I chatted with 2010 Literary Award Program Winner Tara Laskowski, who shared her insights on the contest, flash fiction, and novels.
Sheila Lamb: Your chapbook, Black Diamond City, won the 2010 Literary Awards Program. How did you discover the SFWP’s Literary Awards Program?
Tara Laskowski: I knew of SFWP through friends, and have a few of the books the press published. I wasn’t aware of the awards program until one of my writer friends encouraged me to submit to it. I’m so glad I did!
SL: How did it feel to know Robert Olen Butler was the judge?
TL: That was actually one of the reasons why I sent a packet in. I admire his work, especially the very short form stuff he does, and I thought that the stuff I was working on—which at the time was shorter, flash pieces and very short stories—would appeal to him. He’s a very generous writer to other writers, and he sent me a lovely note after I won, which I still have. I really admire well-established authors when they still relate to and help out emerging writers. I think that’s really fantastic.
SL: How did winning the Literary Awards Program help your writing?
TL: Well, like winning any contest or getting any publication accepted, it just boosts your confidence, makes you think: “Ok, so I can do this. And someone other than my mom and my husband thinks so, too.”
I think in this case, too, it helped me to focus on a project and a form.
SL: Your book, Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons, was recently published by Matter Press. Tell us a little about this collection.
TL: The collection is a series of short stories based on Emily Post-type etiquette books, only the etiquette here is for dark, subversive kinds of subjects. So I have “The Etiquette of Arson” and “The Etiquette of Infertility,” for example. I had actually included two of these stories—Adultery and Dementia—in the SFWP packet, so winning really made me feel like I was doing something cool with these stories.
Here’s more information about the book, along with some links to a few of the stories: http://taralaskowski.com/short-story-manuscript/
SL: Your stories, Etiquette of Adultery and The Etiquette of Dementia, appear in the Black Diamond City chapbook and in Modern Manners. Were the ideas for Modern Manners percolating as you worked on Black Diamond City?
TL: Oops, I mentioned this above. Yes, I had already been toying with the idea of making them their own collection, but it took a few more years to really get all of the etiquette stories written and right. I still occasionally get ideas for other stories that might-have-been! (Etiquette of Gambling! Kleptomania! The possibilities are endless!)
SL: To clarify, your current novel, Black Diamond City, is different from the chapbook entered in the Literary Awards program. Did the novel expand from a story in the chapbook or are they two totally separate works?
TL: Ok, yeah, that’s confusing. So when I was getting my MFA at George Mason University, my thesis was the novel Black Diamond City. It came first. It is a 500 page love story novel that spans over several decades. It is set in my hometown of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I had sent it out to a few agents, and though they liked parts of it, they all agreed that it was just too long. But I’d written and worked on it for years and I just couldn’t see it from any kind of distance that would help me revise. So I put it away.
But I continue to be a little obsessed with writing about where I grew up—the people, the places, the culture—and when I started focusing on flash fiction, I realized I was still writing about the same themes, people, etc, and that much of my flash was set there. So with the packet I sent to SFWP, I really tried to collect all that flash into something coherent, and I ended up calling it the same thing (Wilkes-Barre is nicknamed Diamond City because of the coal mining industries history there).
Thanks for asking about that, because I know it’s super confusing. But that’s how I roll!
SL: You’ve written a lot of flash fiction, but I’ve read you’re also working on short stories and a novel. What is your process or mind set as you sit down to write flash versus short story versus novel?
TL: I haven’t been writing longer stuff for a while, mostly due to having a little toddler running around our house now. It’s easier for me to get my head around shorter fiction, and while editing SmokeLong Quarterly, I’m also reading a lot of flash fiction.
That said, I am trying to pull together another collection of short stories, more traditional length stories, right now, and it’s proven to be very difficult. I think my strengths really do lay in shorter moments. But I try! I really do. One day I hope to have a novel, even if it is a novel-in-flash. (Yikes!)
SL: How do you balance work, Smokelong, and family with writing?
TL: I don’t know! I’m crazy half the time? I often feel frustrated because I like to do the best I can at everything, and I feel sometimes that there’s just not enough time in the day/week/month to do everything I want to do and do it well. But my husband is amazing and is an amazing writer and he understands how important it is, so both of us are fortunate to have that support going for us. We egg each other on, so to speak. And we are there to have bourbon at the end of the day and listen to each other and try to stay sane. All of this and more is my saving grace.
SL: What projects do you have in the works?
TL: I mentioned above that I’m working on a collection of short stories, tentatively called Bystanders. I’ve been writing a lot lately about the way that people are affected by violent things that happen to someone else, and many of my stories have this thread running through them. For example, I have a story about a woman who witnesses a car accident where a little boy dies, and finds herself obsessing over the man who hit and killed the boy–and in the process, reconsidering her own marriage and happiness. So I’m trying to pull together a collection that fits together in this way but also has different notes and explores different areas.
SL: Any words of advice for writers on selecting writing contests?
TL: Oh, that’s a good question! I don’t enter very many writing contests because I’d go broke! I think it’s important to research the organization or publication that’s hosting the contest. Look at past winners. And also, what is the entry fee? What are they using that money for? I think if you’re paying money to enter something, you should really know what they are looking for and what they like. So read the publication, or read the press’s other books, or read something by the writer who is judging the contest. I always say this, but I don’t understand why someone would want to be published somewhere that they themselves don’t read.