Andrew Porter and Kristopher Jansma share an endless fascination with people and their often bad (but sometimes well-intentioned) behaviors; both of these talented writers have had novels selected for our Discover Great New Writers program. Porter’s provocative novel, In Between Days, follows a family imploding in the face of colliding expectations and secrets. Jansma’s debut, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, depicts two aspiring writers, the woman they mutually covet, and the jealousies and deception that ensnare this star-crossed trio.
We’re not their only fans: Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) writes, “Andrew Porter has the kind of voice one can accept as universal — honest and grave, with transparency as its adornment.” Of Jansma’s debut, Meg Wolitzer (The Interestings) says, “Playfully weird . . . I’d call this book ‘postmodern,’ but that makes it sound like it’s not as pleasurable to read as it is.”
Jansma’s second novel, Why We Came to the City, goes on sale February 16th.
Here are Andrew and Kristopher on finding stories, writing second books, and balancing parenting and writing, among other things, in this wide-ranging conversation for the Barnes & Noble Review. —Miwa Messer
Kristopher Jansma: Andrew, we first met more than eleven years ago — which is really hard to believe — in Baltimore, where I was fortunate enough to be your teaching assistant for a summer essay writing class for gifted seventh graders. I was getting my MFA at the time, and just beginning to build a life around writing and teaching. I learned a lot about the latter from watching you lead that classroom. But I also recall learning something crucial about the former. Every morning my first job was to go pick the students up from their dorm and herd them to the classroom, and I remember I’d be rushing out to gather them, usually running late, and always pass you sitting out by the library with your manuscript pages in hand, carefully crossing out a single word here or there. It made a real impression on me. The dedication it took to sit and work for even a few minutes before the day got started. So I guess my question is, all these years later, we’re both teaching full-time and both have kids at home . . . are you still able to squeeze in that diligent daily writing time? (I have to confess that I’m struggling with that a lot these days).
Andrew Porter: Yes, it’s definitely been a struggle for me as well. Before kids, I used to write for long stretches of time, usually late at night. I’d schedule my classes for the late afternoons, so that I could stay up until three or four in the morning, and then I’d sleep in until noon. Obviously, after my daughter was born four years ago, all of that changed. Then, when my son was born two years later, it changed again. I had to completely change my process and my routine. I also had to change where I worked (my house was no longer a quiet place) and what I was working on (I switched from a novel to short stories). Basically, it’s taken me about four years to actually figure out how to balance the two — parenting and writing — but I think I’m finally at a point now where I feel good about the work I’m producing and also the rate at which I’m producing it. I think the hardest part for me was simply learning how to lower my expectations, understanding that I wasn’t going to be able to write at the same pace I had in the past. I had to tell myself things like, “If you only write a paragraph or two today, that’s okay. That’s something.” Once I was able to make peace with that, I was able to get back on track and start making progress again.
Also, another thing that made the transition difficult was that I went through this period of time shortly after my daughter was born when I could tell that something had shifted in me internally — emotionally and psychologically — but I wasn’t quite sure how to apply this new perspective to the stories I was working on. I knew that I didn’t want to suddenly start writing stories about a sleep-deprived stay-at-home dad, but I also knew that I didn’t see the world in the same way as I had before and that the things that concerned me were different. I guess what I’m wondering is how the shift into fatherhood has affected the content of your work and whether or not it impacted the project you were working on at the time.
On a side note, I’m flattered that you saw me as such a hard worker. I remember you in a very similar light — very serious about writing and committed in a way that made me feel certain you’d be successful. I remember thinking, This guy is definitely in it for the long haul.
KJ: I do think I know the internal shift. My son was born about a month after The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards was published, and I felt many of my previous priorities and habits and ideas changing – and not always in welcome ways. Viking actually announced they were going to publish my second book while I was at the hospital, on the day my son was born. It was surreal. I felt so detached from it and the world that it was happening in. At that point I had already written about half of the new book. As the next two years unfolded I found it really hard to get back into the headspace that had written the first half. And you’re right, it was like suddenly I had a new perspective. Very different things mattered. Why We Came to the City started out as a book about being young and carefree in New York City . . . but suddenly I was not feeling young or carefree. And I was spending less time being in the city and seeing the friends I had thought of as I’d written Part One.
