It’s Never That Easy: Talking with Deb Olin Unferth

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With her newest short story collection, Wait Till You See Me Dance (Graywolf Press, March 2017), Deb Olin Unferth dazzles once again. You might already know her from her previous work, which includes Minor Robberies, Vacation, and Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, which was a finalist for a 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award in autobiography. Unferth has brought that same mixture of humor spiked with sadness to last year’s Wait Till You See Me Dance, where her careful prose resonates through thirty-nine stories of alternate lengths.

In Unferth’s excellent story, “The First Full Thought of Her Life” a shooter gets into position and considers, as a target, a girl on a sand dune. Unferth has a knack for choosing disturbing topics and creating access for the reader, or twisting the familiar into an exotic shape. In “Voltaire Night,” students compete to recount the worst thing that has ever happened to them, exposing shame and awe. During “37 seconds,” Unferth details things that take thirty-seven seconds as a couple fights: “the contemplation of it: it’s his fault!” or “a mango falls in a nearby field.” Her narratives often shift perspectives; rearranging expectations with signature deadpan prose. Reading this collection, I was jolted by her sense of hopeful doom, and surprised by her surreal narrative twists.

Unferth and I spoke by phone, our conversation spanned from her writing to her dog, her inspiring work in prisons, and the graphic novel titled I, Parrot, published by Black Balloon Publishing in November. (Read an exclusive excerpt from I, Parrot here.)

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The Rumpus: Could you tell me about where you usually write, or work?

Deb Olin Unferth: I work at a table. I had a very good friend. He died a long time ago, in 1999. I took home his kitchen table. I’ve been using it as my writing table all these years. It’s wrecked. It was already so old, and now I’ve moved so many times, and it’s completely broken apart. In fact, one time movers thought it was garbage and took it into pieces and threw it in the dumpster.

Rumpus: Your work is often described in reviews as funny or humorous. Do you see it that way?

Unferth: Sure, I want to be funny. When I first started writing, I didn’t find my stories funny, but people kept saying they were. It kind of worried me; these are some pretty disturbing and sad pieces. Why do people think they’re funny? Then I decided I like that mode. It’s how I think—it’s my voice. I like being funny and sad at the same time, or funny and disturbing at the same time. It’s my natural voice.

Rumpus: It’s interesting how your own view of your work changed as people responded to it. I wonder if the process of answering specific questions about your work causes you to pinpoint your relationship to the work in a way that, consequently, changes your relationship to it.

Unferth: You know what has? Not so much interviews, but getting reviews and being published. That changes things. I used to take reviews very seriously. I would read them and study them. Now I don’t think of them so much as being about my work. Rather, I think of them as pieces of writing by someone else, pieces of art that aren’t mine. I used to take it more personally.

Rumpus: Did that attention to reviews impact your writing process?

Unferth: Especially after Revolution came out, I took criticism and even praise very hard and very personally. It didn’t make me write differently, but it made me stop writing. I stopped writing for a couple of years after that book came out. Then, I had to slowly work my way into it from a different perspective and remember that I’m in this to create art. I’m not in it to sell books. I had come at it again from that perspective. That was a perspective I had always written from, but it got lost for a couple of years.

Rumpus: What do you think made this change possible?

Unferth: I always had the feeling that I wasn’t in it to sell books, but I think what happened was, I published the memoir during the height of the recession, when publishers were in a moment of crisis. For whatever reason, I felt pressure to sell. I felt unhappy because that was never what writing had been about, for me. It’s a consumerist view of writing, and it’s pretty empty. I had to go back, and then recover. I had to mature in a lot of different ways. Writing was the most important thing in my life, at that point.

So I married my boyfriend of many years. I got a dog. We moved to Texas, bought a house. I made choices to embrace things that, up until that point, I’d thought I didn’t have time for. Now I have a different relationship to writing as a result of that experience.

I also started teaching in a prison. That has affected my stance towards writing and teaching in general.

Rumpus: Reading about your prison work changed how I read “Mr. Simmons Takes A Prisoner.”

Unferth: Well, that story was modeled after my father. He got really into a prison reform association, and he was assigned to work with this woman who was incarcerated. He worked with her over a period of years. At the time, I felt he got a little over-involved and that’s how I wound up writing the story. But now that I’ve been working in prisons, I understand. You just get over-involved. The situation in the prison feels like so much more of an emergency than anything going on in your own life. It’s very easy to get very involved. In fact, my whole family got very involved. My mom started tutoring the woman’s kid who was outside of prison, and my brother set up a computer lab in the community where her family lived. Now I run a creative writing program in a maximum-security prison in southern Texas.

