Peter Ho Davies, the son of Welsh and Chinese parents, grew up in Britain before moving to the United States in 1992 to pursue his M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. His first published story in the U.S. was anthologized in Best American Short Stories 1995 and later became the title story for his first collection, The Ugliest House in the World (1998). This book received the Oregon Book Award, the MacMillan Silver PEN Award, and the prestigious John Llewellen Prize. His second collection, Equal Love (2000), was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His short fiction has been published in such places as Harper’s Magazine, the Atlantic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, Story, and Granta. In addition to having been anthologized in Best American Short Stories three times, his short fiction has also been selected for Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. He’s received fellowships from the NEA and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. And this spring he was the recipient of a Guggenheim Award to complete work on his novel-in-progress, The Bad Shepherd. Davies lives and teaches in Ann Arbor, where he is the director of the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Michigan. He is about to be a new father. This interview with Jeremiah Chamberlin took place in Ann Arbor in May 2004.
Interviewer: You have a wonderful range as a short-fiction writer. Not only are your stories told from myriad points of view in different periods of history, but the topical material stretches from bank robbing to Chinese funeral rituals to Welsh labor strikes to siblings dying of AIDS. Are you purposeful in your range? That is to say, do you push yourself to write beyond your own boundaries and experience?
Davies: Yeah. I guess there are two reasons for that. One is a good aesthetic reason and the other is a slightly more embarrassing, pragmatic reason. Because I’ve been a short story writer for the majority of my career, I feel that one of the advantages, one of the pleasures of the form, is to be able to write a different story every time you sit down to work on a new piece of fiction. And one of the attractions of the form of a collection is that you can range rather wildly story by story across its length. You are not limited in voice, in time, in place, in style, in effect, or tone. So there’s an aesthetic pleasure. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Barnes talks about his character’s admiration for Flaubert and the fact that Flaubert was a writer who never wrote the same book twice. I like that. Who has the time to write the same story twice? I’m not taking a long career for granted necessarily. So once you’ve done the best you can with something, why would you replicate it? That, I suppose, takes me from the aesthetic pleasure in variation to the very practical one. When you publish your first story, it becomes a touchstone, a place of confidence, something you go back to in grim moments and you think, “At least I could do that.” But then everything you write afterwards, for a little while, you compare to that thing. The first draft of the new story always sucks compared to the last draft of the old story. That sense of competing with yourself can be kind of crushing, even overwhelming. I published my first story when I was twenty-one and I didn’t publish my next story until I was twenty-six. This was for a variety of reasons, but one of them at least was that I was trying to write the same story again. Yet every effort to that end would seem to fall short. What I eventually learned was to stop trying to do the same thing. It helped me deal with that sense of competition with myself. So if the last story was very serious, why shouldn’t the next one be comic? By changing the framework, changing the terms of comparison, the stories become incommensurable. You can thereby freeze that internal critic, that internal voice of judgment. This method helped me through various writing blocks as well. So that’s the pragmatic reason for pushing stories in different directions.
With such diverse topical and structural material, though, how do you then craft a collection to feel whole? How do you order the stories so that the book has a shape?
