by Eliot Parker
Short story collection
(Morgan James Fiction, May 26, 2020)
Interview by: Ellen Birkett Morris
Eliot Parker grew up in Appalachia, so it is no surprise that his award winning collection of short stories Snapshots is rooted in the people, places and customs of the region. His stories have a dark, sometimes surreal edge, befitting the author, who also pens mystery novels. Parker, who teaches English at University of Mississippi and has his Doctorate from Murray State University, talks about the creation of this collection and the writers who have shaped his work.
AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you?
“Dialogue should move a story forward.”
PARKER: I have been so fortunate to have so many writers mentor me and offer me advice. Each of these authors helped me improve my understanding of storytelling and how a story has to hold together over the course of the narrative. Amanda Ward helped me understand that writing a novel is essentially like writing one large short story. Bob Johnson and Nancy Jensen helped me understand that the fine details of storytelling are just as important as the large, sweeping themes that are in every work. Jim Grimsley told me that my writing was terrible and challenged me to write better because he knew I could. Julie Hensley gave me one of my favorite pieces of advice: don’t let your dialogue sound like a conversation that would be heard on Days of Our Lives. Dialogue should move a story forward. Otherwise, do something else with the scene/chapter.
AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where do stories come from for you—image, first line, character?
” I am amazed at what ideas for stories can be acquired by reading what people are doing…”
PARKER: For me, stories come from a lot of places. In many instances, the stories comes together as pieces of conversations I hear from other people. Those are often the stories that feature a memorable person doing something crazy or silly and I know that it would be the basis for a great story. I also a purveyor of newspapers, both locally and nationally. I am amazed at what ideas for stories can be acquired by reading what people are doing, both good and bad, in towns and cities all across the country. When I hear one of those stories either told to me or read in a newspaper, if the details stick with me and I can’t stop thinking about it, then I know I have the beginnings of a good story.
AUTHORLINK: How did you know you had a collection? Did you write these with building a collection in mind or did you find you had a set of stories that belonged together?
“I was noticing a theme that had developed in all of the stories…”
PARKER: I learned to write by writing short stories. With short stories, character development and economy of language is so important because there is only so many pages to create a narrative that is engaging and interesting for a reader. Many of the short stories in this collection were written in between the time I was writing novels. These stories were also written when I found myself stuck in a particular place with a longer work in progress. I was able to keep writing but also change my focus to a different set of characters and plot. I never intended for these stories to be a collection. However, as I started having some of them published in literary journals, I was noticing a theme that had developed in all of the stories: people making decisions based on the influences of others. One of my friends in my writing group had served as a beta-reader for many of the stories and she suggested that I put the stories into a collection. So, I did.
AUTHORLINK: What authors and stories influenced your writing of these stories?
PARKER: Flannery O’Conner was the first short story writer I can remember reading and falling in love with every word she wrote. The way she could create tension on so few pages was remarkable and she could create such multi-dimensional, complex characters by putting them in situations where they had to acknowledge or change their actions and behaviors. Ron Rash is another short story writer whose work I love and serves as an inspiration to me. He depicts Appalachia and her people in the raw, rugged, and beautiful ways that make the place so unique and complicated.
AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to develop and shape the collection?
PARKER: I have been working on this collection of stories since 2011. I started working on the first couple of stories when I was in my M.F.A program at Eastern Kentucky University. The others evolved as I was working on novels and other projects. I shared these stories with my writing groups along with some beta readers and they were extremely helpful in providing me feedback and suggestions for improving the stories.
AUTHORLINK: What themes emerged in stories as you wrote? Were you surprised by what came up? Do you think the collection as a whole has a theme?
“The themes of loneliness and social alienation to irrational fears and the importance of friendship are present.”
PARKER: Like its title suggests, I think the book captures the mystery and banality of everyday life. There is a diverse group of characters and the collection has a mixture of the surreal tales of death and fear, while there are stories that also marry the tenderness of family and friendship. I throw these characters into situations where the reader can reflect on what it feels like to be in a vulnerable situation, creating, hopefully, an adventurous read that will engage, entertain, and make readers think. The themes of loneliness and social alienation to irrational fears and the importance of friendship are present. This is a book that documents lives and illustrates what it means to be human.
AUTHORLINK: Talk about the influence of place, namely Appalachia, on these stories.
PARKER: Most of the stories take place in the large cities and small towns in Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Appalachia is one of the most unique and diverse places in the country. Unfortunately for most people, the only exposure they have to Appalachia is how the region is portrayed in the media. Often those portrayals basically focus on the stereotypes of the region. The stories in Snapshots present strong, distinctive characters that the reader can visualize. The stories are filled with the same types of people that inhabit Appalachia, including couples, convicts and cops, good ol’ boys and lovers also populate the book. I also wanted the stories to reflect the places that are so important to Appalachian life and to highlight those places that are unique to Appalachia. From funeral homes to cemeteries, to local baseball games and neighbors’ backyard feuds about dogs, to mysterious truck accidents on rural roads and local prisons, these stories are set in locations that are common, but unique to Appalachia. I grew up in West Virginia and I have lived in southern Ohio as well as Mississippi, so the places and the people of Appalachian culture are always in my life and on my mind.
