Art of the Short Story: 2019 National Book Festival

Art of the Short Story: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Nora Krug: Hi. Good afternoon.>>[inaudible]>>Nora Krug: [laughs]
My name is Nora Krug. I am an editor and a writer at
the Washington Post Book World, which is a charter sponsor of
the National Book Festival. I’m very happy to be here
today to talk with two of my favorite writers. One is Lydia– getting
all mic’ed up. Lydia Millet, who is
obviously a writer, and she’s also a
conservationist, who works at the center for Advanced Biodiversity
in Arizona. She’s written books and
stories that cover a wide range of subjects from God and
politics, to science, mermaids, and marriage. They include Sweet Lamb
of Heaven and Magnificence which have been Pulitzer Prize and National Book
Award finalists. Her collection, Love in
Infant Monkeys, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and
her latest book is the story collection Fight No More, which
I took out of the library. Brendan Matthews is our
other panelist today. And he is the author of the
novel The World of Tomorrow, which was long-listed
for the Center for Fiction First Novel prize. His debut story collection,
which I didn’t get at the library, is This
is Not a Love Song. And Brendan was a
Fulbright Scholar to Ireland, and his fiction has appeared in
The Best American Short Stories, Glimmer Train, Virginia
Quarterly Review, and other publications. And he teaches at Bard College. Just one announcement is that
their signing is going to be at 2:30, but we’re going to
have a little chat first. And then some questions
from you. So I would like to–
if they’re ready, welcome Lydia Millet
and Brendan Matthews. [ Applause ]>>Brendan Matthews: Thanks
for coming, everybody.>>Nora Krug: Are we ready? Oh, we’re live. OK. Here we go. Welcome. So they’ve
given us a subject. We’re supposed to be talking about the art of
the short story. We can talk about
that, but we can talk about whatever else
you’d like to talk about. But I thought I would just
start with, if you don’t mind, each of you just describing your
latest book in your own words. Want to start?>>Lydia Millet: Sure. It’s called– so I’ve
written a lot of novels, and this is just my
second story collection. It’s called Fight No More,
and it’s sort of a novel in disguise, and it’s
one of those collections where the characters are sort
of consistent throughout. And so they circle back around. And so we see many of them
more than once in the stories. And yes– it’s hard to describe. The stories are pretty diverse. Some might be considered
offensive. Others are quite austere. And it’s really just
this sort of– they’re all characters
who are connected through this real estate
agent in Los Angeles, who sells these very
high-end homes, and through that work encounters
some odd and interesting folks. And her life sort of becomes
enmeshed with many of theirs. And so we also see the world of
this book through their eyes, through all these sort of
ancillary character’s eyes.>>Brendan Matthews: And
my short story collection– for a visual aid– is called
This is Not a Love Song. It’s my first collection. And it does not included
any common characters. So it’s very unlinked
in a lot of ways. But there’s a lot of concerns,
I think, when the time came to put them together, look
at the stories I’d written and figure out what
fit together. I guess what emerged was a
lot of stories about longing. About people who want things
or people that they can’t have, or maybe that they once
had, but don’t any longer. And a big part of the
collection too, I think, was something I saw in
there, was self-deception, something I’m really
interested in. I’m intrigued by the ways that
we tell stories to ourselves about ourselves, and about
other people in our lives, to just get through from
one day to the next. And sometimes those stories
match up with reality, and sometimes they don’t.>>Nora Krug: So just to stick
to the topic for a second, since you both have written
novels and short stories, and how is the experience
different or better or worse? Since I’m always starting–>>Lydia Millet: So for
me, stories are, you know, a tool for procrastination,
typically. They just are really delightful, kind of entertaining
creatures for me. I think they’re very difficult, sort of objectively,
to pull off. Well, it’s just that the
way that I experience them as sort of– yes, a way of occupying myself
while I’m failing to write a novel, usually. [ Laughter ]>>Nora Krug: I think you might
have actually written a novel.>>Lydia Millet: Yes. I have written–>>Nora Krug: Like this one.>>Lydia Millet: Some. Yes. So I kind of write
short stories in between, you know, in between novels. And so for me they
can be quite playful. That doesn’t mean
they’re not serious, and sometimes gritty
or distressing. But for me, it’s sort of a lark to write them for
whatever reason.>>Brendan Matthews: Yes. But for me, my sort
of first love, my first literary love
was a short story. I wrote short stories for
years before I ever turned to writing a novel. And Lydia mentioned sort of
playfulness, and with one of the things I liked about it,
and still like about the form. So the first novel– to date
the only novel I’ve written is a long one. It’s over 500 pages. Totally worth reading
and buying. [ Laughter ] I’ll be signing them
upstairs later. But it was a multi-year
commitment, and once I started writing it,
there’s a lot that’s inventive about the novel,
but I had committed to writing it a certain way, and I knew I’d be doing
that for a long time. Just in terms of the
characters I had, and the way I wanted to tell it. And the thing that kept me
going back to the stories was that opportunity to play. Even though some of
the stories are not, like, light and playful. They’re– some of them can be
dark and serious and very funny. But I can try in
different voices, and I can try different
perspectives, and different structures. And spend time working with
them and trying to make sure that things fit this experience
I wanted to create, but then one to the next could
be really different. And even though I’m
kind of a slow writer, and some of these stories
took years to get right. Some of them not as long. That opportunity to spend
time and then put it aside and then do something entirely