My two collections represent what I think of as two broad but also divergent approaches to how you put together a collection of stories. The Ugliest House in the World is the naïve approach: [Laughs] “Here’s all the good stuff I happen to have at the moment, with the longest one in the middle.” The general advice I’d always heard was that you start with the best story, you have a pretty good one second, and then you end with a really good one. Because, unfortunately, many reviewers might only read the first and last story. I suppose there are certain linkages within some of those stories; there’s a little strain of the Welsh historical story. But really those were the best stories I had knocking around. Though I learned it can be dangerous if you don’t have an overarching sense of how a collection is coming together. The true (and I hope comic) story I always tell is that when Ugliest House was reviewed in Britain, one of the reviews was titled: “Linked by Flatulence.” Farting is obviously an important element in the story “Relief,” but I hadn’t realized that apparently there are also several others where mention is made of flatulence. I thought, “Oh, my God! This is horrendous.” Worse, the author photo they used from Ugliest House, which has me standing there smiling, had the caption: “Peter Ho Davies: What’s He Smiling About?” [Laughs] When I was working on my second collection, Equal Love, I was interested in writing something that was differently structured, had more thematic linkage. Though I stumbled across that to some degree by accident. I had written about half of those stories before I began to think of them as a collection. My wife, Lynne, was reading E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread at the time, a book I’d read much earlier. We were talking about familial relationships with some friends, and she pointed out the quote that would later become the epigraph for the book. It resonated both with the stories I already had in hand and it also resonated interestingly with the three or four stories I had in mind to write. It was a moment where all those things came together. I could see it as a book in some sense, and as a book that wasn’t that far from completion. In terms of putting the collection together, a few things went on in Equal Love as I was writing the rest of the stories and conscious of exploring this parent-child dynamic. I didn’t want it to be just fathers and sons, but mothers and daughters as well. And I wanted to make sure that the stories reflected on the relationship both from the children’s point of view and the parents’ point of view as well as at different phases of their respective lives. To some degree I was also interested in that title term, what “equal love” could mean in terms of equality, race, and sexuality, so that the whole case reflects on the equality of love in different ways.
Theme plays an important role in your work, both in individual stories and in your collections as a whole, yet it never feels obtrusive. Some writers overdo theme. The component parts of a story fit together so neatly that they end up feeling fake or forced. Is theme something that you’re particularly conscious of when you’re writing? And if so, how do you utilize this element of craft?
The process of writing a story is often a process of unpacking the thematic contents. You know you’re done with a story when you finally understand why you wrote it in the first place. This, for me, is often a thematic question in certain ways. But the truth is that it’s not always the case that you’re absolutely done with a piece at that stage. What I tend to find as I’m working through a piece is that thematic echoes or resonances will suggest themselves. One of the ways I feel my way toward what the story is about in the early stages of the revision process is by punching up that thematic stuff. This means that there are probably drafts that overly play out thematic issues or put them overtly on the page. But in later revisions, having internalized the theme to some degree, I can then turn it down. The real question we’re talking about here is one of subtlety. I guess one of the reasons I’m willing to trust readers of a short story to find thematic resonances or thematic contents without feeling as though I need to make it too overt is because I have a great deal of faith that people will read a story more than once. That may be naïve, and I’m certainly not saying that people should always read my stories multiple times, but as a story reader myself, part of the way I think about apprehending a story is through multiple readings. Maybe that allows me to be a little more relaxed about how much I want someone to get on the first reading. I want to offer a certain pleasure, I don’t want them to be puzzled or confused by the piece, but there’s a layering effect, and I have some faith that people will go back.
You’ve published a number of excerpts from your novel-in-progress, The Bad Shepherd, in places such as Granta and Ploughshares over the last few years. One piece, “Think of England,” was even anthologized in Best American Short Stories—
Much to my embarrassment, since it’s a novel extract. At the time I thought it was going to be just a story!
Well, the one thing that seems noticeable to me about the novel extracts as compared to your short stories is their pacing. The extracts, as one might expect, are much slower. They take their time in a different way than the stories do. And the descriptive language seems richer and more evocative than in much of your shorter work. Were these stylistic elements you consciously employed during your writing process, or do you find this type of shift merely indicative of working a novel?
