Enter the Dream Factory: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Matthew Specktor

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Many readers know Matthew Specktor as the author of the propulsive 2013 novel American Dream Machine, which, like his virtuosic new work of nonfiction, Always Crashing in the Same Car, explores Hollywood both as metaphor and as geographic location from an insider’s point of view.

The son of a screenwriter and one of the founding partners of the powerhouse talent agency Creative Arts Agency, Specktor was born and raised in Los Angeles and grew up observing the successes and near misses of many actors and screenwriters. His lifelong proximity to and nuanced understanding of the traps and rewards of a career in Hollywood imbue his new book with authority and pathos, as do his own experiences as a screenwriter.

Part memoir, part cultural criticism, the book’s chapters each focus on a well known writer, musician, or filmmaker with ties to Hollywood—among them, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tuesday Weld, Hal Ashby, Michael Cimino, Renata Adler, and Warren Zevon—whose life and work Specktor has researched extensively and admired as a fan and close observer for many years. Most of his subjects were—famously or not—beset by professional frustrations and disappointment, self-sabotage, turbulent intimate relationships, and by some measures, failure to reach a higher plane of notoriety, prosperity, and sustained personal contentment.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about this extraordinary book is how eloquently and compassionately Specktor writes about loneliness and disappointment—his own as a writer, as a friend, as a son and a husband— as well as that of his subjects. He sees with a clear, unwavering eye the perils of believing the glittering promises fame makes and acknowledges how difficult it is to ignore them.

I had the opportunity to correspond with Specktor about Always Crashing in the Same Car.

Christine Sneed: I’m curious about how you chose the writers, filmmakers, and musicians who serve as focal points for the eight chapters in this book. Had you been thinking of writing a biography about one of your subjects but in time realized you instead wanted to write a book with several protagonists that explored fame, creative success, failure, and the loneliness of artists?

Matthew Specktor: I had a list. Anyone who knows me has heard me fulminate about lists at one time or another—I tend to resist them, and I think their prevalence (as Top Ten Lists, Best of the Year, etc.) has had a deranging effect on the culture at large. But in this case, the joke was on me: I made a list. There was never any intention of writing a biography of anybody. I just drew up a constellation of people who fascinated me and wondered what, say, Tom McGuane might have in common with Tuesday Weld, or Hal Ashby with Renata Adler.

Eventually I realized that all of these people had traveled complicated paths that had some relation to the movies, and to certain American mythologies that exist both inside and far beyond Hollywood. There was some winnowing—it was a really long list, and I wanted to be sure that each person’s story was different, that I didn’t get locked in to writing too extensively about disappointed screenwriters, or musicians with problematic personalities—but somehow it all fell together, as books tend to.

The people I chose had all kept me company during a difficult time in my life, and their paths kept intersecting: Tuesday Weld playing Zelda Fitzgerald in a television movie; Frank Perry directing Tom McGuane; McGuane co-writing songs with Warren Zevon. The various strands cross-pollinated nicely.

CS: I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book quite like this one—was the memoir and cultural criticism duality present from the beginning? As I read, I wondered if it began as a traditional memoir but before long you discovered you were more interested in looking at your life in tandem with other artists’ professional and personal trajectories.

MS: It was never a traditional memoir. I don’t know if I could write one of those. In 2016 I had finished a novel, and I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t want to publish it. My agent was ready to go and I just couldn’t get excited about it. (Never mind the fact I’d already written it. Maybe I just didn’t think it was that good!) I started thinking about the books I’d read around that period that had excited me—Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock; Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments; Hilton Als’s The Women (very much that one, which does blend criticism and memoir in a very beguiling way); Terry Castle’s The Professor: A Sentimental Education—and I realized pretty much everything that had excited me recently wasn’t a novel. A wonderful monograph by Sam Sweet called Hadley, Lee, Lightcap was another.

And these books, with the exception of Castle’s, weren’t essay collections either. They were long form prose excursions that managed to be intensely and vividly personal, on the one hand, and on the other to turn their gazes on things that were outside, to work in a way that was also sort of oblique or elliptical. Which appealed to me. I thought, why not write a book that interpolates all these different modes—of fact, found material, speculation, criticism—and allows them to coexist, that has a kind of almanac quality. That sort of expansiveness is what writing is for! But conversely…I know this book is gonna sit on a shelf marked “memoir” or “nonfiction” or whatever, but I’ll go to my grave insisting it’s actually a kind of novel. There’s nothing that asserts a novel can’t contain all sorts of factual material. As Ishmael Reed said (speaking of writers who don’t always get their due), “A novel can be anything it wants to. It can be the six o’clock news.”

CS: The chapter focusing on Tuesday Weld features a wrenching story of your close friendship with “D,” whose struggles with addiction and depression kept him from realizing his potential as a novelist. “‘My heart will always be with the loser,’ [D] wrote. ‘Always’” In the same paragraph, as a kind of reply to the above, you wrote, “I thought [D] saw the world all the way to the bottom. That he understood the meaning of disappointment.” Today the cult of optimism (Think positive, everyone, or shut the fuck up!) has sent a lot of people the message that failure and disappointment are to be avoided at all costs. But doesn’t that view all but guarantee some of us will become insufferable, if not outright monsters? With your own daughter (and yourself), how do you address the tension between positive thinking and realistic expectations?

MS: Well, that’s the work of a lifetime, isn’t it? Obviously, the life of an artist—surely no more than any other kind of life, but perhaps a little more forthrightly—is about disappointment. Even the most successful artists are rejected over and over again (or they have been, and just from knowing a lot of absurdly successful ones I know how often they’re—still—rejected), and it usually takes an unholy amount of rejection even to reach a very modest degree of public-facing success.

Unless one is lying to oneself, life is a hotbed of failure. You miss your goals. Your relationships implode. You lose your job. You disappoint your friends, or your children. You have an experience of illness, or loss. This happens. To everybody, it happens. But with any luck, and (it must be said) with whatever privilege one has that allows you to even have a chance at succeeding (i.e. of not being murdered by the police, of having time to write, etc.), you are likely to succeed at least occasionally.

