Artist Interview: For the Love of Simplicity With Allison Boyce

There’s something to be said for simplistic writing. Writing that is accessible, sentences that are sparsely packed. The kind of language that is effortless to read, but engaging all the same. And of course there are times and places for Maggie Nelson’s lyric essays, and Anne Valente’s purring prose, but more often than not, I’m after the lightweight paragraphs of Amy Hempel, Kevin Wilson, Raymond Carver (the one edited by Lish), and the like.

This is because they’re digestible. And that’s not to say Nelson and Valente aren’t, just that the latter writers are slightly more-so. There’s something imperfect and conversational about Hempel, Wilson, and Carver-Lish that make the flow of reading them more seamless. Their spoken natures are somehow more inviting than their loftier (and perhaps more academically-geared) companions.

When asked about her writing style, Allison Boyce made the same observation regarding simplicity: “I like to make the narration sound conversational,” she writes, “like someone is just telling you a story aloud. Often when I read short stories in these really famous publications, it’s like, I can’t understand this…That’s because I’m an inexperienced reader, but still, I want reading a short story to feel fun and not academic…”

While she admits that her piece “To a Faraway Place,” was one of her older works, it still stood its ground through the submission and selection process. Boyce’s story circled the disappearance of brooding high school outcast, Dean Miller. Told through the lens of a girl who held a brief friendship with him, she ushered our editing team into the heart of this piece’s lazy summer town with seeming effortlessness. Our decision to feature the story was swift and unanimous, with many of us opting to accept after reading Maybelline’s explanation of how Dean pronounced her name. Something about the slow, melting quality of his voice stuck with us, myself especially.

In addition to striking details such as this, the story’s pacing was phenomenal, the changes of scene were silky smooth, and the characters were vivid, consistent, and engaging. We couldn’t have asked for more from Boyce’s story, which is why OAR is still proud to have snatched this piece for its forth volume. Once more, we’d like to extend our sincerest congratulations to Allison for her phenomenal writing.

Inspired by one of her favorite story-tellers, Kevin Wilson, Allison Boyce aims to bring flares of humor and humanness to her stories by making her language accessible and playfully informal. After her graduation from Vanderbilt University, Boyce means to earn an MFA to top off her English degree. Boyce was a semifinalist for the 2018 Adroit Prize for Prose, and her work can be found in The Vanderbilt Review. She presently works for the same journal on the prose committee, and enjoys every minute of her work.

(OAR Interviewer): Dean Miller’s personality and mannerisms felt utterly real. The moment he was described saying Maybelline’s name was the moment a lot of us voted yes on this piece. What was the inspiration for his character? How do you go about making your characters so life-like?

(Allison): Thank you!  Dean was inspired by someone I know, and I drew pretty heavily from him for the core of Dean’s personality – things like his love of mischief, his confidence, and his aloofness with most people.  I think that’s why he really came to life on the page. But the little details like his jean jacket and his passion for fishing – even the disappearance – were all fiction. Once I started putting all of that on the page, Dean became a totally separate person with an identity of his own.  It’s always cool when you pull an event and a person from real life to see how they morph and get distorted as you revise a piece and figure out what your story is really about. There are little bits of truth mixed in with stuff I made up in almost every story I write – I imagine that’s the case for a lot of writers. 

More generally, when I write characters, I always try to include really specific/unusual details about them that readers will remember.  Like the fact that Grace rips out chunks of her hair during mass – that strange detail humanizes her and her grief. The more specific I am, the more the characters feel real.    

We received lots of submissions this year (including yours) that focused on the disappearance of young men. What do you think it is about the vanishing of individuals from a close-knit community that has suddenly become so interesting to our society/young writers? 

I’m glad you mentioned this – the poem right before my story, “I Saw Him” by Isabella Barricklow, was also about the loss of a young man and I felt like it perfectly captured the feelings Maybelline experiences in the form of this beautiful poem.  The two pieces complemented each other so well it was spooky – that was awesome.  

Anyway, I don’t think disappearances (of women or men) will ever not be fascinating, even if they are utterly tragic.  Sadly, I think everyone has a story they can think of about someone in their city who disappeared, even if the connection is far removed or happened years ago, or just a story they saw on the news that they’ll never forget. One is already coming to mind for me. There’s this communal mystery here that everyone has a stake in. Not knowing what happened to this person is haunting, and everyone shares that uncertainty together, especially in a small town. But I wonder if this is a sudden trend or if we’ve always gravitated towards telling those stories.  

When someone disappears, everyone treats them like they’ve died, and they’re reduced to this sensational rumor. People forget about them over time. But for those who loved them, there’s no cutoff date for grief and remembrance.  This person’s loved ones are gripped with this painful hope that maybe one day they’ll come back, or someone will find them, etc.  There’s this never-answered question, and you can’t rest until you get that closure. I think that’s what was so important for Maybelline and Grace – just admitting to themselves once and for all that Dean is never coming back. Releasing him. But yeah, I honestly don’t think writing about disappearance is as much of a trend as it is an ongoing fixation, one that I think will continue.      

Describe your creative process. How do you choose a setting for your story? What does a rough draft look like for you, and how do you revise it down to the finished product?

The setting really chose itself in this story.  A lot of times I get an image in my head of a little detail about a setting that will lead me to build the whole picture. For this story, that was the image of Dean and Maybelline at the pond. From there, I loved the idea of all these college kids hanging out at this swimming hole, sharing gossip in the heat because there’s nothing else to do in this small little town. That was super vivid to me and it took off from there.  

As for my writing process, usually I write a really bad rough draft in about three months, start to finish. Then, I put the story away for at least a month, sometimes longer, so that I can get some space from it. When I come back to it, I’m looking at it with fresh eyes. From there, it can take me up to a year to revise a story until it’s really done. This story took a year – it was incredibly challenging. For me, revision is months of writing scenes, throwing them out, adding them back in again, tweaking these little sentences over and over again.  I never delete anything I take out for that reason; I always save any discarded pieces in a word document, because very often I’ll go back to them. Even if they don’t go back in the story, they still have useful information that informs the rest of the piece. In general, I think a big part of revision is taking a cold hard look at the prose and asking yourself, am I keeping this because I like the way it sounds, or because I think it’s clever, when in reality it’s not adding anything to the story?  Everything needs to be there for a reason. Something might be a really great line of dialogue or detail, but you have to know when to let go of something you really liked in the first draft because it’s not serving the story anymore. You can’t be self-indulgent.

Just to add an example of a revision I did – I added this line to the first paragraph about how Dean and Maybelline are the only two kids in Bertram without dads.  I always subconsciously knew that, but actually including that line really opened everything up for me. Because of that line, it established immediately why they shared a special bond as kids, why they have more in common, and it alludes to some of Dean’s demons that lead to his disappearance.  It took me like seven months to think of that, but then when I added it, things clicked.    



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