An Interview with Lynne Barrett
In a review for The Rumpus, novelist Joseph Olsham once described writer Lynne Barrett as brimming with "original ideas, questions and philosophical musings," and her writing as possessing "a probing intelligence and a highly literate sensibility." Kelly Cherry says Barrett "belongs in the top tier of short story writers in America today," and Steve Almond called her latest collection and Florida Book Award gold medal winner, Magpies, "a stone cold triumph."
As a long-time admirer of Lynne Barrett's work, and also as her former student, I have kept careful track of her literary career, elbowing for room in her well-attended workshops and lectures or hooking her in conversation at conference breaks, or in the street at literary festivals. I have managed to purloin a few precious hours from her to talk about the evolution of her writing from her two previous collections of stories, The Secret Names of Women and The Land of Go, to the stories in Magpies.
You once described your muse as an imp that plays with you, hiding under the table and showing up in unusual places. I find that there is something very whimsical and playful about much of your work, a subtle sense of humor, a wry and incisive understanding of multiple issues affecting our world, and experimental with structures and ideas. Is the short story your ideal form for expression?
Both as a reader and as a writer, I love the short story. You can do so many things within that space, as long as you hold the reader's attention. Poe, reviewing Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, discusses the advantages of "the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal." He says that because the novel "cannot be read at one sitting, it deprives itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality." (One can dispute this, but it's interesting how a common claim to the power of a particular novel is that it can keep you up all night, demanding to be read in totality.) "In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fullness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is at the writer's control." To achieve this end, Poe says, every sentence, every word, must contribute to the overall effect. And this is certainly the measure of the greatest short stories, across time, languages, cultures: a sense of things perfectly fitting, sustained without loss of energy, leading to an end that both surprises us with where we've come to and sends us back to the beginning to see how we got there. It is, of course, a difficult ideal, a high wire act. I find it exhilarating to try.
"Links," the first story in Magpies, takes place at the dawn of digital media. It follows a romantic affair between a web editor and her boss at an online publication. The narrative is structured around web entries, each sprinkled with keywords that link to other pages on her website. Although the structure invites the reader to interact with the links, reading it in any order produces both a fairly linear narrative and also an authentic Internet surfing experience, one which blends the intimate with the formal and contrasts the wishful tentativeness of her relationships with the pragmatic needs of her business. Though the narrative structure is experimental, the narrator asserts that "people are yearning for ancestry, for continuity, for all the twists of a tale," a statement that strikes me as nostalgic. Do you agree with Mary Louise? What about digital media inspired your ideas?
In 2000-2001, when the story is set, there was a lot of hype about the web changing everything, including writing. I knew freelancers who got jobs then, during a gold rush for content providers, and they discussed how any piece had to be split up, connecting off to other pages. The emphasis on fragmentation intrigued me. I'd used sectioning in some of my earlier stories. In The Secret Names of Women, "Meet the Impersonators," which is about an '80s girl band, has titled sections I thought of as akin to songs in an album, with some abrupt jumps of mood, over a continuing narrative line. I thought it would be fun to try to write a story that includes links, where a word or phrase, underlined, becomes a section title elsewhere (and is marked as a link whenever it recurs in the story), and to have as my protagonist someone who moves from a venerable, never-profitable print magazine (where they were still getting typewritten submissions) to a new, "hot" site that's riding high.
In a sense, the links just make highly visible a normal type of narrative connection; when a narrator mentions "my brother" early in a story, it sets up the brother's later entrance. But as I worked on the story, I found the links opened up interesting ways of dealing with multiple storylines. And, since Mary Louise is the narrator, the structure also demonstrates her learning to use the technology that she initially finds strange, turning it to her own purposes, both personal and professional. She's a character at the edge of change: she was the youngest person in her old world, and is just slightly older than the innovators in her new one. Her love life, family life, and work life all entangle, making the story she tells both intimate and a kind of ars poetica for her, an expression of her belief that story can be a locus for connection.
Do I agree? Well, I'm more comfortable letting characters express things, possibly disagreeing with each other, than making statements of my own belief. But I do hope some people yearn for all the twists of a tale because I like to invent those twists. I think story is as ancient as humanity and persists across all sorts of forms and methods of consumption.
