Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Live Nude Books: The stories in If You Lived Here You’d Already Be Home often begin with humorous, quirky premises that help undercut their more serious, weighty themes and subject matter.  I’m wondering if you could you talk a little about your approach to writing short fiction.

What triggers the creation of your stories: premise or theme?

John Jodzio: For creation, it’s almost always premise.  After I find one that’s entertaining to me, I’m usually able to sort of determine what the main themes of the story are/might be and then begin to explore those within whatever world I’ve thought up.

LNB: Because such strange occurrences happen on the surfaces of these stories, they’re really fun to read.  Which story did you enjoy writing the most?

JJ: Probably “Flight Path.”  That story started when I took some of my more interesting characters in my non-working stories hostage and smashed them together into one confined space.  It took me a couple of years to figure everything out, but I really like what ended up occurring.

LNB: This collection contains a mix of short stories and flash fiction pieces.  Is form an element of craft you enjoy experimenting with?

JJ: I think I’m ultimately a traditionalist.  Even within those flash pieces, I think I am writing them as short stories — pretty structured with a beginning/middle/end.  Lately I’ve really been re-reading a lot of Barthelme and so things may get more experimental form-wise.

LNB: What’s the best advice on writing you’ve ever received?

JJ: Persevere.

LNB: What are you working on next?

JJ: I’m kicking around some pages for something that I’m hoping will become a novel.  It’s going to be set in Florida and there will be a lot of snakes and some old people (mostly astronauts).  That’s all I can say at this point, not because I don’t want to give anything away, just because I really don’t know any more than that right now.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending to friends and other readers?

JJ: I really loved Daddy’s by Lindsey Hunter and Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin.  Also, if you haven’t picked up House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni, now is the time.

Photo by Julie Bullock

Live Nude Books: I was wondering if you could talk about your approach to compiling the stories in The Name of the Nearest River.  Did you write individual stories with the intention that they’d be parts of a collection?

Alex Taylor: Well, no, I never set out, envisioning any kind of linked collection.  I guess if there’s any kind of link between the stories it would be one of place and perhaps attitude of the characters, but I never really had bought into the notion that a collection of short stories has to be linked.  I know publishers want that these days ’cause it makes it easier to sell, if it has the appearance of a novel that’s broken up into parts.  But I was just writing stories; I just like the buffet feel of a collection, rather than any kind of unified whole. But, hey, maybe it has one; I’m not exactly sure about that.

LNB: You talked about the attitude of your characters.  Do their attitudes spring from circumstance?  Which comes first in your writing process, character or plot?

AT: Most often, a lot of my stories seem to stem from an anecdote that I’ve heard about.  Then it’s me, imagining what kind of—reimagining that anecdote into a more fully formed situation.  And then the character seems to arise out of that.  That seems to be what happens more often than not.

LNB: How does place inform your writing?

AT: Well, seems like—not just in the world of fiction or nonfiction or literature in general, but from everything to politics, economics, religion—anything you really want to think about; in America, we’ve become a culture of suburbanites, whereas the rural folks, they get ignored to the point where people don’t even really believe we exist.  (laughs) That’s what it seems like to me—I don’t want to come off, sounding like I got a chip on my shoulder.  (laughs)  But if you set a story in a place where you can still see the stars at night, it’s a strange thing for a lot of contemporary readers.  Sometimes they fetishize it, I reckon.  By the very nature of setting a story in a place that has a scant population and a lot of agriculture, I think you’re creating or tapping into a world that a lot of contemporary Americans don’t see on a regular basis.

That’s one way, I think, place can inform the story; it’s something that most people don’t think about.  But in regards to actually how does place function into moving the narrative along: when I’m thinking about a story and where it’s set, the landscape contributes to an overall thematic and philosophical ethos.  At the outset, I was only subconsciously aware I was trying to convey that.  Being from Kentucky, the ethos is largely one of loss and regret and often times anger.  But the landscape of Kentucky can often look angry, especially in the areas that have been strip-mined.

LNB: The language in your stories is very lyrical and the descriptions are fresh, yet these elements don’t slow the momentum of the narratives.  How important is language in your work, and do you worry about it overshadowing the story?