Little by little, I think I found ways of getting the new perspective into the second half, and I even wrote a new section called “Why We Left the City” that let me vent some of my newfound frustrations . . . but that makes it sound like the whole influence was dark, and it wasn’t. In huge ways being a father had made me feel overjoyed and wanting to be so much more generous in my writing. I think it has something to do with holding less back from the page. I even find myself running on in sentences way more than before and thinking less about the kind of linguistic “compression” that I’d been taught to obsess over in my MFA days. Maybe related, but watching my son putting pieces of the world together each day has been making me remember things from my own childhood and think about family in such a different way. I never used to want to write about families at all, partly because I think I had a pretty happy one growing up, and as Tolstoy says, “All happy families are alike . . . ” Which gets me to a good question . . . Your novel In Between Days is about a family (though not a happy one!), and I remember one story of yours in particular, “Storms,” about a sister and a brother, that I really loved. Are you continuing to write about family now? And if so, is that changing with this new perspective?
AP: Yes, I’m still writing about family now, but in a very different way than I did in In Between Days and my collection, The Theory of Light and Matter. In both of those books I focused a lot on family dysfunction, and in my collection, in particular, I almost always chose to approach this subject matter from the perspective of a younger member of the family, as opposed to a parent. In my new stories, I’m still writing about family, but maybe in a more indirect way. The narrators (or protagonists) in almost all of my new stories are adult characters, and in many cases these adults have young children. The children are never the focus of the story, but they are always there in some sense, and their presence (even if it’s offstage) very much informs the action of the story — the choices the parent characters make, the way they interact with each other, the way they act or react in certain situations, and so on.
One of the things that I’ve found interesting about writing about these types of characters — characters with young children — is that oftentimes these characters are dealing with identity issues, mainly because they’re in a kind of transitional phase in their lives. It hasn’t been so long since they were living a more carefree type of lifestyle, and so they often slip back into that sense of themselves before children — a less responsible version, or maybe it’s a more idealistic version or a more self-involved version. Whatever it may be, they are trying to reconcile the person they were a short time ago with the person they are now and often struggling to do so successfully.
In your new novel, Why We Came to the City, it seems that you’re writing about another important transitional period in many people’s lives — the transition between college and (for lack of a better term) the “real world.” As someone who went to college about an hour and a half north of New York City and who spent a good amount of his time in Manhattan during that year after college, I have to say the subject of your new novel really excited me. I think those years after college are difficult for a lot of people, but there’s something about New York that seems to intensify a lot of those feelings you have. I’d love to hear a little bit about your own post-college years, your time in New York, and what it is about that period of time in one’s life that interests you as a writer.
KJ: When you and I met, I had just finished my first year at Columbia’s MFA. That was my first year in New York City. I was so relieved to be back in Baltimore that summer, a place I knew well and where I still knew many people. In New York I had two friends. Literally two. We were all working part-time, or interning, taking classes, and we were completely broke. My classmates at the MFA were mostly older than me, and at the time I thought that if I worked constantly and didn’t socialize, I’d somehow rocket to stardom. Most weeks my sole social interaction was to meet my two friends for dinner at a cheap restaurant and then go back to one of our apartments to watch TV. And it was incredibly fun — to share that moment in our lives. We were all working so hard and felt like success was just around the corner. We’d venture out into the city very timidly, but every day it became a little clearer, and that felt like an enormous victory.
Eventually my girlfriend, Leah, came to join us, and she and I moved in together down in the Lower East Side. I started as an adjunct professor. Pretty soon I was teaching four or five classes at two different schools, still barely making ends meet and fixing computers on the side, but it felt like I was getting somewhere. Leah started out as a receptionist at a literary agency and was promoted to be an agent’s assistant within two weeks. Soon she was also handling foreign rights and had a handful of great new friends from that office.
And then in 2007−8, a lot happened. The economy nosedived and everything kind of froze. People we knew lost their jobs, but mostly everything just hung in stasis. There were no more promotions. The senior people weren’t retiring, the people younger than us couldn’t get in at all. And it just stayed like that for years. A lot of people we knew threw in the towel, and there was this gradual exodus from the city. It felt like we were just getting spit back out again. Leah and I dug in and waited. I wrote all the time, well aware that it was the only way out of adjuncting. She had by then moved over to the editorial side and was, I think, sometimes doing the work of four or five people.
