Posts Tagged ‘Interview’

A portion of Peter Selgin’s response to Writer’s Digest question about the worst mistake a writer can make:

Perfectionism is certainly a mistake. If writers pay too much attention to their inner critics they will generate very little work. Move on; get it done. Stop “perfecting.” Let the next book (or story) be the perfect one.

Ain’t that the truth.  Click here to read the interview in its entirety.

I’ve searched high and low for an interview with C.E. Morgan about writing, but there aren’t many conversations with her on the web.  Click here for a quick Q&A with the writer at January Magazine.

Morgan, on her picks for the novel’s soundtrack:

A playlist for the novel might have provided a list of the best acts working in contemporary bluegrass, because the work is set in East-Central Kentucky where bluegrass is ubiquitous (as well as old-time, gospel, and country). Or, because the protagonist of the novel is a pianist, it could have been a ‘best of’ primer for solo piano- a bottomless well of a repertoire, one easily dipped into with something like the Moonlight Sonata (speaking of ubiquitous), but a little more challenging to explore in a comprehensive manner without guidance.

To see the set list over at largehearted boy, click here.

To hear Morgan read an excerpt from All the Living, click here.

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 Salon.com 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.

For the last few weeks, I’ve searched for Paul Yoon’s contact information in order to ask him a few questions about his book.  My searches came up empty.  There are, however, several interviews with the writer available online.  The following is an excerpt from one conducted by The Rumpus:

Rumpus: All of the stories in ONCE THE SHORE the Shore are set on the fictional South Korean island of Solla. In their original versions, some of these stories mentioned the real island of Cheju as their setting. Can you describe your decision to shift these stories into a fictional world?

Paul Yoon: When I started ONCE THE SHORE I definitely had Cheju Island, and other islands in that area, in mind. I hadn’t been to Cheju in about fourteen years and I couldn’t afford a trip back or take the time off from day jobs to travel there, so I relied on research and my imagination. When I finished, though, and saw the book as a whole, I realized that the stories didn’t really have anything to do with Cheju Island at all. I had changed virtually everything—geography, events, and history—to tell these stories. And it occurred to me that it was never my intention to write about that specific island…

For the complete interview, click here.

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.

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.