Bloom: If I Knew You Were Going to Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go, could be described as both a “collection” and a “novel.” Which do you feel is most accurate? Can you talk a bit about the narrative format of the book?
Judy Chicurel: Collection of linked stories is the most accurate description. The narrative centers on a beach town on the skids during a very specific time in American history, where the characters’ lives and conditions mirror the more urgent concerns of that period: economic decline, the Vietnam war, the drug culture, etc. I actually wrote the ending first, except for one story, and in the beginning had no idea where things were going; I just kept writing these characters and situations as they came to me. I wanted to provide readers with a strong foundation in the earlier stories so that by the end of the book, they had a very thorough understanding of the characters’ lives and circumstances that would invoke empathetic reactions devoid of judgment.
Bloom: You are also a playwright – how was working on a collection of short stories different from working on a play?
JC: I’ve been asked this a lot, actually, and truthfully, I don’t believe it’s very different. In any medium, I think, you begin with an idea or a character or both and proceed from there. I love writing dialogue and even as a journalist was assigned stories with the potential for colorful quotes, so the plays were a natural outgrowth. Short stories have a tenuous similarity to dramatic writing, in that you’re using much more compact spaces in which to reveal the necessary information than you would in a novel.
Bloom: You mention on your web site that one of your short stories published in Granta, “Patsy,” was inspired by someone you knew when you were a cocktail waitress at a bar in the East Village. Where else have you found inspiration for characters or settings in your writing?
JC: Everywhere! As much as my work is character-driven, I’ve realized in writing If I Knew…that the setting really provides the framework for the characters; they grow out of the circumstances and situations surrounding that particular place or environment. “Patsy” is actually a chapter from something I’m working on now about an East Village in the 1980s, a memorable time in New York City. One of the stories in If I Knew…is about a doctor who provides underground abortions in a beautiful setting that defies all the stereotypical abortion myths that women of that era were exposed to. I’ve never accompanied anyone to an abortion anywhere, but years ago I attended a party at a colleague’s house and at one point she took us up to a small room at the top of the house and said that during the 1920s or 1930s, I forget which, the house had been owned by a doctor who performed illegal abortions. I was fascinated by this, and for some reason always believed that that the doctor was a woman, though that hadn’t been specified. That setting was the impetus for the story.
Bloom: “Patsy” is also one of the shortest pieces you’ve ever written. What are the unique joys and challenges associated with word count? Were there things you could do in a single short story that you couldn’t do in a collection of connected stories, or vice versa?
JC: Ah, word counts… I was a journalist in a former life and have worked as a grant writer in recent years, so word counts abound on every level of my writing life. On one hand, it’s limiting and really depends on the piece; I recently penned an essay and found the word count very restrictive. Sometimes, as we all know, you need more room, more words for a story or article to really work as well as you’d like. On the other hand, word counts do force you to examine your writing more closely, cut extraneous passages that sound pretty but don’t really add much, and try to make every word count. Again, it depends on what you’re writing and if you think you can achieve the desired effect in the allotted number of words.
Regarding the second half of this question, I think a collection of linked stories allows more room for character development and creating a more evocative world than a single short story. You can do both those things in a single story and a connected collection, but a collection also provides opportunities for more characters, multiple settings and sometimes multiple points of view that might not flow as well in the space limitations of a single short story.
Bloom: One of the events you participated in with fellow Granta writers was described as an opportunity to “explore the consequences of things beyond our control.” How does writing, more than any other form of expression, allow us to do this?
JC: Interesting question…I think writing provides the perfect platform for helping others to explore consequences in ways that build a better understanding of a character’s actions and motives before, during, and after something occurs. Perhaps the greatest feat this allows is building the reader’s ability to feel sympathy for unsympathetic characters or for characters that commit acts we may think of as morally wrong and sometimes unforgivable. The story I wrote for Granta, “City Boy,” was about the relationship between an orphan and the volunteer who visited him weekly, and what happened when unforeseen events occurred at the orphanage and forced the young boy into the social services system. The story opens years later, when the volunteer reads about a murder committed by the boy, who is now sixteen years old. He’s obviously faced consequences over the things he couldn’t control as a six-year-old child, and is now facing consequences for his actions that may or may not have occurred had his life followed a different trajectory. The volunteer couldn’t have controlled the closing of the orphanage either, but her consequences revolve around the guilt she feels at not having done enough to save the boy at the time. Writing allows us to explore and relate the different sides of the equation so that readers can draw their own conclusions. In that way the writer and reader form a kind of unique partnership.
Bloom: If you weren’t a writer, what else would you be?
JC: Several possibilities come to mind: teaching writing at the college level, full-time; social worker/therapist; vintner; fortune teller. Years ago I was accepted into a social work program and was going to pursue it but got offered a job at a Long Island newspaper and chose that instead. During that time, I also supplemented my freelance writing/editing income by reading tarot cards on the side. I could do any and all of these things, living on a winery in Napa or Paso Robles, or the North Fork of Long Island. Writing this makes me want to be there now, watching the sun set over the vineyards, glass of a great Cabernet in hand.
Bloom: You mention in an interview in the Brooklyn Eagle that as a kid growing up in Long Beach, Long Island, you thought, “the world was one big boardwalk/arcade/amusement park.” How did that perception help or hinder your descriptions of Elephant Beach in your collection? How much of the setting is true to your experience growing up?
