Many of the stories in this collection have been previously published (in journals like McSweeneys, The Paris Review and The New Yorker), yet they form a remarkably cohesive collection. Did you always intend for them to be published together?
I’d always hoped that I might persuade someone to publish the stories between a single set of covers, but I can’t say that I set out to write a cohesive book. Really, these were the first nine stories I wrote (over the course of eight years or so) that didn’t give me the horrors when I reread them after the final revision. That it seems to anyone like a cohesive book is very glad news to me.
Short stories seem to have experienced a resurgence in recent years, with single-author collections like Nam Le’s The Boat and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth achieving both critical and commercial success. What do you think is behind this resurgence? What draws you to the short story as a form?
If the short story is indeed in a resurgence, I suppose you’d do better to ask someone who hasn’t been reading them like mad all the while. I’ve been pretty keen on the short story since childhood or so. As a writer, what attracts me to the short story is the terrific challenge of assembling, in a very tight space, a simple machine that delivers a persuasive emotional wallop. A short story permits its writer few indulgences and digressions, and, if left to my own devices, I quickly become digressive and indulgent. The short story reins me in.
You inhabit a huge range of characters and voices in this book: floundering middle-aged divorced men; a former corporate high-achiever slumming it in the wilderness; an adolescent girl longing for affection and validation; a small boy evading his sinister stepfather; a Viking divided between career and family. Do you like the challenge of imagining such different characters, or are you drawn by curiosity? Or something else?
Most of the stories in the book went through several radical revisions. Lots of total demoltions and wholesale rebuilds, often with complete rotations in the casts of characters, tense or point of view. With each story, there was generally a core element, a setting, an incident, that constituted the story’s inspirational core, and it took a lot of trial and error to find the characters to suit the tale. With a couple of exceptions, I can’t really recall sitting down and coldly deciding to tackle one sort of character or another. In most cases, the stories insisted on their particular populations after much gruelling work.
The stories in this book explore the cracks in family relationships. They look at the process (or the aftermath) of relationships falling apart; or at family relationships that were always far from the ideal. What is it that interests you in exploring these familial faultlines?
I don’t know that it’s the family that preoccupies me as a going concern. It’s more that my fiction, like most fiction, wants to know about the things that people do to one another, and a good proportion of humanity’s emotional warfare gets waged among people who are related to each other.
The father in ‘Wild America’ is ‘a connoisseur of the chance encounter’. So are you as a writer, it seems: incidental relationships and chance encounters are important in these stories. Neighbours form unlikely friendships; strangers provide distraction or temporary comfort. Was this a deliberate thread running throughout the collection, or did it evolve as you wrote?
I suppose the prevalence of chance encounters in the book grows out of its preoccupation with people who have fetched up, alone, on life’s far shores. But no, the solitude, the run-ins with strangers weren’t a part of deliberate thematic strategy. Some of the chance-encounter business probably owes a debt to the years I spent writing features for magazines, usually doing stories where it was up to me to mooch around at horse tracks or public parks and find people to write about.
Each of these stories leaves the reader wondering about the characters. What will happen to them after the last line is uncertain, though you leave a trail of clues for the reader in the form of their actions and experiences so far. Is this something you aim for – to leave the reader wondering? Is it something you look for as a reader?
I think a compelling story should trace several pendulum swings in the moral momentum between the characters, and ought to compel a series of shifts in the reader’s sympathies. I have a fondness for endings in which the characters’ fortune or moral authority has undergone another wild swing but hasn’t yet come back to centre. A good ending should leave the reader in a pleasurably unbalanced place, rocked back on his heels.
One of the great pleasures of this book is your deft imagery. Innocuously designed clocks evade notice ‘like well-greased pills for your eye’. Rain threatens through ‘a large blue violence of storm clouds’. Is that one of the pleasures of writing for you – crafting careful word-pictures? Is it something you strive for?
Thanks very much, and sure, I do take pleasure in a well-turned description. I suppose I strive generally for careful language. I feel pretty strongly that if you’re going to ask somebody to do you the terrific favour of reading a sentence you’ve written, you’d better be damned sure that the sentence is up to something interesting, that every word is there for a reason.
Who are your influences? What books and writers do you read?
Let’s glance behind me at the shelf of books I hold dear: Orwell, Styron, Melville, Nabokov, Joyce, Cheever, Barry Hannah, Joan Didion, William Vollmann, John McFee, Ian Frazier, Walker Percy, Michael Chabon, Lorrie Moore, Grace Paley, Charles Portis, Allan Gurganus, Evan S. Connell, David Berman, Flannery O’Connor, David Foster Wallace.