How A Book Happens with Amina Gautier

by Kristi Carter

Filed under: Blog |

1. You won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction in 2013 for your collection Now We Will Be Happy, what were you doing when you heard the news that you had won? How did you feel?

 I was in the first third of a sabbatical leave from my institution and I was just doffing my professor/writer hat and trying on my writer/writer hat to make sure it still fit. I'd spent the first month or two of the sabbatical refining and polishing Now We Will Be Happy as well as writing a new story for the collection. Then–after I submitted it–I mentally put it away and went to work on my next book. So, four months later, when I received word of winning the prize, I was neck deep in trying to make sense of the new book and figuring out what it would be. So I celebrated in my head a little bit. I called my mother and told her. Then I celebrated in my head a little more. Then I celebrated in my living room, which consisted of a few fist pumps, reciting a few choice lines fromThe Last Dragon, and making some whooping noises…and then I went back to work on the next book. Despite my lack of fanfare, I felt a wonderful sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. I'm very pleased to have not only a second book but for that second book to be Now We Will Be Happy. I'd put a lot of pressure on myself to do it again. I wanted to follow my first short story collection with another collection, event though the formula seems to be to follow a collection with a novel. I didn't want to do that. I'm not a baby; I don't like formula.

2. How does Now We Will Be Happy fit in with your larger body of work?

Much (though certainly not all) of my work is about between-ness and marginalization. I often write about characters who navigate the contours of poverty, characters who try not to be erased, so in terms of content and subject matter, Now We Will Be Happy fits in thematically with my first book At-Risk. Both are set in Brooklyn during the 1980s and 1990s. Stylistically, Now We Will Be Happy diverges from the first book. I am doing different things with syntax in the second book. Because At-Risk had adolescent protagonists, I wanted the sentences to represent adolescent voice and speech patterns, so I kept the prose very lean, very short, and direct. I kept the emphasis on dialogue, using that as the place where characters said what needed to be said. I used a lot of declarative sentences–not too many metaphors, no serpentine sentences etc. Now We Will Be Happy has narrators and protagonists of various ages, so I can play more with my stylistic choices and there are more sophisticated sentence patterns; there is more rhythm, more deliberate pacing, more repetition, more music beneath each word. This is in keeping with other stories I have written that have not been published in book form.

3. What project(s) are you working on currently that you are most excited about?

I don't work on projects that don't excite me. 

4. One of our mottoes here is “Writing that moves you.” Where is the best or most memorable place your writing has taken you? This can be an actual destination on a map or a more mental/emotional journey.

The best place my writing takes me is inside. Writing is a pretty selfish act–you closet yourself away from friend and foe and devote all of your attention to paper and pen rather than people, or to keystroke rather than kin. Yet, selfish as it may seem, it's an incredibly selfless and giving act as well. You have to care about people to write about them. You have to give a damn to bother to do this writing thing in the first place, because the more you care, the more you want to accurately capture what you can see but perhaps can't immediately understand, so the only way to begin to understand is to go inside those people you see and meet and wonder about and then to go inside yourself. When I am writing… that is when I feel close to humanity… that is when I feel I'm touching everyone… and they are touching me. 

5. What/who are you reading lately?

I've been reading for a lot of contests this past year–published and unpublished manuscripts. Very hush hush. Very James Bond and secret agent man business. If I tell you…I have to kill you. Pretend we never had this conversation.

6. Do you have any advice for the writers submitting to this year’s book prize?

Write the book you want to read. You know–the one you can read five times and keep discovering something new? Write the book that you keep coming back to, over and again, even though you know it's done–you can't help yourself, you just like it so much! Write the book you can't keep your own hands off. A book is so much more than tens of thousands of words. If you don't want to read it, why should I? Don't write the book your teachers and advisors and workshop friends say will do. Write many more drafts past that. Don't write the book that's just good enough, the one that's adequate and does everything it's supposed to do, but does no more. Write the book that you won't have to apologize for in a few years. Don't write the "It was my first book"/"I was just out of grad school"/"It was my thesis"/"I needed a job" book. Write the book that depletes all of your talent so that you have to go out and get some more before you can write the next book.

Amina Gautier is the author of two short story collections At-Risk, which won the Flannery O’Connor Award (University of Georgia Press, 2011) and Now We Will Be Happy, which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize (University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming 2014). More than eighty of her short stories have been published, appearing in Antioch Review, Callaloo, Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train Stories, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, North American Review, Notre Dame Review, and Southern Review among other places. Her stories have been honored with the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, the Danahy Prize, the Jack Dyer Prize, the Lamar York Prize, the Schlafly Microfiction Award, and the William Richey Award as well as fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, Breadloaf Writer's Conference, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, MacDowell Colony, Prairie Center of the Arts, the Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, Ucross Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, and Writers in the Heartland, as well as artist grants from the Illinois Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.