Billings native Giano Cromley took two decades to finish up the 11 fictional short stories in his latest book, "What We Build Upon the Ruins (and Other Stories).
The collection was released in mid-November on Tortoise Books out of Chicago, where Cromley has lived since 2002. He is doing a reading to promote the new book at This House of Books at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 29, as part of his holiday trip home to Billings. It’s a chance for Cromley to reconnect with old friends and hobnob with new literary friends he made since his first book, “The Last Good Halloween,” was a finalist for a High Plains Book Award in 2013.
In a telephone interview with The Billings Gazette, Cromley said one of his writing teachers at the University of Montana once told him that short stories are more closely related to poems than novels. He noted that with short stories, you have to polish every sentence. Cromley finished his MFA in creative writing at UM in 2001.
"That's how I read my short stories — with that microscopic gaze. The short story invites re-reading," he said.
Cromley never set out to find a common theme in the stories, but one emerged.
“It’s almost like getting a window into some overriding thoughts I had. Looking at the book, the theme is rebuilding your life, putting things back together after bad things happen.”
Cromley said about 60 percent of the time he writes in first person so he can get inside a character’s head and write from that prospective.
“It feels like if you are going to depict the interior life of someone you need to understand that life. You get in there and root around and see what happens. Their decisions determine the plot, and you need bad decisions if you are writing a story with an interesting plot.”
It usually takes a few hours to shake off a character and get “back to the land of the living” after he’s been writing from a different point of view.
“I don’t write my stories as flowery, day-in-the-life stories. I feel like there is something going on and there are stakes and ramifications, a force to keep people turning the pages,” he said.
Cromley said three of the stories are connected, following the same family through a summer they spend building a canoe. The photo on the book shows two brothers, but it is not Cromley and his brother, as some people have assumed, rather two Ukrainian brothers photographed in the 1980s. Cromley grew up in Billings and graduated from Senior High School in 1991. After he earned his undergraduate degree, Cromley worked for former Senator Max Baucus as a deputy press secretary and speech writer until returning to Montana to earn his master's degree.
"No one wants to hear it, but you just have to put words on paper. The most valuable part of the MFA was being able to devote two years to writing. It's a time of deep work. You're on your own, writing as much as possible."
Cromley teaches composition and literature at Kennedy King City College of Chicago, where he is also department chair. Like other writers and teachers, he worries that people don't read enough. But he doesn't let that discourage him or change the way he writes. He has resisted what he calls the "zombie wizard vampire" niche.
"I gear my writing toward what I would like to read. I hope there are other people out there who share that interest."