The State of the Short Story: A Quick Chat with Josh Rolnick
Written By: Cynthia Romanowski – Originally Published JAN• 18•12
I have mixed feeling about going to readings. Every month it seems like there are at least 2-3 readings around Los Angeles that I hear about. Though I dutifully mark my calendar and most times fully intend to attend them, more often than not when the day finally rolls around I’m either tired (I live in OC so it’s kind of a trek) or I go into social anxiety mode and get nervous just thinking about being around people and having to be friendly and attempt to “mingle,” so usually I choose to stay in the dark cave that is my apartment. Dani Shapiro actually has an excellent blog post that gets into this…
But at the same time, if a reading is good–if the writing captures and whisks me away for a while (mitigating said social awkwardness)– I feel like there is nothing is more invigorating. As a writer, a great reading is like a B-12 vitamin for motivation, especially if I’m in a slump. And it often reminds me why I write, why I spend all this time struggling to create these stories, it’s about that connection. That shared emotional experience and understanding that comes from a well-crafted piece of prose.
Back in September, I attended a reading that had just that effect, it was at Skylight Books in Los Feliz and Edan Lepucki was reading with Josh Rolnick who was reading from his new short story collection “Pulp and Paper.” After the reading they interviewed each other briefly (they both went to Iowa for their MFA’s) and what stood out to me was what Josh had to say about his experience as a short story writer in today’s market.
So just in case you missed the reading for geographical reasons or if you decided to stay in the cave like I so often do, I went ahead and sent Josh some questions to try and re-invent the evening a bit (for full effect you’ll have to pick up his book and Edan’s novella).
Here’s what he had to say:
1) Your new book “Pulp and Paper” is a debut collection of short stories that all take place in Brooklyn, first off how long have you been working on this collection? Are any of these stories ones that you worked on at Iowa?
Well, a slight correction. I currently live in Brooklyn. The stories are in fact divided equally between New Jersey and New York state. But they range all across the two states. They are set in the suburbs and in the city; at the Shore and in the mountains. My hope is that the settings give a sense of the rich geographic diversity of the neighboring states.
There is one story set in Brooklyn: “The Carousel.” This story is about an aging carousel operator who sees the modern world kind of passing him by. But it’s the only one set in New York City.
I started writing the stories in this collection 13 years ago. That’s when I enrolled in the part-time fiction writing program at Johns Hopkins and wrote the first few lines of “Mainlanders.” It might seem like a simple, relatively straightforward coming-of-age story, but “Mainlanders” actually took me 13 years to complete – I finished it in early 2011, as I was preparing my manuscript for publication.
I would say that I have been working more intensely on the book for the past 6 or 7 years – since I enrolled in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Most of the stories took at least 2 years to write; usually, much longer. My writing process has never been a quick one; my stories, to paraphrase John Steinbeck, tend to crawl onto the page. It’s a process of writing, revising, showing the work to readers, and then repeating the process, and it usually takes me several months before I even know what the story is really about.
I started half of the stories in the collection (“Innkeeping,” “Mainlanders,” “Big Lake,” “Carousel”) at Johns Hopkins, before I got to Iowa. Four (“Funnyboy,” “Big River,” “Pulp and Paper,” “The Herald”) were started at Iowa. I actually find that it’s easier sometimes to write about a place once you leave it – and it works its way into your imagination – so who knows, maybe the next thing I write will be set in Iowa City.
2) That was going to be my next question! …Since you’ve moved around the country a lot and lived in many different places, do you think it’s easier to write about a place while you’re living there or once you’ve gotten away from it for a while?
Ah – see above. Robert Olen Butler, a writer I admire greatly, talked about the importance of “forgetting” for fiction writers. He tells a great story. After he got out of the Vietnam War, he wrote a book set in Vietnam that was, as he tells it, not very good. Years later, after he “forgot” the details of life in Vietnam to some extent – and his imagination and subconscious mind took over – he wrote another book about Vietnam. That book is the short story collection “Good Scent From a Strange Mountain” – which won the Pulitzer Prize.
I do think there’s something to this. When we live in a place, it sometimes fails to inspire us or become grist for our imagination. It’s just “home” – the place we pay bills and take out the trash and ride to work in traffic. Once we leave, though, it’s as if the dimensions of the place expand. It’s not constrained anymore by familiarity. We are able to “see” things we never saw when we lived there – the falling down barn on the side of the field that we passed umpteen times on the way to work but never really looked at; that mysterious guy with the scraggily hair who was always circling classifieds in the coffee shop; the sound of the train horn after midnight on the tracks you’d almost forgotten were in the woods behind your home. It’s as if imagination is freer to take over – and you can therefore better appreciate the limitlessness of a place — once you’ve moved on.
There are I’m sure a million exceptions to this rule. Many, many people do write about where they live. In my case, I’ve always been more drawn to places I’ve left.
3) Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a short story writer in today’s publishing market, which seems to be primarily interested in novels/novelists? I know you have a great anecdote about a novel you once conjured on the spot to an interested agent…
That’s true. When I was in Iowa, agents used to come to meet with students. I really appreciated those visits – it was a great chance to learn more about how the industry worked. The thing was, most of the agents were not ultimately interested in representing me, because I was working on a book of stories – not a novel. Inevitably, in our conversations, we’d get to a point where they’d say: “I really like your stories … are you working on a novel?” Which can get frustrating over time.
