Interview with SmokeLong Quarterly’s Tara Laskowski
Gay Degani: Thanks, Tara, for talking to me about your writing career and in particular your relationship with short stories. You’ve been honored now three times on the storySouth Notable On-line Stories list including this past year’s “Betta Fish,” nominated for a Pushcart Prize, listed by Dzanc’s Best of the Web series for 2009, and won the 2010 literary awards series from the Santa Fe Writers Project. You also serve as a senior editor at SmokeLong Quarterly so I can’t think of a better writer to talk to for Short Story Month this year than you.
Let’s start with reading, if you don’t mind. You say in your biography that when you were a kid, you read everything you could get your hands on. Can you remember what some of your favorites were and how they’ve influenced you over the years?
Tara Laskowski: I still have a mild obsession with kid/young adult books. When I was younger, I loved mysteries like Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown and The Three Investigators. (I’m trying to collect all the Three Investigators series still.)
I also loved loved loved the Chronicles of Narnia, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary. I actually miss those days of reading because I think I read differently then. Now that I’m a writer, it’s rare that I read just for ravenous pleasure—I’m often looking at craft, language, etc. in a different way—and I miss that pure love for story. When I was younger, I used to finish a book and start reading it over again immediately. Now I feel like I don’t have time for that.
GD: Love that phrase “ravenous pleasure!” As an editor, I’m sure you’re still looking for “ravenous pleasure so what exactly do you hope for when you start reading submissions? In other words, what kinds of things cause you to shout “We’ve got to publish this!”?
TL: It’s different every time, which is what I like about the process. I can’t ever say there’s one particular kind of story I want because I always find one I love that breaks the rules. That can be frustrating for submitters who want that magic formula to help them get published, but sadly I think it’s true. It’s like dating—you walk into a bar, order a drink, scan the room, and look for what you think looks like the hottest guy in the place. Maybe you talk to him for a bit and realize that though he had promise, he has no substance. Or his dialogue sucks. Then you’re on the way to the bathroom and there’s this guy hidden in the back, in a dark corner, who you almost ignore, but then he steps out and he smiles and he starts speaking and SNAP—you’re in love. Ok, maybe that comparison doesn’t work at all—and maybe I shouldn’t encourage people to meet strange lurking souls in dark corners of a bar. But you get my drift? Maybe? I guess I want to be surprised and delighted. Luckily, it continues to happen, which makes our job so fun.
GD: Lurking cute guys! I totally get it. What about your writing process? What is your routine? Where do you write? Give us a tiny movie clip of you at work.
TL: I have no routine and no real process. I kind of write in spurts, randomly, or when I force myself to. I actually hate to write. I just love having written. I don’t even know if I can give you a movie clip because I honestly don’t know. I just sit down and type and then it’s there and it either sucks or it’s something I can work with. I’m not much for the idea that writing is a mystical process or magical or beautiful—it is work and it is hard and it takes a lot of energy, but like anything else, it’s worth doing, I think you’re a better, happier person if you keep at something you think is important, even if it seems impossible sometimes.
GD: So now we know how hard you work, which of your stories are you most proud of? Which surprised you when you finished it and in what way? Which piece might you consider the most indicative of “Tara Laskowski?” Why?
TL: I’m working on a series of "etiquette" stories right now that are modular stories told in a kind of voice you’d find in self-help or etiquette books. They are a blast to write, I tell you, and I’ve been really happy with the results so far. “The Etiquette of Adultery” was published in Necessary Fiction last year and “The Etiquette of Dementia” was published in Mid-American Review this year.
I write a lot about women, and I write a lot about my hometown, Wilkes-Barre, PA. I also tend to write a lot about people who were close to, but not affected directly by, violence or a violent act. For example, I have a story about a woman whose co-worker was murdered and another story about a woman who witnesses a car accident in which a little boy was killed. I think it’s really interesting what happens to people when they feel this brush with death or danger. So….if you combine all these elements together, maybe a story like "Little Girls" might be an example of a Tara story?
GD: You have a novel you’re work on, Black Diamond City. Are you willing to tell us something about the story and how far along you are?
TL: BDC was my first novel. It is a love story told over several decades, and it was very ambitious, probably too ambitious at the time. (Though I still love it and hope to go back to it sometime.) I’ve since been writing a second novel which takes place over one summer and in contemporary time; I think plays more to my strengths as a writer. I think I’m better at smaller moments in time rather than larger stories told over years and years, so we’ll see. It’s a family drama, kind of like The Ice Storm only with a fire instead of ice. Ha ha.
GD: Can’t wait to see it in print. With all this experience, do you have any words of advice for new writers?
TL: Read a lot. Read a lot. Read a lot. And learn to take rejection gracefully. There’s nothing worse than a writer who can’t take constructive criticism.
GD: Thanks, Tara, for allowing me to ask questions. I’m going to take the liberty now of giving out some links so everyone can fall in love with your writing.
There’s Someone Behind You
Something More Interesting
The Men and the Women
Where My Boyfriend Lives
About the interviewer:
EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles and blogs at Words in Place.