Shya Scanlon is the author of the poetry collection In This Alone Impulse and the novel Forecast. His work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Literary Review, New York Quarterly, Guernica Magazine, Opium Magazine, Hobart, and others. He is co-editor of the journal Monkeybicycle, and Reviews Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. He received his MFA from Brown University, where he was a recipient of the John Hawkes Prize in Fiction.
Q (Meg Pokrass): At different points as a writer, have you had mentors? Do you mentor?
This is probably non sequitur, but I find it strange that the word we use for a “trusted counselor or teacher” derives, at least in part, from a story about deception: Athena taking on the guise of Mentor to advise Odysseus’ son to figure out what happened to his father. Is there something inherently misleading about mentorship, a lie at the heart of advice? I hope so. Sounds interesting.
I’ve not really had mentors. In grad school of course I received some good feedback and encouragement from the faculty, but the program at Brown is pretty hands-off, so even there I’m not sure I’d call it mentorship. But perhaps I’m putting too much emphasis on the lead-by-example element of the role. If you simply mean anyone who’s offered insight and guidance to me along the way, the list would be long. I think I’ve been pretty fortunate to have been involved in some pretty supportive communities.
How do you stay creative? What are your tricks to get “unstuck?”
Fear keeps me creative. I’m only partially kidding. Honestly, who knows the schedule by which the Muse makes her rounds? I’m always worried what I’m writing will be the last thing I’ll have inspiration for. And then I have another idea. As probably any writer worth her salt will say: to read is to be inspired. So I read. And when I find texts that make me happy, which is often enough, the deceptively complicated act of reading itself becomes a creative act. Beyond that? I hit the gym. I make at least 25% of my breakthroughs while exercising.
Favorite writing prompts or exercises you are able to share?
Speaking of exercise… Carole Maso gave us a writing exercise that, though I grumbled about it at the time, actually led rather directly to a shift in the very tonality of my writing. It was simply to choose one spot and sit for two hours and write what you see. At least, I thought it was to write what you see–other students interpreted the assignment differently–and what I chose was to sit in the Brown gymnasium and write about the other people there. The result was a kind of loose, free-associative prose that returned, by nature of it having a firm physical location, to certain themes. I didn’t publish it or anything, but it led to other writing I did publish, and generally a new direction to what I now look back on as a turgid, overly self-involved prose style I’d been pursuing for years.
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing?
A hard-learned suggestion I have is to remember that a full character would not only bring with him or her whatever is necessary to complete a scene. People have baggage, and though it may be beside “the point” of whatever action is taking place, it’s this very excess stuff of identity that makes characters feel fleshy and three dimensional. I often find myself spontaneously riffing on a character’s peccadillos to find something new they can bring to a scene, and in the process discovering something truly ripe or consequential in terms of the work’s larger themes.
Plot: how it evolves for you… anything on this subject.
Ah yes, plot. This is a kind of contentious issue, isn’t it. Plots are for burials, etc. It’s funny that one of the words we use for prose writing in general is also used for one of its constituent elements: story. It kind of rigs the game, you know? Imagine if we called books characters, and then people started challenging the idea that they had to involve active agents. Anyway, I’m both not very good with plot, and drawn to it for precisely that reason. My books have managed to include plots in a much stricter sense than I would have expected from myself. Yet it keeps happening. Though a book may not start with a strong plot, meaning, I suppose, a particular narrative direction set off by tension or struggle, one ends up emerging during the course of writing–sometimes rather quickly–and I wind up wanting to see where it takes me. It’s pretty common these days among writers I consider peers to disparage plot, I think, and to focus on language, for instance, but even in the workshops at Brown–where experimental fiction is king–we frequently heard someone or other insisting that a piece needed to have something more “at stake.” Which is really a matter of plot.
Tell us everything! Tell us what is new with you, everything that is new? You are returning to the F-5 – what has changed? Give us the details!
I just read over that first interview. Wow! I was cocky. But okay, sure, it looked like things were going really well, perhaps on the verge of getting even better. Well, since that interview, my novel was completely unsupported by a publisher who promptly went out of business months after the release, just as the book was finding its audience. Since then I’ve been toiling away in obscurity on the same book I cheekily refer to as “non-fiction.”
But I’m not bitter! Things ain’t all bad. Forecast will be reissued by Civil Coping Mechanisms early next year. It’s third life, really, since its first was as online serialization. Whether this third be “a charm” or “company” remains to be seen. I’m definitely thrilled that someone still believes in the project. I hope to leverage this interest into a broader readership, and I think we’ve got some great ideas about how to achieve that.
As for the book I’ve been working on for the last couple years, it’s taken me in some pretty unexpected and wonderful directions (cf. my answer to the question of plot), and I’m happy to report–actually, I’m happy to *believe*–that it’s the best thing I’ve written. It begins strange, grows stranger, then gets weird. An excerpt of it went
up at Spork recently.
Let me just take a moment, too, to thank you, Meg, for all the great work you do at Fictionaut, and for including me in the goodness!
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs athttp://megpokrass.com.