An Interview with Ethan Chatagnier
Interview conducted by Caleigh Camara.
1. Hi Ethan. As a light starter question, what is your typical jumping off point when beginning stories?
It happens in two stages for me. Mental work on a story starts when something sparks an idea and I log it in a notes file on my phone. From there, I tend to roll the idea around in my head and add notes as I discover more about it. That can happen over weeks or months—it’s less a conscious attempt to build the story than just mulling it over while I do dishes or something like that. It’s like planting seeds and seeing what grows. Some are duds and never develop.
The second stage is when an idea has grown sturdy enough to start drafting. That’s usually when I have a serious feel for three important elements of the story. That could mean when I have a conflict, setting, and character that align, or two major characters and a voice. I’m saying three here as an estimate, a trend. When a story feels ripe can vary. But three elements, three dimensions, feels like a good spot. If you start with that, you’re at a lower risk of having a story come out flat.
2. How do you stay motivated during your writing process?
The story itself has to motivate me. I have to be interested in following the thread where it goes, or figuring out how to make it work. I’ve never been able to produce good work by pushing myself to write something that doesn’t have my active interest. One has to be wary of not using this as an excuse to avoid writing. But I have young kids and don’t get to sit down and draft as much as I’d like. I generate and develop ideas more quickly than I can write them, so I haven’t had trouble with the well running dry. If a story is boring for me to write, I have to take that as a sign it will bore the reader. So when I have a story that compels me to keep drafting it, that’s its own energy—its own excitement and motivation.
3. Why are you drawn to fiction over other genres, and what subgenres would you say your works typically fall under?
As an undergraduate, I wrote more poetry than fiction, but somewhere along the way it dropped off for me. I don’t know what happened. I lost the soul for it, I guess. I still love to read some poetry and nonfiction, but fiction grabs me the most. I suppose it has to do with two things: how a good piece of fiction can totally immerse you in the life and thoughts of its characters, and the way the world feels after you’ve read a perfectly crafted narrative turn. Poets and essayists will rightly take issue with those. The same effects can be achieved in those genres. For whatever reason, fiction dunks me harder.
You could class most of my stories as realism, but sometimes a stylized realism. Usually not the brand of hyper-realism that explores characters’ everyday lives: grocery shopping, managing their home lives. Some writers can handle that material beautifully. I can’t. I suppose you could say a lot of it occurs in a world like some TV dramas: everything could happen in real life, but most of it is not likely to happen in an average person’s life.
4. What’s a topic you think isn’t addressed enough in fiction? Have you previously/do you intend to address it?
I’m not sure there is one. There’s a wonderful diversity of stories being told today. A lot of that is just happening in literary magazines and small presses that don’t have a broad readership outside the writing community. The publishing industry is getting better at bringing those stories to a larger audience, albeit much too slowly. But I think the problem is much less with what’s being written than with the pipeline getting it to readers. There are, of course, new topics to be written about, but it’s difficult to see what they are until someone’s done it. The writing seems to invent the topic. Or to notice it in a way that draws it to the surface.
Maybe I have to take some of the above back, because I can think of some things I think need further exploring. As we head into the weird future, I’m concerned about data brokers, these shadowy firms that compile data about our grocery purchases, our online shopping, our search histories, our physical location history, our job and address history, our everything—and then, of course, sell those data profiles, whether they’re accurate or not. In addition to the huge and worrisome implications of this, it just seems so strange. It seems like a part of our world we’ll never be able to make go away, but also like one we’re far from fully understanding. I would like to address that, but I haven’t figured out how yet. The challenge is the scope: fiction works best by looking deeply into a few individuals, while data takes a very broad, impersonal look at just about everyone.
5. During your live reading at Fresno State, you said that you draw inspiration for your stories from listening to the radio. What exactly about the radio stories stick out to you? Can you give us an example?
Yes! It’s usually podcasts, rather than direct AM/FM radio, because that lets me filter for the types of stories that interest me most. Like picking shows from a streaming service rather than being stuck with what’s on network TV at a given time. The important thing is that I’m listening to nonfiction journalism about interesting things. I’ve been glad to see the dictum to “write what you know” mostly thrown in the trash by the writing community over the last few years. I haven’t lived a particularly interesting life, so what good does it do me to limit myself to that material? But there’s a whole industry of radio producers, podcasters, journalists, and documentarians whose full-time jobs are to find and relate interesting true stories about the world. That gives me access to a warehouse full of interesting topics and people.
An example would be a 2012 Fresh Air interview with pianist Jeremy Denk, who had recently released an album of his renditions of music by composer Gyorgy Ligeti, etudes that were intentionally written to be very difficult to play. Listening to it, I thought it would be thematic and resonant to have a character try to play music designed to be impossible. It took me a few years to figure out how to structure the story right, but listening to that interview was the very direct genesis of the story. Print journalism and film documentaries can work just as well, but podcasts are the easiest to fit into my life because I can listen while I’m driving around town or cleaning the house.
