Ads via The Deck

Birnbaum v.

Julie Orringer

American literature may over-adore the short story, but that doesn’t mean some great stories aren’t being written. A conversation with writer Julie Orringer about New Orleans, snarkism, and the relative ease of brain surgery.

Julie Orringer, with her nine excellent stories in How to Breathe Underwater, can be added to the list of young writers who are sustaining the viability of short form fiction. The conversation below will tell you something about her thoughts on writing and her stories and some things about her life that may illuminate her less obvious thoughts and ideas. What you won’t learn is that Orringer went to Cornell as an undergraduate and then to the Writers Workshop in Iowa City followed by a Stegner Fellowship in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford. Her stories have been published in the Barcelona Review, Ploughshares, and Zoetrope.

Orringer lives in San Francisco with her husband writer Ryan Harty and she is, of course, working on her first novel.

 

* * *


RB: If someone were an orthodox and literal person they might look at your book and say, ‘Where is that story ‘How to Breathe Under Water’?’ Usually the title of the collection is also a story in the book. Why does the title represent these stories?

JO: The title came to me rather late in the process. I didn’t know when I was putting the stories together that this was going to be the thematic umbrella. And I was working on that story [‘Isabel Fish’] and I came to that moment when the narrator is trying to imagine what’s ahead as she begins scuba lessons. She is coming off a rather awful incident with a car accident and a drowning and it seemed to me this phrase, this idea of trying to breathe under water was something that maybe had some larger resonance for the other stories as well. They tend to be about young women who are in between childhood and adulthood. They are about people who are at a moment of an incredibly difficult transition in their lives. It’s not just a coming-of-age transition—in fact, I am resistant to that idea of coming of age. It suggests two different states—one that you pass out of and one that you strictly enter. I feel like the title has something to do with how hard it is to redefine yourself after a loss or trauma or as you are entering this new period of your life. And yet we somehow do it anyway.

RB: Was that an unconscious theme? Or just what you cared about when you were writing these stories?

JO: I think so. It’s something I didn’t really know that I cared about when I was younger, as I was growing up, until I had the distance from those experiences that was necessary to actually be able to write about them.

RB: How was your childhood?

JO: [laughs] How is anybody’s childhood?

RB: [both laugh] That’s a fair response but I’m the one asking the questions here.

JO: [laughs] That’s fair, too. My childhood was great in most respects and awful in certain respects. I was very lucky. I was lucky to be born in this country, at the time that I was born, into the family that I was born into, with loving parents and a brother and sister that I was close to. But my family moved a lot because my parents were [both] physicians and they were early on in their training when I was born. In fact, they were in their third year of medical school when I was born. And that made it hard for me in certain ways—as an elementary school kid because I was the new kid and it took me a long time to dig in. That was hard enough to begin with and I was this awkward, gangly, bookish kid who would rather sit in the library and read chapters in books than trade stickers on the playground. I think things were made a lot more difficult by the fact that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 10. And so from very early on I had to begin contemplating the idea that I would lose her and experiencing the uncertainty that that threw into our lives…she was sick for 10 years before she died.

RB: [pause] I suppose it’s natural to look for biographical clues in stories. Other than a couple of stories that take place in the sSuth I don’t see any clues of a connection to the South for you. How is it that one of your stories ended up in New Stories from the South?

JO: I actually did spend seven years living in the South when I was growing up. I lived in New Orleans, between the ages of five and 12. It was a time when I was developing a sense of what I liked to read. When I was in elementary school—because I went to a really wonderful school, I spent a lot of time learning about the architecture of New Orleans and its history and I felt pretty at home in that place despite the problems I was having in school.



Photo of Julie Orringer, by Robert Birnbaum
Julie Orringer, photos by Robert Birnbaum


RB: Isn’t New Orleans atypical of the rest of the South, a thing unto itself?

JO: Yes, it’s probably atypical of the rest of anything in the world. New Orleans people are atypical of the South and we were atypical of most residents because we were a young Jewish family. We didn’t have any old ties there. We came there because of my father’s work. That was part of the strangeness of it for me. What did it mean to be a Jewish kid growing up in this place in which the biggest festival of the year was Mardi Gras—an essentially Christian festival? So I think that was an element that contributed to my sense of being somewhat on the outside of things.

RB: Why did Shannon Ravenel consider you a Southern writer?

JO: [laughs] Because that particular story took place in New Orleans and she knew that I had lived there as a child.

RB: That was very ecumenical of her. I look at your pedigree on the dust jacket of your book and the pedigree is not at all unusual: Iowa, Stanford. If I said to you as a publisher, ‘I think you are a really incredible talent Julie, I would publish anything that you want. But I would really like not to identify you. I would just like to present your work and other people that I publish in plain undecorated boards, numbered titles, and designate some anonymous names for the authors,’ how would you feel about that?

JO: How would I feel about losing the –

RB: The personal identification with your work –

JO: I think that would be fine.

RB: And thereby lose an opportunity to be celebrated and acknowledged?

JO: The work would be presented without any connection to me, the writer, at all?

RB: Right.

JO: I’d think that would be fine. I didn’t write the stories in order to be celebrated or even to be a writer, as it were. I wrote the stories because I wanted—I had these things that I wanted to say. That I wanted to get out there for other people to understand and maybe feel some connection with. So everything else that goes along with it in terms of receiving recognition is really not even secondary—it’s tertiary or something further on down the line. It’s a very distant corollary to what’s really important, which is that these stories are now making themselves out into the world and maybe there is a chance that someone will meet them with understanding and with common feeling.

RB: And then what happens, what are your expectations?

JO: After that I would like to crawl back into my hole and write my novel. [laughs]


One of the things that I resist in fiction is the idea that a terrible experience will lead to some kind of epiphany or positive change in a character.


RB: What happens to the reader after they have made a connection with your stories? What should they be getting that would be satisfying to you—a better understanding of the world and perhaps making the world better?

JO: It’s really hard to boil it down to one thing that I would like for them to be getting out of it. One thing that I would want [is for] them to look at these characters. This is what experience can be like for women between the ages of nine and 27. Or this is how difficult it is for other people and I don’t have to feel I am alone in experiencing this profound difficulty. Or maybe something like, ‘Everything doesn’t have to come up roses or seem as if it is making me heroic when it is really awful.’ One of the things that I resist in fiction is the idea that a terrible experience will lead to some kind of epiphany or positive change in a character.

RB: There is the notion that there is some nobility in suffering…

JO: Yes, when some of these stories are about the most difficult things that could happen to you—being a young kid and losing your mother, for example. I don’t feel ultimately strengthened by that experience. I feel like I have experienced this incredible loss. I don’ t want anyone to have to go through that. It doesn’t mean that it won’t make you think in more interesting or complicated ways about life and death but people go through hideous things in the world and to suggest that those things somehow make you a better person—

RB: Or that they recover—

JO: Or that they recover or that they somehow are necessary, that would be a mistake.

RB: Tell me what it feels like to write and what it feels like when it is going well and when it is not. Your description in ‘Isabel Fish’ of the young girl as she recalls the actual car crash, sinking in the pond, was incredibly vivid. Or the druggie aunt in ‘Care’ who is taking care of her six-year-old niece and her own struggle with the decision to take the drugs she has in her pocket. And the sixth-grader who is being taunted and teased relentlessly—these were very clearly powerfully expressed. So can we focus your descriptive skills on what it is, when you are writing, that you are feeling?

JO: In the stories that you mentioned those were moments when I had really gotten inside this character’s head and I was really feeling what it meant to be her. And those are moments that come quite a ways into the story and they had taken a good deal of warming up and a good many drafts in order to get to that point where I could write inside the person that way.

RB: Is it like taking drugs, that the first high leaves you forever trying to recreate that first feeling or buzz? Sometimes you do and sometimes…

JO: Yeah. There are certainly times when there is no buzz at all, where there is nothing at all. I just feel like I am clacking out the words on a keyboard and they are just dead on the page. There are other times when I feel I have entered this fugue state where everything seems to drop away and I am almost channeling the story through the character. I don’t want to sound New Agey or mystical about that but it does feel like it is something that is not entirely under my control and that is an exhilarating feeling. It is exciting.

RB: Exciting? As being on a merry-go-round? Or a roller coaster? Or exciting as a watching something totally new?

JO: In the sense of something totally new. If I am creating those characters and the characters have begun to attain some kind of reality—then it becomes all the more unpredictable. I have no idea what’s going to happen next. Unlike a roller coaster, which picks you up and drops you down and rattles you around a little bit, this character could do an infinite number of things. I have no way of knowing what those things may be. If I understand the character then I know that at least those things are within a scope of which this person is. Or what I am trying to drive towards or work towards in subsequent drafts.


Some writers are being castigated for taking big chances in their work. That’s highly objectionable. Writers should be encouraged to take chances.


RB: Is writing stories a warm up for writing the grander thing, the novel?

JO: When I started out writing short stories I imagined that this was a kind of practice for a novel that was going to come later. As I got farther along in my studies and in the development of my writing I became so excited about the short story as a form I ceased thinking of it as anything I wanted to do as preparation. So many of the short story writers that I profoundly admire like Alice Munro or Charles Baxter or Richard Ford—I could go on and on—I saw them making something of this form that felt entirely new to me. And that was extremely engaging in itself and something that I felt I wanted to devote a long time to. I thought I might never write a novel and I didn’t have a problem with that. I was happy to think that I would always work in the short story form. And the fact that I am working on a novel right now comes more out of the fact that there came along a story that I really wanted to tell that seems like it was to be too large for the scope of the short story. And so that was also a pleasure too. Now I am getting into this different form that provide its own challenges. I hope that I don’t have to write as many novels as I have written short stories before I come up with one that is not terrible.

RB: I am tempted to ask you to self-critique yourself—but I won’t. Charles Baxter said something quite acute about you in the dust jacket blurb, talking about ‘a headlong narrative energy.’ That’s exactly what I felt in your writing. But now I have forgotten what I wanted to ask.

JO: You were going to ask me to criticize myself.

RB: No, I don’t want to do that, unless you want to. Do you know the Randy Newman song, ‘God’s Song’?

JO: I don’t know it.

RB: God explains why he loves human beings even though they show foolish judgment in believing in him when he does all these bad things to man…I was listening to that song as I was driving into Boston today and I thought about how in three minutes and 12 seconds, Newman has encapsulated a big story so perfectly in a truly short form. I got to thinking about whether people thought about songs as stories and narratives. But I digress…who is reading short stories?

JO: More and more people are reading short stories.

RB: Are those people co-equivalent with those who are learning how to write them?

JO: In some cases yes. But people have always read short stories in magazines. In recent years there have been some short story collections that have emerged as real favorites among readers. Like Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and Adam Haslett’s Stranger Here

RB: Richard Ford’s Multitude of Sins, ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere

JO: Yeah. I was speaking to my dad about this recently. My father is a cardiologist and he doesn’t have a lot of time for reading. But he loves reading short stories because he can sit down and pick up the book and be in somebody’s world for 20 minutes or an hour and follow the course of a narrative to it’s completion. Or at least in the sense that short stories can be said to finish.

RB: Sure, that was the reason magazines published short fiction—it was quick and easy—readers could take fiction in small doses. Mark Winegardner takes the position that a writer’s most serious work is short form—if you really want to know a writer look at their short stories. He suggested that novels can be sloppy and allow for mistakes but writers aren’t allowed to make mistakes in short fiction.

JO: There is no room for them in the short story. And also the short story is a much more revisable form. It’s awfully hard and it takes a very long time to revise a novel. It takes a long time to revise short stories certainly but it’s easier to put a short story through nine or 10 drafts than to do the same thing with a novel. Maybe there is an expectation that the short story has been more carefully examined, more times, by the time it hits the page.