The other thing that happened during this time, which also greatly informs the new novel, is that my younger sister Jennifer discovered she had cancer. She was a professional ballet dancer in North Carolina at the time, and her first rounds of treatment happened there. But when those failed she came up to New York to stay with Leah and me (in our one-bedroom apartment) to have treatments at Sloan Kettering. For about six months we all lived together, right at the start of that wider crisis. Between classes and writing, I shuttled her to chemo, ran to the pharmacy, made sure she was eating . . . and of course still doing all the things you have to do to keep getting by in the big city. It was stressful and terrible, but at the same time wonderful to get this close time with her, and I was so grateful meanwhile to have those loyal city friends there for support. Jenn passed away the following year, and once again it was those friends, and the city, that sort of got me through the long and difficult part that followed. It’s been alternately painful and joyful writing about this whole time period, but I’m hoping that it comes together into something that captures all that hope and energy.
Of course now we are finally facing the possibility of leaving the city. The economy is racing again, so the rents are shooting up and the things that made the city into a workable and inspiring place seem to be changing as parenthood realities set in. Our son is getting older and will need to start school, and we’re getting overwhelmed by that, and of course my new job is in New Paltz. I’ve been commuting on the bus, two to three hours each way, and I think my colleagues there think I’m out of my mind. And the longer I’m there, the more I’m intrigued by starting some sort of new chapter, outside of the city. I think for so long I’ve both fed on and been fed to the stress that comes with this place. It’s hard to walk away — and of course those friends I came with are still here, and I hate to get farther away.
How does all that compare to your city years, which would have been, I think, before and leading up to mine? And how has life beyond the city compared for you?
AP: First let me say that I had no idea what you went through with your sister, Kris, and I can’t even begin to imagine how hard that must have been. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, but it sounds like the friends you had in New York and in some ways the city itself helped you get through it.
As for me, I can’t say I was ever officially a New Yorker, though I did spend a lot of time there during my college years (we’d often take the train down from Poughkeepsie on the weekends) and that year after college. Like many of my classmates at Vassar, I followed what seemed like an inevitable migration from the Hudson Valley to New York City during that summer after graduation. It seemed like literally everyone I knew from college was living down there then, and so in some ways that time in the city was a kind of extension of senior year. Looking back, I don’t know that I was quite ready for the real world at that point, and I definitely wasn’t ready for New York. I spent a lot of the time I was there that summer and fall crashing on the floors of various friends’ apartments, while I tried to look for an apartment for my best friend and me and a job for myself. Since he already had a job, I was left with the responsibility of finding us an apartment, but this proved nearly impossible, as I was always having to leave that “current employer” box on the rental applications blank.
I remember waking up each morning and taking the 6 train down to the Lower East Side, standing in the August heat with all of these other recent college grads and filling out rental applications for apartments I knew we’d never get; then I’d go back to wherever I happened to be sleeping at the time and try to figure out how to get a job. I had a pretty slim résumé and few marketable skills, but the main problem was that I don’t think my heart was really in it. I remember going on job interviews, and when asked why I wanted a particular job, saying things like, “Well, to be honest, what I really want to do is write fiction . . .” Can you imagine? To quote Joan Didion, “Was anyone ever so young?” Anyway, needless to say, I wasn’t having much success on the job front, nor the apartment front, and after a while I started to become discouraged. Instead of spending my mornings apartment hunting, I’d cut out early and head over to the Strand bookstore or I’d stop by some café and work on a short story I’d been thinking about recently. Meanwhile, my meager savings had begun to run out, and my parents had told me they wouldn’t be sending me any more money from home. They did want to see me, however, so at one point they offered to send me enough money for a train ticket home to Pennsylvania for a weekend visit. I remember having dinner with my best friend just before I left and him saying to me, “Don’t get on that train. If you get on that train, you’ll never come back.” I told him he was being ridiculous, that I’d be back in two days; but of course he was right. He could see how discouraged I was at that point. He ended living in the city for several years, but I never lived there again, except as a visitor. I ended up getting a teaching job at a prep school near Poughkeepsie, and I did spend a lot of my weekends down in the city, but it was never quite the same after that, and for a long time afterward I think I felt a kind of sadness about the fact that I’d never been able to make it work in New York.
