The truth is that we are conglomerations of the number of fictions that sustain us from moment to moment.
Author of Understories, and winner of Raymond Carver Short Story Award for “The Understory.”
A thought that I had vaguely had before crystallized in my mind: nonfiction could be pinned down, assigned its plot of shelf real estate, where it could reliably be located in the continuum of knowledge, in any library in any country in the world. But fictions were like transient, shifty renters—all we could do with them was alphabetize them by the arbitrary condition of the authors' last names and hope they stayed put.
“So,” my father murmured. “He get away with it?”
The tip of my tongue rooted around between my lip and the top of my gums as I pondered, as though the answer were wedged there like food caught in teeth.
We read it in Understories.
The arrangement in your collection, Understories, is refreshing in that the very short pieces are interspersed among the longer ones. For example, the “Urban Planning’ series of micro stories are scattered instead of being grouped together. It almost feels like intermissions in a music album. Tell us more about what went into the arrangement, and the idea of consuming a collection of stories as a full body of work rather than autonomous pieces.
The arrangement was part accident, part “let’s try this here,” part sheer intuition, and partly guided by a feeling of necessity. In general, the order of the book follows the chronology of when pieces were written—“Circulation” and “The Understory” were early stories, whereas “The Conversations,” “The City in the Light of Moths,” and “Tilkez” were later ones. “Tilkez” in particular gets a little racy, and I feel like it only works after, you know, the reader’s gotten to know me a little bit.
Anyway, the idea of having the case studies as intermissions came about after I’d submitted a manuscript to various places in which they were all clumped together, and I realized that they were in danger of getting lost in the crowd. Even though I tried to ensure they were radically distinct from one another in style and tone, it still felt like, “Okay, here we go, yet another city.” Whereas once they were separated and scattered, they could speak to the stories that surrounded them much more. I was somewhat inspired by William T. Vollmann’s collection Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs, but in that case, the epitaphs seem to have been conjured specifically to accompany the stories, whereas in my case, they are just together through happenstance and juxtaposition. The connections aren’t always literal, but for instance there is a city that is connected to death right next to a story about death. Similarly, people have told me that they think “The City in the Light of Moths,” about a city where films pervade the streets and are shown around the clock, and “The Conversations” are natural brethren.
I do like the idea of intermissions (when of course you have to go out to the lobby). If you think of a book as structured like a story, then maybe the shorter stories are like the short sentences that can offset long, winding ones so powerfully. So maybe these are intermissions in which you can grab a bite, use the bathroom, take a hit off someone’s clove cigarette, eavesdrop on a few conversations, phone the babysitter and make sure the house remains upright, and still find time to foment a minor revolution, all within ten minutes.
Because the stories were written at various times and without the collection in mind (I was focused like a driver in a blizzard on the blur of road directly in front of me), it is difficult for me to even imagine what it’s like for someone to experience it straight through. One of the distinct pleasures has been noting peoples’ reactions to the work as a whole rather than to the individual parts. My hope is that it puts a bunch of stamps on your geographic, stylistic, and emotional passport, and that the stories thus echo and resound in ways that I hardly could have foreseen.
If you think of a book as structured like a story, then maybe the shorter stories are like the short sentences that can offset long, winding ones so powerfully.
The narrator in “The Lobby” is brimming with personality, but we never know anything about him. Without giving too much away, do you know who he is, how old he is, what he looks like? In some of your very short stories, how much do you know about your narrators, specifically? Do you know them as particular individuals?
“The Lobby” is an odd beast. Because the narrator hides behind a smokescreen of legal terminology, only occasionally affording us geisha-like glimpses of any sort of humanity, I don’t see his face, no, not at all. The shorter stories tend to be more imagistic, and so their narrators wind up short of a full array of features. They’re not anatomically correct, not onstage long enough to be developed as individuals. In the longer stories, I tend to feel as though I know my narrators and characters rather well. I might not know what they look like, but I know their voices—could pick them up through a hotel wall. I hear them all--the cadences and rhythms of their speech and thoughts. I am very voice-driven, so that parts of “Planetarium,” for instance, I heard in my head as though I was listening to an audiobook, which I do quite regularly.
