Nebraska Center for Writers

Chimney Rock
Interviews with
Judith Slater

The Baby Can Sing
Copyright © 1999
by Judith Slater
Sarabande Books
Trent Walters>>Are you all set, Ms Slater? Is Ms Slater too formal, BTW?

Judith Slater>>Hi, Trent. It's nice to have the chance to talk to both of you. Mary Helen, maybe we can meet sometime soon. And yes, I'm all set. Judy would be much better than Ms Slater, thanks.

Trent Walters>>Ok, Judy. My first question: Stuart Dybek wrote of your fiction collected in The Baby Can Sing & Other Stories that your "dialogue sounds like human voices. She has an eye for subtle details, physical and psychological, that make her characters come alive and maintain their credibility. ..." I find myself agreeing whole-heartedly. These are characters who are people the reader has grown up with, met at the supermarket. How do characters come to you? Are they imagined whole? Do they come after several drafts? Or are they part of meticulous character biographies?

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Great question.

Judith Slater>>Definitely not meticulous character biographies. I know some how-to books tell you to do that, but I find it deadly dull. My characters usually are inspired by people I know. The photographer in "The Bride's Lover," for instance, is inspired by a friend of mine who has an edgy, sarcastic sense of humor — the scenario's fictional, but I had his voice in my head as I wrote. By the way, I guess it's dangerous to admit that I borrow people from real life — but I think most writers do that. By the time the story's evolved, so has the character so that he or she really is fictional.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>I've found that people love to be borrowed.

Trent Walters>>So then are all your characters loosely based on people you know, so that the writing of them on the page is fairly easy?

Judith Slater>>Well, yes, usually they do. The writer Molly Giles said she writes about her sisters all the time, and they don't mind because she's always careful to make them thin and beautiful, whatever other awful qualities they might possess.

Trent Walters>>Ha! Do the characters evolve through drafts to fit your idea of the story or vice versa?

Judith Slater>>Trent, in answer to your last question — I wouldn't say the writing is easy the way I work with characters, but I feel more confident that I'm creating a psychologically convincing character if I start with real life rather than pure imagination. And the characters do evolve, certainly, though not in order to fit any preconceived idea of the story. I think I just get to know them better as I write, through watching them move and speak and interact.

Trent Walters>>I found a lot of expository summary in stories like "The Fat Dancer" and especially in "Sandra Dee Ate Here" — perhaps more summary than dramatic moments. And it works beautifully. Were stories such as these any more difficult to construct due to their less dramatic nature?

Judith Slater>>Good question. "David Morning" is another story with a lot of summary. I'm glad you thought the technique worked. It's something I've finally decided to stop fighting against as a writer — I tend to write this way naturally, and have always seen it as a bit of a weakness, but finally decided to look at it as a strength. After all, writers work in so many different ways. There's no reason to think that you always have to write in dramatic scenes. I think "Sandra Dee" worked because there is that one dramatic scene at the very end where the story (I hope) sort of blossoms, but I knew it was a calculated risk. Do you ever write this way, more in summary than dramatic moments? And do you find that it works?

Trent Walters>>Yes, mostly at the beginning of stories or in short shorts, I find. It works for me, but not for Ms Stefaniak as she will testify to in my last story's opening.

MaryHelen Stefaniak>>I don't know if that's an open question, but I'll offer an answer. I am a scene person for the most part, but I have stories — particularly with a distinctively "voiced" narrator (whether first person or not) — that go on for whole sections before they are "punctuated" by a scene. Trent, let me just say that I don't object to "summary" in principle. Alice Munro is a great one for narrative summary, but she always punctuates it with "the secret of once" — one time this happened, and in a sentence or two, we get a particular moment in the midst of the narrative. ->->->-> Steve Lovett connected at: Tue Nov 30 1999 10:11:47

Judith Slater>>A good point about the "voiced" narrator. I think that's key. With my story, "The Fat Dancer," I just really liked Elizabeth's voice. I got caught up in her observations about life, and was more interested in them, I guess, than the events of the story. It's a really good question, Trent. sometimes summary can be the death of a story, if your narrator just drones on and on forever. I'll send this and then think more about your question about revision.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Welcome, Steve

Steve Lovett>>how are ya

Judith Slater>>Alice Munro is a wonderful writer, one of my heroes, definitely. And you're right — though she writes a lot of summary, there are always those dramatic moments. Hi, Steve

Steve Lovett>>nice to meet you Judith

Trent Walters>>I like that you "got caught up in her observations about life, and was more interested in them." That seems summarize summary well. Hey, steve.

