For the short story reader. Updated every Monday.

Jeffrey Rotter: The Short Form Interview

You have five senses, but you shouldn’t turn on all of them at once. Good short story writers know when to put on the blinders.

Author of The Unknown Knowns.

The Interview

As predominantly a novelist, what role does the short story have in your writing life?

Somebody once called my writing pointillist, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a compliment. I’m one of those writers who’s afraid the reader won’t get it unless I describe everything. The way laminate buckles on a desk as the office building collapses. What a horsefly said when a boy was drowning.

You have five senses, but you shouldn’t turn on all of them at once. Good short story writers know when to put on the blinders (or the clothespins or earplugs). And they know that by turning off a sense, they’re asking the reader to turn it on, which engages the reader in the process.

How do your objectives change when going from short to long fiction?

I’m not sure my objectives change. The main goal is always the same: to imagine a situation as it might really happen. My failure rate with short stories is infinitely higher, though. So I have that to look forward to.

The crystal is not my preferred analogy for story-telling. Too hard, too predetermined. I look for writers who think by writing.


As a reader, what is your attraction to short stories?

People praise short stories that crystallize experience. Like that’s always a good thing. The crystal is not my preferred analogy for story-telling. Too hard, too predetermined. I look for writers who think by writing. Donald Barthelme, of course, called the phenomenon “not-knowing.” Kelly Link does this. Also Leonard Michaels, Barry Hannah. The novellas of Cesar Aira work this way. They seem to arrive at their conclusions as the story unfolds, not before. They stumble, get distracted, get drunk. As a reader the pleasure is in feeling you’ve fumbled for the light switch with them.

You’ve cited Grace Paley as an influence. Her city voices and language exist mostly in short stories. What have you learned from her writings and how do you translate that to larger works?

Grace Paley was endlessly inventive in the ways she reshaped “natural” speech into prose. And she was insanely funny without delivering
jokes—a very hard trick to pull.

You’ve been given a brown paper sack. You’re to fill the sack and then give it to the last creative writing class in the history of the world. What do you put in it?

A sack that is only slightly smaller. And inside that, an even smaller sack. Repeat until our sack contains an infinite number of sacks of decreasing volume, nesting one inside the other forever. Students are to fill each with a single item, beginning with the infinitely smallest sack. When they have completed this task, they may publish their efforts and never write again. And then we’ll all get real jobs.

Recommended by Jeffrey Rotter

Eating Out

I dialed. The burglar answered and said Ikstein wasn't home. I said tell him I called. The burglar laughed. I said, “What's funny?” The burglar said, “This is a coincidence. When you called I was reading a passage in Ikstein's diary which is about you.” I said, “Tell me what it says.” The burglar snorted. “Your request is compromising. Just hearing it is compromising.” I said, “I'm in the apartment below Ikstein's. we can easily meet and have a little talk about my request. I'll bring something to drink. Do you like marijuana? I know where Ikstein hides his marijuana. I have money with me, also a TV set and a Japanese camera. It's no trouble for me to carry everything up there. One trip.” He said if I came upstairs he would kill me.

We read it in A Girl With a Monkey.

The Gentleman and the Moon

“And what happened on the moon?” I’ve been expecting that question for a while. Well then. On the moon, nothing the first few days. Lots of light, that’s for sure, because the moonlight on earth is very different from the moonlight on the moon. On the earth the moonlight’s spread out, while on the moon it’s all packed together. The night’s huge paws hold it down, and we only see what escapes from between the fingers … The ground was silk, the color of white petals. During the first few days, my emotions kept me from seeing anything. It took me quite a while to realize certain things, because at that moment, and from far away, everything looked the same: the flour mountains and snow mountains they have there, the meadows of leafless gardenias, and the big ponds full of milk with sleeping swans. The clean sheets scattered about … What happened to me can only be compared … I’m sorry, I can’t even find a comparison. And that secret … the secret which made me laugh while I was sweeping the dining room floor, or washing the only dish that got dirty … which gave me the urge to laugh when some poor jerk walked by—someone like you, who didn’t know where the mills are that you can’t see by day or night, the transparent cows, drunk on anisette and water, the strange descending intrigues of the jasmines, magnolias, and tuberoses, the whitewashers’ graveyard … I thought if they could only see me, all dressed-up at night, going out through the little door on my way to the moon. And not once or twice, but every night, every blessed moonlit night, every, every, every, every night … And while I was doing housework and hanging out shirts on the terrace, I’d be saying in a soft voice, like a song: every, every, every night …

The Eyes

“The sensation of being thus gazed at was far from pleasant, and you might suppose that my first impulse would have been to jump out of bed and hurl myself on the invisible figure attached to the eyes. But it wasn't—my impulse was simply to lie still ... I can't say whether this was due to an immediate sense of the uncanny nature of the apparition—to the certainty that if I did jump out of bed I should hurl myself on nothing—or merely to the benumbing effect of the eyes themselves. They were the very worst eyes I've ever seen: a man's eyes—but what a man! My first thought was that he must be frightfully old. The orbits were sunk, and the thick red-lined lids hung over the eyeballs like blinds of which the cords are broken. One lid drooped a little lower than the other, with the effect of a crooked leer; and between these pulpy folds of flesh, with their scant bristle of lashes, the eyes themselves, small glassy disks with an agate-like rim about the pupils, looked like sea-pebbles in the grip of a starfish.”

We read it in Tales of Men and Ghosts.