Amina Gautier is the author of three short story collections: “At-Risk,” “Now We Will Be Happy,” and “The Loss of All Lost Things.”
“At-Risk” was awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Award. “Now We Will Be Happy” was awarded the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, and the International Latino Book Award. “The Loss of All Lost Things” was awarded the Elixir Press Award in Fiction, the International Latino Book Award, and the Phillis Wheatley Award.
Gautier has been the recipient of fellowships and grants from the American Antiquarian Society, Callaloo, the Camargo Foundation, the Chateau de Lavigny, Dora Maar House/Brown Foundation, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, MacDowell Colony, Ragdale, Ucross, Vermont Studio Center, and the Woodrow Wilson Foundation.
More than one hundred of her stories have been published, appearing in such magazines as Agni, Best African American Fiction, Blackbird, Glimmer Train, Hong Kong Review, Latino Book Review, Mississippi Review, Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West, and the Southern Review, among over a hundred over places.
Jordan Hartt: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us about your work! Let’s start with the story that appears in this July’s edition of Kahini Quarterly: “A Gatsby Story.” Will you talk a little bit about how you came to envision and create that story?
Amina Gautier: Quite a few of my short stories start with a frustration that I’m having about something, and that definitely was what motivated the Gatsby story.
I teach creative writing, and one of the things I get to see a lot of is how often people misread a text, becoming invested or fascinated not just with an alternative reading of a text, but with something that’s grossly incorrect.
I feel like I’ve seen so many references to Gatsby parties the last couple of years, maybe because of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, which I didn’t see–
JH: –yeah, me neither—
AG: –and people are just fascinated with this idolizing of the gilded age, or the nineteen-twenties jazz age, and they kind of miss the point that if you’re truly going to throw a Gatsby-themed party of this kind you have to have somebody run over a woman with their car, people need to be having affairs, be drinking bootleg gin, fighting, and you have to have somebody die in a swimming pool: I mean, that’s Gatsby.
I think I’d been frustrated for at least two years before I was just, like, fuck it, let me just write this down, and people can see what a real Gatsby party looks like.
I sat down and wrote a draft, imagining a woman who wanted to throw a Gatsby-themed party, and also imagining a partner who would take that literally.
It’s like the old joke about being married to an engineer. You know that joke? The wife says to the engineer husband, “Please go to the store and bring me back a bottle of milk. And if they have eggs, bring me six.” So, because they had eggs, he comes back with six bottles of milk.
Anyway, I started by imagining someone who takes this literally, and it just went from there. Going in, I knew that it was going to be a short: if it turned into a traditional-length story with extended scenes and dialogue, it would become didactic.
JH: What I love is that the story functions on so many levels. It has the lit-crit lens, and metaphorical, realistic, and surrealistic story lenses, as well, maybe all of the above, and it gets deeply into big relationship questions, like, how well do we ever know someone? When I saw the story it came in at an even 200 words, and we published it at 105, including the title. How are you able to accomplish so much, given such a limited number of words?
AG: Compression is the key and the challenge for a short fiction writer. How can you convey conflict, drama, and information in the most succinct manner? Can you find a way to say the same thing in seven words instead of twelve?
What comes before the ability to simultaneously create and compress is boiling something down to its essence. In order to make this particular story work, I had to boil down The Great Gatsby, to acknowledge the Ritz and glitz (which we see in my narrator’s desire for a Gatsby party) and then I had to look beyond that to capture the essence of The Great Gatsby, which includes the big relationship question you mentioned: i.e., the how-well-do-we-ever-know-someone question.
That’s a question that keeps coming up over and over in the novel. Nick doesn’t really know Jordan. Myrtle’s husband doesn’t really know his wife. Tom and Daisy don’t really know one another. And no one really knows Gatsby.
The other part of compressing, or going for concision, is trust. A writer of short fiction has to trust the reader to get the point the first time around, has to trust that if she does it right, there’s no need for excessive elaboration, and no need to beat the reader over the head with the point.
