For Deb Olin Unferth, fiction is an art of the conditional. “I want there to be surprises,” she explains by phone from Austin, where she is a professor at the University of Texas. “To have more than one possibility in play for me is very exciting.” Unferth is talking about her new book, Wait Till You See Me Dance, which gathers thirty-nine stories ranging from microfictions to full-length narratives. But in some ways, she is describing her career. Since her 2007 debut, Minor Robberies — issued, along with small books by Sarah Manguso and Dave Eggers, in a slipcased omnibus edition from McSweeney’s — she has not only confounded but also gleefully ignored expectations. In 2010, she published Vacation, a novel; two years later, she put out the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. What all these books share is a sense of narrative as elastic, not contrived so much as provisional. “I look for points of discomfort,” she says. “Some writers build narrative with action; I build narrative with discomfort. I’m drawn to situations where you know something awful is coming, and you wait for it to happen.” The “you,” of course, refers both to her characters and to us.
Wait Till You See Me Dance is a collection that takes discomfort as a kind of métier, in which tension builds by way of anticipation and resolution arrives in the least foreseeable of ways. In “Voltaire Night,” a writing teacher uses a scene from Candide as inspiration for a bar game with her students: Each tells the story of the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. The drama is in the not-knowing, the way the situation teeters ever closer to the edge — of propriety, of revelation — with each secret that’s revealed. “Stay Where You Are” involves a couple captured by an armed insurgent in Latin America, although mostly, it is a saga of suspension; “humans,” she writes there, “go through all sorts of episodes, and it doesn’t always settle their hearts.” This, Unferth suggests, may be the most a story, any story, can offer: to capture a moment, or a set of moments, in the life of a character, without any promises about what might happen next.
The stories in Wait Till You See Me Dance take that sort of unpredictability as an article of faith. “The First Full Thought of Her Life” shifts perspective as if the third-person narrator were shuffling a deck of cards: we move from a sniper to the members of a family he is tracking to a chorus of other, disembodied shooters to “some birds going by above.” If that sounds abstract, or confusing, it isn’t, which is the wonder of the work. “I kept adding elements,” Unferth acknowledges. “I was so determined that it have weight.” This is a key point, and an essential part of Unferth’s process, which involves going back over her stories, adding energy or conflict, constantly deepening. “With the short-shorts,” she says, “usually I have it in my head like a sound and write it all at once. Then I revise for years.” Longer stories are a little different, written in pieces that, over time, accrue. Even the shortest pieces take unanticipated turns, as in “The Applicant,” in which an author, seeking to escape his repressive homeland, is accepted to a writing program so he can produce “important work that could transform the world,” only to refuse to revisit “his damaged life and the lives of the men and women he once knew.” There’s no telling, in other words, what will happen once events are set in motion; in the world as Unferth sees it, intention is less definitive than circumstance.
As to how that works in such short spaces, Unferth believes it has to do with time. “I don’t like the phrase ‘flash fiction,’ ” she says. “A painting is a flash fiction, an image, an impression. Any story exists in time.” That’s a traditional view, of sorts, for a writer who has been called an experimentalist, but if Unferth’s work has anything to tell us, it’s that such distinctions don’t apply. More to the point is the notion of writing as an act of listening — to the characters, to the narrative — and trying to follow through on what’s required. She tends, for instance, to avoid proper names, because “naming characters feels phony to me.” It’s a device that opens up her writing by blurring the line between the universal and the particular. “If you use a proper name to identify cereal or sunglasses,” Unferth elaborates, “you’re bringing to the page an assumption that the reader knows the reference so you don’t have to do the work. The same is true of characters: Personality should be expressed by dialogue or hand gestures, or how others see them, rather than through a name.”
Of course, Unferth is not averse to breaking her own rules, if that’s what she deems necessary; every story defines its own universe. In Vacation, she names her two main characters Myers and Gray, and Revolution revolves in part around her relationship with a man she identifies as George. At the same time, she is aware of the construction, of the way these names carry a double meaning or even a form of ambiguity. “I liked Myers and Gray,” she laughs, “because it was confusing, close but also with a bit of distance. You don’t know whether they are first or last names.” Unpredictability again, or conditionality — the notion that a narrative should, fundamentally, surprise. This, Unferth insists, is what’s most resonant in literature; this is what gives it the power to alter lives.
Here, too, she’s not being theoretical but talking in the most specific terms. “I went through a weird time,” she recalls, “after Revolution came out, when I got disillusioned by the promotional stuff around the book. I was on Twitter for ten months, and I sweated over every tweet, until I realized: If this is what it comes to, I don’t want to be a writer anymore.” She was teaching, then, at Wesleyan, and in the aftermath, she got involved in a prison education program, working with maximum-security inmates in Connecticut. “It was life-changing,” she says simply, as if there is no other way to frame the experience. “It taught me so much about the cliché that literature creates empathy, but in the most visceral ways.”
Once Unferth moved to Texas, she met an activist who implored her to start a program at a prison in “the middle of nowhere,” to work with the forgotten, those who had no voice. “After the first semester,” she admits, “I thought I would quit. No one understood what I was doing, and it was kind of a disaster.” A single piece of writing turned her around. “There was a guy,” she continues, “who described driving through town in the back of a police car for the last time after having been sentenced. ‘I’m so surprised,’ he wrote, ‘at how easy it is for a man to disappear.’ ” It’s a chilling line, expressing a chilling, human sentiment, and it gets at all the reasons why we read and write. “This has restored my faith in storytelling,” Unferth says, referring to her work with the inmates, who are now in a two-year program she’s created; there is a waiting list. “It’s so relevant, so important, and it has left me with a new attitude: I don’t care if I sell a lot of books. I’m no longer a consumer or producer. In my writing and teaching, I want to be part of a conversation. This is what’s important about literature.”