Anyway, now that I’m older and have lived in many different parts of the country, I have to say that I don’t know that I would have had the inner fortitude to stick it out as a writer in New York, though I admire many writers like yourself who have. Maybe it’s the proximity to the publishing industry or the fact that there are so many other writers there, young and old, established and emerging, but I think it would have been hard for me not to get distracted or intimidated by the literary world of New York — at least as a young writer. In your experience as a young writer in New York, was this ever an issue? You went through an MFA program at Columbia, dated (then married) someone who was working in the publishing industry, all at a pretty early and formative stage in your development. I could see how this could be very inspiring and energizing, but I could also see how it might intensify that pressure that a lot of young writers feel — to publish, to get their work out there, etc. Also, to add to this question, how has it been different being a writer in New York now that you have a couple of books under your belt?
KJ: Thanks, Andrew. Honestly, I don’t think I would have stayed this long except that Leah’s job in publishing has always kept us here. It can be a distracting, intimidating, and discouraging place. You get the sense you’re never really living up to its expectations of you. I think it also helped that I never had particular dreams of living here. It took me about two years to really even enjoy it, but once I did, I would find myself just walking around, marveling. No matter how badly things seem to be going, just the fact that I live here can be like a little back-pocket victory.
As for being close to the publishing world, it helped that my vantage point was always bottom up. I never knew anyone super-important or exciting. I wasn’t rubbing elbows with bestsellers or contributors to the Paris Review or anything. Leah and her friends were all on the assistant level, and it was only really vicariously that I got to experience some of their thrills. If someone got to meet — or even send an email to a famous author — that was big news. Some of their bosses were people I’d idolize and dream of working with, but then I’d get these backstage stories of how insane or ridiculous they could be. It was great to see the emperors without clothes on, so to speak.
And it was very rare to meet some contact or get some help because of those friends. Much more often it was useful just to get insight into how the sausage is made. What a publicist does, or what a print-run number means, or decoding a royalty statement . . . so much of the process winds up so mysterious to us authors. Though sometimes I wonder if it might not be better for it to remain mysterious. I end up spending far too much time agonizing over some detail of marketing or the timeline of third-pass pages or whatever . . . and that does keep me from focusing on new work.
Speaking of new work, I’ve been thinking lately of returning to short stories, which I took a break from writing while finishing Why We Came to the City. I’m finding it is a strange transition. Half the time, I love having something so discrete to focus on, and half the time I want to fly off into a novel again. Do you prefer one to the other, long versus short? And in either case, I’m curious as to how you begin? You mentioned earlier that things had changed now that you had children. I think that’s been part of the appeal for me of going back to shorter stories, just in terms of what I’ve got time for. I spoke with another writer last year who told me that after having kids he started carrying index cards around to write on, because often all he could squeeze in were a few sentences, and that eventually these might come together into longer things. I haven’t tried that yet, but I’ve been tempted. What’s your process like these days?
AP: Well, to answer your first question, I think in my heart I’m probably more of a short story writer than a novelist. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy working in the novel form, because I do. It’s just that the short story is the form I first fell in love with, the form that made me want to become a writer, and for many years after I started writing I didn’t even consider working in another form. In her introduction to the Best American Short Stories in 2004, Lorrie Moore makes a great comparison between short stories and songs, and I think in many ways that comparison really explained my own affinity for the form, especially as a reader. Just as I’ll listen to a song that I like over and over and over again, simply because of the feeling it gives me, I’ll often read a new short story that I encounter (and like) multiple times over the course of several weeks or months; and with really great stories I’ll do this for years. I don’t know if this makes sense, but that’s the best way I can explain why I love the short story form so much. I love reading novels, too, but I never read novels that way. When I finish a novel, I move onto the next one. I never look back. With stories, though — especially with really great stories — I’ll just keep returning to them over and over again, simply because I like the way they make me feel or because I like being inside the world of them.
As a writer, I think my affinity for the form is a little more complicated than that, but on a certain level it’s pretty similar. I like the challenge of trying to create something that can be experienced in a single sitting. I like working within the constraints and limitations of the form, and I like the way that these constraints and limitations force me to think about every sentence, every piece of dialogue, every word. It’s a bit like figuring out a puzzle for me. A story appears in its initial draft as this strange, shapeless thing, and my goal is to keep tinkering with it until it starts to turn in to something resembling a story, until every part of it begins to feel right.