In one of my meetings, when an agent got around to asking me if I was working on a novel, I decided – what have I got to lose? I told her that in fact, yes, I was working on a novel. She wanted details. So I started making them up on the spot. I told her I was working on a book set on the Jersey Shore in the time before the Coast Guard. I knew from research I’d done for a short story that they used to have these things called “Saving Stations” – shacks along the beach manned by locals who would keep watch during a storm; if they spotted a foundering ship, they’d row out to try to rescue people. I told her my novel was about a shipwreck in a terrible storm, a love story about a young saving station tough and the girl he saves in the surf. The problem was – I hadn’t written a single word.
She looked at me across a big wooden table. I was all-but-certain I’d ruined my career as a writer before it’d even started. That’s when she smiled and said: “I love it!” She was ready to represent me on the spot.
This story aside, I really have had a lot of good fortune in my career as a story writer. Six of the eight short stories that appear in “Pulp and Paper” were first published in literary journals – from The Harvard Review to Arts & Letters – and two of those won national fiction awards. I find writing and submitting short stories for publication a great way for young writers to get their work in front of editors and, if they’re lucky, even a few readers.
I should say – now that my collection of short stories has been published, I’ve seen a very different side of the industry. I was very fortunate that my collection won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award – which comes with publication by the University of Iowa Press. Since my book came out in October, I have travelled the country on a book tour, reading mostly at independent bookstores, and have found people incredibly receptive to the short story form. All told, more than 600 people came out to my readings – nearly 20 events. It may be true that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels – but it’s also true that there are still a lot of people interested in reading short stories and exposing themselves to the form.
4) What is it about short fiction that appeals to you as a writer as opposed to a longer narrative structure?
In the introduction to the 1997 edition of The Best American Short Stories, Annie Proulx writes that stories have “a trimmed, useful tautness implying a function for the reader beyond entertainment.” She continues: “We accept the idea that there is some nugget of embedded truth in a short story.” This is exactly why I love short stories. It’s emotion achieved through compression. It’s almost as if the author is saying to the reader: See these five pages? This is all there is. This is all you need to know about this particular person’s life, in order to “get” what I’m trying to convey. Nail down the furniture. A cyclone’s coming through.
One of my all-time-favorite short stories is “The Wig” by Brady Udall. It’s five paragraphs long – less than a page. It’s about an 8-year-old boy who finds a wig in a dumpster and puts it on. His dad tells him to take it off, but the boy ignores him, munching his breakfast cereal. The dad suddenly remembers a moment “real or imagined” from “before the accident”: his wife, her hair slightly darker than the wig, sitting in that same chair where his son sits, reading the paper to see how the Blackhawks did. He walks over, picks up his son, holds him against his chest, puts his nose to the wig. His son hugs him, “and for maybe a few seconds we were together again, the three of us.” It’s a devastating moment, suffused with loss and yearning. That dad might be 40-something-years old – but we don’t need 40 years of his life; we don’t need to know the wrong or right turns he took in his life, who his ancestors were or what ship they came over in; the only thing we need to know to understand him in that moment can be conveyed in one short scene, just a few hundred words. It’s like a swift, hard punch to the gut. Any longer, and it would lose some of its beauty and power.
This is what I love about short stories. This payoff. The way the best stories can show us, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, the ways in which we take care of one another. And also let us feel it.
5) Can you talk about how you approach fiction vs. your work as a journalist, do these different areas inform one another in any way?
Sure – they are totally different. When I write nonfiction, say a magazine piece, I’ve got my materials around me – interview questions, quotes, facts, background – and a vague sense of how it might all come together in a way that makes sense for a reader.
When I sit down to write fiction, I have absolutely no idea where I’m going or what I’m going to be writing about. I may start with an image, or a scent, or a line of dialogue. I have no outline. I have not done any research. My aim is to tap into my imagination — the dream-space, as Robert Olen Butler calls it – to learn what it is that I’m supposed to be saying. I’m trying to find characters that seem real to me, and learn who they are, what they want, and why. The minute I start to try to “steer” my characters with my conscious mind, the stories go off the rails. If my characters can surprise me, that tells me I’m on to something.
A big part of my education as a writer was simply learning that many writers approach their work this way. Michael Ondaatje talks about how when he wrote the “English Patient,” he didn’t have “any sure sense of what’s happening or even what’s going to happen.” Similarly, E.L. Doctorow says that writing a novel is like driving across country at night – you can only see as far as the front of your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way. I take the same approach – writing fiction is for me an act of discovery in a way that journalism never was.
6) What are you currently working on?
Ah – that’s the 60 million dollar question these days. My book came out in October, and I have been on a book tour ever since. After a decade or so writing it, I felt I needed to work full-time on getting “Pulp and Paper” out there – into the hands of readers, since that is in the end the whole point. Now that my tour is winding down, I will be going to work on a novel.
It’s too early to say what it’s going to be about yet. I’m just getting into the car and flipping the headlights on. Come back to me in six months or so, and I’ll let you know where I’ve been.