Creating Something Out of Nothing
Dana Diehl discusses the art of the short story
Dana Diehl’s collection of short stories, Our Dreams Might Align, is published by Splice and available to order now. Dana lives and works in Tucson, Arizona, on the edge of the Sonoran Desert, and her stories evoke the otherworldliness of that place: “Saguaros, barrel-shaped cacti, creosote”. At the same time, though, other stories twist the seeming familiarity of places like Pennsylvania and Scotland — where Dana has also spent part of her life — and they sit alongside still other stories that unfold in places not of this world. Here at Splice, you can read three of them: ‘We Know More’, ‘Swallowed’, and ‘To Date a Time Traveler’. Dana’s work has been appearing online and in print for a few years now; some of the stories in Our Dreams Might Align began showing up in places like New South, Passages North, and SmokeLong Quarterly in 2015 and 2016. Dana is also the author of several collaborative pieces and essays, and she has been an interviewer for The Collagist and the Sonora Review. In this two-part interview, Daniel Davis Wood speaks to Dana first about the origins of Dreams, her writing process, and her future plans, and then about the nitty-gritty of her forthcoming collection.
Let’s kick off by talking about science. One of the things that readers of Our Dreams Might Align will notice immediately is that it’s populated with characters who have an interest in science, or even expertise in some particular scientific field. There are teachers and researchers of various stripes; there are narrators who give Latin names for different species of animals and minor discourses on biology. Why? Why does science speak to you and what led you to decide that it should colour so many of your stories?
The sciences have always been present in my life, so it seems inevitable that they’d be important in how I tell stories and parse out the world. I was raised by geologists. My parents taught me to always be observant of the natural world: the placement of moth on trees, the movement of animals on the edges of my vision, the shape of rocks. Growing up, everything in nature seemed to hold a secret story. My parents could tell the journey a stone had taken by holding it. When we went canoeing, my dad could read the creek and know where underwater logs or rocks were hidden before he could actually see them. It was the real-world version of fortune telling and palm reading.
I love the language of science, especially Latin names, because these words often reveal just as much about the humans who assigned them, as they do about the animals or plants. Our words reveal our values, our reference points, and what we think of as extraordinary (for example, the Latin name for hippopotamus translates as ‘horse of the river’). I also love the vocabulary of science for its specificity and clarity. Sometimes I try to write without science. Sometimes I succeed. But most of the time, my worlds feel duller and less magical without it.
That’s really beautifully put. And what’s fascinating about the role of science in your stories is how it plays out exactly as you describe, giving a certain tint to your characters’ perceptions. It’s not just ornamentation; it doesn’t just set up a situation or push forward a plot. It allows some people to see the world in ways that others can’t see it, or to express themselves in ways they couldn’t if they didn’t have scientific concepts to fall back on. I’m thinking especially of characters in stories like ‘Closer’ and ‘Going Mean’.
Even today, there’s still a lot of validity to the old ‘two cultures’ complaint from C.P. Snow, fifty-odd years ago: that the discourses of the sciences and the humanities are incompatible or irreconcilable. But you sometimes think of them as overlapping; you invoke science to convey aspects of human experience that maybe can’t be conveyed using ordinary language. Obviously, this is an unusual thing for someone to do when they’re so clearly committed to a language art!
How conscious are you about writing for readers who might be unfamiliar with science, or puzzled or put off by it? How much effort does it take to work it into your prose without letting it overwhelm your readers? Or do you imagine yourself writing for readers who are likely to find it appealing no matter what?
I don’t worry about the science being too much for my readers, because I’m not a scientist myself. I usually don’t do much or any research prior to writing a story. I do the research while I’m in the process of writing to preserve that sense of mystery and discovery that I want to feel while writing, and that I want my characters to feel, as well. In most of my stories, I’m more interested in my character’s imperfect interpretations of science than I am in reporting the facts.
I have plenty other worries, though! I worry that my use of science will become tired. I worry that I use it as a crutch. I worry that a connection I see between science and life will feel forced. And most of all, I worry that one day a real scientist will read my stories and call me out on an inaccuracy I’ve inevitably missed.
So how did you end up going down this path rather than, say, following in the footsteps of your parents? What was it that led you to literature and to wanting to write stories?
When I was in Kindergarten, I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. Specifically: a book illustrator. But once I learned how to put together sentences, I quickly transitioned into wanting to be a writer instead. I have a clear early memory of sitting in my bed, rearranging word strips on my blanket, being amazed when the right arrangement created a thought and image in my head.
I was lucky to be surrounded by adults who encouraged my writing and helped me to see myself as a writer from early on. Some of those adults included my parents; my Kindergarten teacher, Pam Kastner; and my high school English teacher, Victoria Krout. My teachers gave me the confidence to submit to writing contests. My mom filled our house with books and was my first editor.
What I have consistently loved about writing stories is the magic of creating something out of nothing. I also love the puzzle of putting a sentence together. By the time I was a junior in high school, I was determined to major in Creative Writing. I went to undergrad at Susquehanna University, a small school in rural Pennsylvania with an incredible Creative Writing program. Some of the stories in Our Dreams Might Align were born from that program.
