Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement

4.14.10 | | 9 comments

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This is the third and final entry in this series. The first part of our interview was about Ms Hallstom’s novel-in-stories Bound on Earth. The second was about her editorship of the literary journal Irreantum. This third portion is about the short-story collection, Dispensation: Latter-day Fiction, that she edited for Zarahemla Books (review).

Dispensation:Latter-day Fiction

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Let’s start with what criteria a story had to meet to even be considered for inclusion. What were the ground rules going in to this anthology?

I went into this project looking for the best stories I could find written by, for, or about Mormons over the last fifteen years or so. (Originally, I’d intended to limit the date range from 2000 to the present, but there were a number of stories published in the late 90s that I felt needed to be included, so I abandoned that idea.) Not only did I want the stories I selected to represent quality literature, but I felt it was important to include stories with recognizably Mormon elements. Most of the stories contain overt references to Mormon culture or theology, and all of the stories, in my opinion, explore Mormon themes. I also wanted the authors in this anthology to have a background in LDS culture and theology–I didn’t consider stories written “about” Mormonism by writers without close personal ties to the religion. And, finally, I wanted to make sure that the anthology’s content wouldn’t disqualify it from being taught in a BYU class. In other words, while I welcomed challenging and thought-provoking stories, I wanted to keep things PG-13.

Obviously, in order to be considered “complete” as an anthology, some authors had to be included no matter what. How did the selection process differ for those authors? I.e., were you more concerned with picking a “typical” Doug Thayer story, or just what you thought was his best?

There were definitely some big names that I knew must be included. In the beginning, I either purchased or borrowed from the library a number of important short story collections: Lewis Horne’s The House of James, Brady Udall’s Letting Loose the Hounds, Mary Clyde’s Survival Rates, Orson Scott Card’s Keeper of Dreams, Darrell Spencer’s Caution: Men in Trees, Paul Rawlins’ No Lie Like Love, Todd Robert Petersen’s Long After Dark, Margaret Blair Young’s Love Chains, Phyllis Barber’s Parting the Veil: Stories from a Mormon Imagination. (I include all these titles because anybody interested in Mormon lit and/or the short story should check them out.)

As I read through each collection, I noted the story or stories that I liked the most and that I felt best fit the vision of Dispensation. Often, the “Mormon-ness” of a story was an important factor as I made decisions. For example, “The 12-Inch Dog” is probably my favorite story from Darrell Spencer’s Caution: Men in Trees, but it’s not particularly Mormon. The story we ended up using, the also excellent “Blood Work,” was a better fit because it dealt head-on with Mormon characters and themes. Orson Scott Card’s story “Christmas at Helaman’s House” was one of the four stories categorized under the heading “Mormon Stories” in his short story collection, and I felt it was important to include a Mormon story from Card in Dispensation. (My favorite Card story from Keeper of Dreams is the dystopian “Elephants of Poznan,” and while it isn’t Mormon fiction, it’s a really cool story, and I was glad to be able to reprint it in the most recent issue of Irreantum.)

I also took into account author preference when dealing with well-known authors, especially when there were two or three stories that I enjoyed equally. Some authors pointed me in the direction of stories I didn’t know existed. Paul Rawlins, for example, had recently published “The Garden” in the literary magazine Image and sent it to me after I approached him about a different story, and I was so happy he did. “The Garden” is one of my favorite stories in the book.

Some stories you originally discovered and published in Irreantum. How did your past history with those stories affect your objectivity?

Well, to be honest, I never felt conflicted about including stories from Irreantum. In fact, only two of the twenty-eight stories—Jack Harrell’s “Calling and Election” and Darin Cozzens’ “Light of The New Day”—were chosen from the many stories I’ve come in contact with as I’ve worked on Irreantum. Both Cozzens and Harrell are important and accomplished enough Mormon short story writers that they would have been included in this anthology even without the Irreantum connection, and both of these stories show them at the top of their game. Both stories won 1st place in the Irreantum fiction contest, also, and I was interested in highlighting stories that have won important contests.

