Reviewed by Alice Grundy
The cover of Adam Ross’ first novel, Mr Peanut, is swathed in praise from no lesser lights than Stephen King and Michiko Kakutani. The title page features a reproduction of Escher’s ‘Mobius’ flagging the role of the double in the plot. All the signs point towards a serious literary work. One which is dark and twisted.
And Mr Peanut is indeed a disturbing book, opening as it does with a husband – who happens to share my husband’s name – plotting to kill his wife, who happens to share my name. David is a successful games designer, working secretly away on a first-person novel. He’s become tired of his life and is struggling in his relationship with his obese wife. Barely 20 pages in, David is sitting in an interrogation room, the detectives having concluded he’s killed Alice. Not least of their evidence is David’s novel in which the protagonist, David, hires a hitman to murder his wife, Alice.
To further complicate matters, David’s questioner is Sam Sheppard, a fictionalised version of the 20th century American doctor who was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, but was then acquitted after ten years in prison. In Mr Peanut, Sheppard has turned detective and judges David to be ‘Guilty, guilty as sin’.
The middle section of Mr Peanut takes place in 1950s America. It retells the Sam Sheppard story from the perspectives of Marilyn, the murdered wife, Richard, the cleaner and Sheppard himself. Ross’ imagining of this time vibrates with as much energy as the contemporary sections, with added tension generated by our modern imaginings of what kind of life Marilyn could have expected if she’d been born as a bright middle-class woman fifty years later. His characters are people we know; their internal lives are fully formed. Each of them is at the centre of their own universe. The exception to this is Alice who always feels a little under-realised. But perhaps this is intentional given this is a book about marriage, its overwhelming intimacies and irrevocable distances. It seems Alice remains something of a shell because David is never quite able to comprehend all of her.
The novel spirals in on itself, winding tight like a slinky as the final third returns us to David’s meta-fictional project; his novel, and Alice’s remarkable transformation shedding tens of kilos and the days which lead up to her death.
While the plot is twisty and the devices self-proclaiming, I prefer to read an exciting project – a suggestion for the future of the novel – as Ross offers here. For the first time in a while, reading this debut novel made me feel as if I’d struck on something new. Last year, with the release of Franzen’s Freedom and the associated media frenzy over dark-rimmed glasses and Oprah’s Book Club, I was feeling flat about the future of fiction. Certainly Franzen is a master of his craft but I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading him. I didn’t fly through the pages and wish that I could read them again for the first time to feel that shiver of wordy delight. When the world feels as if it’s collapsing, reading needs to feel essential.
At times it does seem as though Ross’ devices are overtaking their characters or that, at other moments, the plot has been over-exposed – perhaps for fear of losing readers in the complexity – and so the images become washed out. But for the most part this is a genuinely scintillating read. It is not only intellectually stimulating but has that special quality, the reason why we still reach out for greatness, of making time seem irrelevant and the world fall away.
20 Classics in 2011
Jan 27, 2011
I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.
Why did I want to read it?
After seeing the elegant and moving film A Single Man (and falling for Colin Firth all over again) I learnt it was based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood – a rather famous gay writer who for some reason I’d never heard of. My Twitter friends recommended a few of his books, but most told me I’d enjoy The Berlin Stories.
When was it published?
It was originally published as two autobiographical novels: Mr Norris Changes Trains (or The Last of Mr Norris in the US) in 1935, and Goodbye to Berlin in 1939. They were published together in 1946. My copy is the 2008 New Directions edition (US, UK) with a great intro by Armistead Maupin.
What’s it about?
Isherwood lived in Berlin on and off (but mostly on) between 1929 and 1933. Of course, this was a time of great political upheaval and social change. But while the narratives here inevitably reflect that, the stories are more about the characters Isherwood encountered. These include the mysterious, only sometimes bankable but always spankable Arthur Norris (you’ll have to read it); Sally Bowles, whom you might know from the film Cabaret which was based on Isherwood’s story; and other friends he makes: lefty, Jewish, communist, slum-living, bohemian, queer, intellectual, mad and sometimes quite ordinary.
Tell us more about the author.
Isherwood came from England. He became a US citizen in 1946. He wrote several novels, plays and works of biography and nonfiction. There’s a full list on the wiki entry. Interestingly, in later years Isherwood edited two volumes of Vedanta philosophy and translated from the Sanskrit the Bhagavad-Gita and Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms, according to the book’s biography.
So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?