AT: I used to have a real problem with that, and maybe I still do to some extent.  I just wanted to write one metaphor and one simile after another.  Barry Hannah, my teacher at Ole Miss, he told me I was being “Piss Elegant.” (laughs)  He tried to cure me of that, and hopefully he did, at least to some extent.  I love language, I love writers that are thick in their usage of language; I prefer Faulkner to Hemingway.  It is a problem that you have to deal with, though, if you like poetry and you don’t want it to subvert the narrative.  So, I try to strike some kind of balance.

LNB: What are you working on next?

AT: Well, I’ve got this hideous novel that’s sitting in the corner here like a rabid dog.  But I’ve been working on it for about four years now, so it’s finished—well, the fourth draft is finished.  It’s not exactly finished finished, I guess.  It’s about a family that runs a ferryboat in western Kentucky.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending?

AT: I just read this collection of novellas—by this writer, I’m not exactly sure how you pronounce his name: Josh Weil—called The New Valley.  Really, really intense stories about Virginia cattle farmers.  One story, the last story, is an epistolary story, but the person writing the letters is a semi-retarded person.  It’s pretty interesting, in that respect, with that narrative voice.  Also just reread the book of Judges in the bible.  It’s always great fun, the Old Testament.

Live Nude Books: In What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, themes, subjects, and images reoccur form story to story.  I was wondering if you could talk about your approach to writing and shaping this collection.  Were you considering the book as a whole when composing the individual stories?

Laura van den Berg: In the beginning, I didn’t work with a particular overarching design in mind. I was just writing stories. After I had maybe four or five, I could see the same central preoccupations recurring and since I had more ideas for stories with similar themes, I began to imagine a book taking shape. But I think in the beginning it was really important to not have a strategy in mind and to just write the things that kept lingering in my imagination; considerations about the overall architecture came later.

LNB: What was your strategy for ordering the stories in this book?

LvdB: My agent and I worked on the ordering together, and we decided to put “Where We Must Be” first because the opening scene is kind of quirky and—hopefully—a little funny, the kind of thing we hoped might grab a reader’s attention. We put the title story at the end because it was the longest story and we felt it would make for a solid “anchor.” As for the others, we tried to arrange them in a way that would prevent too much repetition—staggering the two third-person stories, for example.

LNB: Your stories are either set in or reference locations all over the world.  How important is place in your work?

LvdB: Place is extremely important to me—not so much a place in its literal incarnation, but my own fictional approximation of that place and the meaning the landscape might hold for the characters. The physical world is always applying all kinds of pressure to us and I think those elements can be useful for drawing out a character’s inner landscape in fiction.

LNB: Is there any piece of advice—a writing mantra, of sorts—that you find yourself passing along to students and young writers?

LvdB: Woody Allen once said “seventy percent of success in life is showing up,” and I think that’s so true when it comes to writing—showing up at your desk, showing up for opportunities to get one’s work out there. The outcome is almost always uncertain, but we have to keep showing up.

LNB: What are you working on for your next project?

LvdB: I’m currently at work on a novel and new stories.

LNB: Have you read any recently published books that you’re recommending?  If so, what are some of the titles; who are the authors?

LvdB: Benjamin Percy has a novel, The Wilding, coming out in September and I can’t wait for it. Josh Weil’s fabulous novella collection, The New Valley, is just out in paperback, as is Jessica Anthony’s incredible novel, The Convalescent. Aryn Kyle’s new book, Boys and Girls Like You And Me, is to die for. Matthew Salesses’ Our Island of Epidemics. Pinckney Benedict’s Miracle Boy and Other Stories. Allison Amend’s Stations West. Dawn Raffel’s Further Adventures in the Restless Universe. Tiphanie Yanique’s How To Escape From A Leper Colony. Connie May Fowler’s How Clarissa Burden Learned To Fly. Shane Jones’ Light Boxes, which was just re-issued by Penguin. I could go on and on, which is a great feeling, knowing there’s so much amazing work out there.