But the guy in “The Lobby” is somewhat cryptic. It was written on the heels of wandering into an actual lobby of a building on Great Jones Street and being made to feel unwelcome because of the icy reception of the doorman. I got the sense that the he was donning the disdain of the residents or the management like extra shoulder-padding and was passing it along to the public. Who knows what his story was—maybe he was just having a crappy day. But I wanted to capture the sense of someone who had been dehumanized, and yet whose reaction to this was to plant his stakes in some sense of ownership over what he was doing, no matter how outlandish this might be, and no matter that his only reward was monetary. I wanted to get a flashbulb frame of his bitterness and repressed anger.
As a side note, but maybe related, when my best friend and I were in high school, we went through a stretch where we were both dating girls who lived in these dauntingly upscale Upper East Side apartments, and every time we went to visit one of them we had to clear the lobby. And the fact was, you wanted these guys (always men, in my experience) on your side. At the very least, if you got a “Hey!” of recognition and could joke with them, you felt this boost of confidence, that you kind of belonged in the building, unlike in the lobby of my story. After a while, hanging out with the doormen became part of the ritual, its own activity. So the mystique—the allure and the potential pitfalls—of a lobby played a key role in my formative years.
I’ve had the full gamut of editors over the years, from the editor who didn’t appear to notice that a piece was segmented in different voices and ran them together into a giant nonsensical blob to ones who have made extraordinarily astute observations and suggestions.
Your sentences tend to be tight, and the words are carefully picked and placed. Are you a rigorous editor of your own work, and how hostile/welcoming are you with other people who come on board to edit your work, specifically at a sentence level?
Thanks. Like most writers, I revise quite a bit, and in recent years I’ve studied sentences more and more, which probably exacerbates that habit. And sometimes I think I can get too caught up in the minutiae of word choice. But truly I couldn’t be happier when someone comes on board to edit my work. It’s like when the yoga instructor comes on over to adjust my arm or hip—there’s no pride there. I’ve had the full gamut of editors over the years, from the editor who didn’t appear to notice that a piece was segmented in different voices and ran them together into a giant nonsensical blob to ones who have made extraordinarily astute observations and suggestions. I’ve never had an overbearing editor who insisted on something over my objections.
Even if something is clear to me, if an editor shows me s/he is reading carefully and trying to figure it out and falling short, I’m generally not so wedded to my exact words that I won’t shake it up. I’m highly aware that every piece of writing is filled with provisional choices that stuck around, and that things could easily have been otherwise. There’s a lot of random selection going on. For someone to actually care about your story—that is a gift. My copy editor at Bellevue Literary Press did an exceptional job in this regard, and my brother is, among other things, a first-rate copy editor, so I have some familiarity with this line of work. And the first thing to say is that it’s not just honing in on grammatical errors and spelling mistakes, as I might have believed once, but is equally if not more about clearing up unwanted ambiguities (as opposed to the ones you want in there), making the work sing, stepping into a prospective reader’s shoes and guessing what effects every detail might have on that reader, and shaping the work accordingly. There’s so much interpretation demanded. While there are “grunt work” aspects to it, as with most jobs, there’s also a profoundly philosophical element, I think. My brother also does literary translation and reads voraciously outside of his work, and in my mind all of these go hand in hand.
I wonder if my daughter will complete this work one day, as well as other unfinished things that she perceives in me. Maybe it’s not entirely up to me what I’ve left unfinished.
Aleksander Hemon’s story “The Bees: Part 1” is fresh in my mind because we posted it a couple of weeks ago. Like in “Circulation,” its narrator is dealing with his father’s unfinished book. I was wondering if you could talk about this idea of one’s parents’ unfinished work. Is it something you’ve given much thought?
