Monday, May 9, 2016

My First Time: Alyson Foster

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Alyson Foster, author of the new short story collection Heart Attack Watch, now out from Bloomsbury. E.J. Levy had this to say about the book: “The seven stories in Alyson Foster’s Heart Attack Watch are gripping, strange, quietly haunting. Foster has a keen eye for the illuminating oddities of character and contemporary culture: from a sandcastle contest on the shores of Lake Superior to a study of clouds, from Early Bird Swims for the elderly to fine points of astronaut life (space smells coppery; salt and pepper can be dangerous in space). Peopled by a rich array of characters—from a lesbian bus driver to a girl who can walk through treetops, from an Ozark preacher to a former astronaut to a scowling toddler—Foster’s stories dare to walk up the edge of tragedy and look straight down; these stories burn themselves into the mind and the heart.” Alyson is also the author of the novel God is an Astronaut. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and her son.

My First Fan

If you ask a writer about her first success, there are a few things she’ll probably tell you about: the first time she got a story published, maybe. Or the tale of how she landed her agent. Or the literary award that changed her life. I always think of something a little different.

I was a freshman at the University of Michigan, and I’d enrolled in my first creative writing class, a one-on-one session with one of the professors at the Residential College. Creatively speaking, it was a flush time. I’d written a few short stories in high school, but now I was trying my hand at the form for real and the possibilities felt both thrilling and endless. I was turning out a short story a week, throwing situations down onto the page and then following them wherever they led me.

One of the first stories I wrote that semester was called “Roses at 163 Fancher.” Plot-wise, it was fairly simple. A prickly man who installs carpet in houses for a living has a conversation with one of his clients, a middle-aged schoolteacher, about the dead bees outside her front door. An epiphany follows, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one.

My writing professor suggested I submit it to the Hopwood Awards, a series of prizes that the university gave out to its graduate and undergraduate students. So I did, and the next semester I was notified that I was one of the winners. I received six hundred dollars, an invitation to a ceremony where C. K. Williams read us his poems, and bragging rights—at least among a certain group of my fellow liberal art majors. I was nineteen, and it felt like the ultimate triumph.

That year, I also happened to be taking a German class. The German department at the Residential College wasn’t giving out prizes, but if they were I might have been awarded “Least Talkative Student.” I enjoyed parsing my way through Rilke and Kafka, but I constantly lived in dread of the moment I would be called on and asked to open my mouth and force out a mangled sentence.

Since I was always trying to keep my head down and never voluntarily start any conversations, I’m not clear how the subject of my recent literary prize came up. But at some point that spring, it did, and my professor and several of my fellow Studenten asked if they could read my story. I obligingly printed off a couple copies, brought them into the next class, then proceeded to forget all about it. The end of the semester was coming fast, and with it all the usual anxieties about exams and returning home for the summer, trying to fit back into a life I had outgrown.

A week or two later, I was leaving class, when a guy from class followed me out the door. I don’t remember his name; I don’t think he’d spoken three words to me during the entire semester. His German was decidedly better than mine, and I’d gotten the impression he thought I was somewhat of a dunce. Now here he was, jogging down the sidewalk after me.

“Hey,” he called, and when I turned around, he said, “I read your story.”

It took me a second to remember what the hell he was talking about, but before I could answer, he was talking at me, rapid-fire, telling me how my story had made him think of the Rilke quote about terror and beauty, while I stood there in amazement, my backpack slung over one shoulder, staring at him. Here was someone I barely knew who had read my story and who had apparently loved it. He had clearly been carrying it with him, churning the pieces of it around in his head, and now he was dying to share his thoughts about it with me. I understood his enthusiasm perfectly. I’ve felt the exact same way about things I have read. But it had never occurred to me, until that moment, that I might be capable of having that effect on someone else.

I so wish I could remember the exact words he had said to me; I would have written them down and savored them in the years that followed. But I was too taken aback. What I do still remember is the feeling, the shock and the thrill of it—the knowledge that I had written, possibly for the first time in my life, a story that had made someone feel something. Other bigger successes would follow, but that’s the one that would stay with me—and the one thing I keep striving for.

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