6. How has your time in Boston influenced your writing? And on a similar note, does location play a role in the creation of your stories?
That’s an interesting question, because I do feel that it’s influenced my writing, but in some way I can’t readily articulate. I suppose I feel that it’s influenced my life, which has flowed into my writing. It gave me a deep connection to a city. That was a special time for my wife and I. We got engaged there. Our love really matured there. And we felt we were living the way were supposed to. I think there’s a sense of living in relation to your environment in a place like that, that you can also get living in the country but may be harder to get living in the genericized suburbs. I had a little while in a major metro, spent most of my life in the suburbs, and visited my extended family’s cattle ranch a lot growing up, so that gives me a starting point for urban, rural, or suburban spaces. A chance, but not an assurance, of getting it right.
Location often plays a strong role in my stories, but not in the way of some writers who delve deeper and deeper into the same place in all their work. I haven’t had such a life-defining relation to a place. You can tell that specific place is important to those writers. My stories range around a bit. I try to establish a specific, complex setting, but it’s the characters who need to have a relationship with that setting, not necessarily me.
7. How do you balance writing with your daily life?
As best as I can, which is not always very well. My kids are four and seven, and keeping up with them and the household tends to fill my available time. When they were babies and toddlers, I was able to refine my process into something that would work with those constraints. That’s when I began developing and pre-drafting stories in my phone notes, a sort of mise en place for writing that I could manage to do while also getting other things done. In that way I was able to keep moving forward even when I didn’t seem to have the time to. Bit by bit, I was able to write enough stories to fill a short story collection.
8. In you book, Warnings From the Future, which story was the most difficult for you to write? Which one were you most passionate about? Why?
From a technical perspective, “The Unplayable Etudes” was the most difficult to write. I kept trying to come at the premise in a straightforward structure, but it didn’t have any energy. After a few years of failed attempts, I had a lot of notes in my phone about different aspects of the protagonist’s life, but they were separated into categories or fragments, and it took me a long time to realize that her life was broken into fragments, and the fragments were the right form.
From an emotional perspective, “The Law of Threes” and “Dentists” were the most difficult. “The Law of Threes” is about paralysis/inaction when confronted with racial injustice. “Dentists” is about not opening your eyes to dangerous political situations until it might be too late. Neither story is biographical, but they both draw from things I consider personal failings. They are, largely, self-indictments. Not the most pleasant things for me to write or read, but I hope they can do something to help others recognize when they share those characteristics.
9. Fresno is known more for its poets, but you are a fiction writer. How do you make yourself heard among a crowd of poets?
Well, I can’t say I deserve to be heard over Phil Levine and Juan Felipe Herrera, or the newer generation of poets like Mai Der Vang, Brynn Saito, Steven Sanchez, Ron Dzerigian, and so many others. But I don’t think it’s actually a conflict. I spent many years feeling separate from the Fresno writing community because I hadn’t gone through the MFA program here, as so many local writers have. But at soon as I started making attempts to connect with that community, I was welcomed with open arms, and by the poets just as much as the fiction writers. To try to be be heard, I’ll just do the same thing they’re doing: try to do good work, and try to get it out there.
I should also say this has been a really exciting year for the fiction scene in Fresno, with the addition of two really incredible fiction writers, Venita Blackburn and Joseph Cassara, to the Fresno State faculty, and new novels or novellas from writers like Elizabeth Schulte Martin, Tanya Nichols, and Monique Quintana. There’s a lot going on and a lot to look forward to.
10. What would you have me ask that no one else has?
Well, the questions I like best are the ones that I don’t have a ready answer for. One of those for me is “What do you hope to achieve by writing fiction?” If it were just to entertain people, I’d be trying to write more entertaining work. Yet I tend to be skeptical of claims about literature shaking empires and drafting legislation. Perhaps it can sometimes. I don’t think it does often. Mostly it’s read by small audiences, in the hopes that it will mean something to them. The fiction I’ve read has meant something to me. It’s shaped me, comforted me. It’s created unique emotions in me that I could not have felt otherwise. So I guess I hope the writing will mean something to someone else the way it has meant something to me. “Mean something” is a vague enough phrase; it’s hard to say what that phrase itself means. I don’t know what whalesong means either, but I’m glad it’s out there, floating through the ocean. That’s sort of how it feels. I’ve heard beautiful songs coming from untraceable places. They got stuck inside me, and now I try to sing them back.
Ethan Chatagnier is the author of Warnings from the Future, a short story collection from Acre Books. His stories have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and been published in Glimmer Train, New England Review, Georgia Review, and other journals. He is a graduate of Fresno State and Emerson College, and now lives in Fresno, California, with his family. To learn more about him, visit his website here.