This interview launches my new series, Seven Questions. I’m excited to introduce Liz Prato, a short story writer, novelist, essayist and writing teacher, based here in Portland, Oregon. She’s an important part of my personal writing community as well as a local literary fixture. We met some years ago in a weekly fiction workshop taught by Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose, then worked together again in 2008 when she established an innovative writing group dedicated to exploring each other’s novels.
Liz’s work has been widely published in magazines as well as the Soft Skull Press anthology WHO’S YOUR MAMA, and she has earned four prestigious Pushcart nominations. This fall, her creative essay “Second Skin” won the Minnetonka Review’s Editors’ Choice Prize. Check out her most recently published story, “When Cody Told Me He Loves Me on a Weird Winter Day,” at Hunger Mountain.
Liz has been featured as a panelist and teacher at Wordstock, Portland’s annual literary festival, and as a guest speaker at Willamette Writers. She teaches writing classes at The Attic and Annie Bloom’s Bookstore.
While her characters struggle to fix their lives and to reinterpret their own sense of themselves, Liz’s well-developed authorial voice is strikingly honest. Her language is tightly focused but also infused with brushstrokes of poetry and a refreshing dose of humor. Her novel, THE LOST ART OF MIRACLES, explores some of the same themes as her shorter work—identity, sexuality and grief. Welcome, Liz!
1. You’re a rare breed of writer, one who switches successfully between short stories, novels and even nonfiction. How has working on short pieces influenced your longer work, or vice versa? What are you focused on now?
I started writing short stories because I thought it would make me a better novelist. And, in some ways, it did, by helping me be more concise, by figuring how to “get to it.” You don’t have a lot of time to make an impact in a short story or essay, and there’s no reason that rule shouldn’t apply for a novel, as well. At the same time, the space of a novel helps my shorter pieces by teaching me how to fully explore character. Right now I’m focusing on the short form – stories and essays. Love them. Love.
2. Please tell us about your novel, THE LOST ART OF MIRACLES.
It’s the story of a twentysomething guy named Cam who moves to Santa Fe a few months after his brother kills himself. He’s hoping to just hide away from his friends and family–and himself—everyone who wants him to “move on” or “heal” or be normal again. Like that’s possible after losing someone you love. He becomes friends with a gay artist named Bill, whose lover died the previous year. Instead of being able to hide from himself, Cam ends up having to face questions of sexual orientation that he’s been trying to push down for years, largely because his brother was homophobic. In trying to come to terms with his identity, Cam has to also confront his grief. Sounds like a barrel of laughs, right? The good news is that with a bunch of gay men on the page, there’s a lot of humor. It’s not all sturm und drang. That’s just not my style—in real life, and on the page. Humor is not an accessory. It’s a life preserver.
3. Over the past few years, you have studied—and mastered—the nuances of point of view. What led you to that trajectory? What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned from your explorations?
Oh, wow. That’s really nice of you to say, although I wouldn’t say I’ve “mastered” it. I’m constantly studying, trying to figure it out, and every time I think I have a good grasp on point of view, I read something that totally turns me upside down again. I ended up exploring point of view mainly because I was—unsuccessfully—always trying to tell too many characters’ stories through a singular POV. So, I started experimenting with POV to see how it could open up my worlds. What I’ve learned is that strong narrative stance is almost invisible, so readers and beginning writers don’t know how it’s operating. They don’t know it even exists. I think a real understanding of narrative stance is the main thing that separates decent writers from really good writers.
4. You’re very active in the Portland writing community. In fact, it seems you know just about everybody! Why did you decide to engage with other local writers, and how has that involvement changed your perspective on the profession?
Well, I’ve been lucky. Writers are pretty generous folks, and a lot of people—in and out of Portland—offered their support to me from early on. Those relationships have been an essential piece of my career successes. And becoming a teacher automatically immersed me into a certain level of community, too. But, more than anything, I think community is necessary to a bunch of people who spend all day thinking about characters who, in the minds of other people, don’t even exist. I mean, come on. It’s not just when we’re in front of our computers. We’re doing it when we’re showering or cooking dinner, too. God, we might even be doing it while we’re making love. And what’s even weirder is, unlike other people we love, we’re not trying to make our characters’ lives easier. We’re thinking of ways to thoroughly fuck them up. When you’re doing something that crazy—and undervalued, in a culture obsessed with poorly behaved celebrities—you need a tribe. We keep each other sane, and we give each other a hand whenever we can.
