Beau Lee Gambold, recipient of the 2020 Haunted Waters Press Award for Fiction for his short story Superpositioning, talks to us about his writing process, the joys and challenges of writing short fiction, and what’s next for him as a writer. Superpositioning is featured in the 2020 issue of From the Depths. Enjoy!
Hello! First, I want to say how honored I am that my story was selected for this prize, and also how much I appreciate the time, thought, and energy that so obviously goes into From the Depths. It’s a beautiful journal, and a wonderful home for new writing—I’m proud and grateful to be included in these pages.
As for my writing workday, it changes based on the other circumstances in my life. Things like jobs, school, living situations, pandemics. I’ve done a handful of different things for money since deciding to become a writer, but I’ve also been able to secure a few periods where I got to focus solely on writing. Once I saved up money, quit my job, and moved to Nicaragua for about half a year. I wrote on beaches and in small towns. I was up and at it before sunrise, wrote till early afternoon, ate, exercised, took a nap, then wrote again till dinner. My last year of grad school, I didn’t have classes, so I organized my time about the same. And my wife and I spent a year house-sitting in Connecticut—same.
So, I love writing, and I think I have a slightly higher capacity than most to just write all day for weeks at a time, given the chance. But much more often, I’ll have to take some kind of work, and what I’ve found in those situations is that I need to prioritize writing, which means I should do it before work, while I’m still fresh, even if that means being up a little earlier than I’d like. It’s nice to be able to write for at least three hours, but often I’ll settle for two. And I always try to stop at a point where I know what’s coming next, which makes it a lot easier to start again the next day. That’s old advice, but I find that it works well.
Describe your editing process.
I almost always start on paper, and I don’t sweat it if I can’t find the right word in a first draft since the next time I read through, the word will just come. Other than that, my process varies. I had a piece of flash that I love and that I wrote in a couple hours and have barely changed a word. Superpositioning went through upwards of six drafts when I first conceived of it in early 2016. I knew I liked the idea, so it stayed with me, but I also knew the story wasn’t quite right or finished. When I finally returned to it this spring, I immediately knew what to do and had it ready to submit in a week or so. Probably the time away served me well, but I’m also just a better writer now than I was in 2016—in a way, the story was waiting for me to be good enough to write it. Also, as far as editing goes, my wife is a theater director and former critic and possibly one of the best first readers in America. So that’s nice.
What I’d surmise is that if you put enough heart and energy into a piece, you can turn it into something worth reading, even if it isn’t what you initially envisioned, which it rarely is anyways. Just learn to listen to the story rather than trying to jam it into something it isn’t.
—Beau Lee Gambold
What do you hope readers take away from Superpositioning?
There’s a lot that I hope readers take from Superpositioning, but … I’m far from the first to shy away from saying what exactly that is—I don’t want my own intentions to get in the way of what a reader might find in a story. What I will say is that I hope they enjoy it, and also that I intend for all of my writing to model or at least to hold conversation with the ideal of a life lived in thoughtfulness and empathy. I am also avowedly (as well as just temperamentally predisposed to being) anti-anti-intellectual, meaning I’m not afraid to ask a reader to think, and in fact, I hope to encourage them to do so. Fiction has this unique ability to shift experience at a slight angle, and this can help us see and engage with life differently, possibly more fully. I think that’s always at least part of the goal with good fiction.
You are currently seeking publication of your first novel. What advice do you have for writers tackling a novel-length project for the first time?
I’m not sure that I have advice so much as a few observations. First is that writing is like any other job, in that you gain skills as you work at it, and you get better over time. Second is that that first thing doesn’t always prove true — some people sit down and write something excellent, first try, but then can never do it again. Everyone’s experience is different.
For my part, I spent years writing a novel that I have since locked away forever. It was a bad novel. But, through that experience, I taught myself to write well enough that I could then turn out a few short stories that were good enough to get me into grad school. In grad school, I wrote another novel which I trashed shortly after graduating and started almost completely over. And it’s the rewritten version of that novel (which I’m not only satisfied with, but absolutely love, finally) that I’m currently at work trying to get into the world. So it can be a long haul. I guess my one big piece of advice is to make sure, during this period of becoming, that you aren’t writing instead of living. If you don’t find a balance, you might burn out, but you also might just feel like you’ve lost a year or two of your life. Even if you love writing, try to make sure it isn’t the only thing you love about your days.
Do you have any tips to give a writer who is trying to decide if their idea is right for a short story or if it is a longer format project?
Here I have straightforward advice: don’t spend too much time trying to decide a thing like that. Just get to work and the idea will eventually tell you what it wants to be. I know people who spend so much time deliberating and suffering over what to write that they get very little work done. What I’d surmise is that if you put enough heart and energy into a piece, you can turn it into something worth reading, even if it isn’t what you initially envisioned, which it rarely is anyways. Just learn to listen to the story rather than trying to jam it into something it isn’t.
