Sustaining the Beautiful Illusion of Fiction: An Interview with Anthony Varallo, author of What Did You Do Today?

Author Anthony Varallo
Author Anthony Varallo

What Did You Do Today?, winner of The Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, is the latest collection from Anthony Varallo, whose work offers a deft blend of imagination and empathy. Varallo is the author of a novel, The Lines, as well as four previous short story collections. He is a professor of English at the College of Charleston, where he teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing, and also Fiction Editor at swamp pink, formerly Crazyhorse.

Varallo’s specialty is exploring the inner worlds of parents and children as they confront familiar experiences with warmth, humor, and a flair for the unexpected. In this interview, Varallo discusses writing during the pandemic, the appeal of flash and microfiction, and the challenges in putting together a collection.

Describe What Did You Do Today? to potential readers. What should they expect when they pick up the book?

Anthony Varallo: Any potential reader who picks up my book should expect a big thank you from me. Thank you! I really appreciate you reading my book.

What Did You Do Today? is a collection of short stories, some very short, some not so much, that deal with things that have sort of obsessed me most of my writing life: parents and children, the slings and arrows of growing up, marriage, relationships, and the belief that there is something extraordinary about ordinary life, but that thing, that mysterious whatever, eludes our desire to express it. If that sounds too dull, I will mention that there’s a story about a cat who attacks a family with a switchblade.

What led you to focus your writing on flash and microfiction?

Anthony Varallo: This is about as terrible an answer to this question as you might find, but here goes: the Covid pandemic. I wrote the stories in What Did You Do Today? from 2019-2022, but most of them, the bulk of stories that make up what I think of as the heart of the book, were written between the spring of 2020 and the summer of 2021. Remember that time? I spent most of that time teaching remotely, as they say, staring into a Zoom screen where my students stared (pleasantly) back at me from their little rectangles. From the other rooms in our home, my two children were staring into their Zoom screens, while my wife was teaching her online class, also staring into the aforementioned Zoom screen. That’s the environment that gave birth to this book, I guess. I didn’t feel I had the time to go into a novel or even longform short stories, or, honestly, even a traditional 5,000 word story. I wanted to get in, get out, and get on with it, as Raymond Carver once said. The flash form seemed well suited to that.

What are some of the challenges when working in shorter forms rather than longer stories?

Anthony Varallo: So many! And so many familiar ones: the fear and doubt that I have nothing to say, or nothing that someone might want to read, anyway; or the sense that I’ve already written this story before; or the creeping sense that whatever I’m writing has already been done by someone else—and so much better!—so why keep writing at all? But those ones are always around, in longer and shorter forms (and everything in between).

But to answer your question: the challenge of writing in short forms is to convince the reader that this slender little story has depth, that the characters do, in fact, have inner lives, that, if you opened a kitchen cabinet in the character’s home, say, it would, in fact, be stocked with canned goods, some of them with dust on top. That’s a little harder to do at 500 words, where the artifice of fiction keeps showing through. Your only hope then, is to convince the reader at the sentence level. If your sentences are good enough, you can sustain the beautiful illusion (lie) of fiction, that all of this is real, that these characters live lives like you and me.

You’re the longtime fiction editor at swamp pink, formerly Crazyhorse. How has your work as an editor influenced your writing?

Anthony Varallo: I think I’m more of the short-time editor of swamp pink, actually. Is that a word? Probably not. I was the fiction editor of Crazyhorse from 2005-2022, and now I am the fiction editor of swamp pink, 2022-present, a role that now rotates every two years, in which I serve as the contest coordinator in alternating years.

Being an editor has influenced my work in so many ways. For one, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of choosing the right title, even though I feel sort of shallow for saying that. Of course, if the story is good enough, an editor will be able to read past a poorly chosen title, but why ask an editor to do that? I would also say that I’m more deliberate in my opening pages now, especially at the sentence level, where that was something that maybe wasn’t as urgent for me back before I was an editor, when my only frame of reference for “editors” were my classmates in writing workshops, which is a very different kind of reader than an editor. A writing workshop reads a story with an eye toward improvement (we hope), asking, “What’s next for this story? How might the next draft address certain questions? What’s working here and what isn’t?” Which isn’t at all how an editor reads. An editor reads to reject, primarily, since the editor, unlike the writing workshop student or teacher, has thousands of submissions to read and can only accept so very few of them (<1% is speed of traffic for most good literary magazines), and can’t do that kind of generous read we expect from a workshop (and may not read the story to the end, as we expect in a workshop).

Another takeaway from being an editor: there are so many good writers out there. It is truly inspiring (and daunting) to see how many brilliant writers are working today. On one level, it can kind of knock you off your game a bit, seeing so much good writing, day after day; on another level, it makes you aware how lucky you are to have published anything at all, and increases your feelings of gratitude.

Cover of Anthony Varallo's book What Did You Do Today?

My favorite in the collection is “First Everything,” a smart and funny tale about the loss of virginity. Tell us about Katherine and Carlton, the two characters destined to be each other’s first.

Anthony Varallo: Thanks for liking “First Everything,” since that’s a story that means a lot to me, actually. In the name of total honesty, “First Everything” is part of a novel (First Everything) that I’ve been working on for years. The chapter where the two main characters, Katherine and Carlton, sleep together for the first time seemed to work as a short story, with a few modifications to make it into something a bit shapelier, especially the ending, which, in the novel, doesn’t quite end on a note of resolution, as I hope the story does.