And if you can internalize some of those successes as effectively as we all do our disappointments (which, we’d better internalize too; I mean, otherwise you turn into a moron or a monster, like Tony Robbins or something), you become a little more flexible. The failures might not torture you as much, and the successes won’t mess with your head. My own heart always will be with the loser, though, also, just like D’s was. Always, it will.

CS: I was particularly moved by the passages about your mother, a frustrated screenwriter who, due to a WGA strike and her one produced script having been written during that strike, was thereafter blackballed by the industry. Her dependence on alcohol increased after her career foundered, and your relationship with her also faltered. When you reconciled with her after years of silence, did she have a different perspective on her experiences or any advice to offer you as a writer?

MS: Not really. I mean, her estrangement from Hollywood—and her estrangement from me—might not have left her with a ton of usable information. (I’m not sure that estrangements ever do.) She never talked about that part of her life much. But the story of her talent was an odd one, insofar as that talent may never have had a chance to properly develop, and she largely stopped thinking of herself as a writer once she quit writing. (On the other hand, there was a late short story or two I found among her papers, so…apparently she didn’t entirely quit writing.)

But the real story there is that of an entire generation of women, many of whom my mother was friendly with, like Polly Platt, or Elaine May, Carole Eastman and Joan Micklin Silver, Barbara Avedon—I mean there were a ton of preternaturally gifted women (it’s hardly too much to call some of them geniuses) whose work in Hollywood didn’t get its due. That to me was the bigger story (and still is: it factors into my next book as well). I don’t know that my mother had that kind of talent—the one produced movie she wrote isn’t overwhelmingly good—but I do know that for reasons that go beyond even her own personal demons, she never had a chance to find out. That’s a lesson, I suppose, and a particularly important one for a white, male writer to be taught. There’s much more than “talent” involved in the making of an artist.

CS: Your mother left Hollywood for good when she was still a relatively young woman. Although two other screenwriters featured in this book, Carole Eastman and Eleanor Perry, had greater success in Hollywood than she did, their stories nonetheless bear similarities. Perry’s husband achieved greater notoriety than she did, and your father’s success as a talent agent likewise eclipsed your mother’s career. Eastman wrote Five Easy Pieces—under a pen name—and shunned the spotlight.

Do you believe your mother would have embraced success if it had come her way? I think the stereotype that a confident woman is a show-off or a troublemaker is still prevalent, despite all the lip service paid to gender equality.

MS: I do not think my mother would have embraced it. Women of her generation—by which I mean my mother, specifically—were expected still to be secretaries and helpmates. They weren’t necessarily expected to be filmmakers and artists. Obviously there were such—arguably, Hollywood is a more sexist culture than even the other strands of American life that surround it (arguably: I’m not sure if it’s “more” or equally so)—but my mother was first a model, then an actress, then a stay-at-home mother, then a schoolteacher…she didn’t really start writing with any intent at all until she was in her early 40s. (She did other things, activist things that are interesting, when my sister and I were young as well.)

But I don’t even know that she wanted success, at least not in the way we’re discussing—not even in the way Eleanor Perry went after it, which seemed less about chasing a brass ring and more about chasing the highest artistic standards—but, again, that’s a revelation of itself. Women are still not afforded the same latitudes in this regard as dudes are. Megan Rapinoe or Serena Williams come on with a little bit of confidence, perhaps only a fraction of the amount their male counterparts display—I think of athletes because it’s an arena where one might be expected to show maximum confidence, where absolutely no one bats an eye if a man says something arrogant—and people still lose their minds.

CS: Among the luminaries you include in Always Crashing in the Same Car, was there one you found yourself identifying with more than the others?

MS: Eastman. I mean, I won’t particularly say I identify with the men in the book (I’d like to identify with Tom McGuane, because he’s such an incredible prose writer and seems in many ways to have had an exemplary career; I can’t say I do too much with Michael Cimino or Warren Zevon…maybe a little with Zevon, because there’s a romantic streak there that I can get with, but the autodestructive stuff not so much), but Carole Eastman, yeah.

And I don’t even know why that is: there’s a gnostic quality, a radical privacy that I can understand, and also just something about her sense of humor, the music of her sentences, that feels true to me. I feel she was working out of a deep sense of pain, but also a constant sense of irony, which—ahem. But honestly? I think I do, on some level, relate to all of them. There’s something in every one of them—Hal Ashby’s joy and obsessiveness at being in an edit bay; Renata Adler’s ambivalence in the face of the commercial and promotional mechanisms that are pervasive inside our culture—there’s something in each of them I very much relate to.

CS: In one way or another, each focal character in this book is a legendary figure who experienced moments of unusual creative distinction and success, but some of them would probably say (or have in fact said) they never reached their full potential. F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps most notably among the artists you write about, was plagued by many bitter professional and personal difficulties that doubtless contributed to his death at the cruelly young age of 44.

For many, it seems as if fame is a curse—like a big lottery win—yet millions of us aspire to fame and fortune. Are there, in your view, habits of mind that a person really must cultivate in order to survive their own fame?

MS: This is actually a great question because it’s a preoccupation of mine. How do artists stay viable? Because most artists, I think, don’t. I mean you can have a long career, and you can write good books (make good movies, record good music) over a span of many years, but really when you look at most artists there are fallow periods, or eras where they’re churning out clunkers. I mean even the best and the most blessed have periods of failure and unsuccess. And I think it’s actually harder, much, much harder, for the ones who do experience significant material or popular success (for whatever reason, I’ve known a lot of them: not just movie people, but literary ones and so on) to sustain it.

The ones who manage to sustain it are all, I think, the carriers of somewhat paranoid interior grudges, more or less private in their life and art, and relentlessly stubborn in cleaving to their own compass. They’re not all that interested in that sort of success (which isn’t to say they’re immune to its seductions, or that they don’t also, on some level, crave it: they’re not interested in it) to begin with.