AUTHORLINK: You are also a novelist and write thrillers. How do you make the transition to short form work? Does your work as a novelist feed your short story work?
“Skilled short story writing requires clear and concise descriptions and character development.”
PARKER: I think they both feed into and feed off of each other. Skilled short story writing requires clear and concise descriptions and character development. Those conventions really help me when I am writing thrillers because the writer has to keep readers engaged and keep the pace taut and tense so they will keep turning the pages and reading. Some of the scenes in my novels have stemmed from an idea I was exploring in one of my short stories. In some cases, the scene in my novels was part of a piece of a short story that I discarded earlier.
AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing these stories and how did you overcome them?
PARKER: The greatest challenge of me was trying to determine if I was really finished. With short stories, there can be a tendency for me to never feel like I told the story as well as I wanted. I often fight my subconscious telling me, “Hey, if you had just one more page, then you could explain….in more detail.” I had to remember that it was okay if the stories did not reveal everything about every character to the reader. Letting a reader interpret words and draw their own conclusions is good. I just had to believe in myself that I had written stories that left the readers with strong impressions.
AUTHORLINK: Which story is your favorite and why?
PARKER: I really do like them all. One of my favorites is Old Lady. It is a story about a woman named Rachel who is grieving the death of her husband Peter and trying to move on with a new man named Mason. When Mason realizes that Rachel is not ready to give herself completely to him, he ends the relationship. Rachel’s chance encounter with a plucky little girl named Caroline changes her thoughts and ideas on what it means to let go and move on. That story has generated more emails and positive comments to me from readers than any other story.
AUTHORLINK: Talk to me about your revision process when working with your editor. What sort of changes did you make? Any tips on revision for apprentice writers?
PARKER: I had two editors, Rogena Mitchell-Jones and Collen Snibson who basically took each story apart, examined the disparate words, and helped me put them back together again. Both Rogena and Colleen have different tastes as readers so getting their feedback and ideas on the stories was extremely helpful. They helped me make sure I was telling the story in a way that was clear, concise, and engaging. They also helped me take out scenes and moments in the stories that slowed down the narrative.
“In terms of revision, I would suggest that once a writer has finished a short or long piece of work, set it aside for a while.”
In terms of revision, I would suggest that once a writer has finished a short or long piece of work, set it aside for a while. It’s good to step away from the work and let the mind relax. Writing is as much about thinking as it is writing, so giving the brain a break is always helpful. That way, when a writer goes back to review the work, they are examining it with fresh eyes and a clear perspective. That will allow the revision process to be more beneficial and successful.
AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?
PARKER: My advice for apprentice writers is read widely, even in genres that might not be your favorite. Fiction writers can learn a lot about craft from reading good non-fiction, for example. I would also recommend joining a local writing group in your community. Having a group to read and give feedback on your work is critically important. If there is not a writing group in your community, then start one. I also recommend going to at least one writing conference each year. The workshops, panel sessions, and chances to network with other authors, publishers, agents, etc. is a great way to stay connected with the writing community and also gain some momentum for your own writing projects.
AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.
PARKER: I just finished a sequel to Code for Murder titled A Final Call that will be released in late 2021. I am also working on another collection of short stories.
Eliot Parker is an award-winning author. His latest collection of short stories, Snapshots won the 2020 PenCraft Award for literary anthology and was a finalist in the short story genre by the American Fiction Awards as well as the Readers Favorite International Book Awards. He is also the author of four novels, most recently A Knife’s Edge, which was an Honorable Mention in Thriller Writing at the London Book Festival, and is the sequel to the award-winning novel Fragile Brilliance. Fragile Brilliance was a finalist for the Southern Book Prize in Thriller Writing and his third novel, Code for Murder, was named a 2018 Finalist for Genre Fiction by American Book Fest.
Eliot is a recipient of the West Virginia Literary Merit Award and he recently received with the Thriller Writing Award by the National Association of Book Editors (NABE) for his novels. In 2019, he received the JUG Award by the West Virginia Writers, Inc. organization for his creative work as well as his role in promoting writers and the literary arts in his home state of West Virginia.
Eliot is the host of the podcast program Now, Appalachia, which profiles authors and publishers living and writing in the Appalachian region and is heard on the Authors on the Air Global Radio Network. The program is the most listened to podcast program on the network. A graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University with his MFA in Creative Writing and Murray State University with his Doctorate in English, he teaches writing at the University of Mississippi and lives in Oxford, Mississippi and Chesapeake, Ohio.