All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
Every year there are stories to tell about the writers who are part of this crazy-flourishing community, and it’s always a pleasure to do so. This month we feature Lighthouse workshopper (and occasional pinch-hit faculty, current board member, former volunteer coordinator, current volunteer, and the Lighthouser who most looks like Rick Bayless) Gary Schanbacher. You’ve probably met him at one of our events, or sat in on his reading back when Migration Patterns, his PEN/Hemingway finalist collection of short stories, hit the shelves. Maybe you were lucky enough to be in the advanced short story workshop during the years he was submitting the stories to the workshop? I was the lucky one teaching the class, but most people thought Gary was the instructor. Including me.
Last summer at Lit Fest, Gary signed up to meet with an agent from Carlson, Lerner, and Dunow, who matched him with one of the partners. Now, under the guidance of Jennifer Carlson, Gary’s novel, Crossing Purgatory, has been acquired by Pegasus Books. Naturally, we had to get Gary to answer a few questions about the journey. We’ll keep you posted on release dates, parties, and general cheers as they become available.
1. Can you give us the tiniest of previews of your novel, Crossing Purgatory? It sounds biblical in scope.
As you can guess from the title, it’s a lighthearted romantic comedy about….wait….that’s my current project. Crossing Purgatory is a bit more heavyhearted. But in a good way. I hope. In the spring of 1858, following a family tragedy, Thompson Grey abandons his farm in Indiana in the attempt to escape the guilt and remorse that haunt him. His encounters on the trail west force him to assess his values and slowly reawaken his connection with humanity. The story’s overarching themes deal with questions of unbridled ambition, guilt, and the price for atonement. It may be slotted as “historical fiction,” but I’d rather it be considered “fiction set in history,” since it is in essence a novel of relationships rather than events, of human frailties, and the struggle for redemption. At least, that’s my take on it.
2. How’d you manage to make the leap from short stories to a really long story? Please give away all your secrets.
With great trepidation, many false starts, and lots of self-doubt. But, that pretty much sums up my approach to writing in general, be it short form or long. Really, I think many of the same stylistic elements apply–both require tension, urgency, arc, and so on. I think with the long story, I had to learn to let things be, to avoid forcing resolution before its time. I also had to learn to juggle more balls, to weave in subplots and remember to have them eventually converge. The long form also requires a great deal of patience. When I work on a short story, I usually know within a few months if I have anything worth pushing to completion. With the novel, I was years into the project and still had no sense of comfort about it. Plus, it’s tough to maintain a consistent voice and tone for that long a period. Finally, with both short and long fiction, I tend to do a lot of deconstruction of stories I admire (and even those I dislike), and to apply what I come up with to my own writing.
3. Anything about the journey from idea to book contract that you can dangle, carrot-like, in front of the rest of us?
I can’t offer much about the current journey because I’m just beginning it. Questions of editing, layout, even the title are still open. But in general (and regarding my first book) I think of the journey as moving from a unilateral to a collaborative enterprise. At the beginning, we own it all–the idea, the research, the initial drafts. Eventually, we seek feedback (trusted readers, workshops, agents and editors) and ultimately we cede ownership once the story is in the hands of the reader. There is no denying the rush of excitement from seeing your story progress from concept to actual publication. I wish that for everyone. But at the same time, at least for me, there is also a sense of great good fortune. It absolutely baffles me why some stories are chosen by the “industry” and others not. I think it’s our responsibility as writers to concentrate on producing the very best work we can, to practice due diligence in seeking out compatible agents and editors, and then to get back to the writing desk. Luckily, that’s where we own it all.
This is Gary Schanbacher’s second time on our Lit Fest success page–Migration Patterns, which won the Colorado Book Award, was pitched at our first annual Lit Fest in 2006 to Fulcrum, who ultimately published it. This year’s Lit Fest is June 1 to 16, and we truly hope to see you there! More information here, or by downloading this pdf of the brochure.