[Tobias Wolff] finished reading and a neurosurgeon approached him and said, ‘Boy I really loved the reading. I’ve been thinking that I’d love to do some writing.’ And Toby said, ‘That’s funny, I was thinking I’d like to do some brain surgery.’


RB: So as not to make the digression totally irrelevant, do you listen to music and perhaps with the thought of hearing stories?

JO: Sometimes I really love and retain songs that are very narrative and then other times the songs I love are for their sonic quality.

RB: ‘Louie Louie’?

JO: [laughs] The song that I was thinking about was that great Tom Waits song ‘Step Right Up’ where he is compiling a variety of ad slogans, jingles, and tag-lines into this hilarious song. Selling everything from gardening services to sexual favors to new shirts to what have you. I like it when musicians are taking chances and I am pretty catholic in my musical tastes. I love jazz—Charles Mingus…

RB: Did you ever hear Chuck D do a Mingus composition called ‘Gun Slinging Bird?’ It was on a Mingus compilation disc by Hal Wilner called Weird Nightmare. It’s a two-minute song about a fire in a nightclub and how he (Mingus) escapes by breaking out through a wall—like he had seen a man do who was being chased by a woman he had threatened with a knife. Talk about a compact story—you’ve never heard it?

JO: I’ll have to check it out. I love songs that will suggest stories. I find that Nina Simone’s songs are very suggestive and Cole Porter also tends to be suggestive in that way. And I tend to like fairly narrative poetry for obvious reasons. Though it’s out of fashion. I am not ashamed to like it.

RB: You’re not ashamed?

JO: No.

RB: You have cast yourself as an odd person. Not that you are stereotypical but there is a kind of person who when there was recess in elementary school is the person who was not playing kickball but is sitting off to the side on the playground, reading a book.

JO: I played kickball.

RB: [laughs]

JO: I would get my keister kicked instead of the ball. I did love to play outside and do all the normal things too. I was bi-polar in that sense. Maybe as a child … what I didn’t like was the way a lot of the kids in private school that I went to in New Orleans were overly concerned with the outward trappings of wealth. It’s amazing to think that in second grade everybody knows what kind of car everybody else’s parent’s drove, what job everybody’s parents had. Even the addresses, they knew what area of town you lived in.

RB: I ran into my son’s pediatrician on the subway once. I love this guy—he’s an excellent doctor but it says something that he is taking public transportation. Anyway, he told me how disturbing he found it that his patients—pre-teens—knew the income ranges of many professions and they have this acute sense of what things cost … sadly, that is what has been created.

JO: It’s kind of scary. For a long time, gradually, to a greater and greater extent we have been concentrating on the wrong things in our schools and in our higher education. It used to be when you went to college, we were meant to learn something about the vast array of knowledge in the world. Now what I see fairly often, particularly at Stanford, students will come in to their university education thinking, ‘This is what I have to do in order to prepare myself for the job.’ And sometimes student will, wonderfully, stray into other things. Many of my creative writing students have been pre-med majors or even people in the business school or engineers who have discovered there is this other thing that they really love and want to learn more about. I am glad they are doing it.

RB: Jamaica Kincaid mentioned to me that in her teaching experience she felt as if writing students were lacking in a lot of general knowledge about the world. They just didn’t know what caused a hurricane or things that one would expect people to know. It seems like you are supposed to declare your major and career path in the first grade.

JO: I think so. If I had to declare my major in first grade I would have been a pre-med.

RB: Were your parents both happy to have chosen medicine?

JO: They were free choices although my father and mother were both artistically talented. My father is an incredible writer. He studied journalism before he studied medicine. He’s always been extremely eloquent both on the page and in person. My mother was a violinist and a dancer and gymnast. She had to choose whether to pursue her gymnastic training under the Olympic coach Vela Karly or go to college and to medical school. She chose medical school. Even though I saw my parents making that decision for their lives I was always conscious of the fact that there were other ways that you could go. And that my parents hadn’t necessarily followed a straight path to their chosen professions.