That’s a great observation. Initially, it wasn’t a conscious strategy. But I think the impulse comes from a couple of different things. Certainly one of them is the feeling of the expansive space of a novel. At the moment, probably more bloody expansive than I need it to be! [Laughs] It’s partly a result of being a historical piece that’s set in north Wales, which is not a very well-known area, so it feels to me as though there’s a good deal of period and geographical details that need to be evoked. It’s also the desire to give people that sense of immersion that a novel can provide in a time and a place and in the lives of the characters. I was certainly conscious of the fact that I had more room to breathe. You can take deeper breaths, I suppose, because it feels like you’re there for a marathon rather than a sprint. As a short story writer, there may also be the feeling that you have to steel yourself to write a novel. You’ve got to flex those muscles; you’ve got to bulk up. Another thing I’m thinking about—because this is a very interesting observation—is that because the pages of the novel have been worked over so many times, they have a greater density than some of my other work. Part of the revision work I’m doing right now is to combine scenes that may have been written from two or three different points of view in the past into one definitive scene. And so that’s bringing to bear a lot of different information from a lot of different approaches to the work, which is certainly adding a lot to the work in terms of detail and layering.
Some of the stories you set in Wales have a noticeably thicker “accent” than others. The slang that the characters use, as well as certain tonal qualities of the piece, are markedly more Welsh at times. Is that shift based solely on the particular voices of characters, or were you hoping to convey something else as well?
Yeah. It’s largely dictated by the voice of the character. Some are just more into colloquial language than others. To some degree it can be a class thing or a period thing; other times it’s purely informational. In the British stories, for example, you’ll find I try to slip in a contextual detail just to locate people in the locale rather swiftly. This is more an aside than an answer to your question, but when I was working on Equal Love and I sent it to my British publisher, one of the things that my editor expressed was a mild disappointment with the fact that there were fewer British-based stories than in Ugliest House. This was something I had been very conscious of. I’d wanted Equal Love to be a book I’d written (or attempted to write) set largely in the U.S. because I felt it was an important thing to do if I was going to stay in the States and continue to teach here. Though I did worry a bit about losing my British accent. In the first three or four years of being here, I could go back to Britain, go to a pub with some friends, and throw the switch. Immediately I’d shift from saying “soccer” to “football.” I knew the pop culture references. But somewhere around that third or fourth year, I couldn’t access it as quickly. Partly that’s just becoming embedded in a more American idiom. But also I just wasn’t in touch with it anymore. So I decided with Equal Love that I would try to translate one of the stories in the American version of the book into a British setting and idiom. I chose the story that’s now titled “Everything You Can Remember in 30 Seconds Is Yours to Keep” partly because I really liked the reference to that old game show that I’d watched growing up as a child in Britain. Also, it felt like a bit of a stretch to have an American character caught up in that show and I thought I could do more with the piece in a British setting. As I worked my way through the new revision, I kept asking myself what changes would be necessary. I’d done a little translation work before, so I thought of the process in translation terms. What would be the parallels? What would be the language, the appropriate reference points? And as I wrote about the British characters, I got slightly closer to them because I knew them in a slightly different way. I could share their histories. Oddly, I was then able to take back that little extra knowledge to my American characters. So now there exists in the U.S. edition the U.S.-set version of the story. And in the British edition of the book there is a British-set version of that story.
Did you keep the same title in both collections?
Yes. Though what’s even more confusing is that the story was originally published in Granta magazine under the title “Fit Mother.” They preferred the American version of the story. I have a lovely letter from the editor, Ian Jack, who’s involved with their book publication division as well, who seemed worried that I was planning on translating the whole collection! The note related an anecdote about James Joyce and his encounter with one of the great American editors of the period, someone who had seen Dubliners in manuscript. Joyce and the editor sat down, and the man said to Joyce: “I love these stories, Mr. Joyce. They’re wonderful. I have only one tiny, small suggestion. I’d like you to call the book New Yorkers.” [Laughs] I think Ian was suggesting that I should be careful not to think about doing this. Of course I had no intention of doing it with the whole book, but I thought it was a very interesting exercise. I like both versions, and I think both versions benefit from the existence of the other. Though I’ve never done it since. The one comment Ian did make when he saw the British version of the story—and I subsequently revised it because I think he was right—was that I’d overcompensated. I always joke that I know when I go back to Britain and sit in a pub that I sound much more British than I do when I’m teaching a class or attending a faculty meeting here. And I’m always worried that I’ll start to sound like the artful dodger: “Gor’ blimey, guv’ner! Stone the crows! Lor’ luv a duck!” But my worst fear is that it will show up on the page. And Ian’s response to the story was that it felt, in regards to the Britishisms, a bit “over-egged.” It’s a great phrase. Like a flan, I guess. And he was right. So I turned it down a bit. It was over-voiced and it was over-accented because of a kind of anxiety and lack of confidence on my part. We’re often tempted as writers to write these very “voicey” pieces. There’s a certain strand of work that’s very voicey, that lives and dies by its voice. But many of them, I feel, live only by their voice. Now I look at those pieces and say, “Ah, yes. That’s a bit over-egged.” [Laughs] I think it’s an interesting critical term for a certain kind of work.
