For those who couldn’t make it down to the Hotel Metropole this afternoon, here’s a taster of the interview with Valerie Trueblood:
Your stories all have arresting openings…such as; “Our father married a woman who took an axe to a bear.” Are these openings fully formed to you? Is that your starting point?
The starting point is usually much vaguer than that; its a scene, perhaps something heard, something in a song – but the openings do come rather soon afterwards. They just kind of pop up. I’m glad they appear; sometimes they may seem like gimmicks but I hope that overall they don’t, because they’re not. A scene will demand to be written and I’ll be writing the scene and then the opening will come to me.
In one of your stories, Paloma, a prison guard, is a minor character but becomes pivotal to the story and how the other women view themselves. In your books, the minor characters will sometimes speak one line but become incredibly important; how do you master these characters?
The minor players become our husbands and wives, they’re the people that sue us or pull us out of a flood. In stories, we’ll give the minor characters the germ that kills someone – they get the centre spot. For example, in Oscar Wilde’s story The Selfish Giant, the minor player is Jesus Christ. Minor characters come forward in life and so I like to see them come out in a story. They’re no longer minor. They’re everywhere.
You’re very good at dropping in a seeming unimportant situation which them becomes central to the plot – how does this weaving and saturation occur?
I can speak specifically about the bear in my story; the bear is already a bear to me because every year my husband and son go out into the back country to hike and I stay at home to learn everything there is about bears. The bear is like the being of a short story. The part of a short story that you can’t put your finger on, that’s at the centre of the short story. The bear acts as that; it’s not a symbol – I don’t believe things should symbolise each other – but a crux. A way the grief of the characters can be shown. In a short story, anything is possible; a tree can come to stand for the whole story.
There’s a lot of humour, an undercurrent of glee throughout the book – how important is humour to you as a writer?
Humour is very important. I think of myself as someone who has a tragic view of life – and I think I do have this tragic view – but I also have this childish desire to make fun of it. The wish to laugh at life does go with the tragic… I think one protection against tragedy is when everything can dissolve – it’s like the humour people need at a wake.
But you don’t think there’s room for irony in short stories – can you explain this?
I think many people would disagree and would be able to name short story writers using irony that they love. For me, irony is when a writer knows more than a reader and hints at it – I don’t think the reader is our crony and we should be winking at her. I don’t think the writer should ever try to summon a reader by meeting the reader’s eyes – though metafiction at the minute is doing this well and while I’m making this claim, it’s all changing. I guess I mean the more general, overarching irony which draws the reader into a conspiracy with the author almost against the characters; into some judgement that excludes the characters from the relationship between the reader and the writer.
Let’s talk a little about titles – the individual titles of each story – does titling come naturally to you?
I love the titles of books and stories, and with my own they come to me. Sometimes they’re quotes – in a new story I have – sometime they’re serendipity and they just seize me – but I don’t know whether they’re good or not.
I wonder how much readers take in story titles?
Sometimes titles are the clue to the whole story – like with poems. Sometimes you wont realise until you’ve finished and go back but I’m not sure that stories are the best form to demonstrate this – if they’re as good as a poem for initiating that spark.
Your stories are long and you say they all seem to take a long time to write – can you talk a bit about the process?
They do take a long time and my problem is I go back to them forever and continue to edit them again and again – I wish I could edit them when they come out but I can’t. I do have short shorts, I can write them; when I write a 50 page story and cut to 30 page story I realise I’ve cut it to the bone and wish I hadn’t published it originally as it was in its longer form. All stories have technical problems and I don’t think anyone is ever ready to let them go…you want a story to be one thing and then it turns into something else and the there’s such a feeling of regret. The short story has a limbo that the novel doesn’t have – like a vacuum cleaner bag – that you have to realise when you reach. It’s the limitation of the short story that is part of it’s greatness. We don’t have to observe unities in a short story; it can cover a lifetime or a day – the time in a short story can be long but some magical limiting factor has to work on it.
When we were emailing each other you talked about the mental thrill of a short story. Can you talk a little about this?
I don’t know how you aim for it but as a writer you always hope for it and you recognise it in the things you’ve read. The short story has more of this thrill than a novel – it’s not a contest but in some ways I see it as that… in a short story, you’re not heading towards the resolution or the clue you saw in the opening section; it’s like going on a ferris wheel. It’s going to turn, you’re not going anywhere but something is going to happen to you. It’s a circle; a circle that contains a thrill that a trip down a road or a trip down 40 chapters doesn’t have; it’s the thrill of your feet leaving the earth. It’s the experience of knowing that there’s something in store for you. It can never be a poem – but it aims for the same thrill.
Research is integral to your stories. For instance, in The Magic Pebble, the woman is taking a trip to Lourdes but she never gets there; but you still researched two books about Lourdes. It’s crucial to your art but why is this?
I love research; the internet has almost been the death of me. I’m infected with a love of tracking things down; not to explain them but just to know about them. So that kind of research very much interests me and there’s an endless amount to find out about now we have the internet. But as writers, we do all this work and then it doesn’t fit anywhere; we sort of know things and then it doesn’t fit into the story. You absorb bits into the story but then it becomes all about the story. Research is very vaporous in my mind; it doesn’t come to any fruition but it’s a kind of fiendish enjoyment.
Do you show people your work or share it in groups?
My writing is pretty solitary – I don’t show anyone any works in progress. My husband, two friends (one a writer and one who isn’t) and my agent see work when it’s so-called finished. The friend who isn’t a writer is more my audience; a non writer is able to give a whole perspective and reaction like a real reader in a bookshop. She’d say things like “this story interested me on page 13”. I’m argumentative and I’d argue the first 12 pages need to stay but that instinct from a loving reader is useful.
Colm Toibin said that short stories are about sharing secrets. I think this reflects your own thoughts on the form…
The short story really is about the nature of life, and it tackles subjects which the novel can’t tackle as well. For instance, death; a novel can’t go on for 500 pages about death. I do think at the end of the story, you should have some feeling you didn’t go into the story with. It’s not a secret like in a novel where you go back and find out the hidden secret; I don’t think in a short story you can summarise it. You apprehend it and learn it but it’s still secret. The secret is an illumination which you can’t convey except by giving someone the story to read.
In your essay, The Short Story, you said “It seems fair to say the average short story is not as hospitable to readers, to modern people with their own ideas, as the average novel, nor as open to looseness and imperfection.” Is the lack of resolution the reason why readers find the short story hard and unsatisfying?
I think everyone at this festival wonders why there is this resistance to the short story – don’t they like beauty. Don’t they like butter? What is wrong? I think in the States it’s the longing for a solution to everything and the inability to accept the absence of that in the short story. It’s the result of our history and Hollywood – it’s a simple way of reading.
Is there any way to get the general public to want collections, the way they want novels?
I think we just have to give people collections and anthologies, talk about, write about and share them. It must be this lack of outcome in the modern short story that’s the problem; older short stories used to have a resolution. I think people who have this resistance don’t know what the form is – but how you introduce people to this form? Make them perceive it as more than just a shortened thing? I don’t know. Publish more of them. Some people say when are you going to do a full length work? What is this full length people talk about? I don’t know!