Lastly, there is the pure excitement of the challenge and the love of the game that is flash. Short fiction, particularly flash fiction, pushes you to get it succinctly said, to not use one word more than you really need.
The budgeting of words found in the boundary of this form reins you in, forces you to focus, and makes you feel like a winner when you’re able to accomplish so much in terms of meaning with so few words.
JH: How much did you revise, before I saw it?
AG: Probably between five and eight times before I sent it to you: in general I revise a lot. I’m a big fan of revision. Revision is the most enjoyable aspect of writing fiction, in my opinion. For a story of a traditional length I revise around ten to twenty times, for a shorter story I just keep going over it.
For “A Gatsby Party” specifically, I wanted to make sure I was using the right terms from the era. I wanted to make sure each word was right and then try to make it concise and not overly explanatory.
I also had to decide whether or not I wanted the partner to have any dialogue, which I ultimately decided I didn’t.
JH: Overall, how do you find the voice, not just in this story but in other stories? Also thinking here of “The Ease of Living,” in which you move from the mother’s point of view to Jason’s, within two paragraphs. Will you talk a little bit about the role of point of view in a story—and point of view shifts?
AG: I find the right voice by writing my way into it and letting the point of view make the determination. I think point of view is one of the hardest technical aspects of fiction to master and that good fiction writers should be masters of all the available points of view. Each story presents its own unique set of problems and will require you to select the right point of view in order to fully realize the story’s power.
That being said, there are times where I’ll start a story and go in with a certain point of view just for the purpose of not repeating myself.
I’ve published about 115 stories and I get bored really quickly and I don’t like to do the same thing over and over, so I often have to change point of view to keep from getting bored. I don’t like to adopt the same point of view twice in a row—that really bores me. If the last story I wrote was in first person POV, my natural inclination is to make sure that the next story isn’t also first person.
With a longer story, I often draft multiple versions of the story, trying multiple points of view and verb tenses in order to capture the right voice and tone for the specific story. The thing about points of view is that they are not, or should not be, interchangeable. If it doesn’t matter which point of you view you choose—if you can tell the same story in first, second, or third person POV and achieve the same emotional resonance, then you haven’t actually found the story’s correct point of view.
Writing a story in first person POV shouldn’t give you the same story you’d get if you’d written it in second or third person POV. There’s also a question of tense. A first-person, present-tense POV story is obviously different from a first-person, past-tense POV. It has a different pace, rhythm, and level of immediacy, which means it will achieve a different effect.
I’ll often work with an idea for a story for months and months, just playing with the story’s point of view until I’m absolutely sure I’ve chosen the correct one, until I know that if I change the point of view the story will be weaker and I’ll lose something. That’s the point where I can then commit to that point of view.
As for point of view shifts, I think they are only successful if the groundwork has been laid early on to prepare the reader for such a shift. If you start wide–for example with omniscience–you can always narrow the focus down to a specific character without creating a jolting reading experience.
JH: Speaking of the 115 stories you’ve written—I mean, that’s incredible. And they are going into the most well-regarded magazines–like this one, obbbbviously–so the quality is just as high as the quantity. How are you able to write so much and have it be such high quality?
AG: Well, it has taken me eighteen to nineteen years to get this number of stories. I don’t actually write quickly, although it might seem that way because of the number of stories I’ve published. Although I don’t write quickly, I do write multiple stories at the same time. I think that’s why I’m prolific.
The truth is that I actually really get bored very easily and don’t like to do things that aren’t fun. Writing stories? That’s fun for me, but getting stuck isn’t. I’ve never been able to just say I’ll stick with this story until there’s a breakthrough.
If I don’t know what’s going on with a story I’ll just save it on my computer and work on another story until I’m ready to go back to the other one. I don’t beat a dead horse; I just work on something else.
This ability has ultimately prevented me from ever having true writer’s block. I’ve come to a creative stop on one story, but I’ve never had a moment where I just couldn’t write, because I would just move on to another story until the time came to move back to the first one.
