Liz Prato interviews Stevan Allred, Author of A Simplified Map of the Real World
It started for Stevan Allred as many writing careers in Portland do: at Tom Spanbauer’s table. Writers got together to read their writing out loud, and Tom gave feedback. That’s where Stevan learned to write, really write, and he learned to teach, and where he met his long-time teaching partner, Joanna Rose. They started their own table where writers got together to read their writing aloud. That’s when I came along. Eight years after reading my first story at that table (I still have Stevan’s notes, written in red pen: A very complex story w/layers of meaning. Some very careful editing might shape it a bit), Stevan’s short story collection, A Simplified Map of the Real World is being published by Forest Avenue Press. One afternoon last May, Stevan and I sat down at my table, and we talked about writing.
A Simplified Map of the Real World is a collection of fifteen stories, populated by people in or about the fictional rural town of Renata, OR. What other themes do these stories share?
Loss – because I believe that that is really the only story we have to tell, and how we survive it, or fail to survive it – so that’s almost a given. In fact, my challenge to writers out there is go, try to write a story without loss on it. Love was a big thing. There’s romantic love in a number of the stories. Familial love, fathers, sons, daughters. The seamier side of love with one story that has a sex worker in it. And because you want conflict in your stories, there turns out to be a lot of divorce. I was married at the time, and thought I would always be married to my wife, and after I finished writing this body of stories, my marriage fell apart. Now, when I look back on it [writing about divorce], it feels like I was dress rehearsing for something I didn’t know was going to happen.
What were your original plans for this collection? Did you always conceive of publishing with a small press, or did you plan to send it to the big New York houses?
I got it pretty much done in 2008, and then I got divorced. I kept thinking “I need to go through this one more time.” I’m very meticulous, a Virgo. And I just procrastinated for years. Then I started a novel a couple of years ago, and was all involved in that. When I finally said, “Okay, I will go through it,” the work I thought I had to do took about 4 hours. So, 4 hours of work – that’s what I was avoiding for three or four years.
But you were going through stuff – this big life change . . .
I don’t really think that’s any excuse. It was really all about, “What if they don’t like it?” I’ve been turned down before. I’ve got novels in drawers that didn’t go. And I hate that. It’s one thing when you send a short story out to a small press and you get rejected, you just send another out, and if it’s good enough, somebody will take it. That’s just about numbers and being persistent. But a whole collection? That’s a bigger risk.
Where are some of the places you thought you might send it to?
I only had one idea about where to send it. Forest Avenue Press is a new start-up headed up by Laura Stanfill, who’s an old friend of mine, a former student. When she announced a call for manuscripts – specifically for quiet novels — I called her up and said, “Hey, I’ve got this thing, do you want to take a look at it?” I was fully prepared for her to say no, it’s not a novel, and I’m looking for novels. Instead, what I got was “Yes, send it right over.” She turned it around in a week. I get this e-mail, and the opening line was “I would LOVE to publish this book.”
Did you ever have any concerns – practical, or ego-based – about a former student publishing your work?
No. It never felt like she was doing me a favor. It felt like there was this mutually beneficial thing we could do — get this book out of my hard drive, and into the world. She’s a dream to work with. She’s a fabulous editor. I accept her as a peer.
When did that happen? When your students became your peers?
I was certainly very aware over the last couple of years that a couple of guys I schooled – Yuvi Zalkow and Scott Sparling – had published novels, and I haven’t. So that’s kind of eye-opening. And guess what? They came back to the table and are still paying me.
Here’s the thing: When I started teaching – more than 15, less than 20 years ago – I was really arrogant. Really full of myself. I had been with [Tom] Spanbauer and thought I knew pretty much everything he knew, which is stupid. I was also very quick to judge the value of students’ writing. I wouldn’t necessarily put that out there in a critique, but I had opinions.
But then, somewhere along the way, somebody walked in after six months or a year, or whatever, and we’d seen the same kind of stuff that wasn’t very exciting. But they were diligent, they were learning, and we were continuing to see improvement. And then there’s this moment when they walk in and put something down on the table, and they have made this big leap. And when it’s somebody that you wrote off? If you’re paying attention as a teacher, you’ve just been given this huge lesson about how life really is, about how people really are. And the lesson is you don’t know when someone’s going to break out. So you better treat everybody like they can be a genius next week. Because it can happen, and it feels really amazing when you know you were a part of it.
When did you start studying with Tom Spanbauer?
