Alice Fulton is probably best known as an award-winning American poet, but she recently set her sights on fiction, publishing her first collection of short stories, The Nightingales of Troy earlier this summer. L book critic Thea Brown emailed with Alice to talk about the switch to a new medium, history, altruism and meeting John Lennon. (Author photo credit: Hank De Leo)
L: When and how did you first decide to tackle fiction? Did you get a lot of encouragement from friends/colleagues/critics?
AF: I wanted to write fiction as soon as I began reading it, as a child. I advise students to write the kind of book they love to read. I love to read both poetry and fiction, so the thought of writing fiction was very appealing.
I messed around with a narrative in the early 1980s, but I wasn’t really trying. Years later, I decided to give fiction my best shot. I spent some time trying to figure out what made a story a story as opposed to 15 pages of meandering. Then with Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine in the back of my mind, I wrote the story “Queen Wintergreen.” I spent about six weeks on it, which seemed a long time, and I wasn’t sure it was any good at all. I didn’t know what to think of it. My husband, Hank De Leo, is my first reader, but he’s too involved to give a disinterested opinion. My friend and then-colleague Charlie Baxter was kind
enough to read it. I remember the day I went to his house in Ann Arbor to hear his opinion. I was wearing lime green pants and flowered sneakers. We sat in the spacious library above Charlie’s garage, and he looked slightly amused at my wild colors. He couldn’t have been more encouraging, and I was thrilled. I respected his opinion so much. After a little revision, I sent it to TriQuarterly where it was accepted by Susan Hahn. Louise Erdrich then chose it for Best American Short Stories. This was lovely since section one of her story, “The World’s Greatest Fishermen,” was a catalyst for “Queen Wintergreen.” When my editor, Jill Bialosky, read the story, she encouraged me to write more fiction, which was very heartening. The story also was selected for an anthology called Cabbage and Bones and singled out for praise when that book was reviewed in the Washington Post.
It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it? So encouraging. It was encouraging, yes. That was a very positive period in my life as a writer. But after the initial burst of enthusiasm and praise, there were all the usual disappointments and failures that writers know so well. So many wonderful books are written, and few writers get much encouragement along the way. The motivation to write has to come from within, and it has to be a powerful motivation or the book will stall. As I continued to work on stories, my cousin Maureen Murphy, who is extraordinarily perceptive, shared her memories and observations. She read several stories in draft and took a great interest. One or two good close readers are all the encouragement anyone needs, really.
L: Who or what did you look to as examples/inspirations, writing-wise, when you began working on the stories for Nightingales?
AF: I read nothing but short fiction and poetry while I was writing the
book. I think every writer discovers their own canon: writers who
aren’t the usual suspects, maybe, but whose work is wonderful. I
discovered so many superb short stories while writing this book! I also
was surprised by mediocrity at times, but the terrific stories more
than made up for the disappointments. I started making a list of
favorites in answer to your question, and I realized it was either
going to be boringly long or inadequately short. So here’s a short,
inadequate list of writers whose work I learned from: Karen E. Bender,
Carol Bly, Jason Brown, Don DeLillo, Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich,
Lorrie Moore, Edna O’Brien, Annie Proulx, Joy Williams. If I’m ever
asked this question again, I’ll continue the list. There are so many
more I could name.
L: Did you work on the stories chronologically?
AF: No. I began with a particular situation, a "story problem." The
first story I wrote, “Queen Wintergreen,” set in 1918, comes second in
the book. The next story to be written was, I think, “The Glorious
Mysteries,” which is set in the 1950s. After that, I think I made
myself write the story that would begin the book, which turned out to
be “Happy Dust.” I felt if I could write a strong opening story, I’d be
halfway there, it would push me across the entire century. I wanted to
get all the characters on stage. And the first sentence in a book is so
important. I had some euphoric moments while writing "Happy Dust," as
the story took shape. Those highs are addictive.
L: The kind of research you did to get a feel for the different eras of
these stories, do you do that kind of research for your poetry?
AF: No. The research for the stories was more focused. Poetry is more
wanton. With the stories, I often had a particular subject or area I
wanted to investigate. I read newspapers from each era, as well as
anything the characters might have read. In poetry, there isn’t
research so much as intense and eclectic reading. It’s not as if I’m
building the texture of a time period, culture. When writing a poem, I
don’t think about the clothes people wore, the food they ate, etc.
There are poets who write narrative poems, and maybe they think that
way, but for me, the reading that leads to poetry is more wayward and
unpredictable than the research for fiction, though I do look into
subjects of interest while writing poems. For instance, while working
on my book Felt, I read a little about the history of the fabric and
also how it’s manufactured today. But poetry is, I think, more eclectic
than fiction. It’s a wide open art form. A book of poems is free to be
a gallimaufry. You can write poems about all sorts of things and still
have a collection. Fiction has more constraints.
L: How was it working within the syntactical constraints of prose? Did
you feel any limitations on your language? Or, alternatively, did it
open up any new viewpoints for you?
AF: Of course, poetry also has syntactical constraints, though they can
be more idiosyncratic than those in fiction. Poetry foregrounds effects
of syntax and language, but it has definite constraints, often
constructed by the poet. I think I transferred this way of working to
fiction, in that I created limitations; I needed them and devised them.
I wrote slowly and made an effort to condense and be concise. It was
intense, almost as if I were writing a formal poem. There was a need to
do this or that, hit certain narrative marks, in a limited amount of
space. For me, the process of writing short stories was not at all
loose or free. The short story is a very demanding form because so much
has to happen within a few pages. I think it drew upon the formalist
part of my sensibility.
L: How did undertaking a fiction project affect your poetry writing?
Did you or do you find any prose-like elements (narrative, character
psychology) taking up a more assertive residence in your poetry?
