I can’t remember exactly when I met Liz Prato. She claims down below that it was at Wordstock, that lovely ink-stained Portland conclave. But I’m always so stoned those weekends that I wind up at Voodoo Donuts, fogging up the glass and making everyone nervous.
So be it. I do know that I’ve had Liz in a bunch of classes and that she always brings a wisdom and poise that is both deeply inspiring and, at the same time, personally annoying to me, her alleged “teacher.”
I have also read a good deal of Liz’s work over the years and was pleased, though not at all shocked, to learn that her debut story collection, Baby’s on Fire, would be published this month by the most excellent Press 53.
This provided the proper excuse to force her to endure a few slobbering queries from her old alleged prof.
Here’s how that went…
The Rumpus: I believe you have taken three classes with me, though perhaps it feels like more to you. Please comment on the profound nature of these experiences.
Liz Prato: There was that time I realized that reality is subjective. That my experience and another’s experience of the same event are not the same. So does that mean reality is real? And, also, if you wave your hand through the air, rainbow-colored tracers will follow in its path.
Oh, wait… that was an acid trip from 1988.
Actually, I have learned some profound shit from you. Such as: it’s my narrative responsibility to tell the reader everything they need to know to care about my protagonist. And that it’s not enough to entertain people; we need to move them, too. And that writing is an art, not a commodity, and we are artists, not brands. That’s all foundational to how I move through the writing world.
Rumpus: Actually, I think you misheard me. What I said about writing is that it “boils down to developing a brand that allows you to establish a multi-platform presence in the marketplace with synergistic retail partnerships that maximize your revenue streams.” But let’s not quibble over language. Instead, let me ask this: How did Baby’s on Fire come together? At one point did you think, “Hey, I’ve got a book on my hands”?
Prato: I used to think that a short story collection was just an author’s previously written short stories cobbled together. And then, five years ago, I ran into Molly Antopol at AWP in Denver and asked her what she was working on. She said, “A short story collection,” and it was like the first time it occurred to me that a collection isn’t random. It’s planned. It has a theme and a feeling to it. So, I started looking at my stories differently. What was I really trying to talk about in the ones I’d written, and how did I want to continue to explore that going forward? I knew I was writing about the ways we get broken, and how we live with that, how we can remain whole, despite our brokenness.
When I started sending the collection out, I didn’t really have a sense of how to organize it. I was trying to think like an editor—ordering the stories so the book, as a whole, had its own narrative arc (“Man, if I end on this story the reader will be simultaneously devastated and fulfilled!”). The collection kept getting rejected, then Natalie Serber (author of Shout Her Lovely Name) told me to front load it with my absolutely strongest work. Make the editor fall in love immediately, and they’ll be more likely to either edit less successful pieces later on, or say, “Okay, just because the second-to-the-last story doesn’t work doesn’t mean this isn’t a great collection.” Which should seem obvious, right? But it was a revelation to me.
Rumpus: I read a number of pieces early in their genesis and was deeply impressed by their transformation. Can you talk about your revision process?
Prato: Funny—I have a 75% written craft book on the revision process of “When Cody Told Me He Loves Me on a Weird Winter Day,” which includes a chapter titled “The Almond Factor” (I think you said “Why don’t you tell your reader this upfront?” about 25 different times in your critique). I worked and worked that piece because I loved it, I loved what I was going for, and I loved my characters (even though several got axed, in the end, because they just weren’t working). I was incredibly lucky that when Hunger Mountain picked it up, the editors did some deep editing with me. I used to think if a publication didn’t edit a piece before publishing it, it meant the piece was awesome. But Hunger Mountain saw something they really liked in the story, and knew it wasn’t quite where it needed to be. They were willing to take the time to work with me to get it there. That’s a great compliment, in my mind. Kevin Morgan Watson, the editor of Press 53, also did that with “Minor League Lessons.” That story had been rejected a bazillion times but he said, “I really think you have something here; I want to help you make it work.” That’s the most generous thing any editor can do.
Also, it helps that I enjoy revision. I like the process of going deeper and deeper and finding out what I don’t know about my story. That’s part of why I’m a writer—to learn, to understand, to delve into the human experience. Revision is an extension of that.
Rumpus: There’s lots of talk these days about “literary citizenship.” What does that phrase mean to you?
Prato: Don’t be an asshole?
This thing we do, creating art, involves a lot of rejection and commoditization and self-doubt. It’s too easy to give up. Don’t let other writers give up.
That being said, man, I hate the phrase “literary citizenship.” It’s no longer something we should just be naturally inclined to do—help out and support each other—but it’s become some sort of self-congratulatory mandate. Who’s dictating what it means to be a good literary citizen, anyway? It seems to mean reposting and re-tweeting your fellow authors’ work on social media, going to as many readings as possible, hosting and planning readings… and don’t get me wrong, those are all good, important things. But not everyone is comfortable with, or physically or emotionally capable of all that. So, for me it just means: help when you can. And don’t be an asshole.
Rumpus: You live in Portland, Oregon, which may be my favorite city on earth. My question is simple: did you move to Portland with the tattoo, or were you forced to get it?
Prato: I told myself that I’d be subversive by not getting a tattoo. That’d show them right? But there’s only so many times you can receive the withering, disdainful look from hipsters—I mean, it’s super important to have their approval, right?
Seriously. I’d never gotten one because I couldn’t imagine any one image I’d still want on my body ten weeks from now, much less ten years. Plus, I’m a total pain wimp. But about a year ago, I started considering getting a honu (Hawaiian sea turtle). I’m spiritually connected to the islands, so I wanted to be able to carry that with me all the time. I didn’t know why I was so attracted to the honu, but when I looked up its meaning I learned that it represents the navigator who is always able to find its way home. That feels important to me as I go out into the world with my first book, and with some pretty scary nonfiction. Then my tattoo artist told me in Chinese tradition, the turtle is a symbol of longevity—which doesn’t exactly run in my family. I desperately want that for myself. Boom—honu tattoo.
Rumpus: I know you’ve been publishing some searing non-fiction. What’s next for Liz Prato?
Prato: I recently completed a memoir chronicling the five years during which my elderly dad and adult brother fell into severe mental and physical illness and addiction, resulting in both their deaths—and my own breakdown. So, you know, it’s a light-hearted romp. Now I’m taking a break from writing about my fucked-up family and am starting a new novel. I’m hesitant to talk about it, because I can’t believe someone hasn’t done it already and am afraid someone else will do it faster and better than me. But let’s say I’m reinterpreting a modern classic with a soundtrack from 1983. So far, I have a lot of multi-colored index cards, an iTunes play list, and the resolve that “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya” will not be in the book.