February 2012

JC Hallman

features

An Interview with Daniel S. Libman

In 1999, Daniel S. Libman won the Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review for "In the Belly of the Cat," the first story in Married but Looking. Elizabeth Gilbert and Julie Orringer won the same prize before him, and winners since have included Wells Tower, Yiyun Li, and Benjamin Percy.

I knew Dan before all that. We were classmates together at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars program, for the 1996-1997 school year. It was a one-year MA program back then, and Dan and I and nine other students showed up in Baltimore for a program that lasted just a little longer than ten months, actually. I remember the graduate student reading that Dan and I gave together that fall. Or maybe we didn't give a reading on the same night. But it seems like we did: I remember my reading, and I remember Dan's, and I remember how they measured up. This all took place in a long reading room with tall arching windows and glass-doored bookcases that stretched from the floor to the vaulted ceiling. The room was packed with people and heat. I read a fairly immature story -- it had some pathos and some sadness, and it left the audience kind of shuffling in their seats. Then Dan got up (and this might have been another reading, weeks later), and he killed the room with a story that made us laugh, cringe, and then glance head-shakingly at one another with the expression people use only when something has been gotten just right, and there's nothing more to say. I learned a lot about literature that night.

Dan now lives on his wife's family farm in rural Illinois.  I've visited him a few times there -- sometimes we venture out in a little boat on the property's small lake -- but this interview was conducted by email.

You're a very funny writer, but the stories in Married but Looking are as much about being funny as they are funny. The character Boze in "Best Man" says this: "One thing I know for sure, Elizabeth, is that there are no jokes. Only truth." Is the character speaking for you, here? If so, then what's the purpose of jokes?

This I Don't Quite Believe, as they say on the radio. Boze says that, but I'm not sure this is a sentiment I believe. Remember, he's at a wedding and trying to pick up a woman who doesn't laugh at his jokes but for some reason seems to find him interesting. He's trying to be smart there, and trying to get laid. I would suggest that even he doesn't really believe what he's saying. He's got this heady rush from this woman who is paying attention to him and he's just trying to keep it going: the conversation, her interest, whatever. He's not good at it. I have no idea what purpose jokes have except to point out that they do keep people interested, and not only that, when you tell a good one, or a bold one, or say something truthful in the guise of a joke, you can make people in the room shake and make funny noises. It may be all you're getting, so you better make them good ones.

Even though the stories are funny, I wasn't laughing by the end of them. If I had to describe it, I'd say it almost felt as though I'd been harrowed, gutted out by some quiet but devastating moment. I guess that's more a comment than a question. In "Lemons," one character tells another "You're actually funny. No one's afraid of you." Is the effect your stories achieve a way of saying that funny stories are, in fact, something we should be afraid of?

There's a long, rich tradition (to which I make no claim) of using the jester to say what needs to be said, and saying it in a way that doesn't threaten. In that story, Miller's abortive career was in dentistry. Dentistry is littered with class cut-ups who use their frat boy senses of humor to get painful information past you. Mine would tell you he was going to fill a cavity and then make that nyuk nyuk noise like one of the Stooges. If you make a joke about something, it's because you understand it in a way that your listener or your audience doesn't. It works in the opposite way, too; think of the irritation you feel when hearing a joke you already know or when someone in your life tells the same jokes over and over. You always feel for the long-suffering spouse condemned to hear the same dozen canned puns over and over. It feels like a violence is being committed. People who are endlessly and inventively funny -- think Chris Rock or Dave Chapelle or Albert Brooks -- are so prized and, frankly, revered. They joke about everything because they understand everything. That's why when Steve Martin decided to reinvent himself as a smart guy it was so confusing. We already knew he was smart. Anyway: no, funny stories shouldn't scare you. Funny people should. 

You're making me think of Al Franken. When he first decided to run for the Senate he had to go on late night shows and explain, funnily, that he was a satirist and not just a "comedian." Is it possible to talk about being funny without ruining the joke?

That's definitely what I was going for with "Best Man." To me talking about a joke makes a joke funnier. A certain kind of joke -- a good joke is funnier the more you try to figure out why it's funny in the first place. It should take twenty minutes to explain why a joke is good and you should be shaking your head in awe the whole time. What's the first joke everyone learns? Chicken crossing the road. And what's so great about that joke is that the punch line turns out to not be a joke. The joke is on the listener. It's an anti-joke. To get to the other side -- and that's everyone's starter joke, a really complex, nuanced joke that turns the idea that you're even listening to a joke on its head. Meta-humor is in our bloodstream. So yes, if a joke can't stand the scrutiny, then you were just spraying seltzer in someone's face.  

