Thursday, August 5, 2010

Read this Book: Please Come Back to Me by Jessica Treadway

One of the things I love best about being a critic is the chance to discover someone astonishing. Jessica Treadway (Absent Without Leave, And Give You Peace) knockout collection of stories, Please Come Back To Me, snagged the 2009 Flannery O'Connor Prize for Short Fiction, and I was immediately enthralled by the voice, the subject matter, and the stories themselves. Her fiction has been published in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The Hudson Review, Glimmer Train, AGNI, Five Points, and other journals, and has been cited in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, and The Pushcart Prize anthologies. I can't thank you enough, Jessica, for answering my questions.

You’ve written a novel as well as this collection of short stories. What’s the difference between writing shorter forms and a longer form for you? Which do you prefer?

It does seem as if there should be a difference, but having thought about it I’m not sure that there is that much of one, for me, in terms of the actual writing; with both forms I get excited at the beginning because it’s new, and fresh, and I’m feeling the exhilaration of discovery and possibility.Then that wears off, and it’s all just the thudding, plodding drudgery of hard work. With moments of that initial excitement peppered throughout, of course; otherwise, I’d probably never finish anything.

I think I prefer stories because it feels to me as if they allow for more distilled and concentrated moments of clarity than a novel, which by virtue of its length seems more attenuated. A story zooms in up close right away and stays there, whereas a novel pulls the lens back somewhat to allow for a wider picture. I think each form has its own unique benefits and limitations.

Stories come more naturally to me. I like the analogy comparing story writers and novelists to sprinters and long-distance runners. When I was a kid I was a sprinter – I couldn’t even imagine running cross-country, the way my sister did -- so if there’s a temperamental or artistic parallel to be drawn with a person’s physical predispositions, mine lies with the shorter, more intense spurts.

Can you tell me what your writing process is like (I’m obsessed by process!) Do you outline? Just follow your pen? How did many of these stories form?

I never used to outline at all, and I still don’t, with shorter stories. And when I do write notes, they include more questions to myself than anything else. Things like: Does it make sense that the character would feel this way, after that happens? One of the most important things to me is consistency in characterization.If I’m reading a book and I think No, this character wouldn’t do that, then the writer’s lost me. So I dread doing the same thing to a reader.

For the novel I’m working on, I do make notes just to keep track of what’s happening in every scene, how the scenes relate to each other, what motifs or themes I want to include, and how I can get the most out of each character.Even though you have more space in a novel than in a short story, I still try not to waste words – to make everything relevant to the whole.

That said, I love Jayne Anne Phillips’ long-ago quote that when she writes, she follows a whisper. That resonates completely for me. I start with an image or a person in real life, and the story takes off from there. “Dear Nicole” began with a strong sensory memory of the pond where the neighborhood boys used to play hockey when I was a kid, and it turned into ‘What if a boy hits a girl with a puck by accident when he’s playing hockey, and he feels so guilty that he marries her years later, even though she’s the wrong woman for him (and there is a right woman, but he doesn’t “owe” her anything)?’ “Oregon” began with the image of a broken snow-plow sitting in a field in the summer, “The Nurse and the Black Lagoon” with a news story I heard about a playground that had been burned down. I thought, Who would burn down a playground? I suppose all writers are intrigued by the what if inherent in a character or a situation. I’m writing a story right now inspired by my mother’s having told me that a woman we all know, from the town we grew up in, had been called out to Colorado because her adult son, who’d been suffering a terminal illness, was about to die. My first thought was of that woman sitting on the plane, about to take off, and nobody around her knowing about the painful journey she was embarking on.I felt a strong inclination to inhabit her, and tell her story. (Not the real woman’s story, but the one she inspired in me.)

In a lot of your stories, people wait until they are ready to know what’s obvious, and then they are able to act on it. They also realize their true selves, but then resist sharing it with others, keeping it a secret. Why do you think that is?

Like a lot of writers who hear the themes others see in their work, I hadn’t thought about any of it that way, and I really appreciate your close reading! I think, for the first part of your question, that to me it seems more that they are forced to act – by virtue of a deadline or, more often, by the truth imposing itself so insistently that they are no longer able to harbor the illusions they’d perpetuate if they had the choice. As for characters being reluctant to share their true selves, it probably derives from how tragic I find a situation like that – for instance, in “Oregon,” the idea that a woman would die without ever having been able to reveal her deepest longings, to even just one person, makes me incredibly sad for her. Without wanting to sound either too corny or high-falutin’, it feels like a privilege and an obligation to do the revealing for her – to bring her true self to the light of the fictional day – because she can’t or won’t do it for herself.

One story, in particular, Please Come Back to Me, is astonishing and heartbreaking, a fugue about loss and the desire for continued connection even after the grave, it also explores the things we yearn to believe—and the ways we fool ourselves. Do you think it’s possible to live in the world without doing that to some extent?

First of all, thank you very much for the compliment. And you’ve hit on one of my favorite themes, which is exploring exactly what you said – “the things we yearn to believe, and the ways we fool ourselves.” I’d like to believe it’s possible to live without inventing and harboring and hanging onto illusions, but I think it would require eternal and relentless vigilance, not to mention courage. And maybe, in the end, it isn’t possible – maybe the best we can hope is that the illusions we retain are ones that are harmless, or mostly so.Because the bigger ones, of course, have the power to destroy.

What’s obsessing you now in your work?

Figuring out and refining the relationships among members of the family in the novel I’m working on. When you have two people, determining the dynamic between them is one thing, but when you have four, as I do, the permutations can feel overwhelming – you’ve got threads between the parents to each other, each parent to each child, and the children to each other. It makes the consistency challenge all that much harder, at least to me.

Beyond that, I’m thinking a lot about why I want to tell the story of this novel, and whether my reason is worthy of all that work. I think it is, because it has to do with what we were just discussing – the detrimental effect of choosing to be willfully blind and not seeing the awful truth in front of you, despite all the evidence that says you should.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Having read these stories and selected them for the FOC award, I can vouch for their transcendent nature. They are both subtle and stunning. They start out simple and transparent and once you're their captive reader, the complexity and surprises begin. You can say I'm prejudiced as the series editor of the Flannery O'Connor award for short fiction, but one year ago I was a neutral reader going through 40 very fine collections of stories, the finalists. This collection knocked me out from the start; I knew I had a winner. Maturity and mastery resonate in every story; Jessica had earned all the kudos bound to come her way with this collection.