An Interview with Norman Waksler

Norman Waksler is the author of Signs of Life, which was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2008.

Black Lawrence Press: You are primarily a short story writer. What about this form appeals to you?

Norman Waksler: In a way it’s rather like what has been said about sculptors, the way they would view themselves as removing extraneous marble to get at the form within the block. So what particularly appeals to me in writing short stories is whittling away all the extra material and finding the shape of the narrative so that I end up with a pure arc of story, unless, of course, I end up with something resembling a sine wave, which means the story needs more work.

Also, when you write short stories, there’s always a sense of the next one waiting just over the horizon. I suppose it’s like surfing, you ride one wave and if it’s not the perfect wave, hey, there’s another one coming and maybe that one will be perfect, or at the very least, as exhilarating as the last.

BLP: Tell us a little bit about the process of compiling a short story collection. What do you consider when choosing stories for a collection and arranging the order of the stories?

NW: Well, in Tom Jones Fielding compares the author of a novel to the host of an inn, saying it’s the author’s duty to present the reader with the menu of what’s on offer so the reader can chose to partake or not. For me, I think of a collection of short stories as being like a feast. At a feast you wouldn’t want six or eight meat courses or fish courses because the palate wearies and the food loses its savor. And I believe that in a collection of short stories you don’t want eight or ten stories all of the same tone and weight for the same reason, so one of the things I aim at is putting together stories in different moods, with different emotional weight and different degrees of humor or somberness, so that the reader experiences a variety of feelings and approaches to storytelling.

Of course there are other considerations as well. You want to have the stories fit
together thematically if you can. The theme that unites Signs of Life is loss and the threat of loss: of love, life, integrity, belief in oneself or in someone you admire. In the collection I’m putting together now, Neighbors and Strangers, the theme speaks for itself. I didn’t deliberately write a group of stories on the subject, but it turns out I’ve written a lot of stories about the peculiarity of relations with neighbors and the meaning of encounters with strangers, and consequently many of them fit together naturally.

BLP: Of all of the short stories that you have published, do you have a personal favorite?

NW: Actually I have a couple of favorites. The first is “Markowitz and the Gypsies” which I wrote more than thirty years ago and which Stanley Elkin did me the favor of choosing for Best American Short Stories 1980. It was, as noted in Publisher’s Weekly, the story as an extended joke, and it was the first time I realized the possibilities of the imagination free from some representation of myself as protagonist.

The other favorite is “Ruthie” in the present collection. I think it’s as pure a love story as I could have written, and for myself, certainly one of the most emotionally satisfying.

BLP: How would you define your style of writing?

NW: I find this a very difficult question, like being asked to define your own face—I can give details, medium sized nose, bushy eyebrows, a Krushchev style birthmark, a gray beard (or moustache), but that doesn’t really define the face. So—I asked my friend Laura Cherry how she would define my style. A  frequently published poet, Laura has probably read more of my writing than anyone except my spouse, and is therefore cited in the thank you section of Signs of Life, as my Constant Reader. This is what she said:

“Well…ironic detachment, but with a sensitivity to relationships, to humor, and to beauty, each of which are deliberately allowed to make their own holes in that detachment, in varying ways and to varying degrees, depending on the story.  Also, demonstrably aware of, indebted to, the work of certain great writers, without being derivative. Intellectual but also sensual—giving importance not just to ideas but also to the life of the senses, as with your great food descriptions.”

I don’t think I could have said that. I will add, though, that I’ve always had an ideal for my prose—I want it to be playful, a lively stream of interesting language and phrases, something that pleases the ear and the wit. I think there’s really a lot of dead prose around, what Iris Murdoch called “see through writing”, but I think writing has to be more than just functional to be felt.

BLP: Do you think that living in New England influences your writing?

NW: Not New England, but Cambridge and environs, and Providence, where I grew up. I’m strictly an urban writer, and the texture of those two cities, the streets and shops, the air and light, the way people live in them, are all imprinted in me in such a way that they are the inevitable background for just about every story. They really constitute the world I understand—even though I’ve transmuted Cambridge, and a couple of nearby cities, into a single city called Carbury (pop. 101,326) for the convenience of not having to be bound by real geography (Cambridge, for instance, has no hills to speak of, but I needed them for a story I’ve been working on, so I borrowed a couple from Somerville, the next town over, and plopped them down in Carbury). In the present collection one character leaves the city for a brief stay in the country and it turns out badly for him, which pretty much reflects my feelings about why you should never leave the city.

BLP: Who are your favorite living authors?

NW: Well, for short stories, I’d say Tobias Wolfe and Ron Carlson, in that they both get right to it, have voices you trust thoroughly, deep understanding of their characters, and emotional honesty. Also the Italian author Antonio Tabucchi, who has written some of the most arresting stories I’ve ever read. There’s always a sense of mystery to his stories, of one more thing that you have to learn, and when you think you’ve found that out, there always something else waiting beyond it.  And he has this low voice which is like the voice of absolute truth.

For novelists there are a number of writers I enjoy, E.L. Doctorow, Robert Hellinga, Stewart O’Nan, Heather McGowan, who writes in a gnarly, chewy style that’s a real pleasure to get your teeth into.  She’s only written two books, and I’m waiting for her to get on the stick and produce her next.

Particularly, though, I always look forward to something by Jane Smiley. She invariably has interesting characters and interesting situations, she’s a genius at interweaving the stories of a number of characters (see 10 Days in the Hills or  Moo) and even better, she’s often funny, which is really a hard thing to find. However, technically and imaginatively I think there’s no one like Katsuo Ishiguru. Take The Unconsoled. It’s essentially a 500 page dream, with all the illogic and strangeness of a dream, that nonetheless makes complete sense. I’m absolutely boggled at the kind of imaginative effort and the kind of concentration that went into writing that book. And then later he comes back with a straightforward, first person narrative like Never Let Me Go, which is totally clear and completely horrifying.

BLP: What are the best books that you’ve read in 2010?

NW: Three Delays by Charlie Smith. A novel of mad, drugged, obsessed love and self-destruction, full of brilliant prose and hallucinatory time shifts, just what you’d expect of individuals taking as many different drugs as they can ingest or inject at one time. A rip tide of writing, that catches you up and takes you out to the depths, while some of the sentences and phrases are incandescent. The book as a whole is exhilaratingly depressing.

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. This is really a tour de force. A man is afflicted by an irresistible compulsion to walk endlessly until he drops from exhaustion, tens, sometimes hundreds of miles from home. Ferris gets into all the possible ramifications of this for the protagonist’s life. It’s not a perfect novel, but in its imaginative breadth, its understanding of the protagonist’s despair and final acceptance, it’s tremendously moving. The protagonist is a Job figure without a deity to make everything right in the end.

To Siberia by Per Petterson. The story of a young woman’s unrequited more than sisterly love for her brother and how it affects her whole life and all her relationships. Very low key, melancholy, and delicate. A lovely sad book.

Finally, a biography of Henry Fielding by Donald Thomas. He gives you Fielding’s personality in all its complexity, and analyses his many careers—playwright, political pamphleteer, newspaper publisher, lawyer, magistrate who fought corruption and crime—all very surprising to anyone who just knows him as the author of Tom Jones. It especially reminds you that the appealing narrative voice in a piece of fiction is only one aspect of an author’s character, since that reassuring, witty, tolerant, Fielding voice belonged to a man who was also a libertine, a gourmand and a spendthrift who spent time in debtor’s prison and died of complications of gout and other ailments at a relatively young age. One of the better author biographies I’ve ever read.

Signs of Life is available from Black Lawrence Press and Amazon.