Earlier today I got the opportunity to chat with Brady Udall about his writing process and his new novel, The Lonely Polygamist.  Here’s what we talked about:

Live Nude Books: What came first, the novel’s title or the premise?

Brady Udall: They’re kind of entwined.  In 1998, I wrote an article for Esquire magazine about modern polygamy.  The original title of that article was “Big Love,” and without even asking me, the editor at Esquire changed the title to “The Lonely Polygamist.”  That’s what it came out as, and I knew when I wrote the article and did the research that one day I’d write the novel.  And even though I was a little miffed that the name of the article title was changed, I decided it was a much better name than “Big Love,” so that’s what it became.

LNB: So did you begin working on the novel in ’98?

BU: No, I’d been working on—Edgar Mint came out in 2001—so I just had the idea in the back of my head and had done a good bit of research already that after I finished Edgar Mint, the next novel I’d probably write would be about polygamy.  That’s pretty much all I knew.

LNB: When you spend so much time living with these characters, how does it feel to finish the story and essentially let go of them?

BU: Oh, it felt great.  I was tired of them.  I had been working on the story for so long—you do get to know them really well, and you become fond of them in certain ways, but like you do with those who are loved ones, you get annoyed by them, by the choices they make and their little bad habits.  So I was happy to send them off.

LNB: There’s a large cast of characters in this novel, many of whom have elaborate backstories, yet the details provided don’t seem overwhelming.  As a writer, how difficult is it to restrain yourself from including too much information?

BU: It was, in my case, too hard to resist.  At its worst, the book was 1,400 pages long, and I say worst because that was the longest it got.  So I had backstories that went on for hundreds of pages, actually, about various characters.  As writers we just have to write that stuff out to understand the characters and once we figure it all out, we can cut it.  That’s what happened with this book.

LNB: Several details in this book at first seem quirky and provide humor for the story, but later they turn out to have emotional significance; they work as symbols.  Do you start off with an image or detail and work toward symbolism, or does the story dictate what detail you’ll use to symbolize an idea?

BU: I don’t start out with symbols.  Basically what I do when a certain detail or an object keeps returning in the story, I start thinking: Ok, now.  This is important, for some reason. I have any number of those kinds of details and objects in the book, but you don’t notice them because they—most of them sort of drop away and never return.  But there’s a few that keep returning, and once that happens two or three times, I realize: Ok, there’s something important here. And it happens, I guess, organically would be the right word.

LNB: So many of the chapters—even sections within the chapters—feel self-contained, like they could stand alone as short stories.  Do you approach writing individual chapters this way?

BU: No, at some point when I was going to school, I heard somebody say the best novels have chapters that are like short stories.  And that’s a nice ideal, but in practice I think that rarely happens.  What I do think each chapter should have—even though it’s connected to everything around it—it should have an arc of its own.  At some point it can’t stand alone.  At some point, it is connected to everything else, and it draws on what came before it and moves toward something else.

LNB: Do you still write short stories?

BU: No, I haven’t written a short story in…jeez…six years, maybe?  Seven years?  I think it’s because when I start writing novels I kind of hoard everything into it; every good idea somehow becomes attached to the novel.  So, right now I’m not writing short stories.

LNB: What’s on tap for your next project?

BU: The next project that I’ve sworn to myself, now, is that it’s going to be short, that’s the main thing.  It’s not going to be 1,400 pages.  So the main thing is really, seriously to have a simple, straightforward story.  I don’t know yet, but I think it might be a young adult novel.

LNB: What are you currently reading or have recently read that you’re recommending?

BU: There is a book I keep on recommending to everybody—especially after the death of Barry Hannah about a month ago, I started re-reading all of his books.  My favorite of his books is Ray.  It’s just a great book, and it’s crazy, weird, strange—the kind of book that wouldn’t get published today, I don’t think.  It’s such a beautiful, funny book.  I’ll evangelize for it the rest of my life.  To me, he’s just the most amazing prose stylist that America has ever produced, and I just can’t believe he’s not better known than he is.

To read more on why he chose to write about polygamy, check out Udall’s essay at The Huffington Post.

