There’s a concept in film criticism called cinéma pur, or “pure cinema,” which describes those instances in a movie when narrative and theme are set aside and the medium reverts to its root elements: motion, image, rhythm. Removed from the conventions and whims of the cultural moment, pure cinema can serve to remind the viewer just what is it that made him love the medium in the first place.
Amy Gustine’s YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD might be called “pure short fiction,” in that it offers eleven short stories that seem to luxuriate in their short story-ness, without any gesture toward superfluous flash, deconstruction, or interconnectivity. Within its pages, the reader is invited to discover those wondrous things that only great short fiction can offer: an abbreviated window into disparate lives, intense and intricate moments of distress and disclosure, completely self-contained and executed in twenty-five pages or less. As soon as one ends, the page turns and the reader is taken off to the next encounter, sometimes decades and continents away from the last, with the only throughline between the assorted characters being those same frailties and fortitudes that the reader recognizes in himself. A thrill of life is discovering commonality in variation, and that is the thrill to be found in a collection like this: the next story promises something completely new, but in that newness we will surely find a bit of the familiar.
Released in January from Sarabande Books, the collection marks Gustine’s literary debut and hopefully heralds more works to come, each bearing the reader to further corners of the human condition. The author was kind enough to answer a few of my questions via email, providing some insight into her strategies for writing fiction, the peculiarities of the short story form, and the importance of relying on one’s intuition to find a way through to the other side of a narrative.
I get the sense that your worldview — or at least the worldview of your work, which I recognize could be different from your personal worldview — is essentially optimistic. Which is not the norm for writers of literary short fiction, I don’t think. Most literary short stories are either a) sardonic, b) dour, or c) dour with a final image that suggests the slightly redemptive power of beauty. But your stories aren’t really that way. Most of them get to an uplifting place by the end. Which isn’t to imply that they’re sentimental, or sunny, or that they pander. There’s plenty of darkness, and there’s usually a point in the story when it looks like you’re going to drop us fully into that darkness. But in almost every case you pull the reader back into the light. I was wondering how that analysis squares with the way you see your work. Do you think of yourself as a hopeful writer?
Many people have commented on the very difficult situations the stories explore, but few have noted exactly what you so keenly observed: the stories almost always take the reader back into the light. For me, that light is usually not beauty, though beauty is of course one of the joys of life. For me redemption is found in love, friendship, and personal strength. The story “An Uncontaminated Soul” is a good example and it features a quote from Camus that applies here: “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” My essentially optimistic worldview also brings to mind Martin Luther King’s belief that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I agree, except I’d say that we must do the bending. Justice is like Sisyphus’ rock, you have to keep rolling it back up that hill with every thought, word and deed, with all your strength. Beauty and love don’t merely exist; they have to be cultivated, created and guarded. Human greed, fear, simple-mindedness, tribalism, weakness, and selfishness are always acting against justice, love and beauty. We must actively fight for these things in the world at large and within ourselves. It’s often the inner struggle that interests me the most. Our own weaknesses are the first and last, and maybe the most important and difficult, battles. In my work I tend to end up at a point where the character is at least trying to get that rock another inch up the hill. I never set out to write this way, but I guess that’s the way that worldviews work—they take over the imagination and reveal themselves.
I’m very aware of optimistic endings in fiction because it’s something I’ve been trying to crack. I had a professor in grad school who told me that I was in danger of allowing desperation to become a tick in my work, and that I should consider an optimistic ending once in awhile. But it’s actually a pretty difficult thing to do, to reach a conclusion that is essentially hopeful but also feels true to life.
Do you see writing fiction as part of helping to “bend the arc”? People say that fiction is good for fostering empathy in people. Is there a didactic function of fiction, for you? Or do you see yourself, the writer, as the primary beneficiary: that you write to fill your own heart, to inch your own rock up the hill?
Here’s the paradox: the most compelling justification for spending one’s life making up stories is to bend the arc toward justice, but if you sit down with that goal in mind, you’ll fail. At least I will. Fiction written with a didactic intention tends toward false simplicity and self-righteousness. Explicit satire is occasionally an exception to that, but even then I’ve often seen the same problems. Instead, I try to write with a sense of curiosity and empathy, to write like a blind person might move through an unfamiliar but fascinating room, a room filled with things the person very much yearns to know more about. Maybe a new boyfriend or girlfriend’s apartment, or their childhood home. Essentially I’m writing to inch my own rock up the hill, but I hope that I can justify doing it in this particular way by occasionally creating something that will also help inch the rock up for others.