different is really exciting about story writing.>>Nora Krug: I think, you know,
certainly having, myself worked in publishing the past– you know, there’s sort of
an elevation of the novel as something, I don’t know,
maybe it sounds better or it’s more appealing. And I wonder your
thoughts about, you know, that idea that a novel– elevating a novel
over short story.>>Lydia Millet: Well I mean
clearly I don’t think there’s any sort of difference
in cultural import between the two forms, really. It does seem novels are
often easier to sell. Maybe just because we like
big stories that we can stay in for while, and you know,
we don’t want it to be over so quickly when
it comes to reading. I don’t know. Maybe there’s something more
profound I could say about that, but I’ll do that when
I’m not with all of you. Some of the best writing
being done today is for sure in the short story form, like
Lydia Davis is one of my– one of the people I
think is just excellent and extraordinary. And she writes almost
uniquely short things. But of course, there
are also ways of writing fragmentary prose
within the context of a novel. So I just– I don’t now, I don’t
really see any justification for privileging one over
the other particularly.>>Nora Krug: I agree. But–>>Brendan Matthews:
Oh, I agree too. And Lydia Davis you mentioned, should be somebody
who is hugely famous. I mean, I think among writers– a lot of writers
read Lydia Davis. She writes these very compact– I mean she can write
long stories, but she can write a
one-sentence story. Just the other week I was with
my family, we were in Cape Cod, and we were driving
through Wellfleet, and I was pretty sure I saw
Lydia Davis on the street. And I pulled the car–
like, she was walking through a parking lot, and so
I pulled the entire family– I have, like, four
kids, in the car. I was like, oh my God,
that’s Lydia Davis. And they were looking at me. They’ve come to expect
this, I think from me, now. That I have a certain
set of celebrities who I would follow
into a parking lot. And then she got in line to buy
fried fish, and I thought OK. I’ve taken this too far. Like if I actually stop the car,
and get out, and approach her, then my kids are going to think
that I’ve completely lost it. I’ve never done that
for a novelist, but I did that on behalf
of a short story writer. [ Laughter and Applause ]>>Lydia Millet: Yes. Might seem a little
stalker-ish [inaudible]–>>Brendan Matthews: Yes I
was way over the line already, and if I’d gotten out of
the car, that would then– like, handcuffs and
police lights.>>Lydia Millet: Yes, yes. The only time I actually
ever met Lydia Davis was also in a line and it was
in a bathroom line.>>Brendan Matthews: Oh.>>Lydia Millet: Yes. Good times.>>Nora Krug: So in your intro,
you were talking a little bit about maybe some things in
your book might be offensive a little bit. I mean, there’s some
sexually explicit– I mean, I found it completely
engaging, and really– I loved the way you pushed
boundaries in the book. And I’m just wondering,
I don’t know, how– the reception you might have
gotten to that, or how you felt when you were putting
it together.>>Lydia Millet: Yes. There’s– so I tend to be
a fairly political writer in some ways. I hope not overtly or preachily. That’s always the danger of
writing stuff that has sort of social, that is
sort of moral fiction. But one of the stories
in this is quite atypical of the work I usually do. It’s sort of from the point
of view of this pedophile, and it’s a really sort
of close point of view. And contains this graphic
sex scene with his underage, I guess, stepdaughter. And– but no one
really has spoken of this piece at all, so–>>Nora Krug: Here we are.>>Lydia Millet: Yes, I mean
in the reviews of the book, no one really went– no one
really wished to approach, really, the subject of
this particular story when they were evaluating
the book. So I think maybe it’s
just one of those– it’s a bit of a Bermuda
Triangle of–>>Nora Krug: [inaudible]>>Lydia Millet: Of criticism. You know?>>Nora Krug: Seeing the
reviews, and not seeing that, because after I read
it, I came right into the office,
and said oh my God! I thought it was really
brave, and beautifully done. So–>>Lydia Millet: Well thank you. Appreciate that.>>Nora Krug: And you have
some sex in your book too, but it’s not quite– yours was– you know, there’s a lot of
relationships that are sort of not working out in your–>>Brendan Matthews: Yes. Yes.>>Nora Krug: I think the
title signals that it’s going to not be like a romantic,
swoony type of book. And so, I’m wondering
since your book kind of brings together stories
from a variety of places, how did you decide to put
it together, and what was like the thread that brought
them all together in your mind?>>Brendan Matthews:
Well I guess- you know, one to the next [inaudible] I
know Lydia had a different kind of project, which was to think about these different
characters, and how their lives intersect. And I thought that using the
real estate was brilliant, because you have these
people who dip in and out of peoples’ lives. And it’s such an intense
encounter you have when someone’s showing you this
house, because they’re trying to sell it, but they want you to
feel emotionally attached to it. So I thought that having that as
the thing that the book begins on gives you all
these ways to go. The stories in my collection
were written over the course of probably about 10 years. And there were some things
that I wrote during that time that didn’t go in
the collection. That just didn’t seem
to fit for the tone that the book seemed to strike. And there were others–
probably the oldest stories, the first ones I wrote are
the most re-written stories in the collection, are
things I wrote earlier on that I was really proud to
have published at the time. But when I look back at them
again, after having written– having finished the novel
and having written a lot of other stories, some of them
just seemed– I don’t know. There was one that turned– there was a big plot twist
the story built towards, and at the end you find
out something not really that shocking, but
shocking to the character. And when I re-wrote it, I
decided that has to happen like on the second page. There’s no point in
