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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Interview: Zsuzsi Gartner

Zsuzsi Gartner's latest collection is Better Living Through Plastic Explosives (Penguin, 2011). It is nominated for the ScotiaBank Giller Prize.

Her website is

What's a recent short story you've read that reminded you why short stories are the greatest genre on earth? What was it about the story that set off fireworks?

I should confess, at the risk of annoying my YOSS buddies, that I’m not genre-ist. Although I write short fiction and have a stake in making sure story collections aren’t viewed as a kind of warm-up act for the all-mighty novel, I read pretty catholically in every genre (save memoir – so many self-examined lives, so little time!).

And I love genre-bending enterprises (like Michael Turner’s American Whiskey Bar, and Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, meta-fiction, mock docs etc).

But a great short story “(half-puppet show, half-mugging,” as American short-fiction maestro Lorrie Moore has put it) can achieve the intensity and specificity of language of the best poetry while satisfying our primitive hunger for narrative.

So, at its best, dammit, yes, you’re right, it is the greatest genre on earth! A great short story’s canvas might be small, but it can contain the universe.

(Some indelible ones: “Love and Hydrogen” by Jim Shepard, “Like Life” and “People Like That are the Only People Here” by Lorrie Moore, “The Falls” and “Comm Comm” by George Saunders, “Boys” and “Demonology” by Rick Moody, “The Girl with Curious Hair” by David Foster Wallace, “The Divinity Gene” by Matthew Trafford, “The Aurochs” by Lee Henderson, and “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” by Wells Tower.)

Each of these is sui generis, exists now & forever as a three-dimensional object in my world, each lights the alphabet on fire while taking me on a journey into the human heart (of darkness in some cases), as well as letting the big old world in, rather than pushing it away and diving for cover. What they also have in common is an urgency that you don’t often find in novels and non-fiction or even most short stories.

“The Lizard Man of Lee County,” by U.S. writer Nicola Mason (first published in 1998), was an exciting new discovery this summer. It’s a deliriously funny, moving, and urgent take on a family fissuring during a day-trip to a swamp. It made me laugh and then broke my heart. That’s what I look for in a story. It was simultaneously entertaining and serious; larky with the lurk of menace in the white space and in the trees at the edge of the protagonist’s psyche. Another thing I value in a great story. And. Every. Single. Word. Counted. (Here’s a link to first page.) As far as I can tell, she’s not published a collection, but there’s a new story kicking around called “Cancer Party” that I’m trying to track down.

I wanted to also ask you about satire. Virtually all of the reviewers refer to you as a satirist, but I'm not sure many people really know what that means these days. Are you a satirist? If so, what does that mean to you?

Great question! I’ve been thinking a lot about (and thought a lot about this while writing Better Living) what it means to be a satirist in today’s self-satirizing world. Satire, at least the way I try to practice it -- the dark-humoured, take few prisoners kind -- is not mockery or mere parody, but a hard look at our society’s foibles and cruelties under the microscope while electro-magnifying 50x or 1500x. Besides magnification, it involves reversals and formerly unfathomable juxtapositionings. And you have to be wary of both sacred cows (I initially typed “scared cows” which could be true!) and of shooting fish in a barrel. (I think it’d be tough for someone resolutely leftwing or rightwing to be an honest satirist.) It’s a kind of very satisfying truth-telling, but I strive to celebrate language and narrative as well, otherwise I might as well be simply writing angry letters to the editor.

And because any day of the week you can randomly open the newspaper or troll about on-line and discover better stuff than you could’ve made up (Vatican-endorsed Confession App, anyone?), lions lying down with lambs, satire has become that much harder. I’ve taken to setting stories slightly in the future and/or introducing other-worldly elements in order to up the ante and stay ahead of the news. I try hard to create a universe of complete verisimilitude to ground the more “unreal” aspects of my fiction. And at the heart of every story, there’s a very human struggle for understanding.

What’s interesting to me is that on TV there’s brilliantly written satire that has large followings (The Simpsons and The Daily Show will serve as prime examples), yet readers (who you’d assume are among those audiences) have a difficulty recognizing and dealing with satire on the page. (Maybe the lack of visuals?!) First of all, you have to be able to read the double (sometimes triple) nuances or meanings embedded in almost every line when reading satire just to recognize that’s what it is. You have to read slant, rather than taking everything at face value. And, most importantly, you have to have a deviant sense of humour.

Although my stories are satirical, some more than others, satire is not all I aim for. Hyperrealism might be a better definition. (Your colleague Nathaniel G. Moore mentioned the terms “old future,” and “lucid hilarity” which I like, so maybe “the lucid hilarity of the old future”?!) I’m deadly serious about certain topics that are important to me (questioning the commonplace that faith/belief have to stand in opposition to science, for example), and I’m not sending up my protagonists but puzzling and burning and bleeding alongside them.

David Foster Wallace and J.G. Ballard are the two writers I think about most as precursors to the type of writing you do. First, is there anyone else you'd like to mention, specifically short story writers. Second, how's my aim? I would love to hear you expand on the influence of DFW and Mr. Ballard any day, any time of the week.

Rick Moody, Will Self, George Saunders, and yes, the dear, late DFW, as well as Lorrie Moore, Elise Levine, and Barbara Gowdy, and another late, great writer, Donald Barthelme, are all short fiction influences. Moody, Self and Saunders, and sometimes DFW, would be classified as having written actual satire, but I’ve learned from them all. To be daring, to bleed on the page, to make a mess, to up the volume, to regard a sentence as capable of containing a world, to maintain a sense of mystery, to not be afraid to be ferocious or funny or decapitating. To not forget that a story is about its language. To not forget the sense of urgency that should be brought to short fiction, to bear in mind the necessity.

Your aim is spot on with regard to DFW: his story collection, The Girl with Curious Hair, changed the way I thought short fiction should/could be written. The run-on sentences, odd syntax, ultra-contemporary subject matter, use of real, living people. The crazy variety of voices and styles. The derring-do: He ends the title story like this: “And here’s what I did.” He is the godfather. Ballard is a much more recent discovery. I loved The Drowned World (read after I wrote “Summer of the Flesh Eater” and was thrilled to discover the devolutionary symbiosis there), but haven’t read too much other of his fiction—yet. I read a few books of his essays and interviews while working on editing Darwin’s Bastards, so that’s maybe the influence you’re seeing. I’m curious to know more.

Moody, Self, Saunders, and two another faves, Jonathan Lethem and William Gibson, have all written dystopian and/or S-F stories and novels, or S-F-tinged, so that’s all leaked in though various cracks where the lights gets in, as Cohen sings. And I’m looking forward to my first China Mieville novel that I’ve just bought. Another big recent influence has been the YA Steam Punk novels I’ve been reading with my son (almost 12, but we love a good, shared bookish adventure). There’s some absolutely remarkable stuff out there. (Happy to provide a reading list). And movies: District 9, Moon, Let the Right One In, and can’t what to see Contagion.

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