When Valerie offered up the opportunity to interview Andrew Foster Altschul for a profile, I scratched at the chance to pick his literary mind over for a few morsels of wisdom. What I got was more than an appetizer, he dished it out and here it is for the partaking. Enjoy.
Let’s start with some background. Not only will he be gracing us with his presence on January 28th for the one-year anniversary of Stories On Stage, but he has an arsenal of goodies in his portfolio to boot. He is the author of Lady Lazarus (2008) and his most recent Deus Ex Machina (2011), along with an impressive amount of short story and essay publication credits from McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, Esquire, and the O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Voices anthologies. He is also the Books Editor of therumpus.net , as well as the director of the Center for Literary Arts at San Jose State University. Does he ever stop? We hope not. Now on to the interview.
When did you begin this crazy thing we call writing?
I started writing in high school, and did it on and off through college. But except for one or two classes, I didn’t show my work to anyone and I never really thought of myself as a Writer. After college, while I was living in San Diego working as an office temp and proofreading classified ads for a weekly newspaper, I started setting aside a few hours every night to work on short stories. After a couple years, I had a few I thought were pretty good. A friend of mine asked if I had ever thought about going to graduate school – and I said, “For what?” I didn’t know there were graduate programs for creative writers.
Miraculously, I got into the MFA program at UC Irvine, where I met other writers and studied with incredibly smart, supportive authors like Geoffrey Wolff and Margot Livesey. After two years of that, I had pretty much lost the ability to function in the real world, so I had no choice but to keep writing.
What do you think makes a good story?
That’s a more complicated question than you think, because anytime you set out “requirements,” some amazing story is going to come along and totally flout them. I just finished reading E. L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair, a quiet novel about Jewish families in the Bronx in the 1930s: it has no discernible plot, all the truly dramatic events happen outside the knowledge of the 9-year-old narrator, not much changes except in the sense that the narrator gets a little older and smarter and more sophisticated. It’s more of a time capsule than a piece of classic narrative fiction – and yet it’s completely beautiful and mesmerizing.
From a writer’s point of view, you have to love your characters and care what happens to them – even if they’re total screwups or are cruel or thoughtless or self-destructive. Maybe especially if they are those things. And you have to be really honest with yourself and with your story – everything that happens must grow out of who these characters are and what they are capable of. I read too many stories in which an event that occurs is obviously the result of the author’s determination that it must occur. We fool ourselves all the time into thinking our great ideas for a story will work, that no one will notice how wooden or implausible or overdetermined they are. But they will notice.
The other thing I would say is that you have to try to bring something new into the world. Even beautifully written and plotted fiction is, in some ways, superfluous if it isn’t trying to do something new – either by experimenting with structure and voice, by examining aspects of contemporary life that haven’t been written about much, or by examining the mechanics and conventions of storytelling itself. I don’t consider myself an “experimental writer,” necessarily, but I do get restless and bored with fiction that has as its only ambition to convey an account of meaningful events. There are thousands of writers who can do that, and I always push myself and my students to think about how they can add something or expand the boundaries of conventional writing.
Do you have a writing routine?
Well, generally speaking I try to write every day, in the morning, before turning to other responsibilities – teaching, editing, returning a zillion emails, etc. Lately, though, it’s been a bit more haphazard. My work with The Rumpus and the Center for Literary Arts are very time consuming, as is trying to promote a new novel.
What have you learned about yourself through writing?
That’s a great question, and one I couldn’t answer in a very clear way. On the one hand, I’ve learned discipline in my life, and empathy – if you force yourself to write about, and care about, people unlike yourself, this should carry over directly into your life and teach you how to see the world through other people’s perspectives.
But in a more abstract way, writing can serve as a strange kind of psychoanalysis. Not in the “therapy sense” where people write about their heartbreaks and traumas in order to “get it all out” and make themselves feel better – I feel like that’s a dumb reason to write. But in a more complex way, what happens over the course of a writing career is related to what happens in an analyst’s office: If you’re paying the right kind of attention, you start to see certain things coming up again and again in your work. Themes, particular relationship dynamics, images, turns of a phrase. And you can examine these things to figure out what’s going on in your unconscious, what are the things that really concern or worry or scare or hurt you, things you had no conscious intention of writing about. It’s really quite amazing.
Any advice for the aspiring, down-trodden, hopeful writer?
First of all, you have to get used to being downtrodden. No one is going to beg you to write, or notice if you don’t. So the first step is deciding that you really want to do this, regardless of whether you ever get recognized for it. And if you do – if you really, really do – then the only requirement is that you keep writing. Every day, if possible. Your friends will go to law school, get married, buy houses, go to Cabo. You probably won’t do these things for a long time, because you’ll be squirreled away at your desk, probably still in pajamas, tinkering with the fourteenth draft of a short story.
Find community. Get together with other writers – either in a workshop or a book group or some other place where you can surround yourself with people who understand what it means to do what you do. And be generous to those people – give them everything you can. Read their work. Help them to improve it. Introduce them to other writers. Without community, this life gets too lonely and can easily start to seem hopeless.
I don’t mean to make it sound so grim. But a lot of people have a very idealized version of what it means to be a working writer. It’s incredibly hard and, for most people, thankless. Still, it beats sitting in a cubicle all day.
Thank you for such a candid and encouraging (yes it is) time together, Andrew. I hope you all get something worth taking a bite out of, I know I did. In fact, I’ll be back for seconds and thirds.
Sky Sanchez is a native Sacramentan. She writes, blogs, and is always on the lookout for one more job to add to her bursting at the seams schedule. When she is not at her computer or flipping through writer magazines, she is on all fours summoning her unicorn abilities for her three and a half year old or plugging in one half of the ear buds from her thirteen year old son’s IPOD, usually followed by “Ya, I like that, but turn it down”. She shares a partnership, both in business and by law, with her best friend and biggest fan and proofreader. She consistently writes for The Sacramento Book Review and The San Francisco Book Review, and contributes to Sacramento Talent Magazine. She also scribbles out her blogs at epicureanpc.wordpress.com and skysf.wordpress.com