Saturday, August 4, 2012

Jennifer Haigh talks about The Boy Vanishes, her new short story on Byliner

Jennifer Haigh is known for her luminous four novels: Mrs. Kimble, which won the 2004 PEN/Hemingway Award for debut fiction, Baker Towers, a New York Times bestseller and a PEN/L.L. Winship Award winner, Faith, and The Condition. But she now has an extraordinary short story, The Boy Vanishes, up at, which specializes in digital fiction shorts meant to be read in one sitting. I'm honored to have Jennifer here. Thanks, Jennifer!

I went to the Byliner site and was knocked over. Fantastic writers, great stories, and lots of extra features, too.  How is it a different experience for you, writing a short story, rather than a novel? Do you prefer one form over the other?

Stories are my first love. I wrote them for many years before I even attempted a novel.  I prefer whichever I’m not writing at the moment. If I’m writing a story, I wish it were a novel. When I’m deep in a novel, a short story seems like a little slice of heaven. 

Because the times have so much to do with how people act and react, can you talk about why you set the story in 1976 around the Bicentennial

In the 1970s there were no Amber Alerts. Society was much less aware of potential threats against children, and it informed the way kids and parents were expected to behave.  Tim O’Connor and his friends have much more autonomy than most teenagers have today. If this story were set in 2012, every single character – kids, parents, teachers, cops – would behave differently.

So much of your story is about how we live with the spaces in our lives, how we grapple with guilt. There are other tragedies in the town: an unplanned, a heroin overdose, a teacher is caught with a student--but all spin out from the vanishing and all are somehow connected, which creates a gripping portrait of a community at odds with itself. Can you comment on this?

When I’m writing a story – regardless of its length – I try to think about causality rather than plot. Fiction works best when it unfolds the way life does, one event leading to another, characters reacting to each other in a constant feedback loop, whether they realize it or not.

Can you tell me what’s obsessing you now and why?

I’ve been working on the screen adaptation of my novel FAITH. It’s a marvelously useful exercise for a novelist. As a writer, I have always been preoccupied with questions of dramatic structure. Writing a screenplay is like building an entirely different container to pour the story into.What question didn’t I ask that I should have?  

How about:  E-publishing a short story is a fairly new phenomenon for a writer. How is the experience different from publishing in a magazine or literary journal?
So far it’s been a fascinating experiment.  I love the immediacy of publishing this way. Readers can buy, download, read and react to the story in a matter of minutes, not weeks or months.  On the other hand, I’m aware 

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