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"How the Creature Felt Then": An Interview with Laurie Stone

Laurie Stone is author most recently of My Life as an Animal, Stories. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice, theater critic for The Nation, and critic-at-large on Fresh Air. She wonthe Nona Balakian prize in excellence in criticism from the National Book Critics Circle and two grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has published numerous stories in such publications as N + 1, Tin House, Evergreen Review, Fence, Open City, Anderbo, The Collagist, Your impossible Voice, New Letters, TriQuarterly, Threepenny Review, and Creative Nonfiction. In 2005, she participated in "Novel: An Installation," writing a book and living in a house designed by architects Salazar/Davis in the Flux Factory's gallery space.  She has frequently collaborated with composer Gordon Beeferman in text/music works. The world premier of their piece “You, the Weather, a Wolf” was presented in the 2016 season of the St. Urbans concerts. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, a collage of hybrid narratives. Her website is: lauriestonewriter.com.

Her stories, "Window," "Raincoat," and "Sophia," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist. 

Here, she talks to Dana Diehl about trusting the narrative voice, wanting to be in two places at once, and endings.

In May 2016, you had three stories published in The Collagist: “Window,” “Raincoat,” and “Sophia.” Do you feel that these stories are in conversation with each other in any way? How so?

Yes! I think all my work is in conversation with other stories I have written. I am probably writing one giant, messy, collage thing and breaking off bits here and there to send out. Most of my stories sound narrated by the same person. The voice of this person sounds like it’s taking you by the collar or whispering in your ear, and it works in two times frames. It looks back at the creature it was in the past and tells the reader how the creature felt then. The narrator also tells the reader how the narrator feels now, looking back. Those feelings are different. That difference sometimes substitutes for plot, creating a sense of momentum free of resolution or even necessarily understanding.

All of these stories focus on a very specific subject or moment. How do you know when you’ve stumbled upon a subject that you’d like to make into a story?

I don’t know anything ahead of beginning to write how a story will go or even what a source might be. I don’t think anything is intrinsically interesting or uninteresting. Again, it’s that narrative voice, tugging at something and allowing associations to arise, that makes the thing sound like a story. I work consciously to make something ordinary seem strange or something strange seem ordinary. I am also attracted to contradictions that can’t be resolved, the feeling of wanting to be in two places at the same time. To me, that’s the make or break element in something I want to pursue. Here’s an example. One day while I was staying in London, I found a jasmine plant on a high street. I was in London for three weeks, and I was able to nurse the plant back to radiant health. The leaves were gleaming. It had a little trellis. I knew I would have to leave it. Ah, heartbreak! What to do, what to do? What happens in the story is not what happened to the plant in real life.

In terms of craft, to get started, I write a paragraph. Maybe there’s one good sentence in there that takes a surprise turn or uses language in a striking way. I pluck it out and start the piece there, thinking about how to follow it with sentence B that also needs to seduce the reader into wanting to read sentence C. I think this way of working is more like writing poetry. Occasionally, if I’m lucky, I will come up with a potential plot (the fate of the plant!), and this helps to propel things forward, too.

We often think of the end of a story as a true ending, as a way of tying up loose ends. But your stories seem to leave us on moments of opening: “Soon I would look that way.” “I wore them under the khaki raincoat and I went to see him the next day.” Your stories end with a feeling of possibility, of more to come. Can you speak to this? What is your process for ending a story?

I’m glad you think the endings are beginnings! Sometimes, to subvert the temptations of memory and chronology, I think about something that has happened and that might be the basis of a story, and I write a sketch in four paragraphs ordered this way: the end, the beginning, a moment of gratification, a moment of confusion. I’m not interested in resolution or the arc of “I used to be, and now I’m not.” I  believe we remain ambivalent in dramatic moments if we search our minds with enough energy. A story is finished maybe the way a piece of music is finished—after I’ve thought as richly as I can about each element in the contradiction. That approach may offer some sense of satisfaction for the reader. You’ve exhausted them without making them happy!

Who are some of your favorite flash fiction authors? Who inspires your work?

There are many. These writers have been important to me during the time I wrote the stories in The Collagist. I am including writers of hybrid narrative and poetry: Chris Kraus, Diane Seuss, WG Sebald, Édouard Levé, John Haskell, Lydia Davis, David Shields, Richard Rodriguez, and Diane Williams.

What projects are you working on now?

I am pleased to have three hybrid pieces in issue #32 of N + 1. I have been writing for The Women’s Review of Books, and I have a new manuscript of hybrid fiction called The Love of Strangers ready for a publisher. The new book picks up from my last book, My Life as an Animal, Stories in that some characters recur. I would say, overall, the writing here is more reliant on voice than anything else for its sense of continuity. The forms, too, are more experimental, using among other formats, lists and love letters. I try things out on Facebook, posting in four categories: micro fictions, social commentary, art criticism, and memoir. I have been “harvesting” bits here and there from social media and using them to construct texts I think of as a series of postcards. The postcards freely move between genres and incorporate them all, much the way our minds flit around and form connections. I love working this way. Give it a shot.

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