Ioannis GATSIOUNIS ... Velvet & Cinder Blocks (2009)
Starting with Journals, Ending with Readers
Start a story, only to start all over again. Every writer goes through it, according to IOANNIS GATSIOUNIS, author of the short-story collection, Velvet & Cinder Blocks. And every writer ends the process in one of two ways: by completing the story or abandoning it once and for all.
PAGING THROUGH Velvet & Cinder Blocks, I spot a few stories that almost didn’t make it into the collection.
One is the much remarked upon ‘Rat Tooth,’ about a boy in a rich Jewish neighbourhood who finds a tooth in his school burger and plots to sue his way out of poverty. I recall having been a fingertip away from instantly zapping the story with the delete key.
‘Above the Merciless Waterline,’ a story involving a rape in the aftermath of a tsunami, and ‘The New Vet,’ which follows a rootless gunrunner through the streets of New York, nearly suffered the same fate.
The stories were clear enough to me. I had the layers, the characters, the plot turns, the symbolism, the story’s political connection to our larger world—essential, as George Orwell noted, if you want to be relevant and not just decorative. I had these and other matters mapped out clearly in my mind.
So why was I miring at the starting line?
Like anyone serious about writing, I sought to connect with an audience. The most obvious way to do so in this fragmented new century was through a handful of (mostly unread) literary journals, whose website warned that receive thousands of submissions a month so it may take some time before you hear back (if you hear back at all), whose guidelines provide a litany of dont’s: don’t send us anything over 3,000 words, don’t send us anything dealing with suicide, vomit or incest, don’t send us a non-SASE envelope if you expect a reply, don’t send your submission in July, November, the first half of January, and so on.
Too often, short-story writers end up writing for the journals and their audience, which as Stephen King noted in a New York Times op-ed, tends to consist of “other writers and would-be writers who are reading the various literary magazines (and The New Yorker, of course, the holy grail of the young fiction writer) not to be entertained but to get an idea of what sells there.”
Conscious of breaking 3,000 words, I didn’t give my stories room to breathe. Imagining some jaded reader drowning amidst stacks of manuscripts he secretly loved to loathe, I tried to write golden first sentences that would stand out like a yacht in a barren sea of flotsam that he would want to board and never leave. And then a second, and a third.
I wrote for that reader, an object of my imagination that did nothing to cultivate my imagination.
Letting these journals dictate the terms of writing is no way to write. It compromises the writer. It suffocates the story.
I found, almost invariably, that when I abandoned thoughts of literary magazine editors and their short-story-writing readers, and instead opened myself up to the story, when I let intuition be my guide, the story found its way.
That’s not to say I blocked out notions of a reader. But I stopped defining my reader through the narrow lens of literary journals. When writing with the latter in mind, the writer distances himself from the potential of the story and its potential to connect.
I came to realise I didn’t have to dress a story up (or dumb it down) to reach people. I just had to stay true to my aim: to articulate our tense, muddled world through compelling, displaced characters and engaging stories.
Of course, abandoning notions of the “journal reader” can be risky and disquieting, for it begs the question: without the journal, how, and with whom, am I going to communicate?
Stubbornly refusing to write for journals (some of which ironically would go on to publish my stories) led me to think quixotically: to think in terms of a collection.
I began to write stories that overlapped thematically. To bolster their unity, I approached the title story, ‘Velvet and Cinder Blocks’, with the intent of making it the pillar of the collection; it weaves together some of the collection’s themes and also helps to cover the geographical range of the collection (Middle America, kampungs, Asian metropolises, New York). At the same time, the story itself should not be compromised; it must stand on its own and crackle with authenticity.
I’m confident ‘Velvet & Cinder Blocks’ walks that fine line. In it we join a wealthy, perambulating bon vivant in his sprawling bungalow in Southeast Asia as he reflects back on a childhood in Manhattan and suburbia scarred by parental infidelity. It’s intimacy he lacks. But is it what he needs? If read loosely enough, one can imagine the collection’s subsequent stories as time before the narration of the opening story and after the childhood being recalled.
Thinking in terms of a collection allowed me to engage with readers more fully. Consider ‘The Guesthouse,’ the closing novella and the most overtly political tale in the collection. Revolving around a young Malay man and a westerner, it concerns the historical moment between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. It examines how global events can feed our sense of limitation and lead to self-destruction (or self-realisation). I needed more than a short story to do it justice. And yet it didn’t quite work as a novel. A novella was its natural form.
But who publishes those?
I don’t know if I would have found the incentive to start ‘The Guesthouse’ had I thought too hard about it. But by then, I was well into writing a collection, writing for readers the way this writer envisioned it to be.
IOANNIS GATSIOUNIS is the author of Velvet & Cinder Blocks, a collection of short stories. He is also the author of Beyond the Veneer, a book on contemporary politics in Southeast Asia.
Reproduced from the January-March 2010 issue of Quill magazine