stringing the reader along, and seeing whether they
pick up on the clues. I think when I was a more
novice writer that seemed– it felt like enormously clever. And clever didn’t seem
worth it for asking somebody to spend 20 pages
with the story. And it seemed like what
I wanted to do was– there was a secret that
the character was keeping. Why not tell the
secret at the beginning and let the story follow
the implications of that? And that decision
was in line with some of the other things I felt held
the story together, which is, things people will and
won’t admit to themselves. Things they will and won’t
admit to those they love. Like I said before,
those kind of stories, the need to create narratives
to get through the day, or to feel like you’re not the
bad guy, or that you’re the hero in your own life,
and maybe you aren’t. And in different ways, I think
the stories came at that, some very humorously,
and some not so much.>>Nora Krug: I Just
wanted also– back to the subject
of the short story. I mean– it seems like
you have to write– I can’t remember how many
stories are in your book. Like, have to write that many
endings, and is it harder to end a short story than
it is to end a novel? [laughs]>>Lydia Millet: Actually
I think it might be harder to end a short story.>>Brendan Matthews: Yees.>>Lydia Millet:
Because, you know, with a novel you can be really
self-indulgent, you know, if you want to with the book. And you can’t really
with a short story. You just don’t have room. And it has to be,
you know, sharp. It really has to
kind of just turn and catch the light
the right way. Whereas with a novel, you know, you can take your time a
little more, and make it sort of more a song at the end. For me, every novel that I write
is about writing the ending, because I love writing
that part so much. I’m always very emotional. And sometimes make myself,
like, laugh pathetically, foolishly, while I’m writing. But really I always write
for the ending to sort of achieve this abstract sort of ecstatic feeling
while I’m writing. So I’m always really excited
to get to the end of a book. With short stories I don’t
really have time for rapture, for ecstasy of any kind.>>Brendan Matthews: [laughs] So I only have one
experience with ending a novel. But I think there’s less– I don’t think there’s
less pressure on the end for most novels that I’ve read,
because I feel like the thing that happens, or the experience
of the novel so much as being in it, and then things happen, and you have these
different tones and palettes that go on through the novel. But I don’t think the, like
last line of a novel matters in the way that the last
line of a short story has to. Because I think that you spend– a short story is a
really intense experience. And you suggest all of these
themes or emotions, or chords. It’s like you’re sort of striking chords
or playing as you go. And the last line I feel
like has to signal in a way which of those things they’ve
heard as the thing that matters, or which one is going to
be– you mentioned, like, catches the light in a way. Something has to get– the
context has to shift in a way in that last paragraph,
last line especially. So I think that they’re– for
me at least, that short story, that last line, there’s a lot of
pressure on it, to get it right. And it’s the only I’ll go
over and over and over again, and figure out if it’s really
ending the way it has to. And I think to work it’s got to
go back into the story somehow. It’s got to send you back in to see something
differently than you saw before.>>Nora Krug: So have you tossed
endings along the way, or–>>Brendan Matthews: Oh yes. Or sometimes I’ve had
like an ending that, the ending sounds great,
like the words are all fine, and it feels like it should
mean something, but it doesn’t. And it’s usually not
the ending’s fault. It’s the middle’s fault. The middle isn’t setting
up the ending properly. It’s like, I don’t know. I’m not a volleyball
player, but somebody has to– somebody sets and
somebody spikes. If there’s no set, there
can’t be any spike. So there’s something–
and those pieces have to work together in a way.>>Nora Krug: So speaking
of exciting endings, I know we’re here to talk about
your short story collection, but I also really loved your
book Sweet Lamb of Heaven, which I always say
the hymn instead– and I mean, that has quite an
ending, but builds and builds as sort of a thriller. I’m just also– the book feels– I didn’t know if any of you
have read it, but you should. It has this like ripped from
the headlines kind of story, seeming now, about a
manipulative politician, and– who stalks and manipulates
his wife, and you know, I read the book recently, but you wrote it before
our current situation. And I just wondered how you
felt, like, having written that book before our times,
and how it feels now and– you probably get asked
this question a lot.>>Lydia Millet: No. No, because– yes, because that
was a, you know, a book ago, so I haven’t been asked
in a while, but no. It was oddly coincided sort of
with all the stuff in the media around the harassment of women
and stuff by political figures, the president, but also others. And sort of just predated Me Too
and stuff, and really had to do with this kind of,
you know, right-wing, cynical politician using
people’s faith sort of as leverage, you
know, with them. And being also very
cruel to his wife. But it also has this like
horror aspect and kind of a psychological
thriller aspect–>>Nora Krug: The motel.>>Lydia Millet: Sort
of want it to be– yes, there’s a motel
patterned after one I stayed in that was very
derelict in Maine once. And yes, so it had all
these trappings of genre. And I wanted to do that. Because I hadn’t done anything
quite so– it’s still I think, you know, vaguely counts as
literary, but it has sort of the structure of, like,
a little bit of whodunit, and it involves murder
and stuff like that. So you know, no one–
people didn’t– only sort of obscure media
interviews that I did, and a few Europeans asked–>>Nora Krug: I love
being in that category.>>Lydia Millet: Asked me about,
directly about the relationship between the American political
landscape to the story that had just sort of pre-dated
most of it by just a few months. I felt sort of like