I loved it. From the way our protagonist (called William in the Mr Norris story) romanticises the extravagant masochist Arthur Norris, to his analysis of the relationship between his friends Peter and Otto in the their time by the sea in ‘On Ruegen Island, Summer 1931’ there is such a depth of observation of others, and a curiosity toward their motivations. The protagonist himself is rather shadowy and passive, though he does let on when something another does had annoyed or delighted him. And he describes the scenery in detail, so you too can visit Berlin in the early ’30s (with mixed emotions). In the cold winter of 1932-1933 he writes:
‘Berlin is a skeleton which aches in the cold: it is my own skeleton aching. I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-standards, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the bricks ache dully, the plaster is numb.’
Of course there is another reason for the more passive approach. It would have been more difficult for Isherwood to be published back then, one imagines, if open about his sexuality. The William and Christopher characters are kind of asexual – they don’t commit or act either way. But he is still able to explore people on all scales of erotic interest and leaning, through the other characters.
The stories thus make for colourful, fascinating reading, but tinged with that cold that Isherwood mentions. For all the people he meets in the stories would soon be in great jeopardy. He captures an incredible point in time – where normal people, everyday people, were kind of flippant in many ways about the political situation, or were in denial. Worry often didn’t translate into action, and so many of them didn’t get away before the situation escalated. Isherwood opens the book with a piece about going back in 1952 – how much had changed (and also how much hadn’t). It’s educative, I think, to read about the time before, to realise how quickly a person’s (a city’s, a country’s, a continent’s) situation can change for the worse. And how some people become swept up in it as though it were just a change in season.
So it’s a book with many layers, and it’s also enjoyable to read. The prose is clear and elegant, the stories are filled with small details and larger contemplations, and certainly the characters are memorable. I think the story ‘Sally Bowles’ was my favourite. And I haven’t yet seen Cabaret. I must!
Next in the ’20 classics in 2011′ series is Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I’m half-way through. After that, perhaps a little Treasure Island? I’m in the mood for some adventure. Feel free to read along with me.
Have you read The Berlin Stories or something else by Isherwood? What did you think?
Interviews + Profiles
May 13, 2010
Elif Batuman’s The Possessed (Aus, US/Kindle) is a personalised, intelligent, humorous exploration of Russian literature; and of academia, reading, and writers – with plenty of travel and adventure. It’s the kind of book you devour and dog-ear – where you’re learning with delight, being provided insight into authors, stories, countries, languages and lifestyles. I thought Elif would be the perfect subject for a ‘responsive’ interview. Enjoy!
LiteraryMinded‘s prompts are in bold. Elif Batuman’s responses are in roman.
Visit Text Publishing’s page for the book, here.
Your introduction, on why theory does not compromise the enjoyment of literature: ‘Wasn’t the point of love that it made you want to learn more, to immerse yourself, to become possessed?’
There is a received idea that you kill what you love by studying it. So OK, if you really love jellyfish and want to know what makes them tick, you probably have to kill and dissect a jellyfish, or at least find a dead jellyfish. But it’s problematic to apply that analogy to literature, as some people tended to do in American universities in the late 1990s. Why should studying or analysing your favorite books kill either their beauty, or your own ability to produce a book? The Possessed is an answer to that question.
EB: That looks like the same ice palace I visited in St. Petersburg in 2006—I recognise the playing cards on the table. It’s a reconstruction of the ice palace Empress Anna Ioannovna built on the Neva in 1740, for the marriage of two of her court jesters. The jesters were locked inside for their wedding night, and almost froze to death. In one chapter of The Possessed, my friend Luba and I visit the reconstruction. Here is a picture of us outside:
Another photo, taken inside the palace at night: on the left you can see a life-size ice sculpture of Anna Ioannovna, who was enormous; on the right is a snow-sculpture of a Renaissance angel.
Here is what the ice palace looked like on my last day in St. Petersburg:
One of my favourite stories.
‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ is one of my favorites too. To me this story is about how life is uncontainable by formulas. When Gurov meets Anna in Yalta, he’s totally bored with the present and the future. He knows so well how their affair is going to go—based on previous experience, on the large literature of adultery novels, on the oppressive weather and the dullness of the resort town. All this blasé-ness is summed up in the line, ‘Nekuda bylo devat’sia,’ literally something like ‘There was nowhere left to go.’
