Eric Schlich’s story “Merlin Lives Next Door” was published in Leaving Home, Finding Home (60.2) last spring, and his “Lucidity” appears in the current issue of Nimrod, Awards 39 (61.1). His collection Quantum Convention & Other Stories, featuring these stories originally published in Nimrod, recently won University of North Texas Press’s 2018 Katherine Anne Porter Prize. The book will be published this November. We talked with Eric about his writing and editing life—here’s our Q&A:
Q: Do you have a specific place where you like to write?
A: Yes. I’m of the Virginia Woolf mind on this one. I need a room of my own, where I can close the door, think my thoughts, and put words on the page. This room has changed as I’ve moved about for academic programs and university teaching positions.
During my M.F.A. in Bowling Green, Ohio, it was a cramped attic (my head touched the ceiling—I’m tall, six-three). My wife (girlfriend at the time) referred to it as my “batcave.” “Fortress of Solitude” might have been more appropriate, since she’s a Superman fan.
In Tallahassee, Florida, while I was in the Ph.D. program at Florida State, it was a tiny bedroom filled with crummy black fiberboard bookshelves from Walmart (we dream of living in a house with a library room someday and swoon when we see or hear the words “built-in bookshelves” when looking for places to rent).
In Dunkirk, New York, where we currently live, I have another small bedroom, but most of the bookshelves didn’t survive the move, so many of my books are stacked on the floor, lining the walls all around the room. My friend (and previous roommate), poet Anna Rose Welch, has diagnosed me with “tsundoku,” which is a Japanese word for compulsively buying books and letting them pile up on shelves, floors, nightstands, etc. I never seem to have enough bookshelves and I’m loathe to sell my books even after I’ve read them.
Q: Do you wait for inspiration to write?
A: No. Absolutely not. Waiting for inspiration is a good way to never write a novel or even a short story. Yes, there’s such a thing as a lightning-in-the-bottle eureka! moment that surprises and delights you, but who has time to stand in a field with an open mason jar during a thunderstorm, just waiting for that to happen?
I trust habit more than inspiration. Everyone thinks they have a novel or story in them, simply because they have an idea. But the work of writing is not merely in idea-making; it’s in actually writing. That’s the hard part: sitting down at your desk on the days you feel like it and (more importantly) on the days you don’t. I’d choose discipline over inspiration every time.
Q: Both stories of yours we’ve published have magical elements. Is this typical of all of your writing—do you find that you’re drawn to stories with some magic?
A: Yes, I’m drawn to stories with magic, and I mean this both literally and figuratively. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter is a generational touchstone—unavoidable as an influence. And elements from fairy tales, fables, and myths have shown up in several of my stories.
Many of my favorite contemporary short story writers—George Saunders, Karen Russell, Kelly Link, Aimee Bender—are doing wonderful things with (for lack of a better term) “magical realism.” Once upon a time, magical realism referred to a Latin American aesthetic attributed to the founders of the genre, such as Gabriel García Márquez, but it’s since been diluted (and Americanized).
I’m most interested in exploring stories that juxtapose a grounded reality—mundane, often suburban—with the magical (as in “Merlin Lives Next Door”) or operate on a conceit that gets at a deeper issue, often the internal struggle of a character (like the lucid dreaming conference as a parallel to A.A. in “Lucidity”).
I’ve always wanted to write about time travel. I taught a literature course on The Time Travel Novel (in which we read Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Kurt Vonnegut, Octavia Butler, Audrey Niffenegger, and Charles Yu), but so far I’ve only been able to write about the subject at a slant. For instance, Geoff lives next door to Merlin, so his experience of his neighbor’s time travel is all vicarious and only emphasizes his own stasis. I also have a story called “Quantum Convention” in which the main character, Colin, meets his multiple selves at a parallel universe convention. Not quite time travel, but close.
The line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” (if such an artificial line need exist) has become increasingly blurred these days with writers like Benjamin Percy, whose novel Red Moon uses werewolves (or “lycans”) to comment on America’s war on terror. Look at Gregory Maguire’s Wicked books, in which a children’s classic is adapted into an adult series that tackles complex issues of sexuality, coming of age, and being a social outcast.
Literal magic is not typical of all of my writing. Figurative magic is. For instance, there’s “magic” in post-apocalyptic or dystopic fiction. (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and Feed by M.T. Anderson are two favorites.) It’s hard not to get political these days, and I’ve begun my own dystopic fiction with a story called “Unpresidented!” that reacts to the 2016 election by envisioning a presidential election reality TV show.
I’m also currently writing a novel about a boy whose claim to fame is that he died and went to heaven when he was three. He and his family are recruited in a publicity stunt by a televangelist who owns a religious amusement park called Bible World. The “magic” of this project is in the absurdity of a spiritual belief system (America’s Christian mythos) taken to a commercial extreme (capitalism).
Q: You’re an editor as well—how does your editorial work affect your writing process?
A: During my M.F.A. at Bowling Green, I was the assistant fiction editor for Mid-American Review. While in my Ph.D. program at Florida State, I was the nonfiction and production editor for The Southeast Review.
Working as an editor is empowering for a writer in a number of ways. For one, it puts you on the other side of the slush pile. You get to see what’s out there and you can’t help but measure it against your own work. It’s confidence-boosting to read a story or essay (more like ten . . . twenty . . . a hundred) that’s just terrible. And yet somebody thought it was ready to be published! Submitting your art is an inherently vulnerable act: you have to be prepared for rejection. Before working as an editor, I was hesitant to submit. The writing was never good enough. But the writing never will be. Reading a lot of bad writing in the slush gave me permission to submit.
It also trained me as a reader of my own work. This is most helpful in the revision process. In the drafting stage, you want to turn that editorial part of your brain off. In revision, you have to distance yourself from the draft and read it objectively—as you would as an editor of someone else’s work. Only the “someone else” is you. This is why Chris Offutt calls revision “performing surgery on yourself without anesthesia.” It’s a difficult skill to learn.
Keep in mind: even if the sentence-level writing is good, the story-telling has to be good, too. Many times a voice would grab me in the opening pages of a submission, but then the story’s climax and resolution (its endgame) would fall flat. This happened so often I’d sometimes get nervous halfway through reading a story I liked (will they stick the landing?). It taught me to pay as close attention to last pages of my stories as to the opening.
Reading submission after submission also allows you to sense when your attention is flagging. Where is the writing not sustaining reader interest? I would then bring this eye to my own work. Is this scene entertaining or can it be cut? Should this dialogue be summarized? Where does the language bog down?
Even more practically, it makes you aware of word counts. Before working as an editor, my stories were all too long. The writing was gratuitous, self-indulgent. As an editor, you only have so many words to fill per issue. And we’d deliberately choose a variety: flash, medium-length, and longer narrative. This challenged me to write shorter, and many of my flash pieces were picked up before my longer stories. One story of mine has been rejected over 80 times, and I swear it has to do with the length (it’s 8,000 words). An editor has to really get behind a story that long to publish it.
Eric Schlich‘s stories have appeared or will appear in Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, Fairy Tale Review, Mississippi Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Electric Literature, Redivider, River Styx, Nimrod, New South, and other publications. He is the recipient of a Tennessee Williams Scholarship at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, an Edward H. and Marie C. Kingsbury Fellowship, and a residency at the Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences. He currently teaches at SUNY Fredonia and lives in Dunkirk, New York.