Midge Raymond interviewed by Nicole Vollrath
It changed some aspects of my life, but others remained exactly the same. I’ve found that having a book helps pave the way for getting into bookstores and conferences to connect with readers and with other writers. I’m now part of a large group of writers who are based mostly in the Pacific Northwest and who each have at least one book published. We span many genres—poetry, essays, narrative nonfiction, short stories, novels, memoir, even photography. We share our experiences, offer one another advice, and collaborate on events to help promote our books. Connecting with these women has been a great gift.
As a short story writer, it’s been great to get together with poets because we do a lot of “hand selling,” in which we meet our readers one at a time. Novels are very accessible to most readers, but I’ve learned that a lot of people are still discovering the short story. People will say, “This is the first short story collection I’ve ever read, and now I’ll have to find more.” So poets and short story writers are used to thinking of creative ways to sell what we write.
And then what’s remained the same is the fact that, like all writers, published or not, I still have to face the blank page—and being published doesn’t make that any easier!
Why did you decide to enter a contest in order to get the collection published?
The market for short stories is a challenging one. Over the years, I’ve spoken with many agents about my stories, and every one of them has asked, “Where’s your novel?” With big publishers, you usually need a novel completed or in the works in order to sell a short story collection. I discovered that independent presses are good options for short story writers, so when the collection took shape and felt finished, I sent it in.
One advantage is that in a contest, manuscripts are judged blindly. No one judging the work knows who you are or cares what your platform is. They just look at what’s on the page. And blind judging can help if you aren’t established in the marketplace.
Had you published any of the stories as stand-alone pieces?
Yes, about two-thirds of the stories had been previously published.
Have you ever had your work rejected?
I can’t even count the ways! There are too many. Over the years, I’ve had a few stories published by the first or second editor I sent them to, but this is rare. And I’ve found that it’s almost more fun to have a story picked up after it had suffered many rejections. I had one story, “Water Children,” published in Crab Orchard Review after about 50 rejections. When I have a story rejected, I’ll usually take a look at it and see what it might need in terms of revision—but every time this one came back, I still liked it, so I just kept sending it out.
Getting that piece published was great because I believed in the story. It proved to me that if you feel a piece is good, you just have to find the right editor. Sometimes when a piece is rejected, there’s nothing wrong with the story—it’s just not the right fit. Taste can be so subjective. But I think accepting rejection does get easier—and you have to get used to it if you’re going to be a writer.
When did you write your first story?
I can’t remember exactly, but it was in the late 1990s, and I published my first story in 1999. And then it wasn’t until 2009, ten years later, that my first book came out. Forgetting English actually started as a novel that didn’t quite make it. I always loved the title for conveying the experience of going somewhere foreign and losing yourself. Around 2003, when I finished the short story version of “Forgetting English,” I still loved the title for a book. So whenever I wrote a story about characters discovering things about themselves that hadn’t been accessible to them on their home turf, I put it aside, and eventually I had a finished collection.
Are you working on a second collection?
Yes, I’m working on new stories, and I’m also working on a novel. I like having that balance. If I’m stuck on the novel, I can work on a story, and vice versa. Also, writing a novel is such a long haul that at least with a short story, I can finish something before another year goes by.
How do you know when a story is finished?
Sometimes I don’t. I’ve learned to put a story away for a while and come back to it with fresh eyes to see if it works. If I sense a story needs to spend some time alone in its room, then I know it’s not done, that I need some time away from it. That can take from a week or two to several months.
I did have one story that rattled around in my brain for about two years. One day I finally sat down and wrote it. I liked it right away, put it away for a week, and I still liked it. It got published right away. I feel it sort of wrote itself in my subconscious. I think that can happen if you are in the habit of thinking like a writer.
What kind of education do you have in creative writing?
I don’t have an MFA, but I went to graduate school for journalism and communication with a concentration in literary journalism. My assignments were long narrative pieces in the tradition of Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote. I wrote journalistic pieces in which I would spend a long time with someone, both interviewing as well as simply observing, and then write detailed articles. Though it was all nonfiction, I was learning how to listen to people, to pay attention to detail, and how to wrap my head around a story. Later, with a day job and only evenings and weekends to write, I lacked the time and energy to do the journalistic legwork, so I started making things up. I sort of taught myself to put those skills into a fictional framework.
Early on as a writer, I was terrified of dialogue. My first published story did not contain any dialogue—not a single word! I was so insecure about it. But with my journalism background and in my job, I was always interviewing people—and I realized that I’d actually learned a lot about the way people talked. With practice, I got better and more confident when I added dialogue to my stories.
Whose work do you envy and why?
One writer I really admire is Lionel Shriver, who wrote the novel We Need to Talk about Kevin, among many others. I read it and loved it even before it won the Orange Prize—it was a book that really succeeded through word of mouth at first. What I like about her is that she tackles risky subjects and goes all out. I would love to be as risky, bold, and courageous in my work.
What piece of advice do you carry with you?
I don’t have a snappy, eloquent way to say it, but the most important thing about being a writer is to keep going and stick with it. Getting published is tough, and in this economy it seems to be getting even tougher, but because writing is something I love, I tell myself to just stick with it.
That advice seems to have paid off for you, Midge.
It has! It was ten years from first short story to first book. That’s a really long time. If you have goals as a writer, there’s so much out there to distract and discourage you. I’ve seen so many talented writers give up. And I feel that if they hadn’t thrown in the towel, they’d have been published by now and doing so well. I define success as meeting your own writing goals and producing work you’re happy with, and you need perseverance to succeed.
Midge Raymond’s short-story collection, Forgetting English, received the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, American Literary Review, Indiana Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, the Los Angeles Times magazine, and many other publications. Her work has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and received an Artist Trust/Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship.
Midge taught communication writing at Boston University for six years, and she has taught creative writing at Boston’s Grub Street Writers and Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. While living in Southern California, she held writing workshops and seminars at San Diego Writers, Ink, where she also served as vice president of the board of directors.