Interview with Elizabeth Routen

The author of Voices on the Stairs talks about the short story form, the making of her first book, her influences, creating characters, self-publication, her next book, and more.
Interview by Magdalena Ball

Magdalena: Tell me about the genesis of Voices on the Stair. Why short stories?

Elizabeth: Like many writers, I thought the best way to begin writing fiction was to start small–with short stories. At that time, I didn’t realize the importance of short stories in the history of English literature. They both mirror and alter a society’s social conscience. Like poetry, short stories demand introspection and discipline; like novels, their characters are people rather than ideas. But unlike either of those genres, short stories can elicit emotions without demanding commitment from the reader. In a way, our lives are like short stories. We each live in a series of linked moments whose importance we may not recognize until much later. Because of that, short stories can rather easily emulate the pace, if not the vividness, of our memories. Weeks, months, even years fail to stand out in our minds. Then one second changes everything. I think a short story is the art that emerges from recognizing and scrutinizing those rare and critical moments. The past few years have been a fairly intense learning process. Once I realized the incredible depth of feeling the best stories can evoke, and how fragile, rare, and precious those experiences are for readers, I almost felt guilty for having viewed short stories as merely stepping stones to the larger accomplishment I then believed a novel to be. When I had written quite a few stories I felt the natural next step was to publish them in book form. Voices on the Stair is a symbol of my dedication to short story writing and a sounding board by which to gauge public reaction to my work. What is effective? What can I improve upon in my next effort? I want to learn to be both a better storyteller and wordsmith.

Magdalena: Talk to me about some of your more unusual characters say, Audrey Wheeler, Jimmy, Gueseppi, Phillipe Candelbras, or blind David. Are they based on real people?

Elizabeth: The only characters in the book based on real people are Doran and the overweight man in “Audrey Wheeler”. I felt a strong empathy for both of those people and I knew I had to write their stories. I think the best way to elicit a positive feeling for a character is sometimes to demand a strong negative reaction to an anti-hero. For example, “Audrey Wheeler” is far more pathetic and disgusting than the man whom he condescends to understand. Likewise, many of the characters in Voices on the Stair are almost grotesques. Just as stage actors wear extravagant makeup so that their expressions may be seen in the back row, characters in short stories are most successful when their situations and personalities are exaggerated to either positive or negative effect. Short stories are defined not only by their length but also by their tone – active, searching, at times desperate. To carry that energy the characters must be unusual.

Magdalena: The tone of the stories is very much a submerged, internal voice, even when sarcastic or engaged in dialogue. Was it your intention to bring the reader down into the depths of your characters? Their real selves?

Elizabeth: I would like to say that I have some sort of master plan to inveigle my way into a reader’s mind – I wish I did! The truth is that I don’t cultivate a particular style. I spend a lot of time thinking about plot and characterization in the often vain hope that by the time I am ready to begin writing the story, it will be actualized enough in my mind to demand its own voice. So if the tone of this book is internal, that is a reflection of my personality rather than something I intentionally inflict on my writing.

Magdalena: Which writers would you say have had the most influences on your work? Towards whom do you aspire?

Elizabeth: I go to great lengths to keep overt influences out of my work. I won’t read two books by the same author, or even two books from the same period, in a row, and usually refrain from reading fiction when I am in the middle of writing a story. It’s an impossible task, of course, but I very much want to wake up one morning with the sure knowledge that I know who I am as a writer and that my voice is distinct and mature. Toni Morrison is the author who taught me the importance of assuming a serious and professional attitude from the beginning of one’s career. Her writing made clear the enormous responsibility a writer must be willing to accept without growing callous or close-minded. Before I read Beloved, well, I won’t say I thought writing was like any other day job, but I certainly didn’t recognize how significant and affecting words can be. History books are one thing, but stories – stories of people whose lives most of us can’t imagine – can twist our hearts and turn our minds to the greater world and to the realm within. That’s a power that cannot be taken lightly. If ever I write a book half as thorough, compassionate, and precise as Beloved, I will feel my mission as a writer is complete. Other authors whose work I admire include Dostoyevsky, Thomas Wolfe, and Joyce. Their stories are unusually episodic, almost epic, and so have the relatively unique ability to encompass larger spans of time and greater numbers of characters than a more traditional narrative. In Wolfe’s work particularly, the resolution isn’t as important as the people you meet along the way. The depth is in the asides, the glimpses into lives that initially seem unimportant.

