Once upon a time, I took a creative writing class with Paul Griner. It was 2008, and I was a new PhD student in the Humanities program at the University of Louisville. Paul, then the director of the creative writing program in English, had his own students to attend to, but he continued to take an active interest in my writing life long after our semester together was done. Soon after that first class, I took what must have been the most important directed study of my college career. In it, Paul challenged me to write fiction in order to better understand myself as a creative nonfiction writer. To my surprise and delight, this via negativa approach worked! I developed a deeper and more nuanced understanding of essay and memoir as a result of Paul’s guidance during my first official fiction-writing forays.
Now, in my own multi-genre creative writing class, I routinely teach Paul’s story, “The Bleating Lambs, Safe Beneath the Ewes,” which epitomizes everything he does best on the page. The work is compressed, surreal, haunting, and invariably invested in matters of life and death. Paul’s newest work only extends and enhances this literary legacy. Earlier this year, his third novel, Second Life, was released by Counterpoint, and this week his short story collection, Hurry Please I Want to Know was released by Sarabande Books. Lucky for me, he still found a little time for a reunion.
The Rumpus: I remember years ago asking you about the relationship between your writing life and your real life. I was trying to keep the question laid-back and open-ended, but what I really wanted to know is what I think a lot of memoirists want to know about their friends who live in short story and novel country: how much “non” do you stir into your fiction? Do people from your life ever make cameos on the page? Do you ever write about yourself in disguise?
Paul Griner: An interesting but difficult question. I’ll start at the end. I don’t ever write about myself in disguise, at least on a conscious level. I was talking to a good friend about this, also a writer, about the difficulty of writing directly from experience. The problem for him—as it is for me—is that the resulting fiction often sounds less like fiction and more like a diatribe or an explanation or a whine. I guess it comes down to this: I don’t find myself all that interesting. I’m far more interested in other people, real or imagined, and they’re the ones who populate my fiction.
As for people from my life making it into my fiction, well, that’s tricky too. Very early on, I wrote a story called “Grass,” which came out in my first collection Follow Me. The main character is a man who lived much of his life in his older brother’s considerable shadow and now spends his waning days taking care of the family graves, including his brother’s. It was loosely based on my great uncle, who was both a very private man and very kind to me. When I was a boy, he took me often to baseball games, taught me how to record a game on a scorecard, et cetera. When I was an adult, he took me around to all the family graves and told me the stories behind each person. I meant the story as an homage to him, but after he read it, he sat down and wrote me a single sentence letter: I will never speak to you again.
It was devastating. I wrote him a long letter in response, and we eventually reconciled, but it spooked me. On the other hand, around the same time, I wrote a story about something that happened to my sister-in-law, and my wife suggested I change the character’s name. I did. When my sister-in-law read it, she said, How come you changed my name? So, I’m not sure what lesson to take from that, other than being very careful about which of your friends or relatives you sneak into your work.
But since then, consciously or not, I’ve rarely used anyone close to me as a character in one of my various fictions—rarely but not never. When my mother was dying, I spent time beside her bed, talking to her, reading to her, just being with her. She was at times coherent, at times not. She would often say things as she was fading in and out, and some were sweet, some painful to hear, and some very funny, sometimes unintentionally so. I wanted a record of that, and when I wrote a story a few years later, “Three Hundred Words of Grief,” I used a lot of those conversations. But I wouldn’t have done so if they didn’t work within the bounds of the story. It’s the final story in my collection, Hurry Please I Want to Know, which Sarabande will publish in May 2015.
Of course in a larger sense, all fiction is autobiographical. If our characters are distant from us in time or locale, of different backgrounds, genders, outlooks, we still must fill in their emotions and thoughts based on what we’ve experienced. The trick is to dig deep enough that such emotions, et cetera, become universal, applicable to anyone at any time.
And one of my favorite moments as a writer happened after a reading I gave from The German Woman. An older woman with a German accent approached me and told me that she’d had to put the book down when she read the scene about the fire bombing of Hamburg during World War II because she’d been a child when it happened and lived through it.
I began to apologize, saying that I’d tried through research to capture the event as realistically as possible, but I was certain to have been off in some ways, perhaps many.
No, she said. I stopped because you had it exactly right.
Which tells me that imagination is often better than pure experience.
Rumpus: Speaking as a memoirist and a confessional poet, I recognize the challenges you mention in writing from “pure experience”—the limitations of trying to transcribe any recollection or notion of a lived reality onto the page. Jeanette Winterson talks about the need to “translate experience into art,” and this strikes me as an imperative that transcends genres and invites a conversation about style.
