In 1982, the Antioch Review published its first story, “Actors,” by Peter LaSalle. Since then, we have published fourteen others. A sixteenth will appear on our pages in 2015. Three of these stories, “What I Found Out About Her,” Winter, 2008, “In the Southern Cone,” Spring, 2009, and, “Tunis and Time,” Winter, 2007, are included in LaSalle’s new book, What I Found Out About Her: Stories of Dreaming Americans, which received the 2014 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction and has just been released. (See the book trailer here.) The Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction is administered by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English at University of Notre Dame in conjunction with The University of Notre Dame Press.
The pre-publication endorsements for LaSalle’s new collection recognize it as a truly significant work. Author Zulkifkar Ghose says that it “…flows with such masterly ease that he can be said to be in a class of his own, at the forefront of American creators of original prose.” Jay Neugeboren has written that these tales “…are shrewdly original, disarmingly complex, and—always, always, since LaSalle is one of our finest storytellers—as beautifully crafted as they are memorable.”
The book focuses “on love, loss, and, as the subtitle suggests, dreams“ (Kirkus Reviews, starred review September 1, 2014), and the stories are set in diverse locales such as Buenos Aires, Tunis, Austin, Paris, and New York. His characters—ranging from a weary FBI agent to a trio of prominent playwrights to a drug dealer’s chic but lonely girlfriend, and others—unfold through details flowing effortlessly and beautifully onto the pages, reminding us that they are—that we all are—the sum total of the hundreds of things that happen as a result of simply being alive in the world. These are complex characters shaped by all the situations in which they find themselves, or more correctly, into which they choose to place themselves, and then, by the moving revelations that accompany such life adventures.
Peter LaSalle‘s previous books include two novels, Strange Sunlight and Mariposa’s Song, and three short story collections, most recently Tell Borges If You See Him, which received the Flannery O’Connor Award in 2007. His fiction has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, including Paris Review, Tin House, Zoetrope, New England Review, Yale Review, Antioch Review, Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Fantasy, Best of the West, Sports Best Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. He divides his time between Austin, Texas, where he teaches creative writing at the University of Texas, and Narragansett in his native Rhode Island.
Following is a discussion with Peter LaSalle about his new book.
AR Your new book, What I Found Out About Her: Stories of Dreaming Americans, is your fourth story collection, and it received the 2014 Richard Sullivan Prize in Short Fiction. The Sullivan Prize is for books in a series?
PL Yes, it’s a series for short story collections at the University of Notre Dame Press, and they publish books by those who have already published at least one previous collection. They bring out a new book in the series every other year and have published some really good collections, I think, ranging from those by newer writers like Mark Brazaitis to quite well-known ones like the late Arturo Vivante.
AR The stories in the collection have an ethereal quality, a kind of lucid dream-state feel sometimes.
PL That’s good to hear, because it is what I’m after. Weird as it might sound, I do suspect there’s often only a slight distinction between waking life and dreaming life, a line these stories tend to straddle. Borges has a great quote that gets at this idea perfectly, and he says, “We accept reality so readily perhaps because we suspect that nothing is real.”
AR And it’s almost as if the storyteller is with a friend and is recounting the details of happenings in life in a flowing, intimate way, often with such long sentences that weave together ideas to form an overarching thought. The reader is also seeing life-changing shifts arising out of the rich details in the stories. For instance, in the title story, “What I Found Out About Her” (The Antioch Review, Winter 2008), the narrator recounts the numerous things that he, a screenwriter from the West Coast, learned about a lovely younger woman from New York City during a one-night encounter there. As readers, we are privy to the deep connection that developed between them during their brief time together, and then of an awareness that the unexpected and tragic ending brings about. How conscious are you of the construction and outcome of a story such as this one when you set out to write a story?
PL It can vary some, depending on the story. But usually, though not always, I have a pretty clear sense where a story is going, while I also sure hope the reader doesn’t know.
I don’t fully buy into what seems a frequent comment from writers that they had no idea whatsoever how a narrative would turn out when they started. That might be more the case when writing a novel, understandably. In a novel there are a lot more pages for the characters to develop and sort of take over a plot to determine the ending on their own, which is best illustrated, perhaps famously, by what occurs in writer André Gide’s The Counterfeiters. There, about halfway through the novel—if I remember correctly from when I read it for a French-lit class back in college—he as the author intervenes and addresses the reader directly on the page, to announce he’s bowing out. He admits he’s lost control of his characters, that they now have minds of their own and will be personally responsible for whatever eventually happens, while he, for one, wishes to have no further involvement in their doings for the moment—it’s almost a good-riddance scenario.
A short story is much tighter than a novel, and for a writer not to know where it is heading seems like trying to tell a joke to a live audience of people who are intently listening, but your continuing to just tell it without having the punch line in mind all along, hoping you’ll suddenly come up with something definitely good by the time you do, in fact, reach the end. If subtly kept in mind by a writer during the composition process, the ending of a story—or maybe more so the climactic moment towards the end—can determine so much of what comes earlier.
