Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Eileen Pollack Interviewed

Eileen Pollack will be reading from In the Mouth: Stories and Novellas at several Jewish Book Network events in the Fall, beginning excitingly with the Jewish Literary Festival taking place in Washington, D.C. from September 14-24; Eileen will read on Monday September 22nd at 7.30p.m. You can read a glowing review of In the Mouth in the San Francisco Chronicle here.

An interview with Eileen, conducted by Catherine Bates, follows.

In the Mouth is a collection of short stories and novellas. How do you distinguish between the two different forms? Do you think about length at the beginning stages of the each piece? Do you have a preference between the two forms?
The novella is my favorite form – it offers the clean, simple structure of a short story (one main character facing one central conflict as that conflict moves through one pleasing narrative arc, exploring one central thematic question, usually from one dominant point of view) while providing much more space in which to work out all of the above. As you can see, I’m a maximalist, in terms not only of language and thematic meditation but also plot. Even in my short stories, I tend to work with as much plot as some literary writers provide for an entire novel. So the novella length allows me to take my time and not give in to the temptation to scrunch in a novel’s worth of material in 25 pages.

And yes, I do tend to know which form a piece will take before I start out. If an old man tells his son that he needs to be circumcised before he dies, you’re not going to be able to accomplish the circumcision – let alone convince your readers the story is remotely plausible or explain why the old man needs a circumcision, literally or thematically – in fewer than forty pages. This was especially true since I knew “The Bris” was going to have a fairy-tale structure: the king asks his son to perform a difficult task, and the son must surmount daunting obstacles, trying at least three strategies before he succeeds (in fairy tales, everything comes in threes!). With “Beached in Boca,” I knew I was writing two intertwined stories, each so dramatic (an elderly father with AIDS, a father who’s murdered a secret lover) I would need lots of pages to do them both justice. That said, I wasn’t sure if I was writing a forty-page novella or a full-length novel until well into the project!

And now that I’m writing this, I have to admit that I also love the story form … for the sheer beauty of its compressed brevity, accomplishing so much in so little space. And stories are easier to publish on their own, in magazines. If not for the wonderful literary journal SubTropics, which doesn’t balk at printing long works of fiction, “The Bris” wouldn’t have come out on its own and won a Best American!

Could you talk a little about your writing process for a short story collection? I know you have written novels as well. How does the completion of a collection differ from the completion of a novel?
I write my novels all at one go, and even though this might take three to five years, the book spans one discrete period of my life and by its nature focuses on one central theme. But the stories that end up going into a collection might span decades of my life, in and around the novels and works of nonfiction. All the while, I’m moving through different periods of my life, facing different challenges as a person and as a writer. At one end of In the Mouth, my son was being born, while at the other end, my son was approaching manhood and my father was dying. The challenge is to find the common themes that span several eras of your life. In this case, I tried to put together the collection before I’d written “The Bris,” with a far different story (“Breaking and Entering”) in its place, and I couldn’t see the unities. Then I wrote “The Bris” and took out the one story that didn’t fit, and suddenly everything came together and made sense, all those parents and children, all those secrets, all those questions of what parents and children give to each other, or can’t give, what we can or can’t give to lovers and total strangers …

How does the title speak to the larger themes in this collection?
Well, as I said, the parents and children in this collection keep many secrets from each other (and from themselves). In the first story “The Safe,” the main character is keeping her passion for her son’s physical beauty a secret from her husband, her son, her father, everyone, while she’s also starting to wonder if something was wrong about her own father’s physical responses to her when she was a child.

In contemporary American society, a secret of that nature demands to be explored and made much of: Oh, no, maybe your father sexually abused you! Oh no, maybe you’re sexually abusing your son! But by the end of the story, the narrator is as unwilling to explore those so-called problems and pathologize her feelings for her son (or her father’s feelings for her) as the father has been unwilling to open the safe in the basement of his office. Once I had that image – the safe that might or might not be opened to reveal its secrets – I also saw the image of the dentist peering down his patient’s throat to see what he can see about the patient. In the safe, in the mouth … what do we really know about what’s inside anyone else, even people to whom we’re closely related?

And there’s the idea of nursing a child, which comes up in “Milk,” when Bea stares at her son’s mouth and gets freaked out because he’s asking something of her that she doesn’t think she has to give. Or getting kicked in the mouth. Or, well, all the sexual connotations of mouths and what goes into mouths. That said, I have to give credit to my friend, Marcie Hershman, who actually suggested the phrase when I was hunting for a title! All I did was see the wonderful rightness of her suggestion!

Florida reappears in these stories. What role does place have in this collection? How aware were you of the physical settings of these stories while writing the collection?

Setting is everything to me when I write. I tend to make up plots, but I always work with real settings. The setting is the world of the story, by which I mean the culture. Every detail, every object and image and ritual of that world has to strike me as rich in poetry and sociology. There are people who are insiders in a given world, people who are outsiders, and most of the conflicts in my stories (and novels) occur because of some sort of clash between the insiders and the outsiders. The Catskills, where I grew up, certainly qualifies as a world unto itself. But that world died, and most of the older people who used to live there retired to southern Florida. They took some of their own customs down there with them, but they also created new ones. The gated communities of Boca are so rich in ritual, language, a certain well-defined set of values … That’s what I need to create a world. But I didn’t want to stay on the stereotypical surface, the way Jerry Seinfeld does when he takes his characters to Boca (though I do laugh myself sick when those episodes come on in Seinfeld in reruns); I wanted to explore what was going on inside characters like Milt Rothstein, a seemingly mild-mannered dentist from upstate New York.

The body is intricately woven into the plot of these stories. Hospitals and dentist offices often house some kind of heartbreak. The characters’ struggles are connected to the body’s limitations. Could you talk about the importance of the body in your writing?
Honestly, I never thought of that before in relation to my work. I’m someone who lives most of her life inside her head, so it always comes as a big surprise to me that I even have a body. Then again, I’ve always been very active and athletic, and I’ve had a great many physical setbacks in the past ten years (I recently had to have part of my spine replaced!). Having a baby and nursing him and taking care of him is a very physical activity, absolutely saturated with powerful emotions. And caring for my dying father and declining mother in Boca have been powerful reminders that we all have bodies. I suppose that what you’re reading here is a chronicle of my growing realization that no one can live solely in her head! You’re reading the stories that came out of the collision between the life of the mind and the life of the body in my own history. Oh, and I suppose that I realized that one of the main ways I connected with my own father was sitting in his dental chair (and filling in as his dental assistant) … and that sitting in the chairs of other dentists now that he’s dead is an emotionally wrenching and very physically upsetting and scary experience.

A lot of these characters really stuck with me. In some of the stories like “Milt and Moose,” “The Safe,” and “Milk,” the protagonist reaches a deeper understanding or a startling realization only at the very end of the story so the reader is left pondering over these quiet, but vast changes. Do you think these characters share similar struggles?

I do. I’m not a fan of stories in which the epiphanies are small. As I said earlier, these are characters who are trying to figure out what to do with their secret lives. They’re also facing conflicts over how much they can give to other people, even the people they love most. In real life, I’m a complete and total egotist. Yet I’m also someone who feels called upon to give, give, give. I live with that conflict every waking moment, and most of my non-waking moments as well (I am plagued by vivid, disturbing dreams), so it makes sense that my characters would share similar tensions in their lives. The trouble is, most of the startling realizations and vast changes we undergo in this life tend to last for a day or a week before most of us need to go through the whole disturbing business yet again.