once again I had failed to commercialize everything. You know? I always seem to fail to make any money
off– you know? Things that– yes, that
sort of align with, like, certain stars in the culture. And I had once more
failed in this regard. But I really, I really wanted
to write a book of ideas, which was just kind of what
it was, that was also– that was also thriller-y
and had kind of these dark horror
trappings, and certain moments of the unreal kind of in it. And so, yes. That’s what I did.>>Nora Krug: So I was going to
ask each of you to read a bit, but before I get to
that, I wondered if– I know this is a terrible
question to ask writers, but I’m going to ask it. Your next book, is it going to
be short stories, or a novel? What can we look forward to?>>Brendan Matthews:
I’m working on something that I hope is going
to turn into a novel.>>Nora Krug: OK.>>Brendan Matthews:
And take a lot less time than the last one did. So when I finished the last one,
my last novel is, like I said, over 500 pages long,
but a very quick read. Which is what my brother said. I gave it to him, and
when it was done– you know, I have three brothers,
and I gave one of them a copy to read, and I think they’re
all like, [sighs] like they had to do it, because we’re related. And one of them read
it, and then said, wow that read much
faster than I expected. So I could tell what
the expectation was. It was going to take him
a year, and it didn’t. So anyway, it was long and
it was set in the 1930s. And it has– it’s third
person, but there’s a lot of– it’s a cast of thousands
in a way. And so I told myself for
the next book, it was going to be much shorter, and
contemporary setting, and maybe even first person. I haven’t quite held to
all of that, but I’m trying to write a much shorter,
more contemporary novel about the self-storage industry. Partially.>>Nora Krug: Interesting.>>Lydia Millet: You don’t
hear that every day, do you?>>Brendan Matthews:
No, you don’t. Don’t anybody steal that,
or write faster than me. Let me do it first, then you can
all write about self-storage.>>Lydia Millet: So I
have a novel that comes out next May I think,
called A Children’s Bible. And it’s about this
bunch of teenagers and younger children spending
the summer with their parents, whom they pretty much
despise in this summer house. This kind of summer mansion. And they’re playing this
game initially where they try to avoid being identified as the
children of a certain parent, because they’re all really
ashamed of their parents, so they play this ongoing game,
and the last one to be connected with their actual
parent will win, by the other children
and teenagers. But this is all sort
of overtaken by a sort of massive biblical storm. And then the book sort of goes
on from there, and descends into some variety of chaos. But yes, A Children’s
Bible it’s called. About a year from now.>>Nora Krug: So who
wants to read first?>>Lydia Millet: Well, do
people want us to read, or do they want us
to just do a Q and A? Or– I mean, because
I don’t need to read. But I’m happy to read. I don’t know.>>Brendan Matthews: Read. Read.>>Lydia Millet: I heard
a “read,” but– Yes? OK. Well, I’ll just do a
page, and you’ll do a page? Do it that way.>>Brendan Matthews:
Yes, let’s do that.>>Nora Krug: And then
we’ll do a Q and A.>>Lydia Millet: Except
I don’t have my glasses.>>Brendan Matthews:
Oh do you want–>>Lydia Millet:
Oh can I use those? Yes.>>Brendan Matthews: Try those. See if they work. [ Laughter ]>>Lydia Millet:
[inaudible] middle-aged.>>Nora Krug: I don’t think
they’ve ever met, either, so.>>Lydia Millet: OK. I’ll just read the beginning of a story called
The Fall of Berlin. Just a page. “She loved her home so much. Had loved it so deeply
for so many years, that when she thought
of her death, it was the house
she felt sorry for. No one would ever hold this
place as dear as she did. The house wasn’t grand. From the outside it
was frankly plain. But she’d furnished it so
deliberately, so delicately over time, that every shade
of color or light, every nook and corner was cared
for, warm and welcoming. Curated they said
now, about everything. Her home was curated. The furnishings were only her
belongings, and not permanent by nature, though she
wished them to be. On the news recently, a
venerable archeologist in Syria and been murdered by militants. He’d been defending a cache of
ancient artifacts from Palmyra, refusing to tell the
radicals where they were, and they cut his head off. When she heard it on
the news, she cried. Courage, she thought. That was courage. But this was only a
home, only her house. And even before she died, the whole place would be
taken apart methodically, no sentiment wasted. Her chairs, rugs, lamps, would
be separated from each other with violent haste,
never again to be a part of this perfect harmony. If she was lucky, they’d be
sold to people who valued them. That was the best case. And even the best
case was unbearable. She gazed out the window from her favorite armchair,
a graceful prospect. In the breeze, her front
yard trees dipped and swayed. The greatest of them was
a Norfolk Island pine, its rounded needles like velvet. Beyond the moving bough,
she could see a haze of blue lupines among
the river rocks, and then the neighbor’s hedge. Beyond the hedge was only
sky, where on this sunlit, late afternoon, a bank
of cumulus had gathered, billowing flowers of atmosphere. Now was the time to
give up what she loved. She knew that. But it was so hard. She should have specialized in
Buddhists instead of fascists. Then maybe she’d be ready
for the world to fall alway. Ready to rise. Her arms outstretched, with
nothing to the left of her, and nothing to the right. Enter the air.” [ Applause ]>>Nora Krug: I have
progressive, so I couldn’t–>>Brendan Matthews: That
was really beautiful. I should have read first. [ Laughter ] This is the first page of
a story called Airborne. I’ll leave it at that. We’ll talk more about it later. “Jenna tells Dan he’s crazy. He’s home from work
for 5 minutes. His tie is still knotted,
and already he’s nosing around the central air vents and
the drains, inside the cabinets, and behind the refrigerator. He hasn’t even said hello
to Lucy, their 3-year-old. Instead, he’s sniffing the
fireplace, and the shower heads. He drops to his knees to
