The Beginning of the End of the Beginning (Ploughshares Solos, 2014)
What are some of your favorite novellas? Or what are some novellas that have influenced your writing?
I love The Collectors by Matt Bell. It’s based on the lives of the famous NYC hoarders, the Collyer brothers, Homer and Langley. It has a really innovative structure, a categorization and cataloging of both stuff and event. It’s chock full of visceral detail and idiosyncratic language.
I am also a fan of Rick Moody’s The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven. Been awhile since I read it, but I do consider it an early influence. He paints a true New York City, full of interpenetrated lives, freaks flying their freak flags, and people living with the consequences of their decisions and habits. And it is also full of visceral detail and idiosyncratic language.
What might these favorite or influential novellas suggest about you and your writing?
These two novellas both do what I attempt to do, which is transform the mess of real life into something sublime, through unique sentences, strong imagery, and playful narrative structure. I still have work to do to accomplish what those authors have.
Both Bell and Moody depict people at the margins of a world of plenty (NYC), which is another interest of mine.
What’s your novella about?
The Beginning of the End of the Beginning is the story of Clay, a broke Brooklyn performance artist, who decides to get a straight job. His decision triggers mistrust amongst his altruist artist friends, and an identity crisis in general.
It’s based on my own experience as a performance artist in the 1990’s. Somewhere along the way, I got a Wall Street job and began a very compartmentalized existence. I had my artist life in Brooklyn and my office life in Manhattan. Clay is at the cusp of this kind of life.
I did set out to write something that felt like an urban romp. There are drunken escapades, coincidences, old friends bumped into, a rowdy underground performance, and a stolen pet goat. I had fun with the silliness. But I did, also, set out to explore the heartbreak underneath Clay’s new life, that moment when an artist realizes he or she may have set creative sights too high, and that the pragmatic concerns of rent and healthcare do not go away.
If you have written more than one novella or chapbook, could you describe each of them in chronological order?
This novella closes my linked (unpublished) collection, The Artstars. The collection opens with another novella set in the industrial loft next door to Clay’s place. That (unpublished) novella, Light Streaming from a Horse’s Ass, is about a broke photographer (“broke” is definitely one of my themes) who makes actor head-shots for a living. Over the course of that novella, she shoots way too many pictures for herself, while realizing that she’ll only get a great image if she puts down her camera and faces her subject bare. It’s hard to really see the world when you’re constantly framing everything, mediating your experience with a rectangle, or whatever your framing construct is. And having a camera in front of your face is a great way to hide from the world, instead of engaging with it.
In general, I like to write stories about artists. You have ego, trial and error, thwarted dreams, competition, and yes, true learning about nature and materials, all wrapped up into a daily practice. The way artists grow and age is particularly interesting to me.
Did you submit your novella to contests, open reading periods, or both?
I submitted it to a couple of contests, then to Ploughshares Solos. They picked it up quickly. I got really, really lucky with this one.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your novella?
They did it all. I had no input. I’m absolutely delighted with it. One of the reasons I submitted to Ploughshares Solos is my fandom of their artwork. All the covers are amazing. I was hoping they would put a goat on the cover (there is a goat character in the novella), and they did!
What have you done to promote and publicize your novella?
I have a pretty large Facebook presence, and it moved the needle a bit in the beginning. I also sent out a mass email to all the people I had taken workshops with, performed poetry with, etc. Response was great. I also participate in an online workshop at Zoetrope.com, where I did some announcements. I am grateful for the online reviews it got as well, via Goodreads and Amazon. And I even told people at my day-job about it.
What are you working on now?
I have another shorts collection that I am finishing up, entitled The Flipside. I am also considering another attempt at a NaNoWriMo this year. I did it once and ended up with a pretty good 2000 word short story. The more words I write, the more I learn about the process.
What is your writing practice or process?
I’m very attached to the composition book-style notebook. I write freehand in there, often away from home, then type up and print to revise. The revision process is the same thing all over again. Rewrite it in the comp book, then re-type from scratch. It’s the only way I can make it better. I’m an okay typist, so that helps.
What advice would you offer to an aspiring novella author?