Live Nude Books: On their surfaces, the stories in Captive Audience focus on the lives of performers.  Did you originally set out to write a collection on this subject?

Dave Reidy: I wrote “In Memoriam,” my imagination of a day in the life of a fictional Abe Vigoda, before any of the other stories included in the collection. Then I wrote a couple of other stories that had nothing to do with performers. But the next two stories I wrote—“Captive Audience” and “The Regular”—excited me very much and gave me the idea that my stories might be larger than the sum of their parts if they were collected around this theme of performance. I was more intentional about writing performer stories after that, but I defined “performer” broadly to include a kid who plays guitar for the girl next door and a guy who makes rock posters for an audience of three.

LNB: Do you consider/think about audience when writing a short story?

DR: I do. I find it helpful to keep in mind that the words I’m writing are for readers, and to remember that I owe those readers some challenge and satisfaction in return for the time they are spending with my work. I guess I try to give the people what they want, but I can only give it on my terms. I have to write the stories that I am most moved and best equipped to write, and I have to write them as I see fit. Visiting the imagined, half-understood expectations of an audience on a story in progress is very likely to kill it. In the end, I think a person who buys a book is buying stories, but also an author’s aesthetic. The reader is gambling that the writer will create characters and tell stories in ways that please unexpectedly, ways that the reader might not have been able to order up even if he or she had been given the opportunity to do so. It seems the best that I can do is try to create interesting, honest characters, tell inventive, accessible stories, and hope those characters and stories please and surprise an audience.

LNB: What was your strategy for ordering the stories in this collection?

DR: My editor had some strong feelings on the subject. We both wanted “The Regular” and “Thingless” to be the first two stories in the collection. We thought they set the tone for what follows. My editor insisted that “In Memoriam,” as the collection’s shortest story, should sit right in the middle, and I agreed. And I insisted that “Dancing Man” be the collection’s final story. I suspected that some of the stories in the collection would strike some readers as bleak, and I wanted the collection to end on a note of redemption—whether the redemption at the end of “Dancing Man” is real or imagined is another question.

LNB: What are you working on next?

DR: I’m working on a novel. I’m about three-fourths of the way through a first draft, which means I’ve got a long way to go before I’ve got something finished. But I’m working steadily on it, chipping away each day for an hour or so before heading into work.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending to friends and other readers?

DR: I’m only halfway through Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and I’m already recommending it to people. It’s fantastic. The Manhattan of Lethem’s imagination, inhabited by his exquisitely drawn characters, is even more exciting and more revealing than the Manhattan we know—even as I write this, I can’t wait to crack the book and get back there.

Live Nude Books: You’ve written several personal narratives for a number of publications; have you always had a desire to write a memoir?  What made you choose to write about this subject—the experience of purchasing a home?

Mary Elizabeth Williams: I’ve always written first person — I would go on field trips as a kid and come home and compose an essay about what I did and how I felt. 

The challenge for any writer is to get out of your own navel and figure out how your own experience will resonate on a more universal level. That’s why I chose to do a book about home — it wasn’t something unique to me, it’s something anyone who’s ever had a roof over his or her head has context for. And what happened during the housing bubble was particularly dramatic — I wanted people to know wherever they were and whatever they went through, they weren’t alone.

LNB: In the book, you develop and explore several themes: familial bonds, friendship, security, and how place contributes to a person’s identity.  When you began working on the memoir, did you have an idea for the types of themes you wanted to touch on?  Did those themes emerge naturally through the writing process?

MEW: The book went through some changes — originally a lot more took place in my childhood. But as I refined the narrative, I was more involved in the story of a family in a particular place and time in history, so that began to take more of the center stage. As I got more confident as a first time author, I realized you don’t need to know my whole life to get why buying a home was so important. I also wanted to emphasize that this notion of the “ownership society” wasn’t just something that hit me because of my specific circumstances — it was something that was very aggressively peddled to the American people in general. That’s why I brought in the stories of my friends and family and their homebuying experiences.

LNB: During the three-year process of becoming a homeowner, you were raising two kids and working.  How were you able to find time to write this book?  Do you have a writing routine?