Does that make any sense?
AR Yes, certainly, it makes a lot of sense.
AR In another story in the collection, “Tunis and Time” (Antioch Review, Winter 2007), when referencing the dreams of one character, you wrote:
“But maybe here was also the overlooked truth about the dreaming, that everything was gone before it started, and now contemplating what had once been triumphant, the scant rubble of Carthage corporeal, Layton realized that it yielded merely the message of nothing to nothing—or possibly nothing all along, the suspected void, because, when you thought of it, everything was inevitably heading toward nothing before it even started, before it even aspired to or had the chance to be something.”
The sentiment of these lines is echoed throughout many of the stories in the collection, echoed in Celia’s misguided attachment to the child in Rio de Janeiro named João, in “The Dealer’s Girlfriend,” and in Win Shapiro’s realization, in “In the Southern Cone” (The Antioch Review, Spring, 2009), that “Buenos Aires looked different” and that “he just wanted to be out of there” upon realizing his romance with so many people and things—his girlfriend Silvina, Buenos Aires, youthful wandering, even his having ignored anti-Semitic insults—was truly over. It is also echoed in the realization that unfolded in “What I Found Out About Her.”
Can you talk about your focus on dreams and specifically upon the message of “nothing to nothing . . . the suspected void” in these stories?
PL As said, I like to conjure up the often dreamlike feeling of everyday life, plus, as the book’s subtitle suggests in turning inside out the old phrase “American dream,” show how the protagonists in these stories, all Americans, usually do have intense longings and aspirations, meaning that kind of dreaming, too. I guess the “suspected void,” the way I see it, is the fear of the chaos out there, or the old possibility of absolute meaninglessness, the central blank, futile zero of everything.
True, in that story “Tunis and Time,” from which you take the quote, there is a troubled FBI agent, Layton, now on an odd assignment in Tunisia and out at the ruins of ancient Carthage when he’s having those thoughts. But then there comes a passage right after that where he disposes of any such dark doubt, and he thinks about how happy and right the two beautiful but rather clueless young French women who have taken to tagging along with him surely are. The women are relaxing in the warm sunshine, and he looks at them sitting under a lemon tree and one braiding the other’s long hair, softly humming a tune together there amid the ruins. He realizes that what trumps any sense of the nothingness is just the simple business of one’s opening up to the small marvels of this world, always able to appreciate something like the so-rightness of that scene of the young women entirely content there before him. So Layton maybe goes beyond his dreaming of many things he might have done differently in life and also the dreamlike—or for him even bordering on nightmarish—texture that his life has sometimes assumed and takes time to savor the gift of just being alive, acutely grateful for what is admittedly the short stay on this planet that any of us is, in fact, given to experience the sheer wonder of it all.
I think something similar does happen in other stories in the collection, sort of salvaging hope amid very bad odds in the pretty poor hand of cards that life can sometimes deal us.
AR You have been quoted as saying that you are torn between writing very realistic, detail-laden stories versus “fiction that’s more daring.” Can you talk about those two opposing instincts in this current book? How does this collection play out in terms of these different approaches?
PL Actually, when I said that in another interview a while ago, I went on to point out something else. I explained that lately I have more or less come to a truce between being drawn to a detailed, traditionally plotted realistic fiction and also to a much more experimental one. And I think the writing in the stories in my last two collections—Tell Borges if you See Him: Tales of Contemporary Somnambulism and now What I Found Out About Her—does manage to blend the two, which feels quite right for me as a writer. It allows for both the solidity of realism and the intriguing opportunity for innovation, the latter of which can mean finding new structures or experimenting with language to approach airier matters, like dreams and the fluidity of time. I’m by no means the first to pursue such a blend, and it’s probably what’s at the stylistic essence of the writer who in my eyes remains the ultimate master of American fiction masters, Faulkner, most evident in his still thoroughly startling, very best work like The Sound and the Fury, Go Down, Moses, and Absalom! Absalom!
AR In that interview conducted with you some years back by Jeff VanderMeer for Bookslut, you said, “The short genre is currently rather out with big publishers . . . seldom meeting the right bottom line in sales for them, and long gone is the sweet era of Raymond Carver in the ’80s when the short story boomed in New York. . . .” You further extolled the virtues of independent and university presses, as well as the thriving literary journals that are publishing short fiction. You now have this new collection out published by a university press. Do you still feel like short fiction remains primarily suited to the independent presses and literary journals? And, can you talk a bit about your long-term relationship with The Antioch Review and others? What does it mean for a writer, or for you in particular, to have journals and literary magazines champion your work?
