Lorraine M. Lopez lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where she teaches at Vanderbilt University. Her awards include the Independent Publisher Book Award for Multicultural Fiction, the Paterson Prize for Fiction, the International Latino Book Award for Short Stories, and the inaugural Miguel Marmol Prize for Fiction. She has written a book for young adults, Call Me Henri and her latest novel is The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters, which was a Los Compadres/ Borders selection.

Short Story Collections

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Homicide Survivors Picnic
(Bkmk Press, 2009)

reviewed by A J Kirby

Soy La Avon Lady

Interview with Lorraine M. Lopez

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Lorraine M. Lopez:  I spent approximately three or four years on the collection, writing sporadically while teaching full time, and concentrating to finish the bulk of the stories when I was on academic leave in 2006. The first story I finished and published ended up being the title story, Homicide Survivors Picnic. That was written in 2005 and it came out in 2006 in The Alaska Quarterly Review. Generally speaking, it takes me from one to three months to draft a story and revise it to the point that I feel comfortable sending it out for publication.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

LL: It’s an odd and inverted process, to me, but the university where I teach only grants leave if you write a proposal wherein you describe the project you intend to develop. This is counter to my process, in which I want to find out where the writing will take me. In this case, I wrote a proposal describing this project and calling it Human Services. I’d planned a collection of stories that would show characters engaged in helping others, sometimes to obscure their private struggles. So I did have a collection in mind when applying for leave, and though I changed the title, I pretty much wrote the collection I proposed I would write.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

LL: This is a great question. Selecting and arranging stories is an intentional and deliberate process, but it has to be done in such a way that the collection feels cohesive, even seamless. When I chose and arranged these stories, I wanted the separate narratives to speak to one another, to augment, deepen, counter, and complicate the conversation taking place in the collection as a whole. Some decisions were easy, such as placing Women Speak after Human Services. At the end of Human Services, Rita steps up to confront her ex-husband, to evict him from her home and her thoughts in an official and permanent way. In Women Speak, the narrator laments the triviality of what her women students say when they finally seize the podium to engage in public discourse. For me, these two stories were like jigsaw pieces that snapped together. And of course, I wanted the collection book-ended by the Lydia and Roxanne stories in order to capture the passage of time that allows for the character changes that transpire from the first of the two stories to the next. I was also interested in varying voices, characters, and perspectives when I arranged the stories, so this concern guided my decision-making. In one case, I had to leave out a story that grew into my forthcoming novel because my contract for the book prohibited pre-publication, and that resulted in more juggling. Ultimately, I replaced that story with the Imam of Auburn, a story I felt less confident about, but it turned out that this particular narrative is a favorite of a Spanish-speaking writer whom I admire—Teresa de la Caridad Dovalpage—and she has since contacted me about translating the piece, so I’m glad I included it.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

LL: I once heard someone say that a short story is closer to a poem than it is to a novel, and that makes sense to me, to my experience of the genre. The story, like a poem, is a self-contained unit, complete with its volta, or that turning point at which the reader’s thinking about the events and the characters becomes charged with new awareness or recognition, and I’m not talking about an epiphanic moment necessarily, but I am referring to that scalp-tightening moment, that frisson that occurs when one is moved powerfully and emotionally by a work of visual art or music. Great short stories can do this. A friend of mine who is a librarian has a simpler and handier definition. She says a short story consists of interesting people doing things, and for me, that works, too.

TSR: Do you have a reader in mind when you write stories?

LL: Yes, I have exactly one reader in mind and I always write to satisfy that particular reader. I am that reader. I am the only reader whose tastes I can be sure about, and I am the only reader I want to satisfy, even please. As such, I try to draft the kind of stories that I like best. Of course when I’m editing, I will give some thought to my peer readers, remembering that one might take issue with repeated words in close proximity and another is always on my case about prepositional pile-ups, so I edit with these readers in mind, but I compose my stories for me.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your collection, anything at all?

LL: I would ask which stories that reader remembers best from the collection and why. Which details remain in that reader’s thoughts after the book has been closed? I’m curious about long-term versus short-term memories and reading. It’s interesting, for example, that readers tend to remember first lines of books and stories, over last lines, though the latter are typically more resonant and moving.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

LL: When my first book was released, it unnerved me a bit to meet readers who knew more about me—not because my fiction is autobiographical, but because it conveys my particular way of thinking and looking at the world—than I knew about them. It felt rude of me not to have this information in conversation with my readers, but gradually I grew used to this, and now I’m genuinely thrilled that people buy and read my books. In fact, I feel concern and responsibility to people who buy my books, and I try to protect them by arguing against misleading marketing strategies. Now that I am with a major press, I don’t always have the clout to achieve this, but I’d like the people who buy my books to know that I’m trying.

TSR: What are you working on now?

LL: I have a novel forthcoming in spring of 2011 from Hachette/Grand Central that’s titled Realm of the Hungry Spirits, and The Other Latin@, a collection of essays on Latino identity and writing that I co-edited with Blas Falconer is due in fall of 2011 from the University of Arizona Press. In the meantime, I’m on academic leave to write a novel-in-stories that is inspired by Anton Chekhov’s unforgettable narrative titled The Darling, a piece that has haunted me since I first read it over thirty years ago.

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

LL: Since the semester has ended and I am no longer reading student work or texts to keep up with what I’m teaching, I have been reading short story collections ravenously and rapturously. In the last few weeks, I read Ha Jin’s Falling, Antonya Nelson’s Nothing Right, and reread Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. I usually read two books at a time because I live in a house with two stories, so I have the book that I’m reading when I’m downstairs and another for upstairs. Right now, I’m reading Antonya Nelson’s Some Fun and the marvelous, even miraculous Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. I have What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg and Dogfight and Other Stories by Michael Knight on order, but I’m nervous they might not arrive when I finish the books I’m reading right now and I will have to endure a day or so without new short stories to read.
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