A little like waking up from a strange fever
Back in October, I published a review of Emily Fridlund’s excellent first story collection Catapult, which was awarded the 2015 Mary McCarthy Prize by Sarabande Books. I also sent Fridlund a few questions via email, thinking a short interview might be nice to have as a companion piece to the review. Little did I know, she was in England at the time – her debut novel, History of Wolves, had been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary prizes on the planet, and she’d flown across the Atlantic for the prize ceremony. Eventually, she came back home, and despite also having a newborn, she graciously made some time to answer my questions. Our conversation is below.
You’ve published a successful novel – History of Wolves – and captured the Mary McCarthy Prize for your collection Catapult, and all of this in the same year. Do you have any plans for your next literary project, or are you content to take some time before you decide?
It has been quite a year! I also gave birth to a baby this summer – my first, a son – so 2017 has been full of all kinds of new experiences. This last year has made me feel so humbled and fortunate, but I’m also aware that such a dramatic period of change (new books, new baby) can’t last forever. The next stage will likely be a slower, cozier, more tedious and less eventful period – which I’m looking forward to. I’ve been mulling my next project, another novel, for some time now, and I’ve begun hoarding the afternoon hours and naptimes for turning over scenes and characters in my head, occasionally writing things down. I can feel the tug of those new characters and their world, and when I sit down in my office now it can be, somehow, a little like waking up from a strange fever. After a year of travel and public appearances, it is so good to feel my brain stretch in the old, familiar ways, to live alone in my imagination for a time.
At times, stories such as the titular “Catapult” seem informed by research, though the researched content never feels intrusive. Would you describe your philosophy on integrating research into fiction?
“Research” is probably too formal a word for the omnivorous and undisciplined reading that I do when writing. I often feel that I need to know just enough about a subject to feel comfortable playing around with it. If I get too fixated on reading for details and facts (about time travel in “Catapult” or about the mastiff in “Lock Jaw”), I often lose the excitement needed to fictionalize – the feeling of being able to spin on the far ledge of a sentence, just past what I already know. My stories, especially, depend on this vertiginous sensation, which can be hard to cultivate if I spend too much time trying to document the world as it is. I did more research during all parts of the process when writing my novel, History of Wolves, in part because I needed to sustain the illusion of the little universe I’d created for so much longer. Length meant that the fiction needed to hold up to closer scrutiny. But for the stories in Catapult, I wanted to let the voices – their rhythms and preoccupations – carry the reader as far as possible. The further I could spin away from the “real world” without entirely losing contact with it, the better. That’s when the most interesting and surprising writing usually happened.
How did Catapult come together as a collection? Did you spend much effort ensuring that the stories made sense together as a kind of “family,” or is that something that happened more spontaneously?
I’ve been writing and publishing stories for more than a decade. When I began to think I might have enough to gather them up in collection, I initially looked to their content to decide which to include. At one point I had a story collection that was similar to but not the same as Catapult called Three-Child Policy, and the idea was to feature dysfunctional, uncanny families with young children. There were other even more awkward ideas, and other titles as well! But then I was given some excellent advice from Aimee Bender, my teacher at the University of Southern California: Just use your best stories and go from there. This simplified things immensely, and that’s when the fun part of the process began, which was messing around with the story order. On several occasions, I printed everything off and plotted my chosen stories in various snaking lines across the rug, subbing one for another, shuffling pages. As I arranged and rearranged material, I found myself thinking a lot about tempo and mood and pacing and voice. Many of my final decisions came from ear, or instinct, more than anything else. But as the stories began, one by one, to slide into their final places, I also began to see some larger shapes emerging from the disparate parts, a little like reading tea leaves or clouds. Yearning to leave and being stuck – along with self-delusion, arising out of both ambivalence and love – these were the ideas that kept surfacing in nearly every story. Once I perceived these patterns, I was able to revise the stories to bring out more fully what had seemed latent till then.
Writers often debate the differences (or lack thereof) between writing short fiction versus writing novels. You’ve done both. How does your approach to novel writing differ from your approach to short fiction?
I have occasionally described my novel History of Wolves as a long short story, in part because there is a logic to the plotting that can feel (to me) associative rather than explicative. Between characters quite a lot often goes unsaid. If there is a quality of silence that puts some special, discernable, intense pressure on what is in fact articulated – whatever that kind of quiet might be called – I wanted it for my novel. I almost always tried to say as little as I could get away with. Likewise, before I wrote History of Wolves, I sometimes thought of my stories as miniature, failed novels for the way they spilled past my initial ideas of them. When I was wrestling with the composition of these stories, I usually had to learn to loosen my grip on them as I went along, to mess around with time and let go of neat, slice-of-life realism. And in fact, some of my stories took nearly as many years (though not as many hours) for me to write as my novel did, if you can believe that. Maybe I was just lazy about finishing them. But it felt like they had to be distilled, and only a lot of time could do that.
What’s on your bookshelf at the moment?
My actual bookshelves are a crazy mix of board books, new parent guides, galley proofs of other writers’ novels – and some odd books I pick up for short chunks of time when I nurse my new baby. A few among these have helped me maintain a sense of perspective in this busy and unsettled year. Just before I gave birth in late summer, I read a galley of Leni Zumas’ novel Red Clocks, which I found searing and galvanizing, and which will be published in January. I was given Fiona Mozley’s harrowing novel Elmet, another shortlisted Man Booker pick, when I was in England last month. Its elegant, unpretentious prose felt like a splash of cold water. In these last months, I keep dipping into Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors for its wisdom about the uncomfortable weirdness of new motherhood, and Mary Oliver’s Upstream for her placid, joyful, perfect sentences. And finally, if you have small children – and even if you don’t – Nikki McClure’s In, is both gorgeous to look at and a simple treat to read out loud.