Interview with Monet Hurst-Mendoza + Excerpt

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Monet Hurst-Mendoza is an accomplished NYC-based playwright from LA. Rising Circle Theater Collective, Looking Glass Theatre (NYC), Amios, Playwright’s Playground at Classical Theatre of Harlem, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, and many others have developed her plays. She is a current member of the 2017 Emerging Writers Group at The Public Theater and is a 2016-2018 Van Lier Fellow at New Dramatists. Monet was a 2014-2016 WP Theater Lab Time Warner Foundation Fellow and has held residencies with The Other Mirror, The MITTEN Lab, and SPACE on Ryder Farm. 

Hurst-Mendoza debuted her play, Veil’d, at the Astoria Performing Arts Center in November. Just before the premiere, Hurst-Mendoza spoke with The Brooklyn Review’s Cherry Lou Sy about playwriting, Veil’d, fighting xenophobia in the age of Trump, pie, and the Dodgers. An excerpt from Veil’d follows

Cherry Lou Sy: Why theatre? Why are you so passionate about it?
Monet Hurst-Mendoza: 
I am passionate about theatre because it is an in-your-face, moment-to-moment experience that can’t be replicated the same way twice. Theatre can be entertaining, but it can also call for brutal honesty and introspection. I love that theatre can be a political act just by its existence. But what compels me most about theatre is that it is a communal gathering, at once vivid, volatile, and necessary — and it can spark inspiration that can change the course of someone’s life.

CLS: What would you like people to know about you?
MHM: 
I love to bake pies, but I rarely ever eat a pie I’ve made myself. I really revel in the baking process and then enjoy watching others eat this dessert I’ve made with my own two hands. I guess it’s very similar to playwriting.

CLS: What do you think makes a “good” play?
MHM:
I always say, “I know it’s a good play if I’m afraid to show it to my grandmother.”

CLS: You’ve had so much success with developmental programs in NYC: the Van Lier at New Dramatists, the Public’s Emerging Writer’s Group, and the WP Playwright Lab, to name a few. How were these programs helpful to you as an artist? Do you have any advice to other playwrights who would like to apply?
MHM: 
I’ve been very fortunate to have been admitted to these wonderful programs — I absolutely think they’ve helped me grow as an artist. Each group is unique, but they have all provided me with a sense of community that I think is so vital to what we do.

Artists need other artists to survive. Community provides opportunities and a wealth of resources you may not have previously had access to.

I got in to all of the fellowships I’ve been accepted to after several rounds of denials. When you’re starting out, it can feel like you have to apply for everything all the time. You don’t have to put that momentous pressure on yourself, That is absurd.

I constantly have to remind myself that it’s better to submit a quality application than a rushed one, and that it’s okay to wait to apply if I don’t have a play or personal statement (hate those) that is quite ready for what is being asked for in the application guidelines. Keep working, keep marinating, and set a goal to apply the following round. If you’re passionate about a program and you get denied, keep reapplying for as long as you deem it useful to you. In the meantime, find opportunities to create work and build community close to home. Start your own writer’s group, participate in one-off play festivals, etc. Stay tenacious — you got this.

CLS: Congratulations on Veil’d, your world premier production at Astoria Performing Arts Center in New York. Why is this work important now?
MHM: 
Thank you! I thought the production was very exciting. Veil’d was the first full-length play I ever wrote, so it’s poetic that it was also my first world-premiere.

The play is a modern-day twist on the Rapunzel fairy tale. It focuses on an Afghani couple that immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan at the height of Taliban rule to create a new life for themselves. After difficulty conceiving, they gave birth to a daughter, Dima, with a rare allergic reaction to the sun. As a result of her illness, the young girl becomes more sheltered and finds safety and comfort in wearing her mother’s old burqa. Though her parents worry about her future and are dismayed at her choice to wear the burqa, as it symbolizes the life they escaped, we as the audience get to watch how Dima grows into young adulthood with the help of some secret friends.

