Glen Pourciau’s short story collection Invite won the Iowa Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa press. The stories contained in Invite, ten in all, were originally published in journals such as New England Review, Ontario Review, and Mississippi Review. I caught up with Pourciau over email and asked him a few questions.
BookFox: Several of your stories involve small social faux pas or minor encounters blown into supernova proportions. To what degree was that meant as a unifying factor of this collection, and what other unifying factors did you have in mind?
Glen Pourciau: I like to write stories about situations in everyday life. I believe that we have narratives going on within us that underlie our behavior and influence us. I like to put people in unsettling situations that bring out these underlying narratives. The situations you describe in your question were an organizing influence in the collection. Another was that a number of stories mention invitations. Another was that some of them end with the narrator unable to speak. And voice is a focus or a great part of the texture of most of the stories.
BF: Many of these stories avoid naming locations, focusing more on the inner psychological spaces of characters. Did you ever flirt with setting stories in specific locations?
(The answer after the jump)
GP: In my stories, the setting is typically the landscape of the narrator’s consciousness. When I started writing, long ago, I tried to put in details about place, but I kept cutting them out because they didn’t have anything to do with the stories. I think limiting detail about place adds to the sense of involvement and intimacy with the mind of the characters. There is a world out there in my stories, but my interest is in the inner narratives or stories of the characters and the way those stories unfold and affect them.
BF: One of my favorite stories in Invite is the last one, “Deep Wilderness,” which plays with postmodern notions of authorship and point of view by cycling through perspectives of a father, son and daughter. How did this story evolve?
GP: “Deep Wilderness” is the oldest story in the collection. I started writing it in late 1989 and finished it in early 1990. I circulated it for years and it was never accepted. I put it away in a closet but kept thinking about it. During the mid-to-late 1990s, Stephen Donadio at the New England Review accepted a few of my stories. I pulled DW out of the closet and mailed it to NER, and he accepted it in the fall of 1999. Now it appears in the collection almost nineteen years after it was written.
I wrote a story called “Splinters” that I consider a precursor of DW. It was published in 1986 in the New Orleans Review. It has ninety-six short sections and four narrators who make conflicting claims about who wrote which sections. Before that, I wrote other stories with multiple points of view.
BF: When I finished Invite the first time, I had the strong feeling that it was very philosophically influenced, but when I returned to the work, I could find little textual evidence to support that feeling. But I insist on asking: Do you read philosophy, and if so, how has it influenced this collection?
GP: I don’t read much philosophy, but I’m interested in Buddhism’s view of the elusive nature of the self and reality. Those ideas have resonance for me, but I was writing about them before I read Buddhism. I am interested in trying to get to the meaning of what people say and do. I believe that we are not primarily rational beings, that shifting undercurrents influence our thoughts, perceptions, and behavior. As I see it, the self is not solid or fixed, but shifting and fluid. I like trying to put words to its movements.
BF: Invite has a number of characters who experience difficulty with the voice, speaking, and the throat. Was that a theme from the beginning of writing this book?
GP: Though voice is a recurring theme in the collection, it wasn’t something I started with. I didn’t sit down and write this book from beginning to end in the sequence you see it. I selected the stories out of dozens and arranged them in the best sequence I could. I picked ones that shared certain elements and had narrative voices that seemed to go together well. Some collections are organized around an element that can be stated in one sentence: this is a collection about Russian immigrants; this is a collection about life in the suburbs; this is a collection about rural West Virginia. And so forth. My collection cannot be easily summarized in a sentence or two. I went with stories that shared an approach to storytelling along with common ideas.
BF: I’ve read elsewhere that you enjoy Kafka. At any point did you make a conscious decision to distance your fiction from his own because you felt it was too close?
GP: Kafka is my favorite writer, and he is the writer who brought me to writing. I wouldn’t say I’ve consciously distanced myself from his work. I just write the stories like I hear them, and I think what I’m hearing comes mainly from me. The thing that has surprised me most in reviews of the book is the comparison of my stories to Raymond Carver. Though I recognize that Carver wrote a number of excellent stories, I’m not aware that his work has had a great impact on me. On the other hand, if someone said that my work was influenced by Kafka, I wouldn’t be skeptical of the comment and I’d want to hear more.
BF: What stories did you leave out of the collection and why?
GP: I tried to take out every story that didn’t make the whole stronger. In some cases I had stories that I thought were as good as ones in the collection, but I could see them working better in another collection. It was a matter of looking at the stories as a unit.
BF: There’s been a lot of ink spilled lately on the diminutive cultural status of the short story. As a short story practitioner, what practical steps do you think publishers, authors, booksellers, readers, or prize juries should take in the next few years to invigorate the form?
GP: It gets down to increasing demand for short fiction in the marketplace, and I don’t have any new ideas about how to do that. I think a cultural bias exists in favor of size, and that applies with the public and within the literary culture. Someone I’ve known for years recently approached me at a party and asked: “Glen, have you ever thought of writing a whole one?” That was her way of asking if I’d ever thought about writing a novel. Even among people who read and value stories, a typical expression of praise is that a writer’s stories are “novelistic.” Shorter pieces are often distinguished from “full-length stories.” I don’t know how to change this bias.