Interview with Andrew Scott
Andrew Scott is the author of a short story collection Naked Summer (Press 53), named a Notable Collection by the Story Prize in 2012. The stories were previously published by Esquire, Superstition Review, Hobart, and other journals. He received an MFA from New Mexico State University. His interviews with other authors have appeared in Glimmer Train Stories, The Writer’s Chronicle, and The Cincinnati Review. He is currently at work on a literary crime novel, and is co-writing a graphic novel with author Bryan Furuness. Scott teaches writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. He lives with his wife, the writer and publisher Victoria Barrett. He recently visited a Fiction Writers and Publishing class at Columbia College Chicago, from which this interview eventually emerged.
An interest in fiction writing from the Midwest has surged with such works as Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage and Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff. Naked Summer is also set in this area of the country, specifically around the city of Lafayette, Indiana. Can you discuss the challenges of the Midwest label?
All of the clichés that are heaped upon Midwesterners—that we’re good-natured, quiet, simple—help create tension when a writer engages them in fiction, because a lot of readers don’t expect people in “the flyover” to have rich inner lives. I think that surprise factor can be an advantage for writers. That said, I do think the Midwest, like any other place, really, can be exoticized in problematic ways. We’re not just one big meth farm from Michigan to Missouri, for instance, even if that is an element worth exploring in fiction. Thank goodness Breaking Bad isn’t set in the Midwest.
No artist likes to be labeled. Writers from Mississippi often bristle at being called Southern writers as often as they resist the expected comparisons to Faulkner, if only because that’s an unfair juxtaposition for any author to endure. I embrace the idea of being a Midwestern writer, or a writer from the Midwest, for a number of reasons. First, it’s just who I am, and there’s no use running from it. But I also have friends who’ve left for Los Angeles or New York, and what makes them interesting in that new environment is often the unique experiences and personalities that were forged here in the Midwest. Kurt Vonnegut said, “If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” But finally, I also think writers from the Midwest are as talented, challenging, engaging, intelligent, and just plain compelling as any writers in America. Plus, the cost of living can’t be beat.
Though not explicitly named, Purdue University serves as a backdrop in several of your stories. How central is the university culture and setting to your collection?
West Lafayette is home to Purdue University, the largest employer in Tippecanoe County, but there’s also a rich mixture of blue-collar jobs—Alcoa, Caterpillar, Wabash National (one of the leading manufacturers of semi trailers in the country)—as well as high-tech positions related to the university’s efforts to promote what is sometimes called the idea economy.
The so-called town and gown divide isn’t as clearly demarcated in Lafayette as it is elsewhere, but it still exists. Students arrive in August like a swarm of locusts, but they also keep many small businesses afloat, even during the lean summer months. In some ways, the place is represented by this dichotomy and could be said to mirror some of the choices my characters must make about whether to leave or stay, whether that choice is about Indiana or a relationship.
In that way, I do think character emerges from place. So much emerges from place, actually. A writer can mine much from a given locale: narrative voice, metaphors large and small, characters, conflict, and more. The stories in Naked Summer seemed to naturally emerge from my knowledge, emotional and physical, of a small pocket of land in a state that is often overlooked.
Let’s talk more about your process. Some writers have a story first, then characters are born; other writers begin with characters and their stories naturally unfold. Few writers (like yours truly) actually conjure a title first and a story follows. What is the generative process like for you?
Titles come to me before anything else, often. I use them to keep me going, or to develop a concept, and sometimes to think about thematic concerns—what I might be up to in a particular piece. But if for some reason a title doesn’t work for that particular story, I keep it for later, just in case. I usually have many more titles floating around than scraps of scenes.
I don’t think it’s necessarily the best way to move forward. Plenty of writers get hung up on a certain title, even if that title no longer fits the story. I’m willing to ditch a title as long as a better one comes along, but having a title in place early has often helped me consider the piece in a more serious way. I have a hard time getting serious about a few lines scribbled on a scrap of paper unless I know those lines will fit into a specific story. For me to think about a story’s specifics, I usually have to know its title, even if that title will change. Whatever works.
How do you determine point of view from story to story?
Point of view is certainly one of the most important decisions a writer makes during the process of crafting a narrative. Some writers don’t even make that choice, opting instead to channel their characters’ voices only in the first person, or to use third-person POV as some kind of default setting. I think a writer’s choices or assumptions regarding point of view should always be examined.
When the words on the page lend themselves to a particular POV choice, I know I’ve been lucky enough to get it right the first time. But usually I have to tinker with a draft until only one option, the right option, emerges. For the three first-person stories in Naked Summer, the voices came naturally, but those narrators—men, all of them—are short on self-knowledge. Two of those three stories are also very short, physical proof that it’s hard for me to maintain a longer narrative told by a man who doesn’t know much.
A creative writing professor once stated that the handling of perspective in your story “A Model Life” shouldn’t have worked, but admitted it does work. Can you discuss this contention?
