The Beatrice Interview

Charles Baxter

"...In the Midst of Everything Else Right"

interviewed by Ron Hogan

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 scene...?

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 always character-driven.

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 does?

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 ending.

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 impact...

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 page.

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 own writing.

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 Light.

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 novels.

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 novels.

BEATRICE Suggested further reading
Madison Smartt Bell | Deborah Eisenberg | James McManus

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan