An Interview with Edith Pearlman
Why do you prefer to write short stories?
I have a temperament that shies away from big-scale projects. It prefers instead the small tale, worked over and over again, sometimes under a magnifying glass. I welcome the challenge of compressing a character, a setting, a problem, maybe even its solution, into as few words as possible. It takes a lengthy and sustained effort to be brief; I enjoy that paradox.
How many stories do you write per year? What is your creative
About six stories a year, interspersed with perhaps four pieces of non-fiction. Each short story takes several weeks (five days a week, about four hours a day) to write, in many, many drafts, all on the typewriter. The draft then marinates in a drawer while I work on the next story or piece. The marinated story finally gets withdrawn, re-revised, typed at last into a word processor, and presented to my dear friend, colleague and ruthless reader Rose Moss, who usually sends it back to the typewriter for another few weeks of revision. So each story takes about a month and a half in total time, two or three in elapsed time. During its sojourn in the drawer odd, abrupt mental work goes on in my mind, thoughts like ‘Bring back the parrots!’ or ‘She calls him Giorgio, stupid’; thoughts which I write down wherever I am and whatever I am otherwise doing, sometimes disconcerting a dinner companion.
How do your stories originate?
I revise so many times that it doesn’t much signify how a storyoriginates. The final draft will be so different from the scrawled note that was its original idea. It’s safe to say, though, that each story begins with a character and a situation—a dilemma, a conflict, a wish—and a wisp of a hint about the solution or resolution or gratification or disappointment that results. My first draft is scaffolding. By the tenth draft the scaffolding has been incorporated into the structure of the story.
Where do you draw inspiration for your characters and
From memory, experience, observation, dream, invention, and pretense.
How do you take on so many diverse voices? Does this require
I do a lot of silent looking: on long walks through city streets here and abroad; in parks and restaurants and hospitals; in homeless shelters and public baths. I talk (but mostly listen) to everybody: intimates, relatives, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. I read; I daydream. It’s all a kind of research.
What non-literary sources inspire your work?
People, bugs, history, places; the workings of chance; memory
There are places within your writing where you manage to
condense an incredible amount of back story into just a few,
poignant lines. Could you talk about this?
To me, a short story is a Conversation between writer and reader. Since only the writer can speak, she must take care to respect the reader, to avoid telling him what to think, to say as little as possible and imply the rest with metaphor, ellipses, allusive dialogue, pauses. The reader then takes an active part in the conversation, supplying what the writer has only suggested. In general, overwrought prose comes between the writer and the reader, pushes the reader aside, destroys the conversation’s balance.
Who is your ideal audience?
All my work is directed toward an imaginary ideal reader, literate but not scholarly, wishing to be entertained, unresentful if he is at the same time enlightened. You list matchmaking among your hobbies. Part of the writing of a short story consists of deciding what person will fit with what other person—in love, in conflict, in friendship, and I like to do it in real life, too. It just seems to be a talent. I matched four couples when I was younger, and three of them are still together—not bad for an amateur!
Correct a misperception about you as a writer.
People seem to believe that I worked in obscurity for years. In fact I have always felt appreciated and never felt disregarded. This new attention has brought me new friends and new readers, adding to the friends and readers I already had.
Can you talk about some of the writers who have influenced you
throughout your writing career?
My favorite all time writer is Dickens, but talent can’t imitate genius . . . I’ve been influenced by all the short story writers I’ve read. Some have instructed me in how not to write; but most have taught me positive things. I’ve studied the construction of sentences from Sylvia Townsend Warner, the precision of detail from John Updike, daily tragedy from Chekhov, lush descriptions from A.S. Byatt. And a million more.
What is the role of the writer in the world today?
To clarify that bit of the world she writes about. To entertain.
What is your best piece of advice to new and emerging fiction
Read. Read everything. Read all the time. Revise. Revise each story from beginning to end at least three times. When I say revise I mean rewrite completely. Do not use the computer until the last few drafts.
What does the word “story” mean to you?
It means love affair. You the reader and I the author are collaborating in unveiling someone’s obsessive desire; in opening someone’s grieving heart; in discovering, or at least searching for, a new and abiding truth. By the end of this adventure we are a little bit in love.
Compiled from the following sources: Daniel M. Jaffe, Biblio Buffet; Karen Rigby, Cerise Press; Ether Books; Grub Daily; Enid Parker, Khaleej Times; Bret Anthony Johnston, National Book Foundation; Newtonville Books Community Blog; Sarabande Books; The Short Review; Conor Broughan, Sycamore Review;