Another thing that helps me to write so much is that I do a lot of writing by hand. I usually use traveling as an opportunity to get hand-writing done— although obviously traveling right now during Covid-19 is not happening. Before this new reality, whenever I’d be waiting at a gate in an airport I’d use that hour or so of pre-flight time to get writing in. After boarding, when I’d be seated on the plane with that little tray table you can lower, or on the Amtrak with its little seat tray table, I would just freewrite for the full length of the trip. Later, when there were moments where I might have felt myself getting stuck creatively, I’d just take out those notebooks and start transcribing, typing up the passages I’d written, and after about an hour of that, of telling my brain, “We’re sitting here, and we’re writing,” all of a sudden my brain would want to create.
Although I’m pretty much always writing, I don’t finish stories quickly. For a typical story, it could take me anywhere from one to five years to finish. Sometimes that time frame is dependent on the length of the story, but not always.
One of the things I learned at Stanford, where I studied under teachers who had been Stegner Fellows, is that a story should only be as long as it needs to be. Whether that’s three pages, five pages, four pages, ten pages—some stories need fully extended scenes with dramatic arcs and others simply need compressed emotional interaction—the task is to tell the story that needs to be told, not to force it to adhere to length constrictions.
JH: Could you talk a little bit more about that, about the differences in short-short writing, writing of up to 1,000 words, and writing of stories of a more “traditional” length, of around 5,000-7,500 words?
AG: I never really thought much about length until about ten years ago when flash-fiction anthologies started becoming more prevalent. Out of my 115 stories, I’d say about thirty to thirty-five are short-shorts. Many of my first stories were short-shorts—which is what we called them before everyone started using the phrase flash. It seems that I’ve returned to writing them because, nowadays, I don’t have a lot of time to write during the semester. I’m a tenured professor at a major research university, the University of Miami, so with MFA theses to supervise, and all that accompanies being at an R1, I can only really write heavily during breaks.
During semesters I only have time to handwrite, jot down ideas, or complete shorter works of fiction. I’m the kind of writer that likes to binge-write. I’m not one of those writers who gets up at five AM and writes until seven and then stops and goes on with my day. I don’t get it. How do you stop? I need to write eight, ten, twelve hours in a row, which I can’t do while teaching a full load. But with a shorter piece, I can work on it Thursday through Sunday and complete it in limited bursts of time.
JH: I guess going the other way, into writing with word counts above 40,000, will you talk about your interest in writing the novel?
AG: I consider myself to be a literary fiction writer, as opposed to a short story writer, or a short-short story writer, or a novelist, which means I’m open to writing in all forms of literary fiction, but right now I’m trying to catch Chekhov, who wrote 201 stories. I’m trying to get to 202.
However, I wouldn’t rule out writing novels in the future, but one of the things that most attracts me to short fiction is how very modern the form feels. As much as I love to read and study novels, which I absolutely do, there is a definitive quality to them that I’m not sure I believe in or that I think captures the contemporary moment.
What I mean is that when I come to the end of a novel, I get the impression of a door closing and being firmly shut, whereas a short story conveys a door that’s constantly swinging open and closed. Even if the words The End don’t actually appear at the end of a novel, you can feel their presence, whereas if anything would appear at the end of a short story, it would be a question mark.
I see the novel as something very final, and it’s so different from my experience of the world, which is that people are always changing and evolving and growing and regressing from minute to minute and moment to moment.
When I put down a novel, I feel like I have a good idea of where I’d be able to find those characters ten or twenty years later (if the novel were to have continued), but I cannot make such a claim about the characters in short fiction. Forget about coming back in ten or twenty years; if you come back to them a week later, they certainly won’t be in the same place and it’s unlikely that will still think the way they thought at story’s end.
Short stories are fueled by epiphanies and epiphanies are, by their very nature, fleeting. Epiphanies satisfy in the short term, until you undergo your next change.
JH: That might be the best way I’ve ever heard that described. No. I’ll say that without the caveat. That is the best way I’ve ever heard that described. And I mean, going back to Chekhov, that’s completely a direction he started taking short fiction in. Do you consider him one of your influences?