A few of your stories follow characters whose experiences are presumably very different than yours. “All the Sons of Cain,” for example, follows an Israeli Jewish woman who sneaks into Gaza to try to rescue her son, a soldier who is being held hostage by Hamas. “AKA Juan” concerns a black American man who grew up with a white family. It would seem that these scenarios are sort of inherently dicey, since there’s a political or sociological dimension to them. More so than in other stories that follow protagonists that are more demographically similar to you, the writer. Did you feel any increased pressure, in those stories, to be accurate or representative, or to come to a specific conclusion? Like, did the stakes in them feel different than the stakes in, say, “An Uncontaminated Soul,” which is about a white woman with a lot of cats?
For the record, I don’t have 54 cats. I used to have 4 though.
Seriously, yes, absolutely, the stakes felt a lot higher. Certainly I felt an increased pressure to get the facts of culture and place accurate. “An Uncontaminated Soul” is set in Toledo, where I grew up. I know the landscape. I know the culture. I’m well aware that it’s far more difficult to get the facts right the further afield you travel as a writer. I am also well aware that there is far more moral scrutiny attached to stories like “All the Sons of Cain” and “AKA Juan” that have a specifically racial, cultural or religious element. However, even knowing that, I did not feel pressure to come to a specific conclusion. If I felt I had to come to a specific conclusion, a conclusion that didn’t feel organic to me, I would not have written the stories.
I also don’t feel pressure to be representative. What I feel is pressure to write about characters with generosity and empathy, but also with a clear-eyed lack of sentimentality. I won’t finish a story, I often won’t even start, until I find a deep emotional connection with the character. That’s subjective, I realize, but it’s all I have to guide me when writing about anyone other than myself, including Lavinia of the 54 cats. And Lawan. And R’s mother. And Mike and Shayla. Though I realize fiction is often read as being representative, I don’t write it with that in mind and I’m dubious of reading it that way. I think that’s another kind of didactic writing, which as I said, I try to steer clear of, at least consciously. And as a reader I think it misses the point. Treating a character as representative of a group violates fiction’s sacred mission: to reveal and explore the paradox of each person’s essential uniqueness and humanity’s universal sameness. That’s my credo: that we are simultaneously unique and essentially the same as everyone else, and both sides of that coin are what fiction is constantly teaching us.
In a way this is comforting. If we look deeply enough inside ourselves, we can probably find a way to connect to everyone else. In another way it is terrifying. If we look inside ourselves deeply enough, we can also find a way to connect to those we find reprehensible. We find their darkness somewhere in ourselves. Paradoxically, it also means that we can never fully and completely understand anyone else. Our uniqueness means that nothing we know about another, not their religion, their education, their family, not what we observe about their manners, their dress, their speech, tells us the whole truth of them. That’s one of fiction’s lies, and one of its great satisfactions: that we can pretend, finally, to understand someone.
I read that two of the stories in this collection, “Goldene Medene” and “The River Warta,” which both deal with Polish immigrants to the United States, were originally part of a manuscript based on your own family’s immigrant experience at the turn of the last century. What made you decide to shelve that project in favor of this one? I'm always curious to know at what point, and for what reasons, a writer decides to walk away from a manuscript. Do you think any of the other stories from that first collection may still be incorporated into future books?
The project featured linked stories about characters within the same family. I shelved it because the requirements of a linked collection stymied me. Unlike typical story collections, in each new story you’re constrained by what you’ve already written. You’re constrained in a novel by previous material, of course, but a novel is premised on a continuity of character, plot, purpose and voice. In a sense a novel is like climbing a staircase: what you’ve written before guides you upward. The linked collection began to feel more like obstacles in my path. Also, a bit like riffs on a theme, and that bored me. Olive Kitteridge is a marvelous linked collection—so linked, some think of it more as a novel, though I’d argue that characterization. Maybe I’ll pull something that brilliant off one day. I doubt it will be by returning to the material of my family’s immigrant experience. My interests swirl around some of that material still, but mainly I’ve moved on.
Linked collections are my favorite genre, and I read a lot of them, but I can definitely see what you mean. And, to be honest, in the case of a lot of linked collections, the linkedness just sort of gets in the way without really adding anything. Even so, I found myself reveling in how diverse the stories in your collection are: in tone, in structure, in location, in the types of characters they follow. And each one so strong. It almost reads like a “Best of,” if that makes sense, like a "Selected Stories" that a writer puts out at the end of her career.
What’s your relationship to short fiction? Was there a period when you were reading a lot of it? Do you still? Is it a form that continues to hold interest for you? I ask because I’ve found a surprising number of writers don’t feel compelled to pursue short fiction past the first collection, and I know you’ve also got novels in the works.