But just when you think that, in narrative terms, there really is nowhere to go and nothing left to do and no choice but to turn back—that’s when Chekhov somehow goes further. At the exact midpoint of the story, Gurov heads back from Yalta to Moscow, expecting to forget about this insignificant ‘romance’ and return to ordinary life. But he’s unable to go back. Despite himself and his own expectations, he pursues Anna to the provinces, which are fully as predictable and depressing as he expects—except that all these fences and provincial opera houses are now, for whatever reason, the locus of all meaning in his life, and what he thought was an ending is really the beginning.
Many readers, including me, have thought of this story as a response to Anna Karenina. In Tolstoy’s big novel, there really is nowhere left to go and Anna throws herself under a train. But Chekhov takes what seems to be a totally exhausted literary form, in the most exhausted literary setting, in the space of a short story, and makes it open outward.
The other thing I love about this story, which I briefly mention in The Possessed, is the idea that we all have two lives. Here is the passage I had in mind:
‘He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him… was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him…—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club… his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself… believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.’
EB: As Stephen Colbert said to Jerome Groopman: ‘I accuse you of trying to look like God.’
Finish this sentence: ‘One academic I know…’
Hmm, that sounds like the beginning of an off-colour limerick. I’m not sure this is the right venue for off-colour limericks about academics I know. But how about some off-colour limericks I once wrote about Tolstoy, who is pictured above?
There once was a Count called Tolstoy
Who one night, on a boat to Hanoi,
Gave ten thousand rubles
To a girl with no scruples—
That imprudent Count Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy and a girl from Seattle
Were debating the breeding of cattle.
Lev Nikolaevich said,
‘Let’s discuss this in bed’ –
Soon the bed-posts had started to rattle!
(‘The breeding of cattle’ is an allusion to a joke by the critic Tkachev, who suggested that Anna Karenina should have been a love novel about Levin’s romance with his cow, Pava.)
EB: That’s pretty great, but I think he could have fit a few more novels/ novellas in there…
‘He killed two women! One was a gentle creature.’
‘Who was the other—the landlady?’
‘No, the pawnbroker.’
Another scene in Love and Death furnishes a great commentary to Tolstoy’s immortal How Much Land Does a Man Really Need?:
The best thing about writing about reading…
To me, writing about reading is totally intuitive. I don’t understand why more (non-academic) writers don’t write about books! Books and literary plots are entities in the world; they form people, much as love affairs and universities and friendships and wars. It’s strange to me that when novelists write about people who are formed or influenced by books, they typically either mention the books only briefly/ obliquely—or they invent nonexistent books for their characters to be influenced by. Henry James’s Aspern Papers, Philip Roth’s Prague Orgy, and A. S. Byatt’s Possession are all books about fictional characters obsessed with meta-fictional authors, whose books never existed. There’s an unspoken convention that, if you write a novel about a literary work, you have to invent that literary work, too.
Things don’t have to be that way. Don Quixote, arguably the first novel ever, is a book all about reading real books. Cervantes cites and quotes Don Quixote’s favorite books at length; Quixote reads so much that he never sleeps, barely eats, and is obsessed with living life as if it were the plot of a romance. In Don Quixote, real books are physical objects in the world. They circulate, are forged and bound and burned. They drive people crazy and have to be dealt with.
Don Quixote opened so many potential novel traditions. The one that ended up dominating novel production for centuries turned out to be a form that privileged life and experience over literature and study. But someday I would like to write a novel that, like Don Quixote, really pushes the interface between fictional characters and real books.
Kathleen Solson, the editor-in-chief of an international newspaper based in Rome, suspects her husband is having an affair. Solson has always ranked people by ‘intelligence’, her ex notes. Maybe she is calculating. Maybe she needs attention. In Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists we are given a glimpse of Solson’s life, as well as those of a stringer, a copy editor, an obit writer, a business reporter, a reader and more. The novel is a series of associated character portraits, alongside a slim narrative of the newspaper’s rise, changes and plateau – its inability to adapt to the times, to continue to be relevant; to support itself, its vision and its staff. Rachman’s front page is given to the players: the superbly ordinary men and women in the newspaper’s orbit. The backdrop to this novel is the news-in-print: world events
Highlights include lonely, aging Paris correspondent Lloyd Burko, who has no computer and lets his younger wife ‘bit by bit’ move into the arms of the man across the hall; corrections editor Herman Cohen, who has pinned some strange dream on his old friend Jimmy being a writer, being a genius – and now disappointment chokes him up; reader Ornella De Monterechi who, over the years, has slipped slowly from reality into the past by reading the paper like a book.