That comment I mentioned came not from one of my mentors, but from a teaching colleague. But, in general, I do think many writers and editors—especially those currently enrolled in MFA programs, or recently graduated from one—are too limited in what they consider the proper handling of point of view. “A Model Life” alternates between the points of view of a married couple, and readers are nestled closely in each character’s perspective for short sections. It’s short, even for a story, but why shouldn’t it work?
There’s a huge difference between a story with a wandering point of view, where the writer is not in control, and a story where the writer has worked meticulously to control those elements for a specific reason. I didn’t invent some new way of addressing point of view, but I did closely read the work of expansive masters like Chekhov with an eye toward what is possible, which is the opposite of thinking about which rules writers must follow. At the end of his story “Gusev,” for instance, the truly omniscient point of view moves across several perspectives, including that of a shark and the ocean itself. If a writer says, well, Chekhov can get away with it, but you’re not allowed, then that writer doesn’t get it. At all.
Have you ever made a significant change in POV that actually altered a story more drastically than originally anticipated?
Oh, sure. Sometimes I’ve made a change that hasn’t worked, and it’s hard to go back to the earlier draft, but “Naked Summer,” the title story, was drastically improved and altered because of a change to the third person during an earlier revision stage. That opened up the possibilities, making it much easier to dive into the lives of the secondary characters—the protagonist’s love interest, his landlady, his best friend, and so on—which enlarged the story in ways far beyond its length.
You played a bit with the title of your collection until changing it back to Naked Summer. How did the title story, which was also renamed several times, cohesively link the rest in the collection?
You know how little kids are sometimes allowed to run around nearly naked in the summer, even though nobody is exactly comfortable with the idea? I heard a stranger say that it would be one little girl’s last summer for that behavior—meaning the girl would soon be too old, or too aware of her own nakedness and what it might mean, to act that way in public. I grabbed that idea and used it for the story.
The original title was pretty boring, “One Summer,” actually, but having “summer” in that title—which I now think of as a placeholder—provided a different filter through which to perceive that comment. That piece went through several titles before I found the right one, actually, which is rare for me. Usually I can hit on the title fairly early in the process.
Speaking of kids, two of your stories, “The Hypnotist” and “Uniform,” involve teenage protagonists. Is there a particular sensibility required to write about younger characters?
Maurice Sendak said he didn’t write for children, and a lot of the best books for younger readers seem to be written by authors who share that sentiment, which perhaps boils down to the idea that a writer shouldn’t sugar-coat anything. Young characters still have to be good characters, so they should be flawed, they should want something, and they should have conflicting thoughts and desires. A lot of literary fiction about children or teenagers seems to forget this, and that’s how we get characters in grade school who sound like adults when they speak. Authors who want to write about younger characters should remember that bad things happen to children, which means bad things must—at least sometimes—happen to younger characters.
The stories you cited do indeed feature protagonists who are teenagers— a boy and girl, respectively. Thematically, the stories fit the rest of the collection, but they’re a bit darker than the others. In “Uniform,” the boy—he’s eighteen, but a high school junior—begins an affair with the woman across the street; in “The Hypnotist,” a girl whose parents have died in a car accident must watch as her brother, who’s now paralyzed, is brought up onstage as part of a traveling hypnotist’s act.
How did your stories make the final cut? Was there a particular story you fought for that did not make it?
Every story I wanted to include was included. In this book’s long evolution, a few other stories came and went, most notably the former title story, which I removed a few years ago. It’s now a novella that will likely become the anchor for a collection of stories about that group of characters. It just didn’t belong in Naked Summer.
My grad school mentor, Kevin McIlvoy, has talked about searching for a tuning fork story when assembling a collection, an idea that helped. But once I decided that the newly made novella wouldn’t fit with the other stories, I lost my original tuning fork. It took some time before I knew for sure that “Naked Summer” could be that story. When I submitted the manuscript to Press 53, I had recently changed the title of the book, thinking the title of the opening story, “Living Guilt-Free in These United States,” somehow better represented the book as a whole. One of the few changes my publisher required was for me to change the title back to Naked Summer, which had been the manuscript’s title for several years. Easy change.
You mentioned you revised the stories several times. Aside from when they are finally accepted for publication, how do you decide that a story is finally “done”?
I often don’t know when a story is done, which can be a serious problem to have. What I’ve learned is that serious writers are serious about revision, so to become a serious writer, I tried to take revision seriously, which meant that I trained myself to not think of a story as “done” for many, many drafts.
But that morphed, over time, into a negative mindset that did not reflect the actual quality of the stories-in-progress. I knew I could always make them better, which meant they weren’t good enough as they were. Even after the stories in my book had been revised more than a dozen times each, fifteen times, twenty, when I’d step away from the manuscript for a few months, I’d keep thinking that the book was a wreck not worth salvaging. And each time, once I sat back down to face the pages with pen in hand, I’d discover that the stories actually weren’t embarrassing.
One nice side effect of finally publishing the collection is that now, when I have moments of doubt at the writing desk, I can look over and see my book on the shelf, a physical artifact to remind me that I have done this before, and I can do it again.