With Off the Page Host Carole Burns
Wednesday, December 12, 2007; 3:00 PM
Richard Ford recently called short stories "the highwire act of literature." Walter Mosley has said he thinks of "novels as mountains, and short stories as far-flung islands that are the tips of mountains."
Nell Freudenberger, the winner of the 2004 PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction, who was recently one of the youngest writer included in the New Granta Book of the American Short Story, joined Off the Page on Wednesday, Dec. 12 at 3 p.m. ET, to talk about short stories and her work.
Freudenberger has published two books, the story collection Lucky Girls in 2003 and the novel The Dissident in 2006.
A transcript follows.
Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between is based on 41 Off the Page interviews by host and writer Carole Burns, and is being published by W.W. Norton. It is available for pre-order online at amazon, Barnes & Noble and Politics and Prose.
Carole Burns: Nell, the new Granta book inevitably to me brings up the question of the American short story. Do you think there are characteristics a lot of American short stories share? Are they different from Joyce's or Pritchett's, for example?
Carole Burns: Oh, and by the way, I've forgotten to welcome Nell Freudenberger! Thanks for coming online today.
Nell Freudenberger: When I think about short story writers I think about them as belonging to their own country of short story land, and they have more in common with each other than they do with writers of novels from the same country. I would tend to divide them into groups based on qualities of their short storiees. Alice Munro is a particular kind of short story writer in that she writes long, character-driven short stories. I really love Grace Paley and R.K. Marayan, but both have a way of chronicling their particular social world that gives them more in common with each other than other writers from their own countries. And then you have American writers who you might say write the kind of story that is American exotic. I love Paul Bowles, I was introduced to his work in college. More recently I like his wife Jany Bowles stories. Someone like Norman Rush who wrote that beautiful first book of stories, White, about being American in a very foreign setting. So I guess I would draw those lines more in terms of theme, structure and kind of sentence than along national lines.
Washington, DC: I chose to write short stories because I don't have long periods of time to devote to a novel. But lately I've been thinking that I have the wrong idea. Perhaps I could maintain focus for a longer piece, despite a life situation that allows only brief/sporadic chunks of time for writing. Could you speak to the process of writing in shorter vs. longer forms, and the extent to which the decision to pursue one or the other should be dictated by the time available?
Nell Freudenberger: I just read something interesting. I was reading Treasure UI and Robert Louise Stevenson wrote a very short essay about the composition of Treasure Island, and he said novels were harder than stories, anybody could write a bad short story but even to write a bad novel takes more stamina than most people have. I uusally say the opposite, that it's harder to write a good story than it is to write a decent novel, becuase every word counts more. The way I've always felt about it is that you write what you read most passionately, so if you're really a novel reader, then you should write novels, and if you're a person drawn to short stories, then that's what you should write.
New York: Nell, What obstacles did you have to get over when you moved from writing stories to writing a novel? Was there a psychological barrier, as you had done so well in the short story?
Nell Freudenberger: I didn't have the feeling I had done so well! I've always been a little bit more of a novel reader than a short story reader. I think the first books that made me want to be a writer were novels. There was also some relief about writing a novel because I've always felt that my short stories were too long, in fact they are too long for most magazines, so I loved the idea that I had as much space as I did and as much time as I did to spend with those characters when I was working on THE DISSIDENT. Even the short stories that I've written since THE DISSIDENT--I've just written two--they're long. You know, there are short story writers--Richard Ford writes great long stories, and I've mentioned Alice Munro--but for the most part the stories I really admire, like Grace Paley's, are very short, and they seem like different animal. Often you like what is most difffernt, what you could never do.
I think the main obstacle is self-confidence. You get to a point in any piece of fiction when you can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe when you're halfway through you'll think, okay, I'm going to finish this. Maybe it won't be very good but I'll finish it. That point comes much sooner in a short story. In a novel you can spend two years, three years, and not be sure if anything's going to come of it. and that's the hardest part for me.
Freising, Germany: There seem to be two aspects to your novel, "The Dissident": The previously persecuted Chinese performance artist and the American family suffering from the usual maladies.
What kind of research did you do on the Chinese side of the story and how did it help create and develop the conflicts in the story?
