Fabricating a Life: An Interview with Pamela Painter by Curtis Smith

Pamela Painter is the award-winning author of four short story collections, including Getting to Know the Weather, which won the Great Lakes College Award for First Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’sThe Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, and in numerous anthologies, such as Sudden Fiction, Flash Fiction, From Blues to Bop:  A Collection of Jazz Fiction,  Four Minute Fictions, Flash Fiction Forward, MicroFiction, Nothing Short of 100, and New Micro. She is the recipient of grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received three Pushcart Prizes. Painter’s stories have been presented on National Public Radio, and on stage byStage Turner, Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre, and in Los Angeles, New York City and London by Word Theatre.  She is also the co-author, with Anne Bernays, of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. She teaches in the Emerson College MFA program. Find her at pamelapainterwriter.com

Curtis Smith: Congratulation on Fabrications, New and Selected Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press). There’s the experience of opening a box of new books—but I’m wondering if the experience of holding this book for the first time, with its deeper view of your career and history, was different?

Pamela Painter:  It was very different.  Instead of marking a section of time, my “new and selected” encompasses my entire writing life.  It includes my very first published stories, stories written through the years, and finally stories that were published only months before appearing in Fabrications.  So there was a sense of a trajectory of accomplishment.

CS:  Can you tell us how this project came together? Did the publisher approach you with the idea—or was this something that was on your radar for a while?

PP:  It was suggested that I put together a new collection, that a publisher might be looking for a collection of stories, but I didn’t have a new one.  So, it occurred to me to do a “new and selected” and I set about putting it together.  The editor agreed to consider it and to my immense delight accepted it within weeks. 

CS: Can you talk about the process of selecting the stories? I’m sure some were obvious—but were there some that you returned to and were surprised by? If so, can you tell us about them?

PP:  My Pushcart Prize stories and those selected for anthologies seemed meant to be included, but when selecting other stories several did surprise me.  Several contained material that clearly I must have done research for—the amazing variety of suicide notes, the beauty of the world’s great bridges, or Elvis Presley’s record-breaking Las Vegas year.  Other stories made me wonder where did that tale come from?  And does it belong in the collection?  So part of the process was something I didn’t expect—the nagging presence of a “ghost” collection.  It is composed of stories I did not include for various reasons that even now I sometimes question.  So it calls to me—this “ghost” collection that only I know about. 

CS: Fitzgerald contended there were only so many things he could write about—and outside of those themes, he didn’t have a whole lot to say. As you were preparing this collection, did you discover a common core of themes? And if there are such themes, were you aware of them before?

PP:  I suspect that my title means more than the fact that stories are fabrications.  Many of my characters are also fabricators, and perhaps one of my themes is the power of the stories we tell ourselves, or that characters tell themselves, in order to understand their lives, in order to survive, and sometimes they don’t survive.  I write about situations and relationships—between parents and children, lovers, spouses, even incidental meetings—and I never think about themes, but rather about telling a particular story, exploring the puzzle of being alive at a certain point in time.  Themes might emerge, but it takes someone else to point them out to me. And even then I’d rather not know. 

CS: In terms of style, what has changed the most in your work? Can you look at these stories and see a point where there were sentence-level (or bigger) shifts? If so, what can you attribute it to?

PP:  I’m not aware of sentence-level shifts, but recently I’ve been writing more experimental stories, speculative fiction.  

CS: I’ve always loved your flash fiction—can you talk about your history with the form? Were you writing it from the start, in those days when everyone called it something different? If not, how did you get into it? What do you find most appealing about the form?

PP:  When I began writing I seldom wrote very short stories—a story always spooled out to whatever length it wanted to be, but almost never flash fiction.  And then an editor suggested I write a story for the first Flash Fiction anthology, and I did and discovered that I liked the form.  And now, for example, it seems like the perfect place for tiny observations.  In a review, someone said there is always a dog that barks in the night, and that thought has stayed with me.  So, I recently wrote a story about the dog that barks in the night.  It ends, “I worry about that dog.  I worry about us.”  Then I became intrigued with the word “thoughtless.”  I wrote about a character who is so thoughtless that in a very short space of time he loses his family because of it.  The word that is nagging at me now is “feckless.”  It doesn’t have a story yet, but I hope it will. 

CS: Does the notion of the flash form come to you in a story’s inception? Or do you find yourself sometimes writing big and then boiling it down? If so, does the process sometimes go the other way—a piece you thought would be flash ends up wanting to go long? What are the story elements that dictate if a piece will either be long or short?

Fabrications: New and Selected Stories

PP: I’ve never written a long story and turned it into flash fiction, nor did a short short story ever become a longer story.  My stories almost always begin with an unstable situation, and that situation seems to dictate the number of pages/words needed to sort it out.  To do justice to the dilemma.  Hmmm, now I’ll have to ponder over that word “justice.” 

CS: Was it writing or nothing else from the start? Or were there other art forms along the way that attracted you?

PP: I wrote poetry in college and a few poems were eventually published.  Then, after college, I was teaching high school and I was assigned a creative writing course.  My first homework assignment was to write a story that night and bring it in the next day.  The students complained, and rightly so, but I said, “Ok, I’ll write one too.”  I wrote my first stories in that class.  Saul Bellow once said, “Every writer is a reader moved to emulation.”  I had always been a voracious reader—when I was growing up I was known as “there’s-that-Pam-with-her-nose-in-a-book — so my “teachers” were in place.   Margo Livesey also speaks to this apprenticeship: “One must learn to read as a writer, to search out that hidden machinery, which it is the business of art to conceal and the business of the apprentice to comprehend.”  Would I have become a writer if I hadn’t been assigned that high school class?  I’ll never know. 

CS: I loved the new stories in the book’s first section—and I admire how you can go from the external to the internal—from dialogue to reflection. We often need the external to keep the story humming and moving forward—but resonance often waits with the internal sections. I’m wondering if you’ve ever struggled with that balance or if it now comes naturally? Do you have any advice on how to handle pacing in terms of interior/exterior content?

PP:  I tell my students that the narrator owns the story, and therefore that character’s reflection and inner life are the heart of the story.  The unstable situation is there to keep the story moving forward, but it the character’s inner life that determines how the story ends.  So I don’t think of a story in terms of conflict—such a confining word—but rather in terms of a character’s apprehension or anticipation in dealing with an unstable situation.   If a story has multiple points of view, then each character’s reflection matters. 

CS: And one last long-view question—did the things that motivated you to sit down at your desk at the start of your career still resonate today? Or do you find yourself writing now for different reasons?

PP:  My motivation to write a story is still the same — a story idea will occur to me and eventually pull me to my desk to explore the possibilities.  Perhaps there’s an unstable situation asking to be unraveled and set right, or a title or even just one word like “thoughtless” searching for a story.  I go to my desk—I’m smiling because I do write at a desk—and I trust that the words will come.  I feel lucky that in order to begin a story I don’t need to know how that story moves forward and I never know how it ends. 

CS: What’s next?

PP:   I have a number of flash stories in first draft stage and I am working on revising those and sending them out.  I love the revision process—it is where my hard work happens.  Then I’m going to work on putting together another collection of flash fiction.  It’s been ten years since Wouldn’t You Like to Know, my last collection of flash fiction was published, and my new stories want some company, want the cozy confines of a book. 

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named one of Kirkus’s Indie Picks of the Year.

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