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Carla Panciera to read from new collection in Mystic

Carla Panciera grew up in Westerly, where her father's dairy farm and her Italian-American heritage would provide rich fodder for her future writing. Her new short story collection, "Bewildered," won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and has just been released by the University of Massachusetts Press. She will read from the book and sign copies in Mystic on Saturday.

Panciera is the author of two poetry collections, and her work has appeared in a number of literary magazines, including New England Review and Carolina Quarterly. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of New Hampshire, an M.A. in poetry from Boston University and an M.Ed. from the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Panciera lives with her husband and three daughters in Rowley, Mass., and teaches high school English in Ipswich.

She answered five questions:

Q. There is a strong sense of place, including your hometown of Westerly, in your two collections of poetry, "No Day, No Dusk, No Love," and "One of the Cimalores." How does place figure in your short stories?

A. Poems often begin for me with an image. Thus, they often incorporate more details of setting. When I'm writing fiction, however, I'm definitely more interested in character than in place (and I consider it a bit of an oversight on my part). In this collection, beyond certain neighborhood configurations and the small town nature that helps complicate Jon Olvey's position in "On Loneliness and Other Theories," place is definitely less significant than people.

Q. What are some of your favorite classic short stories to teach? How have the writers influenced you?

A. I love teaching "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" by Joyce Carol Oates. I use it with sophomores and it stays with them years later. It's a story that sounds so familiar to them - a 15-year-old girl who likes to hang out at the mall and who courts the attention of boys - but so much exists beyond the surface here and my students' discovery of that is always fun to witness. I also love teaching "Cathedral" by Raymond Carver to my seniors. How can you teach a course on short stories without using Carver? Yet, I worry that they won't understand why he is as important as he is. The dialogue, the humor, the everyman protagonist. However, every year, they love this story. They DO get it and that not only makes me happy about the class itself, it also reminds me that readers do appreciate short stories, that they value the form.

As for the writers' influence on my own writing, both writers remind me that stories begin with people we recognize and, at least in the case of Carver, the action, the conflicts are also familiar. On a daily basis and in very ordinary lives, characters (real and imagined) are always struggling with something.

Q. How would you defend the importance of the short story in our culture? Will it survive the era of the blog and the tweet?

A. You might add: Will it survive the Common Core requirements that encourage a wider use of non-fiction in our curriculum and the overzealous application of that requirement by certain schools? There are several questions that keep me up at night!

I use an essay from the Boston Globe with my students entitled "Why Fiction is Good for You" by Jonathan Gottschall. Its premise is that reading fiction makes us more empathetic because we connect with characters more personally than we do with non-fiction accounts of real-world tragedies. Tim O'Brien, for example, tried to write a memoir about his experiences in Vietnam, but he felt as if his linked fictional collection, "The Things They Carried," captured what he felt more successfully. This, I suppose, is the case to read fiction in general.

As for short stories in particular, they are not seen as marketable, in that collections don't sell the way novels do. They don't inspire the same readership, but they are so distinctly their own genre. I think it's a problem of exposure that has been compounded by understandable concerns about profitability. However, in a culture pressed for time and hooked on brief snatches of narration, shouldn't the short story be heralded? I hope so. I don't want to think of a world with more tweets and blogs and less literature of any kind. I'm also hopeful that things like story slams, the Moth, etc. will do for short fiction what performance poetry has done for poetry in general. As a species, we used to sit around fires and draw pictures of the hunt. When we moved inside to castles, we relied on scops to perform for us. Humans are suckers for stories. Their delivery is the only thing that has changed throughout time.

Q. You've said this collection was 20 years in the making. Could you describe your process of writing and revision?

A. Please do not try this at home! My process is anything but linear and focused. The writing of a short story intimidates me so I never sit down and write a story from beginning to end. I can never quite believe I can finish a first draft. Instead, I start a story and leave it, return to it months, sometimes years, later, re-read it as I avoid other projects and say, "Maybe I'll tinker with this for a bit, instead." Then I abandon it again. This pattern continues until, miraculously, I complete a first draft. Meanwhile, I'm writing poems, starting other stories, trying to write a novel. I do like revision but even this is not without its stop and start moments. Eventually, I ask my husband to read it and, with his input, I can usually finish it off.

Q. Who is your favorite character from these stories? Why?

A. Great question. I've never considered this, but I would have to say it's Albinna (from "All of a Sudden"). I loved being able to witness the moment when a character finally decides to save herself and I think she does it with so little guidance, with no models. She just has it in her to survive. Of the minor characters, I love Jonas from "Weight" because he is so genuinely solicitous, but he also has an edge. He is exactly the kind of friend I would value in a crisis.

Twitter: @bjcotter60



What: Reading and signing with Carla Panciera

Where: Bank Square Books, 53 W. Main St., Mystic

When: 4-6 p.m., Saturday


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