2011 National Book Award Finalist,

Edith Pearlman

Edith Pearlman
Binocular Vision

(Lookout Books, an imprint of the Department of Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington)

Interview by Bret Anthony Johnston

Bret Anthony Johnston: Congratulations on Binocular Vision being named a Finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. The book is a collection of new and selected stories, and yet it has a distinct and resonant emotional trajectory. How did you choose which stories to include?

Edith Pearlman: Ben George, my editor, and I discussed inclusion endlessly. Stories went in and out, in and out. Finally we included the ones we couldn’t bear to exclude.

BAJ: How closely does the finished book correspond to what you first had in mind?

EP: Very closely.

BAJ: How did the writing of the new stories in Binocular Vision compare to the work you’d done previously?

EP: My interest in character, dilemma, and accommodation remains strong.

BAJ: In the Fiction category this year, four of the five Finalists explore countries and cultures outside of America. What was it about places like tsarist Russia and Jerusalem that so captured your imagination?

EP: The conflicts they engender in the characters. In “Lineage,” it was a joy to do research on Rasputin and the Royal Family in its public and private lives. Jerusalem is a complicated and serious city with infighting among its citizens and a humorous encounter on every corner. Central America is lush, corrupt, arousing.

BAJ: What role does setting play in your writing?

EP: Enormous.

BAJ: Do you have a reader in mind as you write?

EP: Yes. I have a colleague who reads my work when it’s nearly finished. If I have pleased her, I’m satisfied.

BAJ: What is your revision process?

EP: Endless rewriting of every sentence, paragraph, and page.

BAJ: How much of a story do you know before you start?

EP: I think I know most of it. But it always changes.

BAJ: What was the biggest surprise you encountered while pulling together the stories for Binocular Vision?

EP: The large number of damaged children they contain. In the book are a crippled child, a Down’s child, two Asperger’s children, a doomed baby, and a severely retarded child.

BAJ: What was the biggest challenge?

EP: As always, to convey the urgency of the story in as few words as possible.

BAJ: Of the five Finalists this year, yours is the only collection of short fiction. From your perspective, what is the state of the short story today?

EP: Alive and well.

BAJ: What is the role of the writer in the world today?

EP: To clarify that bit of the world she writes about. To entertain.

BAJ: This is the 62nd year of the National Book Awards. How do you feel about your book being honored in the tradition of the previous Finalists and Winners? Are there previous NBA honorees that you’ve found yourself rereading over the years?

EP: I feel tremendously elevated. I re-read the short stories of Cheever, Updike, Proulx, Malamud, Powers, and Singer.


Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories.  His work appears in magazines such as Esquire, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, and Tin House, and in numerous anthologies, including Best American Short Stories.  In 2006, he was named one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35, and he is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard. www.bretanthonyjohnston.com

Author photo: Jonathan Sachs