An Interview with Deb Olin Unferth
Deb Olin Unferth teaches creative writing and other things at the University of Kansas. She has been published in Harper’s, NOON, 3rd Bed, McSweeney’s, Fence, and many other places and is also the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Her first book, Minor Robberies, is a collection of stories and was published in September, 2007 by McSweeney’s. This interview was done by e-mail from August 31st to September 20th.
Hi Deb. Describe the history of each of these roles’ in motivating you to write: 1) Loneliness 2) Happiness 3) Boredom 4) Money.
I think what drives me the most are desire and fear. I think: I want to write this book. I can see it in my mind, it's perfectly formed, the structure is sound. It's like an apple, it's like something in nature. Why can't I get it to look the same on the page? Why? So bewilderment is part of it too, I guess. And stubbornness.
And also I'm afraid of what will happen to me if I don't write the book. Some days I feel like my life is completely empty. Writing is the only thing that seems to bring meaning to my life and without it I would be facing this black hole. A more cynical interpretation might be to say that it's not that writing is meaningful, just distracting, but to me that doesn't usually feel true.
I have never written out of boredom or for money (ha! money! that's a good one). I have written, not out of happiness exactly, but for pleasure. Sometimes it is relieving to write.
There's story in your book, Minor Robberies, that is called "Deb Olin Unferth" that begins, "No one in Wyoming thinks that Deb Olin Unferth is a fuckup. No one in Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, or Kentucky..." Then it lists many other places where people may or may not think that Deb Olin Unferth is a fuckup. What about that? Why do you think you wrote that story?
Diane Williams, advising me on how to revise, said to me once, "Imagine the story you wish you wrote."
There is very little writing about me on the Internet. When that story first appeared in McSweeney's a man wrote a long blog entry about how much he hated it. He said that he hated the story so much that he took it to the local workshop and read it aloud as an example of bad writing. He said that the story sent him into a deep depression. It lasted for days and days and he kept writing about the story and how much he hated it. He got locked out of his apartment. He had to sleep in his car. He lived in a very cold place and there was snow and wind. He had laundry to do. He locked himself out again and had to go sleep at his parents'. The depression deepened. He wrote about how much he hated the story, and how he was afraid of love, had betrayed friendships, had failed, lost, disappointed. And that damn story, it was not even grimly humorous. I loved those entries so much. I read them over and over and over. I kept trying to get people to read them with me. My boyfriend at the time said finally, “No, I don’t want to read it again. I don’t think it’s funny.” But I thought it was so funny and so sad, beautifully written, touching. It expressed exactly what I wanted to express with my story but he did such a better job, was so much braver than me. He wrote at the end, "God, give me hope, bless me please."
I like "Deb Olin Unferth" because it is nice and interesting to read but also because it feels like it will be the last story like that to be written, like you thought of it first and did it well enough so if anyone else does it it'll just be a copy of yours (I feel this way about many of these stories). Do you feel that way about any of your stories or about anyone else's stories? Which stories?
That is a nice thing to say. It is certainly hard to imagine anyone feeling that way about a story of mine. I am really just using repetition to achieve a particular effect. I can think of two stories by you that use repetition to a particular effect, a different effect. One is the story where the line is repeated, "The next day they ate whale." The other is one where everyone gets cancer. I love those stories.
I often think of someone as having done something first, but not usually that they will be the last. I feel like they opened a door that had been hidden and now many will file in. Something will come of this new piece of writing. I feel that way about the novel The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. Also David Ohle's Motorman, What Is the What by Dave Eggers, and certain stories by Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, and many other books and stories.
Can you talk some more about Diane Williams and NOON Magazine? Was NOON one of the first places to publish your work?
For me reading Diane Williams's Excitability for the first time was like being saved from death. The world suddenly looked new to me -- familiar and strange at once.
I wrote her a long incoherent letter, explaining my adoration inadequately, exclamatorily. She wrote back a nice short note saying, "If you're ever in New York, we could meet." I had only been to New York a couple of times and never unaccompanied. I had very little money at the time but I bought a plane ticket and a city map and went. To my astonishment she took me out for a very expensive dinner and we talked for hours. Much later I asked her why she had been so kind to me. She told me that many years before she had loved a certain writer's work. She wrote to this writer and was also given an invitation. She also dropped everything and went to an unfamiliar place alone. The writer didn't show up for their meeting. Diane waited for hours. I am very lucky to have benefited from that writer's discourtesy.