I have always read short fiction and novels more or less equally, based on what catches my eye, though I admit I have the same trouble reading stories as I do writing them: I like the feeling of being immersed and I find the “starting over” or switching course a bit painful. When you’re a toddler, they call that “difficulty in transitioning,” like from puzzles to Play-Doh. I find the transition out of one story or novel into another emotionally unpleasant and the nature of the short story is that you have to start over more often. I found it hard to finish writing a story on Tuesday and start something new Wednesday morning. Consequently, it took me a long time to write the eleven stories in Pity Us because I wrote them as they took hold of me, in the interstices between doing other work. What would happen is I would finish a draft of a novel, and while I let it ferment, I’d write a story or two that I’d been thinking about for sometime.
Stories definitely still hold interest for me. I have two new ones in the works. One thing that’s always mystified me is that fiction primarily breaks down into novels (over sixty thousand words) and stories (usually under twelve thousand). There’s very little fiction out there between these two lengths. How puzzling. As if it’s some kind of shared Jungian unconscious story pattern: the short and the long, but not the medium. There are plots and characters and ideas that simply work best at the short length and others that require the long. I believe in responding to the material, but I still can’t say why the material so rarely seems to demand, say, thirty or forty thousand words.
You’re absolutely right to observe that most fiction writers privilege the novel over the short story and tend to “move on” after their first collection. I suspect this is driven by the marketplace more than anything else. I suspect there are a lot of brilliant story writers who are mediocre novelists, but we miss out on their brilliance because our current culture places more value on the novel. I don’t know why. With our short attention spans you’d think the story would have at least an equal attraction, but many of my non-writer friends never read short stories, and when I’ve asked why, they confess a certain dissatisfaction with them. My theory is they enjoy plot; they want to know “what happens next.” Stories are typically less about a series of complicated causes and effects. However beautiful and insightful, they are less like movies and more like snapshots. I’ve had people tell me they would really like more of a particular character and situation from Pity Us. Once something grabs your heart, you don’t like to let it go so swiftly. People like to see it through to the end, and stories more often leave us in the middle.
Yeah, there don’t seem to be as many novellas written today as there were a century ago. Length is pretty deterministic when it comes to publication, audience, all that. How does potential length play into the conception of a story? Like, when you have an idea, how do you know if it’s a short story idea or a novel idea? Or, at what point do you know?
The short, useless answer to that is instinct. I have never been surprised by material, never thought I had a story that turned out to be a novel or vice versa. I usually know almost immediately which one it is. The long answer may lie in an idea that I think can originally be attributed to the critic Mark Schorer. In The Story: A Critical Anthology he says, “If we can pin down the difference between the short story and the novelette and novel at all, it would seem to be in this distinction, that the short story is an art of moral revelation, the novel an art of moral evolution.” It seems to me that every idea has (for a particular writer) either a static quality (revelation) or a quality of cause and effect, of evolution. You might call it “the arc.” Again, I think of the analogy of a photograph or painting vs. a movie or TV show. I do not mean to malign the short story by this analogy at all. There is just as much art, just as much complexity, just as much mystery in the photograph, the painting and the story as in the movie/show/novel. Stories take a situation that has all its components and bears them, in all their contradiction and insolvability, to us. That may be why, as you say in the first question, happy endings are so very difficult in a story. The novel is about development, evolution. It implies some sort of progress, and so it is not as difficult to progress from the negative to, ultimately, the positive. A story, because is it is doing the work of revealing rather than changing, must find the positive that already exists in the negative and then find the right time and way to reveal it without seeming to paste it on. (Because it probably goes without saying that if the revelation is wholly positive, no one bothers to write a story about it in the first place.) This also may speak to why a lot of non-writers prefer novels: They satisfy our cultural sense that we should always be progressing. That there is at least the chance of a happy ending.
Oh wow. That’s a pretty sound diagnosis of the different forms. And their relative popularity. In discussing a short story, in a classroom or workshop, the question that gets asked always seems to be, “What has changed by the end?” But maybe the better question is, “What has been revealed?”
Does plot come easily for you? Some of your stories, like “When We’re Innocent” or “Half-Life” (which I particularly loved) have rather propulsive plots, and novels obviously require lot of plotting. I find plot to be the hardest part of writing, but I might just suffer from a deficit of imagination.
I wouldn’t say it comes easily, though “Half-Life” and to some extent “When We’re Innocent” did come more quickly to me than most other stories have. It’s interesting you should identify those particularly as having “propulsive plots.” What they share is a sinister element. Menace hangs over both of these stories in a way it doesn’t in the others, despite the very real danger that lurks in “All the Sons of Cain.” In “Cain” the character is in danger, but in “Half-Life” and “Innocent”, the protagonists may themselves turn out to pose the danger. Maybe that’s the difference.
