How often does an idea for a story occur to you, and what triggers those ideas?
My strongest stories seem to emerge not from a single epiphany but from years of long, quiet triangulation, so for me it’s not a matter of trusting a smashing first impression as much as its refusal to go away. “Planetarium” gathered itself together over a decade, if you include 1) my teaching in a school that had a planetarium that no one ever seemed to set foot in, 2) an occasion of drunken escort, and 3) camping and hiking in two jawdropping landscapes, Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona and Glacier National Park in Montana, where I finally decided to set it. My friend Rebecca Makkai uses the term “echo chamber” to describe the elements that a story needs in order to fully emerge, and I think I mean something similar by triangulation. If the points of the triangle are farther apart, so much the better—more tension, more twang.
But sometimes an instant does the trick. “The Discipline of Shadows” came into being as I was meeting with my writing group in the now-defunct Second Run Bookstore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, sunken into the puke-green couch underneath these old exposed beams, surrounded by books. We decided to open up books at random and choose a sentence that would be our prompt for the next meeting, and the first thing I opened to was from an Antonya Nelson story: “How is it the squirrel did not slide?” What a line, I thought. My fellow writers had some imaginative takes, and as for me, I envisioned someone observing a squirrel whose shadow moved even while the squirrel itself didn’t budge, and this was a total crisis for him (the man, not the squirrel). Why was it a crisis? Well, clearly he was obsessed with shadows himself, and the reason the squirrel didn’t slide was because he was losing his mind because he was studying something outlandish. But what if it wasn’t crazy? And then I began to watch some Wayang Kulit Indonesian shadow theater and the work of a San Francisco company called Shadowlight Productions that brilliantly combines traditional work with a modern vibe, and I felt, “It’s crazy not to study this.” Hence, I invented a field I called umbrology, the study of shadows, and that got the story off and running, with shadow theater and optics and film noir all rubbing shoulders. The squirrel didn’t slide, but plenty of other things did.
What’s the worst idea for a story you’ve ever had?
“Circulation” began with the notion of having a library book tell its own story of its journeys. If it had stayed in that form, I think it would have run into insuperable difficulties, a gutterball that would probably have never seen the light of day. A blathering book seems like the kind of idea that might make you bolt upright in mid-sleep-cycle at 4 a.m. to scribble it down, convinced of its sheer brilliance, its Chekhovian profundity, only to find yourself shaking your head over breakfast, “That can’t have been it.” But even on the off-chance that I’d managed to pull that off and find a gregarious, charming book-as-narrator, the story would’ve been about something utterly different, simply couldn’t have foregrounded the father-son relationship that it now feels inevitably rooted in.
Where do you find inspiration?
Lots of places, but here are a handful:
Obsession is a most loyal muse. If I get obsessed with something, I know I can write about it, because it clings to me everywhere I go and grabs everything in reach. For instance, with shadows in “The Discipline of Shadows”—it’s fun to imagine the art and science of shadows, because they really are everywhere, lurking about in nearly every situation, and once I started researching them I realized that while I’d come up with this word “umbrology” (a word which a handful of other people have also used to describe various similar things), it really does exist in a certain way, just not under that name. Other obsessions that show up in the book: food, film, dying languages. Right now I’m obsessed with avant garde classical music.
Voices. I listen to a ton of audiobooks—I always loved being read to, and need to hear the grain of my narrator’s voice to have a clue who s/he is. In “Planetarium,” the main character is temperamentally an engineer but wants to shed that, yearns to leap his way right out of his skin and experience everything in its sensuous immediacy rather than through diagrams and schematics, craves the full-on night sky instead of the planetarium’s shell. But at some point long ago he had it drilled into him that he was a born engineer, and he capitulated to that, as, of course, sometimes happens. He glimpses that there’s something outside of that, and because it is frightening to acknowledge this he only allows it as an aspect of a distant past, and clings to it the way someone who has memorized a single poem in her whole life might let her tongue loll and linger silently on those words from time to time. I heard his voice above all, as if I were listening to someone reading aloud to me. And even more, I think he embodies a key aspect of why we’re reading and writing fiction, partly to get out of our skins, even while another part of us wants to be more fully inside them. This tension—or maybe these impulses dovetail perfectly—is an element that drives some of my favorite stories: they make us other in some way that makes us more fully ourselves, and voice is often where that plays out for me.
I’ve always found myself drawn to characters, too, not so much literary as real-life ones, those of whom you’d say, “He’s a real character.” Most people are once you get close enough to them, some more unabashed in it than others. In high school, my friend Dave and I spent a lot of time getting to know the cast of regulars at Yonkers Raceway, where Dave would bet and I would pretend to watch the horses while actually studying the men (mostly) and inhaling a lot of cigar smoke, noting the crudely-taped-together glasses they couldn’t afford to replace and hearing them spin the next race so that it fit whatever their pet theory was, which was, of course, a window into their beliefs about the world.
Until recently, I was working part time at a psychiatric hospital here in New Hampshire. I’ve never written about it at length, although I hope to at some point, and so much of what I learned there informs my understanding of behavior. Being there was a positive experience in so many ways, although I got punched, kicked, bitten, spit at, found myself on the floor numerous times, sang and skipped and danced my way out of harm’s way, and had to convince at least one person to hand over a knife. Working there could be like facing someone with a booming tennis serve for eight hours straight. Amazing people, though, my co-workers and the patients themselves. I often felt deeply what was at stake, which of course we always talk about in terms of short stories. When you’re interacting with a steady stream of people who have decided that maybe life isn’t worth living, you have to come with reasons on a dime that it is and hold fast to them with utmost conviction. I’m not necessarily as observant as I’d like to be, but when a single staple could be unbent by someone to hurt him or herself, you develop skills of observation that border on the preternatural, along with an abiding respect for how many layers every person and situation has. I hope I bring these back to my writing. Some of my favorite writers of radically different styles are outstanding observers of both the outer shapes of behavior and its inner gears. David Huddle and Javier Marias are two I’ve enjoyed recently. As far as that business of getting out of one’s skin—well, they are uncannily gifted at getting under others’.