That same year, Diane started NOON magazine and she put a story of mine in the first issue. NOON was one of the first places to publish my fiction. I am very grateful. The NOON authors I know, when we get together, we sit around and coo about how much we love Diane Williams and NOON. NOON is like an exclusive club that requires you work very hard to remain a member and I am willing to work hard. I am up to the challenge of being a member of the NOON club. Several NOON authors, when I meet them for the first time, behave as though we are long lost relations. Kim Chinquee said in an e-mail to me once before I'd even met her, "We are NOON sisters!" I was very moved because I have always felt so alone.
Diane is an amazing editor. She inspires excellence and demands discipline. More than an editor, she is an editor-artist. She has rejected my work several times, harshly, dismissively, unapologetically. The first time I was stunned. Clancy Martin and I now laugh about how she will take forty pages of writing and slash it down to two pages.
As a person, Diane is an incredibly elegant and charming woman. She has beautiful manners and a wide generosity. She is a role model in all ways. She is an intellectual but she is so cute about it. She has an old-fashioned politeness. If she doesn't like an idea, she pretends not to understand it. It is hilarious because she is so brilliant. I often feel like she saved my life -- and I know I'm not the only NOON author who feels this way. I had some dark years and through them she published my work in NOON and encouraged me to stay focused.
How did you find Diane Williams' book?
A friend gave it to me.
Here is something strange. One of the reasons I decided to try writing in the first place was that I came across a book called Getting Jesus in the Mood by Anne Brashler. It different than anything I'd ever read and I loved it. I kept looking at other writings by the same author and, while I liked them, I didn't connect with them in the same way or find them quite as exciting. A few years later, I was talking to Diane and I mentioned the book and how moving I found it and she said, “Oh, I edited that book.” Looking back now, I can see her handprints all over it.
I guess I am just a Diane Williams fan.
Like Lydia Davis when I read you it always feels pretty intimate, like I'm somehow connecting with a person who is Deb Olin Unferth. I never forget that a person wrote these stories, and my main focus is on that person's brain. That's in contrast, at its extreme, with a Hollywood movie where I don't think at all about the director or who wrote it; or something like a fantasy novel where sometimes I can "get lost" in the story and forget that someone wrote it, that it's really someone's creation. I prefer reading the thing where I'm focused on the author's brain. What do you prefer? Why? When you read Lydia Davis do you experience it like I just described, or a different way?
Oh yes, that is certainly how I experience Lydia Davis. Her work has been profoundly important to me.
Many of her stories feel like they aren't made up, as if they are mostly autobiographical about fairly mundane events and told in a flat, unadorned style, with the emotion reigned in tight or nearly absent. But each of them suggest great passion to me. To study her work is to study structure and form in tiny compressed bites, to study ways the brain (her brain) attempts to organize information, the errors it makes, sometimes funny errors, sometimes sad ones.
The only other work I have read that is similar to hers is Kafka's very short pieces and his parables and some of Robert Walser's very short pieces. It took a while for people to see what she was doing. She is very brave to have sat there and written those pieces of hers year after year. She has created something entirely her own.
For a long time I was interested mostly in this sort of brainy fiction but now, as I keep reading, I find that the structure of a piece -- one that sometimes lets me "get lost" as you say -- excites me enormously. I think that so many facets of fiction excite me and it changes from year to year which ones I am focusing on.
What books or stories can you “get lost” in? Can you describe the experience?
I can’t get lost in a book in the same way I used to as a kid because my brain is talking the whole time, “How is this writer doing this?” “What is the effect of this?” and it is as if I am having a conversation with myself or as if the writer is teaching me a lesson while I am reading. I think this is normal for a writer. But it is still a feeling of “getting lost” in a book. I find it so exhilarating and fun the ways that writers make certain moves -- to build tension, say, or to increase my affection for the character, or to use language in interesting ways. Several books come to mind. Enemies, A Love Story, by Isaac Bashevis Singer, is crazy! And the structure is so perfect and beautiful. He takes a difficult situation and then he systematically makes it impossible, piece by piece, he just keeps hacking away. It is camaraderie and delight that I feel. I’d like to shake that man’s hand, that’s the feeling. Give me your hand, man. Let me give it a shake.
