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Photo Credit: Cristiana Salgado

  Small Town Living
   An Interview with Eric Shade

  by Pam Kingsbury

 
 

 

Eric Shade, a 2003 winner of the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction, likes small towns. In Eyesores, his first collection, he writes about the changing lifestyle in a town where the "good paying jobs" are gone and not likely to return.

 

What was it like growing up in Altoona, Pennsylvania?

I had a simple enough childhood.  I was able to spend a lot of time outside, which I liked.  Although there aren't a lot of major cultural things happening in Altoona and thousands of towns like it, I'd rather, especially as a kid, be able to walk around in the woods (not a park, but a real forest) than go to, say, the opera.  When I was about five my family moved to Fairbanks, Alaska, for a few years.  Later we came back to Pennsylvania and ended up in a town outside of Altoona called Hollidaysburg (where, I learned after I left, the Slinky was invented and is still manufactured).  My parents had such a large plot of land that I was able to hit golf balls in the back yard.  A lot of my family still lives in that area; I donít get back as often as I'd like to, and even now the place is changing.  The forest where I used to spend a lot of time has been, as they say, "developed." 

When did you know you wanted to write? 

I was always good at English and fairly good in other subjects.  But I didn't know that I wanted to write at an early age.  Writing didn't mean much of anything to me until I started college and took a creative writing course as an elective.  At the time I was planning to major in mathematics/secondary education.  I was going to be a high school math teacher.  But I changed my mind about that when I did some pre-student teaching and realized that the high school students were doing stuff I hadn't even learned yet.

Where were you educated? Did you go through an M.F.A. program? If so, where and who were your instructors?

I got a B.A. in English Literature from Pennsylvania State University in 1993.  During my senior year, I applied to two M.F.A. programs and was turned down by both.  Then I moved to Seoul, South Korea to take a job teaching English.  I spent about three years there and some time in France as well.  I reapplied for the M.F.A. and was accepted at the University of Houston, where I finished my M.F.A. in 1999.  I'm currently working on a Ph.D. 

I've had great, encouraging instructors all along --people like Dinty Moore and Peter Schneeman at Penn State, and then Dan Stern and Kathleen Cambor at the University of Houston who were really helpful when I was working on my story collection, which is similar to my M.F.A. thesis. 

Do you teach? 

I teach as a teaching fellow at the University of Houston and occasionally teach courses as an adjunct at Houston Community College

Are you conscious of other writer's influence on your work? 

I'm definitely aware of other writers having influenced my work, though I don't always know who they are right away.  I like both Russo and Banks, though it wouldn't necessarily occur to me to mention either of them as influences, probably because while I was writing these stories I was trying to read short stories, not novels.  For a while I couldn't stop reading Winesburg, Ohio until somebody wisely told me to put it away and read some other stuff.  The same with Denis Johnson's Jesus Son.  I finally gave that book a rest, not because I was tired of it, but the opposite.  Again, I was trying to read short story collections only: books by people like Ha Jin, Chris Offut, Steven Millhauser, and of course the heavy-hitters like Hemingway, Carver, Chekov. 

Would you like to talk about winning the Flannery O'Connor Award? Your experience with the University of Georgia Press? And how you feel about seeing your work in book form? 

Winning the award has been great; I don't know how else to say it.  I guess Iím still getting used to what it means, as the book has only come out three days ago (March 3 2003).  The people at the press are professional and enthusiastic.  They get excited about their writers and the award.  It's been fun.  As far as seeing my work in book form, again, I'm still getting used to it. 

How long did you spend writing the short stories that became EYESORES?  Did you set out to write intertwined stories or did it just happen? 

I guess I spent about three or four years on the collection, from 1998 to 2001, and there are plenty of stories, probably 200 or 300 pages worth, that didn't make the final cut when I was sending the manuscript out.  The first story I wrote for that collection was "The Heart Hankers," and the last one was "Souvenirs." I did intend from the beginning to write intertwined stories, but I wanted the stories to be able to stand alone as well.  Again, maybe the Winesburg influence. 

Do you work in other forms? 

Well, right now I'm working on a novel tentatively called "Let's All Criticize Turk Fournier."  It started as a story that was once a part of the Eyesores collection.  It's set in the same place, though the tone is, I think, quite different.  More than once people who have seen it have referred to it as a picaresque, which sounds good to me.

I also have some notes for a group of essays about work.  I've written only one so far, about a guy I know who makes violins by hand.  For some reason I'm obsessed with work (probably because I hate the idea of having a "regular job" so much) and writing about people with unusual jobs.  I also know a guy who designs prosthetic limbs here in Houston, and hope to be able to do a kind of profile on him and his work sooner or later. 

How has your work has been influenced by Southern writers? 

Of course I've been influenced by Southern writers; I guess everybody has.  The Southern writers I have in mind as influences or at least people whose work I like are Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Padgett Powell, Breece D.J. Pancake, Chris Offutt, Tom Franklin.  It's hard for me to gauge how they have influenced me.  I think part of it has to do with a small-town rather than a big-city sensibility, but I'm not sure.

Where will you be promoting the book? 

I don't have much of a traveling budget, plus I'm really busy with taking and teaching classes, so I have scheduled only two readings.  One in Houston at Brazos Bookstore in April, and one in Austin at Bookpeople in May. 

Describe your writing process? 

What I like to do (or would like to get back to doing) is write for a few hours when I wake up, then later in the day print out what I've written and edit it.  Then the next day I type in my changes and try to crank out some more new stuff.  That's about it.  I can't write by hand.  I take notes once in a while and usually lose them; sometimes I find them and can't make any sense of them.  I can't write well in silence either, or when someone else is around.  I like to have the TV on in the other room, or maybe some music playing.


 
Eyesores
By Eric Shade
University of Georgia Press, 2003
Hardcover $24.95 (205 pages)
ISBN: 0-8203-2432-9

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© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved