A swimming pool features in each story of Louise Marburg’s second collection, No Diving Allowed, which received the W. S. Porter Prize for Short Story Collections and was published from Regal House Publishing last month. The pools vary as much as the characters who swim, fail to swim, or drown in them: hotel pools, safari resort pools carved from rocks, backyard pools. Dry wit, tight prose, laser-sharp dialogue, and incisive renderings of personality characterize the collection. Whether it’s a regretful high school reunion-goer or a vindictive identical twin or a teenager adjusting to her divorcing parents’ personality changes, every character comes to us within the construct of a troubled relationship. The writing is as clean as the relationships are messy. The reader gets a front row seat as Marburg’s people speak their minds and make mistakes, often sparking disaster but sometimes ushering in surprisingly tender moments of mercy.
Marburg’s previous collection, The Truth About Me, won the Independent Press Book Award for short story collections and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Her stories appear widely in journals, including Narrative, Ploughshares, Story Magazine, and others. Marburg has a background in design, having studied at Kansas City Art Institute and graduated from New York University’s Gallatin Division, and she also received her MFA in fiction from Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She and her husband, the artist Charles Marburg, split their time between New York City and Connecticut.
Marburg and I met several years ago as participants at Sewanee Writers’ Conference. We get together from time to time to talk shop; this time, we spoke about her new book, the writing life, and the challenges of publishing story collections.
The Rumpus: From previous conversations, I know you write a story a month. What does this discipline look like in real life?
Louise Marburg: I should correct you by saying I used to write a story a month! And I may yet again. This summer, for instance, I wrote only one story, but it’s an important one because it has given me an idea for a new collection.
Rumpus: What launches a story for you, and what convinces you you’re onto something with each new idea?
Marburg: Anything can launch a story for me—a visual, an overheard sentence, a memory, etc.—but I don’t always follow through. Often I will stop writing a story midway, feeling it’s lost its energy or its interest for me. Sometimes stories just grind to a halt, and I can’t see my way forward.
Rumpus: I love a juicy overheard sentence! Do you remember one that set off a particular story?
Marburg: I wrote a story called “Mrs. Temple” for my first collection, Truth About Me. I was at a resort in the Virgin Islands looking at a sunset, and a woman came up behind me and said, “The last time I was here it was my birthday, and I jumped off this cliff…” Something unusual. She was speaking to everyone, into the air. I was thinking, you must be lonely. I’d never speak into the air that way. But she wanted it to be known that she was alone, and that she wanted me to know her. Reading between the lines of what’s overheard and what I think is really being said is what leads me into a story. That overheard sentence started the story of Mrs. Temple, who goes to a Caribbean island alone and misbehaves and is difficult in a really public way. She makes a spectacle of herself because she’s lonely.
Rumpus: Your characters run the gamut from teenager to senior citizen, male to female, straight to gay, childless to child-bearing. What about a character’s voice pulls you toward them? When do you know it’s their story?
Marburg: I know right away. My stories are character-driven. If I’m not fascinated by these characters, they go nowhere. I think writing a character is almost like acting.
Rumpus: How do you earn authenticity across all these borders?
Marburg: I don’t think I really “earn” authenticity, but I know I’ve snagged a character when I can inhabit them, and their thoughts and words and actions feel completely natural.
Rumpus: As far as settings go, your stories move between upper crust New England, uptown Manhattan, and Northern Virginia, with forays to the racetrack, a class reunion, a visit abroad, even a safari, but I’d say the most consistent element of setting is within relationships versus place. The idea of relationship as setting fascinated me, and I wondered how that might apply to your stories?
Marburg: I set these stories in places that are specific to each character. One takes place on safari, the most expensive trip you can take. Not only is this about the money he’s spending, but it’s about wild animals, and he ends up raping his wife in a really animal way. The characters were set in a place that pressurized their situation.
There is a pool in every story. There’s not one pool situation included that I haven’t seen myself, including the one on the safari where it’s carved out rocks with rough edges.
In “Let Me Stay with You,” the character is visiting old friends during his divorce. His wife left him for another man and he wasn’t expecting it, so he’s in a state of grief. His friends not only ignore and deny his grief, but they make him feel completely alien from their warmth as a family, while at the same time he’s in a strange place, a foreign country, so he’s literally alienated as well. The settings, then, are character-specific and bring out the story’s tensions.
Rumpus: Reading your stories often reminds me of the improv game of “Yes, and…” where one character kicks off a scene based on certain conditions, then the second character commits to the same set of conditions, then adds something new. The point is to nudge ourselves beyond the familiar in order to bring us somewhere really interesting. Your stories seem to open outward this same way. How do you accomplish that?
Marburg: I construct a story entirely intuitively. If you asked me why I did this or that, I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s like being unable to give directions to a destination you drive to every day.
Rumpus: Something I particularly admire in your work is your ability to stay fixed in the present. You drop fully formed histories into pithy slugs of needed information, such as in “DuLaney Girls,” when one character’s experience of miscarriage is related in a single sentence. How do you restrain yourself to such concentrated fragments and resist the urge to plunge too far into the past?
Marburg: Information as intriguing as that must inevitably come up later, so there’s no need to elaborate in the moment. But more to your point, if I or any writer wandered deeply into that bit of information, then the story would become about that, and the story at hand would be swallowed. And maybe the story should be about that! That’s for the writer to discover.
Rumpus: For me it’s a question of when and how to dispense backstory. Sometimes I find the past pouring out in the wrong place, so I might sketch the history into a separate file to splice in as needed. How does a character’s backstory develop for you?
