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Exploring the art of fiction

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Hybrid Interview: Molly Gloss


In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books.  —CRAFT


 

Essay by Nicole Barney •

“Your opening line is a throwaway,” Molly Gloss said during workshop, not unkindly, just matter-of-factly. “An editor wouldn’t read past it.”

Granted, my first sentence was no Dickensian gem. It presented no intriguing riddle to be solved, no compelling character, just a high school student balancing a geometry book by its spine. But I was proud enough of the little story I’d concocted that my ego was sufficiently bruised by the pronouncement. I attempted to maintain a stoic expression.

Molly has a unique method of conducting workshop, as I learned when I had the privilege of studying with her at Pacific University during the summer of 2018. She allows a student to lead, remaining relatively quiet, to avoid influencing the tone and trajectory of the discussion, until each participant has said her piece. I had jotted halfhearted notes during my peers’ responses, largely ignoring their criticism, awaiting Molly’s opinion.

Molly taught me, patiently, how the first line of a story has to be more than just any old sentence. A beginning is an introduction, an invitation, a moment in which authority is established and the reader places her trust in the writer. Just because a certain sentence comes first, doesn’t mean it is the beginning of the story. Writers recognize the fluidity of chronology, and are willing to adjust the starting line. She changed the way I approach what to me is the most daunting part of writing: putting the first words down on the blank page.


Gloss’s recent career retrospective collection, Unforeseen, provides a veritable case study in the art of the beginning. With no less than seventeen stories, the collection is markedly diverse, as Gloss is just as comfortable writing speculative or fabulist fiction as she is historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction. Yet each story begins with the kind of opening line that announces itself with confidence and introduces the reader to worlds past, present, and future, in landscapes both familiar and foreign.

The best beginnings encapsulate the story, within a sentence, distilling it to its purest truth. “The Everlasting Humming of the Earth” begins with the line: “When Joyce was ten years old she woke in the night and went to the foot of the stairs and called up to her mother’s bedroom that the earth was shaking.” In one sentence, Gloss presents the reader with a vulnerable character, a source of tension, and a setting. We immediately wonder about the source of the shaking—was there an earthquake, or is Joyce just having a dream? Could something more sinister be at play? By creating a question for the reader, the sentence commands us to read on and discover the answer.

Gloss’s stories often begin somewhere in media res, with the characters thick in the business of living. Despite being dropped right into the action, the reader feels immediately part of the characters’ world. Whether by lush descriptions of Western landscapes, or the offhand mention of a “robo-nurse,” the key to such successful orientation is Gloss’s innate ability to trust her audience. She doesn’t doubt her reader’s intelligence—she doesn’t provide an explanation of what a “robo-nurse” is or what circumstances necessitate its existence. Her work makes the assumption that if you’re reading it, you’re smart, and willing to do the work to keep up. The confidence she grants her audience gives her stories an unmistakable sense of authority. We are in able hands, and can absolutely trust her to guide us through whatever world we land in.

Gloss doesn’t bog the reader down in backstory, either. “The Visited Man” begins: “In April, after the death of his son followed hard on the heels of the death of his wife, Marie-Lucien stopped going out of his apartment.” While the events leading to Marie-Lucien’s self-imposed isolation are likely intriguing stories of their own accord, Gloss makes the conscious choice to begin in a different place, trusting the reader’s imagination to meet her character at the core of his grief and let the story unspool from there.

Her stories defy categorization—each is like opening a gift, without a clue whether it’s a compass or a futuristic toaster or a horse bridle, but knowing whatever is inside is exactly what you’ll need. Surprise is part of the fun of the collection. In one tale, you’re witnessing Dulce coming of age in a hunting ritual; in the next you’ll encounter Elvis Presley crediting his successful career to his equally talented twin brother, who, in reality, died at birth. “Lambing Season,” a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula Awards, reads like a literary Western with a strong female protagonist, but by the end you’re equally as likely to dub it science fiction as literary fiction, or throw up your hands and call it elusive and thought-provoking.

Molly Gloss’s work begs the question, “Does genre matter?” which I asked her in online correspondence in May 2019. Mercurial though the idea of genre may be, her stories speak for themselves, providing the definitive answer that good writing transcends genre. With an imagination as wide as the sky, Gloss renders her characters compassionately, whether they reside in late-nineteenth-century France or a not-so-distant future in which cerebellum transplants are a reality. Her fiction, no matter how it’s branded, probes deep issues—what it means to be human, how we take care of one another, our responsibilities to animals and the environment—and offers hope that, despite all that’s wrong with the world, individual kindnesses will prevail.


 

Nicole Barney: I was impressed by the diversity of the collection, how you’re just as comfortable writing literary fiction as you are historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. What about your approach to storytelling allows for such fluidity? Does genre matter, or is there just good literature?