You've published a large number of short stories, and not all of them appear here. How did you decide which to include? I ask because the book contains a broad variety of pieces. Some are fantastic, some realistic. Settings range from the familiar to the exotic. What were your criteria as you sat down for the final cut?

It was tough to choose and I've sent out lots of different combinations of stories under various titles over the years. This collection combines two such versions. Livingston Press has a contest for a short story collection and I entered it twice in four years. Both times I finished in the top five. Both times the editors selected stories to republish in anthologies. Those collections were arranged chronologically, basically, and then I started to think about theme, and I had all these cheating stories. Which isn't to say all the stories are about cheating. They're not. But they're all about "looking" in some way, casting an eye about, generating self-inflicted wounds. The title came from a match-ads category, Married but Looking. I thought I remembered it from Craigslist, but someone recently told me CL never had such a category, so it may have come from the Chicago Reader or the Village Voice or somewhere else. It may have just been a heading I saw on a single online ad. Anyway, there it is, what all these particular stories are about: Married but Looking. I sent them to Livingston in this third packaging and reminded the editor of the success I'd had with the contests and asked him to read it just for an up or down vote. He said if I entered the contest he'd waive the fee, but I told him I was through with contests and I just wanted a fair fight, mano a mano, yes or no. I'm usually much more timid with people who intimidate me but something about coming so close those two previous times had emboldened me. And luckily he didn't dismiss me, and even more luckily, he said yes.

I think that's sort of true for a lot of people -- that timidity, I mean. Certainly of me. But it's odd, isn't it? You'd think writers already equipped with enough hubris to believe that what they think ought to occupy someone else's time would have a few resources in the ego. Is it possible to say what accounts for the fear that sets in when you start talking to people in publishing -- people who may or may not know more about literature than you do?

It's not their putative knowledge of literature that scares me, it's their open lunch account. It's being able to pick up the tab at a bar and have someone else buy their booze. No, if writers were brave they would leave the laptop and go to the center of a campus and start shouting. I sit in my room and type because I don't have to worry about my crappy clothes or that I might be laughed at by the popular kids. I'd rather an editor run one story by me and vaguely remember me as someone easy to work with, pleasant, than pitch a second story and have her think I'm an asshole that got lucky once.

Some of the stories in Married but Looking are very quick scenes with characters of almost Beckett-like sparseness, while others are more protracted plots with fully flesh-and-blood people. Do stories come to you in different ways? Do they get written differently?

It seems to me like there are idea stories and then there are people stories and the idea stories are shorter and more spare, but they have people in them, and then there are people stories which are more expansive and full, but there are ideas in those too. I'm not sure. Sometimes you can make out the lyrics in a song and sometimes you can't.

What the fuck's that supposed to mean?

It's tough to be an oracle! I just think that you have to take each story on its own terms. Writing and readin'. If the details are there, soak in 'em if you want. If not, go ahead and project. It works either way, when it works.

You're married to writer Molly McNett (One Dog Happy), and I couldn't help noticing that the wife character in "Ovarian Dancer" is named Molly. I'll take that as invitation to ask about your personal life, being married to a writer. Is that a boon, or a strain? Does either wind up in the work?

It's a spoon and a stain. I don't know. It just is. When I met her she was writing plays and having them produced in Chicago and acting too, so there was less competition. We don't really compete for publications so much as for material. When something happens that we're both involved in we often argue over who has dibs on it. Sometimes though we'll say, okay we're going on this camping trip, when it's over, we each have one month to write a story. We make it a contest. We spent eleven weeks learning languages in Guatemala right after we married and then we both wrote Guatemala stories: mine is "The Rate of Exchange," reprinted in this collection. It was originally published in the venerable Other Voices, and I was also awarded a grant from the Illinois Arts Council when I used that story for the application. It even got anthologized in a Tartts collection of emerging writers. Molly called her story "Quiche Lessons" and published it in the Missouri Review. They gave her a Peden Prize for it, which came with a check and a classy dinner in Mizzou. So sometimes it's tough to say which one of us won. I don't think either of the stories have any overlap and you wouldn't mistake either one for being written by the other. We're pretty different writers, although lucky for me she's brilliant and happens to be my favorite writer so it works out at home.