The first story of yours I ever read is called “Sixty-Three Heads,” and it begins quite unexpectedly and compellingly with these words: “Each night I work on my father’s head, the moist clay staining my hands mahogany to the wrists.” When I went looking for that story again, I found a link to it from Pindeldyboz, a site that archives stories “which defy classification.” Do you see your stories this way?
My first experiences reading your work took me to literary journals and to stories like “Sixty-Three Heads,” “Balloon Rides Ten Dollars,” and “The Bleating Lambs, Safe Beneath the Ewes,” all of which I would classify as surreal in some sense or perhaps even as magical realist storytelling. Would you agree? Or perhaps the better question is how would you describe your style as a storyteller? What makes a signature Paul Griner story?
Griner: This has been a difficult question to answer, and not simply because stepping outside your own work and figuring out how to classify or describe it is rarely easy. Rather, it’s that I see different strains, different influences, running through my work, my writing, my reading, and so trying to sum them up is not easy.
Perhaps a somewhat linear narrative will help. I read always as a child, loved books and then, when I read The Great Gatsby in high school, knew I wanted to write. I made my way forward and backward in reading—Hemingway and Richard Wright, Toni Morrison and Jane Austen, Trollope, Dickens, Flaubert. Most of those writers are considered realists. I loved the Russians—Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, but also Turgenev and Babel. I moved between novels and stories. Then I began to read more widely—Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield and Katherine Porter, Faulkner, Flannery and Frank O’Connor. Then the South Americans, Borges, and, especially the great Brazilian Machado De Assis, an exact contemporary of Twain’s, but whose work reads as if it was just written. Other Brazilians followed, especially Clarice Lispector, Joao Guimaraes Rosa, and Lydia Fagundes Telles. And I read and read stories endlessly—Chekhov, Baldwin, William Trevor—and more modern masters,Wolff, Carver, Bowles—Paul and Jane—Murakami, Robison, and Barthelme. From that list, you can tell my influences have been all over the place, and I think my stories range pretty widely too. Some of the stories you mention are in the upcoming collection, some not; it’s a culling of nineteen years of work, about half experimental/surrealist, half straightforward realism. It took a long time to settle on which stories to include—and in this, Sarah Gorham, Jeff Skinner, and Kirby Gann at Sarabande were a great help—and even longer to figure out what order I wanted them in.
Deciding what holds them together is tougher still. Looking at the table of contents, I’d say they’re often concerned with the same issues or ideas or problems, whatever form the stories themselves take: the pleasures and pressures and constrictions and bounties of family life what we’re willing to do or to sacrifice in order to fit in or be accepted, to feel a sense of belonging; the immense human desire for friendship and the toll loneliness can take; the thrill of love; the enduring, ennobling and sometimes crippling power of memory. I hope all of them are entertaining and, possibly, enlightening. One final thing on the question of form: I don’t think about form when I’m writing. That is, the material tells me how it needs to be handled. Later, once the form is a given, I’ll edit accordingly, but during the writing it’s never a concern.
Rumpus: What you’ve described here as “all over the place,” in terms of both reading and writing, is something I relate to and greatly admire in the writers whose work I follow and seek to emulate. Your first story collection, Follow Me, and your first novel, Collectors, are the most similar in style in my estimation, given that they left me as a reader with a similarly haunted feeling, a pervasive unsettledness. I liked that feeling and went seeking more. The next novel, The German Woman, is still haunted, but in quite a different way. The book is heavily researched, as you mention above, and all told, it comprises some of the most powerful and incisive historical fiction I’ve read to date.
Now you have the forthcoming story collection from Sarabande, Hurry Please I Want to Know, as well as the recently released novel, Second Life, which ventures into decidedly dark and surreal terrain. I’d like to hear more about the novel—what inspired you to write it and in what ways your previous collections primed you to write it—but also how you balance the short story writing with the novel writing in your life. Debra Dean, another fiction writer I know and have interviewed in the past, speaks of her strong need to be “serially monogamous” with her writing projects. I suspect yours is a more many-pots-on-the-stove approach, but I’d like to know more. Do you write stories concurrently with novels? Does the short form bolster the long form or vice versa? In other words, help me better understand the capaciousness of your creative output.
