Caroline Bock’s debut short story collection, Carry Her Home, is the winner of the 2018 Washington Writers’ Publishing House Fiction Prize and will be published this October. She is the author of the young adult novels Lie and Before My Eyes from St. Martin’s Press. Her creative nonfiction, “Buttons,” was a runner-up in the Bethesda Magazine 2018 essay contest. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in Akashic Books, Delmarva Review, Fiction Southeast, Gargoyle, 100 Word Story, and Vestal Review and appear in several anthologies. Currently a lecturer in the English Department at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, she is at work on a new novel set in 2099. She lives in Maryland. More at www.carolinebock.com.
Q: “A Life of Close Critique” takes us through a writing workshop into a paragraph packed with memories of the “fog gathering at two in the morning,” obscuring what’s sex and what’s love. So that readers can read for themselves, I’ll ask you instead about writing as part of a critique group. How does your current group operate?
I’m actually part of two critique groups. The one that I refer to in this flash fiction is my “long” critique group. I know it’s a bit ironical that I write short nonfiction about this fiction group. About five years ago, when I first moved to Maryland from Long Island, New York, I enrolled in a short story class at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and met the core group of my critique group. We meet every four to five weeks in the evening at one of our homes, after circulating pages a week or so beforehand. We share a light dinner. We drink wine. Not too much. We are friends, but even more so, we are writers on this journey together. We often ask ourselves: Will I ever finish this story? This novel? In addition, once every four to five weeks, I meet with my flash fiction group, at lunchtime, no wine. We write up to 1,000 words, usually based on a prompt. I find that the more you write, the more you write; so, I love being part of these two groups. I completed most of the 47 short stories in my debut collection, Carry Her Home, while being part of these critique groups.
Q: That there’s at least some sort of age gap in your group seems from “A Life of Close Critique” like a strength to your group. Maybe diversity in other ways helps as well. Do you agree?
Right now we are all women in my “long” fiction critique group with an almost thirty year age gap from the youngest to the oldest. For a long time, we did have a guy in our group, and having a male point of view was invaluable. I’ve written another story about this group, “The Critique Group,” which is in my new collection, about how the pheromones in the room changed when he entered the room. Now, I understand that this is the slimmest idea of diversity. But it takes effort and luck to bring different voices together. My flash fiction group includes more diversity in terms of the race, ethnicity, and backgrounds—and I will often share the same work in both groups and see the different responses, which is extremely helpful in my revision process. I believe a literary magazine like Little Patuxtent Review does an enormous service to bring diverse voices together. As a writer, I find that one of the most important things I can do is to challenge myself to read diverse voices—and to read widely. I mean diverse authors writing in varying literary genres in order to be in touch with what is happening in the in the literary world—and in the world—now.
Q: This is probably a question that’s in some ways impossible to answer, because it depends on experience and feel—but how do you know when to listen to others and when to stick with your guns?
In both of my critique groups, we follow a general rule that everyone comments on what is working —and if there is anything awkward or confusing in the work—before the author says anything. So, while everyone is talking about my writing, I will listen intensely for patterns in the comments. I definitely don’t agree with all that is being said, but I try to understand where they are coming from. I attempt to hear how the group is feeling about the work—their emotional response to my words—as much as particular suggestions. Afterward, I try not to explain what I meant. Instead of being defensive, I try to ask questions. What do you think this work is about? I’ve learned that is a good question to ask. I often don’t know the answer. Please note that I’m repeating “try” because having your work critiqued is often hard, no matter how kind and insightful the reader. Ultimately, I find it better to go home and put the work to bed for a day or two. When the work is rested, and I am too, I’ll glance at any notes and remember the conversation from the critique group, which is key because I find these days that I remember what is most resonant and let go of the rest. I’ll revise. Maybe I’ll revise a piece, even a short piece like “A Life of Close Critique,” a dozen times. There is no “sticking to my guns.” This is my story.
Q: “You always meant to be the first to talk about love.” Can I ask what you’re working on now? Maybe you’ve gone in some different directions?
I also always wanted to write about love. Some of the characters in my stories in Carry Her Home begin to talk about love—and grief and loss. But I wasn’t done (and maybe I never will be) exploring the variations of love, especially among people who are almost broken by tragedy, by history. My novel-in-progress, tentatively titled Remember the Future, is set in 2099, primarily in New York City and Maryland—from the Chesapeake to College Park to Camp David. The work is about family members, separated by world disaster and technology, who believe their wife/mother is dead; however, she is only being held by the U.S. government as part of a fertility and genetics experiment. This is my first time writing long-form speculative or science fiction, so the direction is different, but the heart is the same.
Q: Thank you as well for coming to our launch in June. Did any of the readings or readers strike you in particular?
I loved being part of this reading, which took place amid a rainstorm, the kind measured in inches of rain falling within an hour. I was in awe of my fellow writers, especially the poets. As a fiction writer, I make it a habit to read at least a poem a day, in order to discover new words, new rhythms. The reading Wallace Lane did of his poetry, including “Groceries,” Faye McCray’s “Virgin in Harlem,” and Rachel Hicks’ “The Exile Speaks of Mountains” jumped out at me. The humor and grace of Derrick Weston Brown’s “found” poem: “Bruuuuuh or When Brothers Debate Black Panther in a Safeway Parking Lot” as well as Gary Stein’s “Tree House” struck me. I also felt deeply as Elly Revilla-Kugler read her story set on Los Angeles’ skid row, “What I Remember from 5th & San Pedro.” I could go on. The range and talent of all the voices rising above the strong winds and the torrential rain, along with the room full of listeners, made me happy to be among them. Thank you all.