As for my process, I think it’s pretty similar now to the way it’s always been. Obviously I have to be more flexible now, and I’ve had to lower my daily expectations, but the basic process is the same. I tend to have a lot of stories going at once, and my process is simply to trust my gut, to work on the story that seems to be calling to me that day. Sometimes this means that I’ll work on one story very intensely for several weeks. Other times, it means that I’ll bounce back and forth between several stories over the course of a month or two, working on a new story each day. I just wake up and go with whatever I feel compelled to work on that day. And just to give you some idea of what I’m talking about, I have about ten stories in the works right now and maybe another five or six beginnings of stories that might turn into something longer down the road. Some of these stories I might finish within a couple months of starting them; others might take me five or six years to finish. I really have no idea. Every story presents a different set of challenges, and every story seems to take a different amount of time to reveal itself. And of course some stories just never quite get there. I try not to think about this too much, though. I just try to put in my daily work and hope that at some point things will begin to come into focus, and usually they do.
So that’s how I tend to work on short stories, but when I was working on In Between Days my process was very different. I put in my daily work, but I wrote that novel in a very linear, methodical way (one chapter at a time), and I never moved onto a new chapter until I felt good about the one I’d just finished. It was a kind of a slow grind, but that was the only way I felt comfortable doing it. I’d be curious to hear about your own novel writing process. Your first book, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, took on a kind of novel-in-stories form. Did you approach your second book in a similar way, as a series of individual narratives that worked on their own but also as chapters? Also, any insights about the process? Anything you felt you learned about the form, or at least your own approach to the form, the second time around?
KJ: It’s funny you mention thinking of stories as songs. That was how I approached writing those stories in Leopards. I’ve always loved albums where the songs are individually great but take on new meanings and layers if you listen carefully in order. Around that time I was listening to Radiohead’s OK, Computer and Arcade Fire’s albums Black Mirror and The Suburbs. I never had any musical ability at all, and I grew up in a house without cable TV (so no MTV) . . . mainly I listened to my parents’ Beatles albums, the best of which also had that feel of a story being told over multiple songs. I only got into “contemporary” music late in my high school days, and I put that in quotes because this mainly involved grunge music in the late ’90s, well after that music’s heyday was over. Then I went to college in the early days of Napster, when file sharing was still kind of a gray area, and so I was discovering tons of new music right around the same time that I was beginning to really take writing seriously. I think that ever since then they have played off one another for me. With Leopards I wrote the individual chapters as stories first, and totally out of order, the way I imagine a musician assembles material for an album. The stories had similar characters (with different names, at that point, in each) and similar themes, but no real connective tissue. It took about a year to write those individual pieces, and another to figure out how they fit together with a larger story in mind. Even then, it went through more rearrangements as my agent and editors got involved in the process. I really enjoyed that collaborative part of the process, which influenced the way the book ultimately ended. It felt more musical, actually, like a band and a producer figuring out an arrangement together.
Why We Came to the City grew out of a few short pieces as well, but this time I had a pretty clear idea, fairly early on, what it would look like as a whole. The narrative splits between five characters, and I wanted to make sure there was a balance and an order to their parts, so I sketched out an outline of the big picture early on and (mostly) stuck to it as I went on. Once the initial pieces were in place, I plowed straight on to the end — except, oddly, the final fifty pages or so of the novel, which are based on the first story I wrote about these characters, the same year I wrote the stories in Leopards.
I’m just starting on a new book, which, if it goes the way I think, will be built out of several separate shorter narratives, and I’ve been able so far to jump between them as I go along. Funny enough, it’s going to be about music and family. I’ve been getting more and more interested in classical music, again because there are just so many pieces required to bring it all together, and opera, because it is another form of storytelling. But on the other hand I know essentially nothing about any of this, so I’m deep in some research right now. Do you find that research is a big part of writing for you? I always tell my students to write what they know, but if they’re bored with that, it’s time to go know something new. And on that note, maybe a second question . . . we talked about balancing family and writing, but what about teaching? Do you find that your teaching helps your writing, and vice versa?
