Anna Stokely — Winter 2014 – 2015

Winter 2014 – 2015

TM and I decided to use GChat to do live interviews this time around, and it worked out really well. This issue, I got to chat with Anna Stokely, author of “Startling Kindness.” We had a great conversation about writing, Neil Gaiman, and pumpkins. Read on!

~~~

Anna Stokely

Courtesy of the Daily Nebraskan

Liz
First (and perhaps hardest): Why do you write?

Anna
There’s a lot of ways I could answer that, I suppose. I have always been fascinated by language, by words and stories. How something someone else wrote a hundred years ago can speak as loudly and truly then as now. So the just the practice and even the concept of writing seems like something magical in and of itself.

Liz
Oh yes, definitely. I agree with you about the magical properties of the idea of writing. It’s an exhilarating thing.

Anna
Especially when you’re writing about magic. The story I wrote for NEAT is contemporary, but I read and write a lot of fantasy besides. Feels pretty meta.

But I love writing because writing is really storytelling, and we all tell stories. Jokes, memories, something weird that happened in class the other day. Cliche as it sounds, stories connect us.

Liz
You’re a woman after my own heart. I also read a lot of fantasy/magical realism.

And cliches are cliches for a reason: because they’re true! Ha

On that “magical” note . . . Do you have any kind of rituals or routines that get you into the act of writing? Tea/cookies/coffee/meditation/favorite pencil, that sort of thing?

Anna
I don’t like to rely on being in a certain room or wearing my magic socks in order to write, because then those places or things become excuses to not write. But if I’m still in the early stages of a story, fleshing out characters and plot points and whatnot, I tend to write out (by hand, in black ink, with many arrows and a complete disregard for the lines) my jumble of ideas. It’s easier for me to pick out the good stuff when I can see it in front of me, rather than trying to snatch it right out of my head.

Sometimes I’ll act out a scene before I write it, if I’m struggling to figure out how a character will move from A to B.

Liz
That’s a good idea — especially with dialogue. I find that reading out loud helps me when I feel like I’m writing stilted dialogue.

Anna
Exactly. Or when you inadvertently give a character quite a mouthful to say. The line might be pretty, but if it’s hard for me to say out loud, it must be hard for my character. Reading out loud is always a good idea.

Liz
Yeah. We can’t get away with monologue-like sentences anymore.

I guess I should have asked you this question when we were talking about fantasy . . . What are you reading now? (I find it hard to ask “what’s your favorite book” because I feel like that question isn’t fair.)

Anna
(I agree. To quote one of my favorite movies, “I could no sooner choose a favorite star in the heavens.”)

It’s a little difficult to find time for pleasure reading during the school year, but I’m trying to work through a book of short stories now that are connected to a favorite series, Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy. The short story collection is called “Armageddon Outta Here.” How can you not love that?

Liz
(This is where I get ideas for what I am going to read next . . . haha.) I love the pun in that title. I might have to pick that up.

Anna
If you like sarcasm and well-dressed skeletons, you’ll love it.

Liz
I’m even more intrigued by “well-dressed skeletons.” Reminds me of Neil Gaiman for some reason.

Anna
Aaah, Neil Gaiman. He’s a favorite of mine. I read The Ocean at the End of the Lane over Christmas break. Very powerful.

Liz
Yes! That’s one of my favorites. I’m reading American Gods right now.

Anna
I respect him for the way his work straddles the line between contemporary fiction and fantasy. Always engaging and difficult to forget.

Liz
Definitely.

Let’s talk about your story! I honestly loved it — it was sweet, funny, sad, and unforgettable. I love how you didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the suicide itself. You mentioned it briefly, but that’s not why you were telling the story. You were telling about the aftermath of the character’s suicide, and how Freddie is starting to learn how to navigate a world without her friend. It was a really nice way of developing her character.

So I was wondering. How did these characters come to you? How did you develop them? Both Freddie and Ben are memorable to me.

Anna
Thank you.

I think to be a writer, you have to be a little schizophrenic. Freddie just sort of waltzed into my mind during my fiction class one day, carrying a pumpkin to a graveyard. And how do you ignore someone carrying a pumpkin around a graveyard?

Ben came as I was trying to figure out who Freddie was. The original draft of this had several other characters, including Freddie’s half sister, all of whom, like me, were trying to coax her into explaining why she was here. But Ben was the most honest, and the most willing to actually listen to what she had to say.

Liz
I enjoy their interactions. Because with Freddie’s responses, she’s not telling Ben the whole truth, but the reader gets it.

I especially like the focus on memory in the story. How did you decide which direction to take the story? Sometimes when I’m writing, it’s like the characters are just doing what they want and I have to nudge them into place. Was it similar for you here? (As you say, a girl carrying a pumpkin in a graveyard is hard to ignore.)

Anna
With Ben, yes. I wasn’t sure at first if he was more interested in the witch carving the pumpkin, or that she had candy. With Freddie, it was less of directing her actions to fit with my idea, and more of figuring out why she’d want to act this way in the first place. Does that make sense?

Liz
Oh yeah definitely. It really shows that you started with characters and grew the story from there. It makes for a more engaging piece.

Anna
Thank you. The writing of this one was a unique process for me, actually–I started with nothing but dialogue. No movement, no setting. Just quotes. That’s why Freddie’s explanation of Peter’s suicide comes so abruptly. It surprised me, too.

Liz
Nice! That’s the great thing about what we do — it’s such a rewarding experience when you let it happen organically.

Okay, I have a couple of fun questions and then I’ll let you go.

Coffee or tea?

Bourbon: neat or on-the-rocks? (or no bourbon at all?)

Anna
Black coffee in the morning, or for lunch, or after a big dinner. Tea before bed, or with a book.

I wouldn’t know about the bourbon yet. I turn 21 in October.

Liz
Oh wow! Ha you’ll have to let us know if you decide to try it.

Anna
Will do. Bourbon: to be decided. 😉

Liz
Well, that’s all I have on my end. I’m really glad we got to chat about your story and about you as a writer. It’s always fun getting to know other people who love doing this thing as much as I do.

Thanks again for submitting “Startling Kindness” to us. It was a pleasure to read and accept it!

Anna
Thanks for having me! It’s been a lovely chat. And thank you for your kind words about my work.

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So there you have it! Check out Anna’s piece “Startling Kindness” in our Winter 2014 – 2015 issue.

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