Interview with our 2022 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize judge, Morgan Talty

Interview with our 2022 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize judge, Morgan Talty

December 20, 2021

 

The following is an interview between Ruminate’s fiction co-editors, Joe Truscello and Emily Woodworth, and Morgan Talty, the judge for the 2022 William Van Dyke Short Story Prize.


JT & EW: When did you begin writing fiction? What motivated you to start? Have your motivations changed over the years? 

MT: I started writing fiction when I was about 18. I have always loved telling stories, and I did a lot of storytelling as a child and teenager: making stuff up for laughs, retelling real stories for fun. As I got older, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, until I realized I could tell stories. I mean, it would be hard—I knew that—but it was the only thing I could see myself doing, besides teaching writing (I love talking about it as much as I do the actual writing).

I’m motivated by the idea that stories can be transcendental for readers, and so I’ve always sought to produce work that tries to achieve that. My motivations haven’t changed too much over the years, except that I think I’m more conscious about the decisions I make in my writing. Stories are powerful—they can be used for good and for evil. Even if I write a “good” or “publishable” story, I really examine it to make sure it’s not feeding on some hackneyed trope or idea that is damaging.


JT & EW: What is your writing process like? Are you more of a planner who can see the end from the beginning, or do you write on impulse and find the story as you go? (Or maybe both?)

MT: I wish I knew! I find that each story I write requires a different process, a different approach. Sometimes, I know what it is I want to write—I might have a situation in mind and some characters—and that gets me started, but for the most part, I tend to just take off with no real sense of purpose, hoping I find something worth pursuing.

I will say, though, that a lot of my finished stories are products of failed stories, which is why I believe the quality of all writing—the good, the bad, and the terrible—is valuable. Stories that don’t work are never failures: they’re steps in the right direction.


JT & EW: In your opinion, what is the difference between a competent story and an excellent story? 

MT: Each story has a unique logic to it, and that logic can sometimes be seen. As writers, we might ask ourselves, “How did this story achieve X?” or “Y?” and then we set out looking to find how the story is working. An excellent story is one whose logic can’t quite be figured out. It’s as if the story is running purely on magic, like a fire starting by itself. What’s more, an excellent story feels like a memory. When it comes to competent stories, from a writerly perspective, the logic of the narrative is easy to figure out—the writer does just enough of a good job to hide the fact that they’re writing. Those stories tend to have a mechanicalness to them.


JT & EW: What is your favorite thing you have ever written? Why? 

MT: “The Name Means Thunder,” namely because I don’t even know how I wrote it. I spent numerous drafts on it (20? 30?) until finally something clicked and I just figured out how the story wanted to be told.


JT & EW: Who are you reading lately? What are those writers doing that you find appealing and interesting? 

MT: I’ve been reading Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! which is amazing, as is all of her work. Strout is just so damn good at getting at emotion. I’ve also been re reading a lot of work, stuff from David Sedaris, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Louise Erdrich, Colson Whitehead, and so many others. These writers have played a huge role in my development as a writer, and I find it interesting and important to return to them, to remind myself of things I may have forgotten.


JT & EW: Why is fiction important? What can fiction do that nothing else can do? 

MT: Fiction has the ability to bring about change, to expand one’s view of the world, and to heal. At least that’s what I think. We’re constantly surrounded by stories, and in many ways all we are are stories. If stories are part of our foundation as humans, part of the way we make sense of the world and ourselves, how could fiction as a mode of storytelling be anything but important?


JT & EW: Who are you writing for? 

MT: I don’t know. I never write a story with a particular audience in mind. I don’t think that way. In fact, it really hinders my ability to write. But I do try and write and appeal to people that I think would find my work’s themes, characters, situations, and so on, enjoyable. I don’t know who those people are, but I know they’re out there. I’m one of them! So maybe I just write for myself, hoping there are others out there wanting the same things I want in a story.


JT & EW: Tell us about your story fiction collection, Night of the Living Rez. How many stories are included, and how long has it taken to gather this collection together? What was your process for selecting/ordering pieces?

MT: The collection features 12 connected stories, but they can be read as stand alones. What’s more, if you read it in order, there is a suggested narrative arc, at least I think so. Not in a way that makes it feel like a novel, but in a way that gives significance to the collection as a whole, if that makes sense.

The first story I ever wrote for this collection was the title story, “Night of the Living Rez.” I wrote the first draft when I was an undergraduate taking a fiction workshop. Obviously, the piece was heavily revised as I got more proficient as a writer. I think I wrote that in the summer of 2015? Somewhere around there. It wasn’t until I attended Stonecoast’s MFA from 2017 to 2019 that I really started writing the collection. I originally set out to write a story collection from David’s perspective, and was like, “OK, I’ll just write stories from his perspective and move chronologically, starting when he was little and ending when he’s older, like in the story ‘Night of the Living Rez.’” And I did that—I wrote about 18, 19, 20 stories, and only, like, 6 were any good. Then I looked at the collection and all these stories and was like, “So what? Who cares about this character?” Something was missing. Thinking the collection was a dud as a book, I moved on to something else, a story I had been wanting to write but hadn’t gotten the chance to because I had been so consumed by David’s voice.

But when I wrote that new story—which became “Burn”—I got to the line where Fellis says, “Get me out, Dee, Dee, get me out” and I couldn’t name the character. I wanted to say David, but I was like, “No, this is a new story, has nothing to do with David.” So I just put the letter “D” there as a place holder as I finished the story. I revised it, kept thinking about a name for this character, and I was sitting on the couch saying aloud, “D…D…D…D what?”

Then it hit me: His name was Dee, or he went by that name, and I realized, “Holy shit, this is David. This is David way in the future.” So then the question I asked was this: what happened to David and his family? That allowed me to write stories with Dee that felt significant and connected to the collection. I began to see why a reader might care about these people, these stories.

After I had written a lot of stories from Dee’s perspective, I selected the best of the bunch and set about ordering them. The David stories were easy to order because they moved chronologically, but Dee’s story had no real time markers, so in between two David stories I placed a Dee story and did this through to the end, reading to see if it worked. I played around with a lot of different orders of those Dee stories until finally settling on one that felt right.


JT & EW: What advice do you have for writers entering Ruminate’s fiction prize? What, as a judge, are you most excited about or hoping to see?

MT: As a judge—and a reader in general—I’m looking for stories that feel like I’ve lived them. I want stories that startle me, that give me hope, that make me laugh, that teach me, that heal me. I want stories that grab me and never, ever let go. I want stories that change me for the better.


JT & EW: Do you have any new projects coming down the pike? 

MT: I’m currently revising a novel and writing a new one. I feel like if I talk about a project I then never write it, so…my lips are sealed here!


JT & EW: Not to sound threatening (ha!), but any last words?


MT: “Gulp.”

 

 

 You can enter your own fiction piece in our William Van Dyke Short Story Prize judged by Morgan Talty here! Deadline is February 1, 2022.

_______________

 

 

Morgan Talty is a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation where he grew up. He received his BA in Native American Studies from Dartmouth College and his MFA in fiction from Stonecoast’s low-residency program. His story collection Night of the Living Rez is forthcoming from Tin House Books (2022), and his work has appeared in The Georgia ReviewShenandoahTriQuarterlyNarrative MagazineLitHub, and elsewhere. A winner of the 2021 Narrative Prize and a recent recipient of a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, Talty teaches courses in both English and Native American Studies, and he is on the faculty at the Stonecoast MFA in creative writing. Talty is also a Prose Editor at The Massachusetts Review. He lives in Levant, Maine.



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