I didn’t write the stories in order to be celebrated or even to be a writer, as it were. I wrote the stories because I wanted, I had these things that I wanted to say. That I wanted to get out there for other people to understand and maybe feel some connection with.


RB: So what are you going to do in your life?

JO: Oh. [pause] What am I going to do with my life?

RB: Is your life defined by whether you can write or not? If tomorrow you were unable to write something satisfactory and the day after also and so on, what would happen to you?

JO: I would keep trying for an awfully, awfully long time. But if part of the question is what else is there in my life that’s of great importance to me? I’d have to say my relationship with my husband is extremely important. He is also a writer. His short story collection is called Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona. His name is Ryan Hardy.

RB: You mention him in the acknowledgments along with everyone else in the world except for me. [laughs]

JO: Next time, Robert. Absolutely.

RB: [laughs]

JO: I feel like our relationship is one of the most important things that I can devote my energy and time to. As is my relationship with my brother and sister, who are five and eight years younger respectively. Today is my brother’s birthday. Every time you say September 15, I get a little excited and then I remember why.

RB: Where is he?

JO: He’s in medical school at Ohio State University in Columbus. And my sister is teaching middle school English through Teach for America in LA. We have retained this incredible bond of closeness as we have all moved into our adult years. And so, apart from writing, those relationships are incredibly important to me. And also if I couldn’t write for one reason, then I would try to see what I could do actively to make the world better—through teaching or through social action. That’s one of the things that we as writers better be conscious of. I am lucky enough to live in San Francisco where Vendela Vida and Dave Eggers have 826 Valencia and it’s an incredible program where kids are receiving one-on-one tutoring that they would in no way have access to. It’s been a pleasure to go in and work with some of the students. It makes me feel even if my writing sucks I am doing something useful.

RB: Here you are, whatever it has taken to get you here as a young and now published writer, now you enter the fray—for lack of a better word…

JO: It’s a good word.

RB: …you are touring to support your book and talking to total strangers. And in front of total strangers, for a period of time, and subjecting yourself to the commentary and observations and judgments and occasionally ridicule of others. How much do you pay attention to the literary press? And what do you make of the dialectic emerging on snarking? Can you talk about that? Have you gotten any bad reviews?

JO: I have gotten some reviews that are not as positive as I would have liked. I have been thinking about this a lot simply because it is a significant change in my writing life—not my writing life but my life as this person that writes. I’ve been very fortunate in the way things have worked out for me in publishing. Sometimes reviewers can react against that. Reviewers sometimes like to get behind a person who is engaged in a real struggle to get their voice heard or is being under-published. Sometimes they will react against someone who has a first book coming out from a terrific publisher. Especially someone who is young.

RB: Currently that would include Nell Freudenberger

JO: She has received some wonderful reviews. I think her work is terrific. But some people have also reacted against the hype around her book and it’s unfair but inevitable. That’s something we have to deal with and it has nothing to do with who we are as writers and what we are doing when we sit down and work on the next thing.


In a baseball game you either win or lose. It’s not binary in a piece of fiction.


RB: It has nothing to do with who you are as a writer?

JO: Not with who we are when we are sitting down and communicating with our work on the page or with the ideas that we are trying to bring to the page. If it does then that’s a problem and we have to do whatever we can to get away from that. It’s inevitable that it will be on our minds. That it will affect us to a certain extent. We have to do our best to minimize that.

RB: I suppose the most important thing in writing is the text but I can’t dismiss the notion that the person counts for something in this scheme. David Thomson recently reviewed a new biography of Robert Capa and discussed the question about the famous shot he took of a dying Spanish soldier—was it staged? If it was staged does it devalue the picture, the most important thing being the image on the page? But it does matter.

JO: It does. Can I ask you a question?

RB: OK.

JO: To what extent do you think about where the review is coming from when you read the review? To what extent are you thinking, ‘Well, here’s what this person is saying. Here’s what’s maybe motivating them?’

RB: For the few reviews I read, I suppose that I do question the negative criticism. I dislike the disrespect for the effort—which is not to say that one ought to be reverential or get a pass because of the work done.

JO: There is a story that I love that Toby Wolff tells—an experience he had after a reading. He had finished reading and a neurosurgeon approached him and said, ‘Boy I really loved the reading. I’ve been thinking that I’d love to do some writing.’ And Toby said, ‘That’s funny, I was thinking I’d like to do some brain surgery.’

RB: [laughs] Except the difference is that writing is more accessible than brain surgery.

JO: It can be but my brother is training to be a neurosurgeon and…

RB: He can’t write?

JO: Actually, he can write. One of the reasons that people are so drawn to writing is that they see somebody stepping up and telling their stories and people think, ‘Ah, yes I have stories to tell.’ Or, ‘I want to tell my story.’ That became something that was important to me along the way. ‘Ah, it’s not just something that you read in a book. You can put it down on a page yourself.’

RB: After I got done with James Wolcott’s pummeling of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel in the Wall Street Journal, I did question what he was doing and I did see it as an act of bravado since Wolcott also has a book coming out. Also I thought that he might have been physically ill when he wrote the review since he was so totally unsympathetic. He started off quoting Thomas Wolfe, ‘Only the dead know Brooklyn,’ and then he ends the review, ‘Only the dead know Lethem’s Brooklyn. And they are not talking.’

JO: That’s entirely unfair.

RB: It is clever.

JO: Yeah, it is but cleverness will get you a review and a cup of tea.

RB: Did you see Clive James’s piece in the Op-Ed section of the NYT which seemed to cap off the snarkery debate?

JO: I did and I thought it was an excellent synopsis of the argument. It talked about the necessity of the instructive review. And that a bad review can be a plea on the part of the reviewer to make the writer see some truth about his work or the world. That’s extremely important. That’s one of the things, that when I was going to embark on this process of putting the work out there, I was speaking to a friend of mine, ZZ Packer, about her experience and whether or not she read reviews. Her book was beautifully reviewed but there were a couple of reviews that she found very instructive that were not unmitigatingly positive. So she said, ‘Absolutely, I read the review, I might learn something about who I am as a writer and the book.’ My editor’s feeling was the same. I got one review that wasn’t what I hoped it would be. So after that I said, ‘Boy I am not going to read another review.’ But my editor reminded me, ‘Sometimes a review can help your work.’

RB: Sometimes. But the issue is not the less-than-positive review, it’s the hatchet job or the ad hominem snide and vicious one. Maybe the thing is also a matter of quantity. There seem to be so many critical decapitations.

JO: The worst review is the snarky, dismissive review. If somebody really takes fierce issue with something in a book then that can be an homage in itself. The dismissive review is the one that really disrespects the time and the effort of the writing itself and that’s a horrible thing to see done to someone. It would be interesting to see a compendium of reviews and see if we could trace the history of bile in reviews. [laughs]

RB: I was going over the few dependable literary critics and I find that they are not prone to this slash-and-burn review. Eder is not sarcastic and bitchy.

JO: No…

RB: Caldwell can be tart but she’s clearly an enthusiast. James Wood can be fierce but still he seems to be respectful. Yardley, Dirda, Daniel Mendelsohn aren’t hatchet carriers.

JO: And I think that it comes out of loving to read and loving what they are seeing on the page. Not just from the standpoint of whether this writer is doing what they are trying to do to the greatest extent they can do it but also a joy at the variance of what is out there. And at the chances that people are taking. One thing that is slightly disturbing that I have seen recently in reviews is that some writers are being castigated for taking big chances in their work. That’s highly objectionable. Writers should be encouraged to take chances and if they fail it should be seen within the context of what they attempted rather than as a kind of flaw of judgment in even having tried in the first place.