Actually, referring to my question two questions ago, sometimes I do forget the author in your stories. At the ends of some of your stories -- for example "La Pena" and "To Do" -- I feel almost unconscious, in a meditative way that I like because it is calming and helps me accept death and other things I, and most people, fear. It is my brain trying to accommodate a kind of paradox ("To Do") or my brain momentarily becoming accurately significant ("La Pena"), as the tiny percentage of the universe that it is (I think that's what the effect is). When you are writing the ends of those stories do you think of it intellectually, like, "Here I am displaying the theorem of...," or like how I described it? Or some other way?
I think that mostly I am shocked by the world, by how incredibly hard everything is, how much of yourself you have to shut down just to be seen as a normal person and not as a raving madperson. And then to be expected to actually accomplish anything in that state of self-control seems hopeless -- even that word "accomplish" I feel like I've accepted under duress and not without confusion. It must be the case that either most people catch onto things much faster than I, or the world is made up of a huge number of superheroes. I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks this. A few times I've said to people, “Can you believe how hard this is?” And they've always agreed with me, “Yes, it's amazingly hard.”
Anyway, when I look at those passages you mention, I think that I am reaching into that other me, the one that has been shut down and locked off, and I'm feeling the tension of the two within me.
What do you do each day? What did you do today, September 4th, Tuesday, 2007, for example?
Generally I get up and work every morning. Then I spend the afternoon being nervous. No matter what I plan or how I try to get around it, I'm a nervous wreck all afternoon and get nothing done. In the evening I can usually work a little again unless I've really gotten myself into a state in the afternoon. That’s pretty much how today went. When I'm working very hard, I just lie in bed all day to try to stay calm and I bring all my papers and books with me. I'm working my hardest when I stay in bed all day, usually.
Also I teach. I love my job and am grateful for it. I try to write in the morning even on school days.
How do you teach? What stories do you have the students read?
I rarely teach the same book or story more than twice. I’ve taught your stories and poems. I’ve taught novels, stories, comics, books of interviews, essays, magazines, usage books. Last year we read a lot of Chris Ware in my classes. I love Chris Ware. Finally a student said, “Enough with the Chris Ware already! He’s sad, the world is sad, okay, I get it!” so we aren’t reading him this year.
Revolutionary Road was a big hit last year, I recall.
I’ll tell you a book I want to teach. The Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine by Stanley Crawford. It’s out of print. How can a book like that be out of print? If I wrote that book and it went out of print, I just don’t know what I would do. I’d have to call the police, I think.
Your classes sound fun. What happens when you teach Chris Ware? I mean the students don’t get to draw and write, they only get to write, or do you let them draw also?
Well, I do teach a class called “Comics and Collage” and, yes, they draw in that class -- or they can collaborate with an artist. I taught Chris Ware in my fiction workshop too. It’s that or teach Proust, I suppose. I love Ware’s books because they are so generous and abundant as to be almost selfish and demanding. He creates a suffocating atmosphere, a horrible one, and it goes on for pages and pages and pages, and I feel like I’m going to literally asphyxiate, I’m kind of hyperventilating while reading -- plus the microscopic print makes me feel physically uncomfortable, invaded, imposed upon, I’m getting a headache, I can hardly breathe, I haven’t eaten… and then when I think he’s finally moved on to something else, it turns out that he’s still talking about the same thing from a different angle. And his work is so full of emotion and loss and pain and fury. I am in awe of him.
Do some students lose interest in prose and start reading a lot of graphic novels when you teach Chris Ware? Have you ever had urges, after reading a comic and admiring it a lot, to do comics instead of prose? Or at least to try it? Have you ever tried it?
Oh sure, I would love to try a graphic novel, except I can’t draw at all. Maybe one day I’ll meet an artist with a lot of time to waste and we can try something together. I think that would be very challenging and very fun. So far I’ve met artists who didn’t have a lot of time to waste or who didn’t have a lot of time to waste on me.
My intention when I teach that sort of thing is for the students to consider using other mediums -- comics, music, etc. -- to find new ways into their own writing. I certainly try to do that myself.
You completed a novel. How was it writing a novel? Do you like your novel?
Each morning I woke up and said, I have to write this or I will die. It's strange because I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have died but that's what it felt like. I just wanted to write it so badly. I felt like it was a long song with lots of parts and I wanted to hear what it would sound like if I could get all the parts where they belonged. I hope they are mostly where they belong now.
Tao Lin is the author of a few books. His blog is at http://reader-of-depressing-books.blogspot.com.