shining the spotlight on short story collections
About the author:
Sarah Gerkensmeyer’s What You Are Now Enjoying was selected by Stewart O’Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. A Pushcart Prize nominee for both fiction and poetry and a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, Sarah has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Ragdale, Grub Street, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her stories and poetry have appeared in American Short Fiction, Guernica, The Coffin Factory, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, B O D Y, Hobart, and Cream City Review, among others. Sarah was the 2012-13 Pen Parentis Fellow. She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University.
Just about a lifetime, because I know that bits and pieces of these stories have been whirling around somewhere inside me since I first sat down to write a story at age five or six. But more directly—probably about a decade. One of the stories in the book is from when I was in graduate school. Many of the stories were written in the years after that, and the short-short pieces were written during the first few months of my second son’s life.
Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
In graduate school, I put too much intense pressure on myself to churn out an entire publishable book in just two years. (That didn’t work.) After that, I focused more on the individual stories and got swept up in the beginning stages of a novel. So this collection snuck up on me. I was deep in the second draft of my novel and too exhausted to focus with a newborn at home. So I returned to my stories and saw that I had several that wanted to be together in a book.
How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?
I chose the stories that were most overtly toeing the line between the ordinary and the unordinary, the mundane and the fantastic. This is what excites me most as a reader and a writer right now. As I was figuring out an order for the collection, I decided to use the especially short pieces as a kind of rhythmic source, alternating between the longer pieces and the flash pieces.
What does the word “story” mean to you?
To me, “story” means everything. Story is how we make sense of ourselves and our lives. Story is meeting a stranger at a bar and listening to him completely unleash. Story is memory. Story is the faded, chalky drawings on cave walls. Story is ancient and potent and we’ll never be able to escape it.
Do you have a “reader” in mind when you write stories?
No. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be able to write. I’d be too self-conscious and afraid of what my reader might think. I try not to think of myself, even, as a reader or an editor while I’m writing, especially in the early stages. I want to look back on a draft and be surprised in some way. I can’t tap into that sense of surprise and discovery if I’m writing for a particular person who has particular expectations.
Is there anything you’d like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?
What is this book about? I’d love to figure out an answer to that.
How does it feel knowing that people are buying your books?
It’s often too hard to imagine anyone besides my parents buying my book. I’m humbled to have my stories out there. I’m grateful beyond words.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a novel that takes place in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) in Northern Minnesota. The protagonist has an extremely rare and severe congenital heart defect (basically half of a heart). The story features survival (both within disease and within wilderness), and a surprise visit from an unknown father, and an impossible pregnancy, and a black bear that refuses to hibernate, among many other things.
What are the last three short story collections you read?
L. Annette Binder’s Rise (phenomenally haunting)
Nisi Shawl’s Filter House (from sci-fi to fantasy to fairy tale)
Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles (like a British Karen Russell. Mermaids in the title story!)
Read the review of What You Are Now Enjoying.