Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Live Nude Books: On the surface, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way profiles the men in your life.  The subtitle lets readers know that this is also a book about the various roles in which you identify yourself.  And while reading, it’s hard to ignore the contrasts between social classes.  When you began working on this book, were men, identity, and class your focuses?

Diana Joseph: The first essay I ever wrote is in this book. It’s the one about my son called “The Boy,” and I had such a good time writing it that I immediately wrote “What’s (Not) Simple,” the one about his father.

Around that same time I read Joan Didion’s essay “Why I Write.”  In it she says, “I write to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” I was making discoveries, too. Through writing these essays, I realized the person I adored could also be the person who drove me koo-koo bananas. I realized I dished out as much misery as I took, I gave as good as I got, and that my relationships with the people I loved weren’t easy just because I loved them. I got to thinking what would happen if I wrote about other people who matter to me? What would else would I figure out? So I wrote about my father. And then about an ex-boyfriend and my brother and my dog. I’d written five or six of the essays before I even noticed all my subjects were quirky males. I also noticed that something in my own character might be considered just as quirky. I didn’t intentionally sit down and say to myself I think I will write a book about the various men in my life and the influence they’ve had in the construction of my identity—a thought like that would have made me cringe—but recognizing the pattern, I decided to go with it.

And that’s the best part about having a huge pile of pages:  I can go through them and look for connections, recurring themes, images, obsessions.  So can I tell you how happy I am that you’ve identified class issues as a subtext in this book?  Because I think it is very much a book about class, about growing up blue collar, though I didn’t realize that until the manuscript was just about finished.  In retrospect, I should’ve known since so many of my reactions to the world are based in my reactions to class.

LNB: You identify several people in the book by nickname (The Boy, my old man, Bye Bye, The Satanist, the cat-talkers) or repeatedly by their full name (Vincent Petrone, Andrew Boyle, Gerry Hawthorne).  Is this a style choice, or a way to connect with/distance yourself from these characters?

DJ: It is about connecting with and distancing from people.  Referring to my son as “The Boy” serves a couple purposes.  One is, of course, my interest in protecting his privacy.  There’s also that his father and I have always called him “Boy” and “The Boy.”  But personal stuff aside, in the context of the essays, I think there’s something universal, something archetypal, about him, his boy-ness, that labeling him as “The Boy” emphasizes—a lot of readers have written to me about how much he reminds them of their sons or the boys they know or the boys they were.

LNB: The essays in your book contain a lot of humor; at times, they’re laugh out loud funny.  I don’t read or hear about very many female humorists.  Have you found this to be the case, as well?  If so, why do you think that is?  If not, can you recommend any writers/titles?

DJ: Of course there are funny women writers.   Sarah Vowell is funny; so is Amy Sedaris, so is Lorrie Moore.  Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You made me laugh.  Amanda Davis (Wonder When You’ll Miss Me); Mary Karr (The Liars’ Club); Susan Jane Gilman (Hypocrite in a Poufy White Dress)—all funny women writers.  I think Flannery O’Connor is hilarious, and Jane Austen, and Margaret Atwood, Alison Laurie, and Jane Smiley.  I’m working my way through Mary Roach’s book, and she’s funny.  Have you read Binnie Kirshenbaum’s novels?  Read her.  She’s funny.

(Also, check out this:  http://therumpus.net/2009/06/the-women-of-mcsweeneysnet/)

But there’s this wacky idea that women writers are not funny.  Have you ever read that Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens?  (On a side note, a similar notion that women can’t write about sex has been going around.)  There-are-no-funny-women-writers is a generalization I’ve even heard supposedly intelligent, well-read people spout.  It’s a sexist thing to say, and simplistic, and I wonder what would motivate someone to say it.  Ultimately, though, I think it’s so asinine that I have a hard time getting too worked up.

But if you’re interested in theories on what humor is and how humor works, there’s a lot that’s been written about it.  Thomas Hobbes says “that the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly” (or it’s fun to make fun of ourselves and others.)  Immanuel Kant says, “In everything that is to excite a lively laugh there must be something absurd” (belief in that statement means I want you as a friend.)  Bernard Chazelle’s essay “The Humorology of Power” is also a must-read.

