by David Martinez
Tara Ison’s work is a pleasure to discover, and her most recent book, Ball, a collection of short stories, is a great place to start. The sometimes strange, always intriguing stories will leave a reader reeling, pondering, and perhaps a little uneasy. In this collection, there is no character Ison is unwilling to follow and no area so dark she will not look.
Her novel Rockaway was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine, as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in 2013. Her essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies was selected as Editor’s Choice in the Chicago Tribune. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Black Clock, The Rumpus, and a number of other reviews and anthologies. She also co-wrote the movie Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.
I’ve been a fan of Ison’s writing since I heard her read at a writer’s conference at Arizona State University, and was honored to be in a few of her classes as an undergraduate. Her classes were an oasis for me at the time, full of excerpts from The Elements of Style to The Big Lebowski, with explanations of how every character wants something. I remember her saying, “Even The Dude wants something. He just wants to get his rug, man. It really tied the room together.”
I sat down with Tara in a coffee shop to talk about her process as a writer and her most recent book.
The Coachella Review: First off, what are you reading?
Tara Ison: Oh, wow. Well, right now I’m in the middle of school. The semester just started. So, most of what I’m reading is prep for my classes and my students’ work. I don’t usually have the time to read for pleasure in the middle of the term. Although reading my student work is always a pleasure, and the class prep is pleasure, I’m reading those things analytically rather than immersing myself into the world of the text as a reader.
We’re going to be talking about Winesburg, Ohio next week, and there’s a Leo Tolstoy story that we’re going to be looking at. I’m dipping back into Charles Baxter’s essay on defamiliarization. I am assigning a piece from Jesus’ Son, of course, because I will always assign anything I can from Jesus’ Son. That’s what comes to mind, off the top of my head.
Oh! We’re also talking about the epistolary form in class right now, so there’s a great epistolary story by Ha Jin, and there’s another brilliant, very short, epistolary story by Amy Hempel. Both of which are amazing, so I’m revisiting them right now.
TCR: I’m also curious about your writing process. How do you sit down and do it?
TI: My writing process in one word would be avoidance. [Laughs] I’ll do anything to avoid writing. It’s such a love/hate relationship. And the hate of the process seems to have a stronger voice than the love of it. I have to shoulder past the hate in order to sit down, and if I sit down long enough the hate dissipates and the love takes over, and it takes me to the writing zone where it’s easiest to be about me and what I want and my ego, my thoughts, my feelings, and I become so immersed in what I’m doing that I disappear. I take all of my anxieties with me when I disappear.
So, the trick is just getting myself in the chair. That’s always the challenge for me. A deadline is the best possible part of the process. I don’t miss deadlines. The only other time there’s an ease of getting into the chair is when there is already something I’m working on that is speaking to me, calling to me. It’s after I’ve sort of gotten past that first hurdle of the blank screen, the blank page. It doesn’t happen all that often, but I’m thrilled when it does, when there is that sense of urgency that I have to get back because the characters have an urgency. If the characters are urgent about what they’re doing I feel an urgency to tell their story.
TCR: There are so many interesting characters in your new book, Ball. I read a few of the stories in different magazines before the book came out. “Multiple Choice” was in Black Clock, and “The Knitting Story” was in Tin House, and I know you’ve mentioned before that you wrote these stories over a long period of time. So, how did you decide to put together a collection of short stories?
TI: What’s interesting actually is those two stories, “The Knitting Story” and “Multiple Choice,” are the two most recent stories. They are also the two that are the most experimental in form; I tend to be very traditional in terms of form and structure, but I was really exploring something a little different in those two stories. So, maybe that’s a direction that I’m going in right now.
The other stories, yeah, they span about ten years—maybe twelve years. It really came about almost logistically. My publisher had just published Rockaway, a novel that I wrote that came out in 2013. We were talking about what the next project might be, and I found myself just throwing out there, “Well, I might have enough stories for a collection.” He said, “Great, let me take a look at it.” So it’s not a very interesting story how it came to be a collection. I scooped up the stories that I had written. I did look at it to see if it could form a collection. I did look to see if there was a unity in terms of theme, or, aesthetic. Something where I felt even if they were all coming at it from a very different approach and with a different style, they were still tapping into a similar aesthetic, a similar mood, and I think that they do. I think that, as different as some of them are from each other, they still are ultimately speaking to dark impressions that can no longer be controlled.
