A while back, we featured Shaun Hamill’s “Unpracticed Altitudes” (which won 2nd place in the 2010 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest) in a Story Spotlight. This time around, we ask the author himself for his take on the story. In addition, he teases us with some details regarding a novel-in-progress, and talks a bit about being a current reader for Carve.
Carve: In your bio, you mention being “drawn to fiction with a strong, unique narrative voice, and stories that subvert or exceed reader expectations.” What are some examples of literature you’ve read that might fit this aesthetic?
Shaun Hamill: John Irving’s novels made a big impression on me as a teenager. His empathic, big-hearted presentation of unusual romantic/sexual relationships did a lot to shape my own feelings about love. I also admire Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon. They’re great at building what I would call “worlds next door to our own,” and have a real knack for excavating meaning from pop culture. But if we’re looking for deeper cuts, I’d cite Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, Beth Nugent’s City of Boys, and pretty much anything by George Saunders. All three are non-traditional writers with unique voices. They look for and find beauty in unlikely/ugly places, and their fiction leaves a mark on the reader.
(Note: I think City of Boys is out of print right now, but you can find it used on Amazon or bn.com, and it’s also available as an ebook. This is a book that deserves more attention, so if you’re reading this, go hunt it down immediately.)
C: How did “Unpracticed Altitudes” come about?
SH: “Unpracticed Altitudes” gestated for a long time before it took its final shape. I wrote the first draft in the spring of 2003; that version was a coming-of-age story about a boy who falls in love with a girl he finds sitting on a trampoline at a house party. It didn’t work (it relied too heavily on tropes from John Hughes movies and WB/CW teen dramas), but the central image of the trampoline stuck with me.
In the fall of 2008, I graduated from college, moved out of my parents’ house, and got my first office job. In that environment, I began to feel very isolated. I didn’t connect with my coworkers, and I wasn’t very good at the work. I wasn’t seeing anyone, and I was starting to worry that I never might (a ridiculous thought to have at 25, but when you have zero life experience, everything that happens to you feels like the most important, final thing that’s ever happened). I was lonely, and alienated, and sort of fed up with myself, and I think all of those things, whirling around in the hotbox of my isolation, coalesced into a solution for my trampoline story.
First, I decided to remove the trampoline from the backyard of a suburban house and put it someplace unusual, someplace striking (the roof of a run-down apartment building, a stand-in for the poverty of my childhood). Second, I decided to use the trampoline instruction manual to reflect and comment on the relationship between the narrator and Mildred. The weird jargon would be the poetry of their love story. Third, and most important, I changed the narrator from a well-adjusted, audience-friendly adult reminiscing about his first love to someone as lonely and sad as myself. I decided to speak honestly about the way I thought and felt, about my own worries and shortcomings. I gave myself permission not to worry about what anyone thought of me for writing it down.
It still took me a couple of months to write a draft that resembles the published version, and I sat on it for another two years before I submitted it for publication, but once I made the decision to be honest with myself, I had the story. The scenes and language came more easily, and emotion flowed from the narrative instead of cheap tricks by the writer.
I think that was the breakthrough: using my own fear, my own shame. I think that’s where the best art comes from—our dark places, our troubled thoughts, our big questions. I think even now it’s still the most honest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s what I reach for whenever I sit down to write.
C: What’s it like to go from being a Carve contributor to a Carve reader?
SH: That’s an interesting question. I can’t speak for other writers, but to me all periodicals where I don’t know anyone on staff are impenetrable monoliths, and Carve seemed no different from the outside. The big surprise for me, once “Unpracticed Altitudes” was accepted, was the way I was sort of welcomed into a community. My story appeared in the winter 2010 issue, and I was reading for Carve less than six months later.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be on the reading committee for the Katherine Anne Porter prize for fiction since 2008 (check out past winners here), so I already had some experience with the process by the time I joined Carve. Although the two are similar (grinding through large quantities of fiction, hunting for gems), what I like about Carve is its dedication to feedback, to the nurturing of talent. The editors pay close attention to the names of the writers submitting. They remember if someone’s submitted before, and they chart progress. They’re interested in helping writers improve, and in helping writers get their start (I don’t think I’m out of line saying I’m an example of this). This isn’t to say they’ll publish anything willy-nilly, but they’re genuinely interested and enthusiastic about this stuff, and I’m proud to be a part of that.
C: After your experiences with the slush pile, what would you most like to say to Carve submitters?
SH: The usual cliches spring to mind—read the ‘zine, make sure your manuscript is clean, send your best work. Above and beyond that, I’d say take a cue from the masthead on our site: “Honest Fiction.” Be honest with yourself and your reader. Write your fear, your troubled thoughts. If you get feedback on a submission, pay attention, try again. The editors are rooting for you.
C: What are some writing projects you’re currently working on?
SH: The novel has been the only project for the last couple of years. I’ve sort of given my life over to it (seriously, I think I have some friends ready to file a missing person report). I’m superstitious, so I don’t want to say too much, but I guess I can say it’s a big book, an intimate epic, tracing the lives of a few people over the course of twenty years. It’s my stab at the “worlds next door” concept Chabon and Lethem are so good at, and also at the comic rhythms of Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman (with a bit of The Water Method Man thrown in).
I think it’ll be ready to start sending out in another month or so. It’s exciting, to be this close to the end of the creative part of the process, but it’s also scary, because I’ve spent the last two years writing and re-writing this behemoth. Now I have to try and find a home for it. It’s like pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to find another mountain at the summit. Hopefully someone out there will like it and take a chance on it. Fingers crossed!