5. Tell me about your teaching career. What kinds of classes do you offer, and where? What have you learned about the craft from working with your students?
Like my writing, my classes are diverse. I teach creative nonfiction and fiction workshops, at the Attic Institute, and privately at Annie Bloom’s Books. We not only critique the participants’ pieces in progress, but also study craft essays or analyze published work. That was missing from the workshop method through which I learned to write, so I like to round out my classes with a good heaping of both. I also teach these really fun two-hour seminars on a specific topic, like point of view or how to submit to literary journals. I love teaching short stories, but everyone wants to write a novel or memoir these days. It seems crazy to me. It takes years to write and revise a book, and then there’s a 98 percent chance it won’t get published. In short stories and essays you get to explore different themes and voices and characters, and the time investment isn’t such a killer. I recently read a NY Times article about why so many writers abandon novels, and Michael Chabon said something like, he had to abandon an early novel because it was trying to kill him.
What I’ve learned most about craft from my students is probably what I said earlier about narrative stance–that when it’s done well, it’s invisible. It’s kind of like watching Jimmy Stewart act. It’s so effortless, you don’t realize he’s acting.
6. It seems like you reached a point in your writing life where you committed to being a professional in the industry. You set goals and started meeting them with discipline, determination and—of course!—talent. What advice would you give to writers who are just beginning to take their own careers seriously?
Oh, man. Quit bitching and just do it. Plenty of writers—talented writers—spend a lot of time complaining to me about how they don’t have the time, or the energy to focus on their writing enough to really gain some momentum. And, sure, we all struggle with that. But the writers who are truly serious about it as a career make time. They make sacrifices. Recently I was asked to join a kick-ass writers group, and I almost turned it down because I didn’t want to give up a night of my free time. Thank god my husband and my good friend Yuvi Zalkow gently reminded me of how often I despair over how I’ll become better at my craft. Did I think it was just going to be handed to me? No. I was going to have to work for it. I was going to have to give up something. And what did I really give up? Watching “What Not to Wear” in real time.
So my advice to new writers is: be honest with yourself. And be gentle with yourself, too. Be honest about how badly you want a writing career, and what you’re willing to give up for it. Then accept whatever your absolute truth is. If the most you’re willing to give up is an hour a week, then make peace with knowing that right now your career can’t develop at a lightning pace. This is the most you can do right now, and that’s okay. And know whatever you decide isn’t carved in stone. The circumstances of our lives can change with alarming speed, so you can change your priorities, too.
7. You’re a careful, thoughtful reader of other people’s work. What novels or stories have impressed you in the past year or two? Why?
Oh, thanks for saying that. It’s really kind–and important to me. Mary Robison’s WHY DID I EVER? knocked my socks off. It’s been out for several years, but I just finally got to it. She’s got an insane economy of words, without sacrificing character or story. And she’s brave enough to write unlikeable female characters who we somehow end up rooting for. Laura van den Berg’s collection, WHAT THE WORLD WILL LOOK LIKE WHEN ALL THE WATER LEAVES US has an extraordinary depth and sophisticated rate of revelation. She’s, like, 28, with a voice so mature you’d think Flannery O’Connor’s ghost set up shop inside her. Oh, and I just read a great story called “Housewiverly Arts” by Megan Mayhew Bergman in One Story. It was quirky, but not self-consciously so. It had a strong sense of authority, the kind that lets the reader know they’re in good hands. There are plenty of mature, well-published authors who don’t have the kind of easy authority. That’s what a reader really wants, consciously or not. They want to trust that whatever crazy-ass ride the writer takes them on will be handled with grace.
Thanks so much for the interview, Liz! For more information about Liz Prato, her classes or her upcoming publications, check out her Web site, www.lizprato.com.