Contest winner Brent van Staalduinen on “Pieces of Echo”

The first-place winner of "Our Darkest Hours" talks craft, revision, and advice for fellow short story writers.
Published: March 3, 2017


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What inspired you to write Pieces of Echo?

My wife and I lived in Kuwait for a number of years, and it’s a place that stays with a person. The tiny emirate, tension-wedged between Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran, is continually doing battle with itself – tribal Bedouin history clashing against swelling religious conservatism and the omniscient temptations obtainable by abundant oil money. Like Daniel, the narrator, I taught wealthy Arab students at an international school and would often hear about the illegal things available to Kuwaitis, or indeed anyone with enough money or influence (wasta in the local dialect): narcotics and illicit chemicals, liquor and beer, trafficked persons in all their tragic forms, and so on. The Kuwait Camel Racing Club – a real place – seemed an ideal setting for a moment of conflict between those forces and the odd synergies that cultural misunderstanding can bring about.

 

All three characters – the narrator, Edie, and Dhari – are richly drawn in a miraculously short space of about 1500 words. How did you deftly weave in all that backstory without dragging down the plot?

My stories often begin with an image, and in this case the image was twofold. First, I pictured something really, really uncomfortable happening at the camel racing club. Second, I had an image of a couple in crisis, never really needing anything due to the privileged life expats lead in Kuwait but also unable to escape the flaws each brings into the marriage. Unusually – I don’t explicitly inject myself into my fiction very often – I had some real-life inspiration, too: a fellow teacher in Kuwait with a questionable “dating” history in his home country, Kuwaiti students who bragged openly about the illegal things they regularly enjoyed, some firsthand experience with the fear and grief associated with miscarriage, and a mother (mine) who visited us in Kuwait and led us into the men’s section of the camel racing club to watch the final race of the day!

 

With all that, it would’ve been easier, perhaps, to write longer, which I often do with other stories. But I’ve also found that I really enjoy the economy and discipline of shorter short stories, which pushes me to use my editing scalpel (rather than a chainsaw, as with a novel) to cut the work down to an effective balance of plot, inner monologue, and backstory. In short fiction, I always prefer that something actually happen – as opposed to spending the entire time inside the characters’ heads – so the characters’ history had to be meted out in careful pieces between plot points. The first draft was by necessity much longer, but as I got to know the characters, it became clear exactly what pieces of their histories needed to be excised and which be allowed to remain.

 

What was your biggest struggle when crafting Pieces of Echo?”

The first draft was much darker – Edie and Daniel went down the rabbit hole with Dhari – but it felt too sinister, too leading. I find that the most satisfying stories are the ones that leave enough unsaid that I want to re-read the piece, but also from which I can, based on how I’ve gotten to know the characters, draw my own conclusions. Here, given all the potential to write more backstory, character development, setting description, and so on, in such a small space it was a challenge to find a brief, effective ending (that wasn’t really an ending at all, but still felt like an ending!).

 

 

You’re an experienced short story writer, winning a number of short fiction contests and awards in the past. You’ve also written a novel, Saints, Unexpected. What is your writing process like when you write short fiction? How does it differ from novel-writing?

I’m always more aware of my word selection and sentence structure when I’m writing short fiction than when I’m drafting a novel. The form is literally more compressed, of course, but there’s a feeling that goes along with short fiction, as though my writerly-being knows how essential every word needs to be. I enjoy tight word count requirements, too, as that scalpel needs to be at its sharpest when I’m trying to contain a work in less than 2000 words. Not that a novel demands less word economy – every word counts equally as much, if not more, given the weight a book-length work can carry – but there’s far more room to develop plotlines, character, and backstory in the extended process of drafting a novel.

 

For both, I’ve discovered that I need a solid chunk of time to craft effectively – no jumping onto the Macbook if I have a few minutes to spare, as I can with less-demanding writing tasks like email. With short stories, I also know that I can get a rough draft down in a few days, a week, maybe two, so the end-point is more tangible and immediate; not so the “end” of a novel – I know it’s out there somewhere, but my “outlined” novel drafts take me where they want to go, bringing in a pea-soup fog to keep me from seeing more than a few thousand words into the future.

 

How do you handle revision, both in Pieces of Echo” and in other short stories?

There’s a beauty, I think, in writing quality first drafts. I’m loath to call them “rough,” because I write slowly and deliberately and enjoy readable early work. I’ve tried to write with a shitty-first-draft abandon, but the work isn’t as satisfying: I look to be content reading my early results (not ecstatic, because God knows they aren’t perfect, but satisfied that most t’s are crossed and i’s dotted). That way, when it comes to revision, I can focus on the substantive work, and not worry about mechanical or grammatical issues. Working more slowly allows me to get to know the work’s themes and characters better, too, so when it’s time to get out the cutting tools, I can slash away with extreme prejudice anything that doesn’t accomplish my goals for the work.

 

What’s your best advice to fellow short story writers out there?

  • Read, read, read.
  • Bum in chair. Pen on paper or cursor on page on screen. Stop thinking about writing and write.
  • Read the work aloud.
  • Start every story at a point when it’s too late for your characters (or events) to turn back.
  • Make your characters want something, and put obstacles in their way to keep them from getting it: without struggle and conflict, there is no story.
  • Keep the stakes high: there must be the risk of something being lost, destroyed, or changed forever.
  • Write what you’d like to read, and don’t worry about finding a “voice:” it’ll come with practice (and blood, sweat, tears, etc.).