The Interview Slump & The Year of the Short Story

Brenda Starr reporter 6a00d8341c684553ef0148c74fc819970c-300wiThis is the time of year when I usually interview writers.

As a former freelance writer/”girl reporter,” I have no qualms about flipping open a notebook and asking questions.

Writers are surprisingly generous with their time.  At this blog, I have interviewed Karen E. Bender (shortlisted for this year’s National Book Award for fiction), D. J. Taylor, Michelle Huneven, Peter Stothard, Lionel Shriver, and Robert Hellenga,

This fall I haven’t gotten around to it.  Like Oblomov, the hero of Goncharov’s famous novel, I am slothful.  According to my doctor, I have jet lag. (Still?)  Sleep…sleep…sleep… is the cure.

When I wake up perhaps I’ll interview somebody, but meanwhile…

I can refer you to other interviews!

This has been the Year of the Short Story.

I am addicted to the novel, but this year, for the first time, I have read better short story collections than novels.  Here are recommendations:

Karen E. Bender Refund book-refund-stories1. Karen E. Bender’s stunning collection of short stories, Refund, is shortlisted for the National Book Award.  The stories are linked by the theme of money.  In “Reunion,” a woman with a failing home appliance repair business has an affair with a con man. In “The Third Child,” the financial responsibility of raising the two children is more than enough for a struggling couple:  the heroine. a  freelance editor,  decides to have an abortion.   In the title story, two artists dream of sending their child to an expensive pre-school, but 9/11 gets in the way of the easy money of subletting their New York apartment.

You can read my post about Refund here, and there is also a fascinating interview with her at The Lost Angeles Review of Books.

Lucky Alan Jonathan Lethem 41UjiHnZr5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_2. Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories is an exceptionally brilliant book.  Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with humor, his verbal pyrotechnics are incomparable, and his stories utilize elements of fantasy and magic realism.  In the surreal story, “Procedure in Plain Air,” the umemployed hero, Stevick, sees two men in jumpsuit uniforms jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man wearing a jumpsuit into the hole. After Stevick complains it will rain on the prisoner, they hand him an umbrella. Holding the umbrella becomes, in a way, his job. In “Traveler Home,” a dark fairy tale, the hero deals with snow, wolves, and a foundling.  But the most dazzling story in the collection is “Lucky Alan”:   the narrator, Grahame, an actor, gets acquainted with Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director, because they both go to the movies every day . When Grahame realizes Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down to find out why he left his rent-controlled apartment.  It all centers on a nerdy neighbor named Alan.

You can read my post about Lucky Alan here, and there is an excellent interview with him at Salon.

DJ-Taylor--Wrote-For-Luck-Frontboard3. Wrote for Luck is a masterly collection by  D. J. Taylor, the novelist, biographer, and critic.  In the hilarious story, “Some Versions of the Pastoral,” Tony and his wife Jane visit the Underwoods, an elderly couple with literary leanings.  The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden are so dense that “to negotiate them was to pass through a children’s book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay.” Over tea, Mrs. Underwood repeatedly asks Tony to be careful of his teacup.  China is broken, but Mrs. Underwood is surprisingly tough.

I am a fan of stories about work,  and some of Taylor’s best stories deal with the demoralization in the workplace. In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over. In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife. In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college; on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand…

My post about Wrote for Luck is here, and you can watch a  video of a very good talk he gave about Cyril Connelly at The World Literature Festival 2015.

Get in Trouble Kelly Link 51UpA-MbcYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4. Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble is another stunning collection.  Does Link write literary fantasy? Magic realism? Horror? She has burst out of the SF ghetto and is now reviewed at The New York Times and The Guardian.  I loved this collection, though I lazily didn’t write about it.  You can read an interview with her at NPR and a review at the Guardian

Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories

Lucky Alan Jonathan Lethem 41UjiHnZr5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I have read some remarkable collections of short stories this year.

The best is Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories.

Readers of this blog will know that Lethem is my favorite American writer.  His genre-bending fiction ranges from realism to realism laced with magic realism to science fiction and noir.  And he won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999 for Motherless Brooklyn, a novel about a detective with Tourette syndrome.

I read these brilliant stories in one sitting.  In my favorite story, “Lucky Alan,”  the narrator, Grahame, an actor, goes every day to the movies, where he keeps running into Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director. Sometimes they go to wine bars after the film, sometimes months go by without their seeing each other. When Grahame realizes that Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down.  Blondy tells the story of why he left his rent-controlled apartment, which centers on a geeky neighbor named Alan.

Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with buoyant humor. Here is a quote from “Lucky Alan.”

If this multiplex-haunting practice didn’t square with Blondy’s reputation as the venerated maestro of a certain form of miniaturist spectacle (Krapp’s Last Tape in the elevator of a prewar office building, which moved up and down throughout the performance, with Blondy himself as Krapp, for cramped audiences of five or six at a time, it didn’t matter, since that reputation hardly thrived.

Some of his stories verge on absurdity.  In  the hilarious story, “The King of Sentences,” two pretentious bookstore clerks (who snub their customers, as bookstore clerks do everywhere) try to write perfect sentences and stalk a reclusive writer they call the King of Sentences.

In “Traveler Home,” a kind of dark fairy tale, Traveler, who has moved to the country from the city, waits for the Plowman to dig him out of a snowstorm. He hears wolves howl, and finds a baby in the woods. Is this somehow related to the Plowman’s eccentric,, slightly witchy daughter?

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem

One of my favorites is “The Empty Room,” in which the volatile father of an eccentric family insists that one room in their big house be designated “the empty room.”  It becomes a running joke, and the kids’ friends like to visit it after school. The empty room has a sign-up sheet, but gradually splits the parents as they pursue divergent interests..

“The Dreaming Jaw, The Salivating Ear” is a  clever horror story about a psycho blogger.  Oh, dear, why don’t writers like bloggers?!  Lethem writes:  “It was the Whom I tried to keep out and the Whom I laid low with a single remorseless thrust with the blunt editorial object I had carried with me hidden on my person and with which, gripped knuckle-tight, I lay in wait inside the entranceway of my blog.” I’m sure non-bloggers will appreciate this one more than I did.

“Procedure in Plain Air” is a surreal masterpiece.  The umemployed Stevick, whose excellent severance package has slowed his job hunt, is drinking coffee on a bench when two men in jumpsuits jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man in a jumpsuit into it.  When the men get ready to go, Stevick complains that the boards over the hole won’t keep the rain out, and is handed an umbrella.

All of these stories are excellent, and a good introduction to Lethem’s work if you don’t know it.