Interview / August 2009 (Issue 8)

Interviews with Anne Enright, Nam Le and Rebecca Rosenblum

by Nigel Beale

The following excerpts are based on a series of separate audio interviews with writers Anne Enright, Nam Le and Rebecca Rosenblum for The Biblio File, a radio program/podcast hosted by Nigel Beale.

During each interview three people were in the room: the writer, the host, and Flannery O'Connor, in the form of her thoughts about the craft of short story writing culled primarily from Mystery and Manners, a collection of her "occasional prose."

Here's how the three authors responded to O'Connor, who joins us here in bold type:

The first and most obvious characteristic of a good short story is that it deals with that which can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched.

NL: Given that writing is a form of communication which often draws on what is universal and common about our experience, it would be foolish not to incorporate the sensual. How much more common can you get than the physical body from which we're all forced to operate? All of us mediate our experiences through our senses. One not only achieves more vivid mimesis using sight, taste, sound, smell and tactility, their use also serves as a springboard to bounce us into more abstract territory. Creating as concrete, vivid and sustainable a dream as possible imbues the reader with a sense that they're moving inside this dream, that their will counts, and this in turn enables them to see what the story—this encrypted cage of words—signifies.

AE: We have no other place to live, other than in our bodies, and with the five senses. At least one sense must be present in every sentence. Sometimes description of one sense will trigger another. For example, the noise of a colour in your head. Witness Emily Dickinson's "yellow noise." Or William Carlos Williams' "so much depends on…" (a red wheelbarrow).

Judgment begins in the selection of concrete details. Details convey a "reality" which is determined by what the author sees and how he sees it. Without detail, "the eye will glide over their words while the attention goes to sleep."

AE: The key for the writer is to make what is said matter. Look at this that happened, and this. To achieve intensity one must select and describe each detail as though it's important, even though it might be banal. The writing must be completely and absolutely particular.

RR: My goal is to create a world that could be here; that seems possible. Details provide plausibility; create a world not too far removed from the rational one we inhabit. Details about food, buses, girls' lives… are rendered small and precisely enough in order to ground the reader so that when something happens beyond her experience she's able to go with me that extra step, beyond what she already knows. Donald Barthelme, for example, stays away from the breakfast table. I don't.

NL: There is, of course, too much detail in real life to capture its entirety. Fiction writers select and discriminate to an extraordinarily high degree. In so doing they look to throw up nodes of significance, charged phenomena—while careful at the same time to avoid cliché.

George Orwell's idiosyncratic noticing of the way a condemned man steps around a puddle on his walk to the gallows in A Hanging provides a useful example. We apprehend the puddle, the physicality of avoiding it. We're hooked into archetypal images of hooded executioners, scaffolds. With simple sensory observation Orwell drives a wedge through corporeality into the rich and enormous realm of metaphysics, ideas and philosophy, where his notions of humanity, mortality, and absurdity, dwell. Given the right choice of detail, a crack—or, better yet, a passageway—can be opened up into an abstract and emotional space, through which the reader, depending upon her capacities and inclinations, may pass. In order for a writer's work to be alive, it must be smarter than she is. That's where the good stuff lies…where the sense prevails that more is going on than the writer can understand; than her conscious mind can contain. Good writing taps into these charged, mysterious places and moments…this is where the writer gives the reader greatest scope to put their own experiences and thoughts into play.

In most good stories it is the character's personality that creates the action… In most poor stories the writer appears to have thought of some action and then scrounged up a character to perform it. You will usually be more successful if you start the other way around. If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don't have to know "what" before you begin.

RR: I always start off with the people. I know a huge amount about my characters… many of whom don't even appear in the final text. I make up a large portion of what comes before and after the story. I write a huge amount…more than anyone will publish. Then it's a winnowing process… the object is to get things down to a point where the reader will understand the story, and the rest of the iceberg. A lot of "story" lies in the ellipsis…
NL: This prompts me to reveal a fundamental operating principal: inhabit your characters as completely as possible. Sublate your own instinct as an author, as an experience of the world. Get into the consciousness and subjectivity of the character as fully as you can. Relinquish your writer's sense of ego. This means, for example, sometimes choosing not to use that detail which gives satisfaction, that perfectly turned lyrical sentence; it may mean foregoing the sweetest, most apt observation if it compromises the truth and circumstance of the character. Though the phrase may be plum or perspicacious, delete it if it doesn't suit the character. By imposing a knowing authority (leaving aside top-down cases of subjectivity with, for example, omniscient, satirical, or allegorical intent), or including too-perfect details, an author can unintentionally suck the oxygen away from the story that needs to be told, can demean the consciousness that needs to tell it.

AE: All that has to happen in a story is for something to change. Any moment, for example, around which something becomes clear, is a good place to build a story. This change or clarification can be extremely slight. My stories are about re-inhabiting life.

