Friday, January 19, 2018

Douglas Trevor talks about "the wild and messy world of the novel," his brilliant THE BOOK OF WONDERS, Proust, politics, and so much more

 Doug Trevor is one of my favorite writers (And I'm not the only one singing his praises. You noticed the Joyce Carol Oates quote on the front of his book, right?) I haven't had the luck to meet him yet, but he lives in one of my favorite places, Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was once a bookseller, so that makes me want to meet him even more. Reading his collection THE BOOK OF WONDERS makes my admiration for his work even greater.

 Douglas Trevor is the author of the novel Girls I Know), and the short story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space. Thin Tear won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Girls I Know won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize. Doug’s short fiction has appeared most recently as a Ploughshares Solo, and in The Iowa Review, New Letters, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has also had stories in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Black Warrior Review, The New England Review, and about a dozen other literary magazines. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan.

Thank you so much for being here, Doug!

I always want to know what was the why now moment for you in writing this book and these stories? Usually there is something haunting the writer. What was haunting you?

            When I began the stories that make up The Book of Wonders, I was thinking a lot about the status of books themselves. Both in our culture and in my own life. Is being a voracious reader always a good thing? What would the world look like without material books? And I was circling around that curious feeling, which strikes me time and time again, when you establish with someone you've just met, or a student, that you both share the love of the same book, but nonetheless the book you each love is loved differently, and in some meaningful way isn't exactly the same book. Because once we filter what we read through our own subjectivity, the narratives we absorb become something else. So I was thinking about books, but I was also thinking about relationships—how they can end, how people can become afraid of attachment, etc. I had gotten divorced a few years earlier—when I was finishing my last book, Girls I Know—and I wanted to write about the aftermath of relationships. So I had these two things—one conceptual, the other affective—and I was intrigued by the idea of putting them in orbit around one another.

But I also want to know why short stories? (I loved the story called The Novelist and the Short Story Writer, by the way.) I used to write them when I first started out, and I will write one if pressed by someone, but I can’t keep myself from the wild and messy world of the novel.  So tell us, what is it about the short story that you love—and how do you do it so brilliantly?

            Toward the end of writing The Book of Wonders, I definitely started to miss the "wild and messy" world of the novel, so I can see where you're coming from. For me, after finishing my last book, which was a novel, I had grown to miss the feeling of finishing shorter things, getting them published, and hearing from readers. Writing a novel is such a lonely experience. The novel I had started on the heels of Girls I Know, on which I'm still laboring, is big and bulky and I knew it would take me several years. And I did genuinely miss the short story form. I had heard intermittently from editors of the journals where I had published in the past, asking what I was up to, and I wanted to reconnect with people who care about short stories. Within the large world of fiction writers, the short story crowd is of course smaller and more intimate. I also love the challenge of getting a short story to work—of fitting the gears together, trying to resist the temptation to let things expand. The whole process seems like a great writerly calisthenic to me.

What I love about your stories are how different they are—your range from something that smashes our heart to something that is sly and witty—and also deeply important. I always wanted to know—how do you decide which story goes where?  

            Thanks, Caroline. In my day-to-day life I feel like I'm quite a silly person, but sometimes that hasn't always translated onto the page. So a few of the stories, like "The Novelist and the Short Story Writer" and "The Program in Profound Thought," play around with the ridiculousness in ways I haven't done before as a writer. And then, in both of these stories, I tried to shift from a satiric tone to something more serious, because I think that accurately reflects how much of life works. We're having fun, not taking stuff too seriously, and then suddenly we're walloped.
            Arranging the stories was something I worked closely on with my editor, Michelle Toth. It's one of my favorite things about writing a collection: you can move stories around as if you were creating a playlist. And there are so many factors to balance. Does it work for a certain story to lead into another? What does it mean to have long stories back to back? And so on. Michelle and I both thought the collection should start with a "user friendly" story that wasn't too long, so we chose "Endymion." After that there was a lot of mixing and matching. I was always committed to having the collection end with "Easy Writer," because that story is set in the near future and meditates on what it means to write and read short stories in the first place. But other than that, everything was up for grabs.

You also head up the Helen Zell Writers' Program at the University of Michigan. (Fun fact: I lived in Ann Arbor and loved it so much, I stayed and stayed.) What do you tell the writers you work with? What kind of work are you seeing?

Oh, the students here are doing such amazing work. I can't wait for more of it to reach the world. We have a very diverse group of MFAs in our program, so the work spans all different kinds of genres and geographical spaces. The balance I try to strike as a workshop leader lies between offering my reaction as a reader/editor and trying to honor whatever a given writer is attempting to accomplish. I like to think, when workshop is "working," that we are all meeting in something of a liminal space. We as readers aren't simply imposing our sensibility on a given piece of writing, but we're also asking the writer to more assiduously attend to the world she or he is conjuring. Additionally, I try to make sure we talk about form. Which sentences resonate in a given story and why? Are there verbal tics of which the writer should be aware? And so on.

What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.

            I despair mostly. I find the process of composing an early draft in particular to be SO difficult. But then the sentences turn into paragraphs and eventually I have something to work with. It's excruciating though, it really is. And then to look at page proofs at the end of the process and see sentences and phrases that still don't completely satisfy…that's enough to make me want to scream. I think, like a lot of writers, I exist in a state of perpetual wonder and frustration that writing remains so hard for me, after writing basically my entire life. But I also understand that this difficulty is part of the reason why I continue to write.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

            Like everyone I know, I'm in a state of disgust over what's happening in our country politically. I see students on a daily basis who are trying to make their way through an America that is in certain quarters boisterously hostile and dehumanizing and it sickens me. I have seen young white men in pickup trucks driving through campus, screaming things like "God hates liberals." It's just so appalling that we aren't in a better place in 2018 than we are. To try to create a welcoming environment at Michigan for writers to flourish, especially writers of color and writers not from this country, feels like such a daunting task these days. This feeling of whiplash, to go from someone as thoughtful and measured as Obama to someone as uninformed and intolerant as Trump, makes my head spin.
            I've been spending a lot of time reading Proust lately. It feels somewhat escapist, yes, but Lydia Davis is going to be visiting our campus soon so I've been spending some time with her translation. I don't think Proust's incredible sense of humor is adequately acknowledged in the literary world. He is deeply funny. His narrator has such piercing insights, but they are almost always balanced and mollified by a witty sense of his own foibles. In the age of Trump, I appreciate this humility and intelligence more than ever.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

            Your questions were great. One thing I'd add about The Book of Wonders is that the stories are connected, so that even as the characters change, the situations build on each other. So, for example, the early stories witness relationships forming, while the latter stories emphasize their dissolutions. And the relationships people have with reading and ideas become gradually more complicated and unsettling. The idea is to take the reader on a journey during which a variety of different discoveries are made—big and small.

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