PL Well, of course there are fine books of stories being published by large commercial trade houses, not as many as in years gone by, I’d say, but still plenty of them. And what I meant there was only that sometimes both university presses and smaller independent trade houses, without the intense pressure of needing to generate a substantial profit in lucrative popular-audience sales, can take more chances with the work they publish, especially story collections, which seldom have much in the line of blockbuster sales to begin with, right? And the same spirit of taking chances goes for literary magazines as opposed to large-circulation newsstand magazines, though actually there aren’t many of those left that do still publish fiction.
This situation probably isn’t anything new. If you consider the most important book of fiction in the twentieth century, as to its unquestionable daring and influence on the evolution of the whole genre of modern fiction, anyway, Joyce’s Ulysses, sections of it first appeared in very small but most honorable literary magazines. And though Ulysses isn’t a story collection, when it was first published as a book, it wasn’t brought out by any major-name publishing house—none of them were interested in it at the time, saw it as way too avant-garde to successfully market—but by Shakespeare & Company, a shoestring operation run by a kind, very brave American woman named Sylvia Beach who operated it out of her small Paris bookstore and had never even published a single book before.
AR And, what I also just mentioned, about your own relationships with literary magazines?
PL For me it’s been just about continuous pure pleasure and appreciation, always considering myself particularly fortunate that I’ve had several editors who have stuck with me over the years, often on very risky short stories of my own.
My relationship with The Antioch Review is typical of that. I clearly remember way back in 1982 when I was pretty young and I got my first acceptance from Antioch, not long after Bob Fogarty had taken over as editor. Acceptances came in letters back then, not phone calls or emails. When I got that letter, after having been turned down by the magazine on who knows how many stories submitted before that, I simply walked out of the cubbyhole apartment where I was living in Austin then and, in a bit of a daze, took a happily meandering walk to a nearby park, where, feeling so good about it, I stretched out on the grass with my hands behind my head and looked up at the big blue Texas sky in springtime and said to myself something like, “Man this writing life is OK.” I mean, you have to understand that having a story in an established major literary magazine like Antioch was a very large achievement for me back then, Antioch being a place I respected so much and had long wanted to publish in. Though to be really honest, even lately whenever I do receive word from Bob Fogarty on an acceptance—now and after a dozen or so stories appearing in the magazine, including three in this new collection—I still feel quite good that the piece has found such a solid home, my maybe not wandering around in a happy daze and stretching out on the grass in a park anymore, but feeling really good, nevertheless.
AR This collection of stories includes some exotic and wildly diverse settings—Paris, Tunisia, New York City, Austin, and Buenos Aires, among others. Can you talk about the role of place in your stories? For instance, do you start with a setting or does the story take you to that place? And, have you been to these places?
PL First and foremost, yes, I have spent time in all those places, very much so, and many more places, too.
Travel has been a big part of my life, ever since I was young. Lately the way it usually works is that I go to a place on my own to investigate a specific writer or the literature there—Borges in Buenos Aires, let’s say, or Flaubert in Tunisia, where his lushly written historical novel Salammbô is set—and I come out of it with material for what you might call a literary travel essay as well as a pile of ideas for new fiction. Travel, especially to very offbeat places, can be a rather dreamlike experience in itself for me, so in my case it all figures into possibly some larger general program in what does pass for my own life and also in my writing. I do hope the settings in my fiction are convincing, giving a reader a strong feel for the place with the locale’s exact and sometimes very haunting mood. Not to be too modest about this—or at all modest, I guess—but I work hard to try to establish a sense of place. I like to believe that the descriptions, always based on first-hand knowledge of often faraway spots, are genuine and make the reader maybe feel that he or she is right there totally immersed in the geography with the characters. In other words, when I work with such settings in stories, and in essays, too, it’s not just derived from some armchair piling up of details while sitting relaxed at home before the computer and gathering stock, boilerplate information from online sources, which does seem to be the case in much writing I see today, surprisingly enough.
I recently finished polishing up the manuscript of a new book that’s a collection of my travel essays written over the years, to be done by Dzanc Books and called The City at Three PM: Writing, Reading, and Traveling.
AR When will that be published?
PL Late next spring, or that’s the tentative date in 2015 they’ve given me. It gathers pieces from a variety of places, not only literary magazines like Agni and Tin House but also opinion journals like The Nation and Worldview, and even one magazine in France. A couple of these, luckily, have been selected for reprinting in The Best American Travel Writing anthologies, with a new essay from The Missouri Review and about Paris—where I have lived and taught at universities there on a few occasions—included in the current Best American Travel Writing 2014, edited by Paul Theroux and released this month.
You know, having just managed to slip into this interview that outright advertisement for my forthcoming travel-essay collection, maybe it’s time to end my talk on that note. Or, end on that along with my genuine thanks for your careful, really insightful questions, which definitely have got me to thinking about a whole lot of things that I haven’t thought about in a while concerning my writing.
Thank you, Peter.
© 2014 The Antioch Review