Interview with Dimitri Keriotis

I had the great luck to take a workshop from Dimitri Keriotis AND to read his delightful book of short stories.

Dimitri Keriotis’s debut collection of short stories, The Quiet Time, was released by SFA Press. His stories have appeared in Beloit Fiction JournalGeorgetown ReviewEvening Street ReviewFlyway,BorderSenses, and elsewhere. Raised in Northern California, he was educated at UC Santa Cruz, University of Nevada, Reno, CSU Chico, and CSU Stanislaus and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zaire and Bolivia. Keriotis is a college counselor and teaches English at Modesto Junior College. He and his family live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

What inspired you to start writing?

I’ve always been fascinated by story. I come from a tradition of listening to elders tell stories around the dinner table long into the evening. This experience most likely led to my love of literature and eventually writing my own stories, which I began to do as an undergraduate. But after college I drifted away from the pen until pursuing an MFA many years later, when I accepted that I was a writer and engaged in the activity regularly.

I’m currently working on a novel, which I started writing nearly two years ago. The story took over my thoughts, essentially instructed me to start writing it. The problem was that I quickly saw that it was a long story and would need a lot of space, which meant it was a novel, a form I had yet to explore and, to be honest, initially intimidated me because of its size.

What influenced the way you tell a story?

My main influence has been fellow writers, studying how they form their stories on the page. Some writers who come to mind are Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, Tim O’Brien, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Richard Russo.

How do you approach the art of writing?

Nearly all of my stories emerge from personal experience. I’m often haunted by what Charles Baxter calls “widowed images,” images that frequent my mind at random times enough that I dig into them for story. Sometimes the need to write a piece is so strong that it feels like the story is banging against my ribs to be let out. My first drafts are often very very rough, so rough that I’ve used them as teaching tools in my creative writing classes to prove the magic of revision, which I love to engage in. I typically work over a piece a half dozen times—first making sure its narrative arc is firm, the characters are developed, the diction appropriate—before handing it to my wife, Ingrid, who is my first and last reader. Being a poet and a writer, she knows writing well and isn’t afraid to let me know when a piece doesn’t have legs. I’m lucky to receive her feedback, and I’m glad I like to revise.

These days I write three to six hours a week. I struggle to balance my family life with my work as a college counselor and my writing. As long as I write throughout the week, sometimes only a half hour in a sitting, my work moves forward and I sustain my momentum and writing confidence. I fit in my writing whenever possible, usually reviewing my day in advance to identify a pocket of time when I can put pen to paper, which I literally do, as I write my first drafts with ballpoint pen and paper. Most of the time I write in the early morning or late evening. My favorite place to write is in a garden shed I converted into a little writing house. There, I quickly become encapsulated in story. But really, I’ll write anywhere—in my car while waiting for our girls to get out of school, in the waiting room at my physical therapist’s office, during long department meetings at work. I always have my writing with me, carry it around like it’s my baby, and I capitalize on dead time whenever possible.

A good deadline is my best friend. I’m part of a three-person writing group that meets every two weeks. This commitment works well for me because if I make a commitment, I fulfill it. It’s good to know what works for you and to create a system that allows your writing to grow, whatever it may look like. I think writing at least three times a week is crucial; otherwise work can go cold and we can lose our faith in ourselves as writers, which isn’t good for anyone.

What do you read for pleasure?

I read realistic fiction and memoirs for pleasure, but I am easily engaged by any form of effective prose. I usually find myself studying the writing, so at any given time I’m celebrating and trying to learn from the magic happening on the page before me, regardless of whether it was written by a pro or an English 101 student.

I recently rediscovered Richard Russo and have been enjoying and marveling at Everybody’s Fool.

I don’t have a favorite author (There are so many great ones to choose from!), though Hemingway was the first to influence me back in the day, so I’m forever grateful for his talent.

Your book The Quiet Time is a collection of short stories. I found them very poignant and loved the book. Tell my readers a bit about how those stories came to be.

Thanks for your kind words, Robin. Personal experiences are often the seeds of my stories. I often drill down into a memory of a particular moment and from it usually springs a story. Some of my pieces are nearly all true, while others depart from the actual event rapidly. Regardless, the initial fuel for my pieces almost always stems from an experience I lived or heard about. For instance, I once had a difficult conversation with a neighbor and used it to create “Barking Dog.” As well, an image from a story I’d heard as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zaire inspired me to write “The Short Reign of Chef Gerard.” Once I identify the arc of the story, whether it exists as I actually experienced it in “Fleeing” or have to fabricate it as in “Bride Finder,” I pull as much as possible from my memory bank to piece it all together. After one of my best friends read the book, he called me laughing about the countless bits from my and others’ lives I’d used to build stories.

Any upcoming events? Final words of wisdom?

Stories on Stage Sacramento is interested in performing one of the pieces from the book, which is exciting.

I was recently asked why I write and whether I’d write if I knew my work would not be published. While publication is always nice, in the end I write for myself, to process personal experiences, to go to what Robert Olen Butler calls “the white hot center,” a place within that is difficult to access due to the emotional heat it contains but that brings forth art and ideally understanding. The older I get the more I understand the importance of using my time here to create fulfillment and find meaning. Writing is one of the ways I do that.

You can find out more about Dimitri and his writing at his website:

dimitrikeriotis.com