The Contestant: DEB OLIN UNFERTH
An online exclusive interview
(Courtesy of the author)
Friday, August 17, 2007
By Nate Martin
Deb Olin Unferth grew up in Chicago, but hasn’t stayed put much since. A short list of her past mailing addresses would include apartments in Denver, Birmingham and New York City, along with a number of residences — some undeliverable — in Mexico and Central America. Her lifetime of continent-trotting influenced many of the stories in her first book, Minor Robberies, a collection of short shorts published by McSweeney’s as one part of a three-book box set, One Hundred and Forty-Five Stories in a Small Box (Dave Eggers and Sarah Manguso authored the other two books — click here to read STOP SMILING’s review). Unferth lives in Lawrence, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas. She is a frequent contributor to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and NOON, and has just completed her first novel.
This interview was conducted via email throughout July 2007.
Stop Smiling: You've been well established among literary circles for some time without ever publishing a book. Does it feel like it's taken a long time to publish your first book?
Deb Olin Unferth: Once in third grade we played a game where the teacher would write a word on the board, and the first kid to find the word in the dictionary got to choose a cactus to take home. We each had a dictionary on our desk and somehow the school had come up with all these tiny cacti — many kinds. They were lined up on a table. There were as many cacti as kids — so there would be no losers, I guess, although we all know better than that. I just couldn’t find the words in the dictionary. I was so slow. It was like I was turning pages underwater. My ears were roaring. I could barely read the letters. I came in last place. I couldn't even find the last-place word. I got the last cactus, the one no one wanted — a dented lifeless ball on dry dirt. When I picked it up, the ball fell onto the floor.
Sam Lipsyte says in Venus Drive, “It's not a race, it's a contest.” Gary Lutz pointed that out to me.
SS: Many of the stories in Minor Robberies take place in Mexico and Central America. What was your introduction to this part of the world?
DOU: My grandmother had a house in Cuernavaca, Mexico. My parents took my brother and I out of school to go to El Salvador. At 18, I dropped out of college and went to Central America to “join the revolution.” I was fired from every “revolution job” I had — in El Salvador and Nicaragua — because I didn't know how to do anything. Later, I just kept going back. I lived in Panama for a while. For a while I stayed with a former CIA agent in El Salvador. I had a boyfriend in Costa Rica who was a farmer. We lived in a deserted place you could only get to by boat. We had no boat, so when we wanted to go to town we went out to the beach early in the morning with a mirror and shined it at the boat-lady on the mainland. She would see the glint and send a boat out. Then my boyfriend had a fight with the boat-lady and we were stranded for a while. We managed finally to get a rowboat.
SS: The characters in your stories are always travelers, visitors or tourists — never people who are really at home.
DOU: I have written and published several longer stories told from the point of view of someone who is living in a foreign country. None of them appear in Minor Robberies. The trouble is I am so full of self-loathing and doubt, it is hard for me to do anything with them, like develop them into a full book. I think, “Who do you think you are? Ryszard Kapuscinski? Paul Bowles? Hemingway?” They got it just right: the murmur of someplace else, the crushing loneliness. I feel like I will need to be extremely brave to attempt my own full-scale version. I would only want to do it if I could find an approach that didn't feel fake to me, that didn't feel like I'd heard it already.
SS: An anxious tone pervades Minor Robberies. Narrators second-guess themselves, make lists of what might or might not have happened, give readers the option of believing a number of things about characters, action, setting — all in order to answer overbearing questions that may or may not be apparent themselves. What is the advantage of telling a story and not letting the reader know exactly what is going on?
DOU: I think I am trying to document how things sound to me. For example, when I was reading biographies of Frank Lloyd Wright for an article I had to write, the hum of the words on the pages were coming up at me and making almost a song — what I was reading was confusing, outrageous, uncertain, full of holes and funny, but also rhythmic, graceful and sad. I wanted to try to recreate what I was hearing in my mind [in the story “Frank Lloyd Wright”] — a confusion and harmony at once. At first I called the piece "Biography" because it seemed to me that all lives are that way. Motivations are multitudinous, not singular. The events are always in question. We make the same mistakes again and again.
