NS: Two things get under my skin as I read your work. Design and Insight.Your set up, description, the emotional tension, story arc, character intimacy and design of your narratives is excellent! I even want to say, perfect! “Change of Plans” stayed with me for two days after I read it. This is a sign, for me, of a writer who ‘delivers’.
My inquiry is about your penchant for intricate psychological prose. Clearly you’ve had some ‘experiences’ in your life. Really, anything you want to say about what you are up to here, I want to hear.
Beth Bates: Oh gosh, perfect is a stretch, but thank you for kind words. Any technical feats you see in these stories I attribute to the rigorous instruction I’ve received in the Butler MFA program (with some effort on my part-see question 5). Working as a psychotherapist for seven years is one source of my tendency to focus on painful internal processes. About experiences, they’re all grist for the mill, right? I do think it helps to put a lot of distance between transformative life events and any serious attempt to produce a meaningful expression from those events. I mean, go ahead and journal, write a draft, but your creation is going to contain more texture and insight if it has time to cure. Like a list I recently wrote about my dad. I’ve tried writing about his death in the past, but this thing seemed to write itself in about an hour in a way that *poof* materialized out of the ether. But it didn’t take an hour. It took one hour and sixteen years to write in a compelling way.
NS: Authors you love who have influenced your work?
Beth Bates: What a fun question. Pinch me.
I’ve had a long-term relationship with emotionally naked literature. When I was ten, my mom gave me Angel Unaware, a memoir by Dale Evans Rogers (don’t judge me). That book and a collection of comic books about (I’m not making this up) Christians imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for harboring Jews sealed my abiding affection for nonfiction, memoir in particular. Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, Dave Eggers, and Jennifer Lauck send me. I admire John Robison, the overlooked older brother of Augusten Burroughs, for his breathtaking memoir that nails complex psychological dynamics with minimal exposition and sentimentality. Anne Lamott I adore for her gloves-off personal transparency and spiritual irreverence.
I just realized it’s your question 1 “intricate psychological prose” that connects my favorites, even on the fiction side. Michael Dahlie’s A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living, Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, even The Road—they all kill with their sticky, lovely layers of subtle psychological complexity. (Wow, I never made that connection till now. You’re like a James Lipton for writers.)
NS: Love your bio, how you weave your dreams into it. I wish more bios read this way. Say more. What plans do you have for your future as a writer and life design to support it. I ask this purely selfishly as I’m working on this aspect myself. And many writers I know are as well.
Beth Bates: For the next year I will sponge as much writing mojo as I can from my MFA program, which may or may not involve developing “Change of Plans” into a novel for my thesis. After that, as my bio suggests, a Curtis Brown agent will snatch me up and incite a bidding war among the Big Publishers, after which Hollywood studios will battle over movie rights. Once all that is settled my husband will retire. We will home school the children and divide our time between modest green-built homes in Telluride, Marin County, and the north shore of Kauai where I will frolic with my family and write more bestsellers and an Oscar-winning screenplay. That’s Plan B.
Plan A is to keep slogging away at my laptop. I will continue to ignore my family, write daily, submit work to obscure literary journals, and piece together a book every four or five years. I’d be grateful to find work ghostwriting, editing, teaching—any scenario that offers enough flexibility and financial stability to support the writing life. Publication would be icing, as would a new MacBook.
NS: A scene from your childhood when you knew you were a writer? Or, you look back on now and it makes sense?
Beth Bates: Hm . . .
All of Dick Gigax’s kids were expected to master the art of well-constructed business correspondence, but a writerly epiphany? I think there was a moment in high school several months after the baby episode. The cool sociology teacher assigned a socialization essay. We were to show a person’s development from birth through adulthood, and I inserted as the subject this kid I’d given up the right to watch grow up. It was healing to write the baby’s life into reality in the context of what for me was a creative nonfiction exercise, and the essay grabbed my teacher’s attention. On one hand it was cathartic, but the real juice came from watching a person respond to a story I wrote. Fireworks. You know the feeling, eliciting an emotional response from a reader, and then you’re hooked. Snap, crackle, when’s my next fix?
NS: On subtlety, precision, insight in your writing. You have it.
How did you get there? You display some real skill in your writing. Lots of practice? Lots of coffee? Love, pain, laughter?
Beth Bates: Ha! Thanks. All of the above, and more. Any evidence of skill is the result of thousands of dollars, brilliant professors in killer workshops with peers I trust and respect, beers with friends, time spent reading, and hours and hours of rewrites.
I hit a hole-in-one on my first round of golf—ever, I kid you not—and my husband says my standard line should be, “Of course I did, it’s where I was aiming!” I’m just aiming for a substantive story that contains conflict, action, and living, breathing characters who sound authentic without producing some saccharin counterfeit that’s embarrassing to read aloud. Occasionally, when the stars align, I hit it.
NS: It’s an honor to have you at CR Stories. Powerful work! Anything more you’d like to share?
Beth Bates: Thank you. It’s an honor to be included, Niya. Writing flash fiction (and non-) has stretched me. “Change of Plans” started as a ten-page short story, and submitting to Curly Red Stories challenged me to slash all but the essence. “Poser” was 1,000 words, and it seems to hold up at 300 (and now I’m never touching it again I am so over it). I appreciate the platform you provide for experimentation. You ask intriguing questions and offer a novel forum for writers and readers in search of refreshment. Nice work.
NS: Oh this is the best thing you could have said. And the most ideal way to conclude the interview. The slash and burn you did, brilliantly I might add, is so difficult. But getting your story to it’s essence was so rewarding to read. And I think your readers will think so too.
Sugar in a bag is a lot of sugar. But burned down is caramel to creme brulee. Thank you for a delicious dessert!
Niya Sisk, CR stories founder