Griner: I’m both monogamous and non, depending on where I am in my writing. When I’m drafting a novel, I sit down to it every day. It’s not that I can’t write a story during that time—especially a short one that seems irresistible—but it will have to wait until the novel is done for the day. Once I’m in revisions, I can and often do work on multiple projects at the same time: several stories, stories and a novel, etcetera. This last summer, in fact, I was working on two books at once, revisions for the stories in Hurry Please I Want To Know and for the novel Second Life. Partly that was due to production schedules, but partly it’s how I’ve always worked. For instance, some of the stories in this collection were written during the revising of The German Woman. But the different worlds and works do feed one another. Collectors began as a four page story, one I wanted to include in Follow Me, but my editor felt it wasn’t full enough, was a fragment rather than a story, and so I put it aside until I was done with the collection. Then I came back to it, and realized it was the end of something much longer, and wrote backwards from there. That turned into Collectors. And both the beginning of and the main character in Second Life came to me, after a fashion, during the writing and revising of The German Woman.
I’d grown up watching Alistair Cooke on PBS’s Masterpiece Theater, his urbane British presence, so it was a shock to read headlines about his body being plundered, which came out about five years after his death. Though he was in his nineties when he died and died from cancer, his body, along with hundreds of others, was stripped for parts—skin, tendons, bone, et cetera—by an unscrupulous ring led by a dentist who’d lost his license. They would pay minimum wage workers in funeral homes and morgues a couple of hundred dollars to have access to corpses and then take what they knew they could sell—to implant surgeons, medical researchers, et cetera—for thousands of dollars. They’d kept meticulous records indicating that they forged death certificates for anyone over sixty, or who died of cancer or highly contagious diseases, which is how Cooke’s family was eventually notified of what had happened.
I read quite a bit about it at the time, but I was in the middle of writing and revising and still researching The German Woman, so eventually I stopped reading that and went back to working on the novel. After it was done, I began writing stories again, and in one of them, “Trapped in the Temple of Athena,” a minor character is a bone procurer. That story is in the Sarabande collection. After I finished it, I found myself still interested in her. How did she become a bone procurer? What’s that life like? What might it do to you to always be around the dead, and to see them—and sometimes the living—as a resource? Obviously such people help others—burn victims need skin, et cetera—but the gray areas are pretty large. And since that’s what I like to write and read about, it seemed natural to go back to this character, to write more about her, to research what her life might be like. And all of that turned into Second Life. She’s a quite different character than the one in the story collection, but that’s where she was born. It sounds fairly neat and orderly, describing it this way. But the process was pretty messy.
Rumpus: Your writing seems to be fueled, regardless of subject or style, by the question you’ve articulated here: “What’s that life like?” Would it be fair to call this a credo of your creative process?
I was reminded, as I read this response, of the author biography that accompanied your first novel, Collectors. I had to pull out my copy to be sure, but there it was. In addition to your literary accolades and education, the bio notes that you have “worked as a carpenter, painter, tour guide, and truck driver.” Were these deliberately experiential forms of research into the question “What’s that life like?” or accidental forays? How have your own experiences working beyond the page informed the work you do on the page?
Griner: Those jobs were, at first, simply to make money, though in time some of them—construction and painting, especially—became something more. I didn’t know any writers growing up and had no idea how to become one. I read constantly but only wrote one or two stories in high school and a couple more in college. None were any good, and I knew it. What I couldn’t figure out was how to make them better. I didn’t take any creative writing courses in college, where I was a history major and an English minor. And then when I graduated I painted houses for a bit, married, worked as a waiter, saved a lot of money and moved with my wife to Portugal, where I started writing in earnest. We stayed a year that first time, then moved to Boston, where I was a tour guide and worked construction. My partner was a painter, and so we’d take construction jobs and work ridiculous hours for weeks or months at a time, then get paid and take time off to do our own work. When the money ran out, we’d start up again. Some of the people I met in the construction world, which can be crazy, made their way into my stories, and those were the ones I used to apply to creative writing programs after my second stint in Portugal, and a year earning an MA in Romance Languages and Literatures. So, construction and painting became both a way to support my writing and a way to find stories, interesting people, situations that were both physically and metaphysically interesting. Three of the stories from my first collection are set in that world, and some of the characters in them are altered specters of guys I worked with, on construction sites, or while driving trucks and working in a warehouse. I went back to that world for a couple of stories in my most recent collection as well, and for some of the characters in Second Life.
