For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Fiona Maazel: The Short Form Interview

“The Oscars boobs song doesn't reengage me with the problem of being a woman in the arts so much as it makes me just change the channel.”

A 2008 National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree, and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize for 2009. Her second novel, Woke Up Lonely, comes out this April.

The Interview

We hear all the time about short story writers who are expected to write a novel. Does it also work the other way around, are you expected to write more short stories?

I don't think anyone expects anything of me—novels or short fiction. But I certainly expect myself to produce more short fiction than I do. I think as an artist, you have the idea that you should excel at everything—which is perhaps why some short story writers insist on writing novels when they probably shouldn't, and vice versa. Most of us aren't very good at knowing our limitations. I'm sure I'm not that good at it, either, but I do know that the short form poses challenges for me that I have trouble surmounting. They don't deter me—I like a good challenge—but they do frighten me a little. I want to be writing amazing short stories. It hasn't happened yet.

Was your preference for writing novels an early realization? And how does reading short stories inform your long form writing?

When I was in grad school, I wrote only short fiction. But the instant I got out, I started writing a novel. And I felt this terrific freedom. I remember telling a friend that I felt like I could do anything I wanted—see that stuffed penguin in the trash? I'm going to write that into my book today—and him disagreeing and me thinking he was a dolt. But of course he was right: you can't just stick anything you want in a novel, though I had to learn this the hard way. But you do have more room to play. And since I guess I'm a maximalist, since I like to wander around and take the long view, novels better suit my temperament than the short story. Which is, I imagine, precisely why I love reading short fiction so much: it checks my impulse to excede what's necessary in my own work. The condensed sentiment and pathos of a great short story reminds me that I can accomplish certain things without going off the rails. Does this scene really need twenty pages or will ten do?

In the right hands, Emma Bovary's predicament can elicit huge sympathy and judgment, which is by way of implicating us in her problem.

As a result of the extra time we get to spend with the characters, I wonder if you find that the longer form allows for a more empathetic reading. Could Madame Bovary have worked as a short story, for example?

Auden once said that poetry is "the clear expression of mixed feelings," and I feel similarly about short fiction. It can distill the chaos and incoherence of our lives into one of those Chinese stars and then hurl it at the sweet spot right between your eyes. Short fiction can slaughter you the way a novel cannot. A novel builds, collapses, advances and retreats such that its very length and scope tend to diminish its impact. Not that a novel cannot change your life—the best ones do—but that its power of effect is diffused, albeit sustained. But a great short story? It can mow you down. In the right hands, Emma Bovary's predicament can elicit huge sympathy and judgment, which is by way of implicating us in her problem. A genius like Amy Hempel can say in one sentence what takes most novelists five pages—and even then, those five pages aren't likely to pack the same punch. So no, I don't think novels have any advantage over short stories in terms of how effectively they can provoke an emotional response.

Do you think that fiction, in general, since it puts us in close contact with the kind of people we may never meet and understand in real life, nurtures the capacity for empathy in readers?

Yes, absolutely. Good fiction makes sure that something irrefutable and important transpires in its pages and that readers will come out of the experience different. Exalted, educated, ruined, depressed, engaged, solaced—you name it. All that matters is that something transformative has taken place. If that happens, then you as a reader will have been forced to diminish you own ego—to surmount yourself—which is always a good thing. That is what social activism is all about.

I think notions of prudery are besides the point. Artistry is what matters. Does the art require a bare chest to challenge, solace, educate, ennoble, crucify? If so, why?

Since you live-tweeted this year's Oscars and have written about the time you tried to write pornography for income, I thought this would be a good topic to discuss with you: what is the relevance of Seth McFarlane's boob song? Some of these actresses may consider themselves serious artists, and we generally don't want our artists to be prudes, but Hollywood culture is obviously problematic in more than one way. For the sake of conversation, is it fair to imply, as some have, that were it not for the pressure, the actresses would've preferred to not bare their breasts?