LNB: In a recent edition of the radio show, Here and Now, your book was grouped into the “Bad Parenting” genre of memoir; however, not all of your essays are directly about parenting.  What are your thoughts on the book’s classification?

DJ: Well, the “bad” parents of this genre are what I think of as honest parents, parents who acknowledge that sometimes children are not fascinating, are not always interesting, are not necessarily witty conversationalists.  Since that was often the case during my experience as a parent, I don’t have a problem with the label.

LNB: Some of the essays in your book take place quite a while ago, others occur more recently.  Do you find a certain amount of time needs to pass before writing about a specific event?  Is it a feeling you get before you begin writing, or do you come to this realization—I might need to think about this more—when drafting?

DJ: Yes!  When the house is on fire, I don’t stop and think about what it means that the house is on fire; in that moment, I’m just thinking about how to get out of the house.  But later, I can reflect on that fire, the burnt-down house, I can try to figure out what it means.  For me, a good essay has reflection—the writer showing a particular way of thinking, way of seeing, way of making meaning.  I like writing that leads me to recognition (I know exactly what you mean) or revelation (I never thought of it like that before.)  The best writing gives me both.  I’m not crazy about essays that are really just anecdotes that leave me wondering so what?  Why are you telling me this? But answering the “so what” sometimes means the writer needs some time and space and distance from the event.  At least I do.

LNB: How did you decide on the order in which the essays appear?

DJ: I knew I wanted “Tongue Twister, Tongue Tied,” the essay about my dad to come first.  It makes sense since he’s the original guy in my life, and I wanted the rest of the essays to be seen through the complications and dynamics of my relationship with him.  I wanted “Ten Million, At Least,” the essay about my most recent and most grown-up relationship with a man to come last.  Those two pieces, for me, serve as bookends.

But I struggled with how to order the rest of the essays.  When I turned the manuscript in, I’d arranged the pieces chronologically.  It was my editor, Amy Einhorn, who suggested chucking that and coming up with a more rhetorical ordering, putting a darker piece next to a lighter piece, a piece that highlights some of my bigger foibles and flaws next to a piece that shows less of them.  I think she was right.

LNB: Your first book, Happy or Otherwise, is a collection of short stories.  I’m Sorry You Feel that Way is a memoir in essays.  From a craft standpoint, what differences and similarities have you encountered when making the shift from fiction to nonfiction?

DJ: In her essay “Writing Short Stories,” Flannery O’Connor talks about her story “Good Country People,” how when she was writing it she didn’t know the Bible salesman was going to steal the lady PhD’s wooden leg until a few lines before it happened. And that’s what I love about writing fiction: the what-happens that come as a surprise. I love the way characters can catch me off guard, behave in ways that are inevitable but unexpected.

But in nonfiction, people have already done what they’re going to do, they’ve already said what they’re going to say.  Several of the essays in the book were worked on in real time—as I was living them—so the details were right there in front of me.  All I had to do was pay attention.  I’ve got scraps of papers and old receipts, little notebooks and bar napkins, upon which I jotted things down.  Observations.  Descriptions. Bits of dialogue. I have a bar tab from September 6, 2006.  It’s from a night I hung out with Andrew Boyle, the guy I write about in “It’s Me.  It’s Him.  It’s Them.”  I’ve written all over that bar tab, scribbled down great stuff Andrew said.  Like this:  “I feel like Woody Guthrie in the land of shoes.”  And this:  “It’s the same trick I play on myself so many times.  I think I’m going to clear up her problems.  If I’m good to her, I’ll clear up her problems and she’ll stop being a freak.”  I have that dirty little drawing I mention in “Officer Frenchie,” the essay about my brother Travis.  I’d send a copy to show you but it’s even nastier than I remember, and I don’t want to offend.

In other essays, like the one about my father, I relied almost entirely on memory and its sometimes steady, sometimes slippery path between the hippocampus and cerebral cortex.  I set out to write all the stories I knew about him.  I made lists of everything I knew for sure and everything I didn’t know.  I wrote down advice he’s given me—repeatedly—through the years.  I wrote down conversations we had and conversations I only wished we had.  I had pages and pages of material.  Is it accurate?  I say it is.  Is it the same story my brothers would tell?  I guess you’d have to ask them.

LNB: Do you still write fiction?  What are you working on next?

DJ: My MFA thesis is a collection of short stories that ultimately became Happy or Otherwise.  During the time I was writing that book, I was absolutely obsessed with short stories; they were all I read.  I wanted to learn everything I could about all the ways to write a short story.

I still think of myself as an apprentice to that form, the story, and a good one still makes my heart thump-thump-thump a little louder, a little faster (Have you ever read Let’s Do by Rebecca Meacham or Ask for a Convertible by Danit Brown?  Amazing stories, smart, gorgeously written stories, and funny, too) but somewhere along the line I got distracted by nonfiction, and all of its possibilities.  I recently passed along my old copies of Story magazine—1994-1996, the years I was in graduate school—to one of my MFA students.  It was a nostalgic moment for me, sort of like passing a torch, this handing over of stories that represent my writerly education.  I want to return to stories again someday, but for now I’m studying up on all the forms an essay can take.

LNB: What books (new or not so new) have you recently read and recommend?

DJ: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera.  This is my favorite book by anybody ever.  I’ve given away more copies of this book than any other, and I reread it every summer.

Advertisements

Live Nude Books: I’m wondering if you could talk a little about your writing process.  In the Devil’s Territory is made up of short and long stories—two approach/reach novella length.  Is form something you think about before writing a story?  Do form and the page-length of a story develop naturally through the drafting and revision processes for you?

Kyle Minor: It’s a little different for every story. Sometimes I find that once I find something that works, I exhaust the thing about it that works after one story. The only way I know to talk about it would be to talk about the stories in the book. “The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party” was originally an essay I wrote while my wife was in the hospital and there was a chance the baby she carried wouldn’t make it. I wrote it on Christmas Eve in the two spare hours I had away from the house, at the Caribou Coffee in Upper Arlington, Ohio. The Southern Review published it, and then, since it looked more like a “conventional” short story (by which I mean a single-movement story from one point of view that has a lyrical ending that is somehow epiphanic) than any of the actual short stories I had written, and since it fit the book, thematically, I changed the names of the characters and called it fiction.

“A Day Meant to Do Less” began as a meditation on some green wallpaper. Also, one of my old teachers professed a dislike for stories in which characters are sitting and thinking, while another wrote entire books where characters are sitting and thinking. So I put a senile old woman in a bathtub and had her son stand and think about undressing and bathing her. I wanted to please the teacher who wrote the books where the characters sit and think, but she hated the story. The professor who didn’t like characters who sit and think liked it a lot, and told me to send it to the Gettysburg Review, and they published it, and then it was reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2008. I think all that was despite the sitting and the thinking. I think it was because of the two-part structure, in which you get the bathtub scene first from the son’s point of view, and then from the old lady’s point of view, after you realize that she has withheld from her son the great terror of her life, and that, in her impairment, she thinks he is that great terror, that the last movement of her life has revealed to her that “the very face of evil was love.” That structure and that turn of events surprised me when I was writing the first draft. I was sitting in the Donatos Pizza in Upper Arlington, Ohio, and I had to close up shop and leave because it left me unsettled. I didn’t yet know that this is what must happen if the story’s going to be any good. It has to unsettle the writer.

“A Love Story” was an attempt to write a more or less chronologically linear long story from the point of view of a misunderstood person, and with the kind of great empathy Andre Dubus invested in his characters.

“goodbye Hills, hello night,” is a dramatic monologue in the voice of someone I knew in childhood who participated in a murder. To get the voice right I pulled depositions at the Palm Beach County Courthouse. The first version was a third again as long, and I cut it down to size, but with great anguish.