Marburg: You can have a lot of backstory in a few sentences, so if there’s a place where it’s not going to interfere with the movement of the story going forward, I’ll drop it in. The reason why stories can be short is that you can say so much in a few words. You can give a whole backstory or feeling of a backstory in a sentence. I just wrote something in which the backstory was really important to the character, but not much made it into the story itself. It’s more important to know a lot of backstory than it is to share it.
Rumpus: Another thing I admire is your characters’ forthrightness with each other. You’re skilled at controverting that common writerly hiccup of crafting characters who are too polite or reserved to make the messy, necessary mistakes that spawn good stories. What, for you, defines the perfect nugget of contention to dramatize?
Marburg: My characters are often spiteful or nasty, if only in their thoughts, but often in their actions.
Rumpus: You don’t shy away from writing unlikable characters. In “Identical,” for example, Barry loathes himself as much as he loathes his identical twin brother, the family troublemaker, which allows him to heap blame and bitterness on his twin while ignoring his own repellent behavior. What draws you to writing about unlikable characters?
Marburg: I almost never write stories about likable characters. I’m trying to think of any and I can’t, though there must be at least one! No person in the world is completely likable. I know so many unlikable people it would just blow your mind! My whole childhood was surrounded by them. I know them better than I know any other kind of person.
Rumpus: Sibling relationships sprinkle across both your collections, which reminds me how rarely writers explore this formative set of relationships. In the title story, “No Diving Allowed,” tensions between brother and sister revolve around Gareth’s negative body image and how his sister’s marriage turned her into a stranger, partly owing to “marrying up.” Wealth and status muddy relations between siblings in “Play Nice, Be Good,” too, though of course the true bone of contention is buried deeper than that. What elements of sibling relationships spur the best stories?
Marburg: Sibling rivalry takes so many forms, but money and status are more often the basis of family disagreements than anything else, I think.
Rumpus: In your first collection, The Truth About Me, each character struggled with a different mental health condition. In this collection, each story contains a swimming pool. How did these motifs arrive for you in the writing process?
Marburg: I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing with the first collection, and I wrote many more stories than I ended up using. I was surprised that it ended up being more about mental illness than anything else, but mental illness is a theme in my life, so it had to come out at some point, I suppose. With No Diving Allowed, I realized I had written three or four stories with swimming pools in them. I mentioned this to the late Lee Abbott (who I worked with as a fellow at the Kenyon Writing Workshops), and he said, “The collection’s title should be No Diving Allowed!” Then I ended up writing a story—the title story—in which a lifeguard screams “No diving allowed!” and the collection was really born.
Rumpus: Lots of stories burst open with an act of violence or moment of disaster, but your stories tend to highlight details that are odd or dangerous in much smaller measure. For example, in “Minor Thefts,” during the rubbly aftermath of separation, Emma’s father started to “…sneak back into the house when no one was home and take small but necessary things: a blender, a desk lamp, a marble cutting board for cheese,” actions just strange enough to complicate Emma’s efforts to forge a post-schism relationship with him. What about these less dramatic infractions interests you?
Marburg: Drama can be so subtle, and, in the case of “Minor Thefts,” Emma’s father’s thievery is a small—yet large for her—example of Emma’s many losses.
Rumpus: What do you think pulls you to write more about subtler as opposed to overt forms of violence in relationships?
Marburg: I think true violence, if it’s not physical, is subtle. If you think of how people emotionally abuse each other, it’s usually really subtle. Subtle violence builds upon itself. If you have just one heinous act, it’s outrageous. Subtle is never outrageous, it’s just creepy.
Rumpus: Which stories in this collection surprised you most, and how?
Marburg: “No Diving Allowed” surprised me. When Lee Abbott gave me the idea for the title for the collection, none of the stories contained that line yet. So, I was writing away after working with him at Kenyon, all about a pair of siblings spending a weekend together. One of them is really overweight, and when he does a cannonball, he’s released from his weight in the water. Then he comes up, and suddenly, the lifeguard screams, “No diving allowed!” and that surprised me. There was the title. It just came out of the blue. The story itself didn’t surprise me, but that did. It was like Lee Abbott just decided to fly into my desk.
“The Bottom of the Deep End” also surprised me. It was probably the first story I wrote for the collection. I didn’t realize that it would end up being a story about the uncle killing himself. Everything before led up to it, so it made sense, but I didn’t see it coming. I don’t know what I thought was going to happen. That happens to me a lot. I’ll end the story and think, “Whoa? Who knew?”
Rumpus: Do you have a favorite story in the collection? And why?
Marburg: If I had to choose I’d say “Identical,” because it was the most fun to write. Because it’s funny. The characters are awful, practically to the last one. The dead uncle is awful. Harry’s awful. Barry’s awful. I had a lot of fun writing it.
Rumpus: No Diving Allowed is your second story collection, and the next makes three. Editors and publishers and agents like to say story collections are hard to sell. Can you talk about your experience finding publishers?
Marburg: If you only have a collection of short stories, don’t bother trying to get an agent because you won’t. It’s different if you also have a novel. I don’t know why this is, but I’ve been told this many times. I think that the publishing industry, editors, even writers believe writing stories is practice for a novel, but in fact stories are a distinct art form. Many novelists can’t write stories. And many story writers can’t write novels, such as myself. What I do to get a collection published is I send it to every conceivable place that will publish it, and that’s honestly all I do.
Rumpus: Could you give us a teaser about your third collection?
Marburg: Every protagonist is a woman. It’s called You Have Reached Your Destination, and it won the inaugural Eastover Prize for Fiction. It will come out Fall 2022.
Rumpus: What makes a story good—regarding your own stories as well as stories you read?
Marburg: Mastery is everything. Every story I push to be its best. Then inevitably it fails, which is a good thing because if it succeeded, that would be the end.
Photograph of Louise Marburg by Sandi Fellman.