As much as this play is about first love, friendship, and self-actualization, it also examines what it means to be an American in today’s climate. Trump’s Muslim Ban is just one of numerous examples of the caustic effects of xenophobia that impacts the lives of many wonderful people in our communities. That is not the America I want to live in. So, as a playwright, I pick up my pen to engender understanding, hope, and empathy through truth in my storytelling. During our rehearsal process, we emphasized the importance of upholding the narrative of a Middle Eastern family that was not rooted in fear, judgment, or alienation. The Mansour family is just like any other you might encounter, grappling with questions of parenting and identity as they work to create the stability and happiness we as Americans promote and strive for. If the American dream is meant to belong to all, then it is our responsibility to set places at the table for everyone.

CLS: Can you talk about one defining moment that influenced you as an artist?
MHM: I saw Soho Rep’s production of Blasted by Sarah Kane in college. Sarah Benson exquisitely directed the production. I rushed an evening performance without having any knowledge of the play beforehand, except that it came highly recommended by my playwriting teacher. I was seated in the front row, which was a really intense seat location for Blasted. There is a moment in the play where the setting of the first scene, a nice hotel room, collapses. When it happened, a piece of prop ice from a champagne bucket hit my foot. After that, I knew this play wouldn’t be like anything I had ever experienced before. After the show was over, I was shaking, inspired, and in tears; I couldn’t physically move from my chair. That play, that production, changed my entire perspective of what theatricality is and can be. It blew my mind.

CLS: Anything else you might want to add?
MHM:
 I’m a Dodgers fan so I gotta shout out my boys for all the hard work they put in this past season. #GoBlue

 

Read an excerpt of Veil’d here: Veil'd

An Interview with Mary Gaitskill

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Mary Gaitskill is the writer of three story collections, three novels and, most recently, a book of essays called Somebody with a Little Hammer. She was my teacher last summer at the New York State Writers’ Institute, where my classmates and I hiked, ate several kinds of fruit pie right out of the tin, and, most importantly, workshopped each other’s manuscripts. In class, Gaitskill shared her favorite stories by Dickens and Nabokov and listened closely as we discussed each other’s work, occasionally disagreeing, or pointing us in a different direction. We spoke again over Skype last fall, while she was teaching in Pittsburgh and I was back at Brooklyn College.

Monika Zaleska: I’m interested in how you write these minute changes in behavior between people, especially in romantic or sexual relationships. For example, in “The Blanket,” Valerie and a younger man, Michael, are innocently playing out their fantasies with each other, but then there’s this shift. After she tells him she was raped, he stops the car on a dark street, thinking that they’re still joking around or that it’s still part of the fantasy. To her, it’s not. I wonder how you approach writing these shifts in relationship dynamics.

Mary Gaitskill: The relationship in “The Blanket” is a particularly dramatic situation because they’re in a realm that can be treated playfully, or can suddenly become serious, so the small changes matter in a way that they might not, say, in a student-teacher relationship. A student may disagree with something I say, but we’re not in a dark car together talking about rape. What I’m more interested in is the relationship between fear and excitement, how something scary in one context can be exciting or playful or funny in another. In his mind, he’s still in a place where they’re fooling around. To me it’s interesting how dark and light can be interchangeable sometimes. Feelings blend into each other in unpredictable ways, especially feelings like aggression and excitement and love and hostility. It’s very mysterious, and can be scary.

MZ: You delve so deeply into the emotional lives of your characters. How do you balance developing that emotional landscape with the larger action of a story or novel? Which comes first for you when writing?

MG: I don’t know. I do spend a lot of time on characters’ internal thoughts. I feel like that’s where my strength is, and it’s hard for me to translate it outward into action. That’s a challenge for me as a writer.

MZ: You also seem interested in characters that have trouble communicating, or that have frustrated or conflicting emotions that are hard to pin down.

MG: The people in my stories, in Veronica or in The Mare, don’t have a strong social grounding. Like in Veronica, for Alison to be friends with another model, that would make sense in the world. But for her to be friends with this older, socially unattractive woman, Veronica, doesn’t make social sense. I think she feels a deep affinity for Veronica because they’ve both been wounded, and they have both occupied worlds where their external appearance is very important. For Alison it’s the fashion world, and for Veronica it’s styling herself in these weird sweaters she wears and her intense make-up and hair. It’s an affinity that isn’t obvious, but it’s there.

