Saturday, December 17, 2011

Laura Boudreau on Tenuous and Tangential Connections Between Stories

In the 49th in a series of posts on 2011 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Laura Boudreau, author of Suitable Precautions (Biblioasis Press), offers a conceptual definition of short story collections.

What do you think a good short story collection should deliver?
There’s an Isaac Bashevis Singer story called “Disguised” that has influenced the way I think about the nature and function of short story collections.

The story is about Temerl, a young bride who is abandoned by her husband. This causes her tremendous problems, particularly because Jewish law doesn’t allow her to remarry unless she obtains a divorce. So, Temerl sets out on a search for her missing husband, and there’s a line or two when Singer writes:
“She gained the kind of knowledge that comes from staying at inns and listening to all sorts of talk... Temerl learned how vast the world was and how odd people could be. Each human being had his own desires, his own calculations, and sometimes his or her own madness.”
I always thought those lines could serve as a conceptual definition of the short story collection — that perhaps we might think of the stories as travelers, brought together by chance or fate or circumstance, but connected, all the same. Although I understand the appeal of linked stories, and the pleasure of that logic, I am more attracted to a collection in which stories’ bonds are tenuous and tangential. In my own book, the stories are wildly different from each other. One story, “Strange Pilgrims,” is about a woman finding a fortune hidden in the attic of her new house; it’s plot-driven, detective-like. Another story, “Falling in Love,” is a series of images, of feelings, and confusions about those feelings. It’s almost a prose poem. I think that what ties the stories together is my voice, my way of looking at the world. And as a reader, that’s what I want — a way to look through the author’s eyes.

Is there a story collection you consider your ideal of what a collection should be? 
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by Raymond Carver, is about as good as it gets for me. In that one slim volume, there’s something electric and dark that takes on a life of its own. I think Carver’s much-imitated style of colloquial narration is one that contemporary writers can take for granted, or read as ironic or affected, but this particular collection still seems radical to me. I think it has something to do with the fact that the pared-backness of the stories doesn’t seem overly engineered or arrogant; you as a reader don’t feel manipulated. You’re allowed to come to the stories on your own terms, and you leave them that way, too. There’s something very demanding — and potentially alienating — about that kind of collection, but Carver shows the pay-off can be huge.

How did you decide to arrange the stories in your collection?
The process reminded me of making an old-fashioned mix-tape. I needed to figure out what sounded good beside each other, making sure I alternated fast and slow, long and short, without being too predictable or prescriptive about it. The pauses in between needed to feel right.

Or maybe it was more like making a seating chart for a dinner party: if the stories are personalities, who is going to get along with each other but not get bored? Actually, one of my stories, “Monkfish,” is about a dinner party, and the hostess has a rule: “boy girl boy girl, no spouses beside each other.” That’s probably as good a framework as any.

I opened the collection with a short piece that’s part invitation to the reader, part throwing down of the artistic gauntlet. I end with a piece that has more of a novel vibe, in that it’s an exploration of a family across generations. The first word of the book is “Try” and the last word is “love.” I like to think that’s indicative of the arc of the collection.