Joe Meno is the author of six books, most recently the story collection Demons in the Spring and The Boy Detective Fails. His new novel, The Great Perhaps, is out in May.
It's been a big year for you. Demons in the Spring, your story collection, came out last fall. You were a finalist for the Story Prize with Tobias Wolff and Jhumpa Lahiri, and now your new novel, The Great Perhaps, coming out.
It's been a great year. I don't think I'll ever again have two books come out in the same 12 month period. It's been hectic, but great.
Getting nominated for the Story Prize and getting to meet and share the stage with two writers I really admireâ€”it was a real pleasure. You sometimes hear people say, "Yeah, I'm just happy to have been nominated," and I always think, "What are you talking about? You want to win!" but I can genuinely say it was a complete honor to be associated with such high caliber writers. Getting to speak with them about writing was definitely one of the best days of my professional writing life.
I love both of their works. Tobias Wolff is the standard for what American short stories are right now. There's a story of his called "Smorgasbord," which I go back to every so often to read. I told him that the story reminds me of why I write.
He thanked me and then said, "You know, I really love the first story of your collection," and I was like, "What are you talking about?" I was blown away by the fact that he'd taken the time to read my collection. I mean, I'm not even on the radar. My stuff isn't in the New Yorker. For me, it spoke of the quality of writer he is, the quality of his character.
It was just incredible. That alone was worth the plane ticket to New York, to have an afternoon to talk about writing with him. The three of us had a lunch together and Tobias ended up telling us a ghost story. Then Jhumpa Lahiri told a ghost story. And I thought, "This is the best." I love when people tell ghost stories.
Swapping ghost stories a Pulitzer Prize winner. That's fantastic.
It's the kind of stuff they don't put in the Paris Review. But it's actually why people tell stories. It's why people fall in love with stories. It's like sitting around a camp fire; a good story provides that same intimacy and possibility and connection.
The really nice thing about being nominated for the Story Prize was that it got word out about the book, which we put together to raise funds for the 826 Chicago. All the proceedsâ€”my author proceeds and all the contributors who did art workâ€”were donated to the tutoring center here.
You do stories, you do novels, you do plays. Do you approach each in a similar manner?
A lot of times I start a piece out thinking it's going to be a short story, but then I get to 20 or 25 pages and I think, "Okay, you're just kidding yourself." I guess my rule of thumb is if a piece gets over 25 to 30 pages, then it's novel or it's a play. If I get to that point and there's just too much going on or I'm still adding characters, whatever the case might be, then it's something larger than a story. That's the way it works for me. I may start something in one form then think, well, this would actually be better as something else. The Boy Detective Fails, my last novel, actually started out as a screenplay then it became a play. Then I realized I just needed to do it as a novel. And I did it as a novel, and then I translated it back into a play. That's the way I feel I keep learning as a writer. The text then becomes surprising. With this new novel, The Great Perhaps, it has so many different forms and elements to the actual text. I feel that's important.
I've become keenly aware of this in the past few years. There's a difference between a book and a television show, between a book and film, and I've been really trying to use the book for what it can do well instead of disguising it, which has been happening over the last fifteen to twenty years in publishing. It seems like more and more people are using books as stand-ins for these other things. This book is really a television show in book form, or an actress's biography. I try to use a book for what a book can do really well. Demons in the Spring is a good example. You're never going to have a movie with pieces of art, no illustrated short-story television show.
There are certain things you can do with a book that don't necessarily translate well to film or theater, like having multiple characters, or covering a broad span of time. And the other thing is having multiple forms within the novel. One character in The Great Perhaps has these prayers she makes up for herself. And then the father has these scientific abstracts and papers he's working on. There are letters being written. Those things don't really translate to film. But that's what a story or narrative fiction can do really well.
This book was, in many ways, a way to explore all the possibility of what a book is. I feel it's way more expansive than my other books. And there was a reason for that. It was a way for me to say, "This is what you can do with a book" and not have to dumb it down the way television and film often dumb the story down.
You did some interesting things with the structure of the novel. You have Madeline who, whenever she appears, has a list from A to Z; you have Thisbe, as you mentioned, who has her prayers; and you have the grandfather, Henry, who writes "To whom it may concern" letters. When you went to attack this novel, did you see it as something of a whole, or did it start out as a group of short stories that were somehow connected?
It took me about four years to write the book. Some characters were started in short stories, like Thisbe. She was in a short story and I was like, "I'm going to use her in a play." So I was writing all these stories and a specific conflict kept coming up in their different lives and in different ways, but it was really all the same question: All the characters were dealing with fear.
I realized that these characters were all related; and then I thought, maybe they are all actually related, as in being a family. So then I started figuring out how that would all work, the different stories and characters and their relationships. I just wrote a lot about each character and tried to come up with the way that the book made sense and moved forward. Then I decided I was going to give a chapter to each character and that was going to be the structure of the book. I kept repeating that. That helped me build up the momentum and rhythm. Each chapter had to purposely leave the character at a dramatic spot, almost like a cliff hanger, so that you're excited when the character comes around again. The book then develops in multiple directions at the same time. It starts off with the whole family going to the zoo. Everyone's together, but by the middle of the book, all the characters are isolated, virtually alone, and then at the end, they're brought back together. It took me a long time to figure out that, structurally, I was going to following character one, two, three, four, five and then repeat. But I also wanted to get these long lost relatives in there as well. I wanted to show the question of fear, as they're experiencing it in 2004, is not just endemic or part of America today. It's always been there. Especially when it's an empire concerned. So I had the distant ancestors of the family each have their own chapters, too. I was then able to add little historical asides.
The book is really about not just fear, but the fear of complexity. Each of these characters are afraid of the world as it is. They want one simple answer, whether it's a simple answer of evolution, or a simple answer of religion, or the simple answer to the myth of history—they just want one simple answer.
The last eight years, leading up to the Obama administration, that was the pervasive mood of the country. And it wasn't a left or a right issue. It was an issue in America. Things suddenly got so complex that we were like, "Just give us some simple answers. That's all we want." In response to that desire, we give up complexity in exchange for simple answers.
This the what the Casper family in The Great Perhaps is struggling with. Each member of the family thinks there's one simple thing that's going to make sense of their lives, and in each way it fails. By the end of the book, each of those characters comes to some understanding that trying to argue the war in bumper stickers isn't the best way to come to the understanding about the necessity of war. Or trying to pin all your hopes of the world on one political idea is going to undercut what politics are all about. That's the struggle these characters have to deal with. It's what we all deal with.