Edith Pearlman was born in 1936 in New England. She has been publishing for over forty years. Binocular Vision—a new and selected stories—was published in the USA by Lookout Books in 2011 and in the UK by Pushkin Press in 2013. It is her fourth short story collection and contains thirteen new stories; the earliest piece in the book dates from 1977. Binocular Vision won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award and was selected by Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times as one of the best books of 2013. It has also been shortlisted for the 2014 Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize. Pearlman admits to being a little shocked by the attention the collection is receiving. In an interview with The Millions she says, ‘Ihad the luck to be plucked.’
There is much to admire in Edith Pearlman’s work. Her stories are tonally very different to each other and her subjects various: she writes about the elderly; being Jewish and the post-war diaspora; and damaged and precocious children. Pearlman’s stories are gleeful and pacy and she does not subscribe to the ‘false goal’, as David Constantine put it, of the happy or conclusive ending. Her rueful humour, precise language and endless humanity make these elegant stories a joy to read and re-read.
You have said that short fiction is your ‘destiny’. How do stories begin for you?
Observation of incident, memory of character, dream… and in a thousand other ways.
In your story ‘Aunt Telephone’, Milo says: ‘Taking lies seriously. It’s a necessary skill.’ This could be said to be true for the writer of short fiction. The story is a personal form that generally deals with the passions and obsessions of the writer. How do your personal obsessions manifest themselves in your work?
I am interested in people’s disappointments and how they deal with them, and how they accommodate to what life has handed them.
I heard the poet Sharon Olds say recently,‘When I’m writing, I’m resting from myself’. How is the process of writing for you? Do you write daily? With fear or hope?
Oh, good for Sharon. When I write, my other preoccupations, mostly personal, sometimes social and political, move to the next room. I write daily, with relief. I’m glad to be in this room rather than the next.
Your language is precise and intimate in the stories, but there is nothing tight—the stories have a flowing energy. Talk to me about your love of language and words. Where did it spring from? And why the need to bend words into fiction?
Love of language comes from love of reading and the wish, as Susan Sontag put it, to join the project—the project of bending words, you might say. I choose fiction because I love fiction, though I occasionally write short essays, which use fictional techniques.
When people talk about the short story in relation to the novel, this ‘time’ question is always raised. As someone who loves to read novels (Dickens et al) but who writes stories, how do you approach and deal with the issue of time?
Perhaps you’d like to read my short story ‘Lineage’ from Binocular Vision, which someone has called a novel in five pages. It breaks all the rules of time.
You have said that it was ‘a joy’ to do research on tsarist Russia for the story ‘Lineage’. What kind of research do you do for stories generally?
Read, travel, observe relevant situations, initiate seemingly innocent conversations. Read. Visit museums, go to concerts (you’ll find works of art and musical performances in my stories). Read.
One of your characters in Binocular Vision refers to novels as ‘fat and lazy’. Does this in any way reflect your own feelings on the novel?
For me, the stories in Binocular Vision have elements of Lorrie Moore’s intensity and humour. I see Amy Bloom’s intimacy, keen interest in marriage and, of course, Jewishness and integration. You have Flannery O’Connor’s eye for what poverty does to people. I find Elizabeth Strout’s interest in the feistiness, intelligence and worth of older people. But who are the writers that you count as influences, or the ones who make you say, ‘Yes!’?
I like all the above writers but my strongest short story influences are Colette and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Both deal with passion, Colette using figures of speech, Warner more indirectly.
Your stories are graced with humour—there are often throwaway lines that leave the reader sniggering. Tell me about the importance of humour to you as a writer.
It bubbles up of its own accord; but mostly it comes from re-writing—finding the word, simile, situation—that will illustrate a character or a dilemma by reminding us that life is a comedy as well as a tragedy.
Do you plan your stories before you write them?
Yes, but the plans always change.
Do you encounter problems often with works-in-progress and, if so, how do you overcome them?
I put the problematic work, unfinished of course, into a drawer, and wait a month. Then Ilist ten ways out of whatever the dilemma is and do not choose one until Ihave thought of the tenth. By that time there seems to be a solution.
There are a lot of good definitions of the short story but, as an elusive form, it is hard to pin down. How would you define the short story?
A character is in a problematic situation, and the story resolves it (more or less).
There is something anarchic about the way writers choose to live—apart; in the realms of imagined worlds. How does your writing life fit with your ‘real life’?
My real life complements my somewhat tumultuous imagined one—Iwrite, read, walk, and meet with friends. Very sedate.
Where and when do you write?
In the mornings, at my desk.
Are there other forms of artistic expression that inspire you?
Ilove music, and bits of architecture: stained glass, statues in niches, window surrounds. And movies!
What three things should beginner writers concentrate on?
Reading, especially writers who worked before the beginner was born. Grammar and syntax—the flexibility of the language. Quiet observation.