Lenore Myka is the author of King of the Gypsies: Stories (BkMk Press, 2015), winner of the 2014 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, and a finalist for the 2016 Chautauqua Prize. A recipient of a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, Lenore’s fiction has been selected as distinguished by The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Non-Required Reading series. Her award-winning work has appeared in New England Review, Iowa Review, Massachusetts Review, West Branch, and Alaska Quarterly Review, among others.
She received her MFA in Fiction from Warren Wilson College and an MA from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy at Tufts University. She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania from 1994 to 1996, and is currently working on a novel set in her hometown of Buffalo, NY.
Lenore, what is your academic background?
I studied English Literature as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, and received my MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College. A slight detour: Just after I returned from my Peace Corps service I entered the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy from Tufts University. It was an excellent education but I never did put it to practical use!
Did you always want to be a writer?
I did! Though I think that I was just born a writer, rather than choosing to be one; as a child writing stories came as naturally and routinely to me as eating, playing, and sleeping did. A story I’ve often told is of creating stories in pre-literacy, drawing pictures in place of sentences. It was always something I did from the earliest I can remember, filling up notebooks and journals.
Did you start to write the stories for King of the Gypsies when you were in Romania?
No. I needed space time-wise to process what I had experienced during my 2 years — an entire decade from my point of departure, to be exact. There were many false starts with this collection. I found that early attempts, much of which were autobiographical, became sentimental and trite. Once I let go of myself as a subject, the stories came swiftly, but that wasn’t until 10 years after I’d left Romania.
Tell us a little bit about your writing process? How many drafts? What keys you into a topic? Do you know where the story is going when you start? Those sorts of questions all writers ask each other.
During a recent conversation with a writing friend, I described myself as a workhorse. I thrive on routine; once a week or two has passed away from the desk it’s very hard to return to it. I like to engage most days, for a couple of hours, 3–4 ideally. I rewrite a lot, it’s 90% of my effort. But the number of drafts depends on the story. Some come easily and organically, practically writing themselves. Others I get in the mud and wrestle with. There were a few in the collection that took me a couple of years and dozens of drafts to write.
How do you go about structuring your stories?
I don’t plan my stories. Instead, I start with an image or phrase and let it grow from there. I rarely know where it’s going to end until I get there. Once I have a second or third draft, I study the work closely to see what seems to echo on the pages and that’s how I discover meaning and theme. It’s mostly an intuitive process, which means that it is generally a long one. The current book on which I’m working is five years and counting.
How long did it take you to assemble the collection and get it published?
It took me a little over 4 years to write the collection; I was working full-time for a big chunk of it, going to school for another. Once I’d completed the book, I found an agent in weeks but she was unable to sell the collection — short story collections, especially for a first-time unknown author, are notoriously difficult to sell in the mainstream market. After my agent had a go, I submitted to book contests and it took me 3 years to get it picked up by a publisher, another year before it came out. A long process! Writing is about perseverance and stamina, as they say.
Today how do you see yourself? A short story writer? A novelist?
Since I’ve only written a short story collection, it would make sense for me to identify as a short story writer. But I read widely — fiction and non, long and short form, and I try to get a variety of styles published. Generally, I try not to think about these categories too much since I find them limiting. Mostly, I just identify as a writer, plain and simple.
What have you been doing — writing wise — since your published your collection?
I’ve published a couple of short stories and essays, but my current focus is a novel that explores the impact the closing of a steel mill has on a working class community in Upstate New York in the 1970s. Perhaps a far cry from my collection, though themes of displacement and cultural conflict still arise. I have many other ideas waiting for me too, but I’m trying to commit to this one book for now, seeing if I can actually write a novel or not!
Thank you, Lenore. And good luck finishing the novel.
Thank you, John, for your support of Peace Corps writers.