check the carpet in the den. He stomps down the
stairs to the basement. He pokes his head
into the attic. It’s the mold again. He says it’s so bad
he can smell it. And that’s when Jenna
tells him that he’s crazy. The cleaning ladies were
at the house all afternoon, and the place is awash in
lemon-scented floor wax, and furniture polish, spiked with the tang
of Windex and bleach. Jenna believes that this
cocktail of scrubs, cleaners, waxes, and sprays has a
mood-enhancing effect stronger than Prozac, which
she has never tried, but weaker than ecstasy,
which she has. Colors seem brighter,
shapes more distinct, as if the house sits on a
mountaintop in the Alps, instead of at the
end of a cul-de-sac, in Willamette, Illinois. She tells Dan they
paid good money for the house to
smell like this. You’re used to it, he says. If you spent all day
out of the house, you’d notice it the
second you came in. I’m going to pretend you
didn’t say that, she says. For your sake, I’m going to
pretend you didn’t say a word. In the two years since
Jenna quit her job as assistant vice
president of packaging for a specialty foods company
to stay home with Lucy, she has heard him pose
this question more times, and in more ways
than she can count. Just what is it that
you do all day? Don’t be that way, he says. You know what I mean. Yes, she says. I know exactly what you mean.” [ Applause ]>>Nora Krug: Thank you both. That was beautiful. I think we can open it
up to you all if you’d like to do some Q and A? [inaudible] It’s like, blinding.>>Lydia Millet: Yes, it is. It is.>>Brendan Matthews:
There’s someone.>>Nora Krug: Two. [ Inaudible ]>>Brendan Matthews: Yes. There’s a mic there? Yes?>>There’s just one.>>I’ll just do this. I think I’m in the same
boat as a lot of people here when I say I have an
idea, and I don’t know if it’s short story
idea, or a novel idea. So I’m curious if you two, both
having written short stories and novels, how you– if you have an idea how you make
the decision between the two. What you take into
consideration, and if there’s anything
you’ve ever developed one way, and then realized it should
have been the other format?>>Lydia Millet: I don’t know. Do you have something
good to say about that? I’m not sure I do.>>Brendan Matthews: I knew– I think having written short
stories for a long time, when I started working
on the novel, I think I knew it was a novel. I mean, there was no way
what I wanted to do was– I couldn’t do it in
even 40 or 50 pages. I knew from the beginning it was
going to be a really big thing. So in that case, I knew. The thing I’m working
on now, I think I went into it hoping it was a novel. I had a moment where I
thought, like, uh-oh. Maybe this isn’t. But then I kept plowing ahead. So I think I– I
often don’t know much about this thing I’m
writing except I get a sense of the shape early on. So even from the idea, or
the first line, or the voice that I hear, or the image that
I want to do, there’s something around it that lets me
know roughly what it is. Like, whether it’s a
novel or short story and then maybe how
big it’s going to be. I don’t know about you. Like you said with
Fight No More, it was– was it ever a novel?>>Lydia Millet: No. No. I was– it sounds coy or
stupid, depending on, you know, the charity of your
interpretation for me to say that I don’t really have ideas. I don’t really have
ideas, exactly. I mean, I don’t have them before
I sit down to write something. I just sit down to
write and then, whatever, you know, happens. [laughs] So I’m not
unfortunately calculated enough to make such a, you know,
clever decision, really. I did when I first
started out writing. Maybe my first two
or three books. I sort of planned in advance,
but I don’t really anymore. Beyond maybe sometimes having
a title before I write the book because I just like
having titles. Yes. So.>>Thank you.>>Lydia Millet: Thank you. Thanks for the question.>>Hello. I’d like to get back
to the art of the story form. And both of you all
had mentioned it. One, the fragmentary
type of style, and Lydia Davis of course. And what do you find the
value of these short, short fiction nowadays? Sometimes they call them flash
fiction, or micro fiction, but in this fast-paced world,
you know, some people– I don’t have time to read. I don’t have time to read,
but they see something like Lydia Davis,
and they say wow. And are any of your stories
short shorts or microstories?>>Brendan Matthews: Yes. I think– you know,
there was this– I don’t see these
articles much any more, but for a while people were
saying, like, oh this is going to bring about some sort of
renaissance of the short story because people can read
them on their phones, and they can read them
on their way to work, or wherever they read things,
which I don’t think is true. Because I think a really
good short story, even a– if you’re willing to give
it time to let it work on you the way that
it’s supposed to. Like a Lydia Davis story, the
fact that it’s a paragraph, or a couple sentences, it’s not because it neatly resolves
itself in a paragraph. It messes you up
when you read it. Like, you read it, and it
troubles something in you, and you can’t put it
right for a while. I think whether it’s
shorter or longer, and flash fiction
is something too. Like in a paragraph, that
has to get you somewhere where you’re a little disturbed. And I think the idea that you’d
read that on the way to work, and then, like, sit
down at your desk and start processing
spreadsheets is probably the most destructive thing to
productivity in America. Maybe a good thing. But I don’t think it’s
about format or time. I think a good story– people
have a hunger for them, but I think part of the thing with the short story
is the investment of time reading it might be
short, but I think it’s supposed to stick with you and
really make a claim on you. That you have to be
willing to allow it to do.>>Lydia Millet: Also
for that period of time, and I think people– yes,
I think you’re right, people aren’t sort of talking
about this because it ceased to be interesting
as much any more. Not that flash fiction
isn’t interesting, or doesn’t exist, or whatever. But the conversation around how
it was going to rejuvenate– first of all I don’t
think really the form needs rejuvenation.>>Brendan Matthews: Yes.>>Lydia Millet: Like it’s
