In today’s INTERVIEW, jmww editor Jen Michalski talks with Dawn Raffel about her new collection of stories, FURTHER ADVENTURES FROM THE RESTLESS UNIVERSE (Dzanc 2010), which features 21 stories in just under 100 pages. Jonathan Fullmer of of Booklist says these stories are “reflective, well-tempered fictions are bursting with energy, requiring readers to look more closely at the world around them.” They have also been likened to puzzles, flash pieces, prose pieces, and they defy all attempts at categorization. As does Daffel herself.
Jen Michalski: Your stories have been called prose poetry, flash fiction, sparse. I don’t really care so much what they’re called, only that they’re unlike any other stories I’ve read before. In fact, I read FURTHER ADVENTURES IN THE RESTLESS UNIVERSE three times just to make sure it was no accident, what you’re doing. You seem to have a tonal, acoustical language that’s all yours, and its sensibility repeats story after story. So how do you do it? Or rather, how did you get here, to this point?
Dawn Raffel: Thank you for the questions. I was working as a fiction editor in my twenties and spent years trying to emulate authors whose work I greatly admired. That gets you nowhere–or rather, it gets you to the place where you can write a competent story that gets a nice note on a rejection slip. Then I went to study with Gordon Lish. At first I was trying very hard to write like other people in that class who were doing great work–with the result that I wrote some truly awful stuff. Finally, I reached a breaking point where I thought, the hell with it, I’m just going to write the way I see things, the way I experience the world. What came out on the page scared me half to death because it looked so odd. Lish saw it as the making of me as a writer, and I was extremely fortunate to have not only his support but also his incitement to push it even further. For a long time I kept asking writer friends, “Can I get away with this? How about this?” Sometimes I still do.
JM: You return to family often in this collection, which coincides nicely with the idea of planets and gravitational pull. And you may have mentioned in other interviews that FURTHER ADVENTURES was the title of a book you and your father read together every night. Given your emphasis on acoustics and cadence, is it correct to think that there’s a similar order and gravity to the stories in this collection? How did it come about?
DR: I never thought about family and gravitational pull, but of course you are right. I like that. In terms of composition, I don’t think about gravity so much as I do about refraction. I want everything in a story to play off everything else in that story, acoustically and thematically, and I want to see refraction between the stories. They aren’t traditionally linked but I intended for them to be read in sequence, as a complete composition, so that each story is affected by what comes before and after it. I constantly re-order the pieces when I’m putting together a collection, and sometimes re-edit them in relation to one another. The final story is a response to the first: The stars in the night sky, the lit candles.
JM: Do you have a favorite story? I especially loved “North of the Middle,” “Steam,” “The Air and Its Relatives.” I think you capture perfectly the nearness and distance of parents and their children and intervening guilt.
DR: Thank you. I have a soft spot for “The Air and Its Relatives” because it was the hardest story to write and was not in the original manuscript. I had been trying for a long time to write a story that captured something of my late father, and I knew that I wanted to begin at the planetarium in Chicago, but I couldn’t find my way into the composition. At a certain point I gave up and decided the collection was complete without it. Dan Wickett accepted the book at Dzanc with one request–that I consider adding something because it was so short. So I knew I wasn’t off the hook for that story; I had to grapple with it and I had to find a way to insert it into a composition that was already done. When I look at it now, it feels like the heart of the book, the closest thing to a title story.
JM: How are these stories different than when you wrote CARRYING THE BODY? Do you have a different approach to longer and shorter forms?
DR: CARRYING THE BODY is made up of short chapters and is organized more intuitively than chronologically, which is also the case with my story collections. But I had to keep looking at the longer arc. Everything in the novel (until the last chapter) takes place inside the same house. I kept a running list of all the stuff in that house–the hard objects that had significance–so I could remember to keep all of it in play.
JM: When do you write? As a mother and editor at Reader’s Digest, I imagine there’s time for a coffee and not much else!
DR: I’ve cut my magazine work back to part time but I still produce new writing very slowly. That’s partly a function of limited time, but it’s also because I’ll often have a fragment that needs to sit for a while before I begin to understand what it is. As for coffee–I should dedicate my next book to caffeine.
JM: You resist the idea of places, of characters, of specific references in your stories, and yet your stories feel very intimate and personal, full of “image refractions,” for lack of a better term. I guess I mean flashes of specific, haunting memories. Are they the genesis of a story? Do you have an image in your mind and build around it, or are there several images?
DR: Many of my stories begin with a visual image that is charged for me in ways I don’t understand. The challenge is to translate that image into an acoustical event and then live in it for a while. It might be of interest that my mother was a visual artist and a docent, and my sister is a visual artist.
JM: You said you produce writing very slowly. How long does it take, on average, for you to write a piece?
DR: That varies widely. Some of the stories took almost a year to write–I’d have a fragment and not know what it was, what to do with it. Sometimes part of writing is just waiting. Other stories, like “Steam,” came very quickly, which for me means writing a first draft in a single sitting (and then a lot of tinkering). I don’t think the reader can tell which stories came quickly and which steeped over a very long period of time. It’s not uncommon for me to go through 100 or so pages of drafts/revisions for a single story.
JM: Over what span of years do the stories in FURTHER ADVENTURES Span?
DR: Do you mean, how many years did I spend writing these? About seven.
JM: When I was getting together my first collection, I was almost a little embarrassed by the earlier stuff I had to consider for it, or maybe less embarrassed but much more disconnected from it. Do you feel that the stories in FURTHER ADVENTURES (or any of your work) show a writer at different places in her life and approach, or did part of your editing process for the collection address your continual evolution? This always fascinates me as a writer because, by the time the public reads something, the writer often is almost completely divorced from it.
DR: Some of the later stories seem stronger to me. But the truth is, I start to feel disconnected from a story almost as soon as I’m done writing it. I try to regard the earlier work as an old friend.
JM: What are you working on now?
DR: I’ve just finished an illustrated memoir, although memoir is a loose term because I’ve left a lot of blanks for the reader to fill in. It’s possible that I’ve written the first memoir where you still don’t know anything about me when you’re done–but I hope you’ll know more about yourself.
JM: You’ve had success as a published writer on many levels, with books published by Scribner, Knopf, and now Dzanc. What idea do you have for writers trying to break into the industry?
DR: First, don’t write for the marketplace. It can eat the soul out of your writing. Second, at every stage of your career, you need what feels like endless perseverance and flexibility (no, not selling out or compromising, but yes, trying new things rather persisting in doing the same thing that isn’t working, only harder), both in terms of the writing and in terms of finding an audience. As for the industry, I am hoping that the generation younger than mine will have some creative solutions, because my generation has done a pretty good job of messing it up.