Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Few Questions to Joan Wickersham, Author of "The News from Spain."

Do you remember Kate Atkin'son's short story collection, Not the End of the World. As you were reading the stories, you thought they were discrete, but they all turned out to be connected in the end. It was very important which story opened and closed the collection, but I also wondered what was in the middle.

And even novels can have these issues. I remember being blown away when someone asked Audrey Niffenegger how she wrote the The Time Traveler's Wife. It turned out that novel was written in a completely different order than it was presented, and she actually laid out chapters in different ways until the idea came to follow the lifeline of one of the characters and leave the other one completely out of order. It's been a long time since I heard that anecdote--hope I got that correct.

When I read a connected short story collection, that's one of the things that comes to mind. While reading The News from Spain, Joan Wickersham's beautiful new collection of stories, it was one of a few questions I had. Ms. Wickersham was gracious enough to answer a few, mini-interview of sorts. You'll notice that I mention a few books that I spoke about in yesterday's blog. My apologies for a tiny bit of repetition.

DG: Was The News from Spain written with the linking in mind or was the linking serendipitous? (Here's where this question comes from. I am a big fan of Dan Chaon's Await Your Reply, which reads as a novel with three integrated plotlines. When Chaon read at Boswell, or rather, at Sugar Maple, he revealed that the novel started as three completely discrete stories. It was only after they were finished that he realized they were connected and started to link them together.)

JW: This book was conceived as a suite of stories, each of which would be called "The News from Spain." I wanted the title to feel central to each story and to mean something different in each, but to acquire more resonance -- an accrued sense of something deeply felt and elusive, impossible to put into words -- as the book went along.

DW: What was the first story written in the collection? Did it lead to another (this is a variation on the other question)?

JW: The first story I wrote is the one that appears first in the book. And the last one I wrote appears at the end. The others I arranged and re-arranged until the order felt right. (There were also a few that I wrote and later threw out, either because "The News from Spain" felt forced, shoehorned in; or because the story felt like it was explaining too much or trying too hard.) Overall, this was the most pleasurable book I've ever written; each story came out in pretty much the form that you see in the book.

DG: Was the intention for each story to play off the story before, or are they more variations of a theme. I ask this wondering how is the order in which the stories are read. I say this thinking of Joan Silber's cycles, where the link is very clear, to Alice Mattison's, where there are sometimes connections underneath that have a plot being told, to the last Kate Atkinson collection, where there was an overriding arc but I don't think it mattered what order you read the stories in the middle.

JW: Although I developed the order of the stories intuitively, once I hit upon that order I found that there was a natural progression. As the book proceeds, the stories become more complex; there may be two intertwined plots, or a story within a story, until the last story is actually written in the form of an essay, with the narrator talking directly to the reader about her feelings and ideas about love.

DG: Stacie (one of the 3 booksellers who convinced me to read the book) and I had an interesting conversation comparing this collection to Davy Rothbart's essay collection, My Heart is an Idiot, which I also loved, where one theme that plays out of the difference between libidinous (is that a word?) love and platonic but no less intimate loves, with the latter generally winning out. I am fascinated by this divide as I wonder what makes for truer bonds and happier people. I suppose in some ways we are talking about Ring Dings vs. Ding Dongs (sad, a comparison I may not be able to make for much longer) as it seems that those libidinous people never really seem upset--it's the folks taken in by them who are.

JW: The News from Spain is concerned with love that is deeply felt, but isn't necessarily acted on. I think of the stories in the book as unusual, asymmetrical love stories: stories about the kinds of love that we rarely talk about, that we may not even acknowledge to ourselves – but which stir us deeply. Sometimes it's unrequited love, and you're right that sometimes it's having to deal with the aftermath of being seduced and then dumped or betrayed. (No wonder one of the stories is a riff on Mozart and Da Ponte's Don Giovanni!) Passion is part of it, being hurt by someone else's reckless behavior is part of it, and there's often a struggle between humiliation and dignity. We all have these strong, messy feelings -- what are we going to do with them?

Now somebody has to ask Wickersham why she chose the motif itself of The News From Spain. Stacie and I thought this was connected to the Spanish Civil War. But was that intricately connected to the stories themselves or more of a random image? I'm going to leave that one to a journalist.

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