Mary Otis is an award-winning writer whose short story collection Yes, Yes, Cherries was published by Tin House Books. She has had stories and essays published in Best New American Voices (Harcourt), Los Angeles Times, Tin House, Electric Literature, Berkeley Literary Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cincinnati Review, Santa Monica Review, the Rumpus, and Los Angeles Review of Books. Her writing has recently been anthologized in Woof: Fiction Writers on Dogs (Viking) and Tales of Sex and Love (Tin House) and My First Novel (Writer’s Tribe Books). Her story “Pilgrim Girl” received an honorable mention for a Pushcart Prize, and her story “Unstruck” was a Distinguished Story of the Year in Best American Short Stories. She is a 2007 Walter Dakin Fellow, and in 2009 was invited by the NEA to attend the Guadalajara Book Festival as a fiction writer. She was a literary advisor in the Mark Program for PEN. Originally from the Boston area, Mary is a fiction professor in the UC Riverside Low-Residency MFA Program where she is part of the core faculty.
an interview with mary otis | by georgie lewis
1. How does your urban environment affect your stories? Could they be set anywhere else, or is LA intrinsically entwined in these stories.
I witness a remarkable number of strange, comic, beautiful, and sad incidents in Los Angeles on a daily basis. And it does affect my writing. I walk a lot and drive even more and am constantly struck by what I see and hear, or what I’m left to imagine. Last week, while walking my dog one afternoon, I came upon a nude pregnant woman being photographed in the street, I saw a man dressed as Spider Man coming out of a bar, and I overhead a woman patiently saying to a child, “All the fish have died.” For a sprawling, “open” city, there is so much about it that is hidden or a mystery to me, and it endlessly compels me. That said, I think many of my stories primarily depend upon a kind of emotional geography. In a number of the stories, the characters are looking for a place where they belong, whether it be in a relationship, a family or a job. Many are dealing with some kind of loss amidst the fantastical circus of life, which cranks on, regardless. I think this kind of thing is possible anywhere, and especially possibly in Los Angeles.
2. Are you a parent? You depict the accumulation of small guilts and the causal effects of parenting in a knowing way.
I am not a parent, but I am pulled to write about children, particularly about their strange secrecies, bizarre worries, and intense desires. Writing from a child’s point of view offers me the opportunity to access a kind of “clear channel radio” to the subconscious. With children, there is that immediacy, lack of a filter, and there are extremely high stakes (even if the stakes are forgotten five minutes later.) The writer Penelope Fitzgerald once said, “I like to bring in children because they introduce a different scale of judgment, probably based on the one we taught them but which we never intended to be taken literally.” I find that very funny and true.
3. How do you get into the heads of your characters─is first person narration a helpful method for this?
I’m not precisely sure how I get into the heads of my characters. I think they tend to get into my head first. And, I don’t usually choose them (not consciously anyway). I always have to understand something about a character, even if they’re not exactly a model citizen. I once heard that you can’t trust what you don’t understand, and I need to feel some click of inner appreciation or empathy toward a character in order to trust myself to write that character.
I think first person narration is helpful for melting that line between a character and the writer who created him. However, most of the stories in my collection are in third person. Someone recently told me that my point of view in the stories is a very “close third, that’s almost like first person─as if the narrator of the stories is standing only slightly behind the main character.” If that’s true, then perhaps they’re told from a third person point of view that feels more like first.
4. What is your writing process?
My writing process has to do with being captured by something to the extent that I become somewhat obsessed about it. That’s how I know I really want to write about it. I buy index cards 500 at a time, and I keep these index cards in a few places around my house. Whenever something pulls me I usually jot it on a card and hide it in a box or envelope. I don’t usually open the box or envelope for a while─there is usually a “gathering” time─for most stories. In the past I’ve been surprised to take out a handful of cards only to find the same phrase written four or five times on different cards. It’s usually just a small phrase that has to do with a specific detail like how a woman used her hands. Sometimes it’s a phrase that I keep hearing, which is not unlike being unable to get a song out of your head, except you haven’t heard the melody yet.
