April 08, 2015
This self- interview is answered by voices from the anthology Life is Short—Art is Shorter by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman.
How would you describe the brief selections in this book?
“ …ticks engorged like grapes” (Amy Hempel, “Weekend”)
What were you thinking about when you put this collection together?
“I was thinking about my body’s small, precise, limited, hungry movement forward…” (Wayne Koestenbaum, “My 1980s”)
You have said that Brevity personified came to you in a dream many years ago?
“His hands moved in spasms of mathematical complexity at invisible speed.” (Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties”)
How long did it take for you to fall completely under the spell of brief art?
“At last, after what seemed a long time—it might have been five seconds” (George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”)
What was life like before brevity?
“I was frequently in love. I had more friends than now.” (Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties”)
I wonder if we ran in the same circles…
“I wore a paisley tux jacket and black patent-leather cowboy boots. I didn’t mind looking vulgar, slutty, off-base.” (Koestenbaum, “My 1980s”)
Was this the garb of a novelist?
“He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” (George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”)
I ask only because you have written several fairly conventional novels. Was it frightening to give up that trade, to move on?
“It is a serious matter to shoot a working elephant—it is comparable to destroying a huge and costly piece of machinery…” (George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant”)
And then what happened?
“ …ultimately, I wound up on Roseanne, my face caked with makeup, my hands gesturing wildly” (Lauren Slater, “One Nation, Under the Weather”)
So you don’t read or write traditional novels anymore…
“Nope, nope, you know very well why not, Champ.” (George Saunders, “Adams”)
When the muse of Brevity came dancing into your life, what struck you about the performance?
“…the sweat, the muscles, the way her naked feet seized and released the floor.” (Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties”)
How does Brevity seduce?
“You have seen an ordinary bit of what is real, the infinite fabric of time that eternity shoots through, and time’s soft-skinned people working and dying under slowly shifting stars. Then what?” (Annie Dillard, “This is the Life”)
So, for you, it was sort of love at first sight?
“For two beats I didn’t get it. Then it hit me like an open coffin.” (Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”)
Why should art be short?
“ …to have orgasms more and more often.” (Jayne Anne Phillips, “Slave”)
How did the first “short” come about?
“…carved the coat off the dead winter lamb” (Amy Hempel, “Orphan”)
What does Brevity sound like?
“The snap of the snare drum.” (Rick Moody, “Primary Sources”)
How does it feel?
“ …cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis” (Rick Moody, “Primary Sources”)
If this collection were a body part, which would it be?
“…the curls at the back of my neck.” (S.L. Wisenberg, “Brunch”)
What did you entertain yourself with as child?
“ …jukeboxes, dolls, and electrical toys. Games of every kind.” (Rick Moody, “Primary Sources”)
If this anthology were in a parade, what part would it play?
“ …a bag of marbles to throw under the hoofs of the horse” (Leonard Michaels, “In the Fifties”)
You claim that brevity, as a strategy, addresses the needs of contemporary culture and readers. In your view, what should contemporary artists be doing?”
“…penning it bright, penning it black” (“Lauren Slater, “One Nation, Under the Weather”)
How should people interested in writing their own very short stories, essays, etc. approach such a task?
“…weeping, fasting, and praying” (Barry Hannah, “The Wretched Seventies”)
What does (short) art hope to do?
“ …to stir that little crimson clementine in our chests” (Lauren Slater, “One Nation, Under the Weather”)
With what tool should one approach brief works of art?
“ …a compact ear” (Lauren Slater. “One Nation, Under the Weather”)
This book weaves writing prompts into the chapter commentaries. How would you advise readers to enter these prompts?
“ …with a brain like a blade” (Lauren Slater, “One Nation, Under the Weather”
In this incredibly fast-paced, chaotic culture, how should we balance demands?
“Eat dessert first—life is uncertain.” (David Shields, “Life Story”)
The title of this anthology is a twist on the proverb “life is short, art is long”, which is also the epigram of the book. The saying is attributed to Hippocrates, who was an ancient Greek doctor sometimes called the father of medicine. What does Hippocrates have to say after reading Life is Short?
“ …dramatize the syringe” (Lauren Slater, “One Nation, Under the Weather”)
Let’s say Brevity is a medicine—what kind?
“The drug is fast-acting and sweet, and soon I am calm enough to eat a corn muffin…” (Lauren Slater, “One Nation, Under the Weather”)
If Brevity were weather, what kind would it be?
“…heat that ripens melons overnight” (Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”)
If this collection were a cocktail, what would it consist of?
“…five parts champagne to one part orange juice” (Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”)
My goodness. And each selection?
“…corks from champagne bottles” (Rick Moody, “Primary Sources”)
If Brevity were a newspaper headline, how would it read?
“…MAN ROBS BANK WITH CHICKEN” (Amy Hempel, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried”)
If Brevity were a lipstick?
“Blue lips” (Leonard Michaels, “Murderers”)
And how does Brevity travel?
“…thousands of miles on nickels, mainly underground” (Leonard Michaels, “Murderers”)
What monument has been built to honor Brevity?
“…the Statue of Liberty putting the sky to the torch” (Leonard Michaels, “Murders”)
How does the editor change the individual stories in a collection?
“I sew them together into a new life . . .” (Jonathan Safran-Foer, “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease”)
If this anthology were dessert, what kind would it be?
“ …a bombe aux trois chocolats” (Wayne Koestenbaum, “My 1980s”)
The essence of Brevity?
“ …shot through with light” (Leonard Michaels, “Murderers”)
DAVID SHIELDS is the author of fifteen books, including How Literature Saved My Life, published earlier this year by Knopf; Reality Hunger, named one of the best books of the year by more than thirty publications; The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a New York Times bestseller; Black Planet, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Remote, winner of the PEN/Revson Award. The recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship and two NEA fellowships, Shields has published essays and stories in dozens of publications, including the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Yale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney’s, and The Believer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages. He lives with his wife and daughter in Seattle, where he is the Milliman Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Washington.
ELIZABETH COOPERMAN’S work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Seattle Review, and 1913: A Journal of Forms. She earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Washington in 2010, lives in Seattle, and works for Poetry Northwest and a ninety-year-old blind man.