When the story was first published, Painted Bride Quarterly was a print-only publication. When you wrote the story, did you intend for it to be a print-only read? How did thinking in terms of virtual media structure affect the way you plotted and wrote the story?
I did intend it to be for print only, and even now in PBQ's archive the links are, at my request, not live, so that it simulates a hypertext story, but isn't one. (Carnegie Mellon University Press took this simulation further, printing the links in blue.) I wanted the reader to imagine what it would be like to jump around while being held -- at least on first read -- to this order, as if on one path through a story that could also be wandered. I do know people who reread it and followed the links around and about. And, after all, nothing stops anyone ever from jumping around in a story, or starting anywhere, or peeking at the end, even when it's on paper. But I wanted to control the jumps, for effect, in the text, and to create tension between structure and plot. Sideways jumps are set against an underlying chronology that comes in at the peak of the boom and rides the bust down. I liked the irony that the dot-com boom, which proclaimed the end of traditional business and of old-fashioned narrative, had a very classic shape, like the famous market bubbles in tulips or silver, and that the arc of a business downfall shapes a story that's fundamentally a romantic comedy.
There are also a few jabs at the short-attention-span driven audiences of the digital generation. The protagonist, Mary Louise, gets accused of suffering from "Attention Surplus Disorder." Avery, her boss, tells her, "No one can read more than a paragraph, anymore. Don't make it linear. Forget linearity. You want to jump 'em to a different place." More than just surveying a changing literary landscape, the story also hints at the intrusive but necessary exploitation of the virtual medium for monetary ends, as well as at the nuances and complexities born out of the new format that can be, and perhaps should be, explored for innovative motifs. In short, the story appears to be a commentary on the future of creativity in the virtual world. How do you personally feel about the future of fiction in the digital world and how do you see "Links" as fitting into that future?
In fairness to Avery, while he boasts that his brain "bops from one thing to another," he makes up the malady "Attention Surplus Disorder" in the story because he's interested in seducing Mary Louise. So it's not so much that she has an unfortunate surplus -- her ability to concentrate is something valuable on the job -- but that he wishes she'd concentrate on him.
I'll confess that when I invented the phrase, I felt it captured something of the way I feel when I can't help noticing things like bizarre misuses of apostrophes on billboards, which it seems no one in charge minds. I've heard from readers who like the term because they themselves "suffer" from it, and feel society has stopped valuing their knowledge and carefulness. Though I find that, if anything, Google pushes precise spelling; if you forget the E in my first name, you arrive at someone else. I'm interested in recent medical findings that concentrated reading lights up lots of parts of the brain which cursory reading doesn't. I think there's some reconsideration going on, as we try to balance what we've gained in productivity, ease of access, and the ability to rove the world for information with what people can do working in long spells of quiet concentration.
"The changing landscape" is fascinating to me. The digital world has been wonderful for very short forms of fiction, flash, micro, or tweet length, which remind us that pace, duration, and proportion are aspects of storytelling that are endlessly variable. Up until the late twentieth century, many commercial magazines ran novellas, but after the magazines dwindled and disappeared, there was almost nowhere to publish one. Now they're having a resurgence online, as "singles." At the same time, I don't think we'll totally give up paper and print, any more than we have given up radio, or live readings.
One other challenge of rapid innovation: "Links" was first published in 2004. I wanted it in Magpies, because it kicks off themes and conflicts I explore in the other stories, but I realized a current reader might have forgotten or not know how the web looked in 2001, nor understand how frenetic and self-involved the era was, since there have been more drastic times since. As I revised "Links" to clarify this, I realized, to my amazement, it had become a work of historical fiction.
"When, He Wondered" also plays on convergences between economic cycles and personal relationships. In the story, a real estate developer has made millions around the same geological sinkholes that later threaten his financial ruin. Those sinkholes turn out to be clever metaphors for the developer's various personal and financial failures: the people who helped him build his fortune turn out to have tunneled their secrets all around him. Would you talk a little bit about how the story evolved around this geography?
