Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Interview with Midge Raymond, author of FORGETTING ENGLISH

Midge Raymond is the author of the short story collection Forgetting English, winner of Eastern Washington University Press' Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. The Seattle Books Examiner gave Forgetting English a glowing review, commenting on the brilliant opening line of "First Sunday," (which also happens to be my favorite story in the book): "He lives in his mother's house, with no electricity or hot water, yet somehow he always has a ready supply of condoms."

Midge Raymond is on the editorial board of the literary journal Green Hills Literary Lantern. She taught communication writing at Boston University for six years, as well as creative writing at Boston's Grub Street Writers. While living in Southern California, she co-founded and taught at Metropolitan Writing Works as well as San Diego Writers, Ink, where she served as vice president of the board of directors. She now lives and writes in Seattle, where she teaches at Richard Hugo House.

Diana Joseph: Your short stories have been published in top notch literary magazines, including North American Review, Ontario Review, Indiana Review, Witness, and American Literary Review. Forgetting English, your first book, is a collection of short stories. Why this genre? What is it about short stories?

Midge Raymond: My writing background had previously been in nonfiction — news stories, features, profiles — so writing short stories allowed me to make my way into fiction. I fell in love with the short form, in large part because it was doable for me while working full-time and freelancing on the side: I could actually finish a story before a year went by. I’ve continued writing short pieces because there’s something so appealing about being with characters for just a short time, then letting them go.

: Describe your writing process.

: A story usually begins with a moment that I find interesting for one reason or another, and then the characters and the story develop from there. “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean,” for example, was born after a trip I took to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding — while there, I noticed a lot of vacationing families and was surprised to see how many of them had nannies in tow. It got me thinking of what it might be like to be a young nanny — to have the responsibility of looking after someone else’s kids, to spend so much time with a family while not fully being a part of it. The character that grew out of this is a young actress, working in child care to support what she really wants to do, and while she doesn’t love her day job, she can’t afford to be a slacker, which she realizes when something happens to one of the kids.

Another example is “Rest of World,” which I began writing one night after seeing a message light blinking in my hotel room, only to discover it was for someone else. It made me think of lost connections, miscommunications, how much we rely on such things when they’re not always very reliable.

In terms of my routine as a writer, I don’t stick to a regular schedule the way many writers do, and I think it’s because when I started writing, I had to squeeze it in wherever I could. I’m fortunate to have a lot more time to write now, but it varies every day; I might write in the morning, the evening, at home, at the library, in a cafĂ©. What I do when I’m in the middle of a project, though, is commit to a certain number of pages or words I want to write daily and make sure I meet that goal. If I don’t meet it one day, I’ll make up for it the next. You do need a certain discipline if you’re going to get anything done.

Joseph: The stories take place in exotic locations. What kind of research did you have to do? Can you talk about the importance of setting?

Raymond: I’ve been to many of the places in Forgetting English, which helps a lot — there’s often no better way to describe a place than to have been there yourself, to capture not only the visual images but to get the feel of the place and those who inhabit it. That said, I’ve also written about places I’ve never visited, and while I can look at photographs or videos and read about it, I usually like to hear stories about it as well — that’s what gives me a true sense of a place. In “First Sunday,” for example, my sister Rebecca helped a great deal with those details because she’d spent a lot of time in the Kingdom of Tonga, whereas I’d never been. After seeing her photos and hearing some of her stories, I knew I wanted to set a story there, and I wrote it with her details in mind, imagining the rest. Then I gave it to her to read. She pointed out things I’d imagined wrong, which was great because even in fiction I like authenticity. If anyone from Tonga ever reads the story, I’d want him or her to feel that I’ve gotten it right.

I think setting is important because not only can it define a character, but it can turn a character’s world upside down. That’s one of the notions I explore in Forgetting English, the idea that it is sometimes only when you leave your “natural habitat” — that is, the place where you’re most comfortable — that you discover things about yourself that may have been easier to ignore. You’ve shed that protective layer of home, in a sense.

Joseph: What do you see as the important themes in your work? Did you write stories around certain themes? Or was discovering your themes part of the process?

