An Interview with Rachel Sherman
Rachel Sherman’s debut collection of short stories, The First Hurt demonstrates how delicate the human heart can be. Her characters, each of them flawed emotionally, mentally, and even physically, attempt to understand their shortcomings and in that process triumph over the struggles they face on a daily basis. While Sherman addresses the torment and heartbreak we face in our adolescent years by revisiting harsh realities and missed opportunities, she also reminds us that as adults we will struggle with our inner child and childhood wounds.
With an MFA in pocket and Open City Books behind each of her stories as if they were their own, Sherman takes aim at crushes, sexy teachers, perverted soldiers, aging, denial, and perhaps the most prevalent of all, loneliness. Rachel Sherman is creepy in the best manner. She has just finished touring the country to promote The First Hurt. We spoke via telephone (after a coastal mix-up on time) to discuss this collection, touring, and why puberty, after all these years, serves as such an enticing topic for the majority of her ten debut stories.
How did the journey begin with Open City Books and The First Hurt?
I had a couple stories published by them before and they had asked to see my collection when it was done, so my agent sent it to them. I had started to get to know them a bit, so that’s kind of how that happened.
That must have been nice and a relief!
I was so happy! I tell people that all the time. They have been... I couldn’t have asked for a better experience for my first book, I think. They only publish one book a year, so their full attention is on me and they also love the book. And it’s a really good feeling, too. They feel like it’s their project too. And Joanna has put so much into it too.
Other Voices and Tarpaulin Sky, as well as Open City, have their own book imprints now. These smaller presses have been willing to seek out these amazing collections, the great stories. The independent presses are really doing some great things.
I feel really, really good about Open City and about being their author this year. The editor, Joanna Yas, has been amazing. She really understood what I was trying to do and she ordered the stories in the book. She put it together into book form. And also, in terms of the artwork, I was able to pick my own artwork, I was able to have a say in almost everything. Also, wherever I go for readings, people are really excited because they like Open City. They do really good work and they have a lot of integrity. People really respect it. When I went to the west coast, people were really excited.
You mentioned Open City asking to see your collection when you completed it. I know several stories had already been published prior to this collection coming out. When you were at Columbia University were you working on the remaining stories?
Actually, I finished at Columbia -- I finished my thesis in 2003 so a few of the stories were from then. I had written a first collection that didn’t really work. I didn’t like it -- and it was for my thesis at Columbia. And I picked out a few of the stories from that and the rest of the stories were written since that time. A few of them got published before I finished my thesis and the rest haven’t been published individually or were published after that and the rest of the stories were after -- for the collection that I was writing.
So, Open City let you have a say about the cover of your book. Where did you find the picture for the cover?
It’s from, it’s actually... years ago I worked briefly as an assistant photography editor at Nerve, when Nerve had a magazine and it was much bigger in 1998 to1999. I would go to photography exhibits and see if they had any work that would be good for Nerve and I went to this gallery and they had this collection by a woman named Francesca Woodman. The cover is one of her photographs and they were taken in the '70s. She died actually when she was 20 or something, really young, maybe 21. She committed suicide by jumping off a building in the East Village and she was really, really talented. Her mother just had a huge show, I think at the Met, of her ceramics. Her whole family is artists and her father just gave us permission to use it. It was really very nice. And her work is great. This picture on the cover is my favorite one. There’s baby powder on the ground.
It’s difficult to tell what’s happening on the floor in that photograph, but that’s one of the cool things about it. In several of your stories, you deal a lot with puberty and those pre-pubescent times and flaws that we all have. Is there something about that time in our lives that resonates with you?
I would say that adolescence is a huge time and I do really keep those times close to me and I really remember it. When I see girls that age, I remember how that felt. I’m always interested in how you deal with those times. I think often the ways you felt in high school, especially the bad ways, always stick with you when you see yourself. When you look at yourself, you see the part of you from when you were going through adolescence and the feelings you felt then. The feelings seemed like the biggest feelings I ever had and simultaneously the worst feelings I ever had. Biggest in terms of longing and how you can’t even imagine the feeling of love at that point -- for me. It’s just different feeling than it is now. So unreal, yet so ecstatic. But basically so unreal -- love back then. The reality of it all, it’s almost vapor. You spend so much time imagining things.
