Assistant Professor Craig O’Hara’s short story “The Corner” was published by the North Dakota Quarterly in 2013, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize shortly after. In this interview. O’Hara discusses his work, his nomination, and the writing life.
1. Will you tell us a little bit about “The Corner,” including the inspiration behind it and a little bit about your process while writing it?
“The Corner” is about a prostitute in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam waiting on a Saturday evening for a client of hers who happens to be an American expatriate. The inspiration behind the story came out of the somewhat rough neighborhood I lived in during my time teaching in Vietnam. I know it sounds kind of strange, but sex workers were just a normal part of the community in which I lived. They were among my neighbors and the people I interacted with every day. They were the people I saw while going to the market or having lunch at the food stalls across the street. They were regular people like anyone else in the neighborhood.
I wanted to write a piece of short fiction about them to see if I could come to some greater understanding of their lives. I started the piece in 2001, but never could get it right. I always felt I was missing something in depicting the central character in a truthful, human way. I began to wonder if I could really write anything from a point of view so different from my own. The story spent a lot of time on the shelf while I thought about this and occasionally worked on revising it, trying to get the thing right and to write in a fair and authentic way about this fictional person I had created. The story only came together in its final form years later when I realized my struggle to really understand this character was the whole point of the story. After that realization, the story just took off and was fairly easy to finish.
2. How and when did you find out about the nomination, and what was your reaction?
I found out about the Pushcart nomination via a letter from the North Dakota Quarterly, the journal that published the story. It arrived just before Christmas and I was, of course, thrilled to hear the journal had thought enough of the story to nominate it. Made for a great holiday surprise gift. Sure beats getting socks for Christmas.
If I recall correctly, my immediate reaction was some kind of wacky, silly celebration dance in the middle of my living room. It must have looked pretty ridiculous. My wife probably thought I’d lost my mind.
If memory serves, we then went to the store and bought a nice piece of Stilton cheese and a baguette to celebrate. When we got home, we had a toast to good fortune and some wonderfully stinky cheese. The whole house smelled like the feet of angels for days afterwards.
3. As a writer, where do you draw most of your inspiration from? (Life, in general? Other authors?)
Where inspiration comes from is a tough question. Mostly, it comes from just sitting down and actually writing. Some days are good, some are not as good, and some are great. I feel that a writer’s life and the themes of importance to him/her will always be there and come out through the individual stories themselves. You just write the story and if it’s really working, all the stuff of your life—personal experiences, stories others have told of their experiences, books and magazine articles you’ve read, your beliefs and feelings—will all inevitably come out of what you’re laying down on the page.
4. What are a few books you would recommend Ball State English students add to their summer reading list and why?
I can always recommend anything by well-known contemporary writers like Denis Johnson, Junot Diaz, and Lydia Davis. My strongest recommendation is to just read. Read what excites you and makes you want to go out and live life with the gas pedal nailed all the way to the floor. Read tiny little books like Sum by David Eagleman and big monstrous books like Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Read books that feel as comfortable as home and books from other cultures that take you to unimaginable places in your mind—authors like Banana Yoshimoto and Ben Okri come to mind. Read old books like Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne and newer books like Ilustrado by Miguel Syjuco. Just read.
5. Who would you like to thank or acknowledge in light of your nomination?
Writing is a tough calling to pursue, but it is infinitely easier when those close to you are there for support. I was lucky that my parents were always supportive of what is, admittedly, an out-of-the-ordinary career choice. They deserve a great deal of thanks and acknowledgment.
My wife also deserves credit both for putting up with my sometimes strange writerly ways and for more the more tangible support necessary while I spent a good number of years writing and reading all day, which is essential for any writer starting a career and figuring out the craft.
6. Any advice for aspiring writers?
My advice is simply to write every day. Even if it’s just an hour or two.
Write on the days you’re feeling excited and inspired and on the days you feel the muse just isn’t there. Writing is work—satisfying work–but work all the same. Plumbers and accountants don’t always feel inspired to go to work every day, but they do it. Writing isn’t all that much different.
When encouraging my students to write I always tell them that the muse may not decide to visit you every day, but when she does, she needs to know where to find you. She should be able to find you with your pen and notebook or in front of your computer struggling and sweating and fumbling around as we all do, trying to say something real and meaningful about life through our art.