Edith Pearlman: An Interview
Daniel M. JaffeEdith Pearlman is one of the country’s finest short story writers. Some of her more than 150 published short stories have been selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Collection, Best Short Stories from the South and The Pushcart Prize Collection. Her first collection, Vaquita, won the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature, and her second, Love Among The Greats, won the Spokane Annual Fiction Prize. Her third, How to Fall, was published by Sarabande Press in February 2005, having won their Mary McCarthy Prize. Her short essays and travel writing have appeared in such publications as the Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Preservation, Yankee, Ascent, the Boston Globe and the New York Times. Edith grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and now lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.
How did such a prolific and highly acclaimed career begin? Edith explained, “I started writing short stories in college, and even won a national prize. But after college, to make a living, I became a computer programmer. I stayed in the computer field for a decade. It was absorbing work which paid well. I remained a constant reader—I have always read for at least an hour a day, usually more—and I always hoped to return to writing, to become ‘part of the project,’ in Susan Sontag’s memorable phrase. When I married, my husband, aware of this yearning, offered me a yearly renewable grant-to-write in exchange for doing the dishes (and managing the household, bearing and tending the children, arranging the social life). I thought, and still do, that this was the best deal a writer could have. And so I started writing again, and have never stopped. I make very little money, and we are fortunate to be able to live comfortably on his income. I have not had to teach.
Why is the short story Edith’s artistic form of choice? “Unlike many writers I admire—John Updike, the late great Penelope Fitzgerald, Julian Barnes, Gabriel García Márquez, to name a few—I have a temperament that shies away from big-scale projects. It prefers instead the small tale, worked over and over again, sometimes under a magnifying glass. The hero of one of my stories, ‘South Market,’ collects fancy handmade one-of-a-kind buttons. In researching the history and construction of these ornamental devices, I realized that they were rather like my stories—attended to lovingly by their maker, who knows that their fate is (if lucky) to be cherished by the few and (without a doubt) to be overlooked by the many. Aren’t we perverse, the button makers and I? But we were made that way by our own Button Maker (which is as far as I care to go into theology).
In terms of work pace, Edith writes “about six stories a year, interspersed with perhaps four pieces of non-fiction (reminiscences laced with invention; book reviews; travel essays; anthology contributions). Each short story takes several weeks (five days a week, about four hours a day) to write, in many, many drafts, all on the typewriter. The nth draft then marinates in a drawer while I work on the next story or piece. The marinated story finally gets withdrawn, re-revised, typed at last into a word processor, and presented to my dear friend, colleague and ruthless reader Rose Moss, who usually sends it back to the typewriter for another few weeks of revision. So each story takes about a month and a half in total time, two or three in elapsed time. During its sojourn in the drawer odd, abrupt mental work goes on in my button maker’s mind, thoughts like ‘Bring back the parrots!’ or ‘She calls him Giorgio, stupid’; thoughts which I write down wherever I am and whatever I am otherwise doing, sometimes disconcerting a dinner companion.”
Always curious about different writers’ artistic processes, I asked whether Edith begins her stories in a particular way—with character, say, as opposed to situation or theme? How, for example, did Edith develop “How to Fall,” the title story of her most recent collection, which tells of a post-World War II teenage girl who writes mysterious fan letters to a television slap-stick comedian. “I revise so many times,” she said, “that it doesn’t much signify how a story originates. The final draft will be so different from the scrawled note that was its original idea. It’s safe to say, though, that each story begins with a character and a situation—a dilemma, a conflict, a wish—and a wisp of a hint about the solution or resolution or gratification or disappointment that results.
“‘How to Fall’ originated in an op-ed piece. As a young girl I had a crush on Milton Berle (the barely disguised character of Happy Bloom in the story). I wrote him love letters proposing a meeting. He never answered. When he died decades later I did a remembrance for the Boston Globe about his value to the world and also about my crush and behavior. But my interest in the great comedian wasn’t exhausted in 750 words, so I undertook to write a fictional account. As the drafts mounted, the sidekick character Jocelyn Hoyle entered the story, grew and upstaged Happy Bloom. He acquired a history and a tragedy and an orderly but flexible way of getting through his days. (Accommodation is my favorite theme.) The letter-writing girl acquired an external defect which stands for my own many defects then and now . . . and so on. I myself had appeared in an early television quiz show so I remembered, or at least could confidently misrepresent, the backstage of a studio, but I also had to do a lot of research as well about that milieu, about tap dancing and tumbling and vaudeville. I love doing research (remember the buttons).”
“Eyesore,” another story in How to Fall, tells of a plain woman, Franny, who engages in a self-improvement campaign, only to take it too far and end up being worse off than when she started. Did Edith have the outcome in mind when beginning that story? “‘Eyesore’,” explained Edith, “reflects my belief in transformation in general and particularly in the transforming power of appearance; it also reflects my observation that efforts to transform may result in misery. That’s the theme. The story originated in an image—a naked woman trying on a wine velvet jacket. Perhaps you’ll be pleased to know that in a later story (‘Speak to Me of Love’, published in Lake Effect, Spring 2006), the plain-again Franny falls in love and finds, well, I don’t believe in happiness, but she finds a congenial life with a congenial partner.”