You cannot grieve for a puzzle, nor celebrate the death of a cipher. You have to make some sense out of the man first.
~ from “The Painted Man” in A Simplified Map of the Real World
Maps guide us, direct us, show us the way through convoluted terrain. Stevan Allred’s collection of short stories, A Simplified Map of the Real World, does much of the same with characters who live in the imagined town of Renata, Oregon.
Anchored in the landscape of Renata, Allred’s characters seem straightforward in their “small-town” style. But as each story unfolds, more is revealed: in the nightstand of a pompous neighbor, in the complexity of Uncle Lenny, through conversations between fathers and sons and the resurgence of old high school relations.
A Simplified Map of the Real World was recently chose as one of Multnomah County Library’s Wordstock 2013 fiction picks. I’m honored to host Stevan for a Q&A on his book and thrilled to include book giveaway (courtesy of Forest Avenue Press). Drop your name in the comments at the end of the interview for a chance at your own copy of A Simplified Map of the Real World. Random.org will chose the winner on Tuesday, October 8th.
Now, welcome Stevan Allred!
CC: I know Renata, Oregon is a fictional town, but does it mirror any real place in which you’ve lived or travelled?
SA: Renata is very much a place of my imagination. Its geography overlays the geography of my home town, Estacada, Oregon, and would be recognizable to anyone who knows the place, but if you try to drive the real world Estacada by following the roads in A Simplified Map of the Real World, you’re likely to wind up, as one of my characters does, “in the ditch.”
Both my parents are from small towns in central Utah. I used to spend part of my summers in a town called Emery, population 308. There have been other small towns in my life too, and Renata feels like all of those places to me. What strikes me as similar about all the small towns I’ve known is how they try to hold the outside world at bay. Portland, Oregon, is only thirty miles away from Estacada, and yet there are plenty of Estacadans who haven’t been to the city in years. For many, the small town where they live is, as Arnie Gossard says in the opening story, “a place small enough that I can keep track of everything that matters and big enough to hold everything I need.”
CC: This quote in “The Painted Man” is one of my favorites:
I felt, for a moment, as if I were inside a kaleidoscope, and all the complicated bits of my life…were shifting, aligning themselves into a new pattern.
I love this thread that runs throughout the story, of uncovering and piecing together the inner workings of character, a thread that pulls the book together as a whole. When it comes to writing such stories, do you find they unfold organically? Or, do you plan the reveal before you begin the first draft?
SA: It’s very much the former. Someone, and I’ve long since forgotten whom, told me a long time ago that I would never surprise a reader if I didn’t first surprise myself. I start with so little–a few bits of language, some vague notion of who might be saying those words, and often a random element from the real world. It’s a process of discovery rather than one of planning. When I started “His Ticky Little Mind,” the name Volpe was on the side of a pickup truck that passed by me just as I saw that one of my neighbors had cut down a tree in their front yard, leaving a twelve foot high stump still standing. The story grew out of those two things, and some phrases that were knocking around inside my head.
CC: I continue to hear great things about the Oregon writing community, and your book is a collaboration of Oregon talents–from Forest Avenue Press’ own Laura Stanfill to Gigi Little, the cover artist. Aside from this particular partnership, what do you appreciate most about your local writing circles?
SA: We are a state of readers and writers. The Portland library system has the highest rate of use per capita of any system in the country, and my local Estacada library hums with activity seven days a week. The writing scene here is bigger than I can keep track of by quite a bit, and it’s lively and full of talent. People are supportive of each other, and generous, and I’m constantly discovering new books and new writers who make me think ‘Wow, what a great story.’ There are lots and lots of reading series in bars and coffee shops and libraries. There are many small to micro-sized presses, the zine scene here is world class, and Portland is a center for graphic novelists. All that abundance is inspiring.
CC: What are you reading these days?
SA: I’ve recently finished Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, a writer whom I admire greatly. Also two short story collections, both of which I recommend highly: Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name, and Lucia Perillo’s Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain. I’m just starting Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains.
CC: What advice would you offer for writers on the road to publication?
SA: Write what you love to read. You’re going to spend a lot of time alone with your writing-you might as well make it something you really enjoy.
Also this, from Ellen Gilchrist: F*** doubt. The dishes can wait. Serve the whole.
Stevan Allred lives and writes in a house in the woods halfway between Fisher’s Mill and Viola, in rural Clackamas County, outside of Portland, Oregon. He is the editor of Dixon Ticonderoga, a zine that explores the intimate relationship between divorce and pencils. He teaches writing at The Pinewood Table and has been widely published in literary magazines. Stevan is also available to attend book clubs in the Portland metro area or by phone or Skype. Contact Forest Avenue Press for more information.