Paul Vega is a managing editor for Pacifica Literary Review and received his MFA from the University of Washington. His work appears in Witness, The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, The Pinch, CutBank, The Collagist and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @paultvega.
Hannah Gardner speaks with Paul below.
“Little Aces” has its moments of humor. The title itself is derived from a funny (and awkward and embarrassing) moment in a bar. Does writing humor come easily to you?
I set out to write a story with like this normal dude who just keeps failing and is trying to find a way to deal with his shitty life (Alex’s Shitty Life would be a good alternative title for this story by the way). Humor is such a common defense mechanism for a lot of us so it seemed a natural default for this character, though I have to admit I haven’t written much humor in other stories and may in fact be pretty bad at it. Entirely possible. There’s a certain weirdness from the outset in this story, and I think that if you build that foundation your reader will follow you to to increasingly absurd places – from oh, this is kind of a silly, self-conscious dude, to, wait, did this guy really just make up a fake kids soccer team he coaches because he feels like a failure and only an outlandish lie will make him feel better about himself?
You mentioned in your commentary that this story was created from an arbitrary restriction akin to "You must have a salt shaker somewhere on the first page,” but that, whatever the restriction was, the line did not make it into the final edit. What is your editing process like? Do you have any specific habits/practices?
I’m ridiculously stubborn and not particularly prolific, so once I get something down I think is decent, something I think has even has a glimmer of hope (especially when it comes to short stories because they are hard to place and I am only good for knocking one out about every 9 months), I tend to just keep hammering away until some editor is kind-hearted enough to take the piece. I won’t lie, I have never had a story or essay with a more frustrating, lengthy revision/submission history. The draft came easy. I knocked it out in a couple weeks, but after that it was a long string of close calls and outright rejections. A more sensible person would have stopped submitting it and moved on. But I got enough of those carrot-dangling “final table” rejections I just kept thinking it was a couple small tweaks away. I think probably like 10 friends offered commentary over the years. Really, that’s too many sets of eyes, because once you get that much input you’re into the old graduate school workshop dilemma of how the fuck do I sift through all this disparate commentary and decide what to incorporate? It’s easy to lose yourself in that way, lose your original vision and voice and all. Anyway, I have not answered your question in the slightest. Just keep revising and making manic, desperate, and possibly foolhardy changes and sending it to journals until you trick them into taking it. That’s my editing process.
Where do you find inspiration when writing? Whose work has influenced you?
Place is a central inspiration in short stories for me. Seattle was obviously a big influence on this story. Particularly that claustrophobic desperate feeling of dear god, how do I pay/survive/exist/evolve in a city that I used to love but which has changed so drastically and now is the 9th most expensive in the world and may in fact be seeking to chew me into pulp and replace me with any number of condo-living, Iceland-vacationing, oyster-eating, Amazon-working honkies. So, yeah, inspiration from neurotic anxieties is key, I think.
As far as writers, I’m a big Mary Miller fan and cannot wait to read her new collection Always Happy Hour. I love her voice, and there’s a certain effortlessness in her big, looping sentences (THAT AREN’T EVEN SHOWOFF-Y) that makes me jealous. The really great ones like her leave you feeling like that. Jealous, but also like, fuck me, I need to open up a doc and write something RIGHT NOW. Like, I need to write something as good and true as that, something that manages to feel intimate while also reverberating out into forever, and if I can do that, everything will be okay.
You have a line in “Little Aces” that reads: “I settled into the uneasy notion that my English degree wasn’t worth shit to the rest of the world.” What advice would you give to young writers? To people pursuing English degrees?
That line’s just me being dumb. But it’s also real. But its’ also dumb. I’m bad at life and making money and adulthood, but if I had to offer advice, I’d say don’t get frustrated by rejection and always have multiple irons in the fire. Obviously the odds of you making a career sustained wholly on your writing or turning your lit /MFA degree into a tenure track teaching position are extremely small. They are reserved for the extraordinarily talented, smart, dedicated, hard-working, and lucky few. But I think I’m proof that even medium-smart/talented people who like to read and write can carve out a publishing niche if they’re willing to keep at it and apply their skills to whatever kind of other work is necessary to sustain their obnoxious human bodies.
I noticed that “Little Aces” is set in Washington and that you received your MFA from the University of Washington. How do you decide where to place your stories?
Dunno, this will probably underwhelm, but sometimes it really isn’t more complicated than I want to write a story about a place I know well and which will provide an adequate logistical backdrop for the thematic concerns I wish to explore. Like, I just published a story that takes place in Montana and has lots of booze and meth and guns and surly, bearded men contemplating suicide, because that’s what happens in Montana (kidding, but only sorta). Also, in relation to this story (pettily enough), I just always wanted to make fun of insufferable Seattle yuppy types who go to bars that make them feel rich in order to talk about themselves and the jobs they work for the sole purpose of paying for the expensive bars they go to.
I also noticed that you are an editor for Pacifica Literary Review. Can you speak to the difference between being a writer and being an editor? How has being an editor shaped your work or the way you write—if at all?
I wouldn’t say being an editor has had a huge effect on my writing, at least stylistically. It does make you a more empathetic reader because you understand how incredibly hard and ludicrous this whole racket is. Plus, for me, It’s always fun to keep a finger on the pulse of the community. To feel like you’re a part of things no matter what’s going on in your writer life. To see what’s out there, what’s happening on the frontlines. And there’s no better feeling than finding a well-crafted, complete story in your queue written by someone you’ve never heard of.
I think being both a writer and an editor teaches you to take this shit seriously, to respect and understand the minutiae of the process. It teaches you how to think about the marketing side of things, the strategy. As a writer, nobody teaches you how to market yourself in school. In fact, there was almost a total aversion to it in my MFA program, and it was really up to me to figure things out. You learn pretty quickly that sending a draft of a story you wrote over the weekend about your dead grandfather re-incarnated as a goldfish to the Kenyon Review is not a sound strategy. In that respect, I’ve really come to respect the hard work of not only the craft but also the business of writing. I don’t send out work now until it’s thoroughly vetted. Until I think it’s a high enough quality that the magazine I work for would publish it. I don’t send it en masse to journals with mismatched aesthetics thereby forcing other unpaid people like myself to read and reject it, and I don’t send it to venues in which I simply have no business being published.
Do you have any current projects?
I’m about halfway through a short story collection that in all likelihood will be in stores somewhere in the middle of the 2020s. I’m also finishing a chapbook of creative non-fiction that has a fighting chance of being out before the decade is over. You can read some of it here: paultvega.tumblr.com