Book Talk: Tales of moments when all changes

TOKYO Thu Dec 15, 2011 6:52am EST

TOKYO (Reuters) - Two songwriters reunite at the request of a former associate, with unusual results. A single woman agrees to be named guardian for her widowed sister's children. Dissatisfied with her job, a teacher seeks out the teacher she idolized as a schoolgirl.

Though the characters change, most of the stories in Alethea Black's debut short story collection, "I Knew You'd Be Lovely" feature people at moments when they stand at crossroads, facing a change in their lives.

Black, who began writing in earnest in 1995, said she likes the short story form, both for its brevity and the fact that it's a "good way to learn writing." The collection grew bit by bit over years, as she wrote first one story and then another.

Q: What's the unifying theme?

A: "There's a unity of voice among them, and that helped it sell and is helping it as a collection, because even though the characters change there's a sensibility that's consistent. I think of it as people finding ways to love each other and themselves in spite of their brokenness. An editor that I worked with said that she thought it was about those moments in life when everything changes. So I think that both of those apply."

Q: Moments in life when everything changes -- could you elaborate a bit on that idea?

A: "I thought that was a good description. The stories do exist at an emotional crossroads. I had a writing teacher at one point who said you should always be asking yourself 'why is this night different from all others?' I've really loved that and always remembered it, and I think that's true. You are showing people when they're making important choices. That's what makes it suspenseful and dramatic and, hopefully, of interest to the reader. This is the day when they make decisions that affected all the other days."

Q: Do remember any specific incidents or ideas that touched off some of the stories?

A: "I have a file that I work from. If something crosses my mind that seems dramatically charged as a situation or a character or even a bit of dialogue that I come across in the world that seems even a little colorful, I'll save to work off of that. One of the stories is about a high school English teacher who looks up her high school English teacher. That's a significant day for her because she became a teacher in part because of his influence, and he has had a very profound influence on her. So meeting him in person many years later is a night that's different from all others for her.

"Then I do enjoy stories where something happens. I have another story where another character is trying to find the perfect gift for her beloved. That alone is a charged exercise, but it is especially charged because she suspects there's another woman. There's another story that takes as its premise the idea that somebody is having premonitions something will happen, so I was immediately setting the stakes high -- for myself and for the character. They knew that something of importance was about to take place in their life but they had no idea what."

Q: How do you actually keep the file?

A: "I have a mini tape recorder that I keep in my purse at all times, and I will take it out often. My friends are patient with me when I do so. That's really where I record ideas and later I'll transcribe them into journals. Now I also rely on this file on my computer but I also have all of the journals going back for years."

Q: You're just constantly aware and on guard for ideas?

A: "I think that as a writer you're always listening and watching as you move through the world and you just can't help it. I do have periods that are more fruitful and productive than others. Sometimes if I'm really in the heat of the story I'll have a hard time turning my brain off and I'll have the tape recorder under my pillow. I'll try to sleep and different ideas about a story will still be popping up. I haven't ever been able to successfully turn it on and off, I'm more just trying to successfully collaborate with it."

Q: What's the appeal of a short story?

A: "The advantage from a writing standpoint is that I think you can hold the whole thing in your mind at once, even perhaps without knowing it. That lets those inevitable turns of phrase or turns of plot come about, and I enjoy that aspect. I think the appeal from a reader's standpoint is that you can have a satisfying narrative in a sitting, you don't have to log a month's worth of hours to have that sense of completion."

Q: What's hard for you in writing and what's easy?

A: "Well, I love first drafts when it's still surprising and exciting for you, and you don't know the jokes and you don't' know the ending. The harder part for me was the editing, where I already knew how things were going to turn out and I knew the jokes. So I had to re-envision editing as creative. I said that you need to go back in and light it on fire again. This situation may be familiar to you, but you can still come up with something exciting within it. It's not quite as sexy to cut a sentence that doesn't belong, that isn't the most exciting part -- making a good cut -- but you can bear in mind that it's going to make the story stronger overall."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)