I had written three novels in the intervening years, and they were hard novels — they weren’t easy to write. I came up out of the depths of “Lost Memory of Skin” feeling kind of exhausted and that I really needed to work on the other side of my brain. Short stories feel as though they do come from a different place entirely. It’s not just a literary shift but a physiological one. They’re much closer to writing songs or poems. So I went back over my notebooks from the previous 10 or 15 years and culled bits and pieces out of those notes: a sketch, an image, a plot outline, an episode I read from the paper. I found 12 that I wanted to work with, and I sat down for a year and a half and just wrote short stories.
There’s a lot of divorce and separation in these stories. Do you think divorce is in some way a “permanent member of the family”?
One thing that has struck me through the years, first as a child of divorce and then as a divorced man myself, which makes my children the children of divorce, is the incredible, powerful need we have for family, its ability to provide us with strength and intimacy, support and love — and then, on the other hand, the incredible fragility of family. It’s difficult to sustain continuous family life over the generations, no matter how you define family. It’s not reinforced by the rest of society very heartily, and it’s not reinforced by the economy. It’s under siege. I think the stories grow out of that conflict. Obviously the title was ironic. In a sense, there is no such thing as a permanent member of the family. Everybody in the book practically is dealing with that issue. How do I hold this family together? How do I take care of my children, and how do I take care of my spouse? And how does somebody take care of me?
Male-female relations are a little bleak here, as well.
They’re a little tetchy, aren’t they? Sometimes, there’s a little stress here and conflict there. But in a few cases, there is a residual affection that keeps them going. For instance, there’s the man in “Lost and Found” who meets a woman in a hotel whom he once almost had an affair with. He’s tempted but stops himself and returns to his wife, but it’s not a tragic return. I see it as a kind of melancholy story. That moment where he’s standing by the window, and she’s on the bed and takes her shoes off — I wrote it and thought, this is really like something out of Edward Hopper. When it was published in a magazine — Liberation, in France — they illustrated it with a Hopper. That was just the mood I was hoping for.
How do you know an idea is a novel and not a short story?
I can almost always tell immediately that what I’m looking at is a moment of transition in someone’s life. That’s what the short story does best. It implies time past and it implies time future, but it’s the moment itself, the moment of change, that we’re focused on.
What do you think of Alice Munro winning the Nobel?
I was delighted by it. First of all, she’s a really masterful writer and a master of the short story. It also points to the importance of the short-story form. We tend to get a little bit novel-minded when we start talking fiction. There’s this chest-thumping importance that we attribute to novels, a kind of implied hierarchy. We have this myth about the great American novel. We don’t have a myth about the great American short story. There was a period back in the ’70s and ’80s in the United States when we had Raymond Carver and Grace Paley and Donald Barthelme and half a dozen others writing stories, and they were getting a lot of attention for it. We read them as seriously as we read novels. Somehow, they got shoved out of the way. I wonder if that didn’t have a lot more to do with marketing and pushing writers as celebrities, generated more by the publishing industry than by literary taste. So it’s good for all of us who write short stories and all of us who read short stories that Alice Munro won the Nobel.
Burns is editor of “Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between.” She teaches at Cardiff Metropolitan University in Britain.