Q and A with Karin-Lin Greenberg, FAULTY PREDICTIONS
In Karin-Lin Greenberg’s excellent first book, the Flannery O’Connor Prize-winning short story collection Faulty Predictions, young characters try to find their way in the world and older characters confront regrets. In “Editorial Decisions,” members of the editorial board of a high school literary magazine are witnesses to an unspeakable act of violence. Two grandmothers, both immigrants from China, argue over the value of their treasures at a filming of Antiques Roadshow in “Prized Possessions.” In “A Good Brother,” a sister forces her brother to accompany her to the Running of the Brides at Filene’s Basement. A city bus driver adopts a pig that has been brought onto the bus by rowdy college students in “Designated Driver.”
The stories in Faulty Predictions take place in locales as diverse as small-town Ohio, the mountains of western North Carolina, and the plains of Kansas. The collection provides insight into the human condition over a varied cross section of geography, age, and culture. Although the characters are often faced with obstacles and challenges, the stories also capture moments of optimism and hope.
I was so impressed by the many different characters and situations in these stories - you're clearly not writing the same story twice. There's the son of a talk show host, a recovering alcoholic who drives a bus, a man who opens a trendy restaurant in a small, Midwestern town. Which story was the most fun for you to write?
KLG: Thanks, Christine. I love writing short stories because they allow me to jump into the lives and minds of so many characters who are different from each other. The most fun story to write was probably “Half and Half Club” because of the shifting point of view and how I had to figure out how to balance telling the overall story of this group of kids with individual stories of each character’s struggles. I had fun choosing what scenes to depict from each character’s life.
Which story was the most challenging to write, and why was that the case?
KLG: “Prized Possessions” was challenging because it took so many major revisions to get to the final draft. In early drafts, I was way too amused by the idea of the characters being at a filming of Antiques Roadshow and included a bunch of scenes of other characters who were not important to the plot getting objects appraised (in fact, for a long time that story was called “Appraisals,” which I think reveals what my focus was). I did a bunch of research about various objects that a person might have appraised, and I had a hard time discarding the scenes I’d written that contained the material I’d researched. I also liked inhabiting the point of view of the judgmental grandmother, and I let her observe and comment on pretty much everything and everyone around her. I had a long scene in which she was evaluating the clothing the appraisers were wearing at the filming of Antiques Roadshow. Ultimately, I had to think hard about what the story was about and cut away a bunch of scenes and moments that may have amused me but didn’t serve the story well.
How do you begin, i.e. do you start with a title, a name of a character, an idea for a conflict?
KLG: There’s usually some sort of spark, but it happens differently for each story. Sometimes the spark is something that I see on TV or read about or just something I see in day-to-day life. For example, I read about the Running of the Brides at Filene’s Basement and tried to think about a character that would absolutely hate getting caught up in a crowd of women frantically trying on wedding dresses. Before I wrote “Bread,” I saw a news story about a guy who was squeezing bread in grocery stores. Once I saw that story, my first question was “Why?” Trying to come up with an answer to that “why” resulted in the plot of “Bread.” For “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” I saw a large window of a library with a cutout of a bird on it to warn real birds not to fly into it. So I got to thinking about a building that was essentially built out of all windows, and then I started thinking about who would actually construct such a thing. Sometimes I’ll start with point of view. For “Editorial Decisions,” I decided I wanted to try writing a story in first-person plural, and I came up with a group that I believed would all think in a similar way about certain issues.
What are some of the books that inspired you as you were working on this collection?
I was lucky to be teaching creative writing during the time I was writing these stories, so I was able to take the time to really study and take apart a lot of short stories and to have good conversations about craft with smart students. One writer that I always find helpful to study is Flannery O’Connor because of the way conflict drives her stories. For a long time, teachers would tell me that my stories captured a “slice of life.” I didn’t understand that it wasn’t exactly a compliment since life is, oftentimes, plotless. Reading and rereading and teaching O’Connor’s stories helped me to keep in mind the idea that trouble is interesting in fiction and that conflict drives plot.
I also kept going back to Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection Interpreter of Maladies because I think she’s so good at capturing what’s happening internally for her characters, and I want to try to do a good job of presenting my protagonists’ interiority. I think an important part of that interiority is capturing characters’ emotions. A story that I teach every semester is “A Temporary Matter,” and when I teach it I talk about how it’s a good model for writing about emotional subject matter because while the story is so sad, the prose is understated. So even though the characters in the story are falling apart, the story never tells readers, “Hey, this is a really sad story!” and the characters never think, “What a sad and terrible situation we’re in.” So I’ve found Lahiri’s stories good models, especially when I’m in the revision mode and can afford to cut away places where there might be some melodrama or too much “telling.”
I started reading more Alice Munro as I was writing the newest stories in the collection, and I really admire the way that she can fit so much about a character’s life in a story. As I was writing most of the stories in Faulty Predictions, I was interested in capturing a few important moments in each protagonist’s life and focusing on fully rendered scenes, but lately I’ve become interested in trying to write longer and more complicated stories that span more time, and Munro is a great model for this. Her work was helpful to look at while writing a story like “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes” that covers a good amount of time and works a lot with summary.
If you don't mind telling us, what are you working on now?
KLG: I’m in the early stages of working on a novel, but I’m also working on a bunch of new short stories too.