April 27, 2010

iScribe Interview Special - What's New, Pussycat?

Name: Gillian Ramos
Major(s): English/Political Science
Year of Graduation: 2010
Position: President (2009-2010); featured writer (Spring 2010)

Congratulations on winning the Nancy Potter short story contest this year! Many have claimed "I never win anything!" Is this the first of many wins to come, or is snagging awards old hat in the world of Gillian Ramos?

Thank you! This is the first win, and I hope it's not the last. I started mailing out stories (this one, and "Glass") in February, and the responses have been trickling in.

So far, I'm 3 for 3 in the "no thanks" column, but I don't mind. It really is about the experience rather than the outcome - without the support I've gotten from the friends I made through the Scribe, I never would have done any mailings, or even entered the department contest!

Tell us a bit about your short story, "Pater Noster." Where did it originate, in thought and in reality?

"Pater Noster" came out of a semester's research on the religious right. It began in the summer of 2009 with the murder of Dr. George Tiller, by Scott Roeder, a well-known anti-abortion activist, self-proclaimed sovereign citizen, and Christian extremist; a man by the name of Frank Schaeffer was all over my news network of choice, talking about the extremism coming out of the religious communities across the country. It turns out, Frank Schaeffer and his family were the pioneers of what we know today as the religious right.

I read Schaeffer's memoir, Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, and it blew my mind. Clearly, no one could foresee that the nexus of politics and religion would take a turn for the violent, as it did in the case of Dr. Tiller's death.

Seeing Frank Schaeffer talk so candidly about feeling like he's contributed to this mess, and wants nothing more than to repair the damage he helped create in the 1980s was so moving, and I knew there simply had to be a story in there somewhere.

And then the summer took a turn for the purely weird - a pair of political sex scandals (John Ensign's strange mix of business and pleasure & Mark Sanford's hike along the Appalachian Trail). This brought me to Jeff Sharlet's The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, which delves into the long entanglement between the Republican Party, big business, and religious fundamentalism.

The large scale of bad behavior and hypocrisy on the institutional level was fascinating, but somewhat unweildy for a short fiction approach. I found more personal narratives to better suit my needs in terms of finding an intimate, manageable story. I read Jesusland, a memoir by Julia Scheer, and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, an investigative piece by Kathryn Joyce. These two books simply broke my heart.

Without getting into it too much, I found the portrayal of marriage and father-daughter relationships in Quiverfull to be the base from which everything in my story would extend. When a daughter marries into a new family, she is essentially taken out of her birth family, literally having nothing to do with her parents. She is 100% her husband's "problem."

As for the story itself, "Pater Noster" is better known as the Lord's Prayer, which really lays out the tenets of Christianity and the expectation that we have to treat people the way we expect to be treated, and will turn to God for guidance and salvation. This prayer can become perverted and used as a way for people to try and absolve themselves of all responsibility, which I touch in my story. It's not so much about the specific sin, but the multitude of sins and secrets people commit in their daily lives - even the most upstanding members of society.

I chose to go this route, rather than writing about parents and children as a family unit, mostly because I couldn't stomach having to navigate the kind of abuse found in Jesusland without feeling like I was competing with, or borrowing too heavily from, Scheer's life story.

And yes, I do recommend reading any or all of these books.

What is your revision process like? Is "Pater Noster" in its final version, or will you continue to edit and tweak, even post-publication? Why or why not? Is this representative of your revision process as a whole, or specific to this text?

"Pater Noster" is a done deal. When I finish a story, that's it. I have to walk away from it, even if there are things I wish I could tweak. I know I'm done when I start thinking, "Okay, I know it's not perfect, but how much can I tinker with it before totally wrecking it?"

I would rather find a few small imperfections than find out a story is overwrought and beyond repair.

This is pretty much my process every time. I tend to edit as I go, being especially careful about details when I get to them, almost like recording a movie as it plays in my head. I can visualize a few major scenes clearly and then fill in the rest when the time comes.

To speak generally, you're a prose writer for the most part. Ever try your hand at verse? How long ago, and what were your thoughts? We hope you're feeling daring enough to share some!

I've only ever attempted poetry when it was required of me in survey-style creative writing courses. It's not something I would ever attempt on my own - it really is better left to the experts.

Do you ever feel like you have a fabulous idea for a short story, but it is stuck in your head for one reason or another? What is stuck in your head these days?

I've had ideas stuck in my head for weeks at a time, which is no fun. Sometimes I simply don't have the time to pursue that idea, and sometimes it's just a little kernel of an idea that I have no real intention of fleshing out. I do this a lot on the bus, especially if someone is on the phone and I can only follow half their conversation. I'll make up the other half as a way to amuse myself.

Lately, I've been thinking about doing something different. Still short fiction, but something not as dark as my usual fare. Maybe something more like a fairy tale?

Speaking of things rattling around up there, what have you been reading recently? Any particularly intriguing passages or texts you'd like to alert our readership to?
Right now, I'm reading Ian McEwan's Atonement. I saw the movie when it came out, and absolutely loved it. My plan for the summer is to devour all things British. When I finish this one, I've got Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited lined up, and then it's all Jane Austen all the time.

There's a passage in Atonement that I simply adore. To set the scene, McEwan is introducing his protagonist, Briony Tallis. Briony is a young writer who is positively detail-obsessed, never mind detail-oriented. Emphasis is mine.

"She was on course now, and had found satisfaction on other levels; writing stories not only involved secrecy, it also gave her all the pleasures of miniaturization. A world could be made in five pages, and one that was more pleasing than a model farm. The childhood of a spoiled prince could be framed within half a page, a moonlit dash through sleepy villages was one rhythmically emphatic sentence, falling in love could be achieved in a single word - a glance. The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained."

Isn't that just a delicious passage?

I also found an editorial in the April 15th New York Times that really touched on something I adore. Verlyn Klinkenborg is talking about the e-reader trend, and how these devices are great for certain purposes, but nothing will ever replace real books. This is my favorite line:
"A paper book aids my concentration by offering to do nothing else but lie open in front of me."
As I said in my interview last semester, I love books as objects - how they feel in my hands, how the paper smells - and reading a real book is a beautiful, incomparable experience.

I've been listening to Joanna Newsom almost exclusively for a couple of months now. I bought a book of essays and other writings about her music, and have begun to appreciate her brilliance on a completely different level. Once you get past the fact that her voice is, well, I'll call it unique, it turns out that the language she uses in her songs is pretty amazing. She resurrects words and sentence structures that fell out of fashion ages ago, and still manages to make it feel elegant and modern.

Right now, my favorite song is "Sadie," from 2004's Milk-Eyed Mender.

When do you do the bulk of your writing? Where do you usually settle down to write? (Which isn't to imply you may not pace around your backyard balancing your laptop on one hand, furiously typing with the other)

I do most of my writing in bed. I do have a desk, and my laptop usually lives on my desk, but I tend to get the most done sitting on my bed, propped up against some pillows. More often than not, I'll also have a cat stretched across my ankles, so I'm definitely committed to that position.

This is also how I prefer to do most of my reading, though I seem to get a lot of reading done on the bus.

I tend not to write longhand, mostly because it can be so hard to keep up with my thoughts. But this summer, I plan on keeping handwritten reading journals when I get to Jane Austen. I bought these neat little notebooks at Target with wild Liberty of London patterns on the cover. Austen predates the Liberty fabrics considerably, but the covers are just so fantastically cheery - I simply must use them!

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