MEW: Well, sleep is the first to go. I got in the habit very early on of firing up the laptop right after putting the kids to bed, and making myself do at least a solid hour every night. I could carve out longer blocks on the weekends. No checking email. No surfing. Just me and a word document. 

The key is to just bang away and keep banging. I cut a lot of parts and I rewrote even more, but if you’re in the routine of writing, you become very Pavlovian about it.

LNB: What are you currently working on?

MEW: I’m writing regularly for and continuing to contribute to PRI’s morning show, and I have two messy, much too unformed book ideas. Summer has kicked my routine to bits, so the plan is to start developing the next book more fully in the fall. I’m basically going to put both ideas in the steel cage, write every night, and see which one emerges victorious.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending to friends and other readers?

MEW: Lily Burana’s, I Love a Man in Uniform, is great — it’s the story of an unlikely military wife that’s incredibly funny and moving and taught me so much about this world that’s so alien to me. And I’m just finishing Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. You could call it a supernatural noir novel — imagine Sam Spade if he’d gone to hell and you start to get the idea. It’s fantastic.

Live Nude Books: The characters in these stories are very well developed—you shed light on their pasts, and often you get into the heads of several characters in a single story—yet, as a reader, it never feels like I’m being overwhelmed with information.  How do you go about developing characters without overloading the reader?

David McGlynn: Reading a story is sort of like sitting next to a stranger on an airplane.  You’re willing to listen to the stranger’s life story so long as it’s interesting.  Most of these conversations go awry, not because the stranger doesn’t have a good story to tell but because he or she doesn’t properly gauge how much of it to include.  Some background information is important, perhaps even crucial, but back up too far or include too much and your listener tunes out.  The balance isn’t easy to strike, but the airplane analogy offers at least a little guidance: we all know when we’ve hit the point when we’ve heard too much, when we’ve lost interest, and when we’re being overwhelmed.  The trouble is, the fiction writer isn’t the guy beside the stranger; he’s the stranger, or at least he’s pretending to be.  The fiction writer has to know as much as possible about his or her people in order to figure which details to include and which to leave out.

When I began working on the stories in The End of the Straight and Narrow, I had absolutely no idea—and I mean no idea—how to achieve such a balance.  I opted for more, rather than less, knowledge, and for several years I sat in the library and wrote, by hand, explorations into the psychologies and emotions of each of my people.  I’d been struggling with the stories for a while and none of the scenes I’d concocted seemed any good, so I allowed myself to concentrate on simply understanding the person.  I allowed each character to become the chatty grandmother on the airplane and I her indulgent listener.  Whatever they wanted to tell me, no matter how mundane or idiotic, I wrote down.  To my surprise, I found that once I got a character talking, scenes appeared.  I imagined whole conversations, interactions and arguments; it was as though the characters woke up for me and started walking around.  I don’t mean for this to sound mystical: I’d been working on these stories, and thus these people, for a long time, and a few things finally started to make sense to me.  I ended up with several hundred hand-written pages, which I still have in a drawer.  A lot of it was garbage, but among the junk were a few meaty, dramatic scenes or observations that seemed to capture the entire person.  When I finally went back to make the stories, to draft and revise them, I was able to extract those keys scenes and moments and feel confident that they could bear the weight of the information I was leaving out.

LNB: Do you consider audience when writing stories?

DM: I don’t write with a specific audience in mind, and I don’t think most writers of literary fiction do, either.  I’m not, for example, writing specifically to men or women or college students or working professionals; I hope that people from each of those groups will find something interesting in my work.  One of the dangers I face is being branded—given my interested in evangelicals—as a “Christian Writer,” the kind of writer you find in a Christian bookstore or in the “Inspirational” section at Barnes and Noble.  Anyone who reads my stories will see that though many of my characters are tussling with the vicissitudes of Christian faith, they’re complicated and conflicted human beings.  They have passions, and quite often make impulsive, irrevocably consequential decisions on the basis of those passions.  For me, religion is the lens through which I strive to see my characters, and to get my characters to see the world.  Every character has a lens though which she sees and is seen, be it her gender or ethnicity or geography or cultural assumptions.  Religion is just one of the clubs in the bag, though in my bag, it’s a big one.  It’s a 1-wood driver.