As always when we're talking about gender politics, it's disparity that matters. If as many men were showing their genitalia onscreen as women, it wouldn't be an issue. If our culture sexualized men the way it sexualizes women, you wouldn't be asking me this question. I think notions of prudery are besides the point. Artistry is what matters. Does the art require a bare chest to challenge, solace, educate, ennoble, crucify? If so, why? If there's a good answer there, then go for it. Only let's try to be sure that art calls upon men and women equally to denude; on camera, in fiction, the medium is immaterial.

As for Seth McFarlane's boob song in particular, it wasn't just sexist, it was stupid. Likewise his gay jokes and xenophobia. But all that tells me is that someone out there still thinks that shit is funny. And that it sells. But it doesn't reengage me with the problem of being a woman in the arts so much as it makes me just change the channel. If you are a woman in the arts, you don't need to be reengaged; you live that problem every day.

The most penises and male butts I've seen have been in French and German movies, and good movies at that. Though the scenes weren't crucial, the underlying context seemed to be that that for all of us, our bodies are a source of some powerful feelings, sometimes disorientation, sometimes empowerment, sometimes humiliation, and so on. But most importantly, they are unavoidable, they're always there. No wonder that Lena Dunham, a woman not shaped like a model, decides to go nude on screen, and suddenly, her decision to do so appears to be something that she needs to somehow defend, and it seems like she's doing everyone a favor by going nude. What do you think? 

In Europe, nudity is just less notable in general. Nudity, sex—Europeans aren't half as repressed about these things as we are. I was just in Germany for four months recently, and there were sex shops everywhere, with window displays that would have scandalized us here. Giant dildos and lifelike cocks within ten feet of an elementary school. That may be pushing it, but in general, I found this open attitude towards sex refreshing. Here, everyone is full of shame. So what if you're a guy who likes to dress like a woman for sex, who cares? I never could understand what all the repression and self-loathing was about. As for Lena Dunham, let's be honest about it: the reason she gets props for being naked all the time is because she is a normal-looking woman with a normal body. She's not super hot and her body's not all porned out. So just for trying to sexualize the lumps and bumps, she gets kudos. Which I think is important. But I think, too, that's the reason she get flack for it.  Because she's not a porn star, why is she naked all the time?

What are some Hollywood movies in which you find the role of the lead actress satisfying?

I guess I like women who challenge the status quo. I loved Hillary Swank in Boys Don't Cry. I liked Anne Hathaway in Les Mis because she was raw and ugly. But you know what I also liked? Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia. A horrible movie—Pierce Brosnan had me rolling on the floor with laughter—but somewhat redeemed by Meryl Streep, who has no fear, it seems. So, yeah, be fearless and you get my vote.

Finally, who would you like to see host the Oscars?

I think David Sedaris could make a great Oscars host, though I actually have no idea how well he'd do in front of an audience. But so what. I kind of like the idea of a nebbishy guy just nervously making jokes into the mic all night.

Recommended by Fiona Maazel

The Raft
Excerpt

“It was late,” he says. “Someone knocked on my stateroom door. I leaped up. In those days I slept in uniform — shoes, too.” My grandfather smiles. His face is so perfectly round that his smile looks like a gash in a basketball. I smile back.

“Don't smile,” he says. “Just because I'm smiling, don't assume I couldn't kill you right now. Know that about a man.”

“Oh, Seymour, my God,” my grandmother protests through the door. “Isn't he supposed to be at summer camp, anyway? Call his mother.”

He looks straight at me and snarls at her, “Another word out of you, ensign, and I'll have you thrown in the brig, and you won't see Beanie Dewoskin till V-J Day.”

“I'll make coffee,” my grandmother says.

“It was late,” I say. “Someone knocked.”

The Most Girl Part of You
Excerpt

That was before his mother died. She died eight days ago. She did it herself. Big Guy showed me the rope burns in the beam of the ceiling. He said, “Any place I hang myself is home.” In the movie version, that is where his father would have slapped him.