looking pretty Botoxed to me, I don’t know. I think people like
short stories. They have also, you
know, what about poems? If people want to read something
really short form, we do have– you know, those exist. You know? So– and they’ve
always been good at sort of crystallizing moments for us. Sometimes moments
that take, you know, 50 pages to achieve in a novel. These are moments that poems,
if we know how to read them, and not bad poems, but
good ones, you know, that can bring us so quickly. So I sort of thought that
was a lot of, you know, much ado about nothing around
flash fiction, or this, like, people talking about
irony being dead after September 11th
or something. You know? No. Anyway. Thank you. Thank you.>>Brendan Matthews: I think
it was a hope that if we talked about it enough that people
would start paying short story writers more. Because there’d be
a commercial– somebody was going to
make money off of it. And it didn’t work. Yes. We tried.>>Of all the subjects you could
possibly choose to write about, how do you choose them, and
have those choices changed over the course of your careers?>>Brendan Matthews: So
Lydia mentioned earlier that, you know, you start to write. You don’t start with an idea. You write your way
into the idea. I think that’s true
for me as well. Like I’ll start with
something, and write and see if becomes something
that’s interesting to me, or something I care about. And a lot of times, you
know, I’m not an essayist. I’m writing towards a story. I want the story to matter. I want there to be a character,
or characters, or voice or something that draws you in. And sometimes it’s
only after the fact that you recognize what
the issues were, you know, that you were interested in, or
what you were grappling with. And the outside world can
throw those into relief. So I mentioned, like when I was
looking at the stories that go into This Is Not a Love Song, like deception is
a big part of it. A lot of these stories
about relationships. And I feel like deception,
self-deception, is a big part of that. And I thought about it in
a very personal way here. But then as the stories
kind of came together, I started to think about
how does that happen in a larger way, and then given
the kind of, I don’t know, given these times, the political
climate we’re in right now, some of the self-deception’s
become more apparent. So like this isn’t a– maybe
it’s not a foreground issue in the collection, but I think
it rattles around in there. I mean anybody who grows up
white in America is schooled, and I mean schooled,
in self-deception. There are stories we tell
ourselves about ourselves, and about our world, and about
the world we live in to get by. And when somebody pierces
those deceptions, it’s painful. And people will go to great
lengths to maintain that. So in the stories it
happens in relationships, and there’s a couple of stories where it happens beyond the
level of the relationship, but I don’t think I saw that in
writing the stories originally. But when the book came
out, you know, in 2019, that to me felt suddenly
foregrounded in a way.>>Lydia Millet: Yes I’ve
always been really interested in self-deception, too. I’ve been interested
in people’s blind spots for all of my writing career. Just the things– just
the idea that we can’t in a way know ourselves
sometimes as well as other people know us, because
we just have these blind spots in our visions of ourselves. Things we will never
know about how we seem. Sometimes we do discover stuff
about ourselves through time. I mean, hopefully. I hope we do. Otherwise it’s all very
sad and tragic, you know, that we bother to hang around. But, you know, like when
you look back at old things of yours, and you’re
sort of ashamed by maybe something you
did, something you wrote. Some way you were at a
certain moment in time. I have that with, like,
almost every book I write. You know, the further in
time I move away from it, the less it seems like something
I did, and the more it seems like something done by someone
I don’t recognize any more. And– but I, at the beginning
of my career was more interested in satire, and sort of
like sharp, biting writing. Like I’d had one book– I think
my seance book was called George Bush, Dark Prince of Love, which
was about actually Bush Senior. And this woman’s obsession
with him and stuff. So it was quite overtly
political satire. And I still occasionally write
books that are sort of satirical and broad, but mostly I
write more about the things that make me, you know, feel
like crying, or laughing. I’ve become I think less
interested in cynicism as the years went on,
and more interested in just idealism, and– — and being vulnerable. You know, sort of
psychologically, and also just philosophically,
rather than closed, rather than shuttered. I don’t know if that
answers– really.>>Hi. Do you have advice for
aspiring short fiction writers in the room, and
more specifically, are there any really
tired short story cliches that you would recommend
avoiding? The kind of “it was all a
nightmare in the end” kind of a conclusion, or anything
like that, that you’ve just seen over and over again, and
makes you roll your eyes?>>Brendan Matthews: So
one thing I’d suggest if you have the opportunity
anywhere, for a while I was a
reader for a magazine. And so I would have to read
20 or so, 25 stories a week. And so I got to read a lot of
what people were submitting, so it exposed a lot of cliches. Because you might think
you’re doing something totally original, and you read it, you
know, 100 times in a month. So it’s really important
to see what’s out there. I think in some ways, like,
everything could be a cliche, could be reduced to
a level of cliche. A lot of it’s in how
you carry it off. Although having it
all be a dream, maybe we should avoid
that for a while. That one might be worth
putting on the shelf. But other advice,
like, you know, I teach and my students come
to me with these kinds of questions all the time. And I think that you have
to be open to criticism. Like you have to find people
who you trust as readers. Not necessarily your friends, who tell you how
great your work is. You need somebody who you trust. Who will tell you when you’re
on and when you’re off. Somebody who knows