They’re all lonely, and more, they’re all reluctant. Reluctance is a big theme here – the paper refusing to go online, characters refusing to move forward, accept, speak up, fight, or, in the case of publisher Oliver Ott in the final portrait, do anything. He is apathetic not only to news, but to life.
The Imperfectionists is thematically consistent, and the characters hold interest, though some of the chapter endings feel a little too punchy, a little too dramatic for the sake of it. The quieter endings, such as Lloyd Burko’s, in the first chapter (a reconciliation, of sorts) are more effective. Debut American author Rachman’s writing is mature and gentle, with windows to hope and to doom among this collective of characters connected to a crumbling publication.
Interviews + Profiles
Sep 11, 2009
Part the first of Christopher Currie’s interview with Wells Tower can be found here.
In other interviews, you’ve talked about your stories having a ‘moral pendulum’ swinging between characters, and the importance of putting the reader slightly off-balance at the end of a story. Do think that’s more of a modern feature of a short story—the idea that the story doesn’t have to exist in a neat little world?
I suppose. Although with someone like Chekhov, he would write stories that would end at an uncertain moment. On the other side, you’ve got somebody like Roald Dahl or Somerset Maugham, where the stories are very carefully plotted out. I really enjoy reading those guys, but I have a hard time believing that everything is tidied up so neatly, without it feeling contrived. I think in the ending of a short story, the reader should be rocking back on their heels a bit. That said, a story should give a suggestion of how its inhabitants are going to wind up, where the momentum of their lives is heading at the end of the story.
I like the uncertain moment. A lot of Raymond Carver’s short stories were like that. I really like the freeze-frame, where the crockery is up in the air, and you’re waiting for something to fall. I don’t really know where I stole that impulse. I’m sure I lifted it from somebody. It never really occurred to me that I was doing something weird with my stories until people started telling me. I think my stories do have sort of “lights out” endings, where a master switch gets thrown.
The one ending in the collection that seemed different to me was in the final story [the title story, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned], those final paragraphs that talk about the balance between love and fear in a family. It was lovely, and it felt more like a summing up.
Yeah, it’s a nice bit. I like those paragraphs too. That was a pretty early story for me. It’s funny how it all felt like such simple carpentry back then. I’d written this quite grotesque story, and then I thought I’d better come up with some sort of counterweight to that so I’ll have this more heart-swollen conclusion. I just kind of riveted it on the end, but I think it kind of works.
One of the most impressive things about the book, and what has been attributed to it in other places, is this sense of it being ‘old-fashioned’ writing. I suppose what I see this as is that while you have very lean prose, you’re still not afraid of a confident simile or considered word picture.
Yes, I think my impulse is much more toward baroque sentence-craft. When I’m writing, often the first drafts are really antic, and just playing with language a lot, but then I go back and try to pare it down. I do think that with good writing, you feel the pulse of it in every sentence. There should be something exciting, gleeful, or artful in every sentence. I think when writing is too spare, it’s tedious. When you start to write like that, as a writer you stop paying attention. I think when you’re writing, you have to be incredibly invested in every word and every line of what you’re doing. When I’m writing well, I can find some sort of pleasure in every line of a story, but if I can’t, it needs work.
Sometimes I read work by writers, and you can see they’re not really thinking about how they’re putting sentences together, and I think that’s unforgivable. How can you possibly expect anybody to read your work if you’re not obsessively labouring over every word you put down? When I read work that doesn’t reflect that degree of intensity I get kind of angry.
A lot of the stories in your collection have appeared previously in other magazines and journals. Is it ever a problem working with more than one editor, say one editor at Harper’s Magazine, or The New Yorker, and another editor at your publishing house?
It really isn’t. It’s rare to find an editor at a journal or a magazine who will beat up your fiction the way they will if it is nonfiction. A piece of nonfiction gets heavily edited—the editor has his handprints on every single bit of it. A magazine’s identity is decided very much by how its features are assembled. They want a kind of continuity of product. Whereas with fiction— I’m not sure if it’s a dismissive view of fiction on the part of magazine editors, or whether it’s a case of this is a piece of art, and we need to be more respectful of the artist. I don’t intend to get anywhere near the same kind of sweeping edits with fiction that I get with nonfiction, but it’s kind of a relief when I do.
Eli Horowitz at McSweeney’s [another guest of MWF] is very meddlesome editor, in the best possible way, in that he’ll really look at a story and think what is this story about? and how can we re-arrange it? We really go through a lot of drafts, and he’s really a lot of fun to work for, even though I think every story I’ve ever done with him, I get to a point where I just think there’s no way of making this story good, so can we please just not do this. For me, the more editing the better. I really relish it.