5. Do you add or subtract much to a story from the first draft?
I usually write pretty slowly and fairly intensively on the first draft, line by line. I don’t tend to write the entire story out from start to finish in a hurry and then do numerous different drafts. However, once I get that first draft as far as I can take it, I do go back and cut and edit quite a bit and add new pages. And I pretty much edit the story every day as I go along. It helps me pick up the thread before I start writing something new.
6. What is it about the short story form that satisfies you?
I once heard something like “a short story delivers large truths in tight places,” and I’m drawn to that task. I think that when a story works there is something magical that happens. If you’re lucky, its seems to me that a story starts working on deeper, unconscious levels that weren’t apparent to you when you first started to write it. I find that a story will usually have a certain kind of emotional urgency that pulls you to write it. It’s a scary, compelling feeling, like trying to run down a balance beam.
7. Was there a teacher or editor who had a profound influence on your writing?
Yes, the writer and teacher Jim Krusoe. I learned so much from the way he thinks and how he teaches. He has an almost supernatural power to locate what a story wants to be about. That’s a real gift. He also has the ability to pinpoint the potential strengths of each student and foster it in a truly caring way. He’s also incredibly funny and unpretentious. I have been lucky to study with him.
Lee Montgomery, who is my editor, published one of my first stories, as well as later stories, and she has been very important to my growth as a writer. She is both graceful and insightful in her editing, and her encouragement has meant the world to me. I’d still be working on the collection if she hadn’t urged me to complete it and send it to her.
8. What is it about Allison that kept you revisiting her?
Allison is out there in the world, and she’s trying. I feel that life acts strongly upon her, and sometimes, in reaction, she makes some odd or unusual choices. But with great passion. I liked being able to travel along with a character who, when she’s a teenager, goes dead in the arms due to extreme sensitivity─a character who will later grow up to be so distracted by life that she accidentally teaches time wrong to children. She is at ends a fair amount and sometimes fails at the situation at hand. But she doesn’t usually stay where she landed, and sometimes ends up in a better or at least more interesting place. She seems to me to be the sort of character who “falls upward” in some strange sense, even if that only has to do with her view of the world.
9. Have any of your stories/characters taken you somewhere completely unexpected?
Yes, in fact most stories surprise me at different points. Sometimes it’s having a character take a turn I wouldn’t have expected or say something I didn’t see coming. I hope for these things, or feel that I need to be available for the possibility of them happening. Otherwise, I’m not sure a story could really breathe if I had everything all figured out ahead of time. I remember one time writing a story where two people were going to run away together and I could NOT get one of them to show up at the end when it was time to leave. Needless to say, the story ended on quite a different note. Still, I’m glad that I thought it was going to happen, since it pulled me through to the end of the story.
10. Your stories often feature an expert who ends up just as fallible as the rest of us. What do you think about our relationship with experts?
Well, experts can be deeply flawed. I also think it’s human to idolize experts, or to tend not to want to see their flaws (until sometimes it’s too late!) as in the case of Allison’s drunk therapist.
To rotate this question slightly, I also noticed after I’d written the stories and had some distance on them that there are a number of characters in the stories who, while “experts” or professionals in a certain area, actually seem to offer themselves in a unexpected way that has nothing to do with their work. For example, there is the policeman in the “Stones” story who, after Allison’s car crash, offers her comfort in his comment that “People just make mistakes, that’s what people do.” The dentist and his hygienist in “Welcome to Yosemite” also come to mind. While they are there to perform a service, they appear to Allison as the only people who might actually understand her. And I don’t think that’s just the dentist gas talking. The truck driver in Five-Minute Hearts also strikes me as someone who steps in in an unexpected way. These characters seem to offer unexpected small graces in moments of grief or defeat. I am glad they showed up. For me, they pay respect to the idea that a person who crosses your path during the day has the possibility of completely changing how you see things.
11. What do you identify as the emotional and intellectual challenges in your stories?
The emotional challenge is to head fully toward something that mainly scares me, frightens me, or gives me great joy. I’ve been surprised to find that the emotion that yanked me into a story in the first place has the ability to crack open another emotion─usually one that I wasn’t expecting. Finding something hilarious that on the face of it seemed tragic comes to mind. My intellectual challenge is to try to learn something I don’t know (or learn something new about something I do know) and share it in a way so that readers can deeply connect to. That’s my hope, anyway.