“…I brought up…childhood and past relationships and too much time thinking too hard…and maybe that’s why I’m writing this. I want to know if I can get into it with you. That look we shared? Over the cracked eggs? Was that about something more? If so, you can leave me a message at this email. We can get some coffee, maybe. Or breakfast. I could scramble the eggs. Make something good out of the destruction.”
~ from “Missed Connection” in Everyone Remain Calm
In a post on INK TEARS about flash fiction, Tania Hershman says, “The kinds of short stories I love are those that are storms in miniature teacups….” Megan Stielstra’s book, Everyone Remain Calm, is a collection of such stories. I have my favorites (“Incredible”, “Missed Connection”, “Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left”), but each story deserves the spotlight. Some stories surprised me, others left me holding my breath, several touched on themes that struck a familiar chord. Each one is written with a voice that tugs at the reader with a subtle but insistent pull.
I’m honored to host Megan for an interview, which I’ll post in two parts. Her answers to my questions are full of experience and writer’s wisdom that should be read and savored. Today, Megan talks about the book and the stories. Tomorrow, she discusses the delicate balance between life and writing and reading.
CC: What are some challenges, and payoffs, in pulling together a collection of stories for publication? And, do you find that the Kindle format serves a book of short stories well?
MS: I love short stories. I write them, teach them, perform them, and, most importantly, I read them. My life has been profoundly affected by stories I’ve read: Misery, Temporary Matter, Mkondo, Nilda, Video, Compassion, On Meeting the 100% Perfect Girl, Pet Milk, Like a Winding Sheet, A Hunger Artist, Kubuku Rides Again, Sonny’s Blues and a thousand others have taught me something I desperately needed to know; made me laugh when I really, really needed it; or reminded me of what’s really important in my crazy, messy life. And to think that, in some small way, one of the stories in Everyone Remain Calm might do the same? Help someone laugh? Think? Feel less alone or more hopeful?—that’s a hell of a payoff.
Putting the collection together happened quickly and organically. I’m a big fan of Joyland, an online literary journal out of Toronto, and saw they were having a contest for a new digital short story imprint. At the time, I was working on a novel because one too many agents had said, “I love your short stories! But no one reads short stories! You should write a novel!” Granted—this was an awful, awful reason to start a novel, but what magically happened was I got excited about it. I found the characters. I loved chasing them around. I was having fun, which felt really vital at the time because sometimes, putting all your effort into selling your writing can… let’s say kill the mood.
Anyhow—I sent my stories to Joyland and got right back to the novel, and was actually pretty shocked a few months later when Brian Joseph Davis and Emily Schultz wrote to tell me they’d like to publish them. Can I take a second to sing their praises? Everyone, please imagine a big ol’ orchestra in your living room, playing for these two. They are wonderful. They are both editors and writers, but, most importantly, they are readers. The care about audience. Their conversations are not fueled by What sells?, but rather We believe in this so now let’s make it the best it can possibly be. I’ll tell you what: Emily worked my ass off, and she’s fucking whip smart. I was a little intimidated by her, which was sort of great. I want my editor to be smarter than I am. Makes me work harder. Plus, both she and Brian were really supportive of taking some risks with form, specifically in putting personal essays and more fantastical fiction back-to-back, and—in some cases—intertwining them within the same story.
I think the fact that this was a digital publication allowed us to take some chances that we may not have been able to pull off otherwise. I’ve heard many people say “You can’t do that.” I’ve heard many say “That won’t sell.” Many, many, many have said “No one reads short stories,” which, honestly, makes me want to light shit on fire. Personally, I’m excited about the opportunities that digital publication brings to short story writers, and to writers in general. What can we do with it? What can we make?
Lots of people have asked what I think about digital publication, and, right before turning in the final version of Everyone Remain Calm, I added a few lines to my story Professional Development in the hopes of answering that question: “For the record: I love poetry. And novels. And short stories and essays, all of it! I don’t care what you call it or where you shelve it or what it gets printed on, I just want the words, the ideas and the stories handed to me like birthday presents. I want to find my own feelings in someone else’s experiences. I want to live lives I couldn’t possibly have lived, exist in a reality that can’t possibly be real—that’s what a story can do.”
CC: Margaret Atwood says, “You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer.” I love that you aren’t afraid to twist reality or broach tough issues in stories like “Incredible” and “Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left”. What requires more courage: to let yourself write whatever it takes during first drafts, or to sit with some of those raw ideas – and raw emotion revealed in those ideas – during rewrites and edits?
MS: Definitely the rewriting. For me, the courage comes not in the act of writing, but in the decision to share that writing. I’ll write anything—emotional stuff, personal stuff, political stuff, ridiculous stuff, ranty stuff—but I’m not going to share the half of it. It’s in my journal. It’s a mess. It’s me working out ideas. It’s not a story yet. It’s like EM Forrester said: I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.
From there, if something pulls me, I’ll copy it into the computer. It becomes more serious, in a way. I’m thinking about the craft. I’m thinking about what I’d like to say. I’d like an audience to care about it as much as I do.
For example: Incredible. What happened was: I got dumped, and it sucked, and I was trying to write my way out of it which, predictably, resulted in a big mess of Poor Me and Life’s Not Fair. That’s not something I wanted to share with others—it wasn’t a story. But later, when I had some distance, I looked back at that raw material with enough objectivity to ask myself a few things:
Q: What is this about?
A: How to get over it.
Q: How did you get over it?
A: I fantasized.
—about finding someone new. About getting a new job and losing twenty pounds and running into your ex when you look really hot. Those things we imagine in order to fall asleep at night when we’re hurting—how we use the made-up to get through the reality.
Q: That’s your fantasy. What’s this character’s fantasy?
—that’s where the Hulk came in. I got the idea from a journal entry I’d written as a kid about being scared of the Incredible Hulk, and as soon as I added him to the whole Life’s Not Fair mess, I got that wonderful writerly feeling of Yes, yes, I’m on to something! Eventually, through the writing, I realized that fantasies don’t just help us with reality; they can also hold us back from really experiencing it. That—that—is a story I wanted to share.
Much of the work I’ve done over the past decade, both as a writer and as a teacher, has been with a personal narrative storytelling series called 2nd Story (www.2ndStory.com). You want to talk about nerve? About courage? I see our tellers get up in front of fifty, a hundred, five hundred people and share stories about addiction, family, heartbreak, identity, obsession, survival, race, faith and a thousand other topics in profound, hilarious, tragic and beautiful ways. And—I see that audience laugh or cry or sigh or gasp but always, always, always connect. That’s what I want in a story, as a writer and a reader: To see that—even as we celebrate our inherent differences—there are still multiple connections in our lives. We share sorrow and confusion and hope. We want our lives to be better.
See? You want to read more, don’t you? Stop back tomorrow. Megan talks about good days and bad days and how to find the story.
Megan Stielstra is a writer, storyteller, and the Literary Director of Chicago’s 2nd Story storytelling series. She’s told stories for The Goodman, The Steppenwolf, The Museum of Contemporary Art, The Chicago Poetry Center, Story Week Festival of Writers, Wordstock Literary Festival, The Neo-Futurarium, and Chicago Public Radio, among others, and she’s a Literary Death Match champ. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Other Voices, Fresh Yarn, Pindeldyboz, Swink, Monkeybicycle, Cellstories, Perigee, Annalemma, Venus, and Punk Planet, among others, and her story collection, Everyone Remain Calm, was released in October 2011 from Joyland/ECW. She teaches creative writing at Columbia College and The University of Chicago.