What: Her short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Esquire.com, One Story, Ploughshares, and other magazines and anthologies. Erika’s collection of short stories, COME UP AND SEE ME SOMETIME (Scribner), won the Paterson Fiction Award, was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the year, and has been translated into six languages. Erika’s new novel, CONTENDERS, was published by Rare Bird Books in March, 2015, and will also be published by Aufbau-Verlag in Germany. Erika teaches at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, Colorado, and works part-time as a private investigator for Title IX and sexual assault cases.
Where: Boulder, Colorado
Interview conducted by email. Some questions/answers have been edited.
Congratulations! CONTENDERS, was just selected for my office book club. I have already read it, but my ten or so co-workers haven’t. What do you want them to know about your debut novel before they even crack it open?
Yay! I’m so glad, and thank you for the interview. Re: what people should know before reading, that’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. I hope the book can stand on its own, or I’m in big trouble.
Now I’m worried.
All joking aside, CONTENDERS was one of the most original books I have read this year. How did you develop the concept, voice and tone?
Thank you so much! That’s great to hear. When I started CONTENDERS, I had already been writing a completely different novel for a couple of years. After I realized it was irredeemable crap, I threw it out in favor of a four-word idea: “a woman who fights.” That’s all I had. I was training a lot of martial arts at the time, and was asking questions without finding answers, so this was my way of exploring further.
For the voice and tone, I needed to find tonal distance from Nina Black, the main character, since she beats men up and steals their wallets. I had to make it clear that although Nina is teetering on the edge of sociopathy, I’m not, and I’m not defending her way of life. Otherwise, the reader would throw the book across the room. So I played around until I found a kind of wry humor that would give enough distance from Nina so a reader might enjoy her. But it took years.
CONTENDERS is an extremely visual story, both in terms of the descriptive language and the colorful characters. As a writer, do you picture the scenes in your head as you create them?
I tend to see images in words, so that’s how visuals work for me. I think, ideally, fiction has the power to transcend the sensory while also evoking it. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” etc., but show me the picture that says that.
That said, I was heavily influenced by kung fu flicks, so I did use some film devices in the novel, especially in the action scenes. I especially like how lower-budget Hong Kong films flirt with magical realism — characters fly, time dramatically slows down, etc. I needed to play with reality a bit so people might accept the possibility that Nina could contend with the antagonist, a cop and MMA comeback contender.
The street fighter (Nina) definitely came first. It took me years to understand her, and she took on a bunch of different roles. She was a kind of henchwoman in a cartel for a while, and then a noir private investigator, and then a professional fighter disguised as a man, and various other people. She did a slew of different martial arts before I settled on her hybrid form of karate.
Her actual situation seemed almost besides the point — her psychology was what interested me. What would make a woman fight? Why would she do something where she’s always at such a severe disadvantage, and on the brink of failure? (Ha, sound like fiction writing?) I didn’t want Nina to be easily dismissible, the byproduct of a bad childhood, etc. I wanted her to be the kind of person you’d only meet once in your life (shortly before you lost your wallet and fell unconscious).
The orphan came in because I had trouble finding a big enough problem for Nina. Novels are fueled by conflict, but conflict isn’t conflict for Nina — she loves it! But innocence — and any kind of attachment — would devastate her.
So I gave her custody of Kate, the 8-year-old orphaned daughter of Nina’s estranged twin brother. Nina has to figure out how to metabolize innocence and love, with none of the emotional tools necessary to do so. In Nina, Kate has an uncooperative target for her childlike need to rescue someone. Add a love interest and danger, and everyone gets to behave badly.
In writing a story like the one in CONTENDERS, it seems like it would have been hard to resist setting it somewhere more clichéd like Los Angeles or New York. Why is Denver the right setting for this story?
Denver is a comparatively safe city, with fewer reported murders and violent attacks. However, Nina targets men who try to physically or sexually assault her. That shit is everywhere. I also needed a city that was large enough for Nina to not get caught, but small enough for her to encounter the people she needs to run into.
Last, the characters are very Western, I think. They’re all about cowboy justice and Western pragmatism. They’re self-sufficient DIY-ers, whether they’re committing crimes or extracting vengeance.
Alas, it didn’t. I wish it did. The short story muscle is so different from the novel muscle. I spent an inordinate amount of time learning that, and berating myself because I was failing. Nothing prepared me for the demands of this novel. But I think this novel prepared me for everything I’ve written since. I make fewer mistakes now, and I spend less time hitting myself over the head with my shoe.
You are still a very active writer and publisher of short fiction. What do you get out of writing short fiction that you do not get out of novel-length works? Do you prefer one over the other?
A novel gives you room to really look at something from all angles, and complete your ideas. But it’s also structurally demanding. On every page, you have to justify the fact that the reader is devoting so much time to your idea. A novel takes so long to write that it teaches you to become a better writer. So when you’re done with the novel, there’s this feeling like, “If I began that novel now, I’d do so much better.” This is how people get sucked into the vortex of endless novel revision.
I love how a short story can be anything. However, I always feel a little stingy while I’m writing short stories, because I only have 4000 to 8000 words to explore the idea. You can complete a short story and possibly publish it in a much shorter time frame, so it gives you semi-instant gratification. And sometimes a single short story can pay more than an entire novel. However, short story writers have a harder time selling a collection.
I’d have trouble choosing between the two — they satisfy me in different ways. Short stories are more pleasurable to write, but if writing was supposed to be pleasurable, it would be called “eating.”
You also teach writing. In your opinion, what makes for a great short story? What makes for a great novel?
I think a novel or story is great when you feel a connection with the writer, and they “get” you somehow. So it’s personal, I think. But if we’re looking at objective measures, a great story has a unique world view that comes through on every page. You could read it two hundred years from now and marvel at its honesty. There’s a feeling of transformation and surprise, either in the characters or in the reader.
But none of this is prescriptive, so I think I’m not giving you very good answers. You’re a writer — you know! Describing a beautiful car from the outside has nothing to do with what makes it go. Writers are mechanics — we care about the technique, the wires and the combustion.
What advice do you have for new writers? If you could help them avoid one mistake that you made, what would it be?
Don’t do anything I did. Because I didn’t make just one mistake — I made them all, over and over. That’s an idiotic way to work. So here’s my advice: find a good, generous teacher, or several, and learn from their mistakes. Study technique: plot structure, arcs, characterization and character motivation, setting, dialogue, objective correlative, sentence structure, and everything that your particular genre demands. Learn by doing and redoing, and keep your ego (and alcohol) out of it. But caffeine works. Except for Balzac, who died from caffeine poisoning. So don’t be Balzac.
Right now I’m reading 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami and THE DAYLIGHT MARRIAGE by Heidi Pitlor. I like to read books in random twos or threes, so it feels like they’re having a conversation with each other.
I’m waiting for just the right moment to reread HENDERSON THE RAIN KING by Saul Bellow, one of my favorite books. Ditto with CATCHER IN THE RYE, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, THE STRANGER, and this weird book by Margaret Atwood called THE EDIBLE WOMAN. I think I tend to hoard the rereading experience, but I’ll read something new anytime.
What other publishing plans do you have for 2015?
No specific publishing plans in 2015, but I have writing plans. I’m working on a short story collection and a novel. It’s a schizophrenic way to work, but I like it. The short stories give me relief, and the novel gives me a broader vision and goal. Or maybe it’s just my way of procrastinating on everything at once.
S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His novella, CROSSWISE, and his debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015 and 2016.