Nell Freudenberger: It's funny--nobody ever asks me about how I did research on the dysfunctional American family. I'd been studying Mandarin not because I wanted to write this book but because I wanted to go the China. I went to an art exhibit here called Inside Out in Manhattan and saw some of the photographs from the artists who were working in what they called the Beijing East village in the early 90s. I got interested in their work and I started reading about them, especially the criticism of the art historian Wu Hung in Chicago. I had been to China once before, but not to do research for this book. And then I went back to China to write a story for Travel & Leisure Magazine about the art scene in Beijing, and that gave me a chance to interview some of the artsis under the auspices of the travel magazine, which is a lot easier than saying to someone, I'm writing a novel based on your life, do you mind talking to me? That's what I did for research. I'd been reading and writing, and after I came back from that six-week trip I felt I had what I needed to finish.
Carole Burns: The New York Times review of The Dissident called your characters "fools of various kinds, victims above all of their own willful or inadvertent duplicity." What do you think of this? I sort of wonder if fiction comes out of all of us being "fools of various kinds."
Nell Freudenberger: I think in general it's better not to respond to reviews of your work. But that makes sense to me. I think characters who make mistakes are the only interesting character--the only human characters. You couldn't write a book about somebody acting perfectly. I was just talking about this with a friend who's a short story writer and we were talking about class as abujet for ficiton, and he was saying real conflicts are something you can't throw money at and fix. So when you're writing about people as wealthy as the characters in THE DISSIDENT their problems are going to be self-inflicted. Their problems aren't going to be about where their next meal is coming from.
Washington, DC : So what books are you buying your friends for Christmas/Hanukah/holidays, and what books are you asking for?
Nell Freudenberger: I'm buying the Edwidge Danticat new book, BROTHER, I'M DYING, and also Junot Diaz's new book, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, and I bought my Mom the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. She's somebody's who's actually going to read it. I don't ask people for books--I really like to choose my own books. And I prefer not to get them because them people ask you when you've read them, and I like to choose when I read something. I also just bought somebody REVOLUTIONARY ROAD by Richard Yates.
Downtown, Washington.: You experienced success at an early age and have had wonderful opportunities (brava!). Do you feel that having your work scrutinized by a large and not always so friendly audience has affected your development as a writer? Do you imagine you would be a different writer if you'd been working out of the spotlight for the past several years?
Nell Freudenberger: I think maybe people overestimate the spotlight, because the spotlight on short story writing is a very small one. It's maybe a 20-watt spotlight. When I published my first story in The New Yorker there was certainly a lot of attention, for someone who had published only one short story, and it took me a while to get back to writing. I think it taught me a important lesson about the separation you need to have as a writer from the selling part of you work and the writing part. If you're thinking about the seling part while you're writing you're doomed. So I think you have to really draw a line in your brain.
The other thing i would say is that if I'd been working out of the psotlight, even such a small spotlight, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to write full-time. I would have been working an hour and a half before I went to my job, the way I was before I had my first book contract. So I feel pretty lucky to have had the attention that led to my being able to have this be my fulltime job. I'd have been writing a lot less, that's for sure.
Carole Burns: Do you have an author or a few authors who influence you in terms of how you go about writing a short story? And a related question: Are your influences different for writing a novel?
Nell Freudenberger: They are of course. I think the few writers who influenced me most in writing short stories are Alice Munro and Grace Paley. They're very different, and I can't do what they do, but reading them gives me hope that I'll learn something from them.
I think George Eliot is the writer who made me want to be a writer. I have a very vivid memory of lying on a carpet and drinking a blueberry milkshake and reading Silas Marner. It's not like I thought, now I know I'll be a writer, I just rmemeber being so happy. It's one of the happiest moments I have from that age. I was definitely a reader before I was a writer.
Contemporary novelists who I love: I love Peter Carey, I think Norman Rush is great. David Mitchell. Naipaul. Gosh, there's a lot. I'll start with those. I love Ha Jin. He's terrific. Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith are great. I also love J.M. Coetzee.
Washington, D.C.: What makes you write a novel instead of a short story? Do you know when you have an idea what form it will take?
Nell Freudenberger: A short story usually starts for me with a story that somebody tells me, often someone I don't know very well. I think we remember particular stories because they have some kind of analog in our experience, and so sometimes you hear a fragment of a story from somebody you sit next to on an airplane, and you remember it, and I think you remember it because you have the emotional material to fill it in in your own way.
A novel for me is a competley different kind of idea. It's more like coming up with person's voice and you start writing in that voice and you have no idea where it's going to go and a lot of times it goes nowhere. But sometimes you find someone with whom you think you could stay for hundreds of pages, and that's how a novel starts.
Our time is up. Thanks so much, Nell, for joining us today.
And please remember, we have one more "Off the Page" interview coming up before the holidays: Andrea Barrett will talk about her new book, The Air We Breathe on Monday, Dec. 17 at 1 p.m.
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