We are anxiously awaiting our presentation of Marriage & Other Odd Occurrences: An Evening of Short Stories by Alethea Black! We recently caught up with Alethea to ask her for some insights into her process, and the stories we'll be presenting. I hope you will find her answers as intriguing as I did.
Question: Can you tell me a little about what inspired you to write the two stories The Thing Itself and That of Which We Cannot Speak that we will be presenting?
Alethea: "The Thing Itself" owes a debt to Michael Curtis at The Atlantic. I¹d had a couple of very encouraging rejections from him when someone told me that The Atlantic really likes stories where something happens,which fortunately I do, too. So after I heard this bit of advice, I wrote the opening line: "Something was about to happen, he could feel it." And immediately I thought: Aha, now I¹ve got him! Then, in the truly gloomy days that followed, it dawned on me that now that I¹d set the tone, I was going to have to find a way to live up to it. Which of course wound up being a tremendous gift, and in the process of trying to do so, I allowed the story to surprise even me.
"That of Which We Cannot Speak" was written after I decided one winter that smoking should be my new fun hobby. I got a wicked sore throat, but even though I was sick, I thought it would be a good idea to keep on smoking, and I wound up losing my voice for more than a week. There was a party I wanted to go to nonetheless, and I still have the things people wrote on my clipboard. It was amazing. Cartoons, spontaneous haiku... It made me realize that there's a whole deeper level of communication that might take place between two strangers, if you just gave them the means.
Question: Both of the stories are told from the point of view of married, or recently divorced, men what did you draw upon to be able to find their voices in such a finely nuanced, astute way?
Alethea: Oh, thank you. I don't know, for whatever reason, I don't seem to have too much trouble writing in the male voice. I was very close to my father; maybe that has something to do with it? Plus, I feel for men. I'm not one of those people who think men are on Mars and women are in Australia. I think we're all in the soup together.
Question: Both of the stories contain a great depth of emotion, as well as longing, and regret, but they also have a somewhat mischievous sense of humor is that something you seek to infuse in all of your stories, or is it your own wicked sense of humor breaking through on its own?
Alethea: Well, the humor, or lack of it, would be a function of the character, so I try to be loyal to what would exist in that person's psyche. That said, I do think I'm drawn to characters who are flamboyant or charming or have a certain wildness to them. The kind of person you wouldn't mind being stuck in a foxhole with. Because when you write a story, you're essentially sticking the reader in a foxhole with your characters, so I try to make them the kind of people with whom the reader would have a good time.
Question: When and how did you start writing?
Alethea: At Thanksgiving 1994, my sister Ashley gave me The Best American Short Stories anthology from that year, edited by Tobias Wolff. Those stories went straight to my heart; I found them to be so moving and beautiful. I felt as if they were speaking to me, and I guess I wanted to speak back. When I saw my dad that Christmas - this was the year before he died - I told him I wanted to be a writer. He said I always used to say I wanted to be a writer when I was a little girl. But I must have forgotten, because I don't remember that at all. So I said, Why didn't you remind me?
Question: Are there recurring themes or elements in your work?
Alethea: I like to write about those moments in life that can sneak up on you when you suddenly see yourself or the world in a different way.
Question: Are you primarily interested in the short story form or do you also write poetry, full-length novels, etc.? Alethea: I started out writing poetry, and I used to teach a poetry class for kids when I was just a kid myself. I like to try to capture some of that same way language can startle you or transport you in my stories, but most of my poems are happily dormant in their little nest on my computer. Lately I've been working on a so-called novel, but I wouldn't call it a full-length novel. It looks as if it's going to be about 100 pages. In a way, it's like a long story. I feel as if I'm watching a movie in my head as I write.