Two of your most recent pieces of short fiction, “The Criminal Mastermind,” which was published recently in Harper’s, and a forthcoming story of similar style and subject matter entitled “The Name of the Great Detective,” are both quite abstract compared to much of your other work and seem rather pointed in their politics. Is this new work indicative of needing a break from the novel, a political response to the current cultural climate, or simply another example of pushing yourself stylistically as a writer?
The stories do represent a certain response to writing a novel. Or, more accurately, given that I wrote both of them in the winter semester last year, they’re both probably reactions to not working on the novel. I have a lot of difficulty writing when I’m teaching and directing the program. I describe them, particularly given their content, as “jail breaks” from the novel, from the stylistic and voice envelope of the novel. Some of the thematic ideas of entrapment, imprisonment, escape, crime, and justice—because the novel deals, in part, with Nazi war criminals like Hess and Göring in Nuremberg—were no doubt floating around in my mind. They just found another outlet in these stories. At the time I was also teaching a history of the short story class in which part of the thesis, an idea that is not unique to me by any means, is the concept that the short story has these two very broad, fairly distinct streams. One is the more realistic stream that you find in writers like Chekhov and later Carver. The other is a more fantastical stream that runs most obviously through Kafka and Borges and Barthelme. And you can argue that both of those can be represented in the birth of the modern short story in the work of Gogol. “The Overcoat,” even though it has fantastical elements, feels in the portrayal of the little man like a realistic story, albeit slightly heightened. And “The Nose,” of course, feels like it runs in that completely fantastical vein. However, I think both of these approaches represented responses to the same issue, which is the brevity of the story. Because a story is so brief, you don’t have a lot of room to explain things. One attitude, then, is to just tell a story about the world you recognize because that way you don’t have to explain that world. The other attitude is to say, “Well, I’m just going to tell you this fantastic tale and I’m not going to bother to explain this fantastic world.” So stories represent a limited amount of space to explain and contextualize. And I realized, talking about this with my students, that I’d worked almost exclusively on one side of that divide. I suppose that my argument was that those two streams weren’t as distant as one might argue, and I just thought it would be curious to work in that other vein. I’d already been knocking around some of the logical progressions in the story “The Great Detective” and had thought about them from various angles and even written about the ideas in a couple of different drafts. But I’d always struggled voicing some of those ideas of what a perfect crime would be in a realistic story. And I just thought that that could be a very interesting way of approaching the material in a different vein.
So you wrote “The Great Detective” prior to “The Criminal Mastermind”?
