Daphne Kalotay’s latest collection, The Archivists (Triquarterly Books, 2023), doesn’t just set personal drama against the backdrop of history. Rather, it uses the immediacy of the short story form to show how the personal, interpersonal, and historical are tightly woven, perhaps inextricably so. Grief is a key thread in these stories, but wry humor, a sense of surprise, and rich characterization don’t just provide glimmers of light—they make the whole book sparkle.
Daphne Kalotay is the author of Calamity and Other Stories—shortlisted for the Story Prize—and the award-winning novels Russian Winter, Sight Reading, and Blue Hours. Her work has been published in more than twenty languages, and she has been awarded fellowships from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, MacDowell, and Yaddo. She lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
I spoke with Daphne over Zoom while she was settling in as the Celia and Wally Gilbert Artist-in-Residence at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. We discussed what makes short stories so special, how published pieces can change, and why writing—even about grief—is a joy.
The Rumpus: I’m really interested in hearing about what your goals were for this collection when you set out writing it and how those goals may have shifted as you worked.
Daphne Kalotay: I didn’t think in terms of a goal, or maybe this is just semantics. There’s a point when you are writing stories where you realize there’s something thematic happening. I noticed I was grappling with a couple of things that were perhaps united. One was my family and events from the historical past, and the other was the loss, in 2015, of a really close friend of mine. I realized that both those subjects had in common this idea of trying to make sense of loss and simultaneously hold onto something from the past and communicate that experience to others who maybe haven’t known the person you’ve lost and don’t know what you’ve been through.
Sometimes you might be on the receiving end of hearing about something that your family member has been through. Then when that person is gone, you become the holder of this truth. You’re the keeper of it, and what do you do with this information? It can feel like you have this incredibly precious, fragile substance, and you need to do something with this very delicate thing.
I thought these questions were particularly suited to the intimacy of the short story form, so I decided to work with that. Maybe there was a goal—in the sense that I was aware that I needed to do something with this material. I wanted to preserve this truth in some way and create something meaningful with it. Maybe I was simply working out my own grief over losing some other people in my life, my family members, and anticipating future losses as well. But I wasn’t necessarily thinking in terms of an artistic goal, per se.
Rumpus: How did you take care of yourself as you were working through or working with grief in the writing process for this collection?
Kalotay: You know, I think writing for me has always been a salve. It’s what I do that makes me feel better, and it’s a way of working through things. I always feel better when I write. I feel bad when I’m not writing. I almost sometimes feel sick when I don’t write for a long time. Sometimes I’m wondering what’s wrong because I feel physically weird, and then I’ll realize I haven’t written for a while. The writing of the material wasn’t difficult necessarily, even though I teared up at times. I felt good about what I was doing.
Rumpus: You used the word delicate to talk about the way that you hold the stories that you become a caretaker for in the process of grief. In your LitHub essay “On the Outsize Power of the Short Story (AKA the Genre of ‘High Genius’),” you discuss photographs. To me, one of the things that makes the past feel delicate is how its meaning can shift based on context. Particularly in the context of photographs, you go to an antique shop, and there are these old photographs of people’s loved ones, people who have these entire stories. I’d love to hear about how you can build tension and drama through differing levels of delicacy or preciousness that people see in the same subject matter, the same story, or the same life.
Kalotay: In your analogy to photography, do you mean in the same way that we feel certain tension in the way that photographs are so delicate?
Rumpus: Right, and how a photograph that’s precious to one person might mean absolutely nothing to another person. In fiction, I see this difference in ascribed meaning as a huge driver of dialogue. We have one person who’s desperate to tell a story or convey their own meaning, and sometimes their interlocutors don’t care.
Kalotay: It’s funny you say that because I realized when I wrote “Relativity,” the very first story in the book, that it’s really an homage to that wonderful Chekhov story, “Misery.” In his story, there’s a guy driving his cab—it’s a horse-drawn sleigh—and he picks up people along the way. Each time he picks up a fare, he tries to tell them how his son died. Each time, the people don’t care. In the end, he ends up talking to his horse, sure that the horse will understand.
