The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What would you say makes a good story? How has your experience as Editor-In-Chief of CutBank Literary Magazine challenged or confirmed these beliefs?
Billy Wallace: For me, a good story starts with the language. Startling, lyrical, sparse; it can go a lot of ways, be a lot of different styles but I want it to grab me off the bat and do something interesting. I think it was Tom Waits who, when asked about what he wanted in a song, said something along the lines of “I want beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” I always liked that sentiment. Now I don’t want to read about awful things all the time, but I think the idea behind that can apply to short fiction, too. Working at CutBank has 100% confirmed this view. We get so many submissions and if the language of the story doesn’t grab me, I start looking forward to the next one pretty quick. I think reading and editing at CutBank has helped me apply these ideas to my own writing, as well. At least I hope so.
RR: During our reading, we noticed bits of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” throughout your story. What drove you to allude to this specific novel throughout your piece?
BW: It’s probably my favorite novel. I had just reread it when I was working on this piece and every time I read it, it permeates my mind for a while. Talk about language and grabbing you right off the bat! I don’t know if there’s a better opening line. Nothing flowery about the language – it’s just perfectly executed and tells you so much while still leading you to want to know what’s going, all in one sentence. I really wish my Spanish was better. I would love to be able to read it in the original language.
RR: Your character has to deal with a rude customer that doesn’t pay his tab. Could you tell us about any odd customers or workers you’ve had to deal with in the past if you’ve worked in service?
BW: Oh, man. I’ve worked in bars, restaurants, coffee shops for the last thirteen years or so. It’s where I get most of my characters. I’ve met versions of Tom and Benny on multiple occasions.
RR: This story spends a lot of time looking at how people interact in a casual setting and how they look at/analyze one another, but you also take time to set the stage, giving clear descriptions of the space they are in and and how the music that fills it affects them. How did you maintain that balance throughout? Do you feel that splitting the difference between character and place is necessary for development, or can the story be successful if one overrides the other?
BW: I think with this particular story, the balance is necessary because the narrator has immersed herself in this job, this sort of sad new life she has, and in order for the reader to really get her, they need to see her world as well. But I’m always blown away when someone can pull off a successful short story without that balance. The first one that comes to mind is Grace Paley’s “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age”. The entire story is dialogue. There is no description, other than what we glean from the characters’ words. It is stunning what she is able to do between the quotation marks. She does that in a lot of her work. I wish I could pull it off.
RR: Do you have a daily writing ritual? What process do you go through when creating a new piece?
BW: I try. We all do, I suppose. But I’m finishing up the MFA here at Montana and running CutBank and it’s hard to get a solid routine. I know I do better work in the mornings, so I try to set aside at least a couple hours twice a week early in the day. In the MFA environment, most of my process revolves around workshop deadlines, which is at the same time extremely helpful and completely unnatural. I’ll be interested to see what becomes of my routine when I finish up here.