So that’s the habit of mind one likely ought to cultivate: that of not believing—and not just “not believing,” but actively pushing back against—the hype. Fitzgerald, of course, bought into it hook, line, and sinker: even while he was writing about the ravages of success, he was doing so because it was ravaging him. And he managed one (alas, unfinished) great book at the end, but it took him a lot of pain and failure to get to it.

CS: Was it more difficult to write the most personal passages, e.g. those about your mother and father and your first marriage, than those that explored the lives of the cultural figures featured in Always Crashing in the Same Car? Would you say you’re comfortable writing autobiography or do you prefer to write about others?

MS: Not at all. I thought of it more like a key-change in music, a way of keeping the narrative propulsive and engaging. Moving between the personal narrative and the narratives of the lives I was exploring seemed not only natural but necessary. I felt the narrative would collapse if I didn’t keep shuttling, or if I lingered in either mode for too long. But also—I don’t know that there’s a difference for me. Writing about other people—in criticism, or as figures of the imagination—is writing about the self and vice versa. That was true in American Dream Machine, and it’s really true in the book I’m writing now, which braids a very different type of memoir writing with very wide-scale social history. I think I am only ever really interested in doing both.

CS: What was something you learned while writing this book that truly surprised you?

MS: This is ostensibly a book about Los Angeles and/or the movies, but anyone who reads it thoughtfully—and the book certainly makes this explicit towards the end—will know it’s not really about the movies at all. It’s about disappointment, and about how the lives we have tend to not much resemble the lives we anticipated or wished for. That’s something I think most people can understand, and I think what surprised me is that reckoning with this disappointment can be a cornerstone of a moral education.

I don’t mean that it is one, necessarily—you can be kicked in the teeth repeatedly, fail over and over, and still be a rotten person—but that it can be. It is possible that repeated exposure to disappointment can teach one tolerance for ambiguity, empathy (actual empathy, not the suspect kind that gets bruited about online), and even a bent towards more ethical behavior. I’m not sure how this is so, exactly, and I don’t believe the goal of literature is social improvement (i.e. that reading “makes one a better person,” or anything like that), but nevertheless, I came to understand that while writing the book. And that surprised me, for sure.

CS: Lastly, please share a few more details about the book you’re working on now, if you don’t mind doing so?

MS: Of course. It’s another hybrid. It’s a melding of memoir (again) and social history, one that blends enormously intimate material with stuff that’s very sweeping and broad. I have moments when I’m not sure I’m gonna pull it off, when it seems like having, say, myself or my kid sister and Ronald Reagan be coequal characters in a long form narrative might be unwise. But—kidding aside—it’s a fun book to write: a story of late capitalism, how the movies died, the making of Los Angeles (and…America, really) in the late 20th century. It’s a foolishly ambitious book, probably. But…well, if I were afraid of failing, I probably wouldn’t have written this last book or this new one in progress. You throw the knives up in the air. You don’t think too hard about what will happen if you can’t juggle them, or how they might land.

Bonus Links:
Lessons of Hollywood: On the Fate of Middle-Class Art

When We Were Young: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Anthony Varallo

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One of the many pleasures of reading Anthony Varallo’s fiction is how skillfully he inhabits the points of view of his adolescent and child characters. They aren’t bossy, diminutive adults who tell the real adults how to behave and what to think. Instead, they’re bona fide children and teenagers who see the world as kids believably would.

The Varallo short story that I find myself going back to most often is “The French Girls,” which appears in Out Loud, Varallo’s second collection, which won the 2008 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. This story—about the reaction to three foreign exchange students enrolling at an American high school—spans only two pages, but the author captures with an almost preternatural artistry the nostalgia and treacherous suspense of adolescence. The charm and knowingness of this story are indelible.

In The Lines, Varallo’s fifth book and first novel, the author embodies the adult and child point-of-view characters with similar nuanced humor and sympathy. The Lines is set during the gas crisis of the summer of 1979 and begins when two parents announce their divorce to their son and daughter, ages seven and 10, who subsequently become unwilling witnesses to the family’s demise.

Via email and Google Docs, I recently had the opportunity to correspond with Anthony Varallo about The Lines.

Christine Sneed: Having been a young boy in the 1970s, you likely remember the gas crisis of 1979 first-hand—what came first, the idea of a family breaking apart or the dramatic backdrop of the American gas shortage that informs your title?  

Anthony Varallo: The original title for the novel was The Parents, the Children, and that’s very much the way I thought about the book as I was writing it: a story about parents and children, divided into sections, in alternating perspectives that explores a single summer viewed from four different consciousnesses.  So, the family came first.

The novel was always set in the 1970s, but the specific 1979 gas crisis actually emerged in later drafts.  I hit upon the idea of setting the novel in the summer of 1979 when I realized the characters kept stopping by the same gas station, which led to me describing the gas station, which got me thinking about gas station details, which led me to researching those details—what did gas stations look like in the 1970s?, etc.—which led me to the gas crisis of 1979.

I do remember the summer of 1979 pretty well, actually, but my only memories of the gas crisis are of adults either joking or complaining about it.  It was something adults seemed to complain about a lot, along with the other stuff adults seemed to complain about a lot (bills, taxes, having to drive kids around, humidity, aches and pains).  But, honestly, in the summer of 1979, I didn’t spend much of my time thinking about world events; I spent most of my time watching TV and eating sugary snacks.

Oddly enough, the very last element to arrive was actually the title, The Lines, after my wife pointed out that the gas lines are the thing most of us remember about the gas crisis of 1979.  I also liked the idea of “lines” referring not only to the literal gas lines, but perhaps to storylines, too, if that’s not too much of a push.

CS: The Lines’ third-person point of view moves between the mother, father, boy and girl, and you roam among them with an enviable ease. Was the POV always this alternating close third-person?

AV: Yes, the POV was the one thing that remained consistent throughout the two years it took me to write The Lines. I knew I wanted to write a narrative in an alternating, close third-person perspective, a technique that would afford me all the intimacy of first-person POV while still lending the distance and objectivity of third-person.

That’s nice of you to say that I roam among the characters with ease—thanks!—but that’s not at all how I felt when I was writing the book. It took me forever to figure out how many perspectives I could inhabit in each section, one or two or more, until I realized the POV worked best when I explored one consciousness per section, with some latitude to comment on exterior events (what James Wood might call “free indirect style”), something my editor encouraged me to amplify in the second half of the novel. At times, the POV breaks into a near omniscience in the closing pages of The Lines, which is something I’ve never tried before.

CS: Adults in this novel often do or say questionable things—Gumma, for example, the children’s paternal grandmother, is an alcoholic who phones the boy and girl often and makes cringe-inducing statements she claims will help the children be more vigilant of potential dangers. Was Gumma always as…problematic or are there different versions of her in different drafts?

AV: Christine! I can’t believe you’re asking this question, because this is one thing I was hoping no one would notice about this novel, but what the heck, you’ve got me cornered: Gumma is actually a composite character of two characters from an early draft: one, a mean-spirited aunt who calls the children to tell them terrible things; and two, Gumma, whom I envisioned as a truth-telling, yet mostly-benign margarita enthusiast, who lives in Florida and likes to drive her golf cart around her neighborhood while under the influence. In later drafts, I combined the aunt and Gumma into the same character, reworking the dialogue and changing some of the details so that it would seem plausible that Gumma would say and do all of these questionable things. The result is a darker Gumma, more menacing, but still with some light comic touches too.

CS: The four main characters are never addressed by their given names, but some of the supporting characters, such as the two people the mother and father begin dating after their separation, are named. What is your rationale for not naming the four focal family members?

AV: The idea of leaving the four main characters nameless started off as nothing more than an experiment: I wanted to see if I could do it without getting into pronoun confusion. Luckily, since the family is separating, the four main characters are rarely in scene together at the same time, so that made the challenge a bit easier. Sometimes I’ll impose some kind of technical challenge on myself, just to see where it leads me. Those kind of self-imposed challenges help keep me going in my writing, especially through the long haul of the novel.

That said, I wouldn’t recommend this technique too highly, since it prohibits exploring the characters’ pasts in great depth. So, for example, if I wrote “The father recalled his kindergarten playground, where the father liked to swing on the swing-set and slide down the sliding board,” the reader will picture an adult male swinging on the swings and sliding down the sliding board. Which would be…odd. The technique only seems to work in present tense narration, with nearly all the action unfolding in the present, as is the case with The Lines.

CS: The boy, who is seven, is probably my favorite character—he’s sweet, funny, and earnest and still believes in the goodness of the world and his adult caretakers, and as a result is easily victimized. Is a child’s POV one that you find yourself able to inhabit instinctively or is it hard work? Or both?

AV: I had a lot of fun imagining what life was like for him. I knew I could play his “unreliable” perspective for irony and humor, but I wanted to be careful not to overdo it. I didn’t want his naivety to be his only trait; I wanted him to have the capacity to change too. My approach to writing my child characters is to allow them to see the world of the story in all its brightly lit particulars, with 20/20 vision, but not nearly as able to understand what they are seeing. So, the boy sees everything that the girl sees, for example, but what’s clear to the girl (and the reader) is often a mystery the boy has yet to solve.

I’ve written several narratives from the perspective of children, so I guess it does feel comfortable to me on some level. Still, I try to take into consideration a reader’s possible objections to inhabiting a child’s POV—sentimentality, familiarity, a child narrator who is ridiculously wise beyond his/her years, etc.)—something I’ve had to learn over the years. My one rule about child characters in general is: no “cute” children in fiction. Your child characters can be sharp, observant, curious, even clever, but they cannot be “cute,” or say “cute” things, or, God forbid, redeem the sorrows and complications and disappointments of adulthood by just being plain adorable. No.

CS: Until now, your books have all been short story collections. Can you comment on why, after four collections, you decided to write a novel?

AV: Well, the real answer is: because I did write novels before, but no one would publish them. But the sort of real answer is: because I’ve always liked the short story a little bit better than the novel, since that’s what I teach and read and edit, and since that’s the form that means more to me than any other. Another answer is: because novels are really hard to write, and it took me forever to write one that someone actually wanted to publish. All of the above are true.

CS: Each of the 14 chapters in The Lines is broken into several short sections—did you feel at times as if you were writing a short story? The narrative compression seems short story-like too.

AV: My original idea for The Lines was to write a “collage” novel that would employ vignettes, short-shorts, flash fiction, and short sections in some kind of point and counterpoint fashion to tell a story about a family of four going through a transition. My models were Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Elizabeth Hardwick’s √Sleepless Nights, and Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. I was able to write the opening pages of The Lines in this style, but, like nearly every writing idea I’ve ever had, this one started to break down after about 20 pages or so. I couldn’t write the “collage” novel I’d set out to write; I had to give up on my plan and let the story instruct me how to write it instead. I don’t know why I have to keep learning the same lesson again, but here’s one I can never quite seem to remember: Your writing doesn’t really care about your plans for it.

Yes, I was aiming for compression throughout the novel, both at the sentence and paragraph level. I wanted The Lines to be the kind of novel that hits as hard as a short story, since those are the kind of novels I like best. I also wanted each section to have some emotional compression, too, where the character reveals something to the reader they likely wouldn’t reveal to anyone else, ever. Eventually, I began to see that as one of the themes of the novel—the pleasure of having a private life, private thoughts no one will ever know—even though I get a little nervous thinking about themes in my writing.

CS: Who are some of your key influences? And would you say that, like John Updike, your default mode is the comic?

AV: I’m glad you mention Updike, since I sometimes get the feeling that no one really reads him anymore. His writing is important to me in the way it says yes to the world, the way it embraces everything, no matter how ordinary or banal or insignificant (He wrote a little too often about golf, but oh well.). That’s a quality that I notice about most of the writing I love, the way it finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.  That still means something to me. I also love humor, of course, maybe too much at times. My stuff always reads a bit lighter to me than I intended, not sure why. Lightweight syndrome? But the writers I’m reading right now with the most enthusiasm are Sally Rooney, Rachel Cusk, Elena Ferrante, and Karl Ove Knausgaard. And a few dozen others I’m utterly failing to mention.

CS: What are you working on now?

AV: I am working on another novel. It’s in that stage where I can’t quite explain what it’s about yet, which has been the case with every novel I’ve ever written or tried to write. I’m hoping this stage will pass soon, and I can answer this question with a jacket copy-worthy sentence.

Taking the Time: Christine Sneed in Conversation with Mandeliene Smith

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Although some mainstream publishers still publish story collections comprised largely of stand-alone stories (George Saunders’s Tenth of December leaps immediately to mind), many contemporary collections published by large, New York-based presses are more likely to be novels-in-stories or linked collections.

Enter Rutting Season, a remarkable debut from Mandeliene Smith, out this month from Scribner. The stylistically and topically diverse stories in this collection demonstrate Smith’s extraordinary range, although a few commonalities are evident. Smith’s stories all take place in New England of the present or recent past and feature characters whose lives have been upended by personal or professional hardship, circumstances the author explores with compassion and occasionally with subversive humor.

Smith has been writing for more than two decades and scrupulously revised each story in this collection, several of them having taken years to complete. In an era where many writers feel the pressure—self-imposed or otherwise—to publish fast (and likewise have the opportunity to self-publish manuscripts written, in some cases, in a matter of weeks), it is heartening to encounter a writer who appears to value the creative process as much as publication and any rewards it might confer to her.

Via email and Google Docs, I had the chance to correspond recently with Mandeliene Smith about Rutting Season.

Christine Sneed: There’s such a range of character, point of view and theme in the stories in Rutting Season—for example, a young widow grieving over her husband’s sudden death, three siblings being held hostage by their dead mother’s deranged boyfriend, an African-American social worker who works in racially and economically divided New Haven, a little girl whose mother is selling off the girl’s siblings to strangers—how do you find your subjects?

Mandeliene Smith: Some of those stories, like “Siege,” “The Someday Cat,” and “You the Animal,” are loosely based on newspaper articles that grabbed me. “Siege,” for example, came from an article about a bunch of kids in Iowa who barricaded themselves in their house for two days after their mother was arrested for child neglect. I kept thinking about what it might have been like for them inside that house together with the police waiting outside—what a weird combination of danger and normalcy, to be trapped with the people they knew best. That was what I saw in that news article that hooked me: the power that family has over us.

Most of the rest of the stories are fragments of my own experience that took on a life of their own. “Mercy,” for example, came from a memory of my mother, a number of months after my father had died. She was outside, yelling at me to come down and help bury my sister’s dog, which had been killed by a car. I had had my fill of death and just wanted to skip the whole thing—there had been a number of deaths in the family that year, both human and animal—but my mother had dug a hole; she was going to bury the dog and then go on to the next thing in her day. By the time that memory came back to me, I had children myself, and what struck me wasn’t my own experience but what it must have been like for my mother in those first years after her husband died. So that was the jumping off point for that story: How does one go on after such a crushing loss? Or maybe more specifically, how does one find a way to accept one’s own need to go on?

I think the real answer to your question is that I’m drawn to subjects that trouble me, things I can’t resolve. The experiences (or articles or situations) that inspire me to write all embody something I find deeply disturbing. The writing, I think, is an effort to figure it out, or at least to lay out the pieces in a way that makes them clear to me. Maybe this is true for all artists, I don’t know. I recently saw a quote from the British director Sam Mendes in The New Yorker that I thought captured this beautifully: “There is a grief that can never be solved. And that’s what fuels you and confounds you in equal measure. It gives you a motor.”

CS: The violence in some of these stories, both emotional and physical, is strikingly raw but not histrionic—you write with admirable restraint. I’m thinking in particular of the title story, which is darkly comic but also chilling in the manner you portray the main character’s elaborate fantasy of murdering his mean-spirited boss. What draws you to the impulse in us to do others harm?

MS: When I was growing up, we spent our summers on a farm in western Massachusetts, and I would often see my parents—my good, kind parents—killing things. (Most of the animal deaths in “Animals” are drawn from actual events in my childhood.) This deep co-existence of compassion and savagery was something I puzzled over as a child. I still puzzle over it, I guess. We are often aggressive, underneath our socially acceptable demeanors: We fight about territory and our place in the hierarchy and who will get what. (That character in “Rutting Season” who is thinking about killing his boss isn’t just a nut. He’s responding, according to a certain animal logic, to what he sees as a threat—the fact that he’s at the bottom of the pecking order.) At the same time, of course, people can also be amazingly kind and generous, willing to make even the ultimate sacrifice for each other. Which side of us wins out in a particular situation, and why—that question fascinates me.

CS: You’re in your mid-50s, but you’ve been writing for many years.  How did this collection come together?  Did you assemble it and find an agent who then sold it to Scribner? Or…?

MS: I’ve been writing for most of my life (my first attempt at a novel was in third grade). It took me a long time, however, to commit to writing in any public way. I was in my 30s by the time I published my first story, and even after that I proceeded fairly slowly. (The stories in Rutting Season were written over a period of about 20 years.) I’m not a fast writer; I tend to let my stories marinate for a while. Sometimes I even put them away for a year or so, if I can’t see my way forward. There were times when I made a concerted effort to submit my work to literary magazines, but I found the rejections demoralizing, and after a while I mostly stopped trying. I did keep writing, however. This wasn’t due to any laudable trait, like grit or determination—I just need to write. If I don’t, I sort of lose my bearings. So, I kept writing, and tried to find jobs that wouldn’t tie me down too much, and let my husband carry most of the weight of supporting the family, which is a gift I hope to repay someday. Eventually, my friend Daphne Kalotay suggested I contact Rob McQuilkin, and I sent him my manuscript.