Same question to the nth power regarding your story “Thanksgiving.”

Unlike the Irreantum stories, I was quite conflicted about using one of my own stories in the anthology. Chris Bigelow (Zarahemla’s publisher) and I discussed it, and decided that since “Thanksgiving” had won awards from both the Utah Arts Council and Dialogue magazine it would be an appropriate choice. And for me, personally, I’ve felt my writer-self getting slowly swallowed up by my editor-self over the last couple of years—between Dispensation and Irreantum and Segullah and teaching, I’ve had very little time for my own writing. I didn’t get into this business to become an editor, although I’ve appreciated the editing opportunities that have come my way. But my primary intention has always been to be a writer, and if Chris agreed that “Thanksgiving” should be included, I didn’t want to sacrifice my writer-self to my editor-self yet again.

I noticed that a high percentage of stories are from outsider perspectives — characters who are not LDS or on the outs with that heritage. Which suggests to me that you to some measure agree with the oft-stated maxim that the way to write great LDS literature is to get at it from the outside, not the inside. Comment?

Well, I disagree with this question on a number of levels. First, a “high percentage” of the stories aren’t from outsider perspectives, in my opinion. By my count, in seventeen of the twenty-eight stories, the point-of-view character would describe him or herself as a Mormon. In many of the stories, the point-of-view character might not be Mormon, but his or her interaction with a Mormon is the crux of the story (“Buckeye the Elder,” “Healthy Partners,” etc.). Only four stories are written from the perspective of characters who are “on the outs” with Mormonism (by which you mean, I suppose, that the character makes it known that he or she was once an active Mormon but isn’t anymore).

And I’ve got to say, thumbing through the anthology in order to make an accounting of which point-of-view character is Mormon enough has been a little irritating. LDS writers should be able to write from the point-of-view of all sorts of people, and Mormon stories should be able to include the points-of-view of those with all sorts of Mormon experiences (“inside” or “outside”), without these choices being translated into a sweeping generalization about what kind of literature a Mormon author ought to write. Some of these stories were written by believing Mormons about non-Mormons. Some were written by former Mormons about believing Mormons. And drawing these distinctions, frankly, is giving me a headache. Honestly, the “insider-ness” or “outsider-ness” of each point-of-view character never even occurred to me as I was editing this anthology. I just wanted to include strong fiction. This isn’t to say that I didn’t reject some stories with antagonistic “outsider” characters. I did do that. But not because the narrator was on the outs with Mormonism. It was because the story was too agenda-driven to work as good literature. I rejected stories with an “insider” main character if they were excessively agenda-driven, too.

As far as the “oft-repeated maxim” goes (and I suppose you’re referring to Wallace Stegner’s observation that the “Great Mormon Novel” will be penned by someone who has left the church, then come “part way” back? http://www.motleyvision.org/2009/abandon-all-hope-mormon-lit-cant-be-great/): I wholeheartedly reject that idea. Some of my favorite stories in this anthology were written by believing Mormons, about believing Mormons, so, obviously, it’s possible for an insider to write excellent fiction. If I don’t believe this is possible, what in the world am I doing as a writer and an editor and a teacher operating from within Mormon culture? But this idea has already been debated quite vociferously on AMV, and this interview is already pretty lengthy, so I’ll leave it at that.

Describe briefly, if you can, the gathering process. Where did you look? How many stories did you read? Did you try to balance the number of story types? Were some inclusion decisions made based on how hard or easy permission was to obtain?

At the very beginning of the process, I asked a number of people I trust to recommend writers and stories. I also got some great suggestions from AML members, both via the AML-list and the now-defunct AML forum. From that, I compiled a list and started reading. I got my hands on the previously-mentioned short story collections, and I also read a number of stories published in Mormon magazines and in mainstream literary journals. Once I’d worked through all the recommendations, I simply started reading back issues of Irreantum, Dialogue, and Sunstone, and found some great stories there that I would have otherwise overlooked. It was important to me that this anthology not only showcase well-known writers, but also highlight up-and-coming Mormon writers who are incredibly talented but not (yet) as famous.