Are you first readers of each other's work, as one hears so often? Is it harder or easier to critique a story if there's some version of you in there poking back out at you? And what about the central theme of Married but Looking? Doesn't that stir anything up as you read each other's work? I guess I'm circuitously trying to get at something else, a kind of death-of-the-author sort of thing; when a story seems autobiographical, if it calls attention to its own autobiographicalness, what's a reader supposed to "do" with that information, if not wonder about the home life?

I guess that's supposed to put an additional layer of intrigue into the thing, not necessarily for the reader, but for the writer. If I give the main character the same name as me and then give his wife the same name as my wife, and give her a medical condition requiring the exact same surgery my wife actually did have, I'm trying to make the story more dangerous for me to write, which raises the stakes at home, which motivates me to work harder. It becomes more dangerous for me to pass a draft across the kitchen table and say, here's a story about a guy who ends up taking a strange woman home after his wife's ovarian tumor is removed. And can you pass the butter? (That's not how we share our writing by the way. We leave stories in the printer and then pretend to be surprised when the other person says he or she read it, and then ask a lot of questions, and usually end up getting mad at the response and swearing that it's the last time he or she'll get to read anything before it's published again. We both do it that way. Also, we rarely have butter.) In the end I assume the reader isn't remotely interested in my actual life or which details I invented and which I conveniently borrowed. Ideally the reader isn't even consciously aware that there's a clicking keyboard on the other end of the process. That said, even "Ovarian Dancer" has a ton of stuff diverging from reality. For example that Dan Libman is a high school biology teacher and a smoker and lives near the Loop, none of which is true for me, although we drive the same car and like eggs and drink beer from pint glasses. It is also true that sometimes between Molly and me there is an unspoken gamesmanship going on. She wrote something where a wife is having terrible fights with her husband. They've just had their first child and he's being a real dick. Wait a minute, now that I remember it, that was a nonfiction essay.

In "Lost Languages of Africa," you poke fun at the fact that writers often write their own "About the Author" notes. This is pretty similar to writing a clearly autobiographical short story, isn't it? What was it like to write the author note for this book?

This is a great follow-up because I didn't write my author's note. I tried, but it's painful having to say nice things about yourself. So Molly wrote it. This might actually be the boon part of being married to a writer.  

"In the Belly of the Cat" has been widely anthologized and translated, and was read by actor Paul Rudd at Carnegie Hall for the Paris Review fiftieth anniversary party. You're a very good reader of your own work; what was it like hearing the story come from someone else's mouth?

I heard it went over well, was told that Rudd brought the house down with his routine, but they forgot to tell me so I didn't even know it was happening until it was over and people started contacting me to congratulate me. I'm sad I missed it.

That blows! Didn't they even try to find you? It's not like you're hiding.

I don't want to diss the Paris Review, I'm really grateful to them. They've been very good to me: my first big publication, got me anthologized a few times and invited me to a couple of swell parties. Plus they apologized for forgetting to invite me so it's cool.

I kept thinking of Thurber as I read the book -- at times, the discrepancy between characters' fantasies and their realities seemed like a citation of Walter Mitty -- but it's actually Cheever who gets mentioned by name, for a different kind of fantasy. The stories themselves sometimes list their own "sources," in a way, but what are some of the influences that are a bit more difficult to spot? 

I love this question because I do think of writing as sort an insufficient love letter to the writers and stories I absorbed that mean so much to me. I'm a fan of Frank Black or Black Francis, whichever name he's using at the moment, and when he's interviewed he'll say, "Oh I got this riff from that song on the Ramones album and I stole this bass line from a Lou Reed tune..." I try to have my characters be as aware of their own antecedents as the reader is. So when the husband is trying to make his wife jealous and telling her he cheated on her in "Tandem," she comes right out and says, you got all this from a M*A*S*H episode, and I can even tell you which one. I'm one of those people who go to your house and then goes through your bookshelf rather than having a conversation. I've got that joke in "Sentimental Values" where Eric tells his wife that her parents aren't that smart because even though they have a shelf full of books, "most are by Dick Francis." That gets a laugh when I do that story at readings, though I've enjoyed a lot of Dick Francis over the years. I just usually tuck those books in drawers and let Bullfinch's Mythology sit on the bookshelves.