I’m reading your stories from the Watching Oksana collection and am struck by the range of your subjects for your fiction. After you finish a story, how do you decide what you are going to write about next? Is it something you remember having seen walking down a street in New York? A middle aged man with a young girl, for example? An account in a newspaper about an Irish Catholic woman with dementia who starts speaking Yiddish? And beyond that, when you have an idea, when do you know what genre you’ll use to explore it?
—Darshan Perusek, Menomonie, Wisconsin
Darshan, it’s the luxury and the curse of someone who writes primarily fiction not to have an assigned subject to write about. And you are right that subjects can be suggested by random things—seeing a couple in a coffee shop involved in an intense conversation or an obvious flirtation, reading something odd or unexpected in an obituary or being struck by a comment a friend has made. Here’s a random example. Someone told me recently about a man who was elected mayor of a town not because of any knowledge of public events or thought-out policy positions but because he was a sign painter by trade and had painted the biggest and most beautiful campaign signs imaginable for himself. If I were in the market for a story idea, even though there’s no developed story attached to the image of a man painting a huge sign with his name on it—it’s more like a humorous anecdote—it could be the prod for a larger story.
If I let that idea wander untended for a time in my head, I might begin to see the man as a character and to understand his motivation for running for office and the power he might feel in painting enormous signs with his name on them. The story I would write would have more characters—a wife perhaps, possibly a political foe. The voice of the story might start to emerge as something comic along the lines of the voice in “Eleven Days to China.” Or it might be more dramatic or serious, involving some sort of breakdown or breakout in a man’s life. I don’t know how the story would form itself because I don’t intend to write it and stories don’t really come into being for me until I start and move into the writing process itself. But I do know that the story would take shape without any more reference to the original sign painter. I would be off in the realms of fiction. That has been the basic trajectory for my work (excluding Suite Harmonic with its strong verisimilitude), particularly for the short stories. I get the nub of an idea from somewhere—anywhere really. It attracts me, sometimes with particular force, and I have the feeling I can turn it into something more and something different.
There have been times in my writing life when I haven’t had anything in the back of my mind that I wanted to write about. It’s an unpleasant feeling and a little scary. But something has always surfaced before long and I find myself once more in the secure zone of having a new world to discover. In thinking about it, I suspect there have been these gaps most often when I’ve been working on short stories. With stories, it’s hard not to have the idea that you’re not working on just one story but a collection, that each story will need many companions. There’s the further issue that, even if the ideas for the stories are wide ranging, for a collection to work, there needs to be some reason for them to be together in a book. So the story idea that sparks new work has to have some way of expressing some kind of continuity with the stories that have preceded it.
Recently, I made my way through Ann Beattie’s collection of the stories she’d published in the New Yorker over four decades. Reading them as a group, I was struck by Beattie’s ability to do so many small variations on a theme. It was only near the end of the collection that she began to move toward distinctly new territory. I found myself fascinated in approaching such similar situations in her stories, yet knowing there would be critical details and events that would make the stories individual. I think it’s unusual for stories to have that degree of kinship. Often, a book of stories will be linked more loosely by theme or socio-economic class or the ethnicity of the characters or by the pressures and particular characteristics of a time period such as the World War II era Irène Némirovsky writes about in Dimanche. But in writing short stories, when you’re waiting to know what’s next, you’re waiting for both a specific story idea and for one that can occupy the larger space of the stories that will make a book. That creates a particular pressure and stricture on the imagination and requires some discipline. For instance, if I’d had the idea for “Swimming” when I was writing the stories for In the Land of the Dinosaur, I would have known that it was tonally very different from what I was working on and, even if I’d felt its draw, would likely have put it in my “to write” folder rather than turning to it when I was focused on those small town and rural stories in Wisconsin.
Though creating the structure of a novel is demanding, I’ve always found it a particular indulgence to be working on one because I know I have a subject that is going to last me a long time. There have been times when I wasn’t sure what things I was going to use to fill up the novel’s pages in a way that would keep the story coherent and moving forward. But in a novel, the characters and their relationships are set for the long haul and that’s a particularly comfortable feeling. I’ll put in a caveat here. In writing Suite Harmonic, the research pressures were so great and my desire so strong to actually make the characters like the real people they represented (a definite departure for me) that there were times when I wondered if I could make it through the whole territory I was determined to cover. In that instance, the comfort level was compromised for a time and it felt more like writing to a deadline or at least writing on assignment.
This really brings me to the question about genre and when I know what I’m writing—a short story or novella or novel, even a poem or essay. Oddly, perhaps, that’s something that has always felt pretty apparent to me, which I’ll expand on, though I’d like to talk first about my experiences with writing non-fiction. In fact, I’ll talk about the essays I wrote for you when you were the editor of Kaleidoscope. I liked writing them very much and found them a unique kind of challenge. But, as you know, I decided not to write more of them because I found they took as much focus and effort as writing fiction, and fiction was what I wanted to be writing. It was the thing that most deeply caught my imagination and sense of how to use language. It’s only occurred to me now, though, that it wasn’t just that I needed to stick closely to the facts in an essay; it was that the germ of the story wasn’t something that had caught me out of the blue and absolutely required my interest. Even if I could come up with my own subject, it still felt somehow constricting to be writing on a “topic” and so didn’t entirely suit my temperament as a writer. It felt obligatory in a way that writing fiction never has. I guess it was hard for me to find that deepest level of excitement that I’ve been addicted to as a writer. And I’ll add here, that even though I was working so strictly with actual events and people in Suite Harmonic, it’s a story I would only have written as a novel. I was eager to see what my imagination could do within that tight grid of facts.
This leaves me, in terms of my work, with poetry and stories, novellas, and novels—all reliant on the imagination—and the question of how idea is mated to form. Really, it’s mostly instinctive. Intuitive. Occasionally I’ll have an idea for a poem and it always presents itself as just that—something finite like an image and an impulse that I know wants to be a poem and would never make a story. I often don’t welcome those ideas because I go a little crazy trying to make even the shortest poem feel truly finished and often don’t succeed. But I have a similar instant sense of what genre I’ll be working in when I’ve had the ideas that have grown into novels or short stories. In fact, I once published an essay as a rebuttal to people who had suggested I expand various short stories into novels. I know many writers have done such expansions but I never have. In essence, I know the part of the story I want to focus on from the outset, and that tells me whether I’ll be poking around in the large house of the novel or sticking with the small room of the short story. And when I’m done, I’m done.
I’ve saved the novella for last, a sort of pride of place, I guess. It’s a form I love. There’s always the sense from the outset that there’s plenty of time to develop both the world and the story but no need to create the full infrastructure of a novel. That’s a nice prospect. Really, a novella is a kind of Goldilocks length, and I wish it were more popular as a form. To me, its length and span are just about right for a person to keep all of it in mind at once, rather as if it’s a landscape that looks complete to the eye. It’s just a very pleasing form. I’ll add that, while Clare, Loving creates a novel from the union of three novellas and so reaches the novel’s length in a merely additive fashion, as I worked from novella to novella, I found the requirement for thematic unity and careful tracking perhaps even greater than in a more traditionally structured novel. Yet the novellas themselves each seemed a sort of finite exploration that I felt all along would be a certain length, which they in fact turned out to be.
Basically, with every idea I have for something to write—and truly most of them just appear of a piece or with the slightest prod of a thought or captured moment—I have a sense of the genre and length from the outset—even whether a short story will be long or short. I don’t know why that’s the case. It is, though, and I like that assurance. It’s like a runner going to the starting line knowing whether the gun going off signals the start of a hundred meter race or a marathon. For a writer, it’s a useful, if uncanny, thing to know.