Good question! But it's hard to compare--the beasts are made of different meat. For me the content dictates the length, rather than my enjoyment. I feel like I don't get to choose! Without ever asking the question, I answer: Do I want to spend six months with these characters (for a short story), or do I want to spend six years with them (for a novel)? If I land on a theme and set of ideas that is important enough to me, then it might be a longer piece. But as soon as I have an idea for a piece of writing, I have a good sense of what form it will take. I knew that my novel would be a novel. I knew that my story that is told in list form would be a story (that type of experimental writing can't sustain more than a few pages, I think). That story also happens to be about an entire life, from childhood to death -- so the timespan of a story doesn't have to have much baring on the length.
I'm actually really partial to the novella. I think it's the perfect length--you can really live in a world and let your characters grow and change, but it's still a size that can be held in one's head at once. For my novel, it took me a long time to be able to comprehend the whole story when I thought of the book. It became overwhelming during one phase of revision. But that was also the nature of that book in particular--we jump between time periods and one of the narrators is a man with schizophrenia. I think of it as a puzzle I was trying to piece together as I was building it.
Maybe that's what all novels are--huge jigsaw puzzles of elaborate paintings. While with a short story, you might get the same image in the end, but there aren't so many seams and moving pieces.
As an editor, what would you say is the key to being objective when critiquing our own work?
To be objective but not MEAN to myself, I have to approach revision in a good mood and with some distance from the material. It's a great practice to try to read one's own work through someone else's eyes, but that is easier said than done--especially in later revisions when the work is nearly memorized you've read it so many times. I think it's important to know yourself and your own writerly quirks and tendencies. My tendency is to be show-offy or flowery with my sentences in a first draft, so in revision I know ahead of time I'll have to dial it back and prioritize clarity over beauty. First drafts, for me, are for beauty and sound and undercurrents. Revision is for clarity of meaning and consistency of character and voice--after polishing, the original beauty will still shine through.
In later drafts of my novel, it was helpful to have a different rule for every pass. One pass I might be interested in revising my narrator's voice for consistency (in one very recent revision, I cut out every instance he says the word "like" because, as someone with schizophrenia, he is less likely to think in similes). In another pass, I might look at pacing. But in every single draft, I cut, cut, cut. You can always cut more.
What advice, or caution, would you give to writers who are tackling subjects like mental illness in their novels?
For me, the purpose of writing about mental illness was to portray it as relatable, for readers of all walks of life to recognize aspects of my character, West, in themselves. I assume anyone interested in writing about mental illness would first research as much as they can (memoirs, interviews, health texts, clinical notes). But I would add to the research pile: learn all the tropes and stereotypes that have been employed to portray characters with mental illness in movies and literature. The only time we hear about it on the news is if someone with schizophrenia acted violently. We don't hear about the everyday struggles; we don't have much of a chance to see that violent behavior is not the norm at all. In revision (no matter who you're writing about, in fact), examine your own writing for any examples of these same stereotypes. You're only human, and it's highly likely that they're in there, somewhere. Ask yourself how you can question and undermine those images. Revision isn't just about craft, it's about deepening your empathy for your own characters.
Describe your reaction when you first saw the cover of your book, The Suicide of Claire Bishop.
My boyfriend and I helped design the cover, actually! I wasn't very happy with the ideas at the point, but I understood what they were going for (a woman with obscured features). The book is about a painting -- more precisely, it's about being painted, being seen and known well enough to be replicated in a painting. So it made sense to obscure her face with paint. I painted a bunch of different size splotches, uploaded the best one, and that was that. :) Not many writers get to have a hand in their cover design. Another, great reason to go with a small, awesome press like Dzanc.
What was it like being a research assistant for Andrew Sean Greer?
Andy had a fellowship at the New York Public Library, so I got to hang out in the very cool Cullman Center and do research for him. He was just starting a draft and was still deciding what he would include. I researched the Spanish Flu and the Stone Wall riots mostly. I don't think any of it made it into his book! But that's part of the process. He was very kind. He even blurbed my book recently. Now I daydream of a Cullman Center Fellowship and having a research assistant of my own!
Carmiel Banasky is a writer and teacher from Portland, OR. Her first novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, is published with Dzanc Books. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Short Fiction, Slice, Guernica, PEN America, The Rumpus, and on NPR, among other places. She earned her MFA from Hunter College, where she taught Undergraduate Creative Writing. She is the recipient of awards and fellowships from Bread Loaf, Ucross, Ragdale, Artist Trust, I-Park, VCCA, and other foundations. After four years on the road at writing residencies, she now lives and teaches in Los Angeles. She can be found online HERE, and Tweeting @carmielbanasky.
Inspiration for THE SHARK CURTAIN, as well as for my short stories and current works-in-progress, come from everyday living as much as from foreign travel or living abroad. Mexico was wonderful and completely unique, of course—two years living in a small village on the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca! But in some ways living in Boston was just as “exotic!”
No matter where I am, I find myself surrounded by beauty, music, and art—all of it is quite extraordinary to me. Wherever I live, whatever I do, it affects and impacts my writing.
Has being a special-education teacher influenced your writing choices? Please, explain.
To a certain extent, I guess, I usually write about “outsiders”—people outside the norm either by circumstance or choice. Certainly most of the special needs kids and young adults I worked with were “outsiders.”
In your opinion, are there any similarities between learning to play the cello and learning the craft of writing?
“PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!” could easily be applied to both. I have more confidence in my writing than in playing the cello, but I like the raw challenge of learning something new, something difficult, something that I really struggle with. It’s equal parts exhausting and euphoric. I feel the cello between my legs, the bow in my hand, and my fingers on the instrument’s neck even when I’m writing. It’s becoming a part of me, like writing is already.
In your opinion, is there any difference between literary writing and commercial writing?
Of course, it depends on the definition and who’s promoting the distinction. There’s a lot of snobbery around “literary writing,” a lot of misunderstanding around what “commercial writing” means.
To me, it’s a romantic, outdated notion that a writer must suffer for his art, and that if he’s too prolific, he can’t possibly be a serious writer. Writers, readers, and publishers shoot themselves in the foot when we turn up our noses at a book because it’s “commercial.”
Why did you choose to set your book, The Shark Curtain, in the 1960s?
Like my protagonist, Lily, I was a kid growing up in the 50s and 60s, so I know the culture. The scenes within Lily’s story demanded to be written in the voice of that generation that was on the cusp of massive change. The people in Lily’s life, especially her family, don’t know what to make of her, much like the United States didn’t know what to make of the cultural, moral, and political challenges of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War (both featured in THE SHARK CURTAIN. It felt right to contrast my troubled, compassionate heroine with all that.
Chris Scofield is a novelist and short story writer. She’s worked with authors Ursula K. Le Guin and Tom Spanbauer and is a former special education, art, and preschool teacher. Scofield studies cello, travels internationally and has lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, Portland, OR, Cambridge, MA, and currently resides with her husband and two goldfish in Eugene, OR. Ms. Scofield writes YA, Literary and Adult Fiction. She is the author of The Shark Curtain, published by Akashic Books. She may be found online at chrisscofieldauthor.com. Her Twitter handle is @ChrisScofield2.