I love short stories. Tehila Lieberman's brilliant new collection, Venus in the Afternoon, won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction, and her stories about grief, guilt, love, and sex, are haunting, harrowing and completely unforgettable. I'm so honored to host her here. Thank you so, so much, Tehila.
Your prose is both elegant and enthralling, which brings me my favorite craft question. How do you write? For you which comes first, the language or the story, or are they one and the same?
For me, they are one and the same in that they emerge simultaneously. The writing I most admire and enjoy is where I am propelled forward by the story but where the language is seamlessly contributing to the evocation of a place, person or state of mind. It is a fine line to walk and it's easy enough to slip to one side or the other, but I am a sucker for writers who pull off gorgeous language while keeping me riveted to what might be on the next page. When I recently read John Banville's The Sea and came to accept that not much was going to happen in present time but rather that all of the mystery lay in the past, I was totally swept up. I found myself, with great excitement, writing down word after word - gorgeous, evocative words that I had not yet, in all my years of reading, come across.
Do you ever think of writing a novel? Or are you completely wedded to the short story?
I have just completed a novel that I worked on for eleven years, alongside the short stories and various essays. It began as a short story but soon burst out of the frame. I had once abandoned a novel after years of work and so it took me a long time to admit that this might be one. I called it a novella for a while but it defied that categorization as well. It kept growing in both length and complexity. Some characters demanded more space, the various stories that were being interwoven developed some new twists and turns, and there you have it. It was enormously satisfying to complete it only months after completing the polishing of the collection and I have just begun to look for the right representation for it and for my upcoming projects.
The characters in this collection are so vividly alive with such distinct voices. How do you go about creating a character?
I try hard not to think - not always an easy task - but rather to come to some quiet and listen. If I can get myself out of the way, they will usually present a glimpse of themselves. Where my will comes in is perhaps in the choice of subjects in which I begin to wander - often subjects I want to learn about or explore. For example, the novel I've just completed contains a Blake scholar and therefore allowed me reexamine the Blake I was enamored of in my early twenties. It also involves Vietnam, a piece of our history that I wanted to understand in a deeper, more personal way. So the characters will emerge once I know something of the context. With one exception: a sassy female character who has been providing glimpses into her wry view of the world for years and whose context and story will need to be determined.
Did winning the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in short fiction change you in any way--did it allow you to take more risks, for example or did the validation make you feel more confident?
Actually - if you want to know the truth - the first thing I felt was shame. I now was going to have to see in print all of what the stories had not managed to achieve. Happily I moved past that and rigorously used every pre-galley second to polish polish polish and was able to tolerate the result. The validation is definitely wonderful. As for risk taking, when I've completed a piece, I routinely challenge myself to go somewhere completely different -- to venture into a subject, a voice or a world I haven't rendered before and so risk is often built into the way I work and each new piece is usually dramatically different from the one that preceded it. I don't find myself feeling very changed but am extremely grateful that my work will now reach more readers.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
The new characters emerging from the wings. An eccentric Southern aunt who semi-adopts one of the lost boys of Sudan, a woman whose family has put her away in a nursing home of sorts on the Israeli-Palestinian border. Also a non-fiction project that is close to my heart that will involve conducting some interviews in this country and others.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
Occasionally I am asked about the seed or central question from which a particular story emerged. I can speak to that briefly regarding the title story, "Venus in the Afternoon". I spent about fifteen years helping to raise my then husband's son, from age three until adulthood. This introduced me first hand to all of the complexities of growing attached to someone else's child. I also have a rich and complex relationship with a now grown goddaughter. There aren't any particularly apt words to capture these semi- but non-parental relationships, which are obviously very particular and individual. So I was very attuned to the interesting, historically maligned relationship of step-parenting. I wanted to explore it in a fresh way that had nothing in common with my experience except the growing tenderness and deep love that can spring up and take everyone by surprise. And so I created Grant and put him on a crash course with the woman who had dumped him in Spain a decade before for a bullfighter on a motorcycle and then gave her a preternaturally mature and precocious child who "gets" Grant more than she does. That was great fun.