One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?”
Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection.
My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction — when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has).
As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading?
RB: How old were you?
EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading — I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together.
RB: How did she teach you?
EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way.
RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six?
EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around — maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or–
RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader?
EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt.
RB: And when did your writing career start?
EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews.
RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early.
EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title.
RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh).
EP: I think so.
RB: Will you ever revisit that story?
EP: I have revisited it often in interviews.
RB: I mean All About Jews.
EP: Probably not.
RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels.
EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny.
RB: Have you ever tried?
EP: I started to write — actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no — I don’t think I ever have.
RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good?
EP: Well, nobody took it.
RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession–
EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long.
RB: Do you still write letters?
EP: I do still.
RB: Hand write?
EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too.
RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters
EP: Yes, somebody told me that.
RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few — one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists.
EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old.
RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories.
EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years.
RB: Did you study writing anywhere?
EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA — I took a total of three courses.
RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories.
EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction.
RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing?
EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years.
RB: Any fights?
EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too.
RB: Which writers do you like to read?
EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times.
RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book.
EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them.
EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears.
EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa – Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life.
RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh).
EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite — at any rate.
RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer.
EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself — if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished.
RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain?
EP: Exactly. How did you know?
EP: I would put entertain first.
RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace.
EP: Oh really?
RB: Is writing short fiction important?
EP: Because literature is important. The project is important.
RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out?
EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read.
RB: That was probably the case for most of history — that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing.
EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now.
RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different — more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read — 35 year olds who play video games.
EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields.
RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more — especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century.
EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is.
RB: Working class people have to work hard — frequently taking on second jobs
EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours?
RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts.
EP: Where did people get it before?
RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in.
EP: My husband plays early music — he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music — it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy.
RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me.
EP: It is. It is.
RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion — people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic – Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston.
EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted.
RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA?
EP: Tell me what it stands for?
RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show.
EP: In Frankfurt?
RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry.
EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is.
RB: So, do you go to book related events?
EP: I go to literary events — mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go.
RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books.
EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher.
RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill?
EP: Wilmington. Do you know him?
RB: Ben? No.
EP: I thought he introduced us.
RB: Oh yeah, by email.
EP: He knows you, knows of you.
RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together — it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety.
EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened.
RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, 'Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?'”]
EP: That certainly helped.
RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about.
EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed.
RB: I am disturbed by that — I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected.
EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story.
RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made?
EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings.
RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think?
EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are — they know how lucky they are.
RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle.
EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write–
RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs).
EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer.
RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen — how well do you remember your stories — pretty well?
EP: I think so.
RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point — as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later.
EP: I’m glad you liked it.
RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess?
EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me.
RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy?
EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles.
RB: How many Tesses do you know?
EP: Probably none.
RB: It’s an unusual name
EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa.
RB: Was it a hard story to write?
EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form.
RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story.
EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice — that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child — each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person.
RB: And it was hard to write because?
EP: It dealt with such sad things.
RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters?
EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved.
RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story — a year?
EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story.
RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend–
EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place — in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee — there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them.
RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story — a name, an image, feeling, a memory?
EP: All of those things. It’s not one — something I dream–
RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen?
EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation.
RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written?
EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her.
RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)?
EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do.
RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft — her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs).
EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first.
RB: Really! Where was I?
EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked.
RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony.
EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind.
RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude.
EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about–
RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)?
EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died.
RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel.
EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5×8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader.
RB: Movies are made that way — out of narrative sequence.
EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way.
RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin–
EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.”
RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction — you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next.
EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow.
RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them.
RB: Do you go back to your work?
EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back — when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things.
RB: You see that as a correction?
EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there — but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review.
RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done.
EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time.
RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs).
EP: I don’t know that I got better — I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story — she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things.
RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way.
EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that.
RB: Would you say it should be different?
EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated.
RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed?
EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected.
RB: They had all been previously published somewhere?
EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one.
RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book.
EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories.
RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers?
EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question.
RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans?
EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned.
RB: You seem to travel a lot.
EP: I’m traveling now because–
RB: You’re an overnight sensation?
EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it.
RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring.
EP: It’s been three months.
RB: That’s a long time.
EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews.
RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers?
EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction — I am sure there are others.
RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
EP: What about David Mitchell’s book?
RB: That was a while ago — it just came out in paper.
EP: I bought it in hardcover.
RB: Did you like it?
EP: I haven’t read it.
RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it.
EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read.
RB: What are you reading now?
EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction.
RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition.
EP: I’ll bet its good — I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews.
RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions?
EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies.
RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked?
EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like.
RB: Meaning you choose carefully?
EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience.
RB: Do you watch TV?
EP: (Shakes her head).
EP: I don’t have one.
RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing?
EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television.
RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series – The Wire.
EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about?
RB: Big city life in Baltimore — drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale.
EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I’d become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio.
RB: What do you listen to?
EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews
RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event — has that happened to you?
EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story — all of 499 had come for him. It was fun.
RB: That’s show business.
EP: Thank you.