ON THE COUCH WITH ... Marianne HERRMANN
MARIANNE HERRMANN is the author of Signaling for Rescue (New Rivers Press, 2007) which was recently longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Signaling for Rescue also received the 2006 New Rivers Press Many Voices Project Award. Herrmann grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, U.S. She received a BA in Art History and English from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Minnesota. She is the recipient of a Bush Artist Fellowship in Literature and a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Fellowship for her fiction. Her writing has garnered awards from various literary journals, including Hunger Mountain, The Journal, The Ledge, Inkwell and Speakeasy. She has served as an editor of Northern Lit Quarterly, taught creative writing at the University of Minnesota, and lectured in art history at the American School in Florence, Italy.
Hermann spoke to Eric Forbes and Tan May Lee in an e-mail interview from her home in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, U.S.
How did you find out about the longlist?
I was checking to see if my collection had received any new press and the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award popped up on the screen. It was pure chance. I was stunned and grateful to be included on the list with such gifted writers.
What was the first thing you did when you found out you were longlisted?
My daughter had just arrived home from school and was checking in when I saw the news pop up on the computer screen. I screamed and she ran over and we read about the longlist. I called my husband and e-mailed close friends. I recall that evening as a blur of joy.
What do you think of the other titles on the longlist? Have you heard about or read any of them?
The list itself is a gift. I have read much of Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful new book, Unaccustomed Earth, and am deeply impressed by the work of writers such as Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle. What is equally wonderful is the opportunity to discover the work of writers with whom I am not familiar. Avenues to books such as these are missing from the literary landscape, and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award provides such a path to remarkable writing from around the world.
How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
I became acquainted with the award when I discovered the work of Yiyun Li, who was the first writer to win. After that, I kept track of the winners.
What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I’ve been working on a novel for the past few years and the process of writing novels and stories is quite different. Writing a novel feels slippery and uncontrolled, even precarious. One wrong move and things can veer off course. Characters are more likely to take an unexpected turn, as they have more time to develop and get into trouble, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Keeping the scope of a novel in one’s mind is also a challenge, particularly when you must focus on the details and inner life of each character within the greater scheme of this vast landscape of events. In writing a story, I am drawn to an incident in the life of a character, derived from a compelling image or painful event that has haunted me for some time. I build on those events and images, pulling from seemingly disparate elements that I sense are in some way related. When such elements come together in a manner that illuminates and underscores the essence of the story, I feel deeply gratified. There is great mystery involved in short-story and novel writing, but with stories, there is an increased feeling of control.
Short stories appear to be getting more popular. Jhumpa Lahiri continues to publish great collections. Anne Enright published a short-story collection after her Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering. What are your thoughts on this?
I have always found, on the whole, that some of the best writing is done in the short-story form. This isn’t to say there aren’t brilliant novels, but there are so many superb stories of limitless variety to be found in magazines, collections, anthologies and journals. In twenty minutes, a reader can be inspired, even changed and transformed, in heartrending, unimaginable ways. I can only hope that stories continue to grow in popularity, as a wealth of glorious work exists to be discovered and read.
What is your personal favourite short story or short-story collection? Do you favour the darker themes, or will you also enjoy the light-hearted, exotic ones?
My list of favourite stories is endless. The Stories of John Cheever knocked me out in college. The book is a powerful evocation of American life in the mid-twentieth century, so dark and poignant. I am always fascinated by work that explores darker themes, but I also admire a writer who leads his or her characters to an epiphany with elements of hope and redemption. I adore the work of Lorrie Moore, William Trevor and Alice Munro. James Joyce’s story “The Dead” in Dubliners is a masterpiece. I love finding a Tessa Hadley story in The New Yorker; there is such richness and variety in her work. Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies is a revelation, and Tobias Wolff is so versatile, yet controlled in his writing. When I first entertained the idea of writing stories back in high school, I was drawn to the stories of Ernest Hemingway for their emotional impact and deceptively simple style.
How much did your MA in Creative Writing help you in becoming a better writer?
Earning an MA in Creative Writing gave me the confidence to pursue writing fiction. The encouragement I received from various professors was crucial to my development. The graduate program was also a marvellous place to meet other young writers, people who have become some of my closest friends and provided great support. These are the people who have kept me going through the dark times of rejection. My MA program taught me important fundamentals, yet my real education occurred as I did the hard work of writing and revising and, most importantly, as I studied the work of the finest writers.
Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
Excellent questions that we as a culture must address. For those of us who love literary fiction, short stories appear to be a splendid fit for our fast-paced life. When we have so little time, a story is perfect for reading during a train or car ride, while waiting for a child to finish a lesson, or just before bed. Considering all of the marketing savvy out there, it would seem that opportunities exist for marketing stories more effectively. At book clubs, readers discuss the difficulty of finding terrific new work. One of the best things about the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is that it recognises the work of those independent publishers who do not possess powerful publicity machines. For these publishers, it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to get their story collections into widespread distribution. It is heartbreaking to realise that countless astonishing books will disappear before they are ever known. Possibly it will require a troop of maverick publishers working with gifted marketers to come up with a plan to help readers take notice, to provide the essential information regarding what is available. A deep desire exists on the part of the reader to discover beautiful literature, and what a fine thing it would be if the business end of the literary world acknowledged and acted on that desire.
The six-book shortlist for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced in mid-July 2008