I don’t know if I can count the number of stories I read. I just know I read a lot of them. Tons. For about six months, almost all my fiction reading time was dedicated solely to the short stories I was considering for this collection. And, yes, I did try to have some balance: I wanted to be sure to include stories with an international or multicultural perspective; I wanted to include some speculative fiction; I wanted to include both traditional and more experimental fiction-writing methods, and so on. I was also acutely aware that I had more male writers than female writers from which to choose. Although I’d hoped at the outset to have equal representation by both men and women, in the end I found myself with ten stories by women and eighteen by men. Which is to say that, while balance was certainly on my mind, ultimately the quality of each individual story was the most important factor in making my decisions.

As far as permissions are concerned, there were a few stories that were important enough that we were willing to pay for them. Most previous publishers (and authors holding rights) graciously allowed us to reprint the stories without a fee, which was very helpful. We were able to publish all the stories we wanted to publish, which was a relief, since our budget for reprint rights was pretty small.

Did you determine book length first and choose the right number of stories to fit, or did you pick the right stories and see how long it was? If the former, how hard was it to narrow them down?

Initially, I’d planned to choose twenty stories. After my first round of cuts, I had twenty-five. Then a few more must-have stories pushed their way under my nose, and the number increased to twenty-eight, and at that point we had to put a stop to it, mainly in order to keep the price of the book under $20. And even with twenty-eight stories, which is a lot, there were still a number of stories that were difficult to cut.

Finally, to get us back the title of this series, how did you decide what order to arrange the selected stories in?

Some of it was personal preference on my part. I wanted to make sure that my favorite stories, for example, were spaced throughout the anthology, so the reader’s attention would be continuously engaged. What I’ve realized, though, is that with the short story, one person’s taste can be so wildly different from another’s that my favorite stories might be another literature-lover’s least favorite. Stories that I would call home runs have been other people’s “ho hum”s. I should have expected this (in all my years working on the Irreantum fiction contest, for example, never once has there been a story that was a unanimous first place winner among the committee members when we sat down to begin deliberations)—but it’s still surprising to me the range of responses a short story call elicit. I also wanted the arrangement of stories to ensure that similar stories weren’t back-to-back . . . although some stories were similar stylistically but dissimilar thematically, and vice versa. In the end, I simply wanted the anthology to take its readers on a journey to both familiar and unexpected places, to introduce us to both recognizable and surprising characters, and to explore both time-honored and exciting new themes. It’s my hope that Dispensation has accomplished this goal, and that the stories in the book will be read and enjoyed by all sorts of readers.

9 comments: “Angela Hallstrom and the Art of Short-Story Arrangement

  1. Lee Allred

    Very interesting interview, Theric. This interview really helped answer a lot of questions I had about the anthology. Thanks! I really love hearing about the mechanics of how books come to be.

    A couple responses to specific points:

    1) On authors putting their own stories in an anthology.

    Angela, I feel like giving you a whack upside the head for even worrying about this.

    It’s a very common practice, almost expected. (Not counting DISPENSATION, four of the five writer-edited anthologies I’ve been in have had stories by the writer/editor in them.)

    As a reader, I always prefer anthologies with stories by the writer/editor. It gives me a benchmark for judging their selection criteria. It also indicates to me that if the author has a story in the book (particularly a new one crafted just for the anthology), the project was important to the author/editor personally (at least enough to spend time and effort writing for it) and the editor isn’t just phoning it in.

    DISPENSATION is a much better book in several ways for having your story inside its pages.

    2) On “outsider perspectives.”

    Angela nails it: “LDS writers should be able to write from the point-of-view of all sorts of people … [and] all sorts of Mormon experiences.”