AP: That’s interesting that you’ve been listening to a lot of classical music lately. I have been, too — especially in my car, as I shuttle the kids around, or in the evenings as I make dinner. I grew up listening to punk rock and a lot of dark, moody Brit bands like Bauhaus, The Cure, Joy Division, et al., and I still love all of that music, but in the past five or six years I’ve returned to a lot of the composers I studied in college and often use this music as a kind of transitional tool, helping me to get out of my teaching or parenting mindset and into the type of creative mind-set I need to be in to write fiction. You asked me about balancing teaching and writing, and for me it’s not so much about balancing the two as it is about figuring out ways to switch from one mind-set to another in a relatively short amount of time. Often I’ll only have a couple of hours to write in a given day, and sometimes those hours come in between two classes, or in between office hours and a class, and I have to figure out a way to transition between my teaching mind-set and my writing mind-set fairly quickly, and sometimes this is very hard. I mean, to go from helping a student figure out how to remedy some issue in his story to then trying to figure out how to remedy some issue in your own story — that can be pretty hard. So that’s why I’ll use music to help me switch gears. Or sometimes I’ll read a few pages of a story by a writer I admire, or I’ll watch a clip from some film on YouTube — anything just to get myself into a different state of mind.
As for research, I have to admit I’ve never done a lot of it for my own fiction, but when I have, I’ve always found that it’s opened up a lot of narrative doors for me. It’s like the more I read about a particular subject, the more ideas I begin to have about the story I’m working on; the little details I accumulate begin to lead to plot points or to aspects of a character’s personality or past. I begin to see conflicts in the details, narrative avenues I might consider. Has this been your experience researching your latest project or either of your first two books? Also, on a related note, what are you reading these days? Do you find that you have the time to read just for pleasure?
KJ: I love the idea of using music to transition mental states. I’m often in the same boat with writing time, and I’ll have to try that. It’s funny that we’re both feeling that push to classical music. In the introduction to Alex Ross’s book Listen to This, he talks about a hypothetical resurgence in classical music that might stem from people who are getting tired of rock and other more popular forms of music as they get older. It rang true for me!
A few years ago I couldn’t imagine why anyone would listen to music without lyrics. As a writer I was always drawn to the words and the narratives in songs. But now I find myself liking music that transcends lyrics, or that has no words and evokes emotions directly. When I’m writing a story I often get the sense that I’m taking my own feeling or a mental state and then trying to think of words that will reverse-engineer that same feeling or state in the reader’s mind. Maybe to a musician it is the same with notes and chords, instead of words and paragraphs? Maybe it is only to my untrained ear, but it can seem like music is just a direct, pure evocation of the original feeling.
So music . . . that’s, partly, what I’ve been researching these days. It’s fun because my son Joshua is going through a little phase of being into musical instruments right now, so we’re kind of learning about it together. But anyway, generally that’s just how research works for me too — opening doors. With Leopards a lot of the chapters took place in places I’d never been, or involved things I didn’t know much about, and many times it would be the initial research that would help me figure out what was going to happen in the chapter. But with Why We Came to the City, I was working much more directly from personal experience, and so my research was mostly verifying things — medical details, New York City trivia, recent history — that I wasn’t always sure about.
With the new project, I’m finding myself going back to things that maybe had sparked a half-idea a long time back. I just reread McEwan’s Amsterdam because I remembered it had a composer character — but it had been ten years since I’d read it. There’s a rock musician in the story as well, so I’m rereading the Kurt Cobain biography Heavier than Heaven, which weirdly enough I read first on my honeymoon, seven years ago. I’ve also been going back to multi-generational novels I read before and liked: Middlesex, East of Eden, Angle of Repose . . . just trying to see how those are constructed. But that’s all for research, so it isn’t necessarily for pleasure, even though I love those books.
For sheer fun . . . let’s see. I’m halfway through Purity, which I am having predictably mixed feelings about, but I’m excited to finish. I’ve got Lorrie Moore’s latest collection, Bark, on my shelf and then Speedboat by Renata Adler. It’s been seriously tough to read for pleasure the past few years. Partly it is because I have less time, I’m sure, and partly it’s because I’m now always sizing things up like they are competition and not just enjoying them. Especially things by contemporaries.
I was reading a lot of David Foster Wallace stories earlier this year, and really missing him, and feeling like there’s been a hole in reading for me since he died. I wasn’t even a huge fan of his beforehand, either, which is weird. But he’s gotten up there with Salinger for me, as someone whose stories I can always find new joys in rereading and make me think in new ways, but which also leave me feeling like other things I’m trying to get into are pale by comparison. So there’s been a bit of a void, I guess. Which isn’t bad, maybe. They say you should write the book you want to see in the world but haven’t ever found . . . so maybe some kind of void is a good thing.
