Posts in "Interview" category

“Turn a Negative Emotion Into a Positive”: Interview with Richard Cohen

Interview with Richard CohenWith his new Random House release, “How to Write Like Tolstoy: A Journey into the Minds of Our Greatest Writers,” author Richard Cohen shines a light on history’s greatest storytellers. This spectacularly written how-to is not your average road map to becoming a pro.

Throughout the pages of this delectable dish of writing advice, Cohen delves into the creative intellect of Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vladimir Nabokov, and the like, serving techniques like character development, voice and point of view.

Based on outstanding research and a voice you can’t shake off, reading a book about writing has never before been this thrilling. Bookfox reached out to Cohen through email, asking a few burning questions.

Continue Reading…

Interview with Peter Levine, author of “The Appearance of a Hero”

Peter Levine recently published “The Appearance of a Hero,” a collection of linked short stories revolving around the central character of Tom Mahoney. In an unusual move, none of the stories are told from Tom’s perspective, but only from the perspective of those surrounding him. It’s really a fantastic collection — alternating between tender and severe, filled with people that you know and that you want to know better. BookFox caught up with Levine across email and had this interview.

BookFox: The through-line character in this collection, Tom Mahoney, is a former athlete. Did famous characters who were former athletes (I’m thinking specifically of Updike’s Rabbit), affect the way Tom took shape?

Levine: No—there were no fictional models for Tom, though he did, in part, grow out of real guys I’ve known, and their being former athletes are part in parcel of this archetype.

I love in “For the Reception to Follow,” how you have Tom’s neighbor Ben speculate on the importance of sports in the future, how they will supplant the nation-state and replace religion. It’s a funny, tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but one that highlights Tom’s inability to assume the mantle of the athlete-hero. What’s your experience with sports, and how did that feed into the veneration of sports figures in these stories?

This is a funny question for me because I am one of the few men I know who has no interest in watching or following sports. There’s this line in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter where Frank Bascombe says something about how if you’re a man in America, you probably know all you need to be a sportswriter. It’s so true! In Chicago, where I’m from, it was the Cubs or the Sox, the Bulls, of course, and then later in college (I went to UW-Madison), sports—football in particular—was a major part of life.

One of the things I observed, sort of as an outsider, is the kind of reverence and infatuation men feel towards athletes. I’m not talking about the cultural worship of professional athletes, but the special case of the star high school athlete, or the collegiate athlete, which is what Tom Mahoney was.

What’s unique for this guy is that he has no competition among his peers. He’s the biggest celebrity in his world. When you’re older, you’ve got your famous athletes, but you’ve also got your internet tycoons, your movie stars, your Nobel Laureates, whatever. But there’s something about the adulation a young athlete receives, and in particular, the adulation he receives from his guy friends.

That’s part of what I was examining in the book with Tom and the men around him. Though his playing days are over, they continue to fawn over Tom, and they do so in a way that seems particular to men.

Why is Tom’s story always told from the perspective of other characters, and how do you think that changes our perspective of him?

This was somewhat unintentional, or at least, subconscious. It was something I realized only much later, when all the stories were strung together. But Tom is an elusive guy—a lot of the stories deal with people trying to get a read on him. By providing an entry-point through other characters, and never through Tom himself, it enhances that elusiveness and reflects the fact that his life never solidifies in the way he’d like for it to. It also allowed me to paint him in different ways—sometimes a failure, other times heroic, other times sort of swimming through his own life, and it seemed that a closer, more fixed treatment might not allow for that.

How was your process of finding an agent and a publisher?

The overall process—that is to say, the process from when I first sent a completed manuscript out into the world years ago—was pretty typical (though it felt uniquely bad to me): it involved a lot of rejection and took a lot longer than I’d expected or hoped.

With that said, for this book, the process was shorter and less painful. The agent part happened fairly quickly after I began to circulate the manuscript.

As far as finding a publisher, that took a bit longer—a couple months. Initially, it was very quiet, but then a few passes started coming in and a few notes of interest. My editor—George Witte at St. Martin’s Press—wrote to say that he had read the book and wanted to share it with his colleagues. That took some time. But shortly thereafter, he was able to make an offer, and we took it.

How would you define literary success? Literary failure?

That’s a hard question. I’ve always thought of writing success along the lines of the actor who’s able to get consistent work. I guess my first instinct would be to say that, for me, literary success would be having the work you send out published.

