In reading your stories, I’m always struck by your unique knack for detail. Where do these details come from? How do you imagine such full worlds?
What I try to do is imagine full sentences, one after another, very slowly, trusting that if I get each one right they’ll gradually generate a world. The truth is that, hour by hour, I get very little done, but there are an awful lot of hours wrapped up in every story I write, which means that nearly every detail is the result of long concentration and a whole lot of tinkering. I’ve spoken elsewhere about my working methods, how I broach my sentences one tiny piece at a time, termiting away at them until I’m satisfied that they present the right effect. This is just a metaphor, but if a sentence is failing I seem to hear the dzzzt of a buzzer when I read it, and if it’s successful I seem to hear the ting of a bell. The surface texture of the prose may not be the most important feature of a book, but it’s definitely the most immediate for me, and I’ve set many novels aside at the bookstore when I opened them to the first page and all I heard was buzz, buzz, buzz. In any case, when you’re writing, you approach every sentence this way—attending to the smallest increments of sound, to the insinuations of each phrase—and if you do it honestly enough, and if you allow every moment to follow naturally from the one that came before, you eventually discover that you’ve ended up with a story—and also, somehow, mysteriously, with an expression of your own personality.
I saw you on an AWP panel in 2012 on “The Futuristic and Fantastic in Literary Fiction”; you discussed how the line between “genre fiction” and “literary fiction” is blurring. Your own work certainly blurs this line. You write literary fiction that spans many genres. You explore science fiction in stories like “The Ceiling” and “The Lady with the Pet Tribble” (is that one Star Trek fan fiction?).
Yes—and also Russian literature fan fiction. Both of the Chekhovs: Anton and Pavel.
And your latest collection, The View from The Seventh Layer, includes many fables, and even a choose-your-own-adventure story.
I guess my question is twofold. First: what are your thoughts on the overlap between genre fiction and literary fiction today? Do you think that genre fiction like science fiction and fantasy is, increasingly, coming to be considered literary?
Second, what is your own experience writing genre stories that also employ the tools of literary fiction? Do you consciously decide on the style of a story based on the genre, or do you find each story dictates its needs?
It’s the latter for me—I allow each story to dictate its own needs, and I try to remain open to those needs, whether they’re wholly realistic, wholly fantastic, or some combination of the two. I’ve always believed that art can appear anywhere at all, and at the very least I think there are more readers like me than there used to be. I would love to see a future in which the distinction between literary and science fiction, mainstream novels and graphic novels, realism, surrealism, and magical realism, has become much more permeable, and books are measured by their vitality, their degree of accomplishment, and the fidelity they pay to their own obsessions rather than by the happenstances of genre. Sentences that brim with fire and meaning, stories that make me feel as if I am traveling through the mysteries of another life, literature that reminds me I’m participating in the wealth and sadness and beauty of existence—that’s what I’m hungry for as a reader. I want to feel as if everything I experience on the page—and, by extension, some small portion of what I experience off it—has been set alight through what E. M. Forster called fantasy and prophecy (the former a matter of strange implication, the latter of holy song: that’s my best shorthand approximation of his meaning); which is to say, I want books that depict a world that is not how we believe it to be, and also books that suggest the world as it is is not how we believe it to be.