Interview with: Chris Gavaler
by Joe Portes
Your story “Almost Africa” appeared in issue 5 of the Saranac Review, can you tell me about your inspiration for this story?
The story was originally part of a 110,000 word novel. This and another short story that appeared recently in Witness are all that remain of the abandoned manuscript. It, like my new book School for Tricksters, explores the idea of race through the lens of fakes. Ethel is a black actress who has to perform being African in a way that satisfies the racist stereotypes of white film-makers—which is the sort of complex and largely unconscious performance everyone acts for their personal audiences everyday.
Did your background in play-writing play an important role in composing this story?
I wrote “Almost Africa” before I wrote my first play, so the influence flows the other direction. I was working in a very dialogue focused style, sketching conversations first and then filling in surrounding narrative detail. The approach emphasized character voices and so guided me into playwriting. At one point I was actually hearing Hilton’s dialogue in my head before I could consciously compose it.
This story has many verbs used in unique and different ways such as arms being “knotted in front of her chest,” or a “face spreading for the punchline.” Do you do this often in your writing? Does it just come natural or do you consciously pick certain verbs and attempt to use them in unconventional ways?
I think the trick with verbs, or any turn of phrase, is to make them a little unexpected, but not so much that they trip the reader. It’s a battle between unusualness and clarity, and you want to hit that middle space that combines both.
The end is a little ambiguous and open-ended, but the last line does seem to give some closure. Can you talk a little about the ending? Was it difficult to decide how to end this piece or did it just come to you after writing a few pages?
This ending was originally in the middle of a chapter, and though I revised the second half, I don’t think too much closure works for short stories. I try to gesture toward an implied ending by evoking an emotional trajectory, but I find that my stories work better if I don’t wind out the plot to its conclusion.
You first taught High School English in Virginia and now are a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Washington and Lee University. What are some of the differences between teaching English at the high school and college levels?
College students want to be there. My college composition courses are essentially the most motivated high school students I taught over several years of high school all placed in one room at the same time. High school teaching is much more challenging.
As a college professor, what class has been your favorite to teach? Why?
I love creative writing, both fiction and playwriting, but probably my favorite class developed from a group of honors students searching for a professor who would teach a seminar on superheroes. My wife, the chair of my English department, sent them to me.
On your profile page at Washington and Lee, it says you attained your MFA from the University of Virginia. Can you tell us about one of your favorite professors there? What was the best piece of advice they gave you, either about writing or anything else?
Christopher Tilghman is a brilliant teacher. Same for Deborah Eisenberg. They both taught me the significance of revision, which, I would now argue, is writing, as opposed to merely drafting.
You wrote a novel, Pretend I’m Not Here, a couple years and now have another forthcoming, School for Tricksters later this year. Can you tell us about both of these books; their differences and the challenges of writing each one?
School for Tricksters is an historical fiction exploring two incidents of racial passing at the Carlisle Indian School around 1912. It is deeply researched and took years to write. Pretend I’m Not Here is a romantic thriller that I dashed off in a few months. I don’t know which is the better book.
Have you read much of the Saranac Review? If so, has there been any writers from past issues that really caught your eye? How about any other up-and-coming writers that you really like?
Powell’s “Dick Tracy” homage was of particular interest, and not just because I’ve been obsessing over 1930′s comic strips lately. And Wayman’s “Satyr Mounting a Nymph” is a great use of dramatic monologue transferred over to fiction (William Gass’ “A Little History of Modern Music” takes a similar approach and appeared in the 2008 O. Henries).
I’m sure you probably get asked this a lot, but as an aspiring writer myself I look for as much help I can get. Do you have any advice for myself and the other young writers out there?
Focus on the pleasure of writing, not the hope of publication. If you do want to publish, be prepared to accept a staggering amount of rejection without it shutting down your ability to write. Also, avoid adverbs.
Chris Gavaler’s WEBSITE