Plot is difficult, no doubt. I believe in the concept of the “objective correlative.” You’re trying to articulate something through your plot that can’t be satisfactorily articulated in a discursive way. That means you’re moving forward on intuition. Of course imagination helps, but the imagination must be in service of that complex thing that’s being articulated, the moral revelations and evolutions that make the story more than a set of random causes and effects. That is monstrously difficult, and then form sneaks in as another element. The same plot presented in different forms or structures—for example the same plot told from a different point of view, or as a real-time series of events as opposed to a summarized, looking-back narrative—can entirely change the effect on the reader.
Do you write a lot of drafts? You said earlier you never get surprised by material, that it more or less comes out the way you expect it to come out. I’m curious how much of your time is spent on revision, and if that’s decreased with experience.
To clarify, I never get surprised regarding whether my material is a story or a novel. I’m very much surprised in other respects. Like Vladimir Holan says, in most ways I am crawling on my knees from beginning to end. I’ve had a few stories unspool quickly, with minimal changes, but for the most part I do revise quite a bit.
The degree of revision has decreased with experienced. I wouldn’t speak of it in terms of the number of drafts I’ve written though. The very concept of what constitutes a draft is impossible to define. If you change one paragraph in a twenty-page story, is that a “new draft”? Revision is a continuum of change.
You said you grew up in Toledo, and Ohio provides a setting for a number of the stories in the collection. I was wondering how large the region looms for you, as a writer. To what extent it has inspired or informed your work.
Place per se doesn’t usually figure as the major inspiration for me, but I recognize a tendency to default to the suburban Midwest. Stories like “Prisoners Do,” “Unattended” or “Half-Life” could easily have been set in Manhattan or San Francisco, for example. Other stories not so much. “AKA Juan” and “You Should Pity Us Instead” would not have been as effectively set in a large city with a lot of ethnic diversity. “Coyote” wouldn’t have worked as sensibly in a dense, urban setting. But did they have to be Toledo, Ohio? No. They didn’t even have to be Midwestern. But this is where I’m from and where I live now, so my theory is, why not set them there? Why not let even the unconscious factors of place infuse and enrich the story if they seem to fit? There is so much intuition about class and culture playing into a story that it makes sense to me to do this, and I take a certain pleasure in writing explicitly about my hometown. I enjoyed describing Lavinia’s neighborhood in “An Uncontaminated Soul” more because it’s a neighborhood I could go sit in, a neighborhood that had some resonance for me. I think that place doesn’t have to be a focus of the work, or an inspiration per se, to still be important, to be part of creating a writer’s unique fingerprint. While I very much enjoy being able to write effectively about many places in the world, when a story works just as well in Toledo as somewhere else, I like to set it there.
Do you have any advice for novice short story writers, or aspiring writers in general? Anything you would have done differently if you were to start over again?
It’s hard to give meaningful, good advice in the abstract, to all writers as opposed to a specific writer, but there are a few tips I feel pretty comfortable offering. Think carefully about the usual advice to “write what you know” and “show don’t tell.” I think both of these are misleading. Pick up a book, almost any book. Read it and then find out what you can about the author. I’m sure you’ll find they didn’t write what they know, if by that you mean having personally experienced. Hilary Mantel didn’t know Thomas Cromwell, though she obviously researched him, then brilliantly re-imagined him. So that leads to the related advice to read non-fiction as well as fiction, to broaden your knowledge so that so much more than your own life becomes what you know.
Show don’t tell is also good advice, but misleading and often misinterpreted. Again, pick up any book. Note how the story’s events are related, either “shown” through scene or “told” through summary. Most writers use both techniques, though some predominantly “tell.” A good example is Ward Just’s American Romantic. A better way to think about the advice “show don’t tell” might be “show, don’t explain” or, as Fred Leebron put it to me, “resist the urge to explain.” Even that can be a subtle matter. Fiction explains things all the time. Maybe the dictum should be “expand, don’t reduce” or “describe, don’t prescribe.” Or maybe it’s this: “Dramatize, don’t summarize, the most important meanings behind the work.” This is sticky business. No doubt it merits a much more thorough study. But for now, I guess I’ll say: It’s more complicated than it first appears, so read carefully and pay attention to how many ways there are to construct a successful narrative. There are far more than you might at first think, and finding the one that suits your narrative is immensely difficult, and immensely satisfying.