Valerie Trueblood is the author of the novel Seven Loves and a short story collection, Marry or Burn. Her critical and creative work has been published in Iowa Review, Seattle Weekly, The American Poetry Review, One Story, Narrative and others. We struck up a correspondence when Trueblood e-mailed me after reading one of my essays and I wondered if she was the author of a book I loved, Marry or Burn. Turns out, she was.
Marry or Burn is filled with stories that are unapologetically about women and marriage but not in ways you might expect. Each story follows an uncanny arc, and evokes a strong sense of love, loss, loneliness, and how people are always, always, reaching for someone else whether they are a woman who has been recently released from prison after serving a long sentence for murder or a woman who uses a matchmaker and finds three very different men or a married woman who is in love with another woman’s dying husband or a young woman who is preoccupied with her mother’s first love.
In “Taken,” Jane feels a kind of obligation to a man whose live was irrevocably changed by her emotionally dangerous niece who is getting married to a more appropriate man than the one whose life she ruined. As Jane tries to make sense of why her niece is so magnetic, she thinks, “Could that be all? Some configuration of eyes, nose, and mouth, some arrangements of colors? No, there was a violent health that let Tara go on swimming lap after lap when her teammates had dragged themselves out of the pool, let her hemoglobin purge itself of carbon monoxide as Mayhew’s would not. There was an almost mindless strength of will.”
Something similar could be said for Trueblood’s writing. Her writing is bursting with a genuine violence of health and strength of will that make each of her stories so engaging. What I love most about her writing is how her stories are, at once bittersweet, joyful and mournful in equal measure. We talked about Marry or Burn, her next project, darkness in short fiction and how short stories should be reviewed.
The Rumpus: In Marry or Burn the stories started as one thing and ended up as something else entirely. Is it a deliberate choice, to create this sense of illusion, for lack of a better term, or do you find that the stories simply lead you to unexpected places as you write?
Valerie Trueblood: Hmm, creating illusions. I don’t set out to throw the reader any curves. Now that you mention it, though, I do think life often does that, starts out as one thing and becomes another while we’re still working on the plan. My stories probably reflect my feeling that illusion is in play a great deal of the time in ordinary life, misleading us, protecting us. My interest is in what happens to people that they’re not prepared for—accidents, being in the right or wrong place, moments when the current of one life goes heavily across the current of another. The mind always looks for a pattern, but I don’t like the imposed pattern that tidies up a lot of novels—some secret that explains everything, or some curative episode. The short story, in its acceptance of the unsolved, often seems to me more vast than the novel.
Rumpus: I agree about the vastness of the short story and what I noticed in most of these stories was how vast and illusory they were. “Amends,” in particular, was one of those stories where there is no grand explanation, no grand conclusion. You wrote about the kind of women I don’t see a lot of in contemporary fiction—women with interesting inner lives, and who frequent the margin more than the center. I loved how unafraid you were in letting your characters be flawed. Why do you write about these women?
Trueblood: It must be that one writes about flawed women because of being one.
Rumpus: How did this collection come about?
Trueblood: The stories in Marry or Burn came together from a big pile when several surfaced with weddings in them, and then many about the wish to form a pair. That’s when the loveless words of St. Paul sound in the mind: “It is better to marry than to burn.”
Rumpus: As a reader, I certainly felt like there were interesting connections between the stories and really appreciated the book both as a whole and in terms of the individual stories. As the writer, what connective tissue do you see through all the stories? Do you have a favorite story or character in this collection?
Trueblood: The connective tissue—I’m so glad you see one—is pairing (with some permutations). In Search Party, my book out next year, it seems to be rescue. How we rescue each other, or don’t. I hope there is always this “we,” in my stories; I’m not so interested in the individual, the personality running its miles. In my favorite stories (here it would be “Beloved, You Looked into Space”) I know many characters get going in their separate gyres—too many, supposedly, for the form. It’s the gyres that really interest me. What we try now not to see as our fates.
Rumpus: In so many of these stories, love was rather unrequited. Where does that come from? Why do you deny these characters that satisfaction?
