Introducing SFWP’s 2013 Literary Award program winner, April L. Ford! Here, she discusses writing, contests, and occasional misspellings.
Sheila Lamb: Your short story collection, The Poor Children, won the 2013 Literary Awards Program. How did you discover the SFWP’s Literary Awards Program?
April Ford: I had signed up via Facebook and Twitter for SFWP updates, and I confess to having submitted The Poor Children with no hopes of even making the longlist. Literary awards contests are chock-full of amazing writers and amazing manuscripts, and I still can’t effectively communicate how surprised and honored and thrilled I am!
SL: How did it feel to know David Morrell was the judge?
AF: Exhilarating. After I received the news about my collection, I emailed David to thank him; he replied shortly after and we engaged in a friendly exchange. He paid compliments to my writing and I swooned in my swivel chair.
SL: Your stories have been published separately in several literary magazines. How do they tie together as a collection?
AF: Once I committed to the idea of The Poor Children, I had a hard time thinking about the stories as separate parts. They’re not linked in the sense of shared characters or storylines, but they’re part of my larger exploration of the polarities of human behavior and the actions these compel. At one point I didn’t want to send the individual stories out for consideration anymore; I developed a complex, you could say, that went something like this: “The stories need to stay together!” I eventually got over this silliness and returned to braving the submissions managers.
SL: Tell us a little about this collection and how it began. Describe your writing process throughout the project.
AF: The first story I wrote, which would later become part of the collection, is the one you feature here, “A Marmalade Cat for Jenny.” It’s come a long way since the first draft, but after I completed the first draft, I knew something had changed for me … possibilities had opened up. I consider “Jenny” my first true short story. A few months later I wrote “Isabelle’s Haunting,” and then a few months after that I wrote “Yellow Gardenias.” Then I began toying with the idea of developing a story collection; the pieces were (unintentionally) thematically related, and they were too long for the preferences of many literary journals. So at first, my impulse to create a collection was in defense of longer word counts. (Many journals have loosened up on word count since those days.) I began “Bleary” shortly after completing the third story, but I stopped about eight pages in; I didn’t know where to go, and I was running low on the all-night energy that had fueled me through the other stories.
Jump ahead a couple of years to the night my husband was assaulted by a teenage boy with serious impulse-control issues; I was drawn back to “Bleary” as a way of making sense of what had happened. Why would some kid randomly club an unsuspecting person over the head with a 40-ounce beer bottle? Why would the other two kids with the assailant laugh while the victim lay on the ground howling in pain? (I was with my husband when this happened; he could have died from the severity of the skull fractures he suffered.) I became obsessed with understanding the psyches of the bystander kids and so Trigger, the narrator of “Bleary,” became my interpreter.
I wrote the last story, also the last in the order of the collection, during my MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. During that time, I was obsessed with Warren Jeffs and reading books like Secrets & Wives and watching television shows like Big Love. Thus was born “Bananas and Limes.”
I had the most fun writing the stories narrated in first-person; these gave me freedom to talk out loud as often as I wished and to “become” other people. I didn’t know anything about the characters and never planned out their stories; Scott, Fancy, Sammy, Trigger, and M— simply popped into my head, often at inopportune times, and lured me into their depraved worlds. I also had fun writing each story in a different style. This wasn’t intentional; it just happened, organically, in response to each character’s circumstance. When I felt I had finally completed the collection, I wondered if I had mastered the art of the totally un-publishable manuscript. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of publishing during the years I worked on it—of course that was my end-goal, but I allowed myself to give it serious consideration only after I had exhausted my self-indulgence in the worlds of The Poor Children.
SL: You’ve written short fiction, but you’re also working on a novel. What is your mind set as you sit down to write short story versus novel?
AF: I finished my first novel, Gentle, this February; the whole process took me three years and three rewrites. I took huge breaks between writing sessions; I would work on Gentle for a few hours every morning for a month, maybe two, and then put it away for a few months. I needed that distance because I was attempting to infuse the novel with certain autobiographical essences, and let me say how challenging that was.
When I begin a short story, I tend to decide within the first three pages whether or not it’s a go. How do I know this, you ask? Hum, it’s a gut thing and completely abstract. I just know. Yes, this is working. I’m connected to the characters and the story. No, this is complete bull and whom am I trying to impress?
I’m working on my second novel, now, and I’ve set some rules: No more short stories until I complete the first draft. For me, novel writing is a huge emotional investment, and while it’s good to practice different forms of writing, I lean toward using the short story as an excuse to not write the novel. Another rule I’ve set is: draft number one will be done by the end of this year. Which is a mildly insane rule since we’re in the last quarter of 2013 and I’m barely into chapter two.
I used to fancy myself a prolific writer—I was, but I wasn’t writing. I was experimenting, mimicking, posing, fretting, trying to impress, doing all those things new writers do, which is part of the process at-large. Now I’m a slow writer. I’m finicky and surreptitious and inclined to take as much time as the work in question requires. On days when I want to make myself feel guilty and inadequate, I visit the websites of accomplished prolific writers like Joyce Carol Oates.
SL: How do you balance teaching and writing?
AF: I teach only two courses per semester. I’m an adjunct lecturer, and the pay increase for teaching a third course isn’t worth the writing hours lost. I’m fortunate to be married to a fully employed professor who is one hundred percent behind me, and I pick up freelance writing and editing work whenever I’m struck by the desire for a new pair of Doc Martens. Even teaching two courses, the workload is thick; I normally have twenty-five students in each section of Creative Writing, and there’s always lots of reading, conferencing, and grading to be done, and it’s easy—so, so easy—to put my writing second. Some days I do, but most days I wake up at 6 am, brew my stovetop espresso, then park myself at the keyboard and write for either two hours or one thousand words—whichever happens first. If I’m in a good place, I might reach my word quota in forty minutes. After that, the day is mine and I don’t have to worry about writing until the next morning. On days when I sit at the computer for two hours and manage only to type a bunch of obscenities, well, at least I’m keeping my body engaged with the physical part of the writing process!
SL: What projects do you have in the works?
AF: A second novel, a co-authored novelette with one of my colleagues, and a television series script with that same colleague. And one short story demanding an ending….
SL: Any words of advice for writers on selecting writing contests?
AF: Oh-là-là ! Submit and submit widely. After craft and talent and kismet comes numbers—so many other writers are doing the same thing. But to submit indiscriminately is not in a writer’s best interest, for a number of reasons. First, most contests charge submission fees, so unless you’re unhindered by this, you want to think of submission fees as investments, and most people don’t go lightly into investing. Also, speaking as Managing Editor of a literary journal, editors remember not only the best submissions but also the most inappropriate—by that I mean the steamy sex story submitted to the contest for environmental writing, the gang-rape sonnet submitted to the contest for children’s parables, etc. Never assume you haven’t been noticed just because your work receives a generic rejection form. Poets & Writers published a great article a few issues back about writing contests (I can’t seem to find it in my ceiling-high stash of bathroom-reading…sorry!); just as we should educate ourselves about the literary journals for whose attention we’re vying, we should educate ourselves about literary contests if only to avoid mortifying mistakes like misspelling an editor’s name or addressing a submission to Francine Prose when the judge is Jane Smiley. Such things do happen.