Rob was incredibly patient, I have to say. I think it was probably more than two years between our first phone call and the time when the manuscript was finally ready to go out for bid. Initially, we tried to package the stories with a novel I’m writing, the assumption being that publishers would be more willing to take the stories if they could get a novel in the bargain. It turned out, though, that Scribner wanted only the stories. That was a blessing, really. It didn’t solve the problem of needing to earn an income, as an advance on the novel might have, but it does give me the space and freedom to write without having to answer to anyone, which is pretty important for me.

CS: What has the editorial process been like for you? You’re working with the great Kathryn Belden, who is also National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s editor.  Have you worked intensely with Ms. Belden on revisions or has the book changed little since its acquisition?

MS: The editorial process was so seamless, I barely remember it. Kathy made some suggestions, which all made perfect sense, and she decided to pull one story that wasn’t set in New England, which also made sense, and that was about it. She is very easy to work with, but I try not to think about her being Jesmyn Ward’s editor. I find that intimidating.

CS: “You the Animal,” the story about the New Haven social worker, is filled with what I assume must be authentic detail about Connecticut’s foster care system—do you have experience as a social worker? Or did you interview social workers while writing this story?

MS: I was never a social worker, which is probably for the best as I don’t think I’d be very good at it, but I’m relieved to hear that the details rang true. I always worry about this aspect of my work. For the record, I did interview someone in the field, and I read a few articles that went in depth about the child welfare system, but I’m sure if you asked someone who actually works in a child services department, they’d find plenty to pick apart.

The process of negotiating this line between real-world facts and a fictional story often feels challenging to me, since the story sometimes demands things, in a dramatic sense, that don’t strictly square with reality. I also have a certain apprehension about facts, because it seems to me that any event or situation can be viewed in multiple, even contradictory ways. This really haunted me during the year or two I worked as a reporter. I’d do the interviews, go to the government meetings, etc. and then, when I sat down to write, I’d freeze. I had a set of facts and a list of quotes, and now I was supposed to choose which to highlight and how to frame them. In other words, I was to decide what the story really was, and by deciding, I would necessarily leave out, erase all other possible interpretations. Who was I to do that? And what if I was wrong? As you can imagine, I drove myself crazy. It was a good thing when I quit that job.

CS: Race, social class, alcoholism, and divorce all inform the story “What It Takes,” which features a white adolescent female point-of-view character in a racially tense New Haven high school. Reading it was like taking a master class on building narrative tension—where did this story come from?

MS: That story is largely based on my own high school experience in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up. While the protagonist is not me and her family and friends are made up of bits and pieces of a number of different people I’ve known, the situation at the school is pretty much what I experienced. I should say that I myself did not have the larger socioeconomic and historical understanding back then that I tried to bring out in the story. I was just afraid, and angry about having to be afraid. It was only later, after I was safely out of that situation, that I allowed myself to think about things from the black kids’ perspective, to wonder what it was like for them. So, while the confrontation that comes at the end of the story is something that did happen to me, the realization that the main character has afterwards actually took me a couple of years to reach. I had to stop feeling threatened before I could open my mind.

CS: Who are your main literary influences?

MS: That’s a hard question to answer, because it’s always changing. When I was young, there was the whole world of children’s fiction, which I would have liked to just live inside, possibly forever. Later, in high school, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening, really struck a chord. I guess if I had to pick just three writers from the hundreds who have affected me, they might be Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, and Alice Munro. Woolf for a kind of ecstasy of imagination—the permission of that. Hemingway for the incredible restraint of his prose, which somehow still manages to be deeply emotional. And Munro—well, Munro for everything, but maybe especially for narrative structure. Those are the three who came to mind first, but already I’m beginning to think of others: Zadie Smith, George Saunders, Elena Ferrante, Elizabeth Strout. Really, it’s impossible.

CS: What are you working on now?

MS: I’m writing an historical novel about a 19th-century farm girl named Ada who defies her community to become an evangelical preacher. The story combines a place I love—the hill town region of western Massachusetts—with a tragedy that has always haunted me: My grandmother, when she was very small, saw her 15-month-old sister burn to death. The novel is not about my grandmother, but it does begin with a similar accident. Ada believes she is to blame for her sister’s death, and this sense of culpability ultimately launches her on a quest for redemption that brings her into conflict with the social rules of her family and her community.  The novel is set during a period of enormous change in our country, when capitalism was beginning to visibly erode traditional values and the primacy of community. It’s been interesting to delve into that time, and also to think about the hill towns and what they must have been like back then. I’ve really enjoyed escaping the tight confines of the short story. It’s very freeing.

The Novel Versus the Short Story: A Conversation with Matthew Lansburgh

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The novel’s superiority over the short story has long been a subject of contentious debate among writers, readers, and publishers, and is in no danger of being resolved to anyone’s satisfaction in the near or distant future. The New York publishing world’s privileging of the novel over the short story, with a few notable exceptions, helps to assure the novel’s primacy among today’s prose forms, and booksellers likewise feature more novels on their frontlist and new paperback tables than short story collections.

Certainly there are other reasons why novels, along with memoirs (putative autobiographies, in which their authors often employ the conventions of the novel), are the dominant prose forms on offer in bookstores, but if more short story collections were published by corporate publishing houses, it seems a reasonable assumption that their sales and marketing departments would then necessarily be tasked with promoting them with the same publicity muscle and marketing ingenuity used to promote long-form fiction titles.

Some readers complain that the short story doesn’t allow them to fully inhabit the fictional world the author has created because they feel as if the story is over almost as soon as it begins, but this has always struck me as a hollow reproach, one easily remedied by more careful reading, by slowing down and calling on all five senses instead of proceeding solely with the devouring eye that savors little of what it alights upon.

In the last couple of years, a number of debut collections have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling most short story writers confront, even with a large publishing house behind them, and have garnered considerable acclaim and review attention, among them titles by Carmen Maria Machado, Jenny Zhang, and Ottessa Moshfegh.

Another writer who could justifiably take his place alongside the new generation of short story masters is Matthew Lansburgh, whose collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, was selected by Andre Dubus III for the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was recently named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.