Trueblood: The loves in this book seem more unbalanced or thwarted than unrequited to me. For instance, two loves in “Taken:” one, intense on both sides, ends in a suicide pact; the other is a long-time passionate affair. At the end, another, more practical love is in the wings. Very optimistic. Except for the matter of death, for the most part the people in my stories move towards each other rather than away. They’re trying. I hope I don’t deny a character a satisfaction that the life he or she is leading in the story would be likely to provide! In fiction, the arrival at an inevitable satisfaction usually seems to me a weakness.
On the other hand there’s a satisfaction in prose itself, in the mysterious place where words can land us and leave us. That’s the longed-for thing, when you close a story.
Friends have said to me, “What a bitter view,” when I’m thinking I’m the very champion of lasting love. I’m with the character in Alice Munro’s story “Carried Away,” who says “Love never dies.”
Rumpus: I’d love to hear more about Search Party? What are stories of rescue?
Trueblood: Counterpoint, the wonderful press that published Marry or Burn, is publishing Search Party in the Spring of 2013.
I was gathering stories for a collection and something that kept surfacing was a character in need of help, who got it (for good or ill). Not a neat intervention or salvage—though there are some literal rescues—but somebody getting hauled back from the brink. Or stepping back: some of these are self-rescues. Some of them don’t work out, of course.
I’ve always been interested in accident, in the random blows. Many novels try to make these a matter of cause and effect: the characters make a lot of decisions and these are wrong or right. Consequences, etc. The short story laughs at decisions, at the superego: the character is somehow out there shorn. A lot happens to us that we do not cause. I’m interested in what keeps people going.
The short story is a dark form, don’t you think? There are sunny ones but they’re in the minority. I don’t want complete darkness, though. I like a dappled story.
Rumpus: It’s interesting you mention darkness. Short stories do tend to be dark. My own fiction is, well, rather dark and I like it that way. These are the stories that interest me both as a reader and writer. In the introduction to Best American Short Stories 2011, Geraldine Brooks wrote that, “Not all love stories have to have bleak outcomes,” and with regard to humor, “There’s so little. Why writers, so haggard and woebegone…” I keep coming back to these comments as I think about short stories and darkness and levity. Why is the short story a dark form? Why are the sunny ones in the minority? How, as a writer, do you avoid complete darkness?
Trueblood: I just found and read the Brooks intro. I think making plot the task of the short story is like putting a racehorse to the plow. For plot and cheer, we have TV. It is hard to see how we can have less despair while having more awareness of the war in Afghanistan.
The short story is an art form. It’s one with huge room for variation, but surely it’s comical to hope it has a future as a segue form for kids raised on storybooks about wizards and dragon-riders. A segue into what?
As for the darkness of the short story… Well, life is dark. To me it’s ridiculous to pretend all is well. But stories of absolute darkness, like say Saadat Hasan Manto’s “Open It,” so appall and chasten us that we think, “Yes, this is best left to the masters.” At the very least, to those who know what they’re talking about.
Torture doesn’t intrude on very many American short story writers. So where does the intimacy with sadism come from, pleasure solicited from the reader as the author punishes his/her characters? The shock of Manto’s great story is new with every reading and its brief, precisely drawn scenes make the hip goriness of much fiction look like finger painting.
Year after year I go back to Frank O’Connor, enchanted by the casual way he scatters men and women of virtue through his stories, his love of good and bad, his despair, the aura of innocence while tragedies and bitter losses are taking place, his breadth of tolerance, covering everything in which he’s interested, which is everything. So while I disagree that the short story is a relative of the joke, as Geraldine Brooks feels it is, I do like humor blooming out of what’s sad, morbid, sordid or unbearable. As in your movie reviews–stories retold, sad and hilarious.
A last note, a grudge: the short story is not something that should ever submit itself to the word “deft.” Reviewers of short stories exhaustingly deploy this word. Let’s retire it, along with “miniaturist.”
I love what the artist William Kentridge calls for: An art (and a politics) in which optimism is kept in check and nihilism at bay.
Rumpus: How should short stories and short story collections be reviewed?