On trips to southwest Florida, an area known for crystal springs and sinkholes, I was struck by the transformation of small, sleepy places into boom towns with golf resorts, mansions (mega and mini), and sprawl. I imagined a character who'd be proud at having done this, a developer who grew up there and saw himself as building the future.
No story attached itself to him then, but not long after, as empires were revealed to be shams, I was fascinated by the idea of how someone feels who has ridden high and then sees it all falling apart. What does he do? There were news stories about people who tried to escape with their money, including one or two who were caught faking their own deaths. Obviously if someone succeeds, we don't know about it. (There are people who believe Kenneth Lay, who died while vacationing after his Enron conviction but before his sentencing, pulled some sort of switch and is living lavishly under a new identity.) I began to think about how desperate my developer would be and how he could plausibly fake his death, leaving no body behind, by disappearing while swimming and being presumed to have drowned, and somehow this took me back to the landscape I'd been thinking about, with its sinkholes and underground rivers.
I felt someone who tried such a scheme would want an accomplice and turn to a trusted friend, and that that friend could be someone he probably shouldn't trust, and then -- and this is always the hardest thing to explain, an imaginative leap -- I saw the shape of my story, how it could be about the kinds of erosion of a character's better self over time, till there's a sudden collapse. And to say more would be to give too much away.
In "The Noir Boudoir" an ex-cop turned antique dealer uncovers clues to a murder through the objects in the estate of Helena Dorsett, whose belongings are an irresistible lure for the scavenging group of dealers he calls "the Magpies." In this story, as in others in previous collections, objects are key to crucial interactions between characters and leave reverberations across time. They are more than merely collected artifacts; they are anchors that moor the owners to the sometimes-regrettable deeds of their past. I've noticed some of your stories suggest a certain attention to the power of possessions to reflect important character flaws. For example, in your story "Beauty," in The Secret Names of Women, the mother of the protagonist is obsessed with a collection of Barbie dolls that she envisions as a legacy she can pass on to her daughter, Susan, but the Barbies are also stiff idols, emblematic of their distant and difficult relationship. How do the objects in a story connect with your story-telling process? Were you conscious of the symbolic nature of objects when you began writing "The Noir Boudoir"?
I suppose the fact that my mother was an antiques dealer could explain some of my awareness of how people reveal themselves through the things they choose and have and keep. But she didn't start that career until I was about twelve, and I know I perceived a relationship between objects and character long before that. In fact, I think I always saw objects as characters. My father's pewter beer steins, my grandmother's cigarette lighter, or my mother's bottle of summer cologne kept in the refrigerator: they still seem to me to have power, like little household gods. Perhaps my ancestors (mostly Irish, some Norman and German) passed down a druid/pagan belief that objects, buildings, and trees have spirits? Roman Catholicism subsumed this way of thinking into holy objects, and I was raised Catholic, but it seems to me that around our house the copper chafing dish in which my mother kept bills and my father's tackle box were charismatic characters.
I've always resisted the term "symbolism." I learned to use it, as I had to, in school, but had private reservations. In literary discussion it tends to flatten towards a single, often heavy, meaning. Some writers may think, and create, more symbolically or allegorically than I do, while I find it more helpful to see an object or place in a story as absorbing, from whoever possesses and uses it, qualities, including contradictory ones -- and I do think the object can then, as you say, have further reverberations. At the end of "Beauty," there's an image of the dolls taking root and growing into trees, which now that I think about it seems very druidic indeed.
Character is always somewhat mysterious, I think, why we are who we are and do what we do the result of shifting parts of ourselves, like tectonic plates. And we never fully know each other. Certainly this is embedded in a traditional mystery like "The Noir Boudoir," where a character is dead before the action begins. Objects can tantalize the detective and the reader, holding secrets. This is true for all deaths, of course, but a crime authorizes deeper investigation. It's necessary to discern what the objects say about the victim's character and life, as well as to identify which is a clue that has something else to tell, about the murderer. It seemed right, to me, that an ex-cop would become an antiques dealer. He's used to reading a crime scene. In this case, Ray doesn't know he's in one when he enters Helena Dorsett's apartment, but, finding how unusual it is, especially the bedroom, he's naturally curious about the woman's story, curious enough to pay attention as he and his pals disassemble what's there, and then, as it emerges there was a crime, he's chasing the story behind the clues, both as cop and as a collector of ephemera. Even after the crime is solved, he's still contemplating one enigmatic object.
