In January of 2001, optimistic and slightly at sea at the start of my final college semester, I walked into the University of Wisconsin’s student bookstore in search of an anthology edited by a writer whose name I’d never heard, full of stories written by writers I’d not read, assigned for a class I’d only added at the very last second: creative writing. It was a workshop. The book? The Vintage Book of Contemporary Short Stories. The editor? Tobias Wolff.
People familiar with this anthology know what a dense and intimidating warehouse of fiction treasures it is, but looking down at its friendly Jasper Johns cover on that day, it did not occur to me that its contents would break my brain open. A few weeks later, however, the book got busy doing this very thing by introducing me, in spectacular succession, to several masterpieces of late-century short fiction. (“Testimony of Pilot” by Barry Hannah is in there, for example, as is and Mary Gaitskill’s “A Romantic Weekend.” I think I read those two back to back, over one very large cup of Earl Grey tea.) Having thus been pummeled over the head by the unlimited power of the late-century American short story, I suddenly felt the very urgent need to become a writer myself.
Not eighteen months later I found myself sipping a beer in Stephanie Vaughn’s backyard, chattering with strangers about the best place to get a sandwich in Ithaca. Stephanie was another writer whose work I’d first read in the anthology, and her story, “Dog Heaven” was another that had stood out to me—stood out for its particular clarity, its particular fusion of humor and sadness, its particularly wry view of the world, its particular dream-like management of time—and stood out enough to make me take to the silly young internet in search of more about her. By then, Vaughn’s sole book, Sweet Talk, was no longer in print, but I located a used copy (using a young upstart internet bookstore called Amazon) and ordered it. It was tattered all to hell when it came in the mail, but it didn’t matter: the writing was there. And the writing was gorgeous.
Thankfully for those who know Vaughn’s work from The New Yorker, or from the Vintage anthology, or simply love short fiction: there is no longer any need to go hunting. This week, Other Press is re-releasing Sweet Talk with a new introduction by Tobias Wolff. I conducted the following interview with Stephanie via telephone and email.
The Rumpus: I have been haunted by certain moments and certain images in Sweet Talk since I first read the book ten years ago. There is something about your writing—some special clarity—that not only feels inescapable in the moment, but also just lasts over time. I’m thinking of a few scenes in particular, but there are many: when Gemma experiments with knocking herself out, or when a hyper-educated narrator and her lover engage in a (very sweet) late-night footrace at the end of “Sweet Talk.” Is there something about the way you write, or about your vision of yourself as a writer, that lends itself to creating these hyper-dramatic snapshots?
Stephanie Vaughn: Well, this is the first time I’ve been told that those moments last over time or are dense and memorable, and I thank you for saying that they are. The knockout episodes are semi-autobiographical. I went through a phase when we lived in upstate New York and certain kids taught me how to make myself pass out. You never forget that sensation of waking up to a world that seems to have erased everything that went before it and gives you the impression that you are beginning your life again. That memory came back to me as I was writing the story, so I used it because it seemed right, but I hedged a few of the details, because much later I realized that what we had been doing was probably dangerous, and I didn’t want to kill off a kid with the recipe for knockout.
The footrace in “Sweet Talk,” the story, is just something that wrote itself onto the page as I was nearing what seemed the end of the story. People who have shaped their sexual and romantic selves with competitive enterprises would of course be racing each other to the very end.
Rumpus: In the collection we drift through time, space, moods, moments, and memories, and that drifting has me wondering now about travel, about relocation, both biographical and aesthetic. You lived in upstate New York, but you were an army brat and you lived all over the world when you were growing up. Can you talk about how all the movement that’s knit into your childhood contributed to the way this collection is built?
Vaughn: In truth, I’d never thought about that connection before. It’s hard to say whether I would have a different vision of time if I had grown up in Holmes County, Ohio, where I was born and where a third of the population is Amish and does not use electricity. When you drive into certain parts of the county, the utility poles disappear and the paved roads give way to gravel, and suddenly you are driving your SUV in the 19th Century. You are passing by farms that have horse buggies stabled near the barns, and unexpectedly colorful underwear waving from clotheslines. It’s wonderfully dislocating to be in two centuries at one time. I’m not sure that anyone ever leaves one place or time behind just because something called time has passed and you are now living in Texas or Italy instead of where you were born. Everything exists simultaneously in the mind just as it does in Holmes County, Ohio.
Rumpus: This reminds me: During your workshops, you often talked about how writing is as much about intuition as it is about planning, practicing, or knowing what you’re doing. How can a writer capture that? It seems so hard to know when it’s time to follow your intuition.
Vaughn: Don’t you think that once you have settled into your project, whether it’s very short or very long, sitting down to work on it is part of your routine? Doesn’t it feel like digging ditches? You’re doing your job. You’re not on a high high or a low low. When you’re doing your job, the Muse will visit you. You begin a project by thinking you know where the end is, but by the time you get there, you find yourself in a different place. I think that’s a good thing, ending up somewhere new. Isn’t that how it works for everyone?