That story always makes me cry because I think it’s so true that sometimes you just need the right person to hear your story, and that goes for written stories as well. And unfortunately, it’s true that something that to you is really tragic, for another person can just be completely meaningless. Likewise with the short story. Some people might care about it; other people will not.
It’s funny because I was talking with a friend of mine the other day who’s going through a really hard time, and she was saying, “How do you give your life meaning, Daphne? You write these stories. You don’t even know if they’re going to get published.” I told her I just tell myself I’m writing it for that one person who will eventually read it. I know there’s one person out there who needs to hear the story. It’s a mental hack that you tell yourself: that one person will get it. But that has been my experience in life. You get a letter or an email, or somebody comes up to you at a reading and says, “The last conversation I had with my mother before she died was about this thing you wrote,” and I realize that’s why I wrote it.
Rumpus: That reminds me of “Three Times Two,” where the characters are looking back on the memory of an awful hike. One of them writes a poem, and then we fast-forward years later to him reading the poem to his partner. There’s meaning in that. The story has been conveyed to the right person at that point.
Kalotay: Yes, and it’s funny because when that story was first published in a journal, I think the editor thought that ending was too sweet, and she changed it so that it ended with the section before that, where the American woman is looking on the map trying to find the mountain where everything happened. The editor said, “This is where the story ends.” I thought, “Okay, this is where it ends for this publication. But when it’s in a book, it ends with Wolfy reading that poem aloud because that’s what this is about: people unable to say what they really want to say.” They finally say the things they need to say—horrible things—and they hurt each other, and they feel worse. So, I wanted to end with somebody finally saying something that he was afraid to say and ashamed to say, and yet it’s a beautiful thing that he wrote. He gets to read it to the person who was meant to hear it, and they’re going to be together for as long as they’re both alive.
Rumpus: That’s a really interesting insight into the way that stories can exist differently on their own or in the context of a journal versus in the context of an entire collection. Were there any other stories that went through similar transformations?
Kalotay: They all transformed to a certain degree. Sometimes they were small changes where I said, “Okay, the editor wants this for the journal, and I already know this isn’t the story’s book form.” An example is “Egg in Aspic,” which is that very short story. The editor said we should change the title to “Oeuf en Gelée” because he thought “Egg in Aspic” didn’t sound very elegant. But for me, the whole point was that “Egg in Aspic” is harsher. I thought, “Okay, it’s fine if we call it by the French name of the dish; that’s fine as a title too.” But that was the first thing I changed back when I put it in the book.
Then my editor, Marisa Siegel at TriQuarterly, said the story needed a tiny bit more oomph at the end. I read that final paragraph and agreed that there was something missing, so I added a single sentence that made it better than before. So many changes are little things like that, where you realize you can do better.
Rumpus: So much of writing a short story is sticking the landing, and often it is just the tiniest little thing.
Kalotay: Yes, especially with a really tiny story like that, where if you added a paragraph, that would undo the entire balance of the story. So, I had to do this little surgical thing, but it made a difference. I was really happy that she pointed that out.
Rumpus: Were there any stories that were particularly challenging to write or that made you learn new things as a writer?
Kalotay: Yes, the last story, “Oblivion,” which goes back and forth in time.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you specifically about that story. . . .
Kalotay: That was really difficult. It also changed a lot because it was first published online in Five Chapters. I don’t think that journal is up anymore, but it published longer pieces. I submitted what I thought of as a long, unwieldy story, and they published it. Then when I was looking back at it for the book, I thought, “This can be better. It can be tighter.” It was important to me to get it right again for posterity when it’s in book form because so much of it is based on my mother’s experience, and I wanted to be true to that.
Also, even though I had already based so much of the historical detail about telephone switchboards and the phone company on what she said, she’d read it and say, “No, it wasn’t like this. It was like that.” I kept having to rewrite these paragraphs because then she’d say, “No, we poked the holes this way.” It’s so mechanical what they’re doing, and that mechanization was state-of-the-art at the time. How things worked at Bell Canada in the 1950s is important to the story because I was trying to show how something that was state-of-the-art then seems archaic now. I wanted to get that right and was making adjustments until the last moment.
