blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Jamye Shelleby: This is Jamye Shelleby. It's May 8, 2002, and I'm speaking with Carrie Brown.

I've heard some writers say that while there are authors who are capable of writing both short and long fiction, they're ultimately either a novelist or a short story writer at heart. Do you agree with this?

Carrie Brown: Oh, I think it's possible for writers to move back and forth between the two genres. I think there are a number of them who have done it very successfully. It may be true that they feel themselves more at home in one genre or another, and there are certainly writers who seem just to be short story writers—I think of Alice Munro for one, who I think has written a novel, but not a novel she was particularly satisfied with. But some people can move back and forth very successfully.

JS: I'd like to talk about your transition from the novel to short stories. You wrote three novels before this first collection of stories, and many of these pieces are rather long for the genre—some at 40 and 60 pages. At least two reviewers have mentioned that your short stories have aspects of novels in them: Elizabeth Graver said that your stories "combine the novel's wide reach with the distilled poetry of the best short fiction," and Booklist called your stories "novels in miniature." How do you feel your experience as a novelist affected how you approached this shorter form?

CB: Well, that's a good question. You know, I rediscovered short stories for myself after rediscovering Chekhov, who I read when I was in college, I'm sure, and failed to grasp in any meaningful way at all and then returned to Chekhov, really chiefly because of the collection that Richard Ford put together [The Essential Tales of Chekhov] and that he wrote a beautiful introduction for. And the introduction made so much sense to me that I went and returned to reading Chekhov. The thing that amazed me so much about Chekhov's short stories is that they felt to me like parallel universes in the same way that a novel, feels to me like a parallel universe—you know, you can put your hand through the wall and find yourself in this other place. And in some way I must have had that operating in my head as I was working on the stories for this collection, that sense that there is a whole universe there.

I also discover sometimes that once I start writing about a particular person, a particular character, that I learn things as I go along that seem relevant to me, that seem necessary to me, so there's a lot of process of discovery which probably contributes to the length [of my stories], too.

JS: Were you always writing short stories even as you worked on novels, or was there a conscious shift in how you spent your time writing?

CB: No, I've written some stories throughout the process. I've had occasion to have to write some—I've been asked to write some, which has been lucky, because I don't know that I would have done it without some kind of prompt. But every time I was asked to do one I always said, "Oh, I don't think I can promise that I can do that. I don't know if I can." And then it was good for me to try. So by the end of three or four years, I had enough stories that I felt were pretty successful, more or less successful, but I'd written them throughout the process.

JS: So when you say you weren't sure that you could write short stories, what do you find more difficult—or at least less comfortable—about short stories?

CB: As you know, if you're going to live with a novel for a long time, you've really had to think it through and there is a certain amount of . . . there's a part of the process that's mysterious, that will always be mysterious. Short stories feel more mysterious to me. They feel more elusive somehow. With a novel I have a certain amount of confidence that just sheer determination will get me from the beginning to the end. With a story, I don't have that confidence. I feel I'm much more there at the story's behest. So I consider them kind of visitations—like fictional visitations, much more than a novel.

JS: When you conceive of an idea, do you know instinctively whether it's a short story or a novel, or do you need to begin writing it and "feeling it out"?

CB: They all feel like novels to me.

JS: So how do you turn it into a short story, then?

CB: I guess when it peters out. I mean, that's probably a terrible way to think about it. I'm sure. I mean, we're all taught about the arc of the story. But everything feels to me like an idea that has equal amount of promise, I think. And the form, or the length of it, is very much governed by what it is, by its circumstance, by the circumstances of the events of the story. And I use that word, "story" to cover both the novel and the story. So I think that the length of something for me is very much determined by what it is. There's no formula that can be applied to it.

I would not have wanted, for instance, I think one of the longest stories in the collection, "The House on Belle Isle," I would not have wanted that to be a novel. It didn't feel like a novel when I was working on it. But they all feel to me interesting, I'm interested in them, I'm interested in these people and what their circumstances are, and when I start out, that's really all I know. If I stop at 60 pages, or I stop at 30 pages, or I stop at 400 pages really depends on what it is, what this thing is in front of me.

JS: There's an aspect to "Miniature Man" that reminds me very much of another piece in this issue of Blackbird—Elizabeth King's "Clockwork Prayer," which tells the history of a 16th century automaton in the likeness of a monk that, when wound up, paces and beats his breast, in the actions of prayer. Both your piece and King's examine the way these miniature creations bear an uncanny resemblance to their human inspirations. King's essay records her discovery and research of the monk. What was the origin of your story?

CB: Well, that story really came from some traveling that my family and I did in Spain. Visited a little mountaintop village where there was in fact a museum of miniatures. That's probably the only story I've written that deals directly with the impetus to create art, which intellectually doesn't feel to me necessarily like very interesting material. But I think it's the only piece of fiction I've ever written about an artist. And I was interested in this man who loved the world around him so much that he would devote his life to replicating it on the only scale he felt comfortable replicating it. Maybe that's also my notion of myself as an artist. But in terms of the place of the story, the circumstances of the story, it's based on a real place.

JS: You open The House on Belle Isle with a thank you to George Garrett. You might have seen that he is also one of our fiction contributors in the first issue of Blackbird—what's your connection to him?