“The Navy Man” was an inversion of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lapdog.” I did it through the woman’s point of view, and I made her a woman from the subculture about which I was writing, and married her to a recurring minor character in the other stories, and substituted Islamorada for Yalta, and Washington, D.C., for Moscow. I wrote it because I needed another story, and also because I had edited a book of Chekhov stories meant to show that he could do more than boring old “The Lady with the Lapdog,” but then I reread “The Lady with the Lapdog” after the Chekhov book was published, and turns out it’s a pretty good story.

“In the Devil’s Territory” was the most difficult story to write. It went through twenty-some drafts. The first one was a poem. One was in the point of view of an angel. Most of them were a mess. I wrote an essay about writing it, which you can find in the latest issue of Ball State University’s fabulous journal The Broken Plate, which is edited by Mark Neely.

LNB: The story, “A Day Meant to Do Less,” starts out in Jack’s point-of-view, then switches to Franny’s and stays with her.  Was this structure what you had envisioned from the time you began writing the story?  Do you think about structure when composing?

KM: I do think about structure when composing, but often the story gets its head and wants to be something different for some thematic or characterological reason, and then I have to do something different structurally. That’s what happened with “A Day Meant to Do Less,” which was written, anyway, in a kind of fever dream. Franny’s point of view, by the way, was inspired by a novella partially written through an actual fever dream — “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which is Katherine Anne Porter’s Spanish influenza story. (Porter didn’t like that word, novella, but I like it plenty.)

LNB: The stories in this collection are wide-ranging, in terms of craft—you vary points-of-view, voice, structure, form, etc.  Yet they gel to form a solid collection through theme and subject matter.  Did you write these stories specifically for the collection, or did you compile existing stories that you found to be thematically linked?

KM: I wrote “A Love Story,” “The Navy Man,” and “In the Devil’s Territory” specifically for the collection, to round out what the other three stories had set into motion. I meant to make a picture of the world I came from, and what it felt like, and what it feels like, and its humanness, and its consequences.

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

KM: Raymond Carver said begin and end with a pisser. I guess most of these are pissers. “A Day Meant to Do Less” is the biggest pisser, but it starts slowly, so I didn’t want to put it first. I put “In the Devil’s Territory” last because it ends with a metaphor that stands in not just for itself, but also for the whole book. I thought that brought a sense of unity to the whole. I wanted that unity, even though it was a book of stories.

I also tried to pace the book, and not put stories together that were too alike, but the anonymous reviewer at one of the trade magazines complained that the second and third stories were too alike, although, really, they’re not very alike.

LNB: In addition to writing fiction, you’ve published essays and edited the book, The Other Chekhov.  What are you working on next?

KM: I’ve been writing genre stories for Plots with Guns, which has been liberating and fun, not least because I get to work with Anthony Neil Smith, who is a true American hero. I’m almost done with a nonfiction book set in Haiti. I’ve been back and forth between there and the States for the last year and a half, researching it. I’ll probably follow that up with a novel, which I’m still drafting.

LNB: What are you currently reading?

KM: Here are some books that knocked the top of my head off the last couple months:

Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat
Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder
The Rainy Season, by Amy Wilentz
The Rabbit Tetralogy, by John Updike
In the Beauty of the Lilies, by John Updike
The Massacre at El Mozote, by Mark Danner
The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
The Stories of John Cheever
Questions for Ecclesiastes, by Mark Jarman
An Invitation to Poetry, by Jay Parini
Ordinary Genius, by Kim Addonizio
Avengers of the New World, by Laurent Dubois
The Discipline, by David Citino
End of I., by Stephen Dixon
Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes, by Diederich & Burt
The Stories of J. F. Powers
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford
St. John of the Five Boroughs, by Edward Falco

I’m looking forward to reading the new Philip Roth, whatever book the New Yorker story “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat will appear in, that new Gabriel Garcia-Marquez biography, and whatever Donald Ray Pollock and Cormac McCarthy write next.