Rumpus: I was really fascinated by the precision of those details and also how you were switching back and forth in time. In your essay for LitHub, you quote Edgar Allan Poe, who said that a short story can achieve a “unity of effect.” It got me thinking about how disparate timelines in our own lives can collapse in memory to create a unity of effect. But that’s so hard to get on the page, and you do it so well. Who do you look to for models of how to do those time acrobatics in short fiction?
Kalotay: I always immediately reach for the person who I wrote my dissertation on because she wrote so many stories, many of which move around with great fluidity within broad swaths of time. That’s Mavis Gallant, a Canadian writer whose stories span history and are so much about people’s lives being influenced by history. For that reason, I’m sure she’s influenced my writing and probably half of—or everything—that I’ve learned. But in her case, she doesn’t go back and forth in distinct blocks of time. It’s somehow all melded together in this novelistic way that’s just incredible, whereas I know for certain even this year I’ve taught stories to my students by other authors that go back and forth in time more discretely. Of course, I can’t think of one right now.
But there are writers I turn to when I just want to see a story that feels pure and reminds me of what I want to achieve in my stories, where it just feels like, “Oh, this is real and it’s about real people,” and it’s compassionate about human beings. The first person who comes to mind is Gina Berriault, a Californian writer.
Rumpus: What does compassion mean to you as a writer?
Kalotay: It means writing without judgment and being open to writing all sorts of characters. I feel that compassion is a way into a broad span of characters and the whole scope of the world, in fact. Compassion is a window, and ideally the reader feels that—even if they’re reading a character whom they don’t necessarily like—this person is a rounded character with good qualities, bad qualities, and in-between qualities. There’s a specificity to those qualities, so that the reader believes that this person exists, and they want to hear about that person and will follow them wherever the story goes.
Rumpus: You wrote three novels between this and your previous short story collection. Did you go from novel mode to short story mode, or were you writing short stories along the way? Did the novel work that you’ve done impact your short story writing?
Kalotay: I remember having trouble shifting back when I started writing stories again after my second novel. In fact, I think that’s why the story “Oblivion” was at first so long. It was one of the first ones I started to write, and I couldn’t remember how to write with compression because I was so used to writing these more expansive works. It was really hard for me to write more compact pieces with tighter sentences. Then I remembered, and that rhythm came back to me. I wrote some more stories, and then I wrote another novel, and somehow in writing that third novel, I was able to go back and forth without any more confusion. I don’t know why.
When that novel came out in 2019 and I could again just focus on stories, I remembered how much joy I find in writing short fiction. I really love it. I mean, I love novels—I’m writing a novel right now, and I’m loving it. But there’s something to me that’s so precious and moving about stories. Maybe it has something to do with growing up a child who was read to, and then learning to read and reading stories to yourself. And what you’re reading at that age is shorter works.
Maybe that’s why I associate short stories with a feeling of warmth. I just really love stories. I feel that they bring us in close in a way that novels often don’t. They can be so powerful in such an intense way. They’re a little infusion, almost. Having the ability to create something like that is just wonderful. I feel lucky to be able to do that.
Rumpus: You mentioned joy. Often, we talk about the difficulties of the writing life and doing this work. What about writing this collection was a joy?
Kalotay: Oh, so much! As part of my process, I share my work with my writing friends, and I have to go through many, many drafts usually. As painful as that is, there’s the joy in the pain. There’s the pain of hearing it’s not quite there, and then there’s the pain of hearing it’s still not quite there. But there’s also the joy of thinking, “Oh, that’s a great idea, and now the story is better, and somebody’s going to understand what I’m trying to say now.” I love that feeling, and then saying, “Oh, now I know who I’m going to show this second draft to because she’s really good with plot, and I have some plot points to iron out,” and then, “Oh, I’m going to give the third draft to a reader who’s really good with character, and we’re going to iron out character if there’s anything a little bit off there.”
So the joy is in sharing with others. It’s a sort of pre-publication. You’re reminded that you’re doing the work, you’re rising to the occasion, you’re answering the call—and then knowing at a certain point, “Oh yeah, I did it. I think I made it to the finish line.” That, for me, is why I do it.
Author photograph by Sasha Pedro