In The Mare, people are always telling Ginger that she has nothing in common with Velvet or her mother. Here’s a middle class white woman who has a relationship with an impoverished Dominican girl and she keeps being told you can’t understand her, your life is too different. In a way it is, but in another way, it’s not. Ginger feels out of touch with the world around her. She can’t understand the people around her or be understood by them. She’s looked down upon by them, and that’s similar to the experience that Velvet’s mother is having in her neighborhood. She literally can’t understand. She can’t speak English. It’s a more serious situation because she feels physically threatened, perhaps even more than she really is. Velvet is also having a lot of trouble socially connecting with the people around her. All of them are people that don’t really fit in. They have a deeper connection, but the social, external connection doesn’t make sense to people. I write about that a lot, people who have instincts to connect that aren’t supported by the outside world, and that’s hard. Harder than people realize sometimes.

MZ: In a novel like The Mare, why do you think it’s crucial for the story to be told from many different perspectives? There’s the voices of Ginger and her husband Paul, who take Velvet in from the Fresh Air Fund for inner-city kids, and take her horseback riding for the first time. Just Velvet spends summers with them upstate, yet you also include her mother Silvia’s voice and her little brother Dante’s.

MG: Well, partially because I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole story in the voice of a Dominican girl. I know enough that I could tell part of it, but I didn’t feel like I could tell the whole thing from her point of view. Just of the sake of reality, I felt I had to tell half of it from the middle-aged white person’s point of view. But also, part of the story is about how the different people see each other, and try to understand each other, and do so very imperfectly.

MZ: Did you always know you were going to include the younger brother Dante’s voice in the book, or did you think writing in the voice of an eleven year old girl was challenging enough?

MG: I didn’t initially think of doing anyone but Ginger and Velvet, and then Paul crept in in a natural way, and I thought he was a good counterpoint to Ginger. He could say the things that Ginger wouldn’t say to herself or think about. Much more reluctantly did I include Velvet’s mother and I was really uncertain about that. I didn’t think I could do her. Yet I felt that you were hearing so much about her that if I were the reader I would want to know what she thought. And then Dante came in from the side. I don’t remember how I made that decision but I’m glad I did. He’s one of my favorite voices.

MZ: I think it’s really interesting to see how a child sees the developing drama of the novel in both a simpler and more complicated way.

MG: Yeah, he’s definitely a wise-ass and I like that about him.

MZ: So why the reservations about writing Velvet’s mother?

MG: Because she’s so different from me. She’s close to my ageshe’s younger than me, but she’s not significantly younger and her life is totally different than mine. Velvet’s life is different too, but at least Velvet grew up in this country. She’s Dominican-American, but also she’s American, basically. She listens to pop music and watches the same TV shows I do. She comes from a different cultural place than me, but it’s not radically different. She’s impoverished, but she reads and writes, whereas her mother is someone who has grown up in a different country. She’s in a poor neighborhood and she’s responsible for the care of two young children. I can only imagine the sense of stress and fear you would feel not only for yourself but your kids. You are in a dangerous neighborhood, and because you can’t understand what people are saying, you don’t know the rules of that neighborhood. She doesn’t like black people and so she is possibly more afraid than she has to be. That’s a level of stress that’s hard for me to understand.

MZ: Do you worry about being criticized for trying to portray someone so different from yourself?

MG: Somewhat. I’m afraid it could be seen as insulting, or just simply unaware. I was concerned with it.

MZ: I wonder how you negotiate those feelings as a writer. I often have them myself and wonder what my own limits of understanding are when it comes writing other people’s experiences.

MG: I ultimately decided that if I do a poor job, people can say so. It will be clear. I’m not going to do any terrible harm to anyone, though there might be people who disagree. But it could be seen as just stupid. If it is, I don’t think it’s going to harm anyone except me and my credibility.

MZ: At the New York State Writers’ Institute, you read from your story, “The Agonized Face,” about a woman at a literary conference attending the talk of a feminist author. The feminist author criticizes her bio in the conference program, which focuses on the more salacious aspects of her life, such as her brief time working as a prostitute. Our narrator is confused by this feminist author, by how she is both vulnerable and outspoken, both victim and champion of womankind. I’ll admit that I also wasn’t sure what to take away from the story.