you at your best, and will push you to get there. And in some ways you just have
to be a little bit bulletproof. You send stuff out, you
get told no so many times. A lot. I was– I had
this conversation with somebody recently. I counted up rejections. So the last story
that I had that was in Best American Short
Stories was turned down 26 times before it was
accepted by the magazine that then got it
into Best American. So take that, 26 editors. [ Laughter ]>>Lydia Millet: Yes, I mean I
think it’s just the same advice you’d give to any writer,
which is read a lot. Read a lot, you know? Read a lot in the form, in the form that you’re
interested in writing in. But also just read in a way that
is a bit uncomfortable for you. So don’t just read
things that are like things you’ve always known,
or the stuff that reminds you of stuff you want
to do or whatever. But also read the things
that you don’t like at first as you start to read them. And just like try to suppress
your antipathy toward them until you can get through them. Because if you don’t read the
new, and be exposed to the new, your stuff is never going to be
ambitious, and it’s never going to be sort of stretching itself out beyond what you
already know. And we never know enough, right? We never already know enough. So just go as a reader
into the new. And maybe one day
then as a writer, you’ll go into the new, too. And you won’t even
worry about cliche.>>Good afternoon. Thank you for this presentation. I’m interested in what kind of distinctions you might
draw regarding short stories that you might have
in your own books. In other words, your own
books that are collections of short stories of your own,
as opposed to short stories that you might write
for journals, magazines, anthologies, that
are edited by others. The kinds of different
approaches you might take with regard to those–
those publications. In other words, the
ways that they’ve been, that they’re been published. [inaudible] I guess is a–
what kind of distinctions, what kind of approaches
do you take for them? I hope the question makes sense.>>Brendan Matthews: Yes.>>Lydia Millet: I actually
really think you’d be better to answer this, because I’ve
never really written a story for a journal, or for a
magazine explicitly, so.>>Brendan Matthews: So, you
know, when I got started, I did what a lot of people
do which is, you know, I’d write stories and I’d
have this vast spreadsheet that I kept in the days before
any of this was done online. Back when it was all done
with big manila envelopes and self-addressed
stamped envelopes, and actual physical paper. And I would just send things
out to magazines that I read, or that I admired, or
I hoped to appear in. Without any sense of
whether the story– like I thought the story
was right for them. I mean, everybody I sent to, I thought they’d be
crazy to turn this down. And then, you’d send
to the first 10 and you’d get 10 rejections. You’d send it to the next 10
or 12, and you’d, you know, work your way through. And sometimes the message you
pick up from that is, you know, it’s the editor’s fault, and
they don’t see my brilliance. Usually the message is, I got
to pull this back, and revise and revise and revise. And that’s probably the other
piece of advice for writers in the room is, revise,
revise, revise. I mean, for a lot of
people, it’s a lot of effort to write the story once,
and you get a first draft, but that’s the beginning
of the process, really. It– trying to figure out what
the story really is, is more. So you know, for
me then, writing– I guess I have some sense now of what stories might
be more appropriate to some venues than others. Like obviously, there’s a story in the collection that’s
kind of flash fiction. It’s only a few pages. I knew that there were places that were more receptive
to that kind of work. There’s some stories in the
collection that are really just like big, voice-driven kind
of stories, and I know editors who have a taste for that, so
I– I mean, in there, even then, you know, it wasn’t like I would
send out once and was taken. I guess the big difference
between the collection and the story– the magazines
and then the collection, was the opportunity in
the collection to look at stories I’d written over a
long period of time and think about how they fit together. Because the longest
story in the– the oldest story in the
collection was the one that was most heavily
re-written. It changed entirely from– it was the first story
I ever published, and I was incredibly
proud of it. And when I went back to
look at it years later, and think about how it fit
in the collection, it didn’t, because it was a gimmick. It all revolved around
surprise ending in a way. Something that the narrator, or
the character hadn’t revealed to us the reader through
the first 20 pages, and suddenly it sprang
up at us at the end. And I thought I was so clever. And, you know, it
wasn’t worth it. So the great thing about the
collection is it let me look at them, and think about
how they would fit together, and where the conversation
was taking place in a way that when you’re just
publishing in magazines, you’re just hoping for a spot. You know? Thank you.>>Oh, OK. So I actually write myself. And I’m actually in high school. And I write for my
school magazine. And one of the biggest problems
is I write it, I send it, and it gets out there,
but no one reads it. So like, coming up as a writer, how did you get your
stories out there? How did you make sure people
knew that you wrote it, and that this was
yours, and that you– yes, how did you
make yourself known?>>Lydia Millet: Well, I can
say that I did not succeed in making myself
known in high school. So I think you’re ahead
of the game anyway. And also now it’s in a way
easier, and in a way harder than it was when we were young. Because you have–
there’s content everywhere, and so in a way that’s
bad, right? Because we have this
just seeming wash of content everywhere
in the digisphere, or whatever you call it. And at the same time it’s
easier than ever for you to make your things
available, right, to people, to people’s eyes. It’s easier technically, and in
terms of the numbers of people who can be exposed
without really having to theoretically pay any money. Like buy a book or anything, people can be exposed
to your work, right? So I think that’s