Rumpus: Is your work teaching in this prison connected to your dad?

Unferth: Yes, my dad did prison work, and when I taught at Wesleyan University, which has an amazing prison program, I taught in it. My dad inspired me, and I completely loved it. Having that experience meant a lot.

People say that no one reads anymore, so why would I be writing short stories? In a prison, every short story means a lot. Every short story that the students read, they really think about. It revitalizes your spirit for writing. Then I came to the University of Texas and I thought I would teach in the prison program here, but they didn’t have one so I decided to start one. I have a huge band of volunteers who help. The graduate students read their work, and write them extensive comments. I have an intern and associate director for the program. Now, we have our own library for them. I get donations from around the country. My undergrads are reading the same books, so they write back and forth about the books.

Rumpus: What are your students in the prison reading now?

Unferth: I got permission to start a library there, and I got the first seventy books donated a few months ago. I handpick the books as I get to know the students. For instance, I got one student Zora Neale Hurston, Malcolm X, The New Jim Crow, and another student I gave The House of the Spirits, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve got another student who likes graphic novels: Persepolis, Watchmen, and Maus. I recommend to each student a stack of books.

I do give them all essays and stories to read. I gave them “Notes of a Native Son” to read, for example, but I wanted every book they get to feel like it directly applies to them, so that they are excited and have every reason to read it. Most of them have little formal education, [maybe] their GEDs, and some even dropped out in sixth grade. They don’t have much experience with thinking that schooling is the greatest thing, and I want them to.

Rumpus: Turning back to your short story collection, could you talk a little bit about “Voltaire Night”? How did it come to be?

Unferth: That story is pretty autobiographical, I pretty much wrote it down like it happened. I posted on Facebook when it was published in the Paris Review, and the guy that I wrote about contacted me and said, “I hope this isn’t the story that I think it is.” [Laughs] I was like, “Oh, yeah, it is actually.” I sent it to him, and he read it and he said that I got a lot of it wrong. I thought I wrote it down like it happened, but I didn’t remember it right. I made up quite a bit, but the basic story was there.

Rumpus: Are many of the stories in the collection born with this autobiographical foundation?

Unferth: I think nearly all of them are. I like the blend of autobiography and fiction. When I read other stories by people, I think about that. People say it’s cheating, but I think it’s fun to be able to take something that’s happened to me and give it all of the drama that it feels like I’m going through. When I start fictionalizing, I add the drama that I feel should be there. For instance, with the title story, the description of the school is specific enough so that anyone who went to that school would recognize it.

A student of mine had come to the country from Belgrade, and the US armed forces were bombing Belgrade at the time. His presence in my class felt very urgent: the fact that he might return to his country and be drafted and die there. But he wasn’t actually at risk of being sent back to his country. In the story, I added that, and I dramatized the situation so that it would have that urgency that I felt.

Rumpus: Quite a few of your stories don’t include first names. To what extent does that contribute to the tone—the sad, dark humor—of the stories?

Unferth: I always felt that putting names in a story is artificial. It feels like, Oh, now Im writing a story when I include a name. It feels phony. If I use a name, I have to feel like it’s almost in quotes. Any name that I use has to be doing other work. The work cannot be that it’s just a name for my character. It’s never that easy.

There are a lot of examples in Vacation. There are a few main characters, and two men both have names that could be first names or last names: Myers and Gray. There is something office-y about that. There’s the fact that they are sort of alienated by their names. We are always kept at this distance because we are kept in this office-y space with them, and yet you get quite intimate with them.

Rumpus: When you read the work of other writers, do you see the name of other characters in quotes?

Unferth: It depends on the author. I mean, most authors might not have such a complicated relationship with names as I do. The writers I have grown up truly admiring are writers who do have a lot of thought behind the names. They have a certain sound, or they refer to a culture in some way, or they have personality. I was just re-reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of the characters is often called Alphabet. People had called her by so many different names that folks started calling her Alphabet. That is so beautiful and profound. Or John Cheever, who I read a lot of when I started writing; with him, the person rises up in front of you as soon as you see the name.

Rumpus: In “Abandon Normal Instruments,” there’s a note which reads: “Inspired by a card in Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s 1975 card deck, Oblique Strategies: Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas.” Can you tell me about this card deck?

