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Edith Pearlman: An Interview

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by

Daniel M. Jaffe

Edith 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.  

“Faulkner advised writers to do anything other than work with words in order to put food on the table—stoke coal, raise turnips—and I think this advice is worth heeding. But I speak from a very easy chair.”

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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).

“As a curmudgeon, I want to say that many contemporary novels should have been compressed into long short stories and many long stories into short ones, that is, that there are writers whose works would be better as buttons.”

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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.”

When working on individual stories, Edith does not set out to create a coherent collection. Rather, she writes “the stories that seem to beg to be written, and I eventually collect some of the published ones, not because they make a coherent bundle (alas, they don’t) but because to hold a book entirely written by me is so damn satisfying. I used to imagine being buried amidst Xeroxes of all my stories. Now I imagine that there’ll be a book at my head and one under each arm and (I hope) a fourth resting on my abdomen. A much neater coffin!”

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).”

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“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.”

Edith draws her “characters and situations from memory, experience, observation, dream, invention and pretense, that is, getting into a character’s skin, or trying to. Sometimes I steal. The heroine of ‘Edict,’ an old woman who must leave her lifelong home in Manhattan, was copied more or less from an old woman who must leave her village in a story by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I have occasionally deliberately plagiarized phrases. In Rebecca West’s novel The Birds Fall Down, a grandfather addresses his granddaughter thusly: ‘Beloved daughter of my daughter,’ an apostrophe that thrills me whenever I think of it. It employs a rhetorical device in which the repetition of a word (in this case ‘beloved’) is understood but omitted, strengthening the emotion. I stole it whole for ‘Granski,’ giving the phrase to a grandmother, and to compound my felony I had the granddaughter echo it some pages later: ‘Beloved mother of my mother.’”

In several of Edith’s How to Fall stories, the narrator brings a subtle tongue-in-cheek quality to the situation, not quite mocking, but conveying a sense of amusement. Yet the characters are always rendered with great compassion. Is  it difficult to balance an amused narrative sensibility with compassion for characters? “No,” responded Edith. “I think that Compassion and Wit not only do not war with each other, they belong together. The rendering of calamity—even the worst calamity, the death of a child, Aristotle’s ‘one insupportable grief’—requires distance and calm if it is to be rendered at all: the physical distance of the writer from the page, the psychic calm as the writer selects the words, constructs the phrases, arranges the paragraphs. Distance and calm lead eventually to effective turns of phrase, which themselves lead to clarifying wit. Wit recognizes that we do not understand the workings of the Almighty Button Maker, only the workings of our own world, to which we are bound to accommodate.”

Many of the stories in How to Fall involve Jewish characters, especially those stories set in Israel and Europe. So I wondered whether Edith regards her style as in conversation with Jewish storytelling traditions or with the work of particular Jewish authors. “I love Singer, Paley, Malamud, Yehoshua, Castel-Bloom,” said Edith, “but not as much as I love Colette, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Chekhov, Ursula LeGuin. I am Jewish born and bred, I have lived in Israel, some of my best friends are Jews. This history and attachment certainly aid memory, observation, dream, invention, pretense and theft. But I do not feel I am continuing a tradition or conducting a conversation. However, in this as in all of writers’ statements about their work, trust the tale not the teller.”

In closing our conversation, Edith wished “to promote writing as an amateur enterprise. There are very few artistic endeavors and sports that do not have an amateur component: think of painting, singing, theatricals; think of tennis and soccer and baseball. There are opera companies that are  largely amateur; there are even amateur architects. Writing as a hobby can be taken up as seriously as writing as a profession. The craft can be studied, practiced and mastered for the pleasure of only a few readers, just as the amateur pianist has only a household audience and the tennis player no audience at all. A few readers? I am happy with one, that is to say, all my work is directed towards an imaginary ideal reader, literate but not scholarly, wishing to be entertained, unresentful if he is at the same time enlightened.”

To keep up with Edith’s ever-continuing accomplishments, readers can check into her web site.


Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost). A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and the Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and his web site is  here.

 
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