That said, I got interested in writing about religious people in part because religious folks—especially evangelicals—are often mischaracterized or lampooned.  They’re often shown in gigantic stadium-like churches filled with rock bands and strobe lights and people swooning in the aisles.  Or, they’re shown demonstrating outside courthouses, seemingly in lock-step with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.  Such depictions aren’t totally unwarranted, but the picture of all those people swaying en masse seems to suggest that these people simplistic and homogenous, that they lack inner lives, or that their inner lives are constituted entirely by doctrinal maxims.  Like all people, evangelicals are in possession of a complex psychology.  They have reasons for their beliefs, and those reasons are deeply rooted in their personal experiences and traumas.  Despite all their rhetoric promoting chastity and conservative gender relationships, they, too, have fervent sexual desires.  It’s probably a topic for another time, but I believe evangelicalism is a highly eroticized religious world; it practically oozes with sexual desire and innuendo, it’s just that it gets wrapped up in a spiritual package that makes it look like something different.  But again, you can see the contradiction at work—people who spend a good deal of time simultaneously talking about and abstaining from sex.  They’re often lampooned for this, but lampoons rely, for the most part, on superficialities.  I felt these people needed a more complex voice.  Ultimately, though, I hope readers will find their way to my  work because I’m telling good stories; the fact that I’m telling stories about the crazy religious people down the street who often go to church twice on Sundays, as well as on Wednesday nights, only adds to the mystery and to the appeal.

LNB: Disaster—whether natural or biological—appears frequently in these stories, in conjunction with themes of faith, guilt, regret, redemption, and desire.  When drafting a story, do you develop themes from the subject matter, or do you have a theme(s) in mind and try to find a premise that works to enhance it (them)?

DM: Always the former, always from the subject matter.  In fact, in a number of cases, the disasters got the stories off the ground.  I’m connected, in one way or another, to almost all of the disasters in the book.  My father and stepmother nearly lost their house during the 1993 Laguna Beach fires, which later inspired “Moonland on Fire”; I was coaching a swimming workout in 2001 when a close friend had a heart attack in the water and could not be revived; my mother temporarily lost her eyesight just before going into labor with me; and, as a Texan, I’ve weathered my share of hurricanes.  My mother used to take my sister and I into the laundry room to ride out the storms, much like Cordelia takes Rowdy and Jill into the laundry room in the final story, “The End of the Straight and Narrow.”  Some things I witnessed—like my friend’s heart attack—but most I didn’t.  I heard about them later and my imagination was seized by the story.  In each case, a single, strange image emerged that sparked my interest: a boy watching his father pray over his house while a massive fire rages in the background, a lonely woman talking to the baby she gave up years ago, and so on.  The image, the possibility of a scene, got me going and I went from there.

I also like disasters because they’re dramatic: the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, and against them, human beings also flash and yearn.  Communities come together, or else splinter apart, during disasters.  People say the things they wouldn’t ordinarily have the courage to say.  They take leaps of faith, and leaps of faith are profoundly important to me.  Flannery O’Connor says in Mysteries and Manners, “For the fiction writer, to believe nothing is to see nothing.”  O’Connor’s says this sentence within the context of religion, her Catholic faith in particular, but I also think she means something even broader.  Every story, regardless of its context or subject, is an act of faith and belief.  Writers begin with nothing, with blank pages, and believe that at the end of the process, real people will exist on the page.  My faith is tested every time I sit down to write.  It’s natural that I’d be drawn to stories in which the faiths of others are tested, too.

LNB: Part II of the book is comprised of five linked short stories.  Did you originally intend on writing several stories about these characters?  Did the thought of a novel ever cross your mind?