TCR: That’s one of the things I was going to talk about, or ask about. I notice how much the stores fit into the spaces of each other. So, part of that just happened to be that way? Did you look at all the stories together to think about the book as a whole, and make editing decisions from that?
TI: I didn’t go back and re-edit the stories. I might have changed a comma here or there, but they are basically the same form as they were when they were originally published. I think where that came in to play mostly was with the structure of the collection, and the sequence of the stories. That needed to have its own organic rhythm. They needed to relate to each other in a way so that someone reading through the book was their own journey.
I was very aware of the texture in how I sequenced the stories. For example, I did not want to begin the collection with “Ball,” the titular story—my personal favorite—because that story is one of the darker ones. It’s one of the more disturbed ones. It goes to a very, I think, frightening place. It did for me when I was writing it. Both sexually, but also in terms of what happens in the plot, which I don’t want to give away. I didn’t want that to be the first story in the collection, because I wanted a reader to ease into it. Frankly, I didn’t want to scare somebody off. So, “Cactus,” to me, felt like the right story in that for most of the story that is a much more conventional, traditional narrative. The darker elements sneak up on you. I think that initially the reader is grounded in a more tolerable or relatable kind of emotional struggle for the character. So, it eases in to the dysfunction, I think, in a more welcoming way. I didn’t want somebody to close the book on the first page and not read any more. But then, yeah, “Ball” comes second. I did also want the reader to know what they were in for if they were to read the rest of the book.
TCR: It’s a pretty good choice. I mean, I love “Ball,” it’s one of my favorite stories in here, but I could see somebody picking up this book book, if “Ball” were the first story, seeing “dog vagina,” and placing it right back on the shelf.
TI: [Laughs] Not everyone wants to read about a dog vagina, no, no.
Yeah, so even for the rest of the book I wanted to space out the ugliness and the darkness and the dysfunction and allow the little sorbet or sherbet moments in between some of the other darker narratives. I think it is like a multicourse meal, and you want to balance out the stronger flavors with the milder flavors. The heavier, richer course with the lighter, easier course. So, the meal has an overall structure as well. And that was very much in my mind as I was structuring the stories.
TCR: Speaking of “Cactus,” it’s a very desert story. The desert is a weird place for me. I’m not from here. I moved here from Florida. But the desert seems to creep up on me, and now influences my writing and a lot of things that I do. Does it have the same kind of feeling for you?
TI: I’m glad to hear you say that, because I wrote that story before moving here to the desert. I had never been to Joshua Tree when I wrote that story. All I knew of the desert was the occasional road trip outside of Los Angeles, you know, driving through San Bernardino. Probably driving through Arizona at some point. But I am not a desert person. It’s not my landscape, and I don’t feel it. So, if it captures some of that in that story, I’m delighted to hear it. My being a desert person, now that I live in Arizona, has been sort of forced upon me. And I fight it. Like I said, it’s not my landscape. It doesn’t speak to me. I’m not especially interested in the topography or landscape or world of the desert. It’s not my place. But I think for the book it works emotionally. I think it works psychologically. And the whole motif of the cactus. She’s an emotional cactus. She’s a spiritual cactus. I used that motif more because I was interested in a character who functioned like a cactus than I was in the desert landscape.
TCR: There’s a really interesting story behind “Ball,” how it came to be, how you published it, and the ending.
TI: Oh, right! The ending! Yeah, I do love that story, and I like telling students that story because it’s… I hope it’s a love story of some of the struggles that a writer has that aren’t writerly, that aren’t the struggles that you have at the desk. They’re the struggles that you have being a writer in the world.
I had written that story when I was a grad student at Bennington. My mentor at the time was Rick Moody. He liked the story very much, and the ending of the story is risky. It was a risk. He liked it so much that he suggested I send it to the editor at Tin House, and he put in a good word for me so that it wouldn’t get lost in the slush pile. I heard back from the editor at Tin House, who said, “I really like the story. Would you consider changing the ending?” I flipped out, got extremely anxious and upset, and had a dark night of the soul. I wound up getting in touch with Rick, saying what do I do? What do I do? Sounds like they’re interested in the story but also want to change the ending. Rick said, and I’m paraphrasing, “You know, editors know what they’re doing. They read millions of stories. They’re very often right, and they see things that the writer is unable to see, because the writer’s too close to the material. Sometimes the writer needs to trust the editor, listen to the editor, and do what the editor wants.” And there was a pause, and then he said, “Not this story.”
That meant a lot to me. He was basically saying no, you stick to your guns on this one. The whole point of the story is the ending, and if you take that away there’s no point to the story, which is how I felt. So I wrote this long email back to the editor at Tin House, this long apologetic, rambling letter saying I’m sorry. I would love to be in the magazine. I would love to do what you want, but I can’t change the ending to the story, and here’s why. I mean, it was so neurotic. I was being such a pain in the ass. Rule number one: do not make your writerly neuroses the problem of the editor—the problem of anybody. I still do it. Of course, I still do it all the time. He wrote back, very kind. He said, “No, no, no. I don’t want you to change the ending, but the senior editor and some of the other people in the room are nervous about it. I will keep fighting for it. I’ll do what I can.”
I think almost six months went by. I know it was at least four months, and he wrote me back and he said okay. “We’re in. We got it.” They put the story in, and I did not change the ending. Looking back, that was an example of a time when I did the right thing.
TCR: Tin House is a big deal, too.
TI: Yeah! And it was my first short story! It was my first published short story. I had already, at that time, written my first novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz. But I had never published a short story, and it was my first. So, yeah. It was a very big deal to figure out what to do about that.
TCR: You mostly write novels. You have a wonderful collection of essays that I loved, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies. And this is your first short-story collection. How different is it approaching a novel as opposed to a short story collection or collection of essays?
TI: I could see that this experience with this collection might be a little unusual, in that so many of the stories were written over such a length of time. Was it Henry James who said something like, “A novel is a big shaggy monster?” I might be misquoting him, but I agree with that. You’re driving down the dark road, you can only see the ten feet ahead of your spotlights. You’re wandering. It’s massive. It’s hairy. It’s shaggy. [Laughs]. It’s a monster, and you just have to keep the faith, and stick with it. The commitment that a novel requires is overwhelming.
A short story is different. In the midst of writing a short story, it’s every bit as immersive. I’m still lost in the story. But it’s the difference between driving through a park and driving through a national forest. It just feels like you can contain the beast. It feels more manageable. Even the moments of greatest despair, of being lost in the thicket of a short story, you know you’re not going to be wandering for years necessarily. And that in itself makes the going a little bit easier. It just feels more finite. You know that the edge of the woods is nearer, and it’s easier not to succumb to despair writing a short story than in writing a novel.
I felt that way also with the collection of essays, that sense of completion you feel when the short piece is done. Even though you’ve got another ten essays to write, you’ve scaled one mountain. You know you can scale a mountain. So you’ve got ten more mountains to scale, but you have that confidence of knowing that you’ve successfully completed one. I think that is very helpful in order to keep going. You don’t get that kind of satisfaction or encouragement from the process of writing a novel in the same way. Even if you’re talking about novels in chapters and completing chapters, it’s not the same. So, I loved the process of putting together an essay collection and a story collection, because they’re wonderful little bursts of fulfillment, and wonderful little bursts of feeling a sense of completion that you don’t get from a larger project.
David Martinez is a student at the UCR Low Residency MFA program, where he studies fiction and dabbles in poetry, nonfiction, and screenwriting. He has dual citizenship between Brazil and the United States, and has lived all over Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the United States. He currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona. David’s most recent work was published in Broken Pencil.