    Amen. Outsider POV, insider POV, even my one anti-Mormon POV story (long, funny story behind that one) — I consider all of my work faithful Mormon literature. It’s a writer’s job to get inside the head of all kinds of characters. Even aliens!

    — Lee

  2. Lisa Downing

    Hey, Lee, don’t whack Angela upside the head. Whack the folks who murmur about this behind or in front of her back. Its very unfair. I knew when Angela was putting the book together that this was torturing her soul, but I sided with Chris. Which of our writers don’t want to read the stories that win the contests we enter? And shouldn’t the non-writers who pick up the book be given some insight about the kind of quality lit the unauthorized LDS publications produce?

    I’m surprised to hear that the collection was organized as randomly as it seems to have been. As I read along, I kept seeing (imagining?) brilliant strings tying it all together. I guess Angela isn’t genius after all. (Naw. She is)

  3. Katya

    I noticed that a high percentage of stories are from outsider perspectives — characters who are not LDS or on the outs with that heritage.

    Fantasy and science fiction writers often have to figure out how to introduce the world they’ve created to readers without having their in-world characters do too much info dumping. One technique is to have a main character be an outsider in some respect, so that the reader can discover the world through that character’s eyes and thus have a less steep learning curve.

    It seems as though authors of fiction set in the Mormon world but intended for a larger audience are in a similar situation (even though Mormon culture is real), so having an outsider character presumably has the potential to serve a similar function.

  4. Mojo

    It seems as though authors of fiction set in the Mormon world but intended for a larger audience are in a similar situation (even though Mormon culture is real), so having an outsider character presumably has the potential to serve a similar function.

    Yes. My books 1 & 2 are from an insider’s perspective, so I drop jargon in a context where the reader can pick up the gist without infodump.

    But book 3 is from an outsider’s (first person) perspective, and one who has very few preconceived notions (that was a bit of self-indulgence on my part; in reality, I don’t think the narrator would have been that oblivious either to fact or fiction).

    I plop her right into our world. The insiders tell her a few fundamentals, and she takes it from there. She observes and asks questions as the need arises.

    [Aside: I had a little bit different problem with infodump because the core conflict involves a business deal I set up in book 1, which A) if you read book 1, you won’t remember and B) if you didn’t read book 1, you MUST understand. Just one of the nasties of writing a interconnected stories and/or series. Anyhoo, I had to infodump that pretty quick, but my first readers said it didn’t sound infodumpy so I have to go on that. Still makes me uncomfortable, though…]

    But yeah, the nonmember first readers REALLY got into it because they were exploring with the n00b narrator. It worked for them.

    I’m of the opinion that if there is a good way to do it from the inside without an uninformed character used as a cipher for the reader to avoid infodump, I don’t know what it is and I’m not clever enough to find it.

  5. Jonathan Langford

    Angela,
    Great interview. I’m hoping I can get to my review copy of Dispensations soon, now that I’m finally digging my way out from under another project that’s been eating up my spare time for months…
    The editor’s job must be one of the most thankless in all of publishing, especially since (as you note) it tends to come at the expense of a person’s writing. Thanks for doing the hard work to put this together.

  6. Theric Jepson Post author

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    For some reason this comment that arrived from “Amy” won’t post:

    Angela,

    Great interview. I’m hoping I can get to my review copy of Dispensations soon, now that I’m finally digging my way out from under another project that’s been eating up my spare time for months…

    The editor’s job must be one of the most thankless in all of publishing, especially since (as you note) it tends to come at the expense of a person’s writing. Thanks for doing the hard work to put this together.

  7. William Morris

    Theric:

    It’s spam. Someone appears to have written a script that scrapes the text of a previous comment (this one is Jonathan’s) and then attaches a name, e-mail address and the spam link to it. I went in and “rescued” all of these comments from the pending folder an hour or so ago and then realized why they seemed so familiar and had to go back in and label them all spam.

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