I don’t hate novels at all. There are many novels I absolutely adore! A Lesson Before Dying, The Age of Innocence, Beloved, The Color Purple, Erasure, Fight Club, The Known World, Montana 1948, Not Without Laughter, Passing, Quicksand, The Remains of the Day, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Their Eyes Were Watching God –just to name a few.
Don’t you want your books to sell? Don’t novels sell better? Why don’t you just shut everybody up and write one?
I am a writer who is a literature scholar and professor and that is the lens through which I look to see the world of writing. So I know that there is no correlation between a book’s advance or publisher and the book getting invited into the academy. For that is where books live in my world. That is where they find a home and get discussed and perpetuated, their ideas disseminated. That is where they are loved on, debated over and pulled apart. That is where they are loved for their execution, their attempts, their potential, their successes and their mistakes. It would be great for my books to sell well, but it would be even better for them to inform dissertations and become topics of scholarly inquiry and study. There are writers who have made successful careers as novelists; there are writers who have had successful careers as short story writers. I have to write what pleases me and nourishes my spirit. I love every single minute of the drafting and writing and revising and polishing that goes into writing short stories. I understand that I am writing material that will eventually be shared with the public world, but what I write lives with me for years before I release it into the world. So I have to write what I can live with for that period of time.
Before I am writing for an audience or an ideal reader, I have to write for myself. It’s a blessing that the thing that I need to do each day in order to remain sane is something other people want to read, but if they didn’t I would still do it. I write for myself. I write because the world doesn’t make sense to me if I don’t. Writing puts everything into some sort of manageable order for me, so that I don’t come apart at the seams. Writing keeps my head lodged firmly to my neck and shoulders. It keeps my feet moving one in front of the other. I write to live and to survive. That’s what writing is to me. Given the very personal and idiosyncratic relationship that exists between the writer and his or her art, I don’t see how someone who doesn’t live in my skin or breathe through my lungs could ever know more than me what I need to write or what type of writing is good for me. It’s presumptuous for a person who has neither written nor published anything of his or her own to tell me what I need to write and where I need to publish or what shape my career should take, without having first asked me about my goals, intentions and desires. It’s a mere presumption that everyone wants to write novels, that everyone wants to be with a specific publisher, that everyone wants an advance with a certain number of zeroes behind it.
When someone asks me when I am going to write a novel, I can’t help but to hear a dismissive tone in the question, as if the person is asking when I plan to leave the kids table behind and join the grown-ups at the table come Thanksgiving. It implies that short stories are some sort of warm-up for novel writing, the D-League training ground for the NBA. I find the presumption of the question quite irksome. There are many ways to be a successful fiction writer and many definitions of success. Therefore, to suggest that the only way to be a successful fiction writer is to write novels is both limiting and narrow-sighted.
Methinks you doth protest too much, lady.
Sorry. Perhaps I have a lot to say about it because it seems to be the topic most people want to bring up. I’ve never been big on caving in to peer pressure and I don’t see any reason to start now. When and if I ever want to write a novel, I will. Until then, I’ve written a bunch of great stories. Enjoy them. I certainly do.
The title of your new book is The Loss of All Lost Things. So I’m guessing this book is about loss?
Yup. You hit the nail on the head.
I like the title. It’s kind of catchy. It really gives my tongue a workout. Why’d you pick it?
I originally played with In Situ as another title for the collection, as both phrases appear in the eponymous story “The Loss of All Lost Things,” and both capture the idea of loss and immobility, but I liked the rhythmic sound of the title I ultimately chose. It reminded me of one of my favorite passages in Pharr’s version of Vergil’s Aeneid, when the snakes capture and kill Laocoön and his sons. Vergil uses an abundance of ‘l’ or liquid sounds in that passage and I’ve always loved the scansion and rhythm of it, so I borrowed that sonic quality and paired them with hard-stopped ‘t’ sounds to keep the words from eliding.
Since your book is about loss will reading it make me sad? Like Hallmark movie sad? Do I need a box of tissues by my side as I turn the page?
I believe the stories are moving, but I don’t believe that they are sentimental or melodramatic. The stories are not tear jerkers and they don’t play on false emotions or tug on heartstrings. Loss doesn’t necessarily have to be sad. If one loses something to which one has held on tightly or in which one has deeply invested, such as a loved one, career, or relationship, then that loss will likely induce sadness and regret. But if one loses something which one has taken for granted or never fully appreciated, that loss might actually trigger a new form of enlightenment or awareness. Furthermore, if one loses something one never wanted in the first place, that loss might be cleansing or healing. So it all depends on the relationship the person has with the lost item. I’m not writing about a simplified version of loss. There is loss in the sense of death, mourning, and grieving, but this is not a collection in which someone dies in every story. There are people who are actually physically lost, which is to say that they have been geographically and culturally displaced from their familiar surroundings. There are towns, cultures, and values that are lost. Relationships, identities, and statuses. In order to fully appreciate the collection, you’ll have to expand your thinking on the concept of loss, which is what I had to do in order to write it. Additionally, I also had to take into account the flip side of losing, which is finding. Even though a great many things are lost and/or go missing in these stories, some things are also found, so the stories are also imbued with a measure of hope. At least I hope so.