Unferth: I don’t even know how I came across it. There’s a deck of cards that Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt came up with, and every card has a suggestion of something to bring to the creative process. Another card is Decorate, Decorate, which is another title of one of my stories. Another one is Dispel Your Illusions. For a while, I was going to write a whole book of them, a collection inspired by cards in the deck, but it sort of petered out. Abandon Normal Instruments turned into a series. I kept feeling inspired by that card, so I gathered them together and made a full piece. The idea is, if you get stuck on your work you just pull out one of these cards. One of them might be Decorate, Decorate, so you look at the thing you’re working on, and you say, “Okay, decorate!” If you’re stuck on a piece, you might be say, “I’m stuck on this piece. Die, piece!” And your card says, “Abandon Normal Instruments.” So you think, how do I abandon all the normal instruments that I bring to this piece? And how do I bring an entirely new instrument that I never used before to this piece? How do I approach it in such a way that I have no instruments all?

Rumpus: And what even is an “instrument”?

Unferth: Yes, is everything in my head an instrument? I used the cards after Revolution came out, and I had stopped writing and I was depressed. If you read all three of those stories, you’ll see they are all about struggling and creativity. They are about how to find meaning in confronting one’s life choices, and trying to find out if you put a lot of years into the wrong thing. The story “Decorate, Decorate” is about the question of whether I should have a child. Those were questions I was trying to answer when I was using the cards.

Rumpus: Are you using these today?

Unferth: I don’t really use the cards anymore. When I am going through times of crisis, I read a lot of self-help books. I implement a lot of rules. Like, “I’m going to meditate,” or “I’m going to do a card every day.” But as soon as I feel better I abandon all of it. I have had an extended period of happiness, so I haven’t been using them. But I should! Another related book that I really love is Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. It has so much hope and beauty. It has a view of humanity that is basically naive and unrealistic, but it’s also so generous.

Rumpus: Do you also read self-help books that are not written by artists to inspire you?

Unferth: Well, I did read Parrots for Dummies when I was trying to research parrots. I have a graphic novel coming out in the fall called I, Parrot. Parrots for Dummies was so beautiful. It broke my heart because it was obviously written by somebody who didn’t believe that birds should be in cages, which, as a vegan, is what I believe. This person clearly believed that birds shouldn’t be in cages, but because of her expertise, she had been assigned to write this book. It was dramatic and powerful. Some magazine asked me to write about my favorite nonfiction books. I wrote about a Giacometti book, and then I wrote about Parrots for Dummies. The woman who wrote it contacted me, and she said, “I wrote that book! At last someone understands me!”

We became friends, and then she got me my dog. My first time meeting her, we went out to dinner and she was like, “You need a dog.” I was thinking, I dont really think that I do, but okay. I didn’t hear from her, so I didn’t think anything more of it. Then about a year later, she contacted me, and was like, “Here’s a picture of your dog; when are you going to come get it?” I was living in Michigan by that time, so I flew over there and got my dog. And he’s my dog!

Rumpus: Were you mentally prepared for dog ownership?

Unferth: No. We all had a lot of learning to do.

Rumpus: Can you tell the origin story of I, Parrot? Had you been interested in writing a graphic novel for a long time?

Unferth: I started reading comics seriously around 2005 and fell in love with them. Julie Doucet was one of the ones I was looking at who really blew my mind: her messy, frantic expressive figures that seemed so naive and dirty at once. I wanted to try comics badly, but knew I couldn’t draw. I sketched little ideas out for years, just now and then, in notebooks, slowly coming up with a plot and characters, but I didn’t have a collaborator, so I didn’t get very far. It wasn’t until Catapult came along that I had the faintest idea that I might be able go through with it.

Rumpus: Was your approach to writing I, Parrot different than your prose?

Unferth: The comic feels like an experiment—although anyone who has read my work would probably think that my prose is more “experimental” than the comic. But I feel much more sure of myself writing prose. I never imagined I, Parrot as anything but comics. It wasn’t a prose story that I converted so, yes, the process felt very different.

Rumpus: How did collaboration work between you and the artist, Elizabeth Haidle?

Unferth: Beth is so easy to work with, so professional and fast, and she has such great creative energy. I loved her ideas, loved it when she played around, was jubilant at so many moments. I missed her when it was over. She basically took my scribbles and notes and turned them into characters and backdrops and story. She came and stayed for a few days with me and we sketched out ideas, sitting around my kitchen table. I was dazzled.

Rumpus: What would you say to people who love your work, but have not yet stepped into the graphic novel world?

Unferth: There are so many genius cartoonists these days, it’s a shame not to explore the comics world at least a little. Even if all you do is read Maus! Comics is huge, like fiction—so many approaches, so many aesthetics. Something for everyone.

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Author photograph by Elizabeth Haidle.


Nina Moog currently lives in Cairo, Egypt. More from this author →