“A successful writing day is usually one in which I make a discovery about the story I’m working on, in which I write something that surprises me, something I didn’t expect to write when I sat down at the computer that morning.”
1. Are you the kind of writer who needs to make a departure in terms of language, emphasis, viewpoint, structure, etc. from one book to the next? If your two books faced off as opponents, what would be the strengths of each?
I wouldn’t say I have an intrinsic need to make a departure with each book, only a need not to tell the same story twice, or at least not the same way twice. So it’s the story that dictates my formal and stylistic choices, notwithstanding whatever I might think I’m doing at the outset.
For instance, I originally intended to structure Long Drive Home entirely as a confessional letter from the protagonist, Glen Bauer, to his daughter, Sara. But after months of wheel spinning, I finally realized that I needed to communicate a lot of information to the reader that Glen would never bother to put in a real letter –stuff Sara already knew, stuff he wouldn’t admit to her, etc. So I changed the structure of the book, retaining excerpts from the letter but mostly using a more conventional first-person narration.
A similar thing happened with the book’s tone. Initially, I conceived of Glen as having a more ironic outlook. But Glen is responsible for the death of a teenager, and his irony made it seem like he didn’t care enough about what he’d done—a fatal flaw in the story’s tone. So I made him more earnest, more serious, with less psychic distance from the events he narrates. Again, the story dictated my choices.
If Long Drive Home faced off with What You Have Left, Long Drive Home would win for narrative momentum, plotting, and suspense. What You Have Left would win for language, sense of place, and emotional range.
2. In a Slate interview, you spoke about the important work your wife did in helping you edit this book. Specifically, what sorts of things did you change?
The Slate essay, “My Editor, My Wife” (http://www.slate.com/id/2292099/) is generally about what it’s like to mix marriage and writing and specifically about the writing of Long Drive Home. Because I had a deadline to meet, I showed the book to Deborah much sooner that I ordinarily would have—before I felt like I’d taken it as far as I could on my own. A lot of her suggestions involved adding sections and expanding scenes to fill in emotional blanks in the story and more fully develop the characters. Later, she also did a lot of line editing, suggesting changes in almost every paragraph of the book.
3. This book encompasses a lot of big issues—race, materialism, the changing nature of family, violence. Did you have these issues in mind at the beginning or did they just arise from the story?
Peripherally, yes, I had them in mind, but what I mainly had in mind were questions about the nature of personal responsibility—to one’s family, to one’s community, to oneself. I initially thought race would play a bigger role in the book, but it didn’t work out that way. Part of me thinks I chickened out, because it’s such a hard thing for me to write about. At any rate, I’m working on a sequel to Long Drive Home that takes up issues of race more explicitly.
4. As a former executive editor of Story magazine, what piece of advice did you dispense then that you consistently ignore now?
I used to urge story writers to very quickly reveal what’s at stake in a story—certainly on the first page if not in the first paragraph. I think I’m less impatient now—a little less. I’m satisfied now with a story whose first page at least gives me the sense that something is at stake, even if I don’t find out exactly what it is until later. But I still think it’s important not to take the reader’s interest for granted. How’s that for a nonanswer?
5. Could you describe a typical writing day? Or maybe a typical successful writing day?
For the last two years that I was working on Long Drive Home, when I was constantly aware of the looming deadline, I’d start at 4 a.m. and write until it was time to get my daughter ready for school, then I’d write some more while she was at school, until it was time to go pick her up. Somewhere in there I’d take a half hour nap and go for a run.
I love being up early, when it’s still dark outside, when everyone else is asleep, when the house and the neighborhood and especially my inbox are quiet—when it’s just me and the cat on my lap, some coffee, and the computer screen. It feels like stolen time.
But while I love being up early, I hate getting up early, and it stinks being sleepy and foggy-headed by midafternoon. I get up at 5 now, which feels much more humane.
A successful writing day is usually one in which I make a discovery about the story I’m working on, in which I write something that surprises me, something I didn’t expect to write when I sat down at the computer that morning.
6. Is there something about your time at Case that helped to make this book possible?
I’m not sure I’d be a fiction writer at all if I hadn’t gone to Case. When I got to college in 1987, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life. I was vaguely considering a career in business, or hotel management, or journalism. I figured I’d take some courses and see what seemed interesting. I signed up for an introductory creative writing workshop with Lee K. Abbott during the second semester of my freshman year. By the end of the semester, I’d decided that I wanted to be a fiction writer, notwithstanding the fact that I wasn’t particularly good at it. I took more workshops with Lee and, later, with Mary Grimm, both of whom were amazing teachers. After I graduated, I took a year off from school to work and write, then I went to Ohio State for an M.A. in English and an MFA in creative writing.
I didn’t write what I’d consider a successful short story until 1994—about six years after I started trying to write fiction. And it was another seven years before I wrote a story that doesn’t embarrass me today. Without Lee and Mary, I doubt I would have developed the skills or discipline or hope that kept me going all that time.
Will Allison (www.willallison.com) is the author of two novels, the New York Times bestseller Long Drive Home (2011) and What You Have Left (2007), a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book that was selected for Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, Borders Original Voices, and Book Sense Picks. A contributing editor for One Story, he has also served as the executive editor of Story, editor at large of Zoetrope: All-Story, and editor of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. He will be teaching in Columbia University’s MFA creative writing program in 2012. A graduate of Case Western Reserve University (1991) and The Ohio State University, he grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and now lives outside New York City with his wife and daughter in South Orange, New Jersey.