Faith plays an important role in the lives of the characters in Charles
Baxter's new collection of short stories (and one novella),
Believers, which is in itself a testament to Baxter's own faith
in the power of fiction. That faith is also in evidence in his collection
of essays, Burning Down the House, based on lectures given at the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. You can see the essays as a summation of his beliefs about fiction writing, but it's much more useful, I think, to look at them as a set of
meditations about writing rooted in a particular moment, from a man who cares deeply about his craft. That care is embodied in every word he writes, and you'll feel it throughout the conversation you're about to read.
RH: How does a short story start for you? With an image, a
CB: There's actually no rule. I've started sometimes with titles.
In this book, there were two titles that I had before I had the story,
"Kiss Away" and "The Next Building I Plan to Bomb." Most of the
time, though, they begin with dramatic imagery, a set of images that
feel productively unstable. Something's going to come out of them
that will be interesting because there will be something strange in
the midst of the familiar, or familiar in the midst of the strange.
Another way of putting this is 'one thing wrong in the midst of
everything else right.' And then I begin to act as a sort of
matchmaker, putting this character next to this character in the
hopes that something will emerge or explode. If I can't get those two
to create something interesting amongst themselves, I'll introduce a
third character to triangulate the relationship. My stories are almost
RH: Is short story writing an intuitive process? Specifically, the act
of deciding not to write a novel, to know that a story such as
"Reincarnation," for example, ends at the precise moment that it
CB: "Reincarnation" is an interesting case. It was the product of
a writer's block. I'd finished my novel Shadow Play and had
been slightly burned out by the writing of that story. I couldn't find
a way of getting back to writing. Nothing was working well, so I
decided to throw a party -- to stage a party in a story, invite some
people that I thought would be interesting, and then just get them to
talk. I did not know where that story was going to end up, but I
thought that if I had the characters talking in the way middle-class
people sometimes do, whimsical conversations about who you were
in your previous life, that sort of thing, and if I made two of the
couples completely oblivious to the situation of one member of the
third couple, by the time that situation emerged, I'd have an
Novels are completely different from that because you nearly always
have to strategize how you're going to get where you need to go.
Novels are much more about planning, about memory, and about
history than short stories.
RH: The compactness of short stories: You mentioned the one thing
wrong amidst everything right, and in some stories the way that one
wrong thing drops into place, leaving you to deal with the emotional
CB: I have a habit as a writer, and I think many short story
writers do, of pulling the rug out from under my characters midway
through a story, doing something that turns their lives upside down.
Stories begin when things start to go wrong. You have to visit trouble
upon characters one way or another to get some definitive action
from them, to get them to engage in the sort of impulsive behavior
that I think is often the core of short stories. Novels are about the
plans people make, and the decisions that they make that can lead to
good or bad outcomes. Short stories as a rule depend much less on
the history of a character. What I do in stories is get characters you
don't need to know too much about and get them to act out on the
RH: When you were starting out as a writer, who were your
mentors, or the people you held out to yourself as mentors?
CB: I never went through a writing program. What I did in the
early 1970s, when there weren't many writing programs around,
was to go through a Ph.D. program at SUNY Buffalo. What I thougth
was, "I'll get a job teaching literature, and write fiction during the
summer and my free time in the school year." The practical result of
that is that it took me a long time to learn how to write fiction. It
took me a long time to get published. My first book wasn't published
until I was 37.
My models in those days were the great Russian short story writers,
Chekhov particularly, and the ones everybody reads anyway: James
Joyce, Hemingway, Cheever...nothing new here. But when I really
started to get serious about writing, I think that I learned the most
from Katharine Anne Porter's stories. People don't read her much
anymore, but I think I had a very real affinity for what she did in
her short stories. The scrupulousness of the stories impressed me.
And then when I was writing the stories for my first collection,
Harmony of the World, I had Ray Carver's What We Talk
About When We Talk About Love right on the desk, fighting
those stories every step of the way, opening the book to remind
myself of what I didn't want to do. It was a very important book for
me, and this makes it sound as if I hated the book, which I didn't. I
loved it and admired it, but I had to fight that sort of style in my
One other writer who was a model for me early on was Evan Connell,
a wonderful short story writer and novelist. Mrs. Bridge
showed me a way of writing a novel unlike anybody else's way,
which I used in some ways as a model for my first novel, First
RH: Had you always planned to go back and forth between short
stories and novels?
CB: I started being serious about being a writer by writing
novels. They were all terrible and I realized that I was not learning
how to write by writing novels. I wasn't getting any better at
writing. So I turned to short stories because I thought I would learn
how to write more acutely by practicing that form. I fell in love with
the form and still love it. I prefer it to the novel, I think I'm better at
it than the novel, but the commercial pressures are such that you are
encouraged, to put it in the mildest form, to write novels, so I have.
But my novels tend to look at times like a short story writer's
I don't know whether I had a plan to go back and forth. I think what
happens is that you discover what you're good at along the way. I
still like Richard Ford's stories better than his novels, but his novels
have garnered him the most attention.
RH: As you say, the market for short stories seems to have
vanished almost completely.
CB: It's instructive to look at Gina Berriault's Women in
their Beds, which has won the National Book Critics' Circle Award
for Fiction, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and the Rea Foundation Prize.
Many readers around the country have still simply never heard of it.
That's the fate of short stories. She's a brilliant short story writer,
one of the best we have, but it's like rolling a stone uphill. The short
story is simply not a popular form. In that respect, it's starting to
take on the cultural status of poetry, a small minority art.. You don't
see many long short stories in the New Yorker anymore. You
don't see Deborah Eisenberg there. You rarely see Alice Munro there.
Even many of the stories you do see there are actually excerpts from