What joys and challenges do you find in writing short fiction?
Short fiction is lapidary; long fiction is like cartography. I love them both, but there’s an element of perfection in a good short story that can really give me the shivers (the good shivers). And I think that potential for perfection is both the joy and the challenge; figuring out how to make everything fit just right, and what’s missing, and what’s extra—it’s part migraine, part excellent puzzle. I love it.
How much of yourself do you allow to flow into your characters?
I think my experiences show up in my stories more than my personality—in rereading Superpositioning, I kept finding little lines or bits of events that were cribbed from my own life. But often I reacted to those situations differently. And works of fiction have to find their specific tone, while a person is diverse. I think what I do is work with a story until I know what the tone is and am certain that the story itself is something I want to put into the world. At that point, I have a stronger sense of what the people in it are like, and then I have them flow into me so that I can write them, rather than allowing myself to flow into them. So, in the end, I’d say I exist in the story more than in any of the individual characters, if that makes sense.
Is there a particular piece of writing or an author you feel has influenced you most as a writer?
I don’t think I have a most; there’s a whole pantheon of folks that I read and study for inspiration. To name a few, though: Baldwin, Forster, and Cheever are all masters of style as well as of big-heartedness. Lorrie Moore is my (as well as many others) reigning monarch of injecting humor into any situation. Borges and Barthelme are the old masters of experimental form (Superpositioning owes a pretty big debt to Borges’ The South), and Carmen Maria Machado is probably the current master. Ray Bradbury’s often overlooked because we all read him in middle school, but his conceits are amazing. Vonnegut taught me about continuity of theme. And I found Richard Powers too late in the day to really claim his influence, but I will say that when I read The Overstory, I felt like, “Here’s somebody who’s doing what I’m doing.” At least, what I’m trying to be doing.
But I also like to push back against the idea that writing is only influenced by other writing — I think that who I am and how I write is just as much a product of growing up with Jon Stewart and Bill Watterson, and how much I listened to The Mountain Goats or Springsteen, or the fact that I studied karate and moved a ton. Even waiting tables changes the way you speak and relate to people. It’s all important. It’s all there.
This year (2020) did not go as planned for many people, and we understand you are no exception. However, you pivoted your plans in a really inspiring way. Can you tell us a little about how you made the most of 2020?
Ha, yes — what a year! I was amongst those who had a wedding planned. Which, we still got married, but we postponed the celebration until a point when asking people to gather won’t be asking them to put themselves at risk. And, in lieu of the wedding, my partner Sara and I decided to bicycle across America, essentially replacing the one grand life event with another.
At first, we thought of it as a kind of wild honeymoon, as well as an ultimate experiment in social distancing, since we would be camping and staying out-of-doors and often riding through vast rural countryside. But towards the end of Missouri (we started in Virginia), the growing existential weight of the election, the pandemic, and the forest fires we were headed towards—essentially the smoky, fraught air of 2020 in America—drove us to continually question if there wasn’t a way to put our trip to some use. We deliberated and ultimately decided to turn our ride into a fundraiser, and we were able to raise over $4,000 for get-out-the-vote efforts in swing states.
For a long while now, I’ve considered writing as what I have to contribute to the world, but this year seemed to demand something more direct, more immediate; if we weren’t actively fighting against 2020, then it would’ve been something we merely survived. But, also, we survived! Both literally and figuratively, because the bike trip did get pretty rough there toward the end: we were late in the season and hit rain and snow, winds with gusts up to 80 miles per hour, and days in a row that didn’t come up above freezing. It was an adventure, ya’ll. If anyone’s interested, we recorded it pretty thoroughly on our blog, gamboldren.com.
What comes next for you as a writer?
So, I’ve been writing for a long time but have only recently passed the threshold where I’m really proud of the work I’m producing. Because I haven’t felt like the writing was excellent, I haven’t sent out many submissions, and so I currently have few publishing credits. But at this point, I have a novel and a handful of stories that are legitimately good, and so my writing life for the next stretch will be split between writing and submitting. And, since it takes publishing credits to get publishing credits, I once again want to say Thank You! I’m certain this award and your support will be a huge boon in the next steps of this whole writing endeavor. Wish me luck, and hopefully, you’ll see more of my writing around, and hopefully sooner than later!
Lightning Round with
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beau Lee Gambold is a writer based in Charlottesville, VA, though he was born in Texas and raised mostly in Mississippi. Beau worked for the first Obama campaign, served in the Peace Corps in Thailand, and was once the number two heavyweight karate fighter in the US. He received his MFA from Columbia in 2018, and is in the late drafts of his first novel.
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