If you love the form, go for it. Because you are doing it for the love of the form. The readership is likely to be small.
Do you have a favorite prompt or revision technique? What is it?
When I get stuck, I make myself write with a timer. I tell myself to just do it for 20 minutes. Usually that gets the momentum going again. I also use certain music to get the flow back. For example, if the writing was going well yesterday while I was listening to Massive Attack, then today I’ll turn on the same Massive Attack album at the beginning of the writing session. It takes me right back to the good spot, like hypnosis.
Another thing to do when I get stuck is to look backward in the text. The answer is always there, whether it be a sound, an image, or a vector of some kind that I am only half aware I wrote. I know a lot of first-drafters say don’t look back, just forge ahead and revise later. I disagree. This is the main thing I learned studying with Gordon Lish. The only way to create ‘recursion and consecution’ —his catchphrase— is to look back. Then write forward with a little turn, or torque, on the themes, images, sounds, etc., already in use.
As for revision, I learned about ‘transitional drafts’ from Robert Boswell at a summer workshop, and it has changed my life. He suggests you make a list of the problems of the text, then rank the list from easiest to hardest. Then do one draft at a time, and only solve one problem with each draft. By the time you get to the end of the list, you’ve already begun solving the hard problems.
What I like about Boswell’s approach is that it is practical and process-oriented. It demystifies the job. It’s a list of steps that any writer can follow, and it can grow with you as you become a better writer. I like getting process tips from other writers because it does not channel me into being a certain kind of writer. It channels me more into my own writer self.
Did you write a novella on purpose?
Fifteen thousand words is my natural length. I pushed this one over twenty thousand for a contest. Now that it is that length, I don’t think I could cut it back without ruining it.
When did you discover the ending of your novella?
I realized at some point that after the hilarity of the story’s climax, I wanted it to have a quiet, melancholy ending. I also had some knowledge of artists who had worked at the top of the World Trade Center before it was destroyed, in a residency program called World Views. I went online and listened to some recordings that one of these resident artists had made with a microphone attached to a window. It was just the sound of the wind and the building. I wanted to capture that kind of quiet.
What do you think the connection is between image and language, and how might this connection be seen in your writing?
Well, as William Carlos Williams says, “no ideas but in things,” right? Image is everything, for me, in fiction. It is much more important than, say, plot. A good plot might keep me coming back to the book, or turning pages quickly, because I want to find out what happens. But it’s the imagery that makes me remember a book forever.
For that reason, I often turn to an image to open or close a story. That’s what brings the experience alive for me as a reader, so that’s what I write.
Where is the ideal place to read your novella? What type of place for reading might antagonize your novella?
I recommend listening to the audiobook, which is narrated by a great actor named Marc Vietor. Good for a road trip.
Anne Elliott is the author of The Beginning of the End of the Beginning, released by Ploughshares Solos in 2014. Her stories can be seen in Crab Orchard Review, Witness, Hobart, FRiGG, JMWW, Bellevue Literary Review, Fugue, Opium, Pindeldyboz, and others. Her fiction has received fellowships and awards from the Table 4 Writer’s Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, the Bridport Arts Centre, and The Normal School. Elliott is a veteran of the New York spoken word circuit, with stage credits including The Whitney Museum, Lincoln Center, PS122, and St. Mark’s Poetry Project. She earned an MFA in visual art from University of California, San Diego, and now lives in Southern Maine with her husband and many pets.
Shell put a disc in the player, then cranked up the dial. It wasn’t neighborly, not at this hour, but I didn’t stop her. It was a KTel disco compilation. I think someone gave it to me for laughs. She faced the window and I couldn’t tell if she was looking through the glass, to the city outside, or at its surface, at her own image. Her spine swayed, almost imperceptible, a private roll of the hip along with the flare of funk guitar. She was too young to remember this song, to remember it the way Marvelli and I did—the stilted seventh grade parties in suburban rec rooms, the California Hustle, the New York Hustle, all those hustles, the Hollywood of it all, love boats and fantasy islands and unfortunate shoes and Xanadus, the roller rink without a partner, the school gym without a partner, the bat mitzvah without a partner, before we had found our own, found our freaks.