Writing More, Learning More
An Interview with Author Rachel Stein

by Janet Moore

Rachel Stein and Janet Moore talk about revision.

To launch a new feature for The Great Smokies Review, the editorial team invited short story author Rachel Stein to revise a piece that first appeared in the fall 2015 issue. Some writers might recoil at the prospect, but Rachel, a long-time member of the Great Smokies Writing community, accepted unblinkingly. In fact, she told us she was already at work at revision on this story. Special Features Editor Janet Moore talked with Rachel to learn more.

Janet Moore: Thank you for being our first “Writing Redux” author. Not everyone would go back to work on a piece that was already published. What inspired you to revisit “Sheep” six years later?

Rachel Stein: I actually wrote the story at least 20 years ago. Later, I began writing additional stories about this female character, Naomi, a young woman whose values in life are shaped by the social issues and movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The more I worked on the collection and got to know Naomi and the other characters (I learned who they were by writing about them), the clearer her consciousness and history became. So, as I learned, I revised stories I’d written previously, including “Sheep,” to strengthen their accuracy, as well to polish my craft.

JM: What were the most significant changes you made?

RS: In the previous version of this story, Naomi and Tim are two counter culture kids drifting through the Vietnam War era. In the latest version, the War plays a much bigger role. Tim is a conscientious objector, and they’ve made major decisions based on that, including getting married. But when the War ends, their lives begin to diverge. Once I realized how pivotal the War was to their backstory, I rewrote those sections, then pared down the story to the essential details. I tend to over-write while I’m developing material, so I relied on two questions to guide my changes and cuts. The first was over-arching: What rings true for these characters? And at the line level: Do I need this sentence to build their story?

JM: How have you changed as a writer over the past six years?

RS: I know a great deal more about the craft of writing, thanks to the many Great Smokies classes that I’ve taken. As a result, I’m much more aware of plot, characterization, point of view, dialogue, and pacing in my own work and the work of others. All of that is key to my revision process. In the end, craft awareness makes me a better writer and a much better workshop participant. Workshopping has been invaluable to me in creating these linked stories. There’s nothing like hearing from intelligent readers what works and what doesn’t. And being in a community of writers encourages me to do this solitary work.

JM: In addition to the reading you do for classes, what books do you keep on the proverbial bedside table?

RS: I am rereading Alice Munro’s story collection, Runaway, slowly savoring Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz, and entering the eerie world of Rivers Solomon’s Sorrowland.

JM: This will be a difficult question for a prolific reader, but here goes: Is there a single work of fiction you can name as a favorite?

RS: I’ve told everyone I know to read Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet, a fictionalized story of the death of Shakespeare’s son. Because it took me deep inside several members of the family, I was able to approach the death of Hamnet with the immediacy of their perceptions and memories. I was awed by the liveliness of the characters and their world. Thinking back to older favorites, the devastating beauty of Toni Morrison's Beloved continues to stun me. Her gorgeous stream-of- consciousness narration embodies historical trauma lodged inside the characters…ghosts springing to life.

JM: What are you working on now?

RS: Writing another Naomi story. In this one, Naomi’s marriage to Tim is over, and she’s finding out who she is on her own. She’s a graduate student living in a house with two other women in her program. Their friendship prompts Naomi’s exploration of what it means to be a young woman during the 1970s second-wave feminist movement. One of the students is German; Naomi is Jewish. They are confronted with a history that neither of them played a part in, but one that could separate them. The other woman is a fervent feminist, getting a degree in women’s history. In their company, Naomi will learn a lot about being female in this particular time. How all of this becomes a story is unclear to me at this point. Stay tuned.

JM: With pleasure!

To read Rachel Stein’s revised story, “Sheep, 1976,” click here.