Chuck Augello is the author of The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love, an amazing book of short stories! Editor Jessica sat down and asked him some questions about the collection and his writing process. You can find a full review of the book here.
1. The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love is a collection of short stories, some of which you've published in a variety of literary magazines. How did you choose which stories to incorporate? How did you choose the order of the pieces?
At first, I approached it as a “greatest hits” CD, picking the stories I thought were my “best” and compiling them in a single manuscript. Some of the feedback I received from publishers indicated that while they liked the individual stories, they didn’t think it worked as well as a collection. It took a while for that to sink in, but when it did, I began to look at it not as a “greatest hits” but as if the collection itself were a long story, with each story a unique scene serving the larger piece. Once I made that switch, I looked at the stories differently, realizing that the “best” ones were not always best for the collection. The title of the book is a line from “Cool City,” originally published by One Story, and once I decided on the title, I selected stories that best served the theme of love being an emotional grey space. In ordering the stories, I tried to mix the different types of love—for a parent, a partner, a child, a lost ideal. I also tried for variations in length, splitting longer pieces with flash. I always knew that “A Lesson in Fire” would be the final story because of its closing line: Nothing ever hurts as much as we think it will. It felt like the right note on which to end a collection about the grey space we call love.
2. Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry pops up in multiple stories in the collection. What is it that draws you to him?
I’ve written a few other “Rilke stories” that were not included in Grey Space. At one point the intention was to call the book The Archaic Torso of Love and to include only the Rilke stories. I wanted to follow a series of characters confronted by the challenge at the end of Rilke’s poem “The Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which is “You must change your life.” That idea—you must change your life—is very appealing to me, because I think most people kind of stumble into their lives and are not where, or even who, they’re really meant to be. But that idea slipped away, though perhaps I might return to it.
The first Rilke story that I wrote was “Languid,” but in writing that story I started to read Rilke more widely, and in his work I found so many lines that cut to the heart and made me think of the world with more intensity. His work is filled with mysticism and heightened emotion and an approach to the world that finds beauty in almost everything. He cuts through the fog that many people, myself most of all, seem to float through in the daily grind. So Rilke’s challenge was a challenge to me and a challenge to the different characters in my imagination, and it was the focus of my fiction for quite a while. I encourage any readers who are unfamiliar with his work to pick up one of his collections and read him.
3. You also wrote a novel titled, The Revolving Heart. Which is more difficult, writing short stories or novels?
Both! As a reader I prefer novels, and I think I’m more suited to writing a novel because I enjoy the sustained engagement with character and story. Short fiction requires such concise precision, and if one is writing with an eye on publication, there are limitations in word count that must be considered. With so many journals moving online, and online journals being better venues for shorter work, there are some pretty good reasons for keeping a story in the 3,000-4,000 word range or even shorter. That doesn’t mean a writer should limit him- or herself, but it’s something to consider, and that’s hard for me, to keep something within those limits, mostly because as a reader I prefer longer work, and that has carried over to my writing.
Writing a novel is a marathon. I worked on The Revolving Heart for over six years, not continuously, but during that time it was my main focus, and sustaining energy in a project for such a long period of time is difficult. For me, the biggest challenge was the ending. The opening pages are little changed from the time I started writing it, but the ending went through so many variations I thought it might never arrive.
Have I answered the question? Probably not—but they’re both hard in different ways. They’re also fun in different ways.
4. You run a website called The Daily Vonnegut. Can you talk a little about how that started?
Kurt Vonnegut has meant a lot to me. During college, while I was going through a pretty black period of depression, a friend gave me a copy of Vonnegut’s story collection Welcome to the Monkey House. It was the perfect book for me at the absolute right time, and it stuck with me the way few books have. Within months I had read everything Vonnegut had ever published. What sets him apart from other writers is the authorial presence of Vonnegut himself within his work and his genuine regard for human decency. “Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind!” he writes in one of his works, and that search for kindness, even in the midst of some of history’s blackest moments, has always impressed me. Plus he’s funny, wise, and a great storyteller. There are many other writers whose work I love and admire, but when I read Vonnegut, I feel like I’m with a friend. It’s partly an illusion, of course, but it’s real too, because Vonnegut worked hard to achieve that effect with his writing and cultivated that image in his public persona. As a writer, he wanted to be the reader’s friend.
A few years back a friend and I, the same friend who gave me the copy of Monkey House, started working on a Vonnegut trivia project. The Daily Vonnegut was started with the idea of putting out a Vonnegut trivia question every day. That quickly became unsustainable, and it’s never been a daily. But the name stuck. The creation of the site aligned, unintentionally, with the release of Greg Sumner’s excellent book, Unstuck in Time, which examines Vonnegut’ life as a novelist. I got the idea of interviewing Sumner; he agreed to do it, and so The Daily Vonnegut found its calling—interviewing writers and scholars dedicated to Vonnegut studies. It’s been a blast being able to exchange ideas with some great people, from scholars like Sumner, Jerome Klinkowitz, and Jim O’Loughlin, to theater people like Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington, who recently launched a revival of Vonnegut’s play, Happy Birthday, Wanda June. The most recent interview is with writer Suzanne McConnell, a former student of Vonnegut’s who has written a marvelous new book, Pity the Reader: On Writing with Style in which she explores the many lessons on writing well that Vonnegut discussed during his career. The site also has a trivia quiz, so if any of your readers are Vonnegut fans, I encourage them to test their knowledge and take the quiz! I’ve been surprised by how many visitors the site has had over the years. I don’t really do much promotion, yet there’s a steady stream of international visitors, which is a credit to Vonnegut’s enduring appeal.