AF: No.The opposite. I’m putting all the prose-like elements into
fiction and allowing poetry to do what only it can do. Poetry is
beautifully irrational: it can be oblique. A poem’s language exists to
sing as well as say. My early poetry flirted with narrative,
characters, etc., but even when I wrote in the “voice” of a persona, I
didn’t create a character as I would in fiction. In the poems, I
thought of language, diction, locutions, music, form, and content.
Poetry exists at the frontier of language. It’s “experimental” in that
each poet invents her own linguistic world. The greatest poets make
their native language foreign; that’s their gift. Emily Dickinson is a
good example. There’s a continuum, of course, from the most prose-like
to the least prose-like poetry. In Felt and at times in Sensual Math, I
spliced flatter, prosier passages and lines to denser, richer, stranger
language. When textures of language are juxtaposed in this way, maybe
the page can have depth of field. The shifting linguistic planes might
create the illusion of three-dimensional space on the page or even
vertigo, which is part of the sublime. I don’t think this way when
writing fiction. The pleasures intrinsic to fiction—narrative,
character—are the reason to write fiction.
L: As you worked on the stories, did you find the idea of sainthood
cropping up naturally in each? Or did you already have it in mind as a
unifying force for a collection?
AF: The problem of goodness, as I think of it, appeared organically. It
came from the characters. I didn’t think about it very often as I was
writing the book. I didn’t fully realize that this thread—of altruism
and its limits—ran through the entire book till I read reviews that
picked up on the idea of sainthood or ministering to others. Your
review in The L Magazine and Karen Rigby’s in Bookbrowse.com were
wonderfully sensitive to this aspect. I knew time was a trope
throughout the book, but I hadn’t realized that questions of
self-sacrifice and the dangers of goodness would be so noticeable. It’s
odd because I tend to be analytical, the kind of writer who knows a lot
about whatever I’ve written. I seldom learn about my work from a
review, and so it’s exciting to be surprised by the perceptions of such
L: The characters in Nightingales are such objects of their times, and
their times are so detailed and vividly colored in your stories. Did
you feel like these women were elements (or maybe even products) of a
kind of historic tableau? Or do you think each individual could have
existed in any decade?
AF: I guess this question is a version of the nature/nurture dilemma.
Were they created by nature or were they created by culture? A bit of
both, I think. All the characters were affected by the times in which
they lived: their economic class, religion, and the mores of the
decade. Cultural expectations affect every aspect of peoples’ lives.
There’s a character, Charlotte, who’s anorexic or at least given to
stringent dieting in the 1920s when flat-chested, boyish stick figures
But these women also were formed by biology to some extent. Charlotte
probably is the most altruistic, and she would have been a kind and
giving soul no matter what age she was born in. I believe there’s an
altruism gene. I think it’s a biological trait, in the DNA, necessary
for the survival of the species. A certain number of people have to be
hardwired for self-sacrifice if the species is to survive. And it seems
Charolotte (and some others in the book) inherited that trait. The
goodness gene. Another character, Dorothy, has a pretty severe thought
disorder. Chances are something happened to the chemistry of her brain.
I don’t think her problems were caused by cultural factors or the way
she was raised. I think the characters are both formed by their
biological heritage and by the times in which they lived.
L: The stories are tightly woven, time-wise and character-wise, but
were there any stories or characters, written or not, that you chose to
AF: There was one story that ended up not working well enough to be
included. It was to be the last story in the book, but I discarded it
and wrote “L’Air du Temps” instead. The rejected story contained a
couple of characters who don’t appear elsewhere. Most characters are
based on relatives, and there certainly are some I didn’t draw upon.
Because they aren’t in the book, their stories also are omitted. If
they’re still breathing, they’re probably breathing sighs of relief!
L: Have you switched back to full-time poetry since you finished the book, or is there another prose project cooking?
AF: I’m writing poetry again. And once I finish my next book of poems,
I hope to write more prose, maybe a novel, though it’s too early to say
L: Would you ever want to teach fiction?
AF: I might like to teach a course for poets who want to write fiction.
This idea was suggested by the poet Crystal Williams, and I thought it
sounded fun and helpful. As a poet myself, I think I could help other
poets with the particular problems they face when trying to craft a
narrative. I had to learn to write fiction on my own, and I often
wished I had a teacher.
L: I have to ask, were you really a disc jockey in the 70s and did you really meet The Beatles?
AF: Yes, I really was a DJ, and I met two of The Beatles in the early 1970s, after the band had broken up.
I started announcing on WRPI , Troy, a college radio station with a
“progressive rock” format. They called it that, but in practice, it was
a very free and open form of radio. We could play all sorts of popular
and unpopular music. In my story “The Real Eleanor Rigby,” Ruth listens
to WTRY, where I briefly worked. It was my first professional job in
radio. I programmed the automation, read the weather forecast, and took
readings for the FCC log. After that, thanks to my experience in
college radio, I was hired as a professional at a commercial FM station
with a very open format, WQBKfm. At one point, I was an all-night jazz
DJ on a public radio station, and I also did a little classical
announcing for that station, WMHT FM.
Like my character Ruth, I saw the Beatles perform at Shea Stadium in
1966. Unlike Ruth, I didn’t meet them then. But in 1972, through a
friend, I met George Harrison in NYC. I think it was November, and I
believe he was working on the concert for Bangla Desh, remixing or
something. It was a brief meeting, but in "The Real Eleanor Rigby" I
was able to use a few things he said. Then in early 1973, when I was
working at WPRI, the college radio station, I interviewed Yoko Ono. She
sent a nice thank you letter, and at the bottom, John Lennon wrote “I
agree” and signed his name. About six months later, I met him at a
studio in NYC where he was recording his album "Walls and Bridges." I
always prefer to work from primary sources!