One of the more notable formal qualities of this addictive, deeply imaginative, and often very funny debut is that despite its classification as a story collection, it could be described as a novel with equal accuracy. Many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean were published in journals as stand-alone stories, but taken as a whole, the book’s narrative moves with the fluidity and authority of a novel, most of the stories alternating between two point-of-view characters, Heike, a German woman who emigrated to the U.S. as a young woman, and her son, Stewart, a young academic whose estranged, bullying American father divorced his mother when he was still a small boy.

Outside Is the Ocean is novelistic in scope, spanning 42 years, with the earliest story set in 1967 and the latest in 2019—the force of Heike’s big personality reverberating through every story. In order to escape the unreasonable expectations she has of their mother-son relationship, and her recriminations when he can’t meet them, Stewart flees to the other side of the country as soon as he reaches adulthood and eventually becomes a college professor in Boston.

Stewart’s father, Raymond, is also an academic whom he sees rarely, and in the stories where Stewart does visit his father, he is treated with hostility if he fails to behave or perform exactly as his father demands. Although it would be easy to portray both Raymond and Heike in a villainous light, Lansburgh manages to suffuse the stories that focus on them with pathos, ensuring they are fully realized, complicated characters whose sorrows and disappointments ultimately feel as immediate as Stewart’s do.

Via email and Google Docs, Lansburgh and I recently corresponded about Outside Is the Ocean and his formation as a fiction writer.

Christine Sneed: Which story did you begin with? (I’m guessing you didn’t proceed chronologically from 1967 to 2019). And how did these characters and their stories take root?

Matthew Lansburgh: You’re right that I didn’t write all the stories in the collection chronologically, but the stories I first began working on were in fact the earliest from a chronological perspective. I started these stories well over a decade ago when I first tried to write about my parents. Initially, I began writing what I thought might be a kind of memoir—mostly as a way for me to try to understand my childhood and the people who raised me. This process of making sense of my past through crafting and recrafting scenes in various permutations led me to realize that fiction would be a better vehicle to tell my story. One of the most important lessons I learned early on is that how you tell your story is the most important decision a writer makes. The first five years of working on this book were really about exploring the various ways I could structure and frame my material. In the end, I ended up letting go of the idea that I needed to be true to the facts, and I began to fabricate and embellish and let my imagination take over.

CS: Outside Is the Ocean has been marketed as a story collection, but it’s more novelistic than David Szalay’s latest novel, the Man Booker Prize finalist All That Man Is, which is thematically linked but has almost no overlapping characters. It’s hard not to assume Szalay’s book was marketed as a novel for the sole purpose of bringing more readers to it (which isn’t, all things being equal, a bad thing, considering how hard it is to sell books today). Why do you think there’s such a preference for novels over short story collections among readers and most publishers?

ML: I’m glad to hear you think Outside Is the Ocean feels novelistic—thank you! I think the fact that the book follows the lives of a recurring cast of characters and that the reader can see how those characters’ lives evolve over time does make it feel more like a novel than many short story collections. When people ask me whether I had any literary models in mind as I worked on my book, I often mention Olive Kitteridge, which was marketed as a novel-in-stories.

As for why it is that many readers and publishers favor novels over short story collections, I’m guessing the reason is that people like the idea of escaping into another world that is fully realized and allows the reader to transcend the confines of his or her reality. We all know, however, that the best short stories do in fact provide this kind of escape—in an hour or two, rather than over a much longer timespan. Indeed, I would argue that given the increasingly diminished attention spans we all have these days, short stories should be more popular than ever. Perhaps a book of linked short stories offers the best of both worlds: bite-size narratives that can be consumed one sitting at a time, over the course of several days or weeks?

CS: Did the fact that you were aware of the novel’s popularity over the short story guide the way you wrote and structured OItO?

ML: I wish I could say that I wrote Outside Is the Ocean with some kind of master plan, but the truth is it felt like I was stumbling along during most of the writing process. Some of the key factors that shaped the book’s form had nothing to do with the “market,” but rather with where I was in my life: this is the first book I tried to write and I found the idea of writing one short story, followed another and another, less daunting than tackling a novel (so many of us start with stories, I suppose); I also wrote most of the book while I had a full-time day job, and I found working on a series of shorter pieces easier to navigate than than a single 300-page project. Once I’d gathered together a critical mass of stories and realized they involved the same characters in various settings and circumstances, I did begin to think about what it might take to create a book-length work, but that came later on.

CS: I’m guessing, based on your reply to question #2, that you read more novels than story collections, though perhaps I’m wrong? Do you intend to write more short stories? (Maybe you’re working on some at present).

ML: Yes! I love writing short stories and hope to write them for many years to come, though recently I’ve been spending most of my time working on a novel. (The novel is quite different from Outside Is the Ocean in terms of its tone and sensibility—it’s about a misfit with horns who gets fired from his corporate job and ends up working at Chipotle!) As for my reading habits, I think I pick up story collections and novels in approximately equal numbers. I tend to dip into lots of books, because I’m always curious to see what contemporary writers are up to.

CS: William Trevor and Alice Munro have written novels, though in Munro’s case, only one, Lives of Girls and Women, which could probably still be considered a story collection, but they’re best known for short stories and are considered masters of the form. Do you see Outside Is the Ocean as a book in conversation with authors like Trevor and Munro? You mention Elizabeth Strout above, but I’m curious about your other influences.

ML: Alice Munro and William Trevor are absolutely in my pantheon of favorite writers. Stories like “Runaway” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as well as “Folie à deux” and “An Afternoon” will, I’m certain, remain in my consciousness and inform who I am until I die. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a slow reader: I’ve always wished I was someone who could read a novel a week, but that just isn’t how I’m wired. As a result, I’ve never gravitated toward large, sprawling novels—the books I connect with most powerfully are usually collections of short stories or shorter novels. I love everything I’ve ever read by Flannery O’Connor and Janet Frame. I also love Coetzee (Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians), Nabokov (Lolita), Salinger (especially Nine Stories), Ishiguro (Remains of the Day!!!!), and Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red). Now that I’m answering this question, I’m realizing the list of writers I admire is quite long and includes more people than I can reasonably list here, including Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Edward P. Jones, and Tony Doerr.