How about you? Reading any good books lately?
AP: Yes, a lot — though there are always more unfinished good books on my nightstand than finished ones. Just as I tend to work on short stories simultaneously, I tend to read multiple books at the same time, jumping back and forth between them depending on what type of mood I’m in. Probably the most impressive book I’ve read in the past year or so is My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard, the first one in his six-book series. Maybe it’s because Knausgaard and I are roughly the same age, or because we seemed to have shared many of the same experiences (despite his being Norwegian), but that book had a very profound effect on me. Whether you want to call it a novel, a memoir, or something in between, it’s really a work of genius in my opinion and unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Right now I’m partway through the Murakami novel Norwegian Wood, which I’m really enjoying, and I recently finished A Visit from the Goon Squad (I know I’m like five years late to that party) and Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, both of which were excellent.
In terms of short fiction, I’m always working my way through the various annual anthologies — Best American, The Pushcart Prize, The O. Henry Awards — looking for new voices and writers. As I mentioned earlier, I tend to read short stories compulsively, over and over, especially when I find one that really resonates with me, and one of the stories that’s probably resonated the most in the past few years is Denis Johnson’s “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden,” which was originally published in The New Yorker and later anthologized in this year’s Best American Short Stories. It’s an incredible story and one that does things with the form that I’ve never seen done before. I read somewhere that it took him like seven or eight years to finish it, and I’m not surprised. I’ve probably read that story over a dozen times in the past year or so, and I have an attachment to it that’s not unlike the attachment I had to the stories in Jesus’ Son, when I first encountered them back in grad school in the late ’90s. Maybe it’s because he started out as a poet, but Johnson’s approach to the short story form is so organic and innovative. He’s always doing something new with it, always pushing it in new directions. I felt similarly when I read his novella Train Dreams a few years ago. I’d just finished teaching a course on the novella form and felt like I had a pretty good grasp on it, and then I read Train Dreams, and it blew my mind. I just kept thinking, How did he do that?
So that’s one of those moments, I guess, when you feel both humbled and inspired as a writer, and maybe that’s what our writer heroes are for — to remind us of our own limitations, while at the same time pushing us to write better and work harder, to produce that book, as you put it, that we want to see in the world. It sounds like both Salinger and Wallace have loomed pretty large for you, and I remember that Donald Barthelme was one of your favorites — at least back in those Baltimore days — and that kind of brings me to the last thing I wanted to ask you about, which is the conversation that authors and authors’ works have with each other. Obviously, there’s the conversation we’re having right now, but then there’s that other conversation that exists when you’re reading another author’s work. I remember reading your first book, Leopards, for example, and being really excited when I finished it, not only because it was a great book but also because I knew the person who’d written it, and it was kind of a glimpse into another side of you. And of course I’ve had similar experiences with many of my writer friends from graduate school. I have a relationship with their work that’s different from the relationship I have with them personally, and it’s a very cool thing. Anyway, I guess I’d just be curious to hear a little about some of the important relationships you’ve had with certain writers in your own life — whether they be with friends, former classmates, old professors, writers you’ve never met, etc. — and maybe a little bit about how these relationships/conversations shaped you.
KJ: I feel bad admitting it, but I only just discovered Denis Johnson finally last year. Sometimes when something is so universally loved, it takes me a while to try it out myself. (This might keep me from trying Knausgaard for a little bit yet too.) And then I remember just putting that first story down, where the narration shifts radically in the final few lines, and thinking the same thing: How did he do that? I need to read more, and actually have Train Dreams and was thinking of putting it on my syllabus for a course on novellas I’m doing next year.
But yeah, I am always on the hunt for that “How did he/she do that?” feeling, and when it comes, it’s electrifying. Last summer I found a Deb Olin Unferth story called “Voltaire Night” while flipping through a recent Paris Review and it really nailed me, and I remember I just sat down the next morning and wrote a whole new story out of nowhere. It was like it unlocked something for me. Sometimes I’ll get that same effect from teaching something I’ve read and loved before to my students, where suddenly I’m being forced to explain how or why a story I’ve loved for a long time works.
