Small Country (Ploughshares Solos, 2014)
What are some of your favorite long stories? Or what are some long stories that have influenced your writing?
These are some of my favorite literary works in the whole history of writing, period:
Claire Keegan’s “Foster” (in The New Yorker, later expanded into a novella of the same name).
Richard Powers’ “To the Measures Fall” (in The New Yorker and then BASS 2011).
Pretty much anything Alice Munro ever wrote, but two of her stories that I read at least once a year are “My Mother’s Dream” and “The Albanian Virgin.”
Deborah Eisenberg’s “Twilight of the Superheroes,” in her collection of the same name.
Ben Fountain’s “The Lion’s Mouth,” in his Brief Encounters with Che Guevara.
I have learned more from these longer stories—and just plain out-love them more—than most novels.
At their best, long stories do what novels do: they capture a whole, complex world; they leap across time and space, covering extensive swathes of time and ranging across diverse settings. But the long story does so under the constraints of a much shorter length, an almost necessarily faster pace. So there is pressure on every page—every paragraph, even—to be essential.
Maybe a big story is like a movie or an individual TV episode, as opposed to a season-long series. I might say of an extremely tight and well-crafted movie or episode, “There wasn’t a single bad scene; there wasn’t a single wasted moment.” Meanwhile, in any season-long series (as with a novel), no matter how generally excellent it is, there’s always bound to be an episode or two that is slower or somehow lacking.
But a big story that can get a complex character on the page right away, that can get the narrative arc up and running, and be beautiful and profound at the same time without wasting a line (as in those works I named above), that story achieves a kind of perfection, I think, that may be humanly impossible in longer works.
What might these favorite or influential long stories suggest about you and your writing?
That I’m long-winded! I used to apologize for this, but now it’s clear that this is my story-telling style, and I’ve embraced it. I’m a very associative thinker; no sooner do I dream up one plot point than it opens out into three or four others. (Very much like a Hydra’s head.) Every time I write a new story, I start off knowing that the first draft will be twice as long as the final product. I write big and then cut. Most of my revision is cutting.
Even so, my stories always come out on the long side. I think I am constitutionally unable to write a very short story. As an example, not too long ago I’d convinced myself that I should write a piece of flash fiction. I thought it would be a good challenge. Well, I wrote it; I had this thing that was about 750 words long, and I showed it around to some trusted writer friends. They all said, in various kind ways, “This isn’t working.”
So I went back to this piece and worked on it some more, and I’m happy to say that it has since turned into a linked long story and novella.
What’s your long story about?
Penny, the thirteen-year-old daughter of relief workers in Guatemala, flees the country with them when their lives are endangered. It’s the late 1970s; the Guatemalan civil war is reaching its peak. But life in the U.S. is problematic in its own way, especially when Penny and her rabble-rousing new friend, Gina, have to spend a week in a Mennonite Bible camp.
Small Country is a fish out of water story. I wanted to show the clashing of various cultures and to put Penny in the middle of that conflict. So there’s Guatemala, which Penny loved and where she feels rooted. There’s public middle school in the U.S., where she’s supposed to look like Farrah Fawcett and know all the new Bee Gees songs. Then there’s this Mennonite camp in Kentucky that her parents think will be good for her, where she drags Gina and where they are punished for being too worldly.
I have several cousins who spent their childhoods abroad and who refer to themselves as “third-culture kids.” I’m fascinated by people who feel they are always straddling several cultures at once, who are never completely at home in any of them. So in Small Country, I tried to explore a “third-culture” character’s struggle to adapt to a new environment while receiving such conflicting signals.
Oh yeah, and then I threw in some sex. What’s a Mennonite Bible camp story without some sex?
If you have written other long stories or novellas or chapbooks, could you describe each of them?
All of my stories probably qualify as longer stories. (I’ve never written one under 7,000 words.) “Dogs in Guatemala” and “Adiós and Adiós” are two additional longer stories that I’ve published in literary journals. My two chapbooks, The Death of Carrie Bradshaw, and Rubia, were published by Kore Press and The Florida Review, respectively.
My novella, “Rooster Hour,” was excerpted by Narrative last year. Right now I’m working to turn “Rooster Hour” into a full-length novel. It’s an international spy novel in the style of Graham Greene, but with a female protagonist. (A human rights worker in Guatemala gets entangled with the CIA.)