The first story of yours I read, ‘Retreat’, was in McSweeney’s 30. It was, as I found out, the second version of the story to appear there. I was fascinated by the essay in that issue where you talked about rewriting the story from the point of view of a different character. How did that come about?
One of my big commandments in my stories is no good guys and no bad guys. The story is about two brothers who don’t get along, and they get together and go hunting. The first version of the story was told from the point of view of the younger brother, and he’s going to visit his older brother, who’s kind of a blowhard, a bit of an asshole. The younger brother shows up, and the older brother is obnoxious, and continues to be obnoxious, and at the end of it, eats a bit of rotten meat. When I went back to edit it for the short story collection, it just seemed to me like a moral and an emotional monotone: here’s this guy who’s an asshole, and who’s punished for being an asshole. I thought it would be a much more morally complicated story to tell it from the point of view of the older brother, and try to curry the reader’s sympathy for the more despicable character. It just seemed like a more interesting assignment to give myself, and a much more honest one.
So, a novel is next?
Yeah, I’ve started on that.
Have you attempted longer pieces before?
I have, but not in years. I started writing some semblance of this novel back in 2001. It’ll be exciting to do it.
How much planning are you allowing yourself to do?
I’ve got a loose plan. It’ll be a family book. I’ve got a sense of where the tensions are in this family and how things may wind up. But really, I’m going to have to just write my way into it.
Then Wells started to ask about my novel, and I switched off the tape.
To read more about Wells Tower at MWF, you can read Estelle Tang’s review of the book; Thuy Linh Nguyen’s review of Wells’ short fiction workshop; and Jabberwocky’s overview of the In Conversation session.
Christopher Currie is a writer and bookseller. You can read his thoughts and writing at www.furioushorses.com. His first novel will be published by Text Publishing in 2011.
Illustration by Chris Somerville.
Interviews + Profiles
Sep 10, 2009
Words: Christopher Currie and Wells Tower
Image: Chris Somerville
Back in March, during one of my reverential trawls through my RSS feeds, I began hearing about an American writer, Wells Tower, whose short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was beginning to garner some very warm praise. After reading Edmund White’s review in the New York Times, I knew I wanted to read it. Badly. Using my best bookseller’s cunning, I tried desperately to get Allen & Unwin (the book’s Australian publisher) to part with an advance copy, to no avail.
And I am ashamed to say, amid the other shiny new books, I forgot about it. I picked it up eventually in late July, and was blown away by the quality of Wells’ writing and narrative skills (more on that below). To my great surprise, I found out that Wells was going to be appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival (a fact I had to triple-check, thanks to the time I thought George Saunders was coming to the Sydney Writers Festival, and had nearly booked my tickets before realising my information came from a typo in a press release). To my greater surprise, Wells was available for interview! When my good buddy Angela threw this info my way, I jumped at the chance to catch up with the author of my favourite short story collection of the past five years.
After he wowed audiences with his impeccable and impressive ‘In Conversation’ session with Chris Flynn at the festival, and signed his book for a good twenty minutes, Wells very generously gave over his time to me for an interview. Just talking to him makes you begin to compile a hefty checklist of short story writers you’ve always meant to read but just haven’t. And he talks like he writes, with a profound, considered intelligence. Which made me all the more aware of the distracted yapping that was my interviewing style. To Wells’ credit, he took my strange questions and answered them eloquently.
You’ve probably done a whole heap of media for this book—what’s the question you’re most sick of being asked?
People like to ask me whether there’s a resurgence in short story publishing, or whether we’re experiencing some sort of short story renaissance, which I couldn’t possibly begin to know. I suppose you should ask that of the person who’s never read a short story before. I’ve loved short stories for quite a while. That question is impossible to answer.
It seems as though it’s part of a cycle, though. It seems as if there’s a short story collection every few months or years that gets some attention. But I think people will always pay attention to short stories on some level.
You said you read a lot of short stories. Has that always been the case? Do you go out of your way to read short stories, whether they’re in collections, journals or magazines?
I guess I’m not really chasing as many short story collections as I probably should be. I think we had a great run in the United States in the 20th century. We had a lot of people who were fantastically gifted: John Cheever, Richard Yates, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Denis Johnson—there were a lot of people who really dedicated themselves to the form, in that it wasn’t just their workbook for longer works. If you read someone like Nabokov, who was the master of the novel, when you read his short stories, you can tell it’s just his sketchbook.
