© Jerry Bauer
Like You’d Understand,
Alfred A. Knopf
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?
Thank you. I checked my phone
messages late Monday night to discover that the National
Book Foundation had called. My wife Karen and I made
some jokes about them wanting to get someone else's
phone number from me, but the next morning when I called,
Harold Augenbraum gave me the good news. It has and
it hasn't sunk in. I'm still a little stunned from the
sheer good fortune of the thing. It feels, logically
enough, like having won the lottery, and I have a keen
sense of how much probably had to go right for something
like this to have happened.
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?
The role of the fiction writer
is I suppose to tell as compelling and important stories
as he or she can. And those stories should help us dismantle
and reassemble our sense of ourselves. What's nice about
the National Book Award is the valiant work it does
trying to remind a culture at large that seems less
and less interested in reading fiction and poetry that
educating us about our emotions is something that's
more, and not less, important given the state of our
national discourse right now.
BAJ: How long did you
work on Like You’d Understand, Anyway?
About four years. But I have
a full-time teaching job, so that's a lot of time in
there in which I wasn't able to work, as well.
BAJ: What drew you
to the stories?
Each story drew me to it in
its own way, but in each case something about our world
-- something I remembered from my own experience, or
came across in my reading, or heard about -- gave me
a little jolt and got me going, and then it was a matter
of finding that resonance -- that sliver of overlap
between the subject matter and my own inner life, mostly
an overlap of crucial emotional agendas and conflicts
-- that created the connection that allowed me to try
to access everything else, in terms of empathetic imagination.
BAJ: How does the book
compare to other prose you’ve written?
It's as good as anything else
I've written. Which is a relief.
BAJ: Were there moments
in your writing process where you worried the book wouldn’t
work? If so, how did you press on?
Well, with a story collection,
it's really more a matter of whether or not a story
seems to have worked out, and can be added to the pile.
And of course, as Karen would point out, there were
any number of miserable sleepless nights when I was
blackly certain that this or that story was headed for
the toilet, and that I should give up writing and take
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, theme, and vision—and
yet the cumulative effect of the book is harmonic. Did
you always conceive of such scope for the book, 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 Like You’d Understand, Anyway?
Oh, boy: intuitively. Though
as I was assembling the stories and choosing their order,
what you're calling their harmonic effect was evident
to me. That seems logical, actually, since the subjects
might be bizarrely varied, but the emotional center
from which they've all been generated is the same. In
other words, while lots of people have talked about
how different my narratives and/or my narrative voices
might be, the emotional preoccupations tend to be very
similar. I probably obsess about the same five things,
over and over.
BAJ: Finally, when
you were writing Like You’d Understand, Anyway,
did you have an audience or ideal reader in mind? If
S.J. Perelman, I think.
No, I'm teasing. What was that Gertrude Stein line?
"I write for myself, and strangers"?
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.