AG: Major influence. For me, Chekhov and Joyce are the writers who brought the short story out of the nineteenth century and made it modern: Chekhov with his emphasis on the characters’ interiority, and Joyce with his concept of the “epiphany” and his psychological development of characters.
Both of them really helped move the concept of the story away from the nineteenth-century focus on symbolism and coincidence where things just happen at exactly the right time, with lost letters being discovered at opportune times and other clichés like that. I look to Chekhov and Joyce as the fathers of contemporary short fiction, although my biggest influence is Stuart Dybek’s story “Pet Milk.” I study it all the time. It’s gorgeous and brilliant and fantastic.
That story has had a major influence on me, along with James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” and the work of Toni Cade Bambara, which had a major influence on my fiction even before I started writing. Many of the African-American writers who came before me were writing their stories because they didn’t see themselves in the literature of the time. But that was not my experience as a black girl who was able to grow up reading Bambara in the sixth grade.
Although her stories “Gorilla, My Love” and “Raymond’s Run” were set in an earlier time period, they’re basically about a black girl who wasn’t too different from me. Squeak, the narrator of those stories, is between the ages of 10 and 12, and she was growing up in Harlem; I was the same age, growing up in Brooklyn. That had a big influence on me. I don’t want to say it gave me permission, but it made it pretty clear to me that I could write about my world.
So when I started writing my stories, at the end of the nineties, about black kids in Brooklyn, I didn’t feel like I had to fight with the publishing industry to have my work accepted.
JH: Those stories—thinking here of “Gorilla, My Love,” and “Raymond’s Run,” could you talk a little bit about the elements of the stories that you return to, now as a writer yourself?
AG: I liked the voice of the narrator, Squeak, who recurs in both of those stories, but at that point I wasn’t focusing on the story’s technical elements; I was just reading and experiencing Squeak’s sassy, first-person voice. What really caught me with those two stories, “Gorilla, My Love” and “Raymond’s Run” was how they captured the world of childhood. In “Gorilla,” the girl literally believes her uncle is going to marry her. That’s something that kids do, develop a literal understanding of concepts in the world, before they develop a figurative understanding.
That moment at the end where the uncle says it was all a joke has so much emotional resonance because of that. Squeak feels hurt and betrayed, while the two adults play it off as if it’s nothing, and you just can’t help but feel for her. It’s a coming-of-age moment, with the ending line about how “Grownups don’t even say they’re sorry.” For a lot of children, there’s that moment in your life where an adult that you love lets you down and that disappointment ushers you into adulthood.
What I took from that story is that literary fiction makes you feel. It sucker-punches you, and shows you things you already know that you yourself maybe can’t put into words. As I read that story, and what happened to that girl, I felt like I was right there with her. That’s what drew me to writing in the first place. Reading that story and reading Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss.”
JH: I love “Bliss.” That pear tree.
AG: I was like, whoa. First of all, I’m a black girl living in inner-city Brooklyn, getting this insider’s view into how rich people behave. I mean, that moment where Bertha Young buys grapes to match the carpet? Come on! And yet, Mansfield takes me from laughing at this woman as silly and inconsequential to making me feel such despair for her marriage, with her husband embracing Pearl and all of this going on behind her back. Mansfield makes me see how someone can feel such bliss and then experience such betrayal, and all the emotional resonances of that story affect me in a very similar way as “Gorilla, My Love.”
JH: I wish more Americans read Mansfield. She’s kind of like force-fed to New Zealanders from an early age, so when I bring her up there they’re like, oh no, not again, but it’s almost too far the other way here, despite all her fame. People recognize the name, but not the stories except for obviously “The Garden Party,” “Miss Brill,” or a few others. Thanks for coming to my TED talk. Uhm. Moving on. What about Joyce?