Raymond: I usually don’t write around specific themes on purpose, but I’ve found that certain themes do emerge, and discovering them is definitely part of the process for me. I’m interested in the imprint of place on who we are, clearly, as this is the overarching theme of the stories in Forgetting English. Much of my work focuses on relationships: between women, siblings, lovers, or among families — which is interesting to me, but it’s also something most readers can relate to: how we communicate with one another, or how we don’t. I’m also extremely interested in why people do what they do, what motivates them. “The Road to Hana” came about after a colleague at the alumni office where I used to work received a ring in the mail from an alum who had stolen it from her roommate. It had happened years earlier, but the alum was hoping we could find the roommate and return the ring to her. I was fascinated by the whole thing — what caused her to steal the ring, why she’d suddenly sent it back, the stress of having carried that secret around for so many years — and decided to explore that in a story.

Joseph: What's your revision process like?

Raymond: Revision probably comprises 80 percent of my actual writing! My first drafts are so ridiculously sloppy that my husband has strict instructions to destroy them all if I get flattened by a bus. But this is where I explore the characters, figure out who they are and where they’ll go, so it’s necessary and surprisingly fun. Still, I like the revision stage the best — it always feels so good to have something on the page to work with, instead of still facing that dreaded blank page — and usually by the time I’m revising, I know whether a story will work or not.

Joseph: How did you decide on an order for the stories?

Raymond: I hadn’t thought nearly enough about it, as it turned out, and my editors at Eastern Washington University Press suggested re-ordering the stories in a different way — putting a little distance between the stories that have foreign languages in them, and making sure we didn’t have two stories in a row about couples, or two in a row about single career women. While I tend to focus on each story as an individual work, there’s an art to creating a collection as well. And I think it turned out well — a lot of readers comment that despite the common theme, the stories are all feel very different, which I think is a good thing.

Joseph: How did you settle on the title?

Raymond: The title story is about a woman who is beginning a new life in a new country — at least, she’s trying to. She needs to learn the language, just enough to get by, and her Chinese tutor tells her, “Forget English,” because if she’s going to learn Chinese, she can’t think in English anymore — she has to start over completely.

And the title seemed to be a good fit for the book as a whole. Each story touches on this theme: of starting over, of forgetting where you came from, of trying to disappear even as you realize it’s not entirely possible.

Joseph: Is there a story in Forgetting English that’s your favorite?

Raymond: The stories that come most easily and can be written most smoothly are always my favorites! For example, “First Sunday,” despite my never having been to the South Pacific, was fairly easy to write; I had the idea for this high-powered executive type being exiled from her job, and when I decided to set it in Tonga, the whole story just came together. It was also really fun to research it through my sister, though I probably drove her a little crazy, calling her up every few days asking her how to spell something in Tongan. “The Road to Hana” is another favorite of mine because I liked the original story so much, the one about the stolen ring. I learned later that the roommate had been contacted and didn’t remember anything about it, after all that emotional suffering her roommate had gone through. I think there might be yet another story there.

What I’ve found really interesting so far is readers’ responses to the book, their own favorite stories. They are all different. Though there are a few stories that many people are drawn to, they’re not always the ones I expect — and each story in the book has been someone’s favorite at least once, which is really nice.

Joseph: Is there a story in the book that was particularly difficult to write?

Raymond: “Beyond the Kopjes” was one of the trickiest, in part because it kept getting longer and longer — I think it secretly wanted to be a novel. And maybe one day it will be. But I had to contain that one, and it took months of rewriting before I felt it stood on its own.

On the other hand, “Rest of World” was also a challenge, for the opposite reason, since it was limited by the structure I’d created for it. Often with stories I find that there’s so much to say, and yet I’ve written myself into a structure that can’t sustain it. This is why I revise and revise and revise.

Joseph: You're also a teacher. How do you balance teaching with writing?

: I really enjoy the balancing act. What I love about teaching is being reminded of all that I need to be doing in my own work. I’ll be telling students to remember their characters’ motivations, or to take a step back and ask themselves what they’re trying to say — and doing this is a constant reminder for me to do the same. When writing time is tight, I might try to rush through a project, or call a story finished when it’s not — and then I’ll go to class, talk about the very same issues, and remember that I need to practice what I preach.

Joseph: What are you working on now?

Raymond: I’m working on a novel now. I’m researching and writing and trying to figure out where it’s going. I’m enjoying the characters and the process, so it’s going pretty well so far. But, of course, I haven’t given up on stories and I do have a couple that are waiting for my attention. I think that no matter what, I’ll always be writing stories.

1 comment:

Janna Cawrse Esarey said...

Loved this interview, especially after already reading Forgetting English. It makes me want to go back and reread the collection. Really beautiful words and meanings on the page, but hearing Midge's answers makes me realize how articulate she is in person too. Great questions--the ones I would have asked. Thanks!

P.S. So exciting that FE is being kindle-ized!