Interview with 1/2K Prize Winner: Diane Seuss

DianeHeadshotThere’s no question: Writing short can be difficult.  And short is what our annual 1/2K Prize is all about. There’s the limited word count (500 words) and the unlimited genre constraints (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short-shorts, prose poetry–a welcome collapse of genre). We asked Seuss to tell us more about her excellent piece, “Wal-Mart Parking Lot,” which won our 1/2K Prize in 2013 and appears in our Summer 2014 issue. Here she divulges which Wal-Mart inspired her, her approach to writing the piece, and the challenges and triumphs of the compressed form.

We hope this helps all you current and prospective Half-K authors. Submissions for this year’s contest are now open through August 15th. Click here for a full list of guidelines.

You manage to so fully summon both the scene and sensibilities here, in several incarnations. I first need to ask: Is there a specific Wal-Mart parking lot that inspired this piece?

This is the Wal-Mart parking lot in my small hometown along the state line of Michigan and Indiana. The store and lot are built on land that those of us who lived in the neighborhood always thought was a Native American burial ground. Certainly holy ground/stolen land was cleared in order to build the store and pour the giant lot. Once it moved into town, it became the hub of everything, shutting down the locally owned stores that couldn’t compete with Wal-Mart’s prices. You know the story; it’s happened in every small town in America. Wal-Mart seems to help people feel included in some gory version of the American Consumer Dream, and there is a kind of debauchery in its presence that I worked to describe in the piece. In very small town America, the arrival of a Taco Bell is messianic. It has risen; we are real.

 

In line with this, what was your rationale for ordering the parts—the parking lot seen by Pollock, then Warhol, then O’Keefe, and finally Neel?

I confess to ordering the parts by intuition rather than design, although I may have juggled them around a bit after finishing. I wrote the Pollock first. It arose out of my attempt to see the parking lot with as little self-conscious judgment as possible. It’s a rectangle filled with stuff, and in that sense it’s a kind of canvas (or a page) and even the vomit arc and coal tar sealant and bird shit have their gestural artfulness. Of course, there is no authoritative consciousness making decisions about process or composition or color. The marks are the random symbols of the lives of the working poor. Warhol seemed to follow logically from Pollock. His interest in the repetitions of pop cultural images, how they enact both numbness and desire, helped me get at the hunger for what is called beauty in the consumer—beauty as an aspiration tied to Wal-Mart capitalism. The “we” here seems female to me, and I guess that guided me into the final two sections based on images by women artists. The O’Keefe section allowed me to take a wider view and to work with my impression that deep down we all know that the parking lot is no replacement for the field or the burial ground. The final section—Alice Neel, who painted ordinary people with an unromantic but respectful eye—allowed me to ask that a connection be made between the reader and subject. The repeated phrase here is “like you”—we are similes for you. We are you.

 

“To enter the store is to be seen wanting” is a phenomenal line. Was your intent to offer sentences as brushstrokes? What impelled you to write in the styles you did?

In this piece I was experimenting with the juxtaposition of a gritty, ground-level subject with a language that has more polish—higher diction, I suppose, and hopefully unexpected in a piece about a Wal-Mart parking lot. Bringing “high art” to what is often considered “low culture” seemed challenging to me, not only in the writing but in the reading. I hoped to consider these lives—our lives—with the aesthetic depth with which I look at paintings. I’m interested in writing the rural, the small town, with nuance and critical astuteness, and with as little nostalgia as possible.

 

What do you feel is the risk and reward, in this piece or generally, of compressed forms?

The risk for me in writing in compressed forms is that I will not be able to squeeze the big body into the small potato sack, and therefore I will reduce the body, starve it or remove its limbs, in order to make it fit. The reward for me is that when it works I feel like the compressed piece contains the entire DNA of a novella or a big essay. At its best, brief prose is like a whole angel food cake squashed into a ball. It’s all there in one small, dense, disconcerting bite.

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