MG: People still have so much trouble with women’s vulnerability and strength. Really the trouble the narrator is having with the feminist writer is that she’s someone who appears to be a know-it-all, but is also very vulnerable. Look what happened to Marilyn Monroe. People adored her, but she died early. She was treated badly and not respected in her time. The feminist writer is no Marilyn Monroe, but she’s a woman who is presenting as vulnerable while trying to be very much in control. And if there’s something that story is about, it’s about even other women’s difficulty in coping with that. The sexuality of women still throws people because it’s so fluid and open.

There’s a story by David Bezmozgis that I teach often called “Natasha.” It’s a really good story, but it always gets my students riled up, the undergrads especially. Some of them hate her and think she’s a psychopath or monster. Other people think she’s really an unfortunate girl, and that the he’s really horrible and takes advantage of her. I don’t think either one is true, though I’m more on the side of her being a very unfortunate girl. I don’t think the narrator is taking advantage of her, though I think he doesn’t know how else to be. Natasha seems to be in control. That’s how she presents. In some ways she is, and in other ways, she’s not.

MZ: That story sparked a heated debate in our craft class at Brooklyn College as well.

MG: It always does. It’s partly because people are still mystified or don’t know how to respond to a woman who is both very powerful, which Natasha is, even at the age of fourteen, and very, very vulnerable and clearly has been badly hurt.

MZ: In our class this summer, we started talking about a philosophy of writing. I remember you came in with some notes, but then you became hesitant to present anything to us as a philosophy of sorts, and we ended up talking about how style shapes writing. Do you think having a philosophy of writing is helpful?

MG: As a writer, I don’t think you have to have an articulated philosophy, though I think most writers do, whether they know it or not. I think I was hesitating because I’m not sure how current my philosophy is or if my students need to hear what I have to say. I don’t know that it’s going to help them get published or move forward in their writing. Nonetheless, I have these opinions and feelings that are important to me. But if I wasn’t a teacher I would have never tried to find a way to express them verbally.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Monika Zaleska is the Fiction Editor of The Brooklyn Review. Her work has appeared in Lenny Letter, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Rookie Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel. 

 

An Interview with Wells Tower

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From the archives: Evelyn Spence talks with Wells Tower.

Does fiction begin with the story or the sentence? Pick up any Wells Tower story, and the first thing that jumps off the page is the language: It’s in turns dazzling, tight, comic, and dark. In “The Brown Coast,” a house is “broken out in pediments and lathework grenades and ornamental buboes.” The sun looks “slick and orange, like a canned peach.” An extramarital affair has “no joy in it, just a two-week spate of drab skirmishes in a basement apartment that smelled heavily of cat musk.” In “On the Show,” a man says, “I’d eat her whole damn child just to taste the thing he squeezed out of.” It’s dialogue that makes one laugh—bitterly. In Tower’s acclaimed debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, the Brooklyn writer seems, as one reviewer said, simply incapable of writing a boring description.

But language has to serve a story and its characters. And in Tower’s fiction, language serves a assembly of down-and-out men and women who face their uncomfortable problems—and inhabit their often-glum worlds—with striving and hopeless self-knowledge. The narrative arcs are traditional, yet the situations are anything but: a group of Vikings pillage a tiny island with brilliant grotesqueness, but come off as a bunch of ordinary guys. A cocky older brother eats turned moose meat to prove a point to his younger adult sibling. A retired optometrist bites his stepson on the leg. A short-tempered man drives his ex-wife’s boyfriend home from an ashram after he busts his ankle. Tower, 37, gets under the skin of insecure teenage girls and tottering old men, of the guilty and the clueless, the resentful and the deformed, in equal measure.

Tower’s voice has found a place in the sometimes-diametric worlds of both fiction and nonfiction: Harper’s, The Paris Review, GQ, The New Yorker, Outside, Washington Post, McSweeney’s and The Believer. And his real-life reporting experiences—as an operator of a pirate-ship ride with a traveling carnival, for instance—occasionally seep into his stories, often years later. All writers pull from some corner of their autobiography; Tower manages to blend meticulous observation and free-wheeling imagination into taut and small epics. Recently named a Cullman Center Fellow at the New York Public Library, he’s set to expand his reach into a first novel.The Brooklyn Review spoke with Wells Tower, who lives in Brooklyn and North Carolina, by phone.

