Rattling language; wanting to write: Gay Degani on fiction collections and the writing life

It’s funny how writers find each other. Sometimes we meet at readings or conferences. Sometimes we’re fans of each other’s works. Sometimes we have mutual acquaintances and become friends online. With author Gay Degani, it’s been all three: I met Gay in a Facebook group for writers at almost the same time that I discovered her work with Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Chronicles. Then I picked up her suspense novel, What Came Before, and I became a fan — and then I met her in real life at AWP and I became a friend.

41CvkV0qP-LMore recently, I got my hands on an early copy of Degani’s newest book, the story collection Rattle of Want, and loved it so much I blurbed it:

The stories in this book are a masterclass in narrative craftsmanship. From the brief sparks of her microfiction to the meditations of her long stories to the tapestry of her novella-in-flash, Degani displays a mastery for calling forth human characters and conjuring whole lives out of meticulously wrought images and moments. Rattle of Want is a beautiful, smart collection.

So now that Gay Degani is on her “blog tour” in support of that most recent book, I feel grateful for the chance to talk to my friend about her work:

Rattle of Want is unusually thick for a collection containing so much flash fiction — we get almost 50 stories in this book! What was it like organizing and editing so many distinct pieces into one collection?

Pulling together a collection took me well over two years. I wanted it to be just that, a “collection” of the best work I’d done to date, a volume with a nice fat spine. Also I wanted to focus on the more literary of my pieces, drawing from stories written from 2007 on.

The first task was one of elimination. I’ve written several stories that are sci-fi, humor, western, and mystery in feeling, and I needed to figure out if any of those could make the transition from genre to literary. Almost none did. Once I decided on what were the strongest pieces, I began to rewrite them, keeping in mind that the theme of the collection would be focused on what we as humans “want.”

The thickness of this volume is primarily due to the inclusion of “The Old Road,” written in flash chapters. At around 100 pages, the novella made a substantial contribution to the collection.

What inspired that flash-cycle novella, “The Old Road”? It’s a beautiful and fascinating novella, but that seems like a difficult form to work in. What made you decide to tackle the story that way?

The novella was a result of a project at Pure Slush, brainchild of Matt Potter, called 2014. He asked 31 writers to write one story a month, linking each month to the next, and to do this over the course of a year. It felt like an easy commitment to me, but I worried about the editor. It meant reading, editing, and publishing 365 stories. But he did it.

His instruction was that we would each chose one day of every month—I chose the 19th—and write a 1500-word piece in present tense that took place on that exact date. He then pulled together all the stories from all the authors each month and published them together in a print volume. It was a real challenge, but I loved my characters and I wanted to create “chapters” that could stand on their own as well as be a contributing part of the whole.

Once the year was over, I asked Matt if I could fill in the inevitable gaps in the whole and publish it with my other stories and he agreed.

Many of the stories in Rattle of Want are flash, but several are longer stories of a more “traditional” length, and the book ends with that amazing flash-cycle novella. How do those varying lengths play together on the page — what was their relationship for you?

Since my goal was to put together a collection of my best work, it meant I had to gather all the stories I’d written that I felt had something to say about me and about life as I see it. I’ve always written longer stories so they were part of what I had at hand even though in recent years I’ve focused on flash.

I love trying to capture that moment of realization we as humans have when something shifts in our awareness. That’s what flash does best, but I’m also interested in recording the build and interplay of relationships, and that often dictates more story. The longer stories live in my brain for a long time before I’m willing to commit them to paper and they have many false starts, but I feel as a writer, I need to write until I say what it is I want to say.

This is your third book, two story collections and a novel in between them. How does writing a novel, for you, compare with writing short stories? With putting together a collection?

The work is always hard because there are secrets inside the secrets of anything we learn to do. There is no way to anticipate what you will have to figure out to become good at something.

Ironically the novel, What Came Before, had been in the works for six years when I pulled together Pomegranate, which is actually a chapbook of eight stories. I’d written six screenplays and another novel, and felt I had nothing to show for it. It was Gay Degani making a statement to myself that yes, I am a writer.

Everything for me—learning to write a novel, screenplay, short story, flash fiction—has been part of my learning curve. At each stage, I kept thinking once I do this or that, I’ll know what I’m doing. I’m still doing that, but at least now I feel I’ve proven to myself I can follow through and do this work. I just wish I’d figured it all out when I was a little younger!

Your bio reveals that you placed second in a national writing contest in high school and then set aside writing for 25 years. What was it that brought you back to the page?

I never abandoned writing. What I abandoned was trying to publish what I wrote. It’s hard to work in isolation and I had little time for classes, but I did take them when I could, and would be optimistic for awhile, snail mailing to one journal at a time (no simultaneous subs) like Zzyzzyva or Boulevard only to be told no, but “Onward.” I tried to keep at it, but often threw my hands up and said, “I’m not a writer.”

How has your work as an editor at Every Day Fiction and Flash Fiction Chronicles and SmokeLong Quarterly informed your writing?

Anything a person does that relates to his or her field of endeavor enriches that experience. Reading slush at Every Day Fiction taught me how important it is to dig past first thoughts to find something new and fresh. So many writers forget that if they think of some angle quickly, so will hundreds of others. At Flash Fiction Chronicles, I often had to write content and by doing so, I researched topics, broke down different processes in order to explain them, and this deepened my ability to understand the elements of good fiction. At SmokeLong, I’ve had the opportunity to read and interview many top-notch writers and to ask the most vital of questions, “How did you DO that?”

Where can people buy your books? Where can people see you read?

You can purchase at Amazon: Everything on one page here.

You can also purchase at Lulu: Pomegranate in paperback or Rattle of Want in paperback or Rattle of Want in ebook format.

Oh and one caveat about Pomegranate, three of the eight stories are also in Rattle of Want. Edited and deepened. “Spring Melt” was nominated for a Pushcart prize and “Monsoon” was a Glimmer Train finalist. I felt I had to include them. The third, “Pomegranate,” was written for the chapbook and never published elsewhere and I felt it deserved a broader audience.

IMG_4578Thanks to Gay for chatting with me! She makes me want to put together another collection of fiction. 🙂

You can find out more about Gay and her work at her blog/website, Words in Place, and again, you can buy all her books online from the bookstore of your choice, or you can buy them all online.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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