Interview of Christopher X. Shade, 2016 W@W Fellow

This interview originally appeared on the Writers @ Work website. Christopher’s story “Messages from a Storm” won the 2016 Writers @ Work Fellowship Competition, the story appeared in Quarterly West, and Christopher participated in the 2016 W@W June conference in Utah as the year’s Fiction Fellow.

Writers @ Work: When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Christopher X. Shade: The story goes that I began to write on our mom’s electric typewriter at age seven. That was in a small town in Alabama. I don’t remember well the act of writing, except that it came naturally to me and was pleasurable, but I remember the typewriter. It was electric, heavy, with a thick black cord to a wall outlet. The body of it was a neutral brown unlike any other brown color I had ever known. It was not chocolate brown, or wooden spoon brown, or dog brown. The typewriter sat on a folding card table in the extra room that we called the sewing room because the sewing machine was also there. I wrote a lot of poetry, quatrains, four-line stanzas with rhyme patterns. I don’t remember what influenced me to write in that form. Probably it began as an assignment from a schoolteacher.

W@W: What authors have inspired you to write?

Shade: Authors inspire me very often, very nearly on a daily basis, to try out new ways of writing. Cortazar who was fearless with form; Ginsberg who also was fearless with form as a way of drawing us closer toward light within the dark recesses of ourselves, our humanity, and the universe; Yasushi Inoue’s cunning observations of our longings to connect with each other; Lucia Berlin’s narrative speed, concise and precise prose, and potency (read her story “My Jockey”). And Flannery O’Connor, Pat Conroy, Rick Bragg. There are too many authors to mention; I have countless shelves and stacks of their work everywhere around me. In recent years I discovered the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra (I reviewed his book “Ways of Going Home” for the New Orleans Review) and have appreciated and admired his ways of writing from the perspective of an entire generation after trauma (the atrocities of the Pinochet regime). I found the title story in the Peter Ho Davies collection, “The Ugliest House in the World”, inspiring in both form and content, a moving portrait of a son’s relationship with his aging father, and memory and home.

W@W: What other art forms have influenced you most?

Shade: I have painted all my life, though I try to avoid it because I don’t have talent for it, and so I am deeply influenced by painters from the different schools and histories. When I travel, you will find me where art may be found; for me, it is essential to connect to the art of a region.

The self-taught art of Bill Traylor, born a slave. The work of Roberto Matta, the Chilean surrealist painter, politically-charged, informing, electrifying. The stained glass in Grace Church here in New York City’s East Village. Any architecture that pulls light down from the sky and illuminates us. Also, jazz, and the blues. B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, Ruth Brown, Little Milton. The collaborations of Wycliffe Gordon (trombone) and Eric Reed (piano).

I have not yet mentioned poetry, other than Ginsberg. I was moved by Ada Limon’s book “Bright Dead Things,” and everything by Claudia Rankine. Often, poetry will prompt a story from me. Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes. Also, I found Tarfia Faizullah’s poem “The Streetlamp Above Me Darkens” (New England Review), to be profoundly moving, about grief, attempting to evade grief, and by way of questions in its form, the power of inquiry.

W@W: What life experiences have enriched your writing? 

Shade: I would not be the person I am, nor capable of writing the material that I write, without the joy I experience to have my wife Paige with me to share all of our days. She and I have traveled abroad, when able, which is to mean that we haven’t traveled as often as we’d like, and those experiences abroad inform quite a lot of the stories I’ve written in recent years.

Places I’ve lived—the opportunity to live in different parts of the country—has enriched my writing: raised in the South, many years in Colorado, and now many years in New York City.

Also, during 2013, I spent time in Marseille, France, in the year of its designation as the European Capital of Culture. My time in that dangerous, impoverished yet seductive city led me to write a novel that is in agent circulation.

W@W: What does your writing process look like? Is there anything unique or beneficial about it (like standing on your head) you would like to share? Or is it an ancient Chinese secret?

Shade: I write by hand. I use a pencil, on unlined paper. I deploy three pencils at a time onto the table wherever it is that I am writing. Along with a little plastic pencil sharpener that I purchased at a school supply store in the West Village. The plastic sharpener was three times the cost it should have been, because this is New York City, but at the time I was desperate to replace the broken one I had. I have three or four bags—messenger bags and backpacks—that I choose from, each day. Inside each bag are pencil shavings and lead dust.

I am not particular about a pencil, though my wife bought me Palomino Blackwings and the luxury of those is undeniable.

Recently I was writing at a café table in the East Village and a young man stopped, evidently stunned, to ask if I was really writing by hand. He wanted to know why. He demanded to know why. He was absolutely flummoxed. I had no helpful answer for him.

W@W: What is the biggest obstacle you have faced as a writer?

Shade: Too much thinking. The obstacle is about a lack of surrender. What I mean is, to surrender to the emotional work it takes to produce the most meaningful writing possible. When I do not allow myself enough surrender, or connection to what is at stake emotionally for me, then the scene or story is almost guaranteed to be thin, cinematic, reported, or melodramatic, and therefore not authentic.

W@W: What surprised you most about the experience of writing “Messages from a Storm”?

Shade: The opening of “Messages from a Storm” was prompted by a short poem by Philip Larkin named “Going”. Larkin’s poem opens like this: “There is an evening coming in / Across the fields, one never seen before, / that lights no lamps.” The narrator is overwhelmed with dread, helplessness. Death is coming, and the narrator is alone.

I wrote many versions of my story’s opening before I discovered what I needed to do. I needed to have the narrator’s everyday experiences resist the dread, as best I could. The narrator feels alone, of no value to the world around him, but this is simply not true. It surprised and delighted me to discover that truth, a deeper meaning, and then to be able to develop the story through the balance and counterbalance of his interior helplessness (which is to say horror), with the reality that people in his life look up to him, rely on him, love him.

W@W: If you were running the 100 yard dash with a brand new writer. What writing, publishing wisdom would you bestow upon him/her before you reached the 100 yards?

Shade: I would quote this wisdom from James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”: “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go.”

I would say, Read, read, read. Actively listen. Ask questions. Travel. Write toward the mystery. Be authentic. Don’t fret about being published; that will come. In the meantime, discard, discard, discard.

I don’t run very fast, so during this 100 yard dash I would have time to say quite a bit more. Enroll in programs. Study the craft. Become engaged in writing communities.

Also, read lit journals. Ask them if you can be a volunteer reader—you’ll learn what works and what does not work in stories. If you are not bilingual, then read works in translation. If you are, then translate.

W@W: If you had to choose one, which writer, living or dead, would you choose as a mentor? What is it about his or her work or character that draws you to them?

Shade: Ask me in another moment and I’ll have a different answer, but one answer to this is Pat Conroy, for the profound and lyrical ways that he linked, or dovetailed, or wove, his fiction work together with his life experiences. For the ways he opened his arms to everyone, for the ways he listened, and for the ways he inspired readers to tell him their own story. In short, in both work and life, for how he loved.