Taking the Time to Be Brief: Edith Pearlman
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.
One of the topics on which you frequently speak includes “superiority of the typewriter over the computer.” Could you elaborate? Is it the tactile proximity/greater focus the typewritter affords? Or is it more to do with a writer’s perspective on essential issues?
It’s the fact that revising — I do endless revisions, typing and then scrawling on the typescript and then typing again — requires that within whatever paragraph or page is now being retyped, every word must present itself for re-evaluation, prove itself worthy. Thoughtless Deletions, idle Copies and Pastes — they’re just not available on my old Hermes. Thank Heaven, I might add — the computer, I think, is no aid to prose. Yes, there is a need for patience, and also for taking the time to be brief.
Matchmaking is one of your hobbies — one might say fiction allows for the ultimate platform. Having written numerous stories which feature couples, are there aspects of love, forgiveness, or human nature that continually intrigue or surprise you?
I love your noticing that connection between matchmaking and writing about love and its sad companion loss. And I am interested in unlikely combinations in life and in fiction. But what intrigues me also is something outside the world of romantic love — satisfied, non-pathological celibacy. I think the celibate are scanted in literature, and I am gradually trying to right that wrong.
From William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County to Agatha Christie’s St. Mary Meade, many writers have created fictional homes in their writing. You’ve written about Godolphin in “O My Godolphin.” Was there much planning/mapping? Do you view it as a microcosm for our own evolving neighborhoods, or as something entirely its own…?
It’s a close-to-my-heart setting for many stories. It resembles the town I live in, but since I’ve given it a different name I am free to build and raze buildings; invent public characters like the End of the World Man (not in “Binocular Vision”); establish a soup kitchen and an old fashioned hotel. Godolphin is a convenience and, to my mind, something of a character itself.
Many of your stories are understated; they suggest a wonderful trust in language, but also in the reader. Do you see contemporary fiction steering further from this subtle approach? Has the landscape changed from Vaquita to Binocular Vision?
It seems the minimalists have had their day and the mild magic realists, whose ranks I sometimes join, are more numerous. What someone rather nastily called stories of dreary little insights are on the wane, and rather ambitious stories which involve the world itself are on the ascendant. That said, Aesop was a fabulist and Balzac’s stories were ambitiously about the whole world — Paris, which was the whole world to him. So what goes round comes round.
What non-literary sources inspire your work?
People, bugs, history, places; the workings of chance; memory and dream.
- “Edith Pearlman: An Interview,” BiblioBuffet
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