Also, I should plug the website HTMLGiant.com, where a very, very interesting and irreverent conversation about literature has been going on since last winter, among, as far as I can tell, a talented and very smart pool of young writers, among them James Yeh, Blake Butler, and Barry Graham. I read with James and Blake on my book tour this spring, and I lunched with Barry last fall in Ypsilanti, Michigan. That crew is a shot in the arm, and literature needs it, badly. I like a lot of the books coming out from Melville House, Dzanc, New York Review Books, and the Dalkey Archive Press. Also, I should plug some literary journals I like: Ninth Letter, Hobart, Sou’wester, Third Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Georgia Review. These are all a big part of my life.

I think reading is way more important than writing. I wish I could read more.

Live Nude Books: The Turtle Catcher opens with a series of intense scenes that take place in 1920.  From there, you send the reader back to 1897 and tell the story of the Richter family leading up to and going beyond those first few scenes.  Did you have the structure of the novel planned out when you first started writing, or did you organize the story this way during the drafting and revision processes?

Yellowleaves1Nicole Helget: Probably to my discredit, I don’t worry about overall shape or structure when I first begin writing a story. I feel very free to jump around in history or in the story without regard for chronology. I connect or arrange events more by theme or metaphor and *expect* my readers to make the connections themselves. I’m aware that this doesn’t always work for some readers. I’m aware that some readers prefer a more linear or traditional plot structure. But there are plenty of books out there that already do that. Plot or structurally-speaking, I’m more impressed by poets and poetry, with all their leaping and echoing, and I try to honor those types of constructions in my prose. When I start trying to force traditional structures on my prose, it ends up feeling predictable, and I despise predictability in my own fiction. I’m trying to fight against what’s expected. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

LNB: There are several characters that receive a hefty amount of page space, yet they’re all well developed—none of them seem like two-dimensional “types.”  When writing a story with a lot of characters, how do you manage all of them without letting one or two fall to the wayside?

NH: It’s sort of cliche, I guess, but I try to deliver the humanity of every character. I, personally, don’t even like all of my characters, but I try to give even the most abhorrent character a history or event that makes them at least somewhat sympathetic, that explains why they behave the way that they do. Managing so many characters isn’t something I’ve ever considered a problem or challenge. In my real life, I’ve always had a lot of people around. I have 5 sisters. I have 5 children. Because of the sheer amount of people in my personal life and because I’ve always been interested in knowing them thoroughly and understanding their motivations, that personal experience transfers naturally to my literary work.

LNB: The novel spans twenty plus years, covering the early twentieth century immigrant experience and World War I.  How much and what types of research did you need to do in order to tell this story?

NH: I’m intensely interested in history. My favorite reads are actually the Pulitzer Prize or National Book award-winners in historical nonfiction, like Nathaniel Philbrick, Timothy Egan, and Ann Applebaum.  I’m no expert on any particular era, so I write fiction instead, where I can just use events of the past to tell the story I want to tell. My favorite part of writing is probably the research that goes into creating the accurate historical perspective. I read a lot of narratives from the time, histories, poetry of or about the time, and watch a lot of documentaries. For The Turtle Catcher‘s purposes, I grew up in the area, too, so I knew some of the history and could see and feel how it has shaped the area and the people in it.

LNB: In your memoir, you write about growing up in rural Minnesota, and the novel is set primarily in your home state.  Does place work as a form of inspiration for your writing?

NH: Oh yes. Setting is its own character. It has moods and bad behavior. Particularly in this area, weather, seasons, animals, plants, and insects, are still prevalent, still a part of the people’s daily business, so it would be dumb, I think, to pretend as though it doesn’t exist or doesn’t have an effect on the people here. So if a writer sets a book here, setting has to be a part of it.

LNB: Your first book is non-fiction, the second is a novel, and you’ve written several children’s books.  What are you working on now?

NH: I am working on another novel, titled STILLWATER, which is about a pair of twins born during the fur-trapping era, who are separated but then later reunited under the most abhorrent, incestuous circumstances. I’ve got about 150 pages, but I think it’ll be close to 400 pages when I’m done. It’s coming out really fast. Hopefully, I’ll be done by the end of summer.

Nicole Helget’s novel, The Turtle Catcher, began as a short story, which won the 2005 Tamarack Award from Minnesota Monthly.  To read this story, click here.