Magdalena: Is there a particular challenge which characterises the short story that you don’t get in other forms of writing?

Elizabeth: Again, the challenge is the discipline it takes to craft a story that lacks even one unnecessary word. A short story is a tremendously difficult–almost unsolvable–puzzle. How do you make a concrete, living entity from something so subjective as language? Moreover, how do you do that in 3,000 words?

Magdalena: Is it hard to resist the urge to characterise your friends and family?

Elizabeth: I think that’s really a minor worry. Real people make poor characters. I may start with the odd fellow who is sitting across from me in the library, hiding the cover of his entertainment magazine so others won’t see and judge too harshly. I’ll note how awkwardly he stands, how straight and narrow he holds his back, almost as though he fears that at any moment someone will reveal him as a hypocrite. But I end with a man who is waiting for his lover, who scans the room every few seconds in search of a face he knows and who reads every entertainment article he can find in search of her name. She went to Hollywood a few weeks ago, you know. She’ll make it. But today she’s coming home to him. Sure she is. Real people are sometimes the seeds for characters, but they are never the templates. I’ll venture to say that’s the same for most writers.

Magdalena: Why do you say that writing is a form of insanity?

Elizabeth: That’s a hyperbole, certainly, but it makes a nice tag line. In all seriousness, writing demands an attention to detail, an exclusive concentration that can become otherworldly and ultimately devastating. The myth of the writer as some sort of withdrawn, absent-minded dreamer may be an exaggeration, but it is based on the absolutism of the craft. To choose to inflict the sort of torment writing can be indicates some level of loose wiring. The only explanation I can see is that over time the process of creating becomes so intrinsic to self-definition that not doing it is harder than the act itself. Writing can be parasitic. It has an insatiable appetite for time and tears. But I wouldn’t like the person I would become if I didn’t write. It’s a harsh game, and inevitably one the writer either loses or quits. I don’t think there is a middle ground.

Magdalena: Talk to me about your work schedule. Do you have a regular time for writing? How much time do you spend daily?

Elizabeth: I try to devote at least four hours a day to writing, editing, and submitting my work. The most important thing for me is to write every day in order that I don’t lose the momentum of a story.

Magdalena: Why did you choose self-publication? Was the process difficult? Are you planning to go down a similar route for the next book?

Elizabeth: I like the control self-publication gives a writer over her material and the way in which it will be promoted. It would be nice to give the job of publicizing the book over to someone else, but at this point in my career I believe the information I gather about my audience is more important than the time a traditional publisher would save me. And, more importantly, I can’t ask an agent or a publisher to risk time and money on my unusual style of writing until I have taken that chance myself. As to the publication of my next book, I haven’t come to a decision about the method. I would like an advance and all the other perks New York publishers can offer, but what is more important to me is bringing a quality product to an international audience in an expedient manner. The service that can do that in the most efficient and profitable manner possible is the one I will use.

Magdalena: What kinds of promotional work are you doing for Voices?

Elizabeth: The incredible thing about Print on Demand publishing is that the author and publisher are no longer consigned to promoting the book in a few local outlets. Now, the world is your venue. To that end, I am employing a variety of methods including press releases, book reviews, placement in libraries and bookstores in my region, and targeted advertising in the US, UK, and Australia. Though the Internet offers a variety of low-cost or no-cost methods for promotion, word-of-mouth is still the best form of publicity. The friend who tells you about the great new book she just read will always be more credible than a media outlet. My goal is to continue to modify my methods of promotion to take advantage of trends I see in purchasing.

Magdalena: Tell me about the book you are currently at work on, Covenant. Is this going to be a different genre?

Elizabeth: Covenant is something of a departure for me. It is an historical novel that tells the story of a young man from the American southwest who ends up fighting, much to his horror, for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. I’m skeptical of the entire business, myself.