Q&A with Christian Winn, author of Naked Me
Q. How did this collection come together?
The stories in NAKED ME came together over a period of years, with some of the pieces in the collection getting their starts and pretty solid early drafts a dozen years ago when I was in grad school, and others being written just a year or two ago, and of course several of them composed in between. As a diligent story writer, and a guy who loves writing stories, I’ve been putting stories of all kinds together consistently—some good, some not-quite-so—for the past twenty-five years. The work really started getting better as I finished up graduate school and continued to edit and sharpen what I’d been working on, then take the new eye and understanding of how character and place and narrative work into the new stuff. Then I started sending out the stories I felt were “done” for publication, and within the rain of rejection, they slowly began to find homes in some wonderful journals. As more and more of these stories got out there in the world I started forming them into what has now become NAKED ME. I feel like perhaps a few years ago I could have had a collection of stories out there in the world that would not have been NAKED ME, but that collection would have been something else, something inferior, because what has come together here, with the newer stories blending with and informing the stories from ten or more years ago, it feels right.
Q. You’ve written a novel, working on a second. Which is more difficult? Are the same practices and skills of writing a short story applied to a novel?
Oh man, this is the tough big question, or one of them in this writing business. I feel like for me, the novel is more difficult, if only emotionally, and this is because of all the time it takes to put one long story together. Both stories and novels – and poems and essays, for that matter – are more or less equally difficult to write well. With the novel you write, and you write, and you cut, and you write, and you have perhaps forty pages of really good stuff several months or a year later, and man you have such a long haul ahead of you, and who knows for sure if someone is going to publish the beast when you’re done. That’s tough, emotionally, even though the writing of either form on a day to day basis, for me, is really (most days) enjoyable and necessary to my being, and I love it.
With short stories I feel like there is a sense of emotional satisfaction in putting those months and years in and seeing many narratives get “done,” then seeing them hopefully get out into the world. It sort of makes me feel more like I’m really doing something as a writer, while if I were to sit exclusively within the writing of a novel for a two or more years I would feel like, oh man I am totally lame, why can’t I just get this thing done and get it out into the world. I guess that’s why as I write my novels (at least thus far in my career) I smatter in work on stories, poetry, some journalism, live-action-roll-playing and interpretive dance (not really that last stuff – not that there’s anything wrong with it …) to help me feel like I am “achieving” more as a writer.
That covers most of my take on the Novel V. Story question. But, I would say that yes, my practices are the same when it comes to the day by day writing of both genres. Yet as far as conceiving of narrative scope, with a novel I really need to think about how the story I want to tell is best told over the 75,000 to 100,000 words I’ll be using – how will it remain compelling and necessary and satisfying to the reader – as opposed to with my stories in NAKED ME, which range from 75 to 8,000 words, this is (at least most of the time) less of a problem.
Q. In this book there is no “royalty,” so to speak. Affluent life is mentioned, but it is done so in passing—a rumor. Is common life worth writing about? And in writing this book was the examination of common parlance a way to amplify the problems?
It’s interesting to have this question asked because honestly I didn’t think of affluence, or the notion of American royalty, at all in writing these stories, at least not directly. I can certainly see the lack of these entities at work in the book, and it’s a worthy observation of my writing, but I feel like it’s tough to answer because I don’t want to be dishonest about why these characters do what they do, live where they live, talk like they talk.
But, oh man I would say that by all means yes, common life is well worth writing about! As I sit here now I can’t recall one great book where common life is not an integral element of why it is a great novel, or story collection. My favorite writers of fiction, among them Claire Vaye Watkins, Richard Ford, Junot Diaz, George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, and of course Raymond Carver, all write – in so many wonderfully varying ways – about common life, and their deep understanding and display of that life is what makes their stories beautiful and wise and necessary. I guess, in being drawn to these wonderful novels and stories over the years, I wanted to join in and tell the stories of this world that I know, too.
As far as the parlance goes, I feel like the examination of that parlance is part of observing and imagining characters that I find interesting. As I put these characters into play in these stories the way they talk and act and move and remember is meant to simply be true and believable and right. I suppose the examination of all this necessary stuff comes in the work of bringing them to life on the page.
Q. You don’t strike me as a political writer, but in “Rough Cut,” you address the issue of same-sex relationships, but the boy’s love for the other is so subtle you almost remove the issue altogether. The last sentence of that story is prescient. Given the story is set in the eighties, did you feel a responsibility to this issue as it stands today? Is it a writer’s obligation to address social problems, regardless of an answer being found?
I’d say that no, I’m not a political writer, at least not consciously, at all. The subtlety of the boy’s love is meant to simply seem real. I wanted to write characters acting as young men who work at tire shop on Fairview Avenue in Boise, Idaho would act. One of the characters, Tompkins, is really intrigued with another young man named Bean, and it just so happens that this intrigue morphs into a sort of longing to be him, and be close to him, that is intimate but not necessarily sexual. I wanted these characters and their circumstance to seem natural and real and empathetic. And by the way, all this “tenderness” is going on amidst the serious donnybrook and ass-whooping in the back yard of the tire shop. A Mormon missionary is involved. Insults and spit and blood fly. My main goal for this story was to combine a dirty, hard world with characters in both emotional and physical crisis. I didn’t have any feeling of responsibility to write about this issue, even given the time period, but I’m pleased a reader might be able to read it with those threads and depths of meaning.
As far as addressing social problems as I writer, my feeling is that if you write good stories with good characters doing interesting things and getting into trouble in a real, heartfelt manner, the addressing of social problems will take care of itself. That kind of thing, for me, should be the readership’s territory, not the writer’s.