What was your early life like and what made you want to write?
I had a true appetite for language and story from a pretty early age, and I always really liked words. My parents were big readers—my mother was a classicist and fed me a steady diet of Greek mythology. The first things I remember writing were a couple plays in first or second grade. I studied anthropology and sociology at Wesleyan University, and soon after graduating, I started figuring out ways to get a paycheck writing. I thought I big victory would be something like writing a bulletin for a paper towel corporation. A dream. I ended up getting a job at the University of North Carolina Urban Planning Department—and convinced my boss to write a monthly newsletter. I just wanted to do something that let me write sentences.

What about where you grew up? Did it influence your language?
It’s probable. I suppose I could give a canned answer and say that I grew up in the South, around lots of phenomenally good banjo-playing storytellers, but that’s not really true. My parents weren’t Southern. I grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which is a geographically diverse place. There may be a particular kind of story that people in the South tell—certain reportorial habits that Southerners have that they are particularly proud of. I kept my ear out for particularly striking, charming, funny expressions from a very young age. I remember listening very carefully to the way that people talk. And I’ve remained a big collector of conversations.

What was the first thing you ever published?
I wrote a column about comics in the high school newspaper. Did stuff for a lefty weekly in college. A ’zine with my bandmate Al that was somewhat literary—we’d review surgeries and car accidents, not records. My first big story was for the Washington Post—I pitched a story about being on a traveling carnival, and even though I didn’t have reporting experience, they took a chance on me. And some of those notes ended up, much later, in “On the Show.” But the first real fiction I published was in The Paris Review—while I was a student at Columbia. They found me in the slush pile.

What are your writing habits like?
I really try to be at my desk by about nine in the morning, and I work until three or four o’clock. Much more than that and it becomes counterproductive. I’ve come up with all sorts of Internet repression methods in my life: I don’t have high-speed wireless. I use an old word processor, I write longhand, I have a typewriter. To me, the Web is truly lethal to fiction. Plus, I don’t really believe in the whole self-promotion thing. For one thing, I’m kind of allergic to it. Particularly with fiction. It’s simply in opposition to the work. And I’m not going to bully people into reading it. Or even make the case that they should read it. It’s just stuff that I wrote, which I can leave up to everybody else to be interested in. The work itself should be more of an organic process. And I’m not going to try hard to sell people.

There seems to be a disconnect between the process of writing fiction and then the process of promoting it.
That’s very true. And even the book tour part of it, the literary festivals, any of the public part of putting out a book—

Even this.
Even this! The thing that’s very strange about it is you suddenly go from being a solitary person who makes work to being a spokesperson for a product. I spent about a year just doing the public routine for Everything Ravaged, and that was strange. I found it, psychologically, pretty difficult. I was in the groove of trying to write, and being taken away from that—going from writing to telling people what a writer-person does—was odd. It really becomes this other thing. It stopped being the stories I put obsessive effort into—and became a congealed item that was subject to public perception.

What happens when you write a story?
I view Everything Ravaged as a solid apprenticeship in short fiction. I was trying a bunch of different ways to skin the cat with that book. The short story is a great laboratory for trying different narrative approaches. It wasn’t as if I was setting out to write in a certain mode. Usually I was looking back and fretting over the deficiencies in the stories I’d already written. Trying at least to write new ones, that didn’t suck, in different ways. So that at least if the story sucked, it would suck differently. [Laughs.] There are some stories that were trying to be very tidy—like “The Brown Coast,” which was the first story that I ever wrote. In the first draft, the sentence craft wasn’t particularly elegant—I was trying for a self-consciously Southern vernacular. Others, like “On the Show,” was me trying to succeed with very careful, even twee, language. There are others that are sort of memoir tricks—like, okay, I’m just going to write a really emotionally naked story with no elaborate language and no jokes. Take “Leopard.” But I can’t talk about what happens when I write a story without taking about how much they were all revised.

So…
To me, you don’t know if you have a story until you’ve written it. And it takes me months. And then, when I have the first possibly publishable draft, it still is a process of trying to trick myself into believing in my characters and places. And then the main purpose is going back, after the story is out there, and thinking about what is really going on here. What is the emotional core that the story is dancing around? What’s a way to get at that core in a more meaningful way?

