So You Wanna Win a Book Prize? with Bryn Chancellor

by Ian Rogers

Filed under: Blog |

In lieu of our usual Contributor Spotlight posts, we’re reviving our series “So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?” in the run-up to the Prairie Schooner Book Prize deadline (March 15—submit now!). Bryn Chancellor won the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize for her short story collection, When Are You Coming Home?  She received news of her award while teaching at the Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference, and had to keep checking her recent calls to make sure she “hadn’t concocted the whole thing while on a high from excessive consumption of dining-hall soft serve cones.”

PRAIRIE SCHOONER: You've given the characters in When Are You Coming Home? some pretty memorable traits—I especially enjoyed the locksmith who keeps copies of his clients' keys. How do these secrets help us better understand the characters?

BRYN CHANCELLOR: For me, a story secret adds depth and complexity to a character, lets us in on something private. In the case of the locksmith, when I realized he’d been keeping those keys—and could use them—it opened up the plot for me to write the rest of the story. In taking those keys, and in the actions that follow, he’s acting out of character; he’s not usually a person who would do these things. That, I hope, makes us worry, not only about what he’s doing, but why he’s doing it.

PS: I also enjoyed the tormented high school boy with the incognito wrestling career—his dilemma felt very real.

BC: He also is acting out of character. His costume lets him behave in ways that he doesn’t in normal life, and that contrast should reveal more about his unexpressed desires, motivations, and frustrations. We also should wonder whether his true self will be discovered.

PS: Yes, that wondering makes us want to read on, to find the answer.  Where do your ideas for these conflicts come from?

BC: For me, the seeds of ideas are scattered everywhere. “Water at Midnight” started with me looking out of a window in my central Phoenix home in the middle of the night and seeing an irrigation worker in my fenced back yard. For “Any Sign of Light,” I stole the protagonist’s pacemaker detail from a young man I met in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the fire from a real factory fire that had blanketed Phoenix in smoke one night; I also once found a dead bird in the grille of my car. In “When Are You Coming Home?” the protagonist’s wife is learning to swim, and I drew details from watching my mother-in-law take lessons (and from having taught lessons myself back in the day).

Just yesterday at the eye doctor, I pressed my face into the metal contraption as the young assistant spun and clicked the dials. Her face was close enough that I could see the faint fuzz on her lip, her hair tightly drawn back at the temples, and I started making mental notes that may show up somewhere down the line.  Something in those early sparks compels me to dig deeper, to figure out the stories that will catch fire—or take root. How many metaphors can I mix here?

PS: I also notice a strong sense of place in your work.  What draws you to the locations you write about?

BC: I’m compelled by the American West, particularly California, where I was born, and Arizona, where I was raised. I’ve lived in the American South now for about ten years, and I haven’t yet been able to set any stories here. I’ve tried. Personally, I’m quite mesmerized by the landscape—leafy trees! rain!—but I can’t get inside it the way that I can with the territory that I moved around in for thirty-four years. I keep going back there in my fiction, to see what else I can discover.

Perhaps oddly, I’ve never been able to write about my hometown of Sedona, Arizona, which millions know as a tourist destination. I wrote an entire novel set there, and that book’s in a drawer. Even all these years removed from it, I’m still too close to make it into something else—that is to say, fiction. I just can’t find the right way to write about it. It’s too big, too powerful and unwieldy for me.

PS: What is one moment in your creative development that's been instrumental to you as a writer?

BC: Today I’m leaning toward the moment when I started to explore the range of narrative distance, particularly in the third-person point of view. In graduate school, my professor Nancy Reisman gave us Debra Spark’s essay “Stand Back,” which argues on behalf of the counterintuitive intimacy of a removed narrative distance. That was a revelation to me. Not every story demands such distance, of course, but I’ve found it so helpful in opening up my stories. Even in my lone first-person piece, the narrator is telling a story retrospectively, a distance that allowed me to find the emotional resonance.

PS: As a reader, what aspects of a story or novel never fail to draw you in?

BC: I’m most drawn to works that have deeply complex, original characters in whom I’m absolutely invested. My mantra is “Come on, break my heart.” I want to feel something at the end, to go through the fire. If I’m weeping at 3 a.m. when I finally close the cover, success!

PS: Is there anything in fiction that you're inevitably turned off by?

BC: I try to be an open reader, so it takes a fair amount to turn me off.  I remember once Ron Carlson talking in class about some story, and he said, “Yes, it’s very clever.” Oh boy. Clever. I knew I never, ever wanted anyone to say that about my stories. I don’t know how exactly to define “clever” in that sense. Style over substance, I suppose. I don’t mean experimental fiction, pieces that push voice or point of view or language or structure. Just when the idea or situation supersedes everything else.

PS: Do you have any odd or esoteric writing habits you'd like to share?

BC: When I sit down to write, I often have difficulty getting settled, so a habit I’ve acquired is that I listen to the same albums, over and over. It’s like a Pavlovian thing; when I turn the music on, I start to transition from the distracting world of my office and into the world of the story.

PS: What are you working on now?

BC: I just finished—I say that now—a revision of the novel I’ve been working on for the past few years. If anyone’s counting, that’s draft 7.

Bryn Chancellor received the 2014 Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction for her short story collection, When Are You Coming Home? Her fiction has appeared in Gulf Coast, Blackbird, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Phoebe, and elsewhere. In 2014, she was selected as the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange winner in fiction, and she received a Literary Arts Fellowship from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. Previous honors include a fellowship and a project grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences. A graduate of Vanderbilt University's MFA program, she is an assistant professor at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. She is married to the artist Timothy Winkler.

Do you have a fiction or poetry manuscript to submit? Prairie Schooner’s annual book prize contest remains open to submissions through March 15. Find out more information about the prize, as well as about more of our past winners, on our website. Or, if you already know you're ready, submit here.