I see characters as voice. Voice is the engine of a lot of my work, it's driven by the way particular characters speak the rhythms of their thought, first person usually, not spoken aloud in a room for example…but inner voices that are heard in their heads which are on the brink of being spoken. It's like talking to themselves…like a voice on the phone. Intimate, uncensored voices…not necessarily honest ones either. Writing is artificial. We don't think in fully formed sentences, or when we rant or monologue…my stories reside in these places.

My characters are very available to me. They're there as I write. The epiphany occurs as I write. You don't have to know what's going to happen before you begin. The creative process? You simply write. I don't think about the process. The wonderful thing about writing is that you, as O’Connor, one of my heroes, says, can be surprised…you can surprise yourself…my writing is about surprise. As the artist Paul Klee once said in another context, it’s like taking the line for a walk.

There must be a beginning, middle, and an end to a story, though not necessarily in that order:

RR: Very challenging because it is artificial, relative to life lived…

NL: I'm interested in telescoping, microscoping, expanding and compressing time. One can't get away from the linearity—the teleological aspect—of reading. Of course there is a beginning and an end. I admire good short story writers perhaps more than most, because the temporal challenges they face are more urgent than those encountered by novelists. There's more scope for error. So that when a great story is pulled off, it's a tour de force. A much larger fraction than most people realise of the best contemporary fiction in the world is being written, by short story writers.

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, O'Connor tells us, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, made concrete in itself.

RR: I sometimes go back on third drafts to look for themes, to see if there are "organic" (and I'm dubious of this word) connections or patterns I can strengthen from the events I'm trying to draw.

NL: When the story is approached with thematic intentionality it tends to fall into the didactic or the polemical. The programmatic stifles the creative mess, the fortuitous diversion, the fruit of negative capability, in order to get its message across. Meaning should be intrinsic to every aspect of the story: plot, character, rhythm, language, structure, etc.

Meaning is a life force…the energy interchanged between reader and writer. Try to dam or channel this force and you risk cutting off the supply. What you're doing in the story is manipulating/ guiding/curbing/amplifying this energy so that it is maximally charged for emotional and intellectual impact…looked at this way, the goal is intensity. When theme is overemphasized, this energy is diffused. Writing amounts to the shepherding of energy…the challenge is to modulate momentum, to orchestrate suspense, and stream narrative. By the same token, though, you can't just hit readers with all this energy. The writer must always leave room for participation.

AE: Ideologies or themes are already distilled from life. They speak language that dies as soon as it's spoken. If you want to refresh the language, go before the label…go to primary sources…strip language back…to the individual, to the character. In one story of mine a woman falls in love with another…it's pure experience…she's before the label, behind the slogans. She doesn't think of herself as a lesbian. There is a moment of breaking through, before words, or labels, before knowing…this is a place where obscure emotions and blockages shift. A place where I want my writing to live. This character hasn't described her love in a "social" way yet…all she has done is experienced it…It is good advice to follow the film writers' rule: theme should be in every scene, but never stated in any of them.

You tell a story because a statement is inadequate. When asked what the story is about, the only proper response is to tell your interlocutor to read it.

RR: It's true. When they work you, can't say or write these things shorter, or faster or better. Words, metaphors and commas are used to build something rational in order to try to effect emotion, to get a physical reaction. I'm motivated to write the story I want to write, the one that I can care for and treasure. To show life on the page, to shed light on life, to spread understanding. I'm also the "queen of qualifiers." It is very hard to impute emotion to someone else, to say this is how they feel…even if I'm their creator…I write to learn. Sometimes writing a fictional person can provide me with lessons about real people.

NL: Eliot once said that a poem can communicate before it means. Abstract meaning tends to be unilaterally imposed. Set in stone. The reader should be engaged, so the writing should invite that engagement. Short stories have to hook interest and find common places in the terrain between human beings. Among other things, readers bring colour, cadence, and new dimensions to a work that are unanticipated by the writer.

The fiction writer states as little as possible. The reader makes connections between the things he is shown.

RR: Often it's the things you don't say. Good writers will only give enough detail to make you want to fill in the blanks, to think about the rest of story after you've shut the book.

NL: The aim is to create an intense curiosity, a reaction…and to tap into larger felt mysteries. The novel's impulse is to contain everything. The short story must be spring-loaded. There isn't much time or space so the work must be geared for expansion. The desired reader response is a sense of recognition: to do this one must first defamiliarise the reader from the things they are comfortable and familiar with. The thought process might go something like this: "There's so much out there I don't understand about other people…even though I thought I did…" this, followed by a sense of wonder and curiosity, then, contradictorily, "I know this person in the book. I'm not alone after all. I sense that the situation is not dissimilar to my own."

I'd like readers to be moved by my fiction…to experience grief, loss, redemption, joy, alienation, connectedness, estrangement…whatever it is the story is trying to make them feel… I want them to feel it as deeply as they are capable of feeling.

To listen to the interviews, follow the links below then scroll down:

Anne Enright [audio]
Nam Le [audio]
Rebecca Rosenblum [audio]

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