Q. These stories rotate within a “New West” canon. The erroneous notion of the “Gilded West” has not only been disproven, it’s revealed to have never existed. At times these stories are written almost as an epilogue, maybe even an epitaph to Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD or Coupland’s GENERATION X. How do the themes of false hope affect your writing? Is this where the topic of commonality intrigues you?
Well, I have to say I’d be honored to have readers take on NAKED ME as an epilogue, or epitaph even, to those great books and the visions of those fantastic writers. And I’m really pleased that you’ve read these stories in that lost, troubled West canon. I’m really drawn to places like the loud and lonely casinos of Jackpot, Nevada, or the littered fringes of Boise, Idaho, or the nowhere Mexican restaurants of Turlock, California, and I love setting stories in these types of lost Western places. However, I definitely feel like some of the draw to these places became a crutch in my writing. I would go there too often, and I moved my settings other places more subtle within the New West’s brokenness, or confusion. However, I have to say that I feel like the tenor and mood to most of these stories is meant to evoke the kind of odd wonder that comes from Didion’s, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, or Richard Ford’s ,Wildlife, or Kerouac’s, On The Road, or Coupland’s, Generation X, and I hope that comes through.
The West is broad and wonderful and only sometimes generous, and it is never easy. That’s how I want these stories to feel, but of course, that itself is not easy, not at all.
Q. Does writing act as a means to solve a problem? As in the aforementioned questions, is writing a way to ask: “Why are we happy? Why are we sad? Here’s a situation afflicting all of us, and here’s my opinion on it.”
Yes. But, I feel it has to be the characters, and not the writer, asking these questions, making these statements. The reader gets to live with these characters as they question life, then ponder these things themselves later, too. That way the art becomes the everyday, the common, on its way to becoming the transcendent.
Q. Most of your stories begin superficially then evolve into these wonderfully sensitive, and at times, heartbreakingly raw insights into the pathos of human life. When you’re writing, is that a conscious attempt, or does the story lead you to that conclusion? I feel as the story continues you’re constantly shaving and molding the piece until finally you show us this product we’ve thought about many times but never have known what the outcome might look like.
Wow, that’s a great way of putting it, much better than I would have. I’d say that yes, after the early drafts of a story, where I try and concentrate on dramatic action and moving forward through scene, and moment, and scene, I work to go back and stitch in (what I hope are) “raw insights into the pathos of human life.” It’s tough not to get too heavy-handed with this, though I think I’m getting better at the light touch that just slays you – a la Denis Johnson, or Miranda July. One day.
Q. You teach creative writing at Boise State. What are your opinions about MFAs? Are they needed? Are they detrimental?
Yes, I do teach creative writing at Boise State, which I love, and I did get my MFA at Boise State, which I loved. I teach undergraduates at this time, so I don’t have any direct teaching experience at the grad level, but because I’ve been through the MFA here and around other MFA students and programs a bunch, I feel I can speak to at least a bit of this issue.
My short version is, yes, I think writing can be taught, but only if you have the guts and the desire and the willingness to humbly work hard and hone your sensibility and craft. AND, you have to love it, want to chew it, eat it, be it, let it be you. But, probably you’re going to suck for much longer than you want to, even if you’re an extraordinary talent.
That said, where this “teaching” of writing occurs can be in the world – reading great books, working with dedicated writers, doing the work, sending it out, failing, not giving up – or it can be in an MFA setting, doing those exact things, or at least something like those “exact things.” An MFA gives you time and a built-in community as well as fine mentors, but working as a writer out there in the world lets you live life and “keep it real” and not feel too pretentious or cloistered or “part of a machine.” Bottom line, writers write, so I say if you want to write, do it where and how you feel you must.
Q. We’ve been getting a lot of letters asking about agents. Do they need one to submit their work, their role in the evolving landscape, etc. You have a very well-regarded agent at ICM. In your opinion, in the highly competitive industry of fiction writing how has having an agent helped you? By having representation, in essence a solid form of validation, are you able to take greater risks in your writing, or are you more wary of risks, knowing that your agent will often times be your first line of criticism?
It’s been great having Lisa [Bankoff] as my agent at ICM mostly because it gives me a really well-regarded advocate. She made it clear from the start that she wanted to represent me and my work because she believes in it, as a reader and as a professional. She’s been really great about being proactive with new material and the books, even before my work’s been able to make money for her, which is really appreciated, and makes me feel a little less like I’m the only one who really is fully behind my own work. To be honest Dane at Dock Street has been that same kind of advocate, so having both an agent and publisher support your work bolsters the spirit.
As far as a writer needing an agent to submit their work, I would say it depends on what level they are looking to submit to. When submitting stories, an agent can help add credibility if they are the ones submitting the work for you. They can likely get it further up the submission food chain if they contact the editors directly. But, this is fairly rare, unless you are looking to submit to The Atlantic, or The New Yorker, or Esquire, etc. If you are submitting a novel manuscript or a collection of short stories for consideration, nearly all of the big New York houses don’t take “unagented” manuscripts, so at that big-house level, an agent is what you need to help your book find a home in most every case that I know of. Most of the independent presses – Greywolf, McSweeney’s, Sarabande, Dzanc, Dock Street, etc. – take in manuscripts directly from writers, as well as from agents. I feel like an agent really adds a level of credibility or clout at this level, too, and can help a book coming in feel more “legit,” though in the long run the work has to stand on its own, of course.
Regarding the writing itself, and having my agent be my first line of criticism, I don’t really think about that too much when I’m producing the words, or coming up with the concepts. I certainly hope she loves the work in the long run, but I pretty much follow my own instincts in the creation.