My other stories are part of a collection I hope to finish next year, also set in wartime Guatemala. I’m clearly obsessed with that country. I’ve lived there off and on— as a student in the late 1980s, as an accompanier of refugees with the human rights organization Witness for Peace in the 90s, and as a language school director in the 00s. Guatemala continues to fascinate me. And it’s such a rich setting for literary stories, as U.S. authors Francisco Goldman in The Long Night of White Chickens and Patricia Henley in Hummingbird House have demonstrated.
To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your long story?
None at all, but I couldn’t be happier with the design, which is taken from a Guatemalan Mayan weaving.
While my story’s title, Small Country, also refers to the culture at the Kentucky Mennonite Bible camp, its primary reference is to Guatemala—the small country which, through Penny’s traumatic memories, keeps interrupting the U.S. setting.
Ploughshares did show me the cover image before Small Country was published, so I could probably have weighed in if I’d hated it, but I had the opposite reaction. Not only do I love this accurate detail from Guatemala, but the colors are gorgeous, too. Ploughshares got it just right.
What is your writing practice or process?
I usually begin a story with a whole host of plot points in mind—always way too many of them for one story, and never (sadly, for me) with a very clear idea of how I will structure this plot. In other words, I can almost always think of a story, but my hardest, longest process as a writer is discerning how to tell that story—what to leave in, what to take out or compress, and in what order to relate each event.
What I’ve found as I’ve gone through this process again and again is that I need to keep pushing through a huge, crazy sloppy first draft. Even when I don’t know what order these scenes should eventually come in, I need to just write them, as fully but roughly as I can. I need to slam every thought I have about every new scene onto the page and not worry at that early juncture about whether it hangs together or makes complete sense yet—much less, whether it’s “pretty.”
It’s in later drafts—after I’ve roughed out each scene—that I start to get a sense of the structure. I don’t think it’s something I can know very well, early on. It’s as if I have to get to know the story and the characters first, write a whole bunch of crap I will not ultimately include but which I need anyway, early on, to help me see the whole world of this story, the whole predicament of these characters.
I have to keep reminding myself that the structure does come for me, but it’s a slow, gradual process, and with each new piece, I have to trust that. I have to allow myself to blunder forward, writing plot point after plot point until I’ve emptied myself, until I have felt out the whole story, just as far as I can imagine it.
It’s been hard to learn this new pattern! It still is hard, sometimes. It still feels counter-intuitive to write such huge messy, sometimes deeply broken-feeling, sentences and paragraphs and then let them be—to just keep writing forward. There’s a huge part of me that, once I’ve roughed a scene out on the page, wants to get right in there and tinker with it, clean it up, beautify. I think this is true for most fiction writers. I started writing fiction because I loved making lyrical sentences. It’s where I still want to put my main focus.
But if I let myself do that in the early drafts, the overall story might die. I lose track of the larger concerns. Early drafts are for building the world of each story, mucking around in that newly build world, going over it and over it again.
Patricia Grace King grew up in North Carolina and spent years in Spain and Guatemala. She now lives in Durham, England, where she is finishing a novel, Rooster Hour. Her stories appear in Ploughshares, The Gettysburg Review, Narrative Magazine, Nimrod, and other literary journals. Her chapbooks, Rubia and The Death of Carrie Bradshaw, won the Florida Review’s Jeanne Leiby Award and the Kore Press Short Fiction Contest, respectively. She is the recipient of fellowships from the University of Wisconsin and the Vermont Studio Center, as well as a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund.
from Small Country
The minute we lay our eyes on the swingset at Bethany Mennonite Bible Camp, Gina says, “I’ve gotta get me a boy.”
This swingset. We’ve never seen anything like it. No one has, in the whole world.
It stands apart from the buildings, on its own hill. It’s as tall as a two-story house. Taller, even. A swingset so high can’t be legal. These Mennos have gotten away with it, though, since they built it themselves and hid it deep in the wilds of Kentucky. No one who cares about safety codes even knows this swingset exists, up in the Mennonite hills, in all its improbable glory.
The seats are planks a foot deep and a good yard across; you stand up in them with your feet planted wide. The chains are triple or quadruple length, maybe, so once you get a swing going, you fly up and out until, at one end of the arc, your belly hangs parallel to the ground. At the other extreme, you lie flat on your back in the air.
Except a girl can’t. Not by herself. You can’t swing like that, see—standing up—if you are wearing a dress.
Boys and girls swing together: that’s how it works. I figure it out as we watch. The girl sits with skirts tucked around her; then the boy jumps on too, facing her. He stands with a foot on each side of her hips, and together they pump away.