Thursday, September 5, 2013

Words With Winners - David M. Armstrong

David Armstrong Writing contest winner
David Armstrong’s story collection, Going Anywhere, recently won Leapfrog Press’s Fiction Contest and will be published in fall of 2014. His individual stories have won the Mississippi Review Prize, the New South Writing Contest, Jabberwock Review’s Prize for Fiction, and Bear Deluxe Magazine’s Doug Fir Fiction Award, among others. His latest stories appear in The Baltimore Review, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Potomac Review, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. A PhD candidate in Fiction at UNLV, he’s fiction editor of Witness Magazine and recipient of the Black Mountain Institute Fellowship. He lives in Las Vegas with his wife, Melinda, and their dog, Prynne.

The Competitive Writer is proud to present the following interview with Mr. Armstrong in which he discusses his win with Leapfrog, how his experience at the Black Mountain Institute is shaping his writing, and why he'll likely become one of the "most fortunate human beings on the planet."

1. What does winning the Leapfrog contest mean for you? 

It means a great deal. It's my first book, which is of course a kind of milestone. I'm just glad the editors at Leapfrog and the contest judge, Lev Raphael, saw something there worth publishing as a whole. I'd received some good responses (publications and contest wins) to individual stories, but I'm always plagued by a nagging feeling I might be returning to the same waters too often. I tend to obsess over a few certain philosophical and psychological questions, as writers are wont to do, so I often worry that all my stories are iterations of a few narrow concerns. Having the book selected tells me that I managed to push each story into new territory—enough that the folks at Leapfrog saw it as a complete collection, with thematic elements holding it together, as opposed to a dozen versions of the same story. In general, I guess the win tells me I’m working with a sufficient degree of breadth, an expansiveness for which I consistently strive.

2. How has winning this contest, or others, boosted your career as an author?

The Leapfrog contest win is quite recent, so, other than a lot of congratulations from all of the wonderful and supportive people in my life, the substantive result has yet to play out. The book itself, which I hope is the true measure by which I’m judged, is still over a year away from publication. Hopefully there’s a good response once readers see my work as a whole.

My other contest wins are also very recent, less than six months old. But it’s been an overwhelming six months. In that time, I’ve managed to have thirteen stories picked up for publication, nine of them winners of contests. I just started seriously writing short stories about two years ago, and only last year started testing the waters of contests. I began to receive good feedback—a few were finalists and Honorable mentions for contests held by publications like The Cincinnati Review and Glimmer Train—so I knew I was at least in a certain realm of consideration for the editorial staffs. But it’s been within the past six months that I started to see more significant results in the form of wins.

Because of the relative newness of all of this, many of my stories aren’t even published yet. Anything I might have to say about contests and their impact on my career is purely speculative. What I hope is that the contest wins serve as a little validation. I see a lot of stellar writers that I respect ending up on the finalist and honorable mention lists. When I’m a finalist for a contest, I tend to take pride in the fact that I’m even being considered alongside some of these folks whose work I admire.

3. How did the experience with Leapfrog compare to other contests?

 The Leapfrog Press staff were wonderful. One way the actual contest stood out to me was the way it was conducted. With most contests you send something in, you keep writing, you try not to dwell on it. Meanwhile, the brave editors tackle an enormous pile of manuscripts and slowly whittle them down. Finally, you hear the results. With Leapfrog, they let the contestants know when the manuscripts were all in, how many there were, when the judging began, and, in my case, the point at which finalists had been chosen and how long it would be before a final decision was made. This may not sound like a huge thing, but that kind of consideration for the contestants shows that the staff at Leapfrog know what a big deal it is to individual writers to be considered for publication. That kind of thoughtfulness, I think, is evidence that Leapfrog has their writers’ best interests at heart. I’ve since heard from other writers who’ve worked with Leapfrog and who have very positive things to say about their experiences, so I think it bodes well for our future working relationship.

4. Related to that, this work is a collection of shorter pieces. Talk a little bit about how this compilation came together, and why you chose to submit it to Leapfrog.

In first writing the short stories that ended up in this collection, I didn’t set out to link them. I didn’t have an overarching plan. In fact, one of the most appealing aspects of working in the short form, for me, is the capacity to experiment with varying concepts, characters, styles, and ideas. But the intriguing thing I found, after writing enough stories, was that, inevitably, there were themes that emerged I couldn’t have predicted. I began to form the collection in such a way that each story was linked through these themes. You learn a lot from having to go back over your own work. In some ways it can be distressing to see, as I mentioned, that you’re obsessed with story elements or character attributes or even details that you had no idea were even in your mind to begin with. But because of this new awareness, I also think you can grow as a writer. I think, because of it, I was able to make sure each story offered something all its own to add to the collection.

