen’s Gambit, a chess thriller which was recommended to me by Tobias Wolff (whose taste I trust absolutely) and which I expect to finish. You’re more likely to find me reading something weird, like The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, or Donald Hall’s Remembering Poets or a book on Marian apparitions. I also love biographies, especially of poets and artists.

 

I have a pantheon of artists who are guiding lights for me, and who I return to again and again: James Salter, Norman Maclean, Frank Stanford, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Wordsworth…

 

9. Nature holds a dear place in your life and writing. Where in the bay do you go for inspiration?

 

Thanks for this question. It’s something that I’ve struggled with, because I grew up on a farm, and really miss being able to sit on a porch in the evening, far from all city lights, watching fireflies. My idea of heaven is walking forever down a long farm lane with a beer in hand, accompanied by an old dog. So living in the city is hard for me. Northern California is, of course, a stunningly beautiful place to live, but I often feel like I have to commute to find the sort of solitude I used to be able to find by just stepping off the porch. But the longer I live here, and the more desperate I become to find some space, the more places I discover. Lately I like running on the Nimitz Trail, which is up in the hills above Berkeley. And I love driving north to the Point Reyes area, and even further to Boonville and Mendocino.

 

10. As both a poet and a fiction writer, do you find that one feeds the other? Or do you consider your poems to be completely separate from your stories?

 

I guess I touched on this a little before. I said that I turned to writing stories when I felt that poems could no longer contain the things I wanted to say. I still think that’s true. But there’s also the fact that it’s a relief that I can turn to poems when I’m getting bogged down in a story. Right now I’m not really writing very much at all, which is always a terrifying and terrible period. As for whether I consider my poems to be separate from my stories, I guess I would say no, that they feel to me to be one body of work. If I had my way I would publish both genres together, poems interspersed with stories, like the Japanese form habuin that Basho worked in for his great travel journals. I think that the division between these genres, which is amplified by one having to choose whether to do an MFA in poetry or in fiction, is artificial, and perhaps is one of the reasons that poetry gets so marginalized in the publishing world.

 

11. You’re working on a new collection of stories about the rural midwest. How does it fit into your body of work?

 

Yes these are stories that I wrote while a Stegner Fellow, and in the years since while I’ve been working as a Jones Lecturer. They are loosely linked and take place in Pearl County, a fictional stand-in for Stephenson County, where I grew up. At left is a map of the county painted by my friend Emily Underwood.

 

I feel pretty confident that the story collection is finished, and can be published as is but I’ve had trouble getting it out there.

 

So it’s sort of just sitting around right now, which is a little depressing. Hopefully I’ll find a way to get the stories out there, because I think since the election people on the coasts are finally taking some interest in what is happening in so-called “flyover country” (which is the title of my new poetry collection).

 

12. You lecture at Stanford but live in San Francisco. What are your favorite literary haunts in the city? Any cafés or book shops that help you feel tapped into the bay’s rich creative vein?

 

I live in Oakland now. I used to live near Dolores Park but moved to the Adam’s Point area near Lake Merritt last spring. I still get over to San Francisco quite often. A few friends and I convene once a month or so for a gathering we call Poets’ Table. We usually get together at Vesuvio or Spec’s or Mario’s in North Beach and talk about poetry and share poems. Many of my friends have had to leave the Bay due to high rents, so I really value the friends of mine who’ve somehow managed to hold on here. Having a community of fellow writers is important, even if you only see them once a month for beer and bullshit.

 

13. Do you have any advice for aspiring fiction writers?

 

I think the usual advice people give is to read as much as possible, and of course that’s very important, but I think that young writers should turn inward in search of the reason they want to be a writer in the first place. I think not getting caught up in the idea of publishing and selling a novel, in social media, in all that stuff that is really extraneous to the creative process itself, is important. At the end of the day one has to be content with spending long swaths of time alone, doing work that may never be published and that one may never get paid for. And if doing that work still feels vital to you, absent all the trappings of publication and attention, then you’re giving yourself a much better shot at enduring the periods of disappointment and doubt that no writer, no matter how lucky, can hope to be spared from.

 

14. What do you think is the difference between a good short story and a great short story?

 

I really like this question, and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. There’s a really interesting essay, a few years old now, by the writer Elif Batumen (it appeared in the journal N+1) in which she levels some quite strong and, to me, refreshing criticism against contemporary short stories. I’m very loosely paraphrasing her argument here, but I believe what troubles her about the stories she finds in Best American Short Story anthologies is that they’re perhaps too polished, too perfect. One can write a very, very good story that everyone agrees has nothing whatsoever wrong with it. It might be so unmarred by mistakes that it appears in an anthology of the best short stories published that year. But such stories don’t tend to stay around for very long, I don’t think. My favorite stories, like James Salter’s “Twenty Minutes” for instance, have a kind of rough, unfinished quality about them. There are moments in the story that continue to confuse you even after a dozen readings. One finds that one cannot quite grasp the story.

 

There’s something unwieldy about it, even awkward. One suspects that even the writer didn’t precisely know what they were up to. I think this is the essential difference between good and great stories: with a good story, the writer appears to be in control throughout; in a great story, the writer appears to have been working at the behest of the story. To reference a line by the great Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, the story or poem has outgrown the writer, and has thrown them out of the nest.

 

15. What will students learn in your class?

 

Certainly I will be extremely enthusiastic about whatever piece of writing I choose to share in order to demonstrate the qualities I admire in fiction. I often teach a passage by the great novelist Kent Haruf that to me perfectly inhabits the consciousness of two boys watching a horse being cut open for an autopsy. I feel that if I can convey to a student why I find this particular passage so brilliant, they may then be able to turn to their own work and try to imitate or in some way mirror that moment.

 

I am sometimes a little tongue-tied when responding to a student’s writing, perhaps because, rather than improving the piece on the page, what is called for is for the writer to re-approach the moment in an entirely new way. And I think that by really delving deeply into great scenes and stories and poems, one can impart a certain way of looking at the world to a young writer. So students should expect me to discuss their work in the same breath that I’m discussing a paragraph by Chekhov or Nabokov or some other writer whose name ends in “ov,” because I really feel that when it comes to the writing life, we’re all in this together, teacher and student, the living and the dead.

 

Thank you so much, Austin! We’re Looking forward to the release of “Flyover Country.”

 

If you’re itching to hone your craft (or if you’re as curious as we are about this brilliant horse autopsy passage), don’t miss Austin’s 1-day fiction intensive in SF on Sunday June 4th.