Trent Walters>>On the subject of your revision process and your getting, "to know them better as I write, through watching them move and speak and interact," how do you decide where the story's arc lies?

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>This is a subject on all our minds as the semester comes to an end and we want a great final draft to turn in or send off somewhere.

Judith Slater>>Okay, about revision and the "arc" of the story. Carolyn Chute once said that beginnings are easy, and endings — you can have the story end just about anywhere — but it's the "getting the thing to happen" that's so hard. I think that's so true. I find often that I write myself into a corner, where the characters have come to a place where something has to happen and I haven't the faintest idea what, but that push, that getting them in a corner, often is just what the story needs. I'm not sure if that makes sense. ...

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>It makes sense to me.

Judith Slater>>For instance, in "Sandra Dee," I just had to have Earl and the unnamed narrator get together in some way. Things couldn't just trail off with some dreamy comment.

Trent Walters>>Yes, "Sandra Dee" ended extremely well. It topped off on just the right note. I've been trying to teach myself revision by going over and over old manuscripts, but I'm sure if I got a handle on the big picture yet. That is, which parts are working for a story and which are not? How did you learn the revision process? Do you know of any good books?

MaryHelen Stefaniak>>So what do you do? Think about Earl and the narrator while you're driving to work or taking a shower? How do you come up with the right note? Do you end up trying several before you find the one that works?

Judith Slater>>Russell Banks once said that writers, like people in general, often avoid confrontation. That is, for me, the hardest part of the story, where the characters have to confront each other in some way, subtle or not-so-subtle. (The fight scene in "Salt of the Earth," for example, was really hard for me to write.)

Trent Walters>>Answer all the questions at once now.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Online chats do have some drawbacks.

Trent Walters>>I'm laughing right now, in case you couldn't tell by the tone of my script.

Judith Slater>>Right, answers to all the questions at once now: (Deep breath). Stuart Dybek was here recently, and he said one of the most inspiring things about revision I've ever heard, which is that revision isn't going back and "fixing" the stuff that's wrong, but telling yourself the story over and over again until it's the one you want to tell. He used the analogy of standup comics, who perfect their routines, the comic timing, over and over, while still leaving room for spontaneity.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Yes! "Fixing things" — that's editing, not revision.

Judith Slater>>Related to Dybek's comment, I do find that if a story is working well, if I really feel I'm on a roll, revision is one of the most pleasurable parts of the writing process — I love tinkering with sentences, getting the rhythm just right. I could do it forever.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Me, too. It's the first draft that wears me out. So much danger somehow.

Judith Slater>>Yes, danger is exactly the word — all those things that could go wrong!

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Not that most of us really do a definable "first" draft, no that we use the word processor. And what if nothing happens!

Trent Walters>>How did you teach yourself the revision process? Do you know of any good books?

Steve Lovett>>This all sounds good. Do you have any requirements for your stories, that they have to make you laugh every five sentences, or that they have to surprise you at some point, things of that nature?

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>What if the story keeps eluding you? I always find that I'm only partly in charge. The story goes the way it wants to go. I'm still stuck on the terror of the first draft — sorry.

Trent Walters>>good questions all.

Judith Slater>>Oh, yes, books on revision. You know, Trent, I don't think I do know of any, particularly. I wish I could be more help here. John Gardner, you know, says that there's no trick to it, you just have to go over and over it a thousand times until you get it right, until every moment of the story rings true.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Every sentence has to be good. Every sentence has to give the reader something.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>That's in response to Steve's question.

Steve Lovett>>I know Mary Helen's husband requires movement and "good stuff," I generally require accurate description, but that doesn't make a story

Trent Walters>>There ought to be a way where we can let each other know if we've finished with an idea.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Jane Smiley offers some good practical advice on approaching the first draft, seeing where the story is, in her chapter in Creating Fiction.

Judith Slater>>About your question, Steve, I agree with Mary Helen that every sentence has to give the reader something. That's great. It's often something intangible. When you finish a story, and you think, "Wow," even if you don't quite know what the ending means. As for a laugh every five lines ... well, that's nice too. I love stories that have humor threaded through, characters with wit.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>In a way, the good stuff does make the story.

Trent Walters>>How long did it take you to "come of age," so to speak, in your writing, so that you felt confident with your written words? Also, how useful was your MFA at Amherst to your writing? Do you think it put an end to your wandering? Or was it just a clever trick to find more time to write?