It’s interesting to hear you mention that, because your stories don’t come across as the results of conventional ‘workshop’ exercises. There’s very little interest in the affairs of everyday life, there are no real epiphanies for any of the characters, there are very few dramatic arcs. Some of them are almost static descriptions of what an unusual state of being feels like (‘Astronauts’, ‘Once He Was a Man’). Others, such as ‘Closer’ and ‘Going Mean’, depict characters undergoing transformations that don’t always have clear causes or clear consequences.
How much of this is the result of a conscious effort on your part? How much of a constructive role has the creative writing workshop played in your work, and to what extent have you turned away from some of the writing it tends to produce?
I generally don’t feel in total control of my style. I think that part of my style has been born from what I perceive to be my weaknesses as a writer. For example, I don’t feel especially good at plot. So, my stories aren’t very plot heavy. That’s just not what I prioritize.
I’ve been really lucky to have some incredible teachers who exposed me to different kinds of writing and didn’t push the traditional workshop story. As a young writer, in my sophomore year of college, I took a writing workshop with Silas Dent Zobal at Susquehanna University. For the first time, I was assigned to read authors like Aimee Bender, George Saunders, Ander Monson, and Susan Minot — all writers who feel very playful and experimental in their content and form. Prior to that, I’d mostly only read traditional short stories written by men who were long dead. Though I think there is absolutely value in reading the ‘classics,’ reading these modern and experimental writers was so exciting. Their stories made me feel awake. They made me feel like I didn’t have to be so serious with my writing. I could have fun.
I also think I learned early on to take workshop comments with a grain of salt. You can’t please everyone with your story, and you shouldn’t try to. In most of the workshops I’ve taken, I’ve identified two or three of my peers whose opinions I trust the most and who I think understand my aesthetic. Instead of writing for everyone, I write to them. It’s been three years since I’ve been in a workshop. I still hear some of my past professors’ voices in my head when I’m writing a first draft, but I try to turn those voices off. I have to trust that I’ve internalized their lessons enough to work on instinct. When you’re a writer, you need to be open to criticism, and you can’t be too precious about your work. But I think you also have to be a little stubborn. Stubborn enough to stick to your vision and not listen to the voices that say, “It can’t be done.”
Speaking of the writing process, what exactly is your process? Notes first, then a draft? Longhand or straight onto the computer? Timelines for completion? What about revisions?
I almost always type my stories. I like being able to write non-linearly and to move things around as I go. My first draft is usually a skeleton of notes that range from mini scenes to reminders to myself (for example: “Maybe a pig attacks her now?”). The next step is adding flesh, making it into a story. This is the hardest part of the process for me. The first few pages are the most painful, because I haven’t found my voice yet and my inner critic is being especially chatty. Deadlines are helpful, because they force me to push past this difficult stage.
Revision is the fun part. I feel like I can relax, because the hard part of generating something is over, and I can start playing and experimenting. It’s important to me to re-type each new draft of the story (at least until I get to final, language-level edits). Re-typing the story helps me to truly immerse myself in the new draft. I get to know my story better than I would by just re-reading it.
You’ve published widely, in places like PANK, Hobart, and SunDog Lit, and you’ve had some non-fiction in The Collagist. It’s probably fair to say that these are all venues known for their edginess, their openness to unusual work. Do you see yourself as firmly a part of this alternative literary scene (if that’s the right word for it) or do you also have more mainstream interests, as both a reader and a writer?
It’s flattering to be identified with the alternative literary scene! I have a lot of love for indie presses and lit journals that publish ‘unusual’ work. Most of favorite books have been published by indie presses and contain stories that first appeared in journals like the ones you’ve listed above. I admire that these journals and presses are taking risks.
I definitely feel most comfortable in this alternative literary scene. However, I am open to exploring other genres and modes of writing. I think there is a lot of good fiction aimed at kids, and I’d love to write a middle grade novel one day.
Finally, a question of form. Or, rather, a prompt: “Your thoughts on the novel vis-a-vis the short story: preferences, ambitions, possibilities, limitations, and your future. Discuss.”
George Saunders has a great metaphor for a short story that he shares in a Colbert Report interview. He asks you to imagine that there’s someone you’re in love with and you want to tell them how you feel. There are two scenarios. In the first, you take a train ride with your beloved and have a week to share your feelings (this is a novel). In the second scenario, your beloved is about to get on the train and you can’t follow her. You only have three minutes to say what you want to say (this is a short story). I love that the short story is precise and can be experienced in one sitting. In my own life, I have a lot of anxiety around uncertainty and unanswerable questions. But in short stories, uncertainty is celebrated. In short stories, it’s okay to leave questions unanswered.
My future? This past fall, I finished a collaborative short story collection with the amazing Melissa Goodrich. The collection is fabulist and inspired by odd things we’ve seen and heard working at an elementary school. I have another short story collection, or an idea for a collection, in the works, but it feels like bad luck to say what it’s about. You’ll have to wait a couple years and see!