As both son and now a parent, I do find myself thinking about the unfinished work. I always thought my dad’s unfinished work was writing a book, and my mom’s unfinished work was plainly to dance, ballet specifically. This means that between myself and my daughter, we are closing like Mariano Rivera. At first, when my daughter took up dancing very young, we were worried—does she just want to please grandma? To our great relief, she seems to genuinely enjoy it, even crave it in her life. As for me, I would say that traveling is an unfinished work in my own life. I’ve long hankered to go more places, volunteer and live abroad, etc., and it hasn’t happened yet except for a handful of countries in short bursts. I have at least one friend through whom I do so vicariously—she will surface on Facebook like some rarely-sighted species at some remote line of longitude, posting a picture of a menu dominated by walrus dishes or popping up in a kayak with a volcano behind her. So, I wonder if my daughter will complete this work one day, as well as other unfinished things that she perceives in me. Maybe it’s not entirely up to me what I’ve left unfinished.
My father has been a great supporter of all of my writing, even when, as it happens, it represents father-son relationships as complex, squirmy things that are fraught with emotional messiness. My mother managed to take up ballet dancing later in life—after many years of self-sacrifice doing agonizingly dull jobs to support my brother and me as a single parent, she now does what she loves, counseling people as a social worker and doing as many grand jetés per week as she can squeeze in. And so there is always the hope that one might complete one’s own unfinished work, might get to paddle up to Ithaka, older and exhausted and in some ways diminished, but also fulfilled and maybe even more alive.
And yet, and yet, I want to say that I think that the work that we do is always unfinished in some sense, that there is only work in progress. That as long as we are alive, we are “unfinished.” In this sense, I embrace the undone, the ongoing, the mire of the middle.
We are bombarded by fictions, and so truth is rarely the right element for a task
“At what point does one recognize that the truth is precisely the wrong instrument for a task?” This is a question your narrator in “Circulation” asks when confronted with his dying father's queries. Is it fair to extend that comment to the general role of fiction and say this is the gap fiction fills, that we are confronted with tasks for which the truth is the wrong instrument?
Yes, indeed, you could argue that fiction is precisely the instrument for a task when truth fails, but also of course that fiction reveals its own sort of truth. This is a commonplace claim. I think even more deeply than that is the question of what “truth” is, though—the truth is that we are conglomerations of molecular cheese, part cultivated, part formed by chance. I mean, consider the sheer number of fictions that sustain us from moment to moment—the fiction of America, the fiction of New Hampshire, of owning property, of “having a job,” etc.—we are bombarded by fictions, and so truth is rarely the right element for a task.
I actually think it’s cool to think of fiction and nonfiction as instruments. One thing I love to do in my writing is to take on different professions, different jobs for my characters—along with the well-known appeal, for readers and writers alike, that you get to slip into an alternate consciousness, it anchors that consciousness in a particular sensibility, and you get to know where that person comes from, how s/he thinks and talks and gripes and dreams.
I can think of lots of stories I’ve loved over the years that do this well, from Ethan Canin’s “The Accountant” to Jason Brown’s “Driving the Heart”—where the job itself becomes a sort of iron-lung without which the character wouldn’t survive, wouldn’t exist, is unimaginable. I’ve done a couple of odd jobs over the years, from working as a counselor in a psychiatric hospital to being a tour guide in a brewery, and so I’ve always been drawn to imagine myself in these other lines of work. What’s it like to be a linguist, going into remote, sometimes war-torn regions and talking to the last speakers of languages whose extinction is looming? What is it like to be a food critic, or a film projectionist, or an engineer, or an umbrologist, i.e. one who studies shadows (the last one is invented, but it could be real)? And I’m always wondering whether that could be me, whether I would in fact be me if I were doing that job, or whether it would transform me.
Anyway, this is a long digression, but coming back to that particular quote, the narrator of “Circulation” is a librarian, who is of course partly me, as all of my characters are. I in fact did a stint behind the circulation desk of my college library, led to countless conversations and an elaborate closing ceremony on Sunday nights that, thanks to an open-minded nighttime security guard, included bongos and other instruments. The narrator’s way of thinking about nonfiction versus fiction shapes that statement in the context of the story, i.e. that nonfiction gets categorized very neatly, whereas with fiction, we just do it by the alphabet. That’s because it’s so hard to know what fiction is about. Occasionally I’ll glance at the categories by which the Library of Congress will categorize the novels I love—Fiction, family struggles, 1980s, hairdressers. The truth is that fiction is a weird kind of instrument because its purposes are so much more amorphous than truth. And I don’t really categorize nonfiction as “truth,” of course, or mean to suggest that we read nonfiction for any one particular reason; quite the contrary. I don’t know if anyone else has experienced this, but sometimes I’ll have a particular craving for one or the other—fiction or nonfiction. It’s as difficult to pin down as a craving for a certain style of music or food—if the writing is well done, it almost doesn’t matter what its subject matter is. Sometimes leaning into the relatively solid armature of nonfiction feels right, bracing, whereas sometimes it can feel too confining.