Literary failure: that’s tough. Giving up prematurely (and “premature” in the writing world seems to have a different definition)—that’s one form of failure. And then there’s the regular failure that comes with doing everything you can and just never getting lucky. Frankly, I think that’s one of the most haunting things writers have to contend with.

What’s your current project?

I’m working on a longer piece based on a group of Stanford scientists who did a project for the CIA in the ’70s involving remote viewing, which was basically the idea that someone can be on one side of the world but see something else happening anywhere else on the planet in real time. It’s weird, but I’m having fun with it, though I’m not sure, at 15,000 words, if it counts as a story or what. Anyhow, I’m just trying to go with it.

Antoine Wilson Interview

Antoine Wilson, author of the newly released novel Panorama City, was gracious enough to answer interview questions via email for BookFox. Wilson’s previous novel “The Interloper” was fantastic, and he is a sterling member of the Los Angeles literary community, in addition to being a really nice guy (at least at the literary parties where I’ve seen him!)

BookFox: Oppen Porter makes an art out of optimism, folksy wisdom, and comma splices. How did you develop his voice?

Antoine Wilson: It’s funny—I’ve heard this question about voice several times now, and I’m never sure how to answer it. I don’t know exactly what voice means. It seems to cover everything you mention, from an entire worldview to a character’s diction to intentionally corrupted grammar in service of a “spoken” feel. As you can imagine, trying to source all of that after the fact feels futile.

As a writer, I’m hesitant to answer for what I’ve done, for two reasons: 1. The process itself is so mysterious (it feels frustrating, mainly, while it’s happening, but ends up being mysterious); and 2. I can’t remember how anything gets developed. All I have is a pile of notes, a series of drafts, a bunch of files on my computer. I suppose I could go back, forensically, and try to understand my own process, but I don’t think that would do anyone any good, least of all me.

All that aside, the worldview comes from my own optimism blended with various aspects of Don Quixote; the folksy wisdom comes from a love for aphorism blended with Candide, and the language itself is an approximation of local speech blended with the thought-spirals-in-text of the Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard. The process was one of writing and discarding a series of first drafts, increasing in length until I had a novel. Probably four complete and unique drafts up to about a hundred pages before I sorted it out. Please note that if I could do it any other way, I would.

This book has a classic, archetypal structure—small town man moves to big city. Were there any models you used for the novel?

Definitely Candide, though Voltaire is much crueler to his characters. And at times, especially when he’s with Paul Renfro, I thought of Oppen as a sort of Californian Sancho Panza. Filmically, small man comes to big city is a rich tradition. The Jerk is a favorite film of mine, and I have to fess up to conceiving of this novel (after the fact) as The Jerk meets Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. (One time in a radio interview in 2007 I mentioned Crocodile Dundee, but I take that back now.)

I believe that one of the functions of art, as such, is to help us see our world with new eyes. I was attracted to the idea of depicting the world of Los Angeles, or the San Fernando Valley at least, through the eyes of an illiterate naif, to seeing what would happen if I stripped away my own kneejerk judgments and the distracting info-blast of signs and written language.

Using your distinction between “man of the world” and “provincial order medicine online india man,” how do you think writers have tried too hard to be a skewed version of “man of the world”?

You can travel the world and not see a thing, depending on what’s in your head. The distinction I make in the book covers the difference between the trappings of a kind of life, the badges, the trophies, the souvenirs, and the living of the life itself. It’s only natural that we pursue conclusions to our experiences, and that we memorialize those conclusions; nevertheless, we can begin to mistake the slide show for the vacation itself, if you catch my drift.

As for writers, I’m not sure what to say. Some of them are provincial beyond belief, even if their province is so-called “literary culture.” Others are plenty worldly, even if they write almost exclusively about Eastern Ontario. Some are careerist to the point of oddity. Some are all about the work. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what writers are trying to be—it all comes down to what’s on the page.

I remember a video you posted on “How to Write a Novel,” and it was essentially a accelerated video of you at your desk, writing, with a voiceover that said “Do this for, maybe, 3 – 4 hours a day, for 2 – 3 years.” The simplicity of it was hilarious. Do you think writers work too hard to find secret, magical advice when the most important advice is laughably simple?

Not in my experience. Whatever works, works. And I’d never call it laughably simple, though my video is obviously intended to evoke a laugh. Simple advice is after all the toughest to absorb, because on first glance it seems self-evident. It doesn’t nick you until you’ve actually had the experience, at which point (too late) you can finally say, “fuck, that was deeeeeep.”

