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Powell's Q&A

Elliot Perlman

Describe your latest project.
What makes people write short stories, as distinct from novels?

The short story writer can experiment with style and subject matter without having to gamble with a number of years of writing life. A failed short story, one that either needs more work or, worse, is irredeemable, hurts a lot less than a failed novel.

As Edgar Allan Poe points out, the short story cannot accommodate dense detail. There isn't enough time in a short story for a writer to demonstrate tremendous knowledge of esoteric subject matter. This is probably no bad thing for the writer or the reader.

If you ask different writers what it is that sustains them as a writer, you will get many different answers but a common answer might be the sense of satisfaction the writer gets from simply having finished their story. Short stories are finished more quickly and therefore more often than novels. (If you can get one good short story out of a long hot summer, it will not have been a wasted summer. Summer seems a good time to write short stories. Winter and autumn sidle up to you and ask how the novel is going. I don't know why that is. It just seems that way to me.)

Despite the way short stories are often dismissed as the little brothers and sisters of the novel, it is nevertheless possible for a writer to focus on short stories in their career and still be regarded as an important writer. Raymond Carver, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Frank O'Connor, and Lorrie Moore are examples of literary heavyweights who have embraced the short story without suffering any loss in literary reputation. I certainly have found inspiration in the work of these short story writers.

Another reason for writing short stories is that you get to tell many more stories than if you only write novels. There are many stories that merit survival but they neither fit into a novel nor merit the length of a novel by themselves. Raymond Carver described them as glimpses given life. In the hands of a craftsman (like Carver) those glimpses can tell us everything we need to know about a character or a situation.

The Reasons I Won't Be Coming represents my attempts to give life to those moments, to the glimpses that have stayed with me and refused to be blinked away.

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Reduced to Writing: The Partly True Story of an Anxious Man

Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good place to start.
Harold Brodkey. It is said that when the poet Joseph Brodsky won the Nobel Prize for literature, Harold Brodkey received a phone call from his mother congratulating him. Brodkey's troubled relationship with his adoptive family was the wellspring of his art. This is where the anger, the passion, the insecurity, the loneliness, and the various forms of longing were born, only to be unleashed in his writing.

Sadly, he is perhaps best known for taking over thirty years to complete his ambitious and much maligned autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul. At its best, however, there is a vigor to his writing akin to that found in the work of Bellow, Roth, or DeLillo, and Brodkey is at his best in his short stories. When his collection First Love and Other Sorrows was published, Brodkey, still only in his twenties, was immediately recognized as a rare talent. Touching on childhood, adolescence, family, education, filial love, intense romantic love — both requited and the other kind — it is an astonishingly heartrending account of a young man's life. The haunting and painfully honest short stories in First Love and Other Sorrows deserve to be remembered by serious readers and writers alike.

What is your favorite literary first line?
"Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning."
—Franz Kafka, The Trial

What fictional character would you like to date and why?
Emma Bovary. I know it's wrong to look to a relationship to redeem ones life but I think she could really help me. She'd be a calming influence in an otherwise turbulent world. If ever she was unfaithful and had children by other men, I could take comfort certain in the knowledge that soon enough she'd prefer to go to the movies with me than stay at home with the children.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
From Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities:
"How much stronger in youth was the urge to shine than the urge to see by the light one had."

What is your astrological star sign and to what do you wish you could change it?
I'm a Taurus which sounds like the name of a pickup truck. I'd prefer to be born under the sign of the rock wallaby. If you're going to interpret your life pursuant to an utterly irrational dogma why can't it have a cute mascot? Rock wallabies really are fabulous animals and in any remotely just world they would have their own star sign.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I once found a young woman waiting with flowers for me in her car outside my home in Australia. It was a little disconcerting and I should've realized then that three months would be the absolute outside limit for this relationship. spacer

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