Fiction is a tricky instrument—it’s hard to know what situations call for it (though my default answer is: almost all), and it’s hard to know exactly what it is used for, but this is exactly the source of its power to me. It’s an instrument we deploy in order to see what it does, an instrument we can use the wrong end of and still make things happen, an instrument that remakes itself and truth in our hands even as we use it. What could be more functional than a screwdriver, but George Crumb decided to wedge it in the guts of a piano, and lo and behold.
Recommended by Tim Horvath
This would have been 1952. My father was about the same age as I am now, but he was much closer to death than I assume myself to be. A resolute smoker of filterless Camel cigarettes, he was in the advanced stages of cancer of the larynx, which at the time was virtually incurable. In the nursing home, in a wicker wheelchair, he talked compulsively despite the ongoing strangulation of his voice box. He'd take a deep breath and then release it in long, rattling phrases, and I would sit and listen to monologues about his job and friends and enemies and crooks and aces. Later, in his yellow-walled hospital room, he'd go on and on while I watched the rectangle of sunlight glide imperceptibly across the waxed floors and then fade and die. I sensed in all this talk a spiraling movement toward something central. He had, he told me, things he needed to say. Important things. What happened on Father Alphonsus's final day was one.
They came in bursts of fertility, my sister's kids, when the bar drinking, or home-grown dope-smoking, or bed-hopping had lost its luster; they came with shrill cries and demands—little gavels, she said, instead of fists—Feed me! Change me! Pay attention to me! Now it was Halloween and the mothers in town, my sister among them, trailed after their kids, warned them away from items not fully wrapped, Just give me that, you don't even like apples, laughing at the kids hobbling in their bulky costumes—my nephew dressed as a shark, dragging a mildewed gray tail behind him. But what kind of shark? A great white? A blue? A tiger shark? A hammerhead? A nurse shark?
Except out here the night got so dark and the kids got so loaded they'd forget where they stowed their fireworks. They'd forget they even had fireworks. They'd drink like men, like their fathers and uncles, like George fucking Washington, take off their shirts and thump their chests and scream into the wide black space. Pass out in their truck beds and let their tipsy girlfriends drive them home all in a line. Leave their stash for an old man to scavenge come sunup.
Not until the war was over and I met Richard did I dredge up the hawkweed story. Richard’s family had been in America for generations and seemed to have no history; that was one of the things that drew me to him. But after our picnic on the riverbank I knew for sure that part of what drew him to me was the way I was linked so closely to other times and places. I gave Richard the yellowed sheets of paper that Tati had left in an envelope for me.
This is a draft of one of Mendel’s letters to Nägeli, Tati had written, on a note attached to the manuscript. He showed it to me once, when he was feeling sad. Later he gave it to me. I want you to have it.
Richard’s voice trembled when he read that note out loud. He turned the pages of Mendel’s letter slowly, here and there reading a line to me. The letter was an early one, or perhaps even the first. It was all about peas.
It was unusual as a dream because it was full of smells, and he never dreamt smells. First a marshy smell, there to the left of the trail the swamps began already, the quaking bogs from which no one ever returned. But the reek lifted, and instead there came a dark, fresh composite fragrance, like the night under which he moved, in flight from the Aztecs. And it was all so natural, he had to run from the Aztecs who had set out on their manhunt, and his sole chance was to find a place to hide in the deepest part of the forest, taking care not to lose the narrow trail which only they, the Motecas, knew.
What tormented him the most was the odor, as though, notwithstanding the absolute acceptance of the dream, there was something which resisted that which was not habitual, which until that point had not participated in the game. “It smells of war,” he thought, his hand going instinctively to the stone knife which was tucked at an angle into his girdle of woven wool.
We read it in Blow-Up and Other Stories.