On Structure and Revision: An Interview with Garnett Kilberg Cohen

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Swarm to GloryGarnett Kilberg Cohen has published two previous collections of short stories, Lost WomenBanished Souls (U of Missouri Press) and How We Move the Air (Mayapple Press). Her fiction has garnered many awards, including the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize and a Special Mention from the Pushcart Prize. She is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago, where she directs the Nonfiction BA Program.

Christine Sneed describes Cohen’s stories as “often suspenseful, always beautifully written, subtle, and witty.” She adds that Cohen “shows us the world we inhabit with startling clarity, beauty, and memorable strangeness.” Cohen explores the theme of endings–whether superficial or monumental–in her most recent short story collection Swarm to Glory (Wiseblood Books). One of the stories, “Bad News,” won the Lawrence Foundation Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review in 2003. I ask Cohen about the process involved in writing and revising “Bad News” in this e-mail interview.

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The structure in “Bad News” is particularly interesting. The phone conversation with the mother triggers the narrator’s recollections of events, where most of the story unfolds. How did you come up with it?

I read a line saying something about most conversations taking place primarily in the minds of those engaged in the conversation.  I thought the observation was astute, and I wanted to write something with a structure that played with this idea. I’ve had countless conversations where I haven’t said even a quarter of what I’ve thought—some of these unspoken musings are because the mind wanders and plays association games, but others are because as thoughtful, social beings, we are always editing ourselves, holding back items that we’re not brave enough to say, or might hurt the other person’s feelings or reveal too much about ourselves.

I think this is one of the reasons past conversations are so often remembered differently by the speakers. While their verbal conversation was taking place, two cerebral conversations were running along beside it. The speakers remember what they held back or what they thought the other person meant as well as what was actually said.

Did you start off with the structure in mind or discover it along the way?

In the case of “Bad News,” I believe I started with a hazy idea of the structure and with the line, “I have some bad news.” (My own mother often called me with bad news.) If recollection serves me correctly, I think I was only going to have the mother’s lines spoken (and thus, italicized and set apart) and have all of the daughter’s conversation in her head while her mother monologued. I had seen a story done in a similar way—a person listening to a speaker in a ceremony. But that wasn’t working with my story; they both had to be speaking in order for it to seem natural and to convey the relationship between mother and daughter.

All but two or three of the stories in Swarm to Glory have some elements of the autobiographical in them. I would say that “Bad News” has the most—of course, all switched around and fictionalized and placed in different contexts. But simply fictionalizing many of the “facts” is rarely enough to keep me interested. With some stories, it is the language or situational invention that transforms the real into art. With “Bad News” it was the structure. When one has been writing for a long time, it is important to find new methods for generating material and/or approaching that material. I have tried both discovering the structure as the story develops and beginning with a structure and trying to fill it.

Has your writing process changed since you wrote “Bad News”?

“Bad News” is one of the older stories in the book. I wrote it a little over 10 years ago and it was accepted by MQR almost immediately afterwards and appeared in the summer 2003 issue.  I took a break from focusing on fiction and have been writing more nonfiction than fiction over the last 5-6 years (see my piece, “Toledo, 124 Miles” in MQR in 2010). I think shaking it up that way—shifting genres–has actually made my fiction more experimental in the last year or two in terms of form & structure. Most of the stories in Swarm are somewhat traditional in structure—not so with much of the fiction and nonfiction I’ve been writing lately.

Photo: Lynn Sloan

Photo: Lynn Sloan

Let’s talk about revision. Where did you make the most changes from first draft to MQR publication?

My revision process is so recursive—back and forth as I’m writing—that it is not easy to pinpoint when and where I made changes. Usually when I am well into a story and feeling inspired, I go into a kind of  manic state where I might change the ending in a way that makes me change something in the beginning which prompts me to read through the story again, thus inspiring the creation of new scenes, new characters, or changes in language or added imagery. I jump all over in a way that does not lend itself to saving completed drafts of various versions. I usually only have one copy that I keep working and reworking. That said, I do keep multiple drafts of some pieces, generally longer ones or book manuscripts, where I need to see how they have changed. And I also have some drafts of shorter pieces that I have taken to my writing group (all accomplished writers), so I do know how those drafts have changed from when they were critiqued to when they made it into print.  I did not save earlier drafts of “Bad News,” though I do remember that in my first version, the narrator was thinking in the opening about all the things she had long ago lost count of, such as how many hamburgers she had eaten; someone in the group suggested I change the items into things that were more organic and germane to the story. So I changed it to her not being able to count all the people she had kissed.

Did you make any more revisions for your short story collection? Were there still changes you wanted to make?

Most of the final revisions I made in Swarm to Glory were concerned with making the stories work in unison in one collection. I wanted to be sure there was cohesion but not so much similarity that the collection felt repetitive. The editor and I both caught errors—he noticed a card game in which four players are needed but I had only two characters playing, so we changed the game—but no real sweeping changes were made, as most of the stories had been published individually in journals before they were pulled together into a collection. The most fun I had once the collection was accepted by Wise Blood Books was working with the publisher, editor, and designer on the cover. I offered some suggestions and, then, the designer conceptualized them and changed them according to my suggestions. Once the drawing was complete, we all viewed various color combinations. I love the image on my prior collection, How We Move the Air, taken from a work by the wonderful writer and artist Audrey Niffenegger, but I felt most involved in creating this cover, every step of the way.

Once a book is in print, there are always things I would change—the process could be endless. Some are small errors. In Swarm to Glory, I pulled one story from the collection right before publication because it did not seem to fit as well as the others and I thought it might work better in a new collection I’m writing. But when the book came out I realized that the story had actually provided a nice buffer for two stories that I feel have main characters that are too similar. But, I realize, there will always be something!

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