CB: Well, George is probably really responsible for me being a writer. I moved to Virginia eight years ago—almost eight years ago—and was basically unemployed. It was my husband's job that brought us to Sweet Briar—John teaches fiction writing there and is also a novelist. And I didn't know what to do with myself. I started writing some fiction and I think at the end of the second year we were in Virginia, I sent George some of the stories I had written and asked if I could sit in on the graduate workshop—not come for credit or anything, just sit and listen, not necessarily even have my work discussed. And I didn't hear from him, and I didn't hear from him, and I didn't hear from him, and then a day before UVA was to open, I got this call from George, very cheerful and booming and he said, "Well, come on, come you can come on," and I said, "Well, don't I have to fill out paperwork or something?" and he said, "No, no. Don't fill out any paperwork."

He was great and he gave me completely impenetrable directions to his house; it was a miracle I found it. But I did, and that was really the start of my kind of full-time engagement with really trying to become a fiction writer, was really through George's enormously generous impulse to have me come and sit in his living room with the graduate students. I eventually applied to the program and went full time. In fact I wrote the title story for the collection, I wrote [it] that first year.

JS: You said you started writing fiction out of the blue. You were a journalist for many years before that. Why did you first decide to pursue journalism, and how did it come about that you moved into fiction?

CB: I was your basic English major. I graduated from college. I was really a poet, I was a really bad poet, but I was smart enough, fortunately, to know I couldn't make my living doing that, and I had worked in the summers to make money and also through the school year, I had worked for area newspapers. And actually really loved it. I mean, there's something about being a journalist and being a fiction writer that's the same. It's really about storytelling, I think, about listening to stories and telling stories, figuring out how to tell stories.

So I got a job as a newspaper reporter after I graduated from college and worked for this little newspaper for a long time. It was an old—really old, 150 year old—broadsheet that had a storefront, Main Street office that it shared with a pet grooming studio so the vestibule was always full of snarling dogs that needed haircuts. But it was wonderful, I loved being a journalist and I learned so much. I mean, I really grew up in a lot of ways too.

I turned to writing fiction, literally because I ended up unemployed and not knowing anybody in the middle of nowhere. And I think I'd always . . . I mean, I'd loved to write. It was what I knew how to do and so with nobody to write about, I guess it made a certain amount of sense to turn inward to use the resources of my own imagination finally.

JS: What writers have influenced you, or what are you reading today?

CB: So many writers have influenced me, everybody I've read I think has influenced me. I love Alice Munro's work. I taught a class at Sweet Briar this year on the short story and we read Alice Munro's stories, we read William Trevor's stories, which I just think are amazing. They make me want to fall to my knees. I love Andrea Barrett's work; I love Eudora Welty's work; I love Penelope Fitzgerald's work.

There are a lot of writers who I've discovered over the years as well and who have really broadened my horizons. Chekhov is one. I spent about three years reading Chekhov. I think I read every short story he ever wrote, including what I think is the only successful story ever narrated from the point of view of a dog, which is really great. It's a really great story. I just read a collection of stories—in fact I reviewed it for the Washington Post—by this writer Emma Donahue who got some attention for her novel Slammerkind. She published a collection of stories called The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits, which is absolutely a wonderful, wonderful miraculous book.

JS: How do you use fiction in a writing classroom as a teaching tool?

CB: I try to put writers in front of them who I don't think they'd discover otherwise. Because I think it's good to be surprised. Deborah Eisenberg, who teaches at UVA and is a really brilliant short story writer, introduced me to Bruno Schultz, who's a writer that I just would never ever ever have read if someone hadn't put his work into my hands. So I try to surprise them a bit, and sometimes they like the work and sometimes they're perplexed by it and sometimes they're bewildered by it and sometimes they fall in love, and that's really a great thing.

It's always interesting to see, you know, I love to watch students leap gender barriers and leap age barriers and leap language barriers, leap cultural barriers. I think that's a really marvelous thing when [a] nineteen year old American female can fall in love with the work of a 73-year old Polish man. It's fabulous. There's something really wonderful that happens there.

JS: How do you balance being a mother of three, a teacher of creative writing at Sweet Briar, and a prolific writer?

CB: Really badly. It's really hard. As anybody who's trying to do that knows, it's really hard. You know, you don't get enough sleep, and sometimes you neglect your children and sometimes you neglect your work and sometimes you neglect your husband and often you neglect yourself. And it's not ideal, but I don't know, it's my life.

JS: But you're producing about a book a year—that's amazing.

CB: I won't keep up that pace. I published my first novel and it took a while for that novel to sell. I was smart enough and I think, terrified enough, to write a second book. I was very unsure about whether or not I'd ever publish the first book, but I was smart enough to write a second one while I was trying to find someone to publish the first one. So I had a little backlog. So I've been fortunate that I've had that backlog. I've sort of run out of my backlog now and I won't be quite so prolific—or apparently prolific.

JS: What are you working on next?

CB: I'm working on another novel. I've worked on and off about three . . . I've made three attempts to write a historical novel, which I've concluded I'm too stupid to write. So I've finally, after wasting yet another six months trying to write this book, I've given up and I've turned to another novel I feel much more confident about.

JS: We'll look forward to reading that. Thanks so much for taking time to talk to Blackbird today.  

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