© David Ignaszewski
Varieties of Disturbance:
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
conducted by Bret
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?
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
My previous book,
BAJ: What drew you to the
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
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?
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
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,
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
Anthony Johnston is the author of internationally acclaimed
and the editor of Naming
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.