Molly Gloss: I’m not sure what or who is to blame for my willingness to write across the borders of genre. I’m an eclectic reader, have been since childhood, could that account for it? I enjoy almost every kind of story—except perhaps whiny/dysfunctional urban realism, which means I miss a lot of contemporary fiction, alas! But lots of writers I know have read across a spectrum, just as I do, and nevertheless stick to one genre in their own writing. So I don’t know the answer to your question. Genre just doesn’t limit me very much, and I find it’s the same challenge to create a believable, real setting in historical fiction as in science fiction. It’s all a spectrum, and the past is just as unreal to us as the future, until a writer brings it to life on the page. But I will say that jumping around, not settling into one genre, has caused minor problems when it comes to finding a publisher, and finding an audience. My readers for The Jump-Off Creek or The Hearts of Horses are often not willing to try my science fiction, for instance; and when I followed up a novel about a single woman homesteader (The Jump-Off Creek) with an interstellar “Quakers-in-Space” (The Dazzle of Day), my editor shook his head in bemusement and not very tactfully told me to put the book in a drawer and write something else. And Wild Life was hard to categorize—it’s a feminist historical, a who-done-it Western, as well as a Sasquatch fantasy. This made it hard to “pitch” and therefore hard to sell. One thing I’ve loved about Saga Press is that my editor there, Joe Monti, told me from the beginning, “Include in this story collection anything you think belongs there. We’re not putting any limitations on genre.”

 

NB: You were mentored by the late great, Ursula K. Le Guin. In what ways did she influence you? What other writers have shaped your craft in significant ways?

MG: Ursula has always been a model for me as a writer and as a teacher. Perhaps she’s the one who gave me tacit permission to tell stories without worrying about genre?—because of course she wrote all kinds of stories herself. She was a particular influence on my science fiction, simply by showing me that the science in science fiction didn’t have to be physics or chemistry, but could be centered in biology, or centered in the human sciences—sociology, psychology, anthropology. I don’t think I would ever have tried writing science fiction if I hadn’t read Le Guin first. Of course, many other writers have influenced my writing—too many to name—but perhaps I should call out Willa Cather and A.B. Guthrie, Jr., for showing me what Western writing could aspire to be.

 

NB: If I remember right, you came to writing later in life, and are largely self-taught. What advice—or encouragement—do you have for those of us who are following a similar path?

MG: I had always loved to write, but in high school and college and into my twenties I had an impatient habit of writing the beginning, middle, or end of a story—whatever I thought was the most interesting part—and quitting when the idea petered out or I got bored. I didn’t really get serious about writing—didn’t finally write a whole story beginning to end—until I was in my thirties. The encouraging thing I can say to novice writers, and writers getting a late start, is that after finishing that first story it was only about two years before I began publishing. And I got there mostly by the old-fangled method of sitting down in a chair and writing and writing and writing, until I figured out how to make all of it—the beginning, middle, and end—all of it interesting. I was already publishing by the time I took the one and only writing workshop of my life, from Ursula at Portland State in 1981, so I was self-taught, yes, and I had been, until then, a solitary writer. But a peer critique group developed from that workshop, and I credit them for helping me become a better writer. The regular practice of articulating what worked and didn’t work in someone else’s writing is what got me there, more even than their help with one of my own stories. I highly recommend peer groups if you can find one. Online groups can work too, if you don’t have access to one where you live. But face-to-face critique with serious, like-minded writers was, to me, absolutely invaluable.

 

NB: Several of the stories in Unforeseen have a speculative or fabulist element, almost as if you possess a crystal ball that grants you visions of near-future scientific possibility and political consequences. How do current events shape your writing?

MG: I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, but I think most science fiction writers are thinking about the future, looking at where we are now and trying to imagine possible paths forward. One of the functions of science fiction, and one of the reasons I was drawn to it, is that it can be a place for imagining alternative ways to live our lives. A place to think about what is truly valuable, and how to conduct ourselves, alternative ways to organize societies. Incidentally, I think my Western writing may have been influenced by current events as much as my speculative writing, because I see glimpses of the mythic cowboy hero, the one who dominated our screens for fifty years or more, in my news feeds almost daily. All my Western fiction is in some way an attempt to nudge that myth away from all its loneliness and bloodshed and misogyny, toward inclusion and community and nonviolence. Maybe that’s what I’m doing in my speculative fiction as well?

 

NB: A common thread throughout the collection is human relationships with animals—from pets to livestock to zoo animals, to a dog that falls from the sky. I get the sense that animals, but most particularly horses, which also play a part in several of your novels, are a source of inspiration for you. When patterns like this emerge in a writer’s work, I feel as if the priority the writer places on whatever interest or obsession gives me a window into who the writer is as a person. What role do animals play in your life? How often do you see yourself in the relationships you create on the page?

