Interview conducted by Scott Ray
In April 2018, Courtney Zoffness won the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award for her short story, “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts,” which originally appeared in the American Literary Review as the winner of our 2016 Fiction Prize. Zoffness also received the 2017 Arts & Letters Creative Nonfiction Prize, an Emerging Writing Fellowship from The Center for Fiction, and a fellowship from The MacDowell Colony. Her work has been published by The Southern Review, Indiana Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She directs the Creative Writing Program at Drew University.
Merritt Tierce, the judge who selected the piece as the ALR contest winner had this to say about it:
“Peanuts Aren’t Nuts” deals so masterfully with the bridge between innocence and adulthood—that rotten bridge that falls away behind with every step across. Adolescence is, in this beautiful portrait, by nature a transition from inert to thwarted, a pursuit of even and perhaps especially those yearnings one knows will not—and most likely should not—be satisfied. This fine story, told in bright sentences that catch and thrum, has a clever heart that arouses hope and makes it wear a darkness. That is to say: it feels so true.”
We at the American Literary Review were thrilled to see that Courtney Zoffness won the prestigious Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award and took the occasion as an opportunity to ask some questions about her award-winning story, “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts.” The story is about a young girl who has complicated feelings for her academic tutor, who is accused of being a “teacher-predator.”
Courtney Zoffness: Pam’s perspective, in the close third person, was the first one I tried, and I didn’t consider alternatives. I like the freedom and flexibility this point of view provides: I can hew close to her adolescent thoughts, but also zoom away at pivotal, intense moments—like in the final scene when we’re presumably inside Mr. Peebles’ house, peering out the window.
SR: There’s excellent movement in time and space in “Peanuts Aren’t Nuts,” between recent past and even more distant recollection. When do you begin thinking of structure when crafting a story? Did this structure come naturally, or is there a lot of rearranging in the revision process?
CZ: This story took years to finish, and the structure took shape pretty late—as it often does for me. I think the only structural element I was sure about early on was the use of test questions to guide the plot, mostly because I was having fun researching random bits of biology! I did tons of rewriting and rearranging before I determined the narrative’s ultimate shape. Most of what happens in the second half emerged drip by drip over countless drafts.
SR: You’ve said you’re working on a novel based on your prize-winning story. How is working on the novel different than working on the story was?
CZ: I tend to write significant scenes or interactions before I determine a story’s order, and that’s the way I’m approaching the novel, too. In short, the process hasn’t been much different so far. Of course, I’m pretty early on in the development of the novel. Can I get back to you in a year?SR: It’s interesting to hear you mention that you write significant scenes and interactions before determining a story’s order. This isn’t something I’ve ever done, although I must say I can see how it would be useful. Can you elaborate on this process a little more? What makes a significant scene/interaction? Do you usually know the significant scenes when you begin a new story? Do more come later? When does order making begin?
CZ: I should backpedal to say this is how I work some of the time, not all of the time. It was the case for this story, and has been true, too, for the process of developing it into a novel. I knew early on that Pam had a flirtatious relationship with her tutor and I wanted to write a few conversations that showcased it. I also knew she had a protective father, and I wanted demonstrate that, too. Those were the first “moments” or interactions I set out to write. Once I had a clear sense of the story’s focus—Pam’s desire and confusion and budding sense of power—I organized the pieces in a way that built momentum.
SR: A prize as significant and well regarded as the Sunday Times Short Story Award must feel fantastic. Does that kind of validation change the way you look at the story? Does it change or inform your understanding of your own work?
CZ: I think I have more pride in the story since a panel of judges whose critical judgement I respect selected it from such a deep international pool. Beyond that, the win validates all the time I spend fiddling with words on the page. I am the earliest in my literary career among the Sunday Times finalists—a group that included literary heavyweights Miranda July and Curtis Sittenfeld—but I am not new to the writing game. This experience feels like a triumph for we writers who move at a slower pace but stay the course!