RB: That would be having a greater expectation of human nature than we have any right to. Look in Boston, we have one of the great pitchers in baseball history, Pedro Martinez. If he has a bad outing at Fenway Park he is booed. They don’t say, ‘Oh, a bad day. Better luck next time Pete.’ No, they boo him.

JO: In a baseball game you either win or lose. It’s not binary in a piece of fiction.

RB: Right. Though I think that in a 162-game season no one game is more important. Can we go back to the song discussion? I am fascinated with the notion of creating a list—a popular contemporary pastime—of meaningful narrative story songs. I was thinking about it a lot because of Warren Zevon’s death. I spent a few days listening to a collection of his songs and I found that he was really good at pulling you into the middle of his dreams and thoughts. Sometimes with the most obvious words. Like a song called ‘Life’ll Kill Ya.’ Or, ‘Gorilla, You’re a Desperado,’

Big gorilla at the L.A. Zoo
Snatched the glasses right off my face
Took the keys to my BMW
Left me here to take his place

Anyway, you mentioned that you loved Cole Porter. Can you think of some songs that you might say had the same narrative force as a good piece of fiction?

JO: Can you give me a minute on that one? [pause] There is a Nina Simone song I believe is called ‘Four Women.’ She is singing about four different characters, all black women, all beautifully distinct.

RB: Besides the narrative force of the works by themselves the reason I am dwelling on those is because the notion of hypertextuality was a big thing for a while. We saw the manufacture of these complex CD-Roms that had all these multimedia links. And I was thinking about whether anyone had created any fiction that had musical links or visual links.

JO: A lot of that is coming out of the MFA program at Brown.

R: Oh yes, Robert Coover…

JO: It’s not something I have found necessary to explore in my own work. I kind of love the object of the book and reading the words on a physical page. In this physical object. I love the substance and the weight of it. But I think there is a great deal of possibility for developing new forms. It’s exciting that some people are doing it.

RB: Because when I talked with them a number of younger writers have been unabashed about their shorter attention spans and the culture they grew up in which included TV and that sampling in music has something to do with it. Perhaps the cultural watering holes include more diverse kinds of information that flow into textual narratives.

JO: It’s interesting about shortened attention spans. We hear a lot about that. It’s almost a commonplace in what people will say when they are talking about the x and y generation. But if we accept the idea that attention span has necessarily been shortened then it’s a kind of giving up. It’s saying we are not going to try to present the kind of movies or books or songs or art to these people that would require a long attention span.

RB: Much is produced that isn’t going to try…

JO: That’s a crime. That’s a mistake.

RB: It’s just like what happens with computers. They will make you bend to their limitations. I remember reading a review of some new doo-dad and the writer pointed out that because the utensil couldn’t do some particular operation the user was unlikely to challenge the limitation. Anyway Franzen writes a long book and it sells well…

JO: Jeffery Eugenides wrote a 700-page book. And some short story writers are writing longer stories. Andrea Barrett wrote an incredibly long story. Alice Munro writes very long stories.

RB: Neal Stephenson has published a 1,300-page book that is the first in a trilogy, William Vollman’s new book is 3000 pages. Tobias Wolff, known for short stories, has published a novel…

JO: I am very excited to read it. I read the part that was excerpted in the New Yorker. It seemed like some of the best work that I have seen him do.

RB: Is your world a world whose boundaries are set by being a writer or do you have any boundaries? Do you have friends who are not writers?

JO: Oh yes.

RB: Interests outside of who has written what?

JO: In fact it is awful when you go out with other writers and you realize you have done nothing for four hours but talk about writing.

RB: [laughs]

JO: Writing is this thing that is supposed to be a part of the larger world. It’s not supposed to be about the worlds of writers.

RB: That is a complaint that people frequently lodge against contemporary fiction.

JO: Yes. It should be about the larger world and it is extremely important to hang out with non-writers and be interested in things that have nothing to do with writing.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum