For me, language can be as, if not more, important than plot.The American writer Courtney Zoffness is shortlisted for her story, Peanuts Aren’t Nuts. She talks about sexuality and power dynamics, being obsessive about every word and shares her tips for short story success
Peanuts Aren’t Nuts is about a teenage girl who is caught up in a world of confusing and compelling emotions. Where did the initial spark for this story come from?
The story’s premise actually comes from my life: I had a high school tutor who was ultimately caught in a paedophile sting operation and sent to federal prison. He never hit on me, and I certainly wasn’t attracted to him, but either or both could’ve happened – fertile ground for a fiction writer. I am also intrigued by the insidious ways that sexuality can complicate power dynamics, an issue I’ve been told is timely, though sadly, I think of it as timeless.
How do you describe your style for people who haven’t read your work before?
I describe my style as “literary realism,” and I may stick the word “lyrical” in there somewhere, too. For me, language can be as, if not more, important than plot.
Would you say it’s necessary for an author to write about what they know?
I often find seeds of narrative in my own life, or in the lives of others, but as in the case of Peanuts Aren’t Nuts, I make sharp turns away from the truth. I don’t think it’s necessary to write about what you know or have experienced. I think authors should write about whatever they choose.
Why do you write? Is it a process that comes easily for you?
I write to process and fathom the world around me – intellectually and emotionally. But it’s also a compulsion, something I feel I need to do. While the act itself comes easily, I wouldn’t say the process does. Drafts can take years to ferment, and I am obsessive about every word.
Why, in particular, do you enjoy the short story form? What makes it compelling?
As a reader, I love the digestibility of short stories; it’s satisfying to consume a whole narrative in a single sitting. (I’m a slow reader, so I rarely have this pleasure with novels.) As a writer, I appreciate the carefulness of the form, the way every detail carries weight. My favourite short stories marry psychological precision with memorable prose.
What short story would you tell us all to go out and read, immediately?
Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice by Nam Le.
Do you have tips for success? How have you done it and what advice would you give to others?
I feel a bit sheepish offering advice to others when my career is just getting off the ground. That said, I certainly advocate tenacity. I started writing with some seriousness shortly after college, and had several unproductive years, which were followed by having two children in pretty quick succession. I never considered giving up writing, even when I wasn’t producing much – or wasn’t producing much that was any good. It’s gratifying to see this commitment pay off.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about your experience of being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
To be selected from a deep pool of entries and then shortlisted among such accomplished authors is both gratifying and head-spinning for a writer without a published book. The recognition is also generously affirming. Prior to learning my story was a contender, I began the process of expanding Peanuts Aren’t Nuts as the basis for my first novel. The characters stuck with me, and I have so much more to say. That the material resonates with the judges bolsters my confidence in this decision.
Interview by Sophie Haydock