Catherine Brady is the author of three short story collections: The End of the Class War (1999); Curled in the Bed of Love, which won the 2003 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; and The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories, published last month by the University of Nevada Press; as well as a biography of molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn. Her stories have appeared in the anthology Best American Short Stories, as well as numerous literary journals. Joyce Carol Oates has called Brady’s brand of psychological realism “timeless” and Lorrie Moore has identified “love imprecisely understood by onlookers” as one of Brady’s themes. She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco. – Ann K. Ryles.
The Rumpus: Many of the protagonists in The Mechanics of Falling seem to suffer from their desire to do good. Is one of your obsessions as a writer the downside of virtue?
Brady: When I was writing stories around this idea, I don’t think I conceived of falling in strictly moral terms. You don’t really have a story until you discover the moment when the pressures on a character force a sudden, abrupt shift in direction and she falls through the net that has so far held her in place.
But I don’t think virtue has a downside. I think human nature does. If you cross-section anyone’s life from one angle and then another, what constitutes goodness looks different each time. It’s not an absolute. It can’t be disentangled from human fallibility. It’s so provisional. There’s something heroic to me about people taking risks for the sake of this fragile and intangible thing.
The Rumpus: Your characters exhibit a wonderful frankness and even pragmatism or utilitarianism about sex. Is writing about sex something that is easy or difficult for you?
Brady: My Irish Catholic mother loved romantic movies, provided they ended with a kiss before the screen went dark. If things went any further than that, she’d complain, Why can’t they leave something to the imagination? I sort of subscribe to her philosophy when it comes to writing sex. I think it’s very hard to be sexually explicit and erotic—though there are writers, like K. M. Soehnlein, who are just brilliant at this. It’s hard to write sex because it’s hard to write desire, period. For me, what’s compelling about sexuality is the way that desire transforms what we take in through our senses, the ways in which our bodies betray us or rescue us by insisting on their own non-negotiable truths. Anything but frank or pragmatic.
The Rumpus: In The Mechanics of Falling you’ve chosen to use no quotations for dialogue. Three of the stories also adopt other formal constraints, such as the repeated sentences that are braided into the narrative at various intervals in the story “Slender Little Thing.” How does the decision to adhere to this sort of narrative strategy affect your writing?
Brady: What I’ve found as I have kept writing stories is that more and more your way is barred. I feel really choked by what I already know how to do, by the fact that my obsessions nearly always mount a sneak attack, so that I find myself writing another version of the same thing. I have to trick myself into writing a story—impose some arbitrary constraint to distract me from the constraints of my past habits or my fear that I don’t have much to say.
I’ve always hated quotation marks: they’re ugly on the page and they classify the text for you, putting dialogue in one box and narration in another. When I decided to stop using quotation marks, it presented technical challenges: you have to conceive of dialogue differently and structure it differently for this to work. So I had a new problem, which makes writing interesting again.
“Slender Little Thing” uses repeated lines throughout the piece, and I was thinking of a villanelle or a pantoum, poetry forms that rely on repetition. I wanted to let form lead my thinking, and repetition always confronts you with the interesting problem of how to break out of a cycle that seems so deterministic, which was germane to the story’s concerns.
The Rumpus: With three collections of short stories under your belt, can you talk about what has kept you loyal to the short form in your work so far? What will your next book be?
Brady: Chekhov used to correspond with aspiring writers, and once he gave this advice to Maxim Gorky when he was encouraging him to pare his wordy sentences: “When someone expends the least amount of motion on a given action, that’s grace.” The short story, by definition, embodies this notion of grace, because it requires such forceful compression to achieve its effects. Unlike a poem, it can employ the resources of narrative and character. Unlike a novel, its images, diction, and actions can all be reconfigured by a powerful ending—every single element is still in play, where in a novel the reader (and probably the writer) simply can’t remember everything. I love the way a story’s ending can force you to read backwards. It’s as if you are slowly adjusting a kaleidoscope until a random scattering of colored crystals suddenly falls into a beautiful symmetrical pattern.
I’m working on two manuscripts right now. A novel, which is driven by my current fascination with long, convoluted sentences (don’t ask), and a book of essays on craft. I had to set the novel aside to work on the craft essays, because I have a contract and a deadline for that.
The Rumpus: One of the stories in The Mechanics of Falling features a male professor of creative writing who remarks that too many people wanted to be writers “just because they had talent.” As a professor of creative writing yourself, what do you think about this character’s comment?
Brady: So how is it any of my business what motivates someone else to write? For that story, I was thinking of the kind of writer-teacher who used to hold sway in writing programs: an alpha male who cuts others down to size. In my experience as a graduate student, teachers like this often had a sort of cult following, with students desperate for approval from someone who gave it grudgingly or not at all. These teachers tended to make a lot of big pronouncements too: this is the kind of writing you should pursue, your novel should really be about x instead of y. I’ve never felt I could presume to that kind of authority, even though I secretly envy it a little, which was what made it fun to write this character. A little vicarious living. When you write, you’re supposed to go stand somewhere else for a while, see things from a perspective that’s not in line with your own reflexive truths.
The Rumpus: Do you feel a tension between nurturing your own writing and nurturing the writing of your students?
Brady: No! I can’t imagine a more fortunate job for a writer. If you’re teaching, you can’t just settle for understanding the craft (of a student manuscript or a masterpiece) for yourself. You have to think about how someone else might respond to the work and frame questions that speak to that and lead students to look where they might not have thought to look. If you listen to their answers, you’ll make discoveries along with them. You have to be able to play: this is spontaneous interaction, and it flexes all the creative muscles you need as a writer. And empathy is one of those muscles.