MG: Animals have been an important part of my life, always. We were never without a dog when I was growing up, and this was in the days when dogs just ran loose, so some of them met early deaths. Many of my strongest childhood memories are centered on those dogs. I was always hanging around horses back then, too, riding my friends’ horses because I never had my own; but when my husband and I moved into the city I was away from horses for many years. I was in my sixties before I came back to them and finally had a horse of my own. One thing I’ve always felt strongly, and more so as my horse and I have grown older together, is that we humans are also animals, no less than a coyote or a bear or a horse. And that many animals—dogs, cats, horses, for sure—have emotions and an interior life not much different from our own. And this belief finds its way into my fiction. I generally avoid writing overtly about my own life but the animals in my life, and my experiences with them, seem to find ways to wriggle in.

 

NB: You changed my writing life when, in a workshop at Pacific University, you told me the first line in a story I’d written was a throwaway. Thank you—it made me realize that beginnings are the gateway to a kingdom the writer creates, a threshold that either invites readers to cross or stops them in their tracks and sends them elsewhere. What is your process for beginning a story? On the flipside, how do you know where a story ends, when it has done its work and leaves the interpretation up to the reader?

MG: I’ve heard the advice that you should start a story as late into it as you possibly can, and that makes sense to me, even though I haven’t always followed it. I have advised student writers to think about what happens in the minutes right before the story begins, or think about the minutes just after. Try rewriting your opening at each of those places and you might be able to tell if you’re starting too soon or too late or at exactly the right point. I have to admit, though, beginnings are often intuitive for me. The first line of a novel or a story sometimes arrives in my mind very early on. So early, in fact, that it might be the only thing I start with, and the only thing I know for sure, as I begin to think about the story or assemble notes and do the research for a novel. And often that line doesn’t change much or at all as the story unfolds. I wish I understood where those first lines come from, but it’s a mystery. As for endings, I think novice writers very often write one or two paragraphs past the place they should have stopped. Perhaps they don’t trust themselves, or trust their readers, and so they trail on for a while after the strong line that is the real ending, maybe trying to summarize what’s already implicit in the story. But in my experience, most writers only have to have this pointed out to them once or twice to begin seeing it for themselves.

 

NB: Setting plays a crucial role in your stories, as if place is a character all its own. As an Oregon native, you have an intimate knowledge of that landscape, but how do you create a sense of authenticity for places with which you aren’t as familiar, like Elvis Presley’s Tennessee or Henri Rousseau’s Paris?

MG: Yes, it’s a challenge for me when I venture away from my familiar landscape; but I run into a similar problem if I’m writing historical fiction set on a landscape that might be dramatically different today. I was familiar with Skamokawa, Oregon, before I began writing Wild Life, for instance, but the town as it exists today only dimly resembles what it was in 1905. So in all these cases I rely on research, and I study photographs, lots of photographs. Travel narratives are often a great help. And if it’s a historical setting, I look for contemporary writing of the period, which is often rich with detailed description. Of course if I can go to the place, I do. For Falling From Horses, I made a road trip down to California, following the bus route on old Hwy 99, spent a couple of weeks driving all around the Hollywood neighborhoods, visiting the Western movie sets, walking around the original downtown of Los Angeles, which is much the same as it was in the 1930s. But I also read a couple of Dashiell Hammett novels, set in 1930s L.A., and I think I got as much from those as from seeing the city as it is now, cut up with all those freeways.

 

NB: Many of your characters are coping with loss and grief—of a spouse, a child, a healthy self. You render the spectrum of their emotions and reactions with compassion and honesty, along with the small kindnesses and cruelties we deal to our fellow humans on a daily basis. What allows you to access so many variations of human vulnerability?

MG: I don’t write memoir, and I don’t incorporate my own life into my fiction in readily visible ways. But, like every human being on the planet, I’ve experienced losses of various kinds, and I reach into that well of empathy when I’m writing fiction. I think this must be what all writers do? As a reader, I’m especially drawn to stories with characters the writer seems to love, even when they are not doing loveable things. And in my own writing, it’s much the same. I try to be generous to my characters, even the ones I know I wouldn’t like if we met in real life. I try to imagine they had a life before they walked onto the pages of my story, and that their life will go on afterward. I try to imagine that, like every human being on the planet, they’ve experienced loss. And I try to love them even when they’re not doing loveable things.

 


MOLLY GLOSS is the author of several novels including The Jump-Off Creek, The Dazzle of Day, Wild Life, The Hearts of Horses, and Falling From Horses, and a story collection, Unforeseen. Her work has received a PEN West Fiction Prize, an Oregon Book Award, two Pacific Northwest Booksellers Awards, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, and a Whiting Award. She lives in Portland, Oregon.


NICOLE BARNEY is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Pacific University. Her writing appears in the Bear River Review and other places. She lives in Michigan with her family, and is currently working on a novel.