When I was doing my MFA at Florida International University, you were famous for your plot class and for how it taught us to chart and graph our work as well as stories we read and admired. How do you prepare for your creative work? Do you chart your plots, and do you have a favorite plot structure that you find accommodates your writing style best?
I'm teaching that class this semester. First we read and take apart some classics, looking at a variety of types of plots and structures, and then contemporary works. Often, I find, students have been so thoroughly trained to read for language, imagery, and the interior journey of the character (all fascinating and important), they are almost plot-blind. Charting can help them see the full action and structure more clearly. There's a famous anecdote about Harry Crews retyping Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, which has a complex time structure and a plot that pivots on events in the past that have to be re-understood as facts emerge. Crews wanted to figure out how Greene pulled it off. Retyping on a manual typewriter was a tough way to do it, but the goal was the same, to see what's actually there, what the writer did.
Students have the option of using their own work for a paper, later in the term. They need to have a complete but problematic draft of a story, novel, memoir, or play. It has to have an end, I find, for them to look at it clearly, and should have problems that have resisted revision. To analyze the draft, students make charts -- time lines, maps of the action, character relationships, what is and isn't in scene -- and identify reasons the plot and structure aren't working, strengths, and opportunities they can build on in revision. They are often surprised how much they haven't noticed before. My goal is to help them think about what they've done in a clearer way, not to impose some formula.
I've started stories from anywhere: a place, a character, an action, a situation, or a structure. The process of invention is full of mistakes and discoveries, and I try to keep my mind open as I'm writing drafts.
Experience helps, though. For instance, if I have started with one character, I will be looking for another who wants something that will cause conflict with the first one. I realize I described just that for "When, He Wondered," where the second character became the protagonist. Sooner or later I'll sketch a map or a timeline, and I'll then see things to cut and fresh opportunities for invention.
You asked whether I have a favorite type of plot or structure, but, for good or ill, I do the opposite: I like to try new forms. Occasionally I'm asked to contribute to an anthology or themed journal. Not all concepts grab me, but sometimes one acts like a prompt. "Will you write a story about Christmas in Florida?" led to "Gift Wrap," which is about family members descending on one sister's home after the death of the mother. After that story was published, I found myself wondering how the sister and her husband got together, which led to a darker story, "One Hippopotamus." Later, the husband, Carlos, became protagonist of a third story (all of these are in Magpies), "Cave of the Winds." For that one, I wanted to cover one hurricane season, and in the course of drafting, while making a list of storm names for the season, I thought I could try telling it as an abecedarian story: full of difficulties, but fun. In other words, I'm self-prompting, once something gets me going.
By reading your work, one can easily see that you are interested in a variety of voices, subjects and creative approaches. You have not only written three collections of short stories, but also edited anthologies, written the libretto for a children's opera and worked on a variety of creative projects in support and growth of the literary community. What can we expect from the Lynne Barrett of the future? Is there a novel in the works, or will you surprise us with something less traditional? Is there, perhaps, some other genre that you haven't yet considered that might show up in your artistic future?
I'm reluctant to say much about writing plans, because the telling can dispel some of my need to do the writing -- the explainer somehow at odds with the explorer. I prefer to write and then notice where it's leading me, and only call it a book when I feel sure of it. When choosing which stories would go into Magpies, I saw that I'd been doing work that split off to either side: short odd tales and some very long, multiple point of view stories. I've continued on those trails and I've also been writing, recently, memoir pieces and essays. It's fun to see what all this can pull out of me, though I find that my first love, the short story, has, as first loves do, imprinted upon me certain qualities I seek in new ones. It's like a personals ad: Wanted, new genre. Must be flexible, surprising, like to dance when sad.