It’s almost as though I had to write “The Great Detective” before I could write “The Criminal Mastermind.” The material suggested its partner. Having written about a detective, it seemed logical to write about a criminal. The way I think of both of these stories to a certain extent are as thought experiments. They feel like logical progressions. If this premise, then this progressive series of corollaries follows from that premise. The narrative energy is driven by logic, even if the premise you begin from is kooky. So you see those ramifications played out with a kind of inevitability that I think can approach the tragic, but also the tragi-comic. With regards to the political elements, I have to admit that I was not deeply focused on that aspect of the stories as I wrote them. Though as I revised the stories, I was very conscious of the possibility of tilting them in ways that would be very much caught up in the politics of the moment. When “The Criminal Mastermind” came out in Harper’s, people would say to me: “Who were you thinking of as the criminal? Were you thinking of, say, Saddam Hussein, for instance?” No. That wasn’t in my mind remotely as I wrote it. I don’t think he’d even been captured yet. If I was thinking of anyone, I might have been thinking about the German war criminals because of the novel I’ve been working on for the last five years. But it wasn’t a conscious thought. Still, the legal environment is so charged at the moment that I think a lot written about this period would feel imbued with political significance. It just feels that we live in heightened political times.
Speaking of history and politics, I was interested by your choice to have such a well-known historical figure as Rudolph Hess be a character in your novel. You could have very easily chosen to hide behind the veil of fiction and written a character who resembled Hess in all ways but name, a character that your reader would easily recognize as Hess, yet despite the risk of criticism and scrutiny you decided to take him on directly. Was it challenging to give life to this man because of the weight of historical record?
Hess, oddly for me as a writer, is not as hard a historical figure to give life to than perhaps some others might be. Where the historical record is concerned, Hess remains an enigma: we don’t really know why he flew to Britain, or if his amnesia was real. If it was real, then what was it in response to? What psychological trauma made him so forgetful? There are lots of theories. Was he on a peace mission to Britain to allow Germany to concentrate on the eastern front? Had he essentially been expelled from Hitler’s inner circle and was fleeing in fear for his life? Or was he just simply mad? He’s the Hamlet of the Third Reich in a certain sense. And I’ve been attracted over time to these little bubbles of history where we just don’t know what went on in that space. And that’s the space, where the historical record has a blank surface to it, into which we can interpose fiction very easily. That’s a vacuum that fiction goes into. People ask me: “Were your parents great storytellers?” And the answer is, no. Much less so now that I’ve started to publish work. [Laughs] As a kid, my mother told me little snippets of some stories, or some parts of her life in Malaysia when she was a kid. But they wouldn’t be linked up. They wouldn’t have any narrative movement to them. My father would do the same; there’d be a little bit here, a little bit there. But in your mind, you make stories of those things. You put together these unconnected pieces. And they may not resemble the truth exactly, but there’s a way you’ve made sense of them by linking them up. Hess has a gap like that. And fiction goes into that space. Also, there’s a thrill to finding unexpected or surprising truths, factual truths, buried in fiction. When I was researching the book, I knew that Hess had been held in a Welsh safe house for a time. But what I did not know was that Hess’s father’s first wife—not Hess’s mother but the woman his father had married before his mother—was a Welsh woman. When I discovered that Hess’s father had worked in Britain and had married a Welsh woman and that this woman had died and had been buried in a Welsh cemetery, then it had to be Hess. Because it’s such a bizarre coincidence. I’ve been to that graveyard and I’ve seen the grave. If it was fiction you couldn’t make it up!
So what responsibility do you have to history as a fiction writer? Can you only write about those pockets where there’s little or no record? Or can you overlay fiction over the top of history?
The instinct to lay fiction over the top of history, if you like, is simply the instinct to understand why certain things happened. I’ve talked about Hess as a character, as a mysterious figure in the Second World War. In the same way, how Göring gets the cyanide pill in prison that he kills himself with is a minor mystery of the end of the Second World War. History, I think, to some degree, after various investigations, has to stand back out of factual responsibility and say: “We just don’t know. We don’t have the answers to that. We can’t ascertain the truth. Maybe it’ll come out in research, but we just don’t know.” And yet, as human beings, we want to know! So I suppose there’s a desire—and I think it’s a responsible desire—to understand the world, to posit possibilities and hypotheses. Given my scientific background, I think that’s how we apprehend the world: we posit our hypothesis, we put it out there, we test it through the writing and we test it through the fiction, test it arguably through the publishing and the reading, to see whether it rings true to people. Whether it’s the truth or not, it has the possibility to provide an explanation. One of the consolations of fiction is that it provides explanations for things we don’t understand in life, in our own lives, and in the world around us.