5. You are a contributing editor at Cease, Crows. Can you speak to how being an editor has helped you with your own writing, if at all?
It’s taught me the importance of a strong beginning. When I’m reading submissions, I usually know by the end of the first paragraph if the story is going to grab me or not. If I’m not engaged by the end of the first page, it’s almost certain we’ll end up declining the story. So I try to apply that to my own work—give the reader something to care about early in the story. The other lesson is to make something happen; tell a story with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. We receive a lot of submissions in which literally nothing happens. The prose is often wonderful, with vivid imagery and evocative descriptions, but it’s simply an observation of a moment without any movement or characterization, and I usually vote to decline it because it’s not a story. For my own work, make something happen is a minor manifesto.
6. How did you start writing?
When I was four, I started The Scribble News, a daily paper describing the adventures of my stuffed toys. It was written in the language of Scribble, which only I could read and write. I sold a subscription to my mother for a nickel, and then charged another nickel to read it to her. So that was my start. For a while I wanted to be a screenwriter but realized I didn’t have the personality to make it in such a competitive business and had no real interest in living in California. While I’ve thought about writing a lot during my life, it’s only in the last fifteen years that I’ve taken it seriously, and by that I mean a sustained effort at creating the best work I can do, meaning draft after draft until it’s right, meaning time at my desk doing the work, because it is work, though it’s also fun.
7. As writers, we often get a lot of rejections. Did you ever reach a point where you wanted to quit writing? What got you through it?
It’s a great question, because the rejection is significant. Even published stories have usually received multiple rejections before they’ve been accepted, and while the conscious mind knows that a story can be rejected for many reasons unrelated to the quality of the work or the ability of the writer, it’s hard not to interpret it as “you suck.” And that “you suck” inner voice has a way of sticking around. I do often wonder why I spend so much time writing when I could be doing other, more useful things like volunteer work. While I think that my fiction is entertaining and has value, it’s not like the world needs my work. There’s more great literature in existence than any one person can reasonably read in his or her lifetime. So why do I bother, knowing that there’s a good chance what I write may be widely rejected? (And I can hear that “you suck” inner voice sneaking out as I write this.) Two reasons: One, because it’s not only rejection. Work gets accepted and published, readers give positive feedback; out of nowhere a stranger will contact me about something I’ve published and write that they really loved it. So that helps balance the rejection. Two: I enjoy writing and I feel compelled to do it. Why do some people play golf instead of doing something else? Because they enjoy it. Though it’s hard work, and often frustrating, it feels right when I sit down to write, and I would much rather do it than, say, play golf. Have I ever thought of quitting? Sure, but I don’t, because my brain keeps coming up with ideas and I feel compelled to keep working, even if the end result will be a big fat NO from the rest of the world. I’m cranky when I’m not writing. I’m sure my wife thinks, “What the hell is his problem?” and the problem, almost always, is that I haven’t been writing enough. Another long and winding road of an answer—I guess you can see why I prefer novels to short fiction!
8. What is the last thing you read?
Something Happened by Joseph Heller, which I had read a long time ago but decided to read again. It’s a lengthy, difficult book, often distasteful in that in lingers in the narrator’s mind and his thoughts are disturbing and sometimes revolting. I wonder if it would even be published now, since the narrator is such a man of his times (the mid-1970s) and his point of view epitomizes what we’d now call “white male privilege” and “toxic masculinity.” But it’s a brilliant performance by Heller, even if it hasn’t aged well. Before that I re-read Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and read the story collection Why They Run the Way They Do by Susan Perabo. I should mention that Susan provided a blurb in support of The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love, but that has nothing to do with my admiring her book. It’s such a warm, funny, unique collection. I prefer novels to short fiction, but Why They Run the Way They Do was thoroughly enjoyable.
9. Who are your favorite writers? Who inspires you?
John Irving. There are no books that I admire more than The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules. I first read Garp when I was a sophomore in high school and it was my introduction to literary fiction. Before that I’d read a lot of horror and mystery, but Garp seemed like a door to a new world, and I jumped through it immediately. Kurt Vonnegut has also been an influence, along with Richard Russo and T.C. Boyle. Also, the poet and sometimes novelist Kim Addonizio. I’ve written some poetry, though not much, but her poetry got me interested in language again after a period of inactivity and led toward my writing more fiction. I get excited by good fiction, which makes me want to write, but inspiration often comes from music, which I think is unsurpassed in creating an emotional moment. Most of my work is inspired by music. A song will produce a feeling, and that feeling will slip into my imagination and that’s often how things start. Most of the stories in Grey Space started with my hearing a particular song. No one would ever guess which song related to which story, and the song itself usually has nothing to do with the action of the story. But it was the spark that ignited the whole thing. Key passages of my novel The Revolving Heart were written while I was listening every day to the Squeeze album From the Cradle to the Grave. It's an influence, definitely, in that it provided the raw material for the emotions that, hopefully, made it onto the page.