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>In large part, that's how you know where the story is, where the writing is the best, where you find the best stuff.

Judith Slater>>I just thought of something else in response to your comment, Steve, about what makes something a story. More and more I'm finding that I just want to be carried into the world of the story. I want to feel as though I'm there, feeling it and experiencing it. If the writer can make that fictional world real, then I can forgive lots of weaknesses — plot holes, etc.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>I want to know the characters the way I know myself — imperfectly, but still.

Steve Lovett>>MH I wasn't referring to the "good stuff," I was talking about my description bit, yes good stuff does make the story

Judith Slater>>Trent, it took me a long time to feel confident about writing. My MFA at Amherst was useful, in fact a few of the stories I wrote there are in Baby. It was competitive and not always pleasant, as many MFA experiences are. I think it pushed me, though, to take myself seriously as a writer in a way I hadn't quite done before.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>That pretty much describes how I felt about my experience at Iowa. Well, we've been talking for a half hour now, and I said that was as long as we'd keep you, Judith. Do you want to ask a final question, Trent? Steve?

Trent Walters>>Just to backtrack a moment, how did you come up with these "conflicts" or "confrontations" mentioned earlier?

Trent Walters>>How do you force things to a head, in other words?

Steve Lovett>>Just a comment: I agree with the stuff about being transported into the world of the story, I try to make my poems like little, inhabitable houses, or bathrooms :)

Judith Slater>>Trent, in answer to your question about forcing things to a head, I guess my ideas about stories really are fairly traditional. In some way in the back of my mind I always do have that rising action — climactic moment — denouement structure imbedded. So when I begin to write, I know at the outset that something has to change for the main character, although I never know what that change will involve. In "The Bride's Lover," there was one awful moment when I thought that Matt was going to simply have to whisk Amy away from Warren and her wedding and carry her off. I really did write one draft where that happened, and it was awful! Steve, I love your analogy about stories being like little rooms. That's exactly what I was trying to get at.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>In answer to your question also, Trent, I also try writing different "confrontation" scenes, until one of them comes to life for me. Usually that's the one I needed.

Judith Slater>>Yes, exactly. Some confrontation scenes are entirely out of character, and you know they're not going to work. When you find the right one, you know it.

Trent Walters>>Thanks for your insight, Judy. I appreciate you going online with us.

Judith Slater>>Thanks for inviting me to do this. It was fun. Wonderful questions, really inspiring. I hope I'll get to meet some of you on Thursday — ?

Steve Lovett>>Thanks for the chat, Judith, looking forward to Thursday, take care.

Mary Helen Stefaniak>>Thanks, Judith — and Trent and Steve.

Judith Slater>>Thank you all. Bye for now. — Interview conducted by Trent Walters, Mary Helen Stefaniak, and Steve Lovett

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"The Baby Can Sing" is utterly unlike the other stories assembled here, yet it introduces — and titles — the collection. How does this lyrical, ethereal piece relate to the more conventionally styled short stories assembled here? And why didn' you use such a voice more often?

Maybe "The Baby Can Sing" is out at the edge of the pier, but I don't see it being vastly different from the other stories in the collection. Most of us have a dream life — a creative, imaginative life — as well as a more mundane "real" life, and so we really do live two lives simulataneously. "The Baby Can Sing" is the one story in the collection that was most influenced by a dream I had. I wrote the dream down, and when I began to turn it into a story, I found that it was pretty much all there — all I had to do was tinker. I know that sounds flaky, but really there are so many story possibilities in dreams: they're vivid, imagistic, uninhibited, original. Anything can happen in a dream — babies can sing, why not? By leading with that story, I want the reader to be aware of the imaginative possibilities in our everyday life. Even the more traditionally structured stories in the book have a strong imaginative element — at least, I hope they do. Without that imaginative dream life, without that creative side to ourselves, we'd be shallower, less interesting people, I think.

Though your characters suffer significant losses and disappointments, your stories' presiding tone is an optimistic one. How do you account for your characters' resilience?

My experience has been that people, on the whole, are pretty resilient creatures. they don't just give up when things go badly; they're always on the lookout for what Matt, in my story "The Bride's Lover," calls "the sense of possibility" ؅ the feeling that around the next corner something good, however small, could happen. The people in my stories don't win the lottery (at least no one has so far), and their fortunes don't change in dramatic ways. My stories seem to be about those small moments in life — grace notes — that help us get through.

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