Your short fiction seems so conscious of structure and form. There’s a wonderful elegance to your work, structurally. Do you think that there are a limitless number of forms? Or, as writers, do we tend to recycle structures?
I certainly don’t feel myself to be inventing structures when I’m writing stories. Very often you’re given the gift of a great idea. It just comes from somewhere. Then the struggle is to find a form, a voice, a style that best serves that idea. My sense is that there are enough structures out there already to serve most of the stories I want to tell. There’s an argument that says if you have something very original you want to say, then you should generate a very original voice or form or style with which to tell it. I think that’s true, but I also think that storytelling has been around a long time. It’s about communication. I don’t want to invent a new language to communicate with you. I want to use the language that we know. Issues of form are part of that language.
So do form and structure operate best when they’re invisible?
For me that’s true. As a reader, when I see form and structure fronted in the course of the story, I become very conscious of the writer. In some instances I think it’s very useful to be aware of who’s telling you the story because it can lend itself to very interesting effects. But I don’t want it to be there in most of the stories I come across—it feels as though it’s an indication of some “slippage” on the part of the author. I want to pay attention to the world that’s being created, not to the writer who’s created that world. Because form is a language, a means of communication, when you alter it radically, you may very well have created a new and original form, but you run the risk that no one will be able to understand the “grammar.” Like with language, we don’t create new words so much as combine the existing ones in fresh, hopefully exciting new ways. So I think it’s possible to approach form in that fashion. It doesn’t have to be a straightjacket. There’s a bit of wiggle room with the way in which we combine certain ideas or forms or structures. And I think that that can provide some amount of novelty, but also some comprehensible and recognizable novelty.
Stories often come to bear, in a certain sense, on a singular image. When writing a novel, do you find yourself looking for that crystallizing moment in the arc of a chapter?
I absolutely do. That’s one of those storytelling instincts or touchstones or places of trust where you feel the writing is going well. When I come across them, I’m very excited. The anxiety for me is whether a novel can bear moments like that in every single chapter. In a collection, for example, when you come to that crystallizing moment in a particular story, that climax, I want that experience to be so satisfying that you can’t read on. Not simply because there’s so much to think about, but also that there’s a charged emotional state that makes you want to stay in that place. The story collection as a whole is something that story-by-story should stop you in your tracks, whereas the novel is all about keeping you going forward. My story-writing instinct is to try and end each chapter the way I’d end a story. But does that serve the novel? I’m not sure. As a reader of novels, there are plenty of books I like where I can stop at the end of a chapter and say, “Yeah. I’m going to read just a chapter today. I’m going to get a lot out of this chapter and then read another one tomorrow.”
Since we’re on the topic of reading, what are some influential books that have come through your life? It’s a stock question, but was there a particular book that made you want to be a writer? Or books and writers you feel have influenced your style?