DM: Part II had a long gestation.  It began as one failed story that turned into an entire failed novel.  I wrote reams of pages that added up to nothing.  All those pages I talk about above were part of an attempt to find my way out.  I was ready to abandon the entire thing when, a few months before my oldest son was born, I thought I’d see if I could extract enough material to make a single story.  Just one story, I told myself, and I can leave the work behind without it being a total waste.  The story I wrangled out was “Consequences of Knowledge,” the middle story in the sequence.  I looked at what I’d made and felt pleased with it.  I thought, I bet I can do this one more time.  “Sweet Texas Angel” came next, and by the time it was finished, I believed I could do three more, one at the beginning and two more at the end.  I had plenty of material to draw from, so I had the scenes.  The novel had given me a lot of trouble because I couldn’t seem to find a way to link one chapter to another; it felt like I was writing filler most of the time.  Once I gave up the need to write chapters and allowed myself to freedom to make larger leaps across time and points of view, I had a much clearer sense of what to do.  Ironically, the process taught me how a novel might go together, how I might survive the writing of one.  I’m a long-winded writer, with a fairly long attention span, so I believe I have a novelist’s heart, so long as I can work in small, prismatic segments, and take my time.

LNB: Have you written, or have you thought about writing, more stories involving these characters?

DM: Not as of yet.  By the time these stories were finished, I felt the way Andy Roddick must have felt after this year’s Wimbledon match against Roger Federer: bereft, exhausted, and simply relieved it was over.  More importantly, the characters in Part II sustained my writing life by presenting to me certain, persistent questions: for example, why Cory allowed herself to give up her own child for the sake of the Jarretts, and why Rowdy was so obsessed with his guilt about his mother’s blindness.  Completing the stories answered those questions for me, more or less, and as a result, the characters don’t feel as mysterious or as elusive as they once did.  I now realize that the very things that used to terrify me as a writer—what I don’t understand about a character—actually keep me going.  If there’s something more that I don’t know, then there’s something more I can discover.  There’s a problem I can solve.  I’m eager to unravel someone else’s mysteries now.

LNB: What are currently working on?

DM: I’m working on a collection of creative nonfiction essays.  Some days I call it a memoir-in-essays, but I’ve never particularly liked the word memoir, so most of the time I call it a collection of essay.  A number of the essays are about swimming, and the title essay, “Rough Water” is forthcoming in the 2009 Best American Sports Writing anthology. Swimming is one of my lifelong passions; I was a competitive swimmer throughout high school and college, and remain somewhat competitive today (I race a few times a year), and each essay in the collection wends it way toward water in one way or another.  In one essay, I tell about getting lost in the Utah desert.  In another, I tell about worrying about the plumbing in my house—convinced the pipes are leaking inside the walls—while my wife and I worry over the results of an amniocentesis, which will determine whether or not our second child will have a very grave genetic disease.  The essays aren’t just about swimming, though.  They’re also about my family, growing up in the suburbanized American West, money, hunger, sex, and religion.  The first few essays were written during the writing of The End of the Straight and Narrow, so my obsessions and fascinations with religion that characterize my fiction also show up in my nonfiction.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re telling everyone about?

DM: I recently read C.J. Hribal’s novel, The Company Car.  I’d heard great things about Hribal from a number of friends, but I’d never read any of his work.  I heard him read from the novel last spring at the Fox Cities Book Festival, and was immediately entranced.  He’s a great reader of his work, which helps.  I pulled out my last bit of cash, bought the book, had him sign it, and then took it home and dove right in.  It’s a big, sprawling, but endlessly entertaining and ultimately magical work of fiction.  I savored it.  I’m also licking my chops for Jill McCorkle’s new book of stories.  The last two stories of hers that I’ve read, “Magic Words” and “Another Dimension” have been fabulous.  “Magic Words” will be in the 2009 Best American Short Stories.  And she’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, so she deserves all the praise and acclaim that comes her way.  As far as nonfiction goes, Willard Spiegelman’s Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness is not to be missed.  Spiegelman’s an academic (and editor of the Southwest Review), so the essays are intelligent, classical, and highly literary. Anyone who reads the book will learn a new word or two.  But the essays are also funny, poignant, cheerful, and simply sanguine.  In the book, he talks about how watching people do something pleasurable, such as dance, can make you feel happy.  It turns out that reading a writer in a good mood can have the same effect.