In “First Everything” I wanted to write honestly and truthfully about Katherine’s experience. I wanted to follow her around for a few pages, asking, “What’s life really like for her? How does she think and feel about Carlton? What does she notice and observe?” For me, the story isn’t so much about the experience of Katherine losing her virginity; it’s more about the access that experience affords her. She begins to see Carlton in a new light, glimpsing all of the contradictory, warring aspects of his personality, in ways that subtly change her notion of the world. Or, at least I hope that’s the feeling the reader takes away from the story. Like everything else I’ve written, once my work goes out into the world I feel that I can’t say what I want it to do, or what I want the reader to feel. At that point, it’s totally up to the reader.

“Hey, Me,” the longest story in the collection, is a first-person narrative about an awkward student-professor relationship. How did you come to write this story?  

Anthony Varallo: Ah, more moments of truth: “Hey, Me” is part of a novella (yes, called Hey, Me; I’m seeing a pattern here) about a woman named Amy who calls off her engagement, drops out of college (but doesn’t tell anyone), and moves in with her brother and sister-in-law to save money on rent, and help them get ready to welcome their first child. At some point in the novella, Amy, on the advice of a professor who has given her an incomplete for a paper she has yet to turn in, records a voice memo to sort her ideas out, but then sort of goes into a long, rambling digression that touches upon multiple subjects. I had so much fun writing the voice memo chapter that I thought, “Hey, I know what I’ll do! I’ll expand the voice memo chapter into an entirely new novella, where the whole thing is Amy recording a voice memo about her life.” Well, I expanded the chapter, yes, but soon realized that a novella-as-extended-voice-memo wasn’t going to work, or at least was somehow beyond my range, or both, so I took the expanded chapter, called it a short story, and sent it to One Story, who miraculously accepted it. (A quick shout out to the folks at One Story, probably the best editorial experience I’ve ever had—there’s a reason One Story is so good.)

I realize my answer, like Amy’s voice memo, is sort of rambling, sorry. When I was writing “Hey, Me,” I was striving for a kind of intense, embarrassing intimacy between the narrator and the reader. I wanted Amy to overshare. I wanted her to talk to the reader like she was talking to her best friend. Almost like gossip, but with greater stakes and significance.

Do you have a favorite story in the collection. If so, what is it, and why?

Anthony Varallo: I don’t have one favorite, but I have a few stories that might mean a little bit more to me somehow, either based on subject matter, or what I think of their possible merit, or some connection to the time and place when I wrote them. “Hotel” is one of those stories. That story is based on a joke in my family, where, no matter where we go on a family vacation, whether it’s New York or Chicago or whatever, there’s always a moment of hesitation when we first arrive at the hotel, when, in some unspoken sort of way, we agree that yes, we have to go out and see all the sights—but isn’t this hotel so nice? Maybe we could stay inside here just a bit longer and enjoy all of the hotel’s amenities before we head out? Please? In “Hotel” I took that as a point of departure for exaggeration: the family never leaves the hotel, ever. When the story was accepted for publication, the editor wrote that she read the story as a pandemic narrative, with the family staying isolated in the hotel, something that had never occurred to me. But I think that theme is beneath the story, the family all together, inside, avoiding the world outside. Which is exactly the world in which that story was written, my family isolating at home while the world experienced a pandemic. Those kind of connections make that story stand out to me.

What are some of the challenges in putting together a collection? Tell us about the book’s journey to publication.

Anthony Varallo: For me, the biggest challenge was seeing how so many flash fictions and short stories might work together as a “book.” I love flash fiction, but I know that, as a reader, it can be sort of wearying to read so many flash fictions together, one after the other. I wanted to somehow avoid “flash fatigue” in What Did You Do Today? so I tried to organize the stories with an eye toward variety. That could mean a variety of subject matter, point of view, style—anything, just as long as I felt like I wasn’t hitting the reader with the same kind of story over and over again.

Once I had what I felt was a collection, I began sending the book out to various contests and independent presses. The collection was rejected 21 times (I just checked Submittable while writing this sentence—wow, I didn’t realize it had been rejected that much!) over the course of two years before Rebecca Brown selected it as the winner of the 2023 Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. The collection was published in November 2023 by the University of North Texas Press.

Your previous book, The Lines, is a favorite of mine, an intimate portrait of a family in the late 1970’s. What were the challenges in writing a novel after specializing in short fiction for so long?

Anthony Varallo: The challenges of writing a novel were many, to say the least. Writing short stories does not necessarily prepare you to write plotted narratives, since you can get by in the short story with language, tension, dialogue, detail, imagery, and so on, with just a suggestion of plot thrumming beneath the surface. The novel is totally different. Things have to escalate, one event has to build to another, or else the result will be a series of artfully rendered interlocking scenes and character sketches, which would fairly describe some failed novels that live and dwell on my hard drive.

For The Lines, I tried to think of the “plot” as a series of escalations, or accumulations. Something gets introduced in the novel and then we see that thing grow worse and worse over the course of the story. The most obvious example would be the lines of cars waiting for fuel during the gas crisis, which builds to a moment of drama later in the book. But I tried to find the same sense of accumulation with smaller details, too, like the family cat, who shows up at important intervals in the book, or the coin bank that slowly fills with money, until it reaches a breaking point. Along the way, I tried to shape the character relationships so that they gave a sense of forward motion, rising tension, and development.

Finally, there’s no shortage of ways to spend one’s time. Why do you choose to write fiction?

Anthony Varallo: Ha! Good question. The real answer is that I have no idea why I write fiction, but my best guess is that it’s from an appalling lack of other interests, talents, aptitudes or abilities. I can’t escape my limitations as a writer, either, but I’m always hopeful of doing just that, the long odds notwithstanding.

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