An Interview with PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize Winner: Cal Shook
In the upcoming weeks, we will feature Q&As with the contributors to this year’s Best Debut Short Stories anthology published by Catapult. These stories were selected for the 2022 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers by judges Sabrina Orah Mark, Emily Nemens, and Deesha Philyaw.
Cal Shook lives and writes in New York City. She is a fiction editor at MAYDAY Magazine and earned her MFA at New York University. Her work appears in VQR, The Common, and Oxonian Review, and is forthcoming in Joyland. She is currently completing a collection of stories.
“Man, Man, Et Cetera” was originally published in Virginia Quarterly Review.
Here is an excerpt:
On a slow afternoon, you close up early and take a taxi downtown. You do a loop of all the parks you used to visit, and on a whim, you go get a tattoo, just a small one, in a spot no one sees, not with clothes on. The bandage comes off in the shower, and you stand in the full-length mirror to check it out. The tattoo, it turns out, holds your interest much less than all the other ways your body has changed since last you spent any time looking.
Time moves quickly, and gracefully in this piece. What inspired this stylistic choice? What made you choose to adopt the second-person narrative for this story? Do you think these two elements are related?
Like most of us these last couple of years, I think I’ve started to experience time really differently. There’s even a new refrain we all say now, right? What is time? At the start of the pandemic, it really felt like a single morning would stretch on and on like a novel, but that entire years of life could be distilled into an image or two, into almost an anecdote. I started this story in the thick of all that. During days when I was also really feeling the relentlessness of life. The way it just keeps happening, year after year, and how we have to keep making it up as we go. I think the compression of time in this piece, as a stylistic choice, is meant to produce that same effect. Still, I didn’t want to risk any feeling being lost to the swift pace of time. So I found that I had to curate extra carefully the details I included in each scene. We all know how effective the right resonant image can be because it invites the reader to fill in the gaps with their own experience. To put themselves inside the narrative. And now that I’m saying it, I think this may be how time and POV became dovetailed in this story. I had never written in the second person before and had no plan to, but the first few sentences just came out that way. Which actually felt true to the moment somehow—the particulars of one’s particular life made more universal and immediate.
What advice would you share with aspiring writers?
Well, for starters: if you love to write and you make a habit of it, you might consider dropping the “aspiring” and begin to simply think of yourself as a writer. Before I published anything I remember telling a mentor of mine how very much I wanted to do this (be a writer) and she said, “But you already are!” because by then I’d really committed myself to the practice of writing. Which I guess is the most important advice I can give: Establish a practice that works for you. And then keep to it.
What do you hope readers take away from your story?
As a reader, I really love when a short story provides an entire experience in one sitting, much like going to the theater. You know how after a play, you sometimes walk out feeling changed? I didn’t consciously try for that while writing this—I don’t think you can do that—but now that it’s in the world, I do hope there will be something (a single image even) that people keep with them after closing the magazine, or their laptop, or putting their tablet away. In my reply to the first question, I talked about how life is always “happening” to us, but that’s really only partly true. Because there’s also agency. There’s choosing. And something I hope readers might hold onto is the current of agency that runs through this story, even if the woman at its center seems often adrift. Through a decade or so, through a series of relationships, we get to see her making choices toward a life that more properly suits her. There’s disappointment, and there’s heartbreak. There’s a lot of moving on. But in the end, with her children, there comes a surge of hopefulness, I think, just from the prospect of getting to choose whatever it is that’s to come.
What inspired you to write this story? Where did the idea come from?
I guess I was drawn to the idea (for the reasons I’ve mentioned) of collapsing lots of junctures in life into a rather swift-moving narrative. Most of the stories I write take place within a much smaller timeframe – a day, an afternoon, a single Metro North commute. So to span all those years, with poignancy, selecting just the right details, was a nice compelling challenge for me.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
Being selected for the Prize was just the most unexpected honor, and I am so grateful to the Dau family for making the award possible. It’s thrilling to be connected to PEN America in any small way. And to be engaged in literary conversation (like this one) is simply the best—there are few things I love doing more! Thanks to the Dau Prize, my story found a much larger audience, and many of those readers reached out to me personally. I feel so very fortunate for all the conversations that have followed.