06 August 2010

From the Archives: Interview with Stacey Richter

From January 2008

The first story I ever read by Stacey Ricther was “The Cavemen in the Hedges.” I didn’t know what I was getting into, but with that title I was eager to find out. I’ve been hooked ever since. Richter’s fiction is fun. It takes the reader to unexpected places, brings to life the surprising and, at the same time, reveals something interesting about what it means to be human. “The Cavemen in the Hedges” tells the story of a resurgence of cavemen that the story’s narrator chases away from his house with shiny Mardi Gras beads shot out of a pellet gun. It also tells a story of love, responsibility, and, ultimately, loss.

Richter recently published her second collection of short stories Twin Study, which Publishers Weekly described as “bracingly imaginative.” This follows her acclaimed first collection, My Date With Satan. The Village Voice named her a “Writer on the Verge” and she has been published in many journals, including Zoetrope: All-Story, Tin House and Swink. (Her website is a great resource for writers, too, with a fiercely witty q&a and interesting links to sites like “peculiar names for characters and pets.” Check it out: www.staceyrichter.com)

LP: Twin Study is your second collection of stories following My Date With Satan. What do you find appealing about the short story?

SR: One thing I love about short stories is that they’re nearly always read in one sitting, so they have a kind of unity in time that a novel can’t have. When I finish reading a novel, I have to go back and read the first page again to see how it relates to the end, but a short story is able to lodge whole in my brain. This makes short stories able to hold a lot of mystery and ambiguity and weirdness and contradiction, the kinds of things our subconscious minds are good at processing—and for some reason I think our subconscious minds prefer things to arrive in one sitting, like in a dream. I love that shivery feeling I sometimes get when I read a Kafka story or an Isaac Bashevis Singer story—like something has just been revealed but I don’t understand exactly what it is.

LP: Your stories are so fresh and imaginative. There are cavemen running around in the world as we know it (“The Cavemen in the Hedges”), identical twins attending a study on twins (“Twin Study”), and a daughter negotiating life with an incredibly famous and unpredictable mother (“My Mother the Rock Star”). How to you come upon these ideas? Do you consciously bring this element to your fiction?

SR: I just write about things that appeal to me, that interest me, and that I wonder about. Really, like everyone, I’m always writing about my life and the way I see the world. Usually I’m not writing about experiences I’ve literally had in real life—though sometimes there’s an element of that—but I’m always writing about the contents of my brain. I look for dramatic situation that excite me and I’m excited by twins, cavemen, clones, and so on. But honestly, I really don’t think my subject matter is so imaginative. Doesn’t everyone, at some point in their lives, wonder what it’s like to have an identical twin? Doesn’t everyone who’s watched a TV show about prehistoric times wonder how cavemen smelled? To me, it seems like a fairly mundane day in the life of a human imagination.

LP: When you start writing a story, do you tend to know where it’s heading?

SR: I know where it’s heading but I don’t know where it will end up. I always try to start a story with some sort of conflict in mind. That usually gives me enough direction to write the beginning and the middle and at some point after that I have to figure out how to end it. Occasionally I try to start a story with only an image or a world or a character I like. Sometimes that works too, but I’ve found that those stories are more likely to get bogged down and abandoned.

LP: “Young People Today” is written as a letter from Virginia, a woman who calls herself an “old hen,” to her friend Flora about why she’s decided to spend more time with young people. In the process, she tells the story of how it all started: with Andy Hassenfield, the young man she hired as a day laborer. Why did you choose to tell this story in the form of a letter?

SR: When I write a story in the first person, I often find myself demanding an explanation from my narrator along the lines of: why is she telling me this? So I end up with an imaginary story-behind-the-story that explains why this particular person is telling their tale and who they’re telling it to. Sometimes that explanation makes it into the story itself but it often doesn’t. In this case, the back story did make it in. It didn’t really make sense to me that an old lady would be explaining how wacky young folks are, in a quasi-sociologist’s way, unless she was addressing another old lady.

LP: I understand you’re working on a novel. How has that process been different—or similar to—writing short stories?

SR: Yes, I'm working on a novel. Compared to writing a novel, writing short stories is a piece of cake. All I have to worry about when I write a short story is the beginning and the end—the middle just sort of takes care of itself. I can pretty much make up a short story as I go along, which suits my nature, which is either disorganized or Zen-like, depending on how I want to spin it. But novels are all about the middle. The middle requires planning and plotting and conniving and perspective. It's occurred to me that I may have to write a half dozen novels before I figure it out, which is depressing, though it's intriguing to have a life-long project.

LP: Are there any authors who you think should be read widely but aren’t just yet?

SR: Kelly Link, Mary Robison, Julia Slavin, and David Markson immediately come to mind, though there are others.

LP: What are you reading now?

SR: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis and The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.

LP: What piece of advice have you found particularly useful as a writer?

SR: Rick Moody once told me, in a very nice and indirect way, not to write stories with only one character in them. That was probably the best writing advice anyone has ever given me.

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