I am thrilled to be hosting the brilliant writer Erin Stalcup on my blog. I recently heard her read new work and my socks, they were blown off!
Sincere thanks to Robin for hosting me on her site! She has always been so supportive of me and my work, and she also happens to be one of my favorite writers. I can’t wait for her novel to be in my hands—I got a sneak peak at just a few pages, and it’s truly excellent.
1. What is the working title of your book?
Gravity: Stories & a Novella.
2. Where did the idea come from for the book?
It’s a collection of eight stories and a novella, so the ideas came from many places. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Empire” is a response to William H. Gass’s story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” “Gravity” responds to a quote by Jon Mooallem in an article in Harper’s magazine about people who desire for gravity to fail (and I suppose the real idea for the story came back when I was a physics major as an undergrad). The idea for “Brightest Corners” came from compulsively reading Missed Connections and visiting Ikea in Sweden. The art of Cindy Sherman and Egon Schiele and Nan Goldin led me to write “Still Life.” “Why Things Fall” is drawn from Isaac Newton’s so-called discovery of gravity (a thing that is always there, so can’t be discovered, but can only be explained) and my long-time desire to understand God through human-created science. There’s a triptych of stories where I’m trying to understand how people can help each other, and how we can’t, and what we’re willing to do for money: “Keen” is about a hired mourner, “Ghost Writer” is about a ghostwriter for suicide notes, and “With Strangers” is about a prostitute who is grotesquely beautiful and obsessively visits doctors. The final novella, “All Those Stairs” was inspired by Mc McIlvoy’s description that a novella is an “opportunity to be in solidarity with a person on the verge of the abyss.” And by my years teaching in Washington Heights, Manhattan, where at the 168th subway stop you have to take an elevator up from hundreds of stories below ground, and people push the elevator buttons for you—that’s their job! I wanted to know what that was like. Also, once I started teaching in prisons a secondary character entered the novella, who is my imagining of a someone who’d taken my class, once released.
3. What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction. I’ve never liked the term experimental, but “innovative” sounds awfully arrogant. They aren’t very conventional stories, I’ll just say that.
4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
There are so many people in the book! Lauren Ambrose would be the keening woman. Queen Latifah would be the elevator operator. Cillian Murphy and Milla Jovovich would star in the title story—I’d want strangely beautiful people, to enhance the creepiness when they end up in gas masks by the end of the story. The Winter’s Bone version of Jennifer Lawrence for “Still Life,” since she has to survive a beating at the end, and that woman has shown she can do that on screen. I guess she should also be the archer that helps Isaac Newton understand gravity by shooting apples off his head in “Why Things Fall,” but not Hunger Games style—she needs to be in a striped dress like the one that won season three of Project Runway, but even more punk rock. For “With Strangers” I would cast freakishly beautiful twins, for the main character and her doppelganger that arrives later. I’m making it seem like all my stories are about beautiful people, but they aren’t! But it’s fun to put beautiful people in them. Daniel Day-Lewis would definitely be my ghostwriter. And for the two New York stories, “Brightest Corners” and “Empire,” I’d cast non-actors, four interesting people from that city full of interesting people.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Gravity describes the urge for intimacy and the impulse to turn inward, everyday longings and once-in-a-lifetime cravings, and the ways people can be emboldened by and beholden to their bodies—which can be a weight, or a release.
6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I have no idea! I’ve never tried to get an agent before, but I will try someday. I’ve started a novel, so maybe that plus the collection will make an agent want to give me the time of day. As of now, the collection is being considered by small publishing houses and contests.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
Well, I thought I was writing this book when I started an MFA program twelve years ago! But none of the stories I wrote during those three years made the final cut. But I think it’s fair to say I’ve been trying to write this short story collection for well over a decade.
8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I’d like to believe my stories have something in common with the stories of Amy Hempel and Aimee Bender, but that’s likely wishful thinking on my part. I could list many other writers I love, but while they’ve affected my life, I’m not sure how much they’ve affected my writing. Each of the stories in the collection is in a different form (mosaic, magical realism, borrowed form, second person, slipstream, triptych, and a novella which is really mostly a monologue), and some are realistic while others occur outside of reality and some are in between, so I’m not really certain what it’s similar to.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Every person who has written a short story I’ve adored. That’s many, many people.
10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Well, there’s a significant amount of sex. In pretty much every story. All different kinds. Sorry mom, but it’s true (though, I know my mom doesn’t really mind).
In the spirit of the generosity and friendship Robin Black has shown me in all the years since my MFA program, I’m going to tag three newer friends here in my PhD program, who are all writing interesting prose projects: Andy Briseño, April Murphy, and Sidney Thompson. We’ll be hosting their responses over at the American Literary Review blog, the magazine all four of us help run.