Varieties of Disturbance: Stories
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Interview conducted by Bret Anthony Johnston.
BAJ: First and foremost, congratulations on being a finalist for the National Book Award! One of the staples of the finalist-interview genre seems to be the question of where you were when you found out. How did you find out about being a finalist? Has it sunk in yet?
This nomination was wonderful and quite unexpected. The phone call came when I was in my study scrambling to finish some confusingly disparate pieces of writing for a deadline, so my mind was in several places at once. It was Harold Augenbraum calling, and I knew him from his days at the Mercantile Library, so I thought for a moment the call might somehow be about Proust (he founded the Proust Society there) but that didn't seem quite right, and then he told me the news--I was floored.
BAJ: In a country such as ours, where reading is in such a state of crisis, what is the role of the fiction writer? Does being a finalist for such a prestigious award affect how you view yourself in that role?
I don't want to say how discouraging I find the decline of reading. I suppose as a fiction writer all one can do is be a friendly, positive "representative" of writers and writing among the larger public that doesn't read much--and hope at least to remind people that writers exist and have recognizable human form. In both my former and my present neighborhoods I have been glad to be one of the local writers, the writer down the block, organizing a reading series at the local library, or meeting with the girl scout troop to talk about what they read, etc.--and my neighbors in turn have enjoyed talking to me about writing and books, and have even read my books. I suppose that sort of interaction does no harm, at least.
BAJ: How long did you work on Varieties of Disturbance?
My previous book, Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, came out nearly six years ago, so during the intervening time I was working on many of the stories in this collection. But I was also working on my translation of Proust's Swann's Way, which took a great deal of time. On the other hand, I did include in this collection, as I had in previous ones, some older stories that had fallen out of print. I like to mix up the old and the new.
BAJ: What drew you to the stories?
A few of the stories, especially the longer ones, were inspired by other texts and incorporate the language of other people, including non-writers (as, for instance, the study of the fourth-graders' get-well letters called "We Miss You"). I find the writing of non-writers, in particular, wonderfully fresh and surprising, and in some of the stories in this book I enjoyed taking it up and combining it with my own writing. More generally, what lies at the source of these stories is some strong emotion, whether that emotion is grief, anger, indignation, love, pity, or even delight in a piece of language.
BAJ: How does the book compare to other prose you’ve written?
It may strike a more somber tone note some of the others, since there are a few pieces about death and dying, though I have to admit that even those are not without an element of humor. It also incorporates, as I said, more of other people's writing than do the earlier collections. Over the years, of course, I have gradually moved away from writing straightforward fictional short stories.
BAJ: Were there moments in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t work? If so, how did you press on?
I didn't worry about the shorter pieces, but as the very longest one, "Helen and Vi," grew longer and longer, I realized that it might not appeal to anyone but me! It is an almost completely straightforward study of the lives of two old women, and it is over forty pages long. I wrote it out of my own interest in these two women. I wondered how other people would react to it, and I did consider not including it in the book, but in the end I couldn't imagine leaving it out because I cared about it too much.
BAJ: If there is a common thread among this year’s fiction finalists, it might be that all of the books employ interesting narrative structures and scopes. The stories in your collection are so varied—so beautifully and vividly individualized in voice, tone, and vision—and so, so short, with some only a few words long, yet the effect of the book is utterly expansive. Did you set out to write a book of extremely short stories, or did the symbiotic relationship between the subjects and structures emerge more intuitively? Did you discover anything new about the stories after they were collected in Varieties of Disturbance?
I do not ever really think in terms of a book, but only in terms of an individual story, one story at a time. I write a story in whatever form seems to be demanded by the subject matter, and that is why some are so short--how much, really, can you say about this fly on the wall of the bus or this notice in a hotel room? Some of my thoughts or reactions are very brief, and their brevity is actually part of what I enjoy about them. On the other hand, I did write one novel, The End of the Story, because the subject demanded a much longer treatment than I could have given it in a short story--in fact, I think I felt it was necessary, if the story was to have its full effect, for a reader to live with that narrator for a long time. I like to remain very flexible as to form. That, too, is part of the enjoyment. What I probably discovered in this book after the fact was that if there was a common theme, it was a greater involvement with other people, real people, coming through the stories.
BAJ: Finally, when you were writing the fifty-seven stories in Varieties of Disturbance, did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If so, who?
This is always a hard question. As many writers will say, I do write for myself first, to please myself, to see something take shape in a way that satisfies me. But then of course I'm happy when a reader enjoys something or is moved by something that I enjoyed or was moved by as I wrote it. Yet, curiously, readers are all so different, and many of them are so astute--they see things I haven't seen at all, they offer interpretations that astonish me, but often seem correct. No, I don't write for any ideal reader. But there is a sense of companionship as I write--though I don't know who the companion is.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed Corpus Christi: Stories and the editor of Naming the World, both from Random House. In 2006, he received the “5 Under 35” fiction honor from the National Book Foundation. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard University. For more information, please visit: www.bretanthonyjohnston.com.
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