AGNI: Escalation is one of the pleasures of your stories “Theft” and “Our First Couple” in Issue 82. In those pieces, you ramp up some great central conceits—a woman whose husband steals ideas and habits from her, and a couple whose marriage has almost magical effects on the people around them. When you’re working with a concept in a story, how do you know how far to take it, and how fast?
Anthony Varallo: I’m usually more aware of the concept or theme of my story when I’m working in shorter forms.
I tell my writing students that every good short story reads as if the writer knew where everything was headed all along, but must not be written that way: if you know too well where everything is going, you accidentally shut yourself off to anything that is not part of that plan. The result is usually a story that feels static, predictable, or lifeless.
But I don’t think the same thing is necessarily true in short-short fiction, where you don’t have the luxury of five to seven thousand words for the theme or concept to arise naturally from the drama. You have to sort of force the issue, at least a little, starting with the title. I’m always wanting the title to haunt every line of my shorter pieces, aware, for instance, that the reader can usually see the title the entire time they’re reading the story. I want the title to amplify the theme or concept, maybe even taking on different shades of meaning as the reader reads on. So, in “Theft,” for example, the title suggests a story about a literal theft that turns out to be a figurative theft that, by the end, turns out to be not a theft at all, nothing more than the normal nature of human relationships, the way our experience is actually an assemblage of what we know and what we’ve accidentally borrowed or inherited. That’s the concept of the story. I was mindful of that concept as I wrote the story, but I still didn’t know the story would escalate to the scene with the baby. I let the concept lead me there, and then tried to find a moment of surprise along the way.
AGNI: You occupy (at least) two spaces in the writing world—you’re a writer and an editor (for Crazyhorse Magazine). In your life, do those roles complement one another? Do they compete with one another? Complicate one another? All or none of the above?
Varallo: I’ve worked for literary magazines for so long now—ten years as the current fiction editor of Crazyhorse, and five years as a fiction advisor at The Missouri Review before that—that I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t reading unsolicited submissions as part of my reading and writing life. I still love it. I’m still excited to read the next round of submissions, and I’m always hopeful that I’m going to find a story that’s going to make its way into the next issue of Crazyhorse.
For me, editing and writing go together as naturally as writing and reading or writing and teaching (and I love teaching, too, and have been fortunate to teach fiction writing at the College of Charleston for the past ten years). More than anything, reading so many unsolicited submissions has helped me deal with rejection better than I used to, since I now realize how lucky I am to get anything published at all, how stiff the competition truly is, and how many seriously talented writers are out there. I don’t think that was on my mind back when I was first sending out stories. I used to think if a story was good, then it was almost the magazine’s obligation to take it. I didn’t know how many other good stories those editors were considering, or how much better many of them were. If there is a downside to being a writer and an editor, it’s constantly reading work that is as good as or better than whatever you are working on—that can throw you off your game a little. But then you have to remember that, as a writer, you can’t be looking over your shoulder too much, since writing is essentially a solo act anyway.
If I have changed my writing at all in response to my editing role, it is to try and write the kind of story I want to read at Crazyhorse. Sometimes I will ask myself, What kind of story do I rarely see in the slush pile? What kind of story do I want to read right now? For a while I was longing to read some single-event narratives, since I love those kinds of stories and don’t see much of them anymore, story classics like Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” or Updike’s “A&P,” where the entire action unfolds in a few minutes or hours, no space breaks, just straight narrative from the first line to the last. I ended up writing a few single-event stories of my own, in response to what I was seeing—or not seeing, I guess—in the unsolicited submissions. I enjoyed writing those stories, but the experiment was probably only interesting to me, not the reader. I’m glad to have written those stories, though.
Anthony Varallo’s fourth story collection, Everyone Was There, will be published by Queen’s Ferry Press in 2016. He is the author of three previous collections: This Day in History, winner of the John Simmons Short Fiction Award; Out Loud, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and Think of Me and I’ll Know (Northwestern University Press/TriQuarterly Books). Currently he is an associate professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he is the fiction editor of Crazyhorse. Find out what he’s published in AGNI here.