Rumpus: So here’s a question for you as a full professor and a long-time director of the creative writing program at the University of Louisville: How have your life and work outside and beyond the classroom informed your presence within it and your personal teaching philosophy? Do you ever caution your undergraduate students against rushing off to graduate school in creative writing without a few years of real-world experience under their belts? Or does the academy, in your view, simply offer a different but no less real kind of experience for the next generation of writers?
Griner: I think that, except for in rare cases—and I certainly wasn’t one of them—it’s better not to go to graduate school for creative writing until you’re a bit older. I was twenty-seven when I went, and I was the youngest in my class. Partly, I think it’s better to have lived a bit more, but the biggest reason is one of perspective. Time in a good creative writing program is a gift, really, and if you’ve had some jobs that allow you little time to write before you go, you’re more likely to realize that and to really use your time wisely. I think the delay can also help you decide if this is something you absolutely have to do.
As for my life outside the classroom and in it, yes, they’ve certainly informed my teaching. I like to run a supportive workshop, having sat through one or two that were truly nasty—and therefore, from my perspective, wholly unhelpful. The writing world is hard enough without making the classroom difficult as well. Also, in a lot of the jobs I worked, I found people to be really curious and aware of the wider world, though often without means of expressing that. So I try to keep that in mind in all of my classes—that I’m dealing with people with complex lives who nonetheless really want to wrestle with the deep questions that literature asks. My job, as I see it, is in part to give them a space in which to do so.
Rumpus: I know this is a question I’ve been asked many times, and one I suspect I’ll be asked again and again throughout my life, so I’d like your take on it.The question in its baldest form is, “Do you believe creative writing can be taught?” It’s a bit like asking a carpenter, “Do you believe houses can be built?” or a plumber, “Do you believe pipes can be fixed?” But I think the question lurking beneath it is really “How can creative writing be taught? What are the best ways to teach writers how to grow in their curiosity and awareness of the wider world on the page?” When you were a graduate student of creative writing at Syracuse, I’m curious to know what the most valuable exercise or piece of advice you received from your teachers was and how it has sustained you. And now that you’re a teacher of creative writing yourself, what’s the most important thing you do to make those supportive workshops work?
Griner: Creative writing can be taught, to a degree, which may sound like a waffly answer, but I don’t think it is. Some things are probably innate—a love of language, of story, of form, of a properly turned phrase. But a lot of people have those things, without necessarily knowing how to channel their interest into actual stories or poems or novels or plays, or at least good ones. The creative writing classroom is a place—though not the only place—to help students figure out how to do that. Along those lines, I think a supportive classroom is best because people are far more willing to take chances when they feel safe, and that’s the swiftest way to become a better, more accomplished writer. But another part of that equation is, as you say, helping students grow in their awareness of a wider world on the page, so I try always to pick a range of texts, from standard greats to exciting newcomers, from print to the web, from “realistic” to “experimental,” when making up my CW class syllabi. Even if they don’t like Borges or Baldwin or Lispector first time around, being exposed to them or others they may not know is crucial. It’s natural to want to do or read what’s comfortable, but in the end that will stultify your work, so I always push students in their reading, especially when dealing with writers they might not have a natural sympathy with.
As for the most valuable things from my time at Syracuse, that’s easy: generosity, patience, precision, and stick-to-itiveness. Nobody was more generous, professionally and personally, than Stephen Dobyns, who introduced young writers to established ones and to editors and agents, as if his life depended on it. We all benefited from that. And Doug Unger, one of my workshop leaders, was an incredibly generous and rigorous reader and critic, a tricky balance but one I’ve tried to match. Finally, there was the time I spent with Toby Wolff, both as a student and a friend. At first I was intimidated by him, because I so admired his work, and during our workshop almost everything I wrote was awful. But I’ll never forget an hour sitting at his side as he edited one of those terrible stories, line by line and word by word. I realized during that hour how much more care he was taking with my work than I ever had and, subsequently, how much harder I had to work if I really wanted to improve, let alone make a life as a writer: the need for a nearly endless patience and focus, that was one of his many gifts to me. The stick-to-itiveness I guess came after; there were a lot of good writers in my class and in the years on either side of me. Some have gone on to great fame, some of us have published well, and some stopped writing. I don’t think looking at us at the time, you could have said which of us was likely to end up in which of those groups. Some of it was luck, but a lot was simply stubbornness, a refusal to give in or give up. I learned some of that on my own, but Toby helped teach me that too, over the course of many conversations about writing, life, et cetera. Having learned from others, I try to incorporate those lessons into my teaching as well, to help others along the path.