Taking the Time to Be Brief: Edith Pearlman

Edith Pearlman
BY Jonathan Sachs

A lifelong New Englander at heart, EDITH PEARLMAN has penned over 250 short stories and short nonfiction, several of which have been recognized in the Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Collection, New Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Collection: Best of the Small Presses anthologies, as well as by the 24th annual PEN/Malamud Award in 2011.

The author of Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories (Lookout Books, 2011); How to Fall (Sarabande Books, 2005), winner of the Mary McCarthy Prize; Love Among the Greats (Eastern Washington University Press, 2002), winner of the Spokane Fiction Award; and Vaquita (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for literature, she livess in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she enjoys reading, walking, and matchmaking. Read more at edithpearlman.com.

What is your earliest memory of being enchanted by words?

My favorite aunt taught me to read when I was four. Though I then was able to read alone, we still read together — poetry, fairy tales, Kipling. My stage-struck mother played and sang show tunes. My father sang Russian lullabies. It was an enchanted and wordy household.

When did you realize writing could be a way of life?

In college. Some of my professors of English literature were also fiction writers. They taught small seminars in fiction writing and I saw them apply their love and understanding of literature to the literature they and we were trying to create. I fell in love with the enterprise. I also fell in love with the lushness of Colette’s prose and tried — in vain — to emulate it.

You had deeply appreciated literature throughout your computer programming years, and postponed writing till later. How did you keep that desire alive?

I never stopped reading; and reading meant that I was part of the project of literature. I felt I’d have my chance to join the project as a worker as well.

In retrospect, has writing later — and now — offered something unexpected?

Yes. I would describe that something as a way of seeing the world as rich, eventful, tragic, comic, and ultimately inexplicable; and a conviction that everyone — even people who seem dull or sluggish or small-minded — can be observed and gotten to know and eventually lend part of themselves to some composite character or incident. When I first started to write I wrote mostly about people I knew. My population is more varied now.

On “the rendering of calamity,” you’ve remarked that it “requires distance and calm.” For a short story, which is compact in so many ways, what helps you ensure that a story isn’t overwhelmed?

The sadder the story the more careful the language has to be, not only melodrama avoided but even metaphoric words that suggest melodrama. For calamity I do prefer a frame — someone else telling the story, which puts the calamity at one remove. But I do admire bloody battlefields rendered directly. Tolstoy says if you’ve seen a street fight you can write about a war — someday I’ll give it a shot.


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