But of course his father did not—didn’t slap him, didn’t even hear him. Although Big Guy’s father has probably heard what Big Guy says about the Cubs. It’s the funniest thing he can imagine; it’s what he doesn’t have to imagine, because his father really said it when he had to tell his son what the boy’s mother had done.

“And what’s more—” his father had said.

It may have been the sheer momentum of bad news, because in the vast thrilling silence after Big Guy heard the news, his father added, “And what’s more, the Cubs lost.”

“So you see,” Big Guy says these days about matters large and small, “it’s not as if the Cubs lost.”

Full story can be read at The Collagist

The Mud Below
Excerpt

Como Bewd, a grizzled man wearing a kidney belt, pointed this way and that as Leecil and his brothers worked the calves from pasture to corral to holding pen to chute and the yellow-hot electric branding iron to cutting table, where the ranch hand Lovis bent forward with his knife and with the other hand pulled the skin of the scrotum tight over one testicle and made a long outside cut through skin and membrane, yanked out the hot balls, dropped them into a bucket, and waited for the next calf. The dogs sniffed around, the omnipresent flies razzed and turmoiled, three saddled horses shifted from leg to leg under a tree and occasionally nickered.

Diamond glanced again and again at Como Bewd. The man’s forehead showed a fence of zigzag scars like white barbed wire. He caught the stare and winked.

“Looking at my decorations? My brother run over me with his truck when I was your age. Took the skin off from ear to here. I was all clawed up. I was scalloped.”

Islands
Excerpt

We walked up a dilapidated, sinuous road exuding heat. Uncle Julius’ sandals clattered in a tranquilizing rhythm and I felt sleepy. There was a dense verdureless thicket alongside the road. Uncle Julius told us that there used to be so many poisonous snakes on Mljet that people used to walk in tall rubber boots all the time, even at home, and snakebites were as common as mosquito bites. Everybody used to know how to slice off the bitten piece of flesh in a split second, before the venom could spread. Snakes killed chickens and dogs. Once, he said, a snake was attracted by the scent of milk, so it curled up on a sleeping baby. And then someone heard of the mongoose, how it kills snakes with joy, and they sent a man to Africa and he brought a brood of mongooses and they let them loose on the island. There were so many snakes that it was like a paradise for them. You could walk for miles and hear nothing but the hissing of nakes and the shrieks of mongooses and the bustle and rustle in the thicket. But then the mongooses killed all the snakes and bred so much that the island became too small for them. Chickens started disappearing, cats also. There were rumors of rabid mongooses and some even talked about monster mongooses that were the result of paradisiacal inbreeding. Now they were trying to figure out how to get rid of mongooses. So that’s how it is, he said, it’s all one pest after another, like revolutions. Life is nothing if not a succession of evils, he said, and then stopped and took a pebble out of his left sandal. He showed the puny, gray pebble to us, as if holding irrefutable evidence that he was right.

We read it in The Question of Bruno.

Love and Hydrogen
Excerpt

They’re diverted north to avoid a front of thunderstorms. All morning, they drift over New England, gradually working their way back to Long Island Sound.

At lunch Captain Pruss appears in the doorway for a moment, and then is gone. They bus tables. The passengers all abandon their seats to look out on New York City. From the exclamations they make, it’s apparently some sight. Steam whistles sound from boats on the Hudson and East Rivers. Someone at the window points out the Bremen just before it bellows a greeting. The Hindenburg’s passengers wave back with a kind of patriotic madness.

The tables cleared, the waiters drift back to the windows. Gnüss puts an arm around Meinert’s shoulders, despair making him courageous. Through patchy cloud they can see shoal water, or tide-rips, beneath them.

Pelicans flock in their wake. What looks like a whale race to keep pace with their shadow.

In New Jersey they circle over miles of stunted pines and bogs, their shadow running along the ground like a big fish on the surface.