JC: This is probably the most frequently asked question about If I Knew…; “How much of this is based on your own experiences?” It always makes me laugh when I see these reviews on Goodreads, written with this kind of counterfeit authority by people living in Ohio or Colorado, who say things like, “I believe this is based on the author’s own adolescence,” or “The author says the book is based on funky beach towns she’s lived in but it sounds a lot like Long Beach.” You’re from Ohio; how would you know???
Anyway: I loved growing up by the beach and always knew I wanted to write about it but it never came together until now. Past experiences definitely helped in writing the physical descriptions of Elephant Beach and combines my youth in Long Beach with a montage of other East Coast locales where I lived over the years, such as Martha’s Vineyard and the North Shore of Boston. The characters and circumstances in the stories are inventions of people who seemed to fit in those settings; growing up, I never knew or hung around with anyone who’d been to Vietnam, for example. And two Vietnam vets are central characters to this collection.
Bloom: Who first inspired you to write? Who inspires you now?
JC: There really was no one person or circumstance that served as inspiration; I loved reading from an early age and credit my mother, who had the ability to describe a book so well that I felt as if I’d already read it, from the time I was a small child. My father was always very proud of my writing and extremely supportive, which served as inspiration, particularly during those times of self-doubt; I wish he’d lived to see the book published. I draw inspiration from my surroundings, from people, places, conversations that are memorable for a variety of reasons…often from simple things you catch on the train or while walking to work. At one point, early in the editing process of If I Knew…, my editor asked me for a different ending for one of the stories in the collection, “Those Girls from the Dunes.” I was mulling it over, walking to work, and passed this beautiful little nursery on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, with these lovely vines twisting around the windows. I asked the owner what they were, and he told me they were lantana plants, which I’d never heard of. I thought, “Bingo!” and that window with the twisted vines helped shape the ending that made me—and my editor—happy.
Bloom: You have been a fellow at the Writers’ Institute at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Tell us how that experience influenced your work or your writing process? How do you balance working in solitude and being part of a community of fellow artists?
JC: The program was invaluable to me in terms of what’s happening now; it was there that I met John Freeman, editor of Granta at the time, who took an interest in my work and opened the doors that led to publication of If I Knew…The program was also unique in that it was taught by editors like John, Deborah Treisman of The New Yorker, and Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and their feedback provided excellent opportunities for effective revisions. I think I became a better editor of my own work during this period, especially when I look over the drafts of certain stories and how feedback from both instructors and class members was incorporated. I workshopped a couple of stories from If I Knew…and thanked the class and some individual members in my acknowledgments, because their input really helped strengthen those stories. I’ve compared notes with friends in other writing programs, and the general consensus is that you have to have a thick skin with regard to criticism, so it can be something of a mixed bag. But for me the results were tremendous, and I’m very glad to have participated in the program.
But the solitude is a mixed bag as well. There are days, weeks when I totally enjoy holing up and writing, taking breaks to bike ride and walk on the beach, especially when the writing is going well, and times where I really feel the isolation and have to do something about it—talk on the phone, have lunch with a friend. I’m now part of a terrific writing group that meets every two, three weeks; the group members are all very serious writers and readers, and their feedback is supportive and constructive in ways that have been extremely beneficial in moving ahead with the projects I’m working on now. So that’s a great balance that I’m thankful to have.
Bloom: You also lead writing workshops at the New York Writers Coalition. How does working with students change your perspective on your own writing?
JC: I don’t think leading the workshops has so much changed my perspective on my writing as inspired me by demonstrating how important it is for people to have that voice and the wonderful things they do with it. I’ve worked with young children, tweens, adults, and across the board I’ve witnessed the simplest writing prompts yield the most original, beautiful writing on the part of participants, which confirms my belief in the power of the written word to move readers, to inform and enlighten others, and confirm the writer’s belief in his/her own talent and abilities. It’s a really special experience, and I’m thankful to the Coalition for providing it.
Bloom: How do you think the craft of writing has changed/is changing due to the Internet, blogs, and social media?
JC: It’s certainly become more democratic with the number of platforms available for people to voice their opinions. There are some great online media outlets and excellent blogs, but I think at times people have trouble distinguishing between ranting and writing. One of the most interesting things to me is that, more so than any other profession on earth, almost everyone thinks they can be a writer. You don’t hear people saying they can be an accountant or a plumber with such aplomb, or a painter or a dancer. On the other hand, I taught the writing program at a boot camp for male adolescents in Houston, Texas, and when they’d balk at the assignments, I’d tell them, ‘If you can talk, you can write.’ And most of them turned out some surprisingly great material. So I guess everyone’s taking that to heart nowadays, with somewhat mixed results.
The far more troubling aspect of the Internet in general is the gratuitous nastiness that some people employ when voicing their opinions online. This type of calculated snarkiness that seems to be in vogue now. I do think that’s where a lot of the online energy seems to be going, as if people are cultivating their mean streaks for personal gain. But that’s a much larger issue to be explored.
Bloom: What’s next? Are you working on another collection or novel?
JC: I have a two-book deal with Putnam and am currently working on two projects—a novel about an intergenerational group of women living in a small river town in the mountains and the circumstances that connect them to one another, and a book that centers on an East Village bar in the 1980s. I like working this way because if I become stuck on one book, I can turn to the next and still feel productive. I’m currently waiting to see which one comes out ahead.
Click here to read Judy Chicurel’s “Those Girls from the Dunes.”