In the story "Passport," it was sort of the same thing. I lost my passport or it was stolen, I'm not sure. I had a great deal of difficulty getting a replacement. When I did, it was only good for a year and I was going to have to renew it every year for the next 10. While all this was going on, I was out of the country quite a bit, spending a lot of time in Cuba and Panama. Well, everyone talks about passports in Cuba. And anywhere I go I hear stories about people trying to get into the US and failing or succeeding, only to be sent back and so on. So this passport purr and patter was going around and around in my mind. In Nicaragua, during the deepest darkest moment of my passport troubles, a very shady man offered to sell me one with Mexican citizenship. He had a complicated scheme for how I was to get this passport that involved my going off to find a friend of his, a man named John Wayne who lived on a boat. The truth was, while I really needed that US passport, I was feeling so ambivalent about where I wanted to live and I felt so distanced from my life in the US, I was conflicted. I tried to replicate that in the story “Passport.” I wanted to get on the page that buzz of conflicting emotions, not just about me and my tiny plight, but also other people's — those people trying to get one illegally, those selling them and so on. It's a dark world, that passport racket. I'm glad my papers are finally in order. I purposefully left the story vague and shadowy, partly because I didn't want it to just be about me. I wanted it to be about “Passport,” the platonic form of passport and our imperfect representations of it.
SS: So when you sit down to write a story you begin with a sound?
DOU: It isn't usually a sound, no. Not one sound. It is more like I hear the story before I start writing it. Sometimes I hear the entire story before I write it down. Then I write it down and hate it. I revise it for a couple of years. I rewrite it over and over like a robot, shuffling it through my files along with the other stories that are also in purgatory. Finally I decide it's done, but then when I look at it, after all the work I do to it, it seems as though it's exactly the same as when I started.
SS: Dave Eggers cites Lydia Davis as a primary influence for his “short shorts.” She has also influenced your work. What are some of the things you admire about Davis' short shorts? What makes her so influential?
DOU: Lydia Davis is the source text, the Gospel of Q. I love what Dave Eggers wrote in his acknowledgments. Many contemporary short-short writers must feel this way about her, I'm sure: supreme admiration and awe, an urgent need to spread the word, enlarge the following, write one's own inferior gospel if possible. Her work may appear simple at first glance. But on closer examination, one sees she created a new form — many new forms. On one page she writes a story made up of a few nouns and nothing else, no sentences, no characters, no conjugations, and yet the story feels complete. It has an arc, a denouement. On another page she has a story that turns a single word around again and again in such a way that the word becomes personal and abstract at once. Each page is like that. And the work is so plain, so funny, so understated, so calm, so very, very sad. What other writers might consider the basic blocks of fiction, she seems to consider untoward or excessive or artificial.
SS: Many of your short shorts lack elements one expects from a traditional story. Is it more difficult to deviate from convention in longer pieces? What is it about short shorts that facilitates experimentation?
DOU: Maybe I once believed shorts to be the most provocative form. I may have said that it is easy and fun to play with just a few words and that it requires less commitment than a longer piece, so a writer is willing to take more risks with a short. I think I believed that due to my being ill-educated. As I have gotten to know other forms a little better, I’ve seen that writers are fond of overturning things in all areas of fiction.
SS: In your essay “Don’t Tell It Like It Is” in Michael Martone’s writing guide, Rules of Thumb, you write, “Fiction is not natural. It imitates nothing but itself. More than resembling what we see, it expresses what is absent, what we dimly desire. Fiction is everything that life is not.” Can you talk about this in terms of translating life into fiction, as in “Passport”?
DOU: In a story — in a narrative, in storytelling — I have to decomplicate. Thought, instead of being the cacophony that it is, is ironed into a single line: “Don't leave me” or “Where am I?” And I have to make promises in stories: “This character is significant, so is this detail, this is going somewhere, we're going somewhere, follow me!” There can't be too many promises or it becomes confusing. I wish my life were like that. I try to make it that way. My life is one long heroic effort to dumb it down.