CS: You mentioned above that you began writing Outside Is the Ocean as a memoir but realized that fiction was a better vehicle for this particular story. I kept thinking as I read that Heike and Raymond would be extremely challenging parents to have, and Heike especially is larger than life and almost pathologically maddening at times. What were the main challenges of writing characters who were based on people you knew very well?

ML: Because the material’s seeds are so personal, I do feel like writing the stories served as a form of catharsis. Working through draft after draft of some of the pieces often felt like a kind of therapy, as if the process of conjuring various permutations of certain scenes allowed me to revisit and reexamine events from my past, imagining different fact patterns and possible paths along life’s decision tree. As I mentioned above, the end result is fiction, but the emotions underlying and informing the narrative moments came from my lived experience—I suppose that’s often the case for most writers. I think one of the reasons so many people aspire to write is that putting words on the page can provide an opportunity for us to grapple with things that have happened to us and to understand not only who we are but who the people in our lives are.

As for Heike and Raymond, I think the biggest challenge posed by using my mother and father as the basis for these characters was allowing myself (forcing myself) to let go of reality and let my imagination run free. The characters in the book are different in important ways from my parents and ended up being distinct people. One of the things I struggled with in revision was how to make Heike and Raymond as three-dimensional as possible: to avoid caricature and cliche. This was especially difficult in the case of Raymond who existed for several years on the page as the prototypical angry, domineering father. Writing “The Sky and the Night” was definitely a turning point in my understanding of who Raymond could be. That was one of the last stories I wrote, and it felt like a bit of a breakthrough emotionally.

CS: You earned your MFA in creative writing from NYU, and I’m wondering if in the writing workshops you participated in, most of your classmates were writing short stories (and were they encouraged to do so, rather than writing a novel while in the program)?

ML: I loved my experience at NYU. The program is incredibly flexible, and they allowed me to take classes part-time. (I was enrolled in the program over a period of five years, taking just one class a semester and sometimes skipping semesters altogether.) The faculty is superb, and I had a chance to study with Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Amy Hempel, Colson Whitehead, E.L. Doctorow, Hannah Tinti, and Darin Strauss. The professors who led our workshops didn’t encourage one form over another. It seemed to me about 60 percent of the students were working on stories, the rest novels. In general, I think the students who were the most ambitious and “connected” were, more often than not, working on novels. I guess they figured out early on that it would be easier to sell a novel than a collection of stories.

CS: You likely worked on many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean while at NYU—did any of your classmates or professors suggest that you write this book as a straightforward novel, i.e. a book with many fewer stand-alone chapters? Was this something you tried?

ML: I did indeed work on many of the stories in the collection while I was a student at NYU. As I recall, only one or two people suggested that I think about what the stories might look like if they were combined into a more traditional novel, but I did try to see whether that approach might work. In the end, none of those attempts got traction (I tried to write the entire book from Heike’s POV, for example, but that started to feel too claustrophobic). In the end, I think the story format offered more flexibility by allowing me to use multiple voices, points of view, and narrative postures.

CS: Do you ever encounter readers who say, “I think you’re a good writer, but I’m straight and just can’t identify with gay characters?” I’m asking this because the topic comes up in writing workshops, i.e. some readers won’t or can’t read from a subject position other than their own. Stewart, who is gay, is of course central to the book and it’s his perspective through which so many of the stories are filtered. His sexuality, however, is only one aspect of who he is.

ML: Ha! I think if I did come across someone who said that I might spray some Chanel Eau de Parfum in their hair. I know that there are probably many people out there who still hold these kinds of views, but, fortunately, I rarely interact with people like that at this point in my life. I live in New York City where it seems just about everyone is gay or wants to be gay.

In all seriousness, I have to say I’ve been thrilled by how supportive and enthusiastic the book’s readers have been (including a number of straight, white, cis dudes—some well over 60—who told me they’ve enjoyed it). The reception I’ve received has been quite heartening, especially given the fact that when the book came out, I really only expected the gays and women to be interested in reading it. Many of the readers (including the straight dudes) have even said they were able to identify with many of the characters in the book. Responses like this have made my fragile heart burst into song.

CS: Despite the undercurrent of sadness that pervades many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean, there are so many comic moments in this book. Would you say that comedy comes naturally to you?

ML: It always makes me happy to hear that readers find parts of the book funny. Humor is important to me—both on the page and in life itself. My father was a jokester, and I think I inherited his somewhat zany way of looking at the world. It was one of his best qualities. A lot of my writing does have a comic dimension, but Outside Is the Ocean is, for the most part, quite serious, so I’m glad to hear you found moments of levity along the way.

I do think that comedy comes naturally to me. Sometimes people don’t always share my sense of humor, but I see the world as a strange place, full of ridiculous situations and things that often don’t make sense. My father was a difficult person, someone who could be quite scary and sometimes menacing, but he could also be whimsical and funny. In retrospect, I think I developed humor as a kind of coping mechanism to help calm him down and defuse tension. It worked much better than bursting into tears or trying to match his fury with my own.

CS: You wrote above that you’re working on a novel about a man with horns. Where on earth did this character come from?

ML: Yes, I’ve been working on this novel, on and off, for about five years. One of the book’s central characters is a woman with wings who grew up in Croatia and who works in Coney Island. My protagonist, Karl, becomes infatuated with her, and I figured I needed to make him special too. I gave him horns in the second draft of the book. They’re not big horns—just little ones. Most people don’t even know they’re there.

CS: One final question: what has been the hardest part of launching a new book into the world and how have you handled it?

ML: Getting people to read it. Getting reviews in national publications. There are so many good books out there, so to ask people to take a chance on a book that hasn’t been promoted with a big-budget marketing campaign has been a bit of an uphill battle.

On the plus side, many of the people who’ve read Outside Is the Ocean have become enthusiastic supporters. I feel very fortunate that some very well-respected writers (such as yourself!) have taken the time to read my book and have responded so positively to it. It means a lot to me.