Do you know what happens in your stories before you start?
No. Not at all. I don’t know anything. The last story I wrote, “A Country Where You Once Lived,” began life as a story about a young woman who is going to her grandparent’s sixtieth wedding anniversary celebration. In the course of what I wrote, it turns out that she is having a romance with much older man whose third floor apartment she rents. And I wrote and wrote and wrote about this young woman. Wrote about her parents. Wrote about her uncle and his two kids. But more and more I would find my mind drifting to the man with whom she was sleeping, the guy whose third floor she occupied. And I started wondering what his deal was. And over the course of some months, the balance tipped and the story became his – and the original young woman just makes an appearance for a Skype sex scene.
You said “over the course of some months.” I gather it takes you a while to write a story?
The last few stories I’ve written have taken about six months. But truly, they take years because I am constantly revising. With two of the stories in the book, “Pine” and “The Guide,” even though they’d been published years before, I did big rewrites for the book. Especially “The Guide.” I had ended with a scene of the central character throwing a little boy onto the ground, and though I loved that scene, I had realized pretty much the moment the story was first published, that it didn’t belong at the end. It was just a misdirection. So over the course of a few weeks I rewrote about a third of the story. And that was more than five years after I first wrote. So really they do take years.
Your stories are pretty much all about familial relationships. Is there any particular reason for this?
Yes. A very simple one. It’s the life I know best. Family life. The domestic sphere. I married while still in college (first marriage) and, with a couple of brief breaks, was a stay-at-home mother from 25 to 40-plus. Almost all of my powers of observation and of understanding have been directed toward familial relationships. My intellect has been directed that way, too. It’s what interests me. How people relate to one another when they are woven into the fibers of one another’s beings. The role of time in the evolutions of those relationships. If I weren’t a writer I would likely be some kind of psychotherapist.
Has anything surprised you about how your book has been received?
I’ve been surprised by a certain strand of critical reaction in which the word “brutal” tends to appear. Or phrases like “not for the faint of heart.” It’s a pleasant surprise though, because for years while I was writing these stories I worried about the treacle factor. I’m very aware that stories about the deaths or illnesses of family members have this built-in potential to seem sappy to people. So I’ve been glad to hear responses that if anything tip a little toward finding the stories a bit harsh or at any rate, not a bit sugar-coated.
What have you liked most about having a book out?
My book deals a lot with loss, and every once in a while I’ll get a note from someone who says the book made him or her feel less alone with grief. That’s profoundly moving and an incredible honor. I feel blessed by those people.
Also, I love my colleagues. I mean, there’s a lot of competition in writing – in all of life – but the support I have gotten from other writers simply blows me away. I guess that’s another surprise of publication. I didn’t expect having a book out to be an occasion for seeing so much generosity in people, but it has been that.
What is your favorite thing of yours that you’ve ever written?
M favorite work is actually something I’ve never shown anyone. When my dad died ten years ago there was a big memorial service at which I delivered a eulogy. And for a few years now I have been working on the footnoted version of that eulogy. My father was an exceedingly complicated, at many points wonderful, at many points difficult man, and though I tried to capture some of that complexity in the original talk, as somebody famous once said “a eulogy is not an affidavit.” A certain amount of shading things toward the positive is appropriate. So at some point it struck me as a really interesting exercise to drop footnotes on the thing, a kind of explication de texte in which I write about what truths might underlie the things I said. Not to be nasty at all, but to speak some of my own truths without worry about who hears me. And also, at the same time, to look hard at the eulogy form which fascinates me. I work on it now and then. It’s actually pretty hilarious and also in many ways the most powerful work I have done. But maybe not something I’ll ever try to publish. Though you never do know.
That sounds pretty non-conventional in form, yet your stories seem to be pretty traditional, formally anyway.
Well, yes and no. It’s true that my nonfiction has always been more overtly nonconventional in form, but I think the stories are a little less traditional than they may seem on initial read. The respective points of view of the title story, “If I Loved You” and in “Immortalizing John Parker” and also in “The History of the World” are actually pretty peculiar. One is a direct address monologue, one a series of hypotheticals about how characters in the story would tell it, and one kills off a point of view character early on. I like playing with the conventions when I can.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on a novel and a bunch of essays and some stories. The novel is the priority, the rest of it what I work on when the novel is being elusive. After I finish the travel I’m doing for the paperback I want to get back to having my head down writing full-time. But in the larger sense I have no idea what’s coming next. I could never have predicted the turns my life has taken so far, so I am out of the predicting business. Just grateful for the good and trying – with mixed results – to weather the less than ideal with some grace. Much like my characters. Much like us all.