The American award-winning playwright and author Victor Lodato is shortlisted for his story, The Tenant. He speaks to Sophie Haydock about the music of writing, drawing inspiration from his theatre background and the patience required to turn one’s memories into the basis for stories
Where did the idea for the story, The Tenant, come from? It’s set in Tucson, Arizona, with characters who rub up against each other in interesting ways.
I’m a runner, and the idea for this story came to me while I was flying down a hill on a rainy day. I just had this very clear image of the setting and of the two main characters, Marie and Harland. For a number of years now, I’ve been working on a series of Tucson stories, a place I lived for many years and where I still spend some time. What’s funny is that I didn’t start writing these stories until relocating to Oregon. Rilke, I recall, once romantically said that living through something isn’t enough to be able to write about it. He proposed that one had to forget things, and then have the patience to wait for one’s memories to return – and that only then, when these recollections arise unexpectedly from deep in your blood, can one make them into a story or a poem. From my own experience, there seems to be some truth in that.
Was it an easy story to write? Can you talk about the process?
I would not say it was easy. No story is ever easy for me. The voices always come to me effortlessly, the characters – but it often takes a while to shape the exact right events that will bring the characters fully to life. Plus, I never work with a plan or an outline of any kind; I just figure things out as I go along. It’s this sort of detective work that keeps me interested as I’m developing a story. I think at the core of all writing and reading is mystery – the ultimate mystery being, who are other people? One writes – and reads – in an attempt to answer this question, or at least to get closer to an answer.
Do you typically like the characters you create? Are they people you recognise?
I can’t imagine writing a story without loving the characters. Perhaps it’s the writing itself that makes me come to love them. I think that’s why fiction, both the writing of it and the reading of it, is such a civilising thing. In it, there’s the possibility of learning to love people who are nothing like you – and that’s where the miracle of art happens, and you change.
How do you know when a short story is finished? What are the signs, for you, that it’s done and ready to be taken out into the world?
Coming from the theatre, as a playwright, I think I have a good sense of when I’ve achieved a satisfying dramatic arc – one in which the various elements of the piece come together and catch fire. For me, there has to be some kind of chemical reaction that creates a powerful emotion. Also, part of my editing process is reading aloud. I know a story is done when, in addition to a satisfying drama, the music of it feels right.
What are the key ingredients for a great short story, do you think? How do you manage to pin those things down on the page?
The writer Hortense Calisher once described a short story as “an apocalypse in a teacup”. Because of their brevity (compared to a novel), there’s something particularly moving to me about the short story form. You get only so much time with the situation and with the characters. In a great short story, you feel you are privy to some very important moment in these characters’ lives. Ideally, you want everything to feel essential, distilled. In a story, too much extra material, too many diversions, can be fatal, especially if these things impede the sense of inevitability, the sense that we are witnessing characters caught in the wheels of fate. One has to be direct, and precise – while leaving room for mystery.
Who are the authors, short story writers in particular, who you admire the most? Who do you return to when you’re looking for inspiration or are stuck in a rut?
I’m all over the place. I love William Trevor, Tessa Hadley, Flannery O’Connor, Wells Tower, Lorrie Moore, Alice Munro – and, of course, Chekhov.
What first drew you to the written word? What inspires you to write, day after day after day?
I was a very shy child and young adult. For much of my early life, I found it difficult to speak to other people. Fiction helped me to find my voice. And I guess I keep doing it because I can’t seem to figure out anything about life without writing about it. Also, writing allows me to organise the world, so as not to become overwhelmed by it. I always go back to what Robert Frost said about the value of a poem as a “stay against confusion”. Writing is certainly that for me.
What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer? Is there another path you could have taken?
I come from the theatre, as I said. I started out as an actor, and I suppose I might still be doing that. Of course, in many ways, I still feel like I’m acting. Writing a story or a novel is a kind of performance. For me, words are always meant to be spoken.
What advice would you give to others who are struggling over the craft of short story writing? Are there any techniques or tips?
Rather than giving tips, which I’m not sure I have – all writers have to find their own way of working – my advice would be to carve out the time for writing. The world will do everything in its power to prevent you from working. You have to be a little selfish and steal the time to write. Inspiration doesn’t always come easily. You have to put in the time, spend those hours at your desk. You never know when the muse is going to show up.
And finally, is there anything you’d like to say about being shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG short story award?
It’s an incredible honour. The other writers, the other stories, are amazing. It seems to be a good moment for the short story – and that make me happy, since it’s a form I love very much.
Photograph: Nancy Crampton