I chose to submit the collection to Leapfrog for a couple key reasons. The first was that I’d heard of the contest and seen the books that Leapfrog put out. I was impressed by what they’d done. The second reason was that I’d seen what writers, in the past, were among the finalists and winners for the prize (for example, Jacob Appel, who I believe you’ve also interviewed, was in this group). I’d heard and read the works of a number of these people. You start to look at the bios of the writers on that list, and it gives you a good sense of the caliber of fiction that’s being sent in. It’s an amazing pool of talent. Considering, then, the hundreds of established and brilliant writers who submit to the contest every year, that alone told me, if my manuscript were to be the winner, it would be an amazing honor.

*CW note - Jacob Appel's interview is here.

 5. What role should contests play in a writer's development?

No idea. Writers develop their craft in all sorts of ways, so I’d never prescribe a certain path. I only know that my experience with contests has been an extremely fortunate one. Personally, contests have played a distinct part in my own development, at least as far as publishing short stories is concerned. As I mentioned above, I had a number of stories that, because they were finalists or honorable mentions, I knew to keep sending out. In terms of talking to anyone thinking about entering contests, I’d point out that those contests can tell you a lot about where you stand in the overall pack of writers submitting to them. Being a finalist, even if it doesn’t result in a win, can at least let you know that your work is being considered at some level beyond the initial reader. You don’t always get that kind of feedback with straight submissions.

A friend once told me that to be a finalist in a contest, you have to be good, but to win, you have to be lucky. I like that. Certainly, there’s a very subjective aspect to winning. It relies on some person at the end saying, “I just like this one the best.” But having a specific story do well (be a finalist, semi-finalist, honorable mention, etc.), that tells me there is something of quality to which people are responding, and maybe I just need to keep sending it out until it gets “lucky.”

 6. How is your experience at the Black Mountain Institute shaping the way you approach writing? (By the way, being a Dr. of Fiction sounds pretty bad ass).

Thanks. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but as I’ll say time and time again, being chosen for the BMI fellowship was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. The Black Mountain Institute is the benefactor all writers, especially young or emerging ones, dream about. Being able to work for and with the institute, I’ve had the great fortune to be at the hub of an organization dedicated to expanding cultural awareness and fostering literature on a global scale.

Just within the past year or so I’ve had the honor to meet and hear the insights of Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, as well as Cheryl Strayed, and younger authors like Blake Butler, Laura van den Berg, and Melinda Moustakis (winner of the Flannery O’Connor prize), who are shaping contemporary literature as we speak. And that’s only a fraction of the incredible people that come to UNLV through Black Mountain’s efforts. At the heart of it all is the amazing staff. The executive director, Dr. Carol Harter, is one of the hardest working, most erudite women I’ve ever had the fortune to be around. Richard Wiley, the associate director and director of the Creative Writing program at UNLV, is not only a writer of the first order, he’s been an incredibly generous mentor. (I’d also be remiss not to mention Maritza White, who runs the office and makes the whole machine run smoothly.)

My affiliation with this extraordinary group of people has provided me with time and the generous funding to work as a writer. I’ve also been able to act as fiction editor for a first-rate publication, Witness. That editorial experience, if nothing else, has given me a pretty clear idea of what’s going on in the writing world. It’s also given me an appreciation for the sheer amount of writers out there creating awesome work. I’ve even stayed in contact with a number of writers we’ve published.

Given all of this, the simple answer to your question is that, as a result of my connection with BMI, my writing has moved in directions I never thought possible. Without Black Mountain Institute, I don’t know that I’d have made the same leap forward in my writing in the past two years. I don’t know that I’d be as knowledgeable about the world. Ultimately though, my affiliation with the Black Mountain Institute has shaped my writing in one distinct way: I work harder than ever. More than anything, I want to prove them right for having chosen me as someone to support.

7. Given that you have had contest wins, published works, and are on the path to a PhD, what do you want to achieve with your writing career?

The term “writing career” is something that becomes more nebulous (rather than less) the further I continue down the path of what I hope is one. On the one hand, I don’t think there’s a fiction writer alive who, starting out, hasn’t at least considered what it might be like to support himself or herself by dint of the work alone. I certainly used to think that that’s how I’d measure my success. But I’ve come to value the experience of being in academics so much that I’ve begun to think of a successful career as any combination of factors that allows me to continue to write, to put my work out for readers, to be paid for doing what I love, and to keep me connected in some way with all the writers, scholars, and students that inspire me in new ways each day. On those terms, teaching both creative writing and literature appeals to me greatly. I do believe, no matter where I end up, if I’m able to play a part in this world of ideas and imagination, and to sustain myself through that, I’ll consider myself one of the most fortunate human beings on the planet.

1 comment:

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