You love to surf. How does surfing feed your writing?

The short answer is that surfing feeds my life in a way that allows me to continue writing, as opposed to collapsing in a puddle of neurotic goo. The slightly longer answer is in Poets & Writers magazine.

What is the film or auteur that has affected your writing the most? How has the medium of film altered prose in the last fifty years?

Kurosawa. His film Dodes’ka-den, in particular. As for film’s influence on prose, I’m no expert, but I feel like certain jump-cut type techniques have influenced the way stories get written. Plus, lots of people talk about writing books in terms of “scenes.” Far too many books these days read like the treatments for the films they will eventually spawn. On the other hand, other books have made great advances in depicting consciousness in ways that film can’t touch. The language of books is closer to the language of thoughts, after all…

Name an author who’s under-read and why you like him or her.

Maile Chapman. Her novel is called “Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto.” She’s brilliant, her language is insanely precise and evocative, and there’s something consistently magical and mysterious about her work.

Jeff Parker Interview

Jeff Parker Ovenman  Jeff Parker is zany and zippy — at least as represented in his fiction, and his lively answers below encourage the reputation. BookFox caught up with him over email to interrogate him about his latest book, The Taste of Penny, which could best be described as a wild thirteen-story ride through the linguistically innovative world with outlandish characters. You'd probably remember Parker from his novel Ovenman, praised as "creepy, convincing, and hooty," which smashes together characters like Thinfinger with pizza joints and sticky notes. 

But enough bio — enjoy the back and forth below.

BookFox: You're so playful with language in "The Taste of Penny." There are misunderstood words, mistranslations, mis-reads and inadvertent puns. Why does all this wordplay interest you, and how does it add to the fiction? 

Jeff Parker: The Slavic linguists have described an interesting phenomenon: The majority of Russian teachers in North America are women, Russian women. Thus when their students, male North American students of Russian, visit Russia, they speak—in terms of intonation, cadence, and rhythm—like gay Russian men. I grew up in the South (North Florida to be precise, which is essentially the same as south Georgia and is not the Florida people think of when they think of Florida). I was a transplant from Boston via Germany. People talk funny in the South, but the most dangerous thing you could do as a transplant Yankee schoolboy would be to open your mouth. Harry Crews described in his memoir A Childhood this compulsion he has to imitate people he talks to. He writes that it’s something he’s always been embarrassed about. I have this affliction too, and I have also always been embarrassed about it. After spending time in Russia I come back speaking English with an effeminate Russian accent. 

These kind of things can be hard to do in fiction but they’re part of everyone’s experience one way or another. So in answer to your question, I suppose instances of mistranslation are ways to capture this business. Also, I suppose, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that one of my core beliefs is that many of us spend our lives misunderstanding with alarming regularity everyone around us and the world in general. 

BookFox: You have a cluster of "James" stories. What was the inspiration to write these? 

Parker: I don’t think there was any one inspiration other than that James character, a sort of epic catastrophe of a human being. They’re all told from the perspective of his closest friend, who both worships and reviles him. I’ve had lots of close friendships, and in all of them, I think, some ratio of this worship-revile aspect applies. So I wanted to play with that, the betrayals and (again) misunderstandings and resurrected hallucinatory birds and willful gate-arm destruction on the job site, etc. You can hate someone that close to you at times and then again he wouldn’t be that close to you if you weren’t such good friends and a friend, as Aristotle said, is a version of the self. 

There is a chapbook of these stories called The Back of the Line done in collaboration with the artist William Powhida in which he teased out the James character in the art in ways I never anticipated. 

BookFox: The stories were originally published in a wide range of literary journals — from Ploughshares to Hobart to Cutbank. How'd you decide where to send stories, and what wisdom can you offer about landing stories in journals

Parker: I don’t really strategize. Submitting stories for publication is roughly equivalent to buying scratch-off lottery tickets. Most of the time you get nothing. Sometimes you get five bucks. And every now and then you win the big money. 

People say send stories to journals that you like, but I don’t really understand the logic behind this. And by the way wouldn’t you, wouldn’t most writers, like any journal that wants to publish them? I would. I guess they are saying send to journals whose aesthetics hew to yours. That leads to weird ideas about writing though. Like, I write experimental so I’ll submit to Conjunctions. None of this business is really healthy. And my favorite journals — Tin House, McSweeneys, N+1, Hobart, American Short Fiction, and others — entertain different aesthetics. 

I’d say send any given story simultaneously to five big places and to five smaller/lesser-known places that seem like journals people actually read, and give it up to whoever gets back to you first. It’s always nice to get picked up by a big journal, but Aimee Bender taught me a long time ago that if you publish good work in small places, it sometimes has a better chance of going far. And most of my stories that have done something, been selected for an annual anthology or an award say, have all come from the smaller journals. 

BookFox: How was writing these stories different from writing Ovenman? 

Parker: I was writing some of them during the writing of Ovenman. As you know, a novel’s a different beast. Who said that a story is a one-night stand and a novel is a relationship? There are perks and burdens attached to each. Those one-night stands, you know. Sometimes you’re too drunk and can’t get it up. It doesn’t mean it’s not a good story though. Just less climactic. Sometimes one-night stands are amazing and you want to go back for more, to try and build a relationship out of it. And that impulse can be the wrong thing. Sometimes a one-night stand should be left at that. I’m actually in the process of taking one of the stories from the new collection and using it as like a prototype for a novel I’m working on. It’s the same characters in a slightly different world but with the same problems. It’s looking like this one may just develop into something. It may also be a huge mistake. 

BookFox: Who's your ideal reader? 

Parker: Someone who thinks, like Ben Marcus, that contemporary fiction should be a synthesis of the heartfelt and innovative impulses. Someone like Barthelme who thinks that shipwrecks of sentences are more interesting than beautiful and perfect sentences because barnacles and other such grow around shipwrecks. Someone who believes, like Oscar Wilde, that a little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. And someone who doesn’t insist on characters having the likable characteristics of someone he/she would wish to date. And someone who holds the notion of failure and the attribute of self-doubt in high regard. 

BookFox: Ending on a slightly broader note, let's have a literary litmus test: What character do you despise the most? Not what book you dislike, and maybe not even a character perceived as a villain, but just a character that you hate. 

Parker: I’m a fan of disagreeable characters. So I suppose the characters I dislike the most are those that seem to exude the balance of personality that one would anticipate finding in any given character in the real world. In other words, the character that is the result of the writer placating the workshop comment, “I didn’t find your character sympathetic.” I detest these characters not for their verisimilitude but for the fact the writer milquetoasted out. Give me a good Underground Man or any number of self-loathing Gogol protagonists any day. That’s a pretty milquetoast answer to your question though, isn’t it? Okay, here’s one: Alex in Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, the guide to the Jonathan character who has the impossible name and the even more impossible syntax and grammar. Once you’ve heard the beauty that is the English language from the mouths of real modern Russian thugs, this sexified version of it is just so much razzle-dazzle.

Tod Goldberg Interview on “Other Resort Cities”

Tod Goldberg Interview Tod Goldberg writes short stories (Simplify) and novels (Living Dead Girl), in addition to just being a hilarious guy (see: blog). He's also the Director of the MFA program at UC Riverside Palm Desert. 

BookFox had the opportunity to interview him by email for the release of his latest collection, "Other Resort Cities."

BookFox: So many characters in "Other Resort Cities" are living in or haunted by the past in some way. Why is nostalgia such a powerful theme in these stories?

Tod Goldberg: I think we are all possessed by the past, whether we are aware of it or not. Every thing I do on daily basis — be it ordering the same damn thing at Starbucks every day, even after spending several seconds examining the menu as if I might make a different choice, or something more profound, like, say, finding myself feeling regret for some stupid decision I made ten years ago — is colored by my previous experiences, be they emotional or physical. And that troubles me just as a human being, that it's impossible for me to exist outside of my past, and so that's a bit of an obsession for me. 

But as it relates to this book specifically, I think the stories tend to be about the aftermath of cataclysm, so the characters are naturally bound to be scarred by that and trying to reckon with the results of their choices (or their pointed lack of choices — which is to say their passivity — which I think is a choice in itself). Where I found myself really struggling with this idea was in the story "Walls" which is told from the "we" perspective and which is about the past but also about the effect other people's bad choices — in this case a parent's — have on another group of people (namely, children). This can be a kind of inert way of telling a story, so I really wanted to find a way to tell a story where the drama really belongs to one person but trickles down into several people's lives. 

BF: There's a few stories that take place in deserts. What attracts you to desert locales?

TG: The smell of tanning lotion is very inspiring to me. As is the sight of octogenarians driving enormous American cars dangerously slow. Plus, I've lived in the desert for a long time: My family moved to Palm Springs when I was in 8th grade — my mother was a society columnist in town for many years – but prior to that I'd visited Palm Springs on a yearly basis since birth, as both sets of my grandparents had winter homes in the area. Later, I lived in Las Vegas as well, and have lived for the last ten years back in the Palm Springs area, so in a tangible way, I simply know these locales well and so it's easy for me to imagine my stories in places that are familiar to me. 

But I also find the deserts of the West to be odd and mysterious places. There's no good reason anyone should live in a place where the temperature is routinely above 110 for weeks at a time, and yet people have inhabited these parts for hundreds of years by choice and before the advent of central air conditioning. Why would anyone choose that way of life? And yet here I am and here so many other have been. And then there's the way people tend to disappear into these landscapes and how people in resort cities like Palm Springs and Las Vegas come to these searing places to recreate themselves. These can be anonymous places, places where you go to escape or to lose yourself and find that very compelling indeed. 

BF: Some of these stories are hilarious — darkly so. But do you find that literary journals are prejudiced against humor?

TG: I think generally there is a prejudice against funny things — when was the last time a comedy won the Academy Award? — in terms of taking them…well…seriously. And so if a short story is funny, it also has to do other things well to be taken as literature with a capital L, which is typically what literary journals are aiming to publish. 

But I can't say that I've faced this personally. I've been publishing short stories in magazines and journals since 1996 and a great many of them have had elements of black comedy in them and I've managed to publish them. Though I don't think anything I've written is straight madcap comedy and maybe that's why as the stories are still fairly, you know, depressing. The stories in Other Resort Cities that I think are probably more humorous than the others — "Mitzvah" and "Rainmaker" — are still about people staring down a pretty uncertain future brought on by fairly awful, violent consequences of their own bad decisions.

BF: How did you decide to order the collection this way?

TG: I think a story collection has to be ordered in such a way that two things can be achieved: A reader can read the book straight through and, by the end, feel like they've experienced an actual arc, as if the book itself is a character. And, secondly, they need to be able to pick it up and read it out of order and still enjoy it. 

The second goal can be achieved simply by selecting the right stories for the book — I wrote 16 stories over the course of about 3 years to get to the 10 stories we (and by 'we" I mean me and my two excellent editors at OV Books, Gina Frangello and Stacy Bierlein) ended up selecting for the book. So it was a process of making sure we weren't putting stories into the book that were overly similar or which were weaker than others or even which were similar to the stories in my last collection, Simplify. And then when we did all that we eventually ended up putting in a story — "Granite City" — that I wrote more than 10 years ago because it fit in particularly well with the other stories. 

In terms of the idea of arc, however, it was important for me that the book ebbed and flowed and that it started in one emotional place and ended in another, so we really toyed with the order so that the surprises in the collection — there are a few characters who reappear in the book and I think readers will be intrigued by the stories these people have to tell — came at the right emotional moments of the read. So I try to imagine what the reader is experiencing from the stories, the emotions they are having, and, particularly, whether or not the reader is getting ready to kill themselves from depression since I tend to write about people who aren’t exactly living the glamorous life, as Sheila E. once so adroitly sang. And so we matched stories up so that the book builds to certain revelations, pauses, lets you laugh a little bit, and then starts climbing towards a new revelation. A lot of this is just about feel — like when we were kids and made mix tapes. You just knew that you didn't put "Somebody" by Depeche Mode next to "Fuck Tha Police" by NWA. You had to keep one of those on side A and the other on side B. 

BF: What about the UC Riverside's Palm Desert MFA program gives you joy?

TG: Pretty much all of it. Directing an MFA program is certainly a lot of work and I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most writers are writers because they aren't very good businessmen, so learning the business side of education has been a unique and ever expanding challenge, but I am surrounded by great people who know much more than me on these topics and they humor my general ignorance quite well and then let me make decisions based on what I feel are the artistic aims of the program combined with the business end and, fortunately, things have worked out very well. 

The opportunity to work with a great faculty — writers I admire like Mary Yukari Waters and Mark Haskell Smith and David Ulin, to name three — and to recruit excellent students is a real dream. Plus, the ability to direct the movements of two programs — we have a low residency and a regular program — allows me to really investigate new and innovative teaching methods and to give these students a tremendous opportunity to get published and produced. Writing is one of the few arts that truly isn't proprietary and the ability to give back what little I know is exceptionally gratifying. 

BF: How difficult is it to switch between writing novels and short stories? What different writerly faculties does each require?

TG: It's all writing, so it boils down to what kind of writing it is and for me a short story is a place where I can really stretch myself. If I fail miserably or get irrevocably stuck, I've lost a month of my life. If I do the same in a novel, I've lost a year. Maybe more. I have a novel in a drawer that, while I was writing it, I sort of knew wasn't quite working but I just kept going because I already had a year invested in it and I was going to see it through for better or worse. This was probably a mistake but I just felt like I could write my way out of the intrinsic problems in the novel, which were several. 

With a story, I'd be more inclined to just say, Oh, fuck it, and try something new. I think the best short stories have all the weight and depth of a great novel — and when I think of my favorite stories I think of them in the same emotional way as my favorite novels, too — and so I think the difference in actual writing is pretty negligible usually. Now, when I write Burn Notice books I tend to use a style that is completely different than what I use in my other novels or stories because the stories in those books are really plot driven whereas my other novels and my stories tend to be really character based, so in that regard, yeah, I do make a conscious choice to write in a more accessible and, really, commercial way which requires me to stop being so interior and really focus on what the reader wants from those novels, which is action, quips and maybe a bit of romance, but not ruminations on the human soul.

Daniyal Mueenuddin Interview (Video – Part II)

Daniyal Mueenuddin Interview: On Pakistan from James Roland on Vimeo.

In this second part of a two-part video interview with Daniyal Mueenuddin, we talk about Pakistan — the power struggles between genders and class and its inevitable plunge into chaos. Also, we discuss the wonderful and delightful benefits of misery.

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s book is “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders.” You may purchase it here.

Many thanks to my video editor James Roland.

Daniyal Mueenuddin Interview (Video)

Daniyal Mueenuddin Interview: On Writing from RedFence Video on Vimeo.

Daniyal Mueenuddin’s debut collection of short stories, “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” chronicles the struggles among the affluent and destitute in Pakistan. The stories revolve around the extended family of a wealthy landowner, Mr. K. K. Harouni, mostly taking place on farms in Pakistan. Previously, these stories appeared in Granta, Zoetrope, and The New Yorker.

This video interview with Mueenuddin takes place in Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena, California. In the interview, we discuss how farming affects his writing, the attractions of “ethnic lit” and his penchant for poetry.

If you want to purchase his book: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

Daniyal Mueenuddin Links

Daniyal Mueenuddin just made a pit-stop here in L.A. to promote his collection “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,” which has been making waves. I couldn’t go to the reading at Vromans because I had to teach a night class of creative nonfiction, but I’m going to catch up with him soon. So until then, I offer you this hodgepodge.

Very few reviews are out yet, but there’s an interview at Ultrabrown. Also, Beatrice asked him about one of his favorite short stories, so Mueenuddin writes about Turgenev’s “The Singers.”

The Wall Street Journal has a little bio article and Ward Six praised the title story, published in the New Yorker, when it came out two years ago.

TIME magazine doesn’t have a review, but a “Life on the Farm” meet-the-author.

If you’d like to read a few of his stories, the title story is available online at the New Yorker, as is “A Spoiled Man.”

Glen Pourciau Interview: Kafka, Buddhism, and Linked Stories

Invite Glen Pourciau

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?

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.

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Nathan Englander Interview

I conducted this Nathan Englander interview for the Spring 2008 issue of the Southern California Review, and I’m posting it online now for easier accessibility. If you want the entire text, click the title above or the link at the bottom of this post.

Nathan Englander burst onto the literary scene in 1999, when he was twenty-eight and a few years out of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (Knopf), which included selections that first appeared in the Atlantic and the New Yorker, dealt with the life of Hasidic and Orthodox Jews in New York and abroad. The book garnered awards such as the PEN/Malamud Award and the Pushcart Prize, and pieces were included in The Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Englander was compared to writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth.

Now, nearly a decade later, Englander has returned with a novel, The Ministry of Special Cases (Knopf), which describes the struggles of a Jewish family during the Argentine Dirty War in the seventies and eighties, when the government “disappeared” citizens. In it, Kaddish Poznan chips names off gravestones to erase familial connections to pimps and prostitutes, his wife works for a company providing insurance for those frightened by the recent coup, and his son fraternizes with rebellious youth.

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA REVIEW: Although your novel is set in Buenos Aires, you wrote it while living in Jerusalem. Do you think this helped you better imagine The Ministry of Special Cases?

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