Wednesday, September 03, 2014
In 2014, we’re featuring posts by guest bloggers: BBF staff, authors, and friends of the festival. This month, we asked Anna Solomon, 2012 One City One Story author of “The Lobster Mafia Story,” to share a post with us. Thanks, Anna!
Alicia Anstead leads a 1C1S Town Hall discussion at the BBF
In the fall of 2012, I was lucky enough to attend the Boston Book Festival’s One City One Story Town Hall, where in a packed room people were discussing my short story, “The Lobster Mafia Story.” I say “attend” because, for the first hour at least, that’s what I did: I sat in the audience and listened as people discussed my story. They spoke readily, bravely, some offering interpretations, others posing questions. It was clear that many of them had read the story multiple times, that they had thought hard about it, wrestled with it, and come excited to share their thoughts and hear what their fellow Bostonians had to say. There was a palpable buzz in the air as readers debated the symbolism of particular lines and connected the story’s themes with their own lives. I almost forgot, for a time, that they were talking about my story. It was an amazing example of what literature can do and mean in a community, when it’s distributed widely, promoted smartly, and translated into multiple languages.
That afternoon was one of my most gratifying moments as a writer. So I was excited to talk with the latest One City One Story author, Jennifer Haigh, about the run-up to her festival experience this year, and about her quiet, moving, and provocative story, “Sublimation.”
AS: You and I both know that it’s hard to bring a short story to a wide audience. Even when you publish in a prestigious journal, you’re still talking about a small readership, often made up primarily of other writers. What’s it like knowing this story will be read by tens of thousands of people over the next couple months?
JH: Publishing a short story can be very depressing. The difference between publication and not is very slim. So it’s nice for this one to get a bigger audience, get a second life. I think it’s delightful. It gives me a chance to reach readers who are probably new to my work, who probably haven’t read my novels, and I’m very happy about that. I also think, having just published a collection of short stories this year, for readers of that book, “Sublimation” is quite a different thing, so it’s nice to think of people who think they know my stories getting their hands on this one.
AS: How would you describe that difference?
JH: My story collection, News From Heaven, is linked stories. They’re linked by landscape, and mainly set in western Pennsylvania, in a dying coal town. It’s been a while since I’ve written a story set somewhere else. Baltimore, where “Sublimation” is set, is a city I love.
AS: News From Heaven, I want to mention, has already won the 2014 Massachusetts Book Award and the 2014 PEN/New England Award in Fiction—an incredible feat! My understanding is that these stories were many years in the making. Tell me what the process of writing “Sublimation” was like. Did it come in a rush? Was it a story that grew slowly? I know it can be hard to remember the early life of a story, but what do you recall of how it developed?
JH: Gosh, it is a hard question to answer. This one did not take as long as some of my others. I don’t know, maybe—I was probably writing at it for less than a year. I have some that takes years and years to come together. This one … I guess it was just the image of Bruce and his mother, Dolly, watching Jeopardy!, the two of them in their old spots …
AS: Did you know from the start that it was Dolly’s story?
JH: Yeah. I’m very interested in writing about relationships between parents and adult children. To me they’re endlessly interesting and complicated in a way. We don’t choose the people in our families, and often the only thing we have in common is this blood tie and some history. This situation was interesting to me because Bruce is back home, a place he never thought he’d be. He lost his job and his mother got sick and these are the things that happen sometimes to conspire to bring adult children home. It’s uncomfortable in a lot of ways. Dolly used to live on her own. Bruce used to, too. But here they are, back on the familial couch.
AS: Bruce is a cross-dresser. You reveal this quietly, not by declaring it or showing him in his clothes but by describing the lipstick he leaves on his glass. That choice is critical, it seems to me.
JH: Yes. The cross-dressing, it’s not the primary thing for Dolly. Her relationship to Bruce long predates her discovery that this is a habit of his. This is a fairly recent revelation. She’s known Bruce for forty-five years. She’s in a position of having to reconcile the person she’s always known with this new thing she’s discovered.
AS: I think that’s enough to whet readers’ appetites without spoiling any surprises. Are you excited for the Town Hall in October?
JH: I think the Boston Book Festival is probably my favorite lit event of the year. I’ve gone several times, usually talking about one of my novels. So for me this is going to be an entirely different experience.