In “The Neutered Bulldog” you deal with teenage sexuality, confusion, and the allure that’s attached to experiencing some of those feelings for the first time. Any modern day correlation between the teacher/student relationship in this story and how it evolved? I couldn’t help but think of the Mary Kay Letourneau situation.
Oh, I never even thought about that! I just read an article about that in New York Magazine about these women... but no present day things really, it was more of a past thing, I guess. And it wasn’t a factual past thing either, but I hadn’t thought of that.
Is there any particular reason you decided to write a collection of short stories as opposed to tackling the novel?
I don’t know. I think in some ways maybe I haven’t been ready. But on the other hand I think that short stories come naturally to me. I guess I’m always interested in snapshots of life. The short story form tends to work really well for me. But I am working on a novel now but it is a different time period so it’s kind of cut up into smaller stories.
More novel-in-stories or no?
No, it just goes through different time periods -- different decades. There are individual stories in each part. In writing the short story, I got into a certain kind of rhythm and the number of pages. My getting the beginning, middle and end -- the flow of the story... I was just able to start doing that in a more natural way after awhile.
Short stories are the harder form to conquer. It doesn’t really allow for mistakes.
To me, the novel feels scary to devote myself so completely to something so long. I like the way the short story is something you can finish and then I don’t want to think about those people, those characters anymore. I can be done! You can be working on a few at the same time. But with a novel, you have to stay with those people forever.
I read the short story “Homestay” when it first came out in Post Road. There is such an authentic voice in that story. Dealing with someone foreign entering your life and your home for a set period of time, in this case an au pair. Did you have any particular inspiration for that story?
I am completely familiar with foreign people in my life. We had housekeepers and au pairs, my family had many au pairs and there were Danish people coming and living in my house.
People sometimes mistake fiction for nonfiction, so in this case I guess it’s coincidental that you had experience with the plot in this story. Do you get people asking you if your stories are semi-autobiographical?
Most people, people do ask me a lot if my stories are true and I think, “well the feelings in the stories are true.” I think the feelings are universal and sometimes -- and that’s why often people are able to feel that they are close to the people in the stories. I think the feelings are the actual feelings that people have had but the actual happenings, the scenes of the stories are not true. I wasn’t annoyed by your question at all, but sometimes when other people ask me at readings, it seems beside the point, you know?
Is it not enough if the story isn’t true? I guess they think because I’m standing there reading it to them so maybe they associate that with... I could see that. I can’t even write nonfiction! I do have a really hard time writing nonfiction. Every time I try to write nonfiction... every time I try to write something it turns into a story. It’s just not exciting enough to write about the facts.
And then you run the risk of pulling a James Frey.
I’m never calling anything I write a nonfiction. [Laughs].
It’s hard to get out of the rut of reading only short stories when you are writing them too. I always want to read short story collections. I just don’t want the short story to always be in the shadow of the novel.
I hope there are more people like that! I hope more people will read short stories.
Is there any author in particular who inspires you? Or any particular book?
I really loved [Evan S. Connell's] Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge. And then they made the movie Mr. and Mrs. Bridge. Nabokov, Virginia Woolf. I really like Amy Hempel’s work and Lorrie Moore. She’s really good. I just finished reading Black Swan Green. Oh, and Diary of a Teenage Girl by Phoebe Gloeckner. It is part comic book and part fiction... that is such an excellent book!
Will there be more short stories? Are you going to send them out while working on the book?
No, well yes, I’m sending stories out... but now my agent does it for me. Yeah, I don’t have to do it anymore and that’s a good thing. It’s been a long time. I feel like I’ve paid my dues.