Rumpus: In “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” there’s a moment when Gemma’s father’s laughter floats to her across a frozen river. As sad as these stories often are, all of them make me laugh. Sometimes it’s a wry line from Gemma, sometimes it’s an unexpected snippet of dialogue, sometimes it’s just the situation you’ve invented. Humor is not the dominant note in these stories, but it’s an undeniably important note. How does humor play a role in your writing? (And a second question, just because I’m always fascinated by this: does the humor in your fiction resemble the humor of your everyday life?)
Vaughn: All the writers I like to read and learn from make me laugh, sometimes in the middle of what ought to be horrific scenes. Flannery O’Connor makes me laugh out loud while she is killing off an entire family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Donald Barthelme makes me laugh when he is doing in almost every species associated with an elementary school classroom–trees, snakes, the herb garden, a puppy, grandparents of the school children, and finally some of the children, too. Actually, one of my favorite contemporary stories is your story “So Long, Anyway” that was published in Epoch magazine. You have me smiling even though the kind, tender dentist character is driving to his death. There’s something about humor that allows you to keep going in a story, and that’s true for the author, too. It’s the laugh you have in the privacy of your own writing moment that allows you to continue down the page.
Rumpus: Now I just feel sheepish.
Rumpus: What is it like for you, looking back on these stories and remembering writing them? Have you had to fight the urge to go in and make changes that have occurred to you in the last twenty years? Was it important to keep the original document intact? What is it like seeing a book come out for a second time?
Vaughn: When I had a chance to go back and do whatever I wanted to do to the stories, I flinched. I realized that the stories rose from the moments when I wrote them, moments that were sometimes very long moments, moments that were sometimes struggles as I tried to get through a scene and on to the next page, and I decided to let the stories go. They are what they are.
Rumpus: Based on both his introduction and his New Yorker reading of “Dog Heaven,” Tobias Wolff is clearly captivated by the story’s opening line: “Every so often that dead dog dreams me up again.” Can you talk a little about that line? I’ve taught this story a number of times and always ask my students what they think it means, and how it relates to the rest of the story, but it’s one of those sentences that gets more and more syntactically slippery the more you examine it. Was that line the genesis of the whole story? Or was it a line you wrote later on?
Vaughn: It was a line that came to me after I’d been working on the story for a while, and once I got the line–I think I was at stoplight on El Camino Real, on my way to World of Dinettes in Sunnyvale, California–I went home and wrote it down, and then the story began to unfold itself. All the little scenelets that I had written without knowing where they were going finally started to mean something and found an order. You are as much an invention of your memories as you are the author of them.
Rumpus: What is a great book that’s come out in the last ten years?
Vaughn: Oh, gosh, is that a fair question? You know that almost everyone I know outside of my family and extended family is a writer. Two of the great books would have to be The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht. They both reference the larger political world outside the family that forms and deforms in some way every human life. They both take the reader into a fantastical world that is, after all, the world we really live in. And they have gorgeous prose styles. It is a pleasure just to read them aloud. Tobias’s Wolff’s Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories is one of the best story collections I’ve ever read. It has astonishing range and ought to be the go-to book for anyone who wants to know how supple and surprising the short story form can be. “Bullet in the Brain” is probably the best short story published in my lifetime. It is a hot read but then it also is layered with references to poetry, other writers, and myth that give me a fresh reading every time I return to it. I wish only that other of Wolff’s great stories were in the book, like “Wingfield.” It is a true honor to have him reading a story from Sweet Talk on The New Yorker podcast.
Rumpus: What can a short story do that a novel can’t do?
Vaughn: The short story can be hot and sweet or hot and fierce. You get it in one sitting or you don’t get it. It’s like a shore break. It happens quickly, and is right there in front of you, menacing you. First you’re looking at the shore break, and then if you don’t back up, it’s on you. The novel is the long, low wave that you ride south from the Arctic Circle. It’s powerful, but its power accumulates over a very long time as it rolls towards the reef.
Actually maybe the shore break metaphor is too violent and really just too precious to describe the effect that certain kinds of short stories have. Some stories are strong quiet seductions, like the stories of Italo Calvino, or the little chapters that are like short stories in Invisible Cities. Maybe I should withdraw the image of water suddenly overtaking a person and suggest instead that a short story is like a held breath and a sudden exhalation. A short story has to be felt in a single long moment to experience all its effects.
Rumpus: During my time at Cornell, you mentioned a few times that you were at work on a larger project, something you’d been picking away at since you wrote these stories. Can you talk about that project at all? Is it a novel? I ask because those of us who love your stories have been quietly excited, for a very long time, about the prospect of another book from you.
Vaughn: About my current work superstitiously I do not speak for fear of somehow managing to jinx it.