Do you tend to write a lot, and then throw a lot away?
I think I’m uptight enough about language that I don’t write really careless drafts with terribly painful prose. That’s because usually, when I’m writing, it’s not the characters I believe in first. It’s the language. The technique winds up being the strength that keeps the whole thing going. I start with terrifically indulgent sentences, and then the characters start to emerge. When I write the first draft, it’s hard to know what to get excited about, because it’s hard to get excited about a void. It’s a matter of bringing something out of a muffled little object, something that’s bigger than I imagined. Also, it’s a matter, in the later drafts, of being suspicious of that impulse to keep in the indulgent language—you can’t just write a story where you’re playing with words. You need ideas. The language has to be in service to some bigger problem. Otherwise, it’s masturbatory.

Where do your stories come from?
“The Brown Coast” came to me as a fully-formed anecdote from a friend of mine who is a bartender, and then I tricked it out. “On the Show” was taken from my experience as a carnie. Some of my stories began in things that I did when I was younger—you know the young girl, Marie, in “Down the Valley,” who put her mouth over the gearshift? I used to do that. It’s so weird. And I was thinking, I wonder what would be the most awkward situation in which a father could see his child sucking a gearshift. Probably it would be in the company of his ex-wife’s holier-than-thou boyfriend. And in the title story, there is the whole “blood eagle” description, which a friend of mine told me about. [“Then he knelt and put his hands into the cuts. He fumbled around in there for a second, then drew Naddod’s lungs out through the slits. As Naddod huffed and gasped, the lungs flapped, looking sort of like a pair of wings.”] We thought it was such an overly fastidious thing for the average, blue-collar Viking guy to get into. What if you were a Viking thinking about doing a blood eagle—and instead said, “Screw it, let’s just get a beer.”

What characters are you attracted to? Are they doing what matters?
I like morally ambiguous characters who have certain low impulses that get in the way of their loftier ones. I’m interested in people who are in trouble, and something has to happen, dramatically. I was just reading some Lydia Davis stories, and they are amazingly gripping. I could never write narratives that manufacture an emotional crisis in such a tiny space. Stories about a woman who could leave a glass of water on the bedside table where it might leave a mark, or she leave it on a book, and it’s a crisis. A tiny, tiny little crisis that contains so much. I can’t write like that. I’m more traditional. I write about what happens. But I love writers like Lydia Davis or Nicholson Baker.

Like Baker’s The Mezzanine.
Right: A guy takes an escalator to go get some milk and then goes back to his desk and that’s the novel. It’s brilliant. I just don’t think I could do it. I feel like I need to tell stories with a more traditional arc. I may want to abstract the form down the line, but I’m also pretty new to stories. I’m trying to get my head around the realist short story and its dramatic objectives. I feel like I need to know more about the form before I can abstract from it.

There is something about your language that is so careful and joyous and witty.
I think that I want my sentences to do all those things. I want my work to be funny—and have a light touch. But I don’t want to write merely comic stories. I want to reach into a bigger space. I want the language to be careful, but I also want it to have exuberance and humanity. I’m obsessed with sentences. And if you’re not obsessed with sentences, you shouldn’t be a writer. It’s amazing to me to see how many of the books on The New York Times bestseller list are written by people who have no interest in sentence craft. And it’s amazing that so many people want to read them. Whenever I open up a book and see sentences, it’s like I’m picking up sheets and feeling for the thread count in between my fingers. If there are thin sentences, then I’m not interested in reading.

Do you know when a story is done?
I would revise for years if I could. I really need editors to take the stories away from me. I hope that I can become a little bit more level-headed about it. I get sort of crazy. I reach down to the micro-micro level, go over and over every word. Even when I get the architecture into place, I still do a bunch of passes. It takes me a while to get there.

And now you’re writing a novel? How has that been a different process for you?
I am. I’m working my way through the first draft, and for now I’m just trying to be nice to myself. Short stories are such an airless medium—you’re constantly aware that readers will be looking, at any moment, to abandon ship. You really have to set sail immediately and then you have to make stuff happen. I think the short story is an incredibly demanding form. So far, writing a novel, I’ve been able to ease myself into it—letting it sprawl more and letting the characters breathe. I can be a little bit less uptight with the language, at least initially.