1992, I think. In that group were Joanna Rose — who’s now been my teaching partner for umpteen years — Chuck Palahniuk, Suzy Vitello – who I cannot understand why she’s not published. She’s one of the best writers among us [since conducting this interview, Vitello landed a contract for her first novel]. Let’s see, who else was in that group? Ken Foster. Monica Drake and Kassten Alonso came a little later. I was in way over my head, but no one shoved me to the bottom of the pool and stood on me. They all put a hand out and said, “Here. You can do this.”
I had this moment where I realized, “This is the most extraordinary thing that’s happening here. To be at this table with these writers, to be treated this way, to be in the presence of Spanbauer, as a special a guy as he is. Be awake. Pay attention. You may never get this again. Just treasure every moment of it.” And I’ve tried to live my life that way.
You employ a variety of narrative stances throughout the collection. Your story, “Vortex,” showcases some of the best omniscient narration that I’ve read in a contemporary short story. Does this stance come naturally to you, or did you really have to work it over to hit the right notes?
It is different, what I was doing there, and I was very aware of that. The biggest point of view challenge in that story – well, I guess there were two, really. One is that I have a POV character who is gay, but I’d already done him in another story, so I was pretty comfortable with Lenny. But, still . . . you want your gay friends to say, “You got it right.”
And then, I did Spiro Agnew (laughter). And I just thought that was, you know, ballsy. I lived through Watergate at the Nixon presidencies, and I pretty much despised him. If you were a leftie, or a hippy, or a longhair – I was all three – you just knew you were under attack. You knew he was out to get you. And when I read up on him, he was pretty much as sleazy as I always thought he was.
Your prose has a great sense of control and authority, while still feeling fluid and playful. This is one of those hard-to-teach qualities that makes certain writing really great. Do you have a secret about to how to achieve it? How can you teach it?
First off, I don’t teach anything. Not really. I tell people how sentences work, or how they might work differently from the sentence in front of us, so there’s some craft there that I kind of teach. But mostly, we model. This is what a writer’s life looks like. This is a table full of writers, here. You are no longer allowed to call yourself anything else, because we will not put up with that shit. We don’t allow people to apologize before they start reading – we cut them off. Just shut up and read. We don’t want to hear all that crap about how insecure you are about this piece of writing. We’re going to talk about the writing, this is not about you. Which is what we’re all afraid of. That if we don’t get the writing right, then it means we have failed as human beings. That’s what I’m afraid of.
Let’s talk about the drawings in the collection – why you wanted to include illustrations, and why you chose the artist you did.
I had read the Michael Chabon book, Gentlemen of the Road. It’s an adventure story set in the 10th or 11th century in the middle east, and it’s illustrated with these line drawings. I really liked the visual break up of the book, and I thought the drawings were really sweet. So I had this idea that I wanted my stories illustrated. The book had already been accepted, and we were on a timeline, and told Laura I wanted it illustrated. She said, “Okay,” which is really pretty incredible. She didn’t say, “No, that’s a lot of extra work,” or “That’s really not what I do.”
Well, my thought was we only had two months, so I thought I’d get 15 different artists to do 15 different line drawings. That way one person doesn’t have to do a mad rush of getting all these drawings done on a short deadline. Laura didn’t like that idea at all, because it would result in 15 different styles, and she didn’t want that kind of book. I was trying to take care of the artist, she was taking care of the book.
The illustrator’s name is Laurie Paus, and she lives up in Seattle and works at Elliott Bay Books. I was in her condo one time, and she had on her living room table a carved hand. It was about an inch and a half long, and it was exquisitely carved. It was just wonderful. It reminded me of those carvings you see out of Africa – my mother had some of those – but this was so much finer. So I said, to Laurie, “Where did you get this?” and she said, “Oh, I made that.” And I was like, “You made this?”
I thought of getting ahold of Laurie, but she might say no. She’s said no to me before. So we sent out an e-mail call for artists, and Laurie responded. I knew her work was right for the book. It’s a quiet drawing style, and very meticulous. Everything she does is really put together beautifully.
When your story about the bumper cars first got published by Carve Magazine, you celebrated by organizing a group to go to Oaks Park (the local amusement park) to ride the bumper cars. What did you do when you found out about this collection being published?
I cried. I was so happy. I screamed. I jumped up and down. I was alone at home. I started calling people up.
Was there any kind of ritualized celebration, or is that to come?
That’s to come. That’s me standing at the podium at Powell’s on September 12th. That is the ritual moments. Others might emerge – because those kinds of rituals, if you try to think them up, they tend to be stupid. They’re forced. If you are just alert to when it happens, then you go, “Oh. That’s what I’ve been waiting for, this moment.”
To learn more about A Simplified Map of the Real World and Forest Avenue Press, visit: http://www.forestavenuepress.com/