My standard caveat to this question is that we’re lousy judges of our own influences. Though I tend to think that the most influential books we read are the ones we read in our teens. Because that’s often the period when we first encounter real books. That is to say, adult literature. So, in my early teens, the only thing I ever read and the only thing I wanted to write was science fiction. I read and wrote a lot of bad science fiction. But probably the single most influential book in my life was called Who Writes Science Fiction? It was a book of interviews with science fiction writers. I hadn’t read half the authors in the collection, but it made me think that people with scientific backgrounds—my father was an engineer, I was going to go to college and study science—could also be writers. So the very idea of being able to put myself in the shoes of these scientists and engineers, which I could do, and then think of them as writers, made it possible for me to imagine myself becoming a writer. And I was struck, in the ways that you would be struck as a teenage boy, by Ray Bradbury saying, “I became a writer because I wanted complete strangers to fall in love with me.” For a teenage boy, that sounded pretty damn good! [Laughs] The book also had an interview with Kurt Vonnegut, which led me to Vonnegut’s science fiction. Then Vonnegut became my gateway drug to literary fiction. Because once you read Slaughterhouse Five, it’s a very small step to reading Catch 22. And when you read Catch 22, it’s not that big a step to reading The Naked and the Dead. With Mailer, you’re in the complete literary mainstream of modern American fiction. And once you’ve gone into Mailer, it’s very easy to go into Hemingway. I loved Hemingway and I read everything by him I could lay my hands on. I think of both Vonnegut and Hemingway as early writing teachers. From Vonnegut, I learned that paragraphs mattered; each paragraph is like a self-contained joke. Each paragraph did work. It gets you from a premise to a punch line. And it just made me think a little bit more about structure beyond the level of sentences. Hemingway taught an obvious lesson: you don’t need to have two adjectives for every noun. Which, of course, as a fourteen-year-old, is what your teachers are praising you for. “Oh, what a big vocabulary you’ve got in every freaking sentence you wrote!” Those writers were enough to keep me going through much of my teens.
A friend of mine, Mike Hinken, a writer whose own work I admire, has a theory that writers who were formerly scientists have an inherent interest in systems and patterns, in identifying and classifying, and that those impulses might go a long way toward the way in which they utilize structure and form. Would you agree with this assessment?
I think that might be true. To look at the most recent stories of mine, those logical progressions aren’t very far from certain things I enjoyed about science: you follow the progressions and they make sense, they fit together in certain ways. So I’m certain that those kinds of impulses played through.
But unlike someone such as Andrea Barrett or your colleague here at the University of Michigan, Eileen Pollack, both of whom also have very strong science backgrounds, and in whose writing scientific elements often show up either in the lives of their characters or as story components, you rarely write about science in your work.
I guess that’s because I was a bad science student. Frankly, I don’t think I’d ever write about science well or with much authority. But also, while I was studying science in Britain, I was a double major. The degree was called “Physics and the Analysis of Science and Technology.” I studied the history and philosophy of science as much as the physics itself. I remember being particularly struck by Thomas Kuhn’s ideas of the scientific revolutions and the notion that scientists are engaged, most of the time, with what is known as “normal science.” You work with an accepted theory and an accepted hypothesis without questioning them. But the more scientists work within a theory, eventually someone will bump up against the limit of it and find a flaw in it, a question mark, something that’s not quite working ultimately. Others will continue to work within the theory productively and usefully. Maybe even the person who discovers this anomaly won’t pursue it immediately, but will just set it aside. But sooner or later, somebody will come back to that anomaly, and it will be the spark that destroys the current theory, forcing it to be replaced by something larger and bigger. We go in, we reevaluate the whole thing, and we create a new theorem. That’s how science progresses by these leaps forward, these revolutions. The logical structure is a vision of evolution, in a way, but it’s an evolution of ideas. That’s great to me. Working through a story is the extrapolation of possibilities.
So do you see yourself “solving” rather than “creating” stories?
I think of it as a problem-solving activity, but one that’s more complicated than, say, a physics problem because I’m creating the problem. Part of my task is to clarify what the problem is. In the early draft of a story, the workshop question is not “How do we fix this problem?” but “What exactly is the problem?” You have to spend a lot of time figuring out what is exactly problematic in the story. Of course, describing the problem is ultimately perhaps the end of the story. It’s such a Chekhovian idea: we don’t have to provide the answer; we just have to express the questions as clearly as we can.
You received a Guggenheim this year. So for the first time in a number of years, you won’t be teaching this fall. What are your thoughts on the writer in academia? Does time in the classroom inspire you, or does academic life stifle a writer? How do you strike a balance between teaching and writing?