AG: “Araby.” That kid tries so hard to get to the bazaar, and when he finally gets there it’s closing, and he doesn’t have enough money, and the lights are going out, and he finally sees himself and his efforts as all in vain. I can’t help but feel for this guy who just has this crush on the girl. I like “The Dead,” but the sucker punch of “Araby” gets me every time.
JH: “Araby” has that great opening with the repetition of the word “blind,” which although it’s referring to the dead-end street, when he finally sees himself at the end, he’s come full circle, in a way. One of the things you’re also known for as a writer is your great openings, in which the characters of the story, and, every so often, the tension, are immediately set out. For example, “The Ease of Living,” opens, “It was barely the summer—just the end of June—and already two teenaged boys had been killed. Jason was turning sixteen in another month, and his mother worried that he might not make it.” Where does the creation of the opening come, for you, in the writing process?
AG: I work on the opening when I’m close to the end in the process of finishing the story and I’m only two to three drafts away from completion. When I begin a story I write messy, super simple drafts. I don’t remember how “The Ease of Living” started out, probably with me thinking of the song “Summertime,” but I have no problem writing a beginning draft that starts, “There were two boys in Brooklyn. It was 1995.”
I’m in favor of writing “vomit” drafts where you just get it all out on the page before you start revising. I’m not the writer who writes two or three sentences then makes them beautiful and keeps going. It won’t be until the last two to three drafts of the story where I’ll ask how the story needs to start.
It’s only after I’ve worked out all the details that I’ll step back and ask what story have I told, and how can I announce that in the beginning? Or, how can I create beauty at the level of the sentence to make the reader feel something? The style and craft come long after the strucure and content so that many of the story’s earlier drafts will be purely functional, just to tell the story and get it on the page.
JH: Along those lines, when we’re in Jason’s thoughts, we’re also inside the specific syntax and word choices he uses. How do you go about creating the specific ways that specific characters think and speak?
AG: I believe that form should follow function and that the character’s voice and the narrator’s voice are not always one and the same. The character speaks from his or her own experience and his or her language, behavior, reactions, and responses need to reflect that, right down to word choice, syntax, and diction.
That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to truly nail your point of view because the point of view helps you determine how close you need or want to get to a specific character’s psyche. If you want to go all the way in, then you have to know all you can about your character so that you can figure out how to see things the way that character would see them.
JH: How do you name your characters?
AG: I read etymology books and have for years. I’ll look up the meaning of a name, or think about the sound and scansion of a name, before I give it to a character. For example, in my story “Been Meaning to Say,” there’s a widower by the name of Leslie Singleton. I wanted his name to convey his widower status, which, Singleton, does by itself, but I also felt that the “s” sound produced a sad, melancholy name, especially if you pronounce his first name the masculine way, as opposed to the feminine way, with the hard “s,” like the word “less.” In this context, his name couldn’t be Tom!
At other times, I want names that can be pronounced in different ways, depending on who’s saying the name, which also helps to reveal character.
For example, in the story “Afternoon Tea,” the name “Dorothy” sounds one way in the mouth of the girl’s mother, who has a Caribbean accent and doesn’t pronounce the ‘h’, while sounding different when pronounced by the group of women who come to volunteer. When I can’t think of the need for a specific name, I’ll often just use a pronoun.
JH: While you talk a little about the process of writing characters from backgrounds different than your own? For example, you have a Puerto Rican background, so in “Afternoon Tea,” what was the process like for you to write from the point of view of a person of Jamaican heritage?
AG: There were a few parts to that process—experience, observation, research, and respect. I am not of Jamaican heritage, but as a kid I lived in a neighborhood in Brooklyn that had a large West-Indian population.
At least fifty percent of my classmates and had parents who’d immigrated from Belize, Cuba, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, and Trinidad. Had I been writing from the point of view of a Jamaican adult, that would have been harder, but creating an American-born girl of a Jamaican parent was not difficult.
At the same time, I did and do want to be respectful when I write about cultures that are not directly mine, so I talked with some of my friends’ parents to find out about different neighborhoods in the towns and villages they’d grown up in and learned what their childhoods were like, in order to be able to authentically create the mother character.
