One Year In—Writing the Novel: Rebecca Makkai

After one year of writing my novel, I took stock of what I’d accomplished—which seemed like very little. Would writing always feel like flailing? How do novelists find their way through? For guidance, I turned to published novelists, whose interviews are presented in the One Year In: Writing the Novel series. 

Today’s novelist is fellow Ploughshares blogger Rebecca Makkai,  the author of the novels The Borrower and The Hundred-Year House (forthcoming in 2014), and Music for Wartime, a story collection (forthcoming in 2015).

ImageRumor has it The Borrower developed over the course of nine years. Not to sound like your mother, but what took you so long? 

It’s funny, I’m actually a very fast writer, so the “nine years” thing is kind of misleading.

It was really nine years start to finish, the first few years of which were just wimpy outlining. I refused even to refer to it as a novel for about five years—just “this longer thing I’m working on.” I was very young (21) when I started it, and I was fortunately smart enough to realize I had no real business writing a novel. It took nine years not because I was drafting, but because I was growing up and figuring out how to write.

Did writing your first novel prepare you in any way for writing your second?

I think that if your first novel fully prepared you for writing your second, that would be a very bad sign. If it doesn’t feel completely foreign and new and like you’re working without a net, then you’re probably repeating yourself.Continue Reading

From the Slush Pile: Speak to Me

Büro im WasserIn his introduction to the most recent issue of Ploughshares, guest editor Peter Ho Davies says that the thrill he found in each selected story was the sense that it spoke to him alone.  But how do you make that happen? We’ve talked about a lot of different strategies to make your stories rise to the top and have editors take notice, but strong beginnings and endings will do nothing for you if your characters are forgettable.

The stories that I pass on are the ones that stick with me. Those are the ones with fully fleshed out characters and settings. You must know your characters inside and out; what they want, where they live and work, what’s inside their junk drawer. All of that information need not make it to the page, but the more intimate you are with the character, the more you will be able to pick the right details.Continue Reading

Ploughshares’ story cited as the best in Best American Short Stories 2009

Thumbnail image for best american ss.jpgOstracon by Alex Rose, originally published in PloughsharesFall 2008 issue, was accepted for publication in Best American Short Stories 2009. Edited by Alice Sebold and Heidi Pitlor (a former Ploughshares intern and author), the volume contains stories that are widely regarded to be the most outstanding of that year. In a review originally published by the Wall Street Journal, Diane Scharper cites Rose’s story as surpassing the others.

An excerpt from the review:

Perhaps the best of the “Best” is Alex Rose’s “Ostracon,” a story that reflects what Edward O’Brien, the originator of this anthology series in 1926, called “the artist’s power of compelling imaginative persuasion.” Inspired by his grandmother’s life, Mr. Rose tells the story of an old woman, Katya, who misplaces her glasses — a seemingly prosaic domestic drama, until we realize that Katya has Alzheimer’s. The story is graced with lovely, understated moments — “The muted scent of frost and peat leaks into the living room from the thawing backyard.”

But the power of the piece is in how closely Mr. Rose brings us to a moment of truth — a house where grandchildren are coming for a Seder but where the cutlery lies unwashed in a kitchen drawer, where the checkbook is in disarray — that captures the pathos of old age.

Alex Rose is a founding editor of Hotel St. George Press in Brooklyn. He has written for The New York Times, Fantasy Magazine, The Reading Room, North American Review, The Forward, and DIAGRAM. His debut story collection, The Musical Illusionist, was published in October of 2007 to critical acclaim.

The full review of Best American Short Stories 2009 can be found here.