a hopeful thing.>>Brendan Matthews: Yes.>>Lydia Millet: I don’t– I think one trick I’m told
works sometimes is sort of affinity communities. You know? Finding a community
of people who are interested in writing and reading
about the same things that you’re writing
and reading about. And just be a participant,
and engage in that community, and then people will want
to read your work because– and there are people there you
already know, or they’re sort of prescreened by their
interest in the same matters that you’re interested in. That doesn’t always
work if, sort of, your interest is rather general. Which is what happens to me. But– do you have
counsel on that?>>Brendan Matthews: I mean, I completely understand how you
feel that you publish a story, and then it’s out there,
and no one’s reading it. And you’re thinking
where is the craze? Where is it? Why has no one carried me, like, on their shoulders
through a crowd? Like why is there
no celebration? Where’s the confetti cannon? Like, I published a story. But I think that that just
means you are a writer. Because you– it matters, you
know, it matters but you have to understand that, you know,
even if it’s not mass acclaim, you’re reaching readers. Someone’s going to pick
up the story and read it. And whether they ever
say anything to you, like hey that was a great story,
or not, you’re connecting. I think that Lydia’s right
about looking for ways to reach beyond– I think
it’s great you’re publishing in the school magazine, in high
school, because you’re again, way ahead of where I was. But like a lot of my students
are part of online communities where they share stories, and
they have these vast networks of people, and they’re always
kind of cheering each other on. And so the technology does
enable you to reach out and find more people who care
about the work that you do.>>Nora Krug: Is
there one minute? Give us one more question? Or not?>>Brendan Matthews: I think
there’s one on each side. Why don’t you go ahead?>>Nora Krug: Just do it.>>OK. So I think you
maybe brought this up. I was wondering how
much language plays into the revision process, or even the initial
process of writing. Like is it mostly about revising
the storytelling part of it, or is it more about
the language? Like do you belabor one
more than the other? Are they the same? Do you give the same amount
of time to that process? I guess I’m talking about
language versus story.>>Brendan Matthews: Yes.>>That’s the question.>>Lydia Millet: I mean, for me, most revision now is
language revision, where I’m just kind of– it’s almost like I
just nitpick sentences, like I’m almost you know, I’m almost molesting
them in a certain sense. I really just like continue to
try to fish at them and poke at them until they don’t sit
wrong with me, or whatever. So it really is just
about this microlevel. Even– I’m even sort
of can become obsessed with how often a certain
word exists in a text, and wish to rid myself–
because I’ve noticed that in published
books sometimes– it was never noticed by anyone, but I used the same
bizarre word three times in one page or something. I’m like, how did I do that? That’s just embarrassing. It’s like walking around with
the spinach in your teeth.>>Nora Krug: What was the word?>>Lydia Millet: You know?>>Nora Krug: Do you
remember what the word was?>>Lydia Millet: I’ve
done it multiple times with multiple words.>>Nora Krug: OK.>>Lydia Millet:
There’s whole endings of books I would
rewrite if I could. And so recently for me, the
past few books has just been– it’s really been
about kind of going through with this fine-tooth
comb, sort of obsessively, and trying to make the
language cleaner for myself. But occasionally there’s a plot
thing that will happen, too. But mostly it’s about
that, for me. I don’t know about you.>>Brendan Matthews: Yes
[inaudible] story to story. I’m pretty obsessive
about revision. And it can mean like,
changing the point of view. It can mean reworking
whole parts of it. Figuring out that only three
pages in the middle work, and throwing away everything
else, so when I get to the part where I’m tinkering– not
tinkering, but where I’m– when I’m on the language level,
that’s when I feel like I’m on the glide path home. Because a lot of that heavy
lifting happens first.>>Nora Krug: Alright, I think–
we got the wrap it up sign. So– oh. OK. Sure.>>Brendan Matthews: We’ll be–>>Nora Krug: Oh sorry. We got one quick–>>I guess this question
is mostly for Maria. I just read How the Dead Dream. And I really enjoyed
it, primarily just because [inaudible] I guess, was struck by how you changed
tones throughout the book. Because it starts out as
sort of a straight satire, as you were talking about. And then once the main character
gets more involved in nature, it sort of, the writing
becomes more, I guess, poetic. Actually wondering how you
might control that tone, and how you found the balance
between like the satire– satirical aspect and
the more, I guess, the aspect of the
book that’s more sort of mourning the loss of nature.>>Lydia Millet: Thank you. I’ll keep it quick, but thank
you so much for asking that, and for the kind
words about the book. And also for just noticing how
the tone changes so radically from the beginning of that book. In the beginning, there’s
this kid who’s just like a budding capitalist, and
in this very literal way goes around with like, holding
like pouches of coins in his mouth and stuff. It was modeled on my
brother, but anyway– but so– and then by the end, he’s
sneaking into these zoos to be near, like physically near
these creatures that are sort of endlings, you
know, sort of some of the last creatures
of their kind. And of course, it’s not
really approved, you know, to sneak into zoo
enclosures and do this. But it does, the tone changes a
lot from this almost ribald kind of tone to this more
elegiac tone over the course of the book. And that’s sort of a weird
thing to do in a novel. And so I don’t know– if you think I pulled
it off, thank you. I appreciate it. But that’s what I wanted to do. But it’s an odd way
to manage a novel. So. Thank you so much. Thank you all for coming.>>Brendan Matthews: Yes. Thank you everybody.>>Lydia Millet: This was great. [ Applause ]

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