Ha ha. I see what you did there. Very punny. Okay, so you’re like the Dalai Lama of lost things. Were some stories harder to write than others?
The stories “Lost and Found” and “The Loss of All Lost Things” were products of years of research and they were emotionally draining for me. Writing about a kidnapped child or about the parents of a kidnapped child was an emotionally trying experience. There were plenty of times where the research just left me emotionally paralyzed and unable to process or write. Sometimes there are places you don’t want to go, but the story takes you there anyway and all you can do is follow and hope you come out on the other end.
You’re getting a little too deep for me. Anyway. This new book is not only about loss, is it? Seems to me there’s a lot of sex as well? Going for an R-rating are we?
It’s an unfortunate truth that sex is a great distractor and selling mechanism. We’ve all heard the phrase “sex sells,” which is certainly true. We use sex to sell clothing, cars, perfumes, cigarettes and a boatload of other merchandisable goods, but we also use sex to sell certain versions of ourselves to our partners as well. For many of my characters, sex masquerades as intimacy. Many of them use sex as a quick fix, a way to escape an argument or sidestep any sort of deep emotional or psychological delving. Sometimes the act of sex is cathartic for the characters and sometimes it only deepens or prolongs their conflict.
The stories in your first two books were set in New York City. Not so much this one? There are only a few. Are you finished writing about New York? Are you finally giving the other cities a chance?
I doubt there will ever come a time when I am no longer writing about New York. I am a native New Yorker, born and raised, and that is part of what colors the lens I use to look out on the world. Even when I am not writing about New York, I am writing about New York. But I have been fortunate enough to study and work and live in variety of geographical locations and many of those places have also become a part of me and have informed my thinking of certain characters, conflicts, and situations. Many of the stories in this collection are set in my hometown of Brooklyn, but I’ve also written about other locations in which I’ve spent a significant amount of time. I lived in western Massachusetts for four years and in Philadelphia for ten, so I felt comfortable using those locations as places in which to set certain stories. Most recently, I’ve lived in St. Louis, Chicago, and Miami and I’m looking forward to seeing the way in which those places will emerge in my stories. I need to breathe a place in before I can write about it. When I write about a place, I want the natives of that place to feel that I have been true to their homes. I don’t want to write like a tourist, only mentioning the city’s highlights. I want people to wonder if I am from there. When natives see the ways in which I’ve rendered their cities, I want them to feel like they are meeting up with an old friend.
Are the characters in this collection black? I can’t really tell. You don’t explicitly say.
That’s true; I don’t always explicitly say.
So how has the book tour been going? Is it just old hat to you now?
I’ve really been enjoying the opportunity to travel and share my new stories with readers. It’s always fun for me to read in new spaces to new faces. It’s true that this is the third time I’ve done this in five years, but I don’t take it for granted. Any day that I get to share my work with people who care about it, who come out on wintry or blustery days and brave the elements to hear someone read them a story is a good day. I recently got snowed in after one reading and almost missed making it to the next city for my next reading, but everything turned out all right in the end. Each book and subsequent book tour helps me grow as a writer. Sharing what I’ve written and hearing the questions that people ask is part and parcel to this great writing life.
What’s the weirdest thing anyone has said to you at one of your readings?
I don’t know if this constitutes the weirdest thing, but after some of my recent readings, a few people have come up to me and complimented me on answering the questions well. I have to say that I find that a bit odd. Given that I am a literature professor with a PhD in English, it’s a pretty safe bet to guess that I know how to speak, so I’m not sure why that’s surprising to them. It’s as odd as complimenting a mathematics professor on his or her ability to add. It kind of comes with the territory.
I think you know what I’m going to ask now, right?
Save your breath.
The last time we got together you all were super-spy secretive about what you were working on next, which turned out to be the book we are discussing now. How about loosening up and giving me a hint about the next thing…or do you still have to kill me if you tell me?
Let’s just enjoy the current book and see what the future holds, shall we?
AMINA GAUTIER is the author of the short story collections The Loss of All Lost Things (Elixir Press, 2016), which won the Elixir Press Award in Fiction; Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, the Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Book Award and a USA Best Book Award; and At-Risk (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, The First Horizon Award, and the Eric Hoffer Legacy Fiction Award. Her short stories appear in Best African American Fiction, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and Southern Review among other places. Her fiction has been supported with fellowships and scholarships from American Antiquarian Society, Breadloaf Writer’s Conference, Callaloo Writer’s Workshop; Hawthornden International Retreat for Writers; Hurston/Wright Foundation Writer’s Workshop, Kimbilio, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, Key West Literary Seminars; MacDowell Colony; Prairie Center of the Arts; Ragdale Foundation; Sewanee Writer’s Conference; Ucross Foundation; Vermont Studio Center and Writers in the Heartland. Find her at http://aminagautier.wordpress.
Author photo credit: Jenni Bryant