David Foster Wallace and Salinger are two like that, where no matter how many times I’ve read them or discussed their work in class, something new might pop out for me randomly, and blow me away in a whole new direction. Barthelme — yes, I remember that! I have had that same response to a few of his stories over the years too. I remember we read that story “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” to the other teachers one night and were laughing so hard we could barely get through the next sentence. And actually then you had the great idea of pairing it with Orwell’s essay “A Hanging” in class, and I’m happy to say that I still use that lesson with my Intro students and it always goes over well! So I love that kind of conversation as well.
Leopards was a great conversation for me with a whole bunch of writers that I admired. I was teaching a more advanced creative writing class for the first time as I was writing the first drafts of the stories that went into that book, and I’d get so charged by the class discussions and run right out after two hours on Hemingway or Chekhov and sit down and write for two more hours, wanting to see if I could do some version of what we’d found in the story. And I’ll confess, actually, the opening chapter, “The Debutante,” where the narrator spies on a bunch of girls who are smoking outside their debutante classes, was something I wrote within hours of first reading your story “Departure,” about two guys who like to hit on Amish girls who are doing rumspringa. So I hope I covered my tracks well enough there that it didn’t seem too obvious to you when you got the book. I remember being nervous, actually, about that!
But there have been two great (albeit slightly one-sided) “conversations” I’ve had that have really impacted my writing since my MFA days. The first was with Karen Russell, who was in my class, and of course has gone on to write three phenomenal books already. But back at Columbia before we first had workshop together, I’d heard from several people that her stuff was really different, so I was curious. At the time I was writing an angsty, serious, semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in New Jersey (very typical) and we workshopped it in the first week and no one liked it, me included. Then the following week Karen brought in a story, one of the alligator-wrestling theme park pieces that would later be in her collection St. Lucy’s and eventually Swamplandia! They were so strange and so beautiful . . . but more than anything they were fun. So much fun to read and even better you could tell she’d had immense fun writing them. Until then I had this impression that writing should be serious and painful and dark in order to be good. I shelved my angsty novel right after that and started immediately on something new that was, actually, inspired by that Barthelme story that made us all laugh so hard. Anyways, I don’t know if I’d call it a conversation, so much, other than me repeatedly thanking Karen afterward for saving my writing and her being lovely and humble about it all, as she is, but that’s stuck out.
The second lasting, but one-sided, conversation like that was with Salinger, which I know sounds odd, given that he was a recluse and is now sadly deceased. But I went to Princeton a few years back to read some of his old letters that he’d collected, many of which he’d written from the front in WWII while he was still, apparently, running around in the trenches with a portable typewriter, sending stories to The New Yorker. Imagine getting rejections mailed to you on the Western Front? Anyways, he wrote to his editor at one point that “no writer has the right to tear his characters apart if he doesn’t know how, or feel that he knows how (poor sucker) to put them together again. I’m tired . . . my God, so tired . . . of leaving them all broken on the page with just ‘The End’ written underneath.” And reading that totally turned my writing around 180 degrees, because I had the same idea that great stories were all about leaving everything in profound ruin. Not that ruin can’t be profound, but that ruin was, in and of itself, always profound.
But I have to say, after this dialogue, I’m feeling inspired to reach out to more writers that I know and admire. There’s always the sense that everyone else is surely even busier than I am, and won’t have time for a chat, but this really has shown me that it’s worth making the time. I’m glad to get a sense for what lies ahead, in terms of writing, parenting, and teaching . . . thanks again, Andrew, for doing this, and for continuing to be a great guide into the literary life.
AP: This has been a great pleasure for me, too, Kris, and a lot of fun! I think we should plan to do it again in, like, ten years. We can talk about what it’s like to write fiction with teenagers in the house, I can complain about my arthritis, etc. Seriously, though, it would be fun to do this type of thing every so often, just to kind of touch base with where we are with our work and with our thoughts about writing. Oh, and for the record, I never saw that connection to “Departure” in “The Debutante,” but I’m really flattered that it would be in any way an inspiration for your work. And that’s exactly the type of thing I was trying to get at in my last question. There are parts of that story that are directly inspired by other stories I’ve read, and I’m sure those stories contain piece of stories that those authors had read, and so on. The conversation goes on . . .