I combined what I knew and observed through firsthand experience with oral research which I then corroborated with historical research and the reading of secondary sources, all to make sure the piece had integrity.
JH: How do you know when you’ve succeeded? I mean, like, when a character has arrived at who they need to be?
AG: When I can answer a bunch of personal and moral questions about a character, even if those answers don’t appear in the story, that’s how I know that I truly know my character. A while ago, an author suggested developing character by using the McDonald’s application test, where you’d pick up a McDonald’s application—this was from the days of paper applications!—and see if you could fill it out for your character as well as you could for yourself.
I cannot stress enough the importance of knowing the most mundane details about your characters. In my story “Muñeca,” I wrote a character named Pedro, who I knew was an abusive husband. I wanted to know what led to him being abusive. I needed to know where it came from, not to apologize for it, or excuse it, but as a way to understand him. I asked what does he think of women, how has he always seen women, where do those opinions come from, and what led him to his viewpoint?
I always knew that he had this moment where he’d been terrorized by his sisters—again, not excusing or apologizing for his behavior—that leads to him always feeling hyper vigilant about his masculinity so that now, as an adult, him having to live with his wife’s parents, just gets his goat. Another man might be more comfortable with the living situation, but, for Pedro, having to come back to someone else’s house at the end of the day and having to knock to be let in, just ruins his day.
JH: One of the things I love about “Muñeca” is that doll imagery, and the use of imagery in your stories, in general.
AG: The doll imagery is how I went into that story. In the eighties and nineties in the poor sections of Brooklyn, people didn’t just take vacations all the time, but every now and then would go on a short cruise (often with their church). They’d always bring back these big wooden spoons to hang on their walls, or an air freshener cover doll for their bathroom. The dolls always had the same woven grass skirts, whether they were from Puerto Rico, or Barbados, or the Bahamas—as a kid I’d see these dolls in everyone’s bathroom every time I went over to someone’s house. “Muñeca” began with the image of the doll and went from there into the characters of Rosa and Pedro and Rosa’s parents. I tend to start either with a character or an image that becomes the objective correlative that captures everything in the story. I’ve got to have that defining image in my stories.
JH: Your stories feature many characters who are comfortable moving back and forth from English to Spanish. How do you integrate the two languages in your work?
AG: I’m not fluent in Spanish, but there are plenty of words that I only know in Spanish. For example, “mortar and pestle,” in English, I knew for years only in the Spanish, “pilón,” and still think of it that way.
The way I work with the two languages comes from thinking about who gets to be comfortable in a short story. As a writer I want to push the boundaries with insider/outsider moments to be aware of who is included, and who is excluded.
As a young reader, I felt excluded from stories on the basis of class, as opposed to language. Like reading Cheever or someone like that: writers who wrote about wealthy white worlds didn’t care that I didn’t know what a yacht was, or that I might not know nautical sailing terms, or have a country house in the Hamptons, or be familiar with a world in which everyone’s home came with an outdoor pool and a neighbor could come along and swim his way home by dipping into everyone’s pool, and understand the references of wealth and suburbia.
So I felt excluded along the lines of class, but nobody ever protested the ways in which class—as demonstrated by one’s access, leisure, and wealth—can becomes its own exclusionary language.
The first time I read Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss,” I was an adolescent and I didn’t know that “perambulator” was a British term for a baby carriage. I had to look it up in the dictionary to find out. I don’t have a problem knowing that some readers are going to feel left out. If they are, they can look up the words, terms, and phrases they don’t know.
JH: I totally agree. Thank you so much for taking the time with us. What’s next for you?
AG: Writing more excellent literary fiction.
JH: [Charlotte Brontë voice]: Dear reader: grab Amina’s work at Powell’s bookstore: The Loss of All Lost Things, Now We Will Be Happy, or At-Risk. Please also enjoy Amina Gautier’s story “A Gatsby Story” in the July, 2020 edition of Kahini Quarterly.