Trueblood: I wish I knew! We can’t grab a reviewer and say, “You’re talking hooks. Eudora would disapprove.” My own reviewing was almost entirely of poetry, and reviewers of poetry don’t dare do some of the things reviewers of fiction do. We want the respect of poets! Resorting to “this one’s about” and “the next’s one’s about” seems unavoidable. Yet the word “about” can just shut the door on a story. It isn’t simply “about” something, any more than a poem is. Even “subject” is a troubling word. The seeming subject is often far from where the story lands itself. Or there are several subjects and the tension comes when they intersect. John Hawkes said this once in an interview (and here he was actually thinking about the novel, a much less malleable form than the short story):
“I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.”
At any rate my dream reviewer of short stories—not to mention selectors of them for anthologies—would have at least a sympathy, if not a passion, for the form.
Rumpus: Do you read reviews of your own writing?
Trueblood: I do read reviews of my books. Some help, some hurt. Of course I wish reviewers loved short stories and did more than summarize their “plots.” I really like online reviews, except for the mega-sites where people say they threw one’s book in the trash. Reviews of others’ books, especially rediscoveries and reissues, I read every day. I used to review for The American Poetry Review and some other places but I gave it up because it took so much energy. Time began to fly and my own work wasn’t done.
Rumpus: You once mentioned in an e-mail that you’re 68. When did you start writing? How has writing changed for you over the years? How has publishing changed?
Trueblood: I’ve been writing stories all my life, but did not begin to publish them until One Story took a story of mine in 2004. I had submitted a few in the 1970s, and have to admit that the rejections stopped me, even though by today’s standards they were kindly—actual letters from editors! They didn’t keep me from writing the things—nothing, it seemed, could reform me—but I quit trying to publish them and didn’t try again until you could submit electronically and not get that envelope in the mail with your own handwriting on it. The SASE. A stamped snakebite. I wrote for magazines and newspapers, publishing non-fiction—reviews, essays, articles on nuclear weapon accidents—for many years before my real work appeared in print.
I wish I could say writing has changed for me over the years, but it’s the same task. Self-assigned, nobody to blame. I love to read younger writers online, though, and feel that for those who are beginning or thriving now there is another world taking shape, where readers will make more of their own discoveries. I read blogs. I just read a wonderful book, a memoir by a fearless young woman, Martha Grover, that I came across that way: One More for the People. When I began in the 60s, there might be one woman in the table of contents of a literary magazine. Maybe. No one was apologetic about this. Publishing has changed, or publishing poems and stories individually has, in that some of the hauteur has gone from those in the editorial caste. I like to think an actual blush rises in some magazine conference room, when pie charts like the Vida ones come out.
Rumpus: I learned about your writing because someone recommended your book to me and noted that you had been pigeonholed as a women’s writer. Do you agree that you’ve been pigeonholed as such? How do you feel about the label?
Trueblood: As for the label “women’s writer,” who are the women this kind of writer is believed to be writing for? I know some men who are speechless with feeling when they finish an Alice Munro story, some women who read mostly crime & combat. It may be that people who would use the term “women’s writer” don’t mean frothy and ephemeral at all, as we think, but actually really do mean Clarice Lispector and Penelope Fitzgerald and Nadine Gordimer and Rebecca Solnit and other geniuses of our time. That’s the worst possibility. They don’t even mean somebody wrote about women. Look at that list! They mean a woman wrote.
Rumpus: Have you read anything good lately?
Trueblood: Lately I’ve really liked the Martha Grover memoir–family & a harsh illness examined by an extraordinary mind, tearless and just. Dawn Raffel’s novel Carrying the Body, and her stories Further Adventures in the Restless Universe; stories by John Haskell and Diane Williams; Barbara Comyns’s novel Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (just reissued by The Dorothy Project); Juliane Koepcke’s When I Fell from the Sky, about being the lone survivor of a plane crash. A great book called The Greatest Disaster Stories Ever Told, by Lamar Underwood.
And Karinthy’s Metropole: I read this a long time ago, but have to say every chance I get how good it is.
More writers whose names begin with K: Kosztolanyi’s Skylark, and the excerpts from Anna Kamienska’s notebooks in Poetry magazine, containing this passage: While we were going to Poznan, Wislawa Szymborska told me about how her hedgehog, all alone, fell in love with a broom.
Rumpus: What do you like most about your writing?
Trueblood: Some stories become like pets you love both despite and because of their neuroses. As you know, under all the doubt and dread, there are some strange joys in all this.