You’ve also written a lot of nonfiction. Does it feel different to you than fiction?
In the language department, in terms of fiction, there has to be something interesting going on in every sentence—whether it’s rhythm or word choice. Every sentence needs to be able to stand alone. In nonfiction, sometimes you just need to convey information. A lot of magazines don’t let you get away with a lot of show-offy sentence work—there are a few that do, like Harper’s. Maybe there are certain structural things in my fiction that may stem from nonfiction features: the anecdotal lead, the expositional second section. You can see that in a few of my short stories.

In your headspace, is it difficult to switch between the two?
It’s very hard. It really screwed me up the first few years. When I got out of grad school, I was doing a lot of magazine work to pay the bills, and I tried to do this thing where I used the long-form nonfiction creative process for fiction. With a nonfiction story, you go out and you report for a few weeks, and then soon you have huge mountains of notes, and then you sift through it and try to pull out a few nuggets and a few decent scenes, and then you come up with a contextual argument to make those scenes relevant. And then boom, you’re done. I once tried to do the same process with the draft of a short story—“taking notes” on all the possibilities and then trying to distill it into something coherent, and that was just wrong. It didn’t work. With short fiction, you have to do all you can to constrain the writing so it doesn’t herniate. And fiction needs a real emotional coherence. It’s impossible to write big gaseous reams of dialogue and expect to them to dovetail.

And are you getting better at switching back and forth between the forms?
It’s still hard. Physically, I have a fiction desk and a nonfiction desk. Remember, with nonfiction, it’s always so exciting before you go out and do it. Someone calls up and says, “We’ll send you to this offbeat event or this exotic country, can you do that?” You think, “Sure, I can bash that out in a couple weeks.” With fiction, you can’t work on something for a week, and then go away for a month, and then come back and expect to have any depth. There’s a certain immersion fiction requires that nonfiction doesn’t. You have to live it and breathe it. You have to make it your life. It’s a very delicate process: to get into the position that we can make our characters real to us. It’s a particular self-seduction. And a lot of time being alone. It’s amazing to me the people who have full-time commuting jobs, and they squeeze in writing when they can. Me, I need a good six hours to get two or three hours of work done.

Which is more true, fiction or nonfiction?
Fiction is probably truer. Fiction is much messier. I don’t psychologize my nonfiction subjects the same way that I do my characters.

Do you feel like your reporting experience influence the way you see the world and observe it?
I think the way I see the world is just the way I see the world. Reporting didn’t train me to see in a different way. Most of us are moved to write because we look at things that are going on around us and we find them interesting. And then we have the language available to express those moments. That impulse, for me, was there from the get-go. The nice thing that happened when I was out reporting—especially the stories that I tended to do—was that I often had no angle. I used to write three cover stories for the Washington Post Sunday magazine and the assignments would be like this: “We’re going to do a cover story on horse gambling. So why don’t you go hang out at a track for a month and see what happens?” Which is great but also terrifying, because you have to come up with story out of nothing at all. So I’d have no clue what I was aiming for. As much as I could, I would write frantic notes and put everything in there—every little detail, every moment. Even if nothing was going on, it was, okay, let me describe that terrible linoleum. I would constantly keep the pen moving. There’s no quest that puts the details in service of a story. Everything is potentially important. It’s almost the opposite of the deliberateness of fiction.

How do you hope your stories will impact people?
I don’t know how I want them to be read, other than people reading them and saying, “Oh, that didn’t suck.” [Laughs.] I write for people who love language, and people who like story, and people who aren’t averse to darkness—and the idea that in the midst of a lot of hard-heartedness, there can be a moment of decency that won’t trip their sentimentality alarm. People ask what I’m trying to say about the natural world, because there are a lot of animals and trees in my stories, and I’m sure there is a smart answer for that. A lot of European interviewers want to ask me what I’m trying to say about America. Whether I’m in dialogue with a French writer I’ve never heard of. It’s not a puzzle in a box. And I’m just writing a goddamn story. ✧