The issue of balance is like the Holy Grail for writers in academia. When I first started teaching, I kept beating myself up about it. I felt like I was failing because I couldn’t figure out how to balance the job and the writing. But I’ve found out now after talking to enough older colleagues that not everybody gets that balance. And, in fact, the people who don’t get that balance are probably the people I respect most. Because in the way they are “unbalanced,” so to speak, they are unbalanced in favor of their teaching. They put something else and somebody else before themselves. In some cases, it probably cost them a book. Or, at least, delayed the publication of a book by three or four years. Because writers are generally selfish creatures, that selflessness is impressive to me. It also made me feel like I didn’t have to feel like a fool for working hard as a teacher. For me, though, teaching has often spurred my writing. It’s certainly clarified my ideas about writing. It’s also true that I’m not the kind of writer who can sit at my desk for eight hours a day. It’s just not the way I’m wired. So I’ve got to do something with the rest of the time! [Laughs] And I like the social interaction. Teaching also feels to me—and I’m not saying I’m Albert Schweitzer here—like a less selfish activity. It feels like an engagement with other people, an opportunity to give something to other people. Which is not to say that I don’t get a lot back from my students as well, I do, but it makes me feel very whole as a person. Now, in a perfect world, would I want to have a full teaching load and write? No. In a perfect world, I’d love to have just one class per semester. But teaching itself—partly because I’ve done it for a while now—is mostly pleasurable. Particularly teaching workshop. The academic life is a little more complicated than just the teaching and the writing, though, because there’s also the administrative side, which is harder. Luckily I’m fairly good at this and I can get through bureaucratic tasks quickly. But once I’m done, it’s like I’ve been drinking caffeine for five hours. My brain is just spinning. And that ain’t no way to write. Because writing isn’t about doing a task in five minutes, it’s about doing a task in five hours. Still, I’m lucky because I get to teach graduate students, and I get to teach writing students. As a writing teacher I’m spoiled because almost every student in the class wants to be there. Not necessarily to be with me, but to be in a writing class in general. It isn’t an economics class. The part of teaching that’s serving students, engaging with students, is easy.
The last question I’d like to ask is one that my friend Dan Wickett, the founder of The Emerging Writer’s Network, always poses to his interviewees. Since we’ve already been talking about Bradbury, this feels particularly apt. The question is: If you were a character in Fahrenheit 451, what book would you memorize for posterity?
The one that comes to mind—and I’m mentioning this because we haven’t talked about it and yet I do think it’s a book that had an influence—is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I must have read it five or six times when I was in college. I haven’t read it in a long time. But in ways that I couldn’t put my finger on now exactly, I think it was an important text for me. I think it was a book that shaped some of the ways I thought. I remember seeing on the jacket of that book when I bought it for class: “This book will change your life.” You read that and you instantly think: “Bullshit. Not going to happen. My life ain’t changed yet.” But it might be the truest blurb I ever read. There’s an intellectual fervor to that book; thought and feelings seem inextricably linked. There are elements of melodrama, but it’s got power to it. I value a lot of things in that book. It was a pop-cultural phenomenon, but it’s a book that feels like it’s got legs to me. So if I were to be a mouthpiece for a text, if I wanted to embody a piece of writing, I guess I’d be happy to embody that one.
Jeremiah Chamberlin recently completed his MFA at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor where he was a Colby Fellow in creative writing. He is a recipient of the June and Avery Hopwood Award for both the novel and short fiction, as well as the Cowden Fellowship in Creative Writing, the Kasdan Scholarship, and the Arthur Miller Fiction Award. His short stories have appeared in The Wisconsin Academy Review and Madison Magazine as well as placing in several national contests with publications such as Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, and The Greensboro Review. His fiction has been nominated twice for Best New American Voices. Last summer he received a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to attend the Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and this spring he was a panelist at the 2004 AWP Writer’s Conference. Prior to attending the MFA program, Chamberlin was the Writer-in-Residence at the Interlochen Arts Academy. He is at work on his first novel.