I suppose it’s rare these days to find someone who devotes themselves fully to short fiction. To me the short story is such a difficult puzzle; when you find someone who’s done it well, you really enjoy going back and reading their stories again and again and trying to see where the gears are, how the machine is put together. With a good short story, as soon as you’ve got a flat paragraph, or unnecessary information, the reader is gone.
Do you see the transition from short stories to novels as the inevitable career progression of a writer?
I don’t. I suppose there is this emphasis on novel writing, as in If you’re a real writer, you’d better get to it on a novel. In some ways I think it’s more difficult to write a successful short story. That said, I’m having a miserable time getting started on my own novel, and that will be tremendously difficult too, but I agree with the famous Cortázar quote that the novel can win on points, but a short story has to win by knockout. A really gripping short story, I think, is such a difficult thing to pull off. I don’t think there’s any reason to disdain the people who’ve done it well. John Cheever is certainly one of those. Reading his novels, they kind of don’t hold together. I read a couple of them this summer, and they’re fine, but somehow there’s not the same kind of intensity.
I was interested in the time frame of the stories that appear in the collection. How far apart were they written, and published?
It was probably six or seven years. The first short stories in the book were really the first short stories I ever wrote: I wrote those stories in graduate school. I suppose I wrote four or five stories over two years, and then the rest, probably over another four or five years. But I was doing a lot of magazine work then, too, so I didn’t really have a lot of time to focus on the fiction.
Did your journalism start before the fiction, or did it happen at the same time?
Kind of simultaneously, yes. I sold my first magazine piece in the spring of 2000, and then went to graduate school in the fall of 2000. Not long after I got out of graduate school I got a contract with the Washington Post Sunday Magazine, so I’d do three cover stories a year for them, and those were quite long—about eight thousand words, so it would take two or three months to do the whole thing, with the reporting and the writing and the editing, so it was quiet a bit of work.
What is the relationship between your fiction and your nonfiction? How do they live side by side?
I think when I started writing large magazine stories, it really screwed up my ability to write short fiction. The way you write a big magazine piece of course is that you go out and do some reporting. Because I had no journalistic training, I was kind of a frenzied, paranoid note-taker—I would take so many notes because I was so scared I wouldn’t come up with anything worth writing about. I would generate huge amounts of notes, many hundreds of pages for each story. From there you would try and figure out which scenes were strongest, or whether you’d taken a good description of something, and then, for eight thousand words, you’d take five or six scenes and try and come up with a contextual argument, and thread the thing together to make it more or less work. For a while I was trying to use that same approach to writing short stories, where I would just generate these big, explosive, terrible drafts, and I’d think I’d be able to go back and condense it into something that made emotional sense. But it never did. I think with a short story it’s really about trying to define a small, private space with a lot of intensity and an intimacy of feeling, and it’s very hard to try and fumble your way into that with large, unwieldy, emotionally vague drafts. But then, a lot people I met when I was out researching nonfiction pieces have made their way into my fiction.
When you were writing nonfiction, were you reading other peoples’ work, in the same way you’d read other short story writers?
I was. I was reading more nonfiction when I was doing magazine work. But again, I think I have pretty standard canonical tastes. I was reading George Orwell’s nonfiction, and Joan Didion and Ian Frazier. It’s important to me to have a stack of books at the side of my desk so I can just crack into them and remember that writing is possible.
When you were deciding on which stories to include in this collection, were you looking at the bigger picture, i.e. will these nine stories work as a whole? Or was it more a case of looking at each story individually?
I was just looking at them individually. I wouldn’t have really known how to work in themes that would make it appear more ‘book-like’. For me the theme of the book was simply that they were the first nine stories that I wrote that I didn’t despise. I guess at one point I thought, well maybe the way to make this work is make the stories linked, and to have somebody from one story wander into another, but a lot of times that just feels really stupid and contrived, so I stayed away from that. After the collection was under contract, I went back and threw out three or four stories. Many others I re-wrote: I scraped them to their foundation and rebuilt. For me it was just a case of going through and trying to do away with what felt like cheap tricks—stories that felt like they were a bit too glib, or there were emotional parts in the story I was deliberately shying away from. That’s how it works for me, going back and working out what is the most important emotional tension in each story, and trying to address that in subsequent drafts.
Part the second of this interview can be found here.
Christopher Currie is a writer and bookseller. You can read his thoughts and writing at www.furioushorses.com. His first novel will be published by Text Publishing in 2011.