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An Odd Thing About Small Towns
A conversation with Beth Lordan, the author of The Atlantic's February short story

February 11, 1999

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  Beth Lordan

Rarely, one must assume, does one's path to fiction writing begin amid the study of bugs. But such was the case for Beth Lordan, the author of this month's short story, "The Man With the Lapdog." Lordan worked as a secretary in Cornell University's department of entomology for fourteen years, during which time -- despite her encounters with the sometimes ungrammatical and relentlessly pragmatic sentences of scientists -- she discovered an attraction to short-story writing. In 1984, after a stint in the classics department, she traded her secretary's desk for a student's pen, enrolling in Cornell's graduate writing program. She was thirty-seven years old and a mother of three.

Lordan has previously published three stories in The Atlantic: "Running Out" (May 1986), her first published piece of fiction; "The Widow" (August 1987); and "The Dummy" (August 1996). She has also published two books -- August Heat (1989), a novel, and And Both Shall Row, a novella and six stories, which was one of The New York Times Notable Books of 1998. A product of small towns in the northeast, Lordan writes lyrically of the interdependence, warmth, tensions, and limits of small-town living, and pays particular attention to the mystery she senses underlying the air of familiarity among inhabitants of such communities. A 1993 recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, she now teaches fiction writing at Southern Illinois University, where she was named director of the creative-writing department in 1992.

Lordan spoke recently with The Atlantic's Allan Reeder.

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

Previously in Facts & Fiction:

Carol Shields ("A Likely Story," January, 1999)

Peter Ho Davies ("Today is Sunday," December, 1998)

Richard Bausch ("Par," August, 1998)

Colum McCann ("Everything in This Country Must," July, 1998)

Elizabeth Stuckey-French ("Electric Wizard," June, 1998)

Chitra Divakaruni ("Mrs. Dutta Writes a Letter," April, 1998)

Francine Prose ("The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet," March, 1998)

Lee K. Abbott ("Everything, All at Once," February, 1998)

E. Annie Proulx ("The Half-Skinned Steer," November, 1997)

Garrison Keillor ("Talk Radio," October, 1997)

Tess Gallagher ("The Poetry Baron," July, 1997)

Larry Heinemann ("The Fragging," June, 1997)

Cynthia Ozick ("Puttermesser in Paradise," May, 1997)

More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

Character Sketch
Carbondale, Illinois.

B.A., M.F.A., Cornell University.


First Publication
"Running Out," The Atlantic Monthly, 1986.

Last Book Read
Arrogance, by Joanna Scott.

Writing Habits
"I write in my office at school, first thing in the morning, for about three hours. I write best if I can write before I've had to talk to anybody."

Advice to Writers
"Read, read, read, read, read. I think that's how most writers get there. You read enough and it begins to leak out."

Most students in M.F.A. programs are in their twenties. You were in your late thirties when you enrolled in the program at Cornell University. Could you talk a little about your path getting to Cornell -- and to fiction writing in general?

I was a secretary at Cornell, in the entomology department, and was very cranky about my job -- partly because I was a manuscript typist and had to copy writing by scientists that was not very good. I asked if I could line-edit the stuff, and I got my job upgraded -- but upgraded to the point where I was no longer qualified to do it. I didn't have a college degree. I had gone right out of high school to the University of Missouri, but I'd flunked out, failing everything but Western Civilization -- and I got a D in that. But it was highly educational, because I went to a very small, very poor, very rural high school, and I had no idea how to do anything except be smart. I hadn't had to do much of anything in high school.

After a number of years at Cornell one of my bosses in the entomology department told me that I could continue to moan and groan and complain, or I could do something about my situation. And so I got into the employee-degree program. I thought at the time that what I wanted to do was to be a better editor. And then I thought, no, maybe I'd be an anthropologist, because I wanted people to come to my hut and talk to me. Slowly, then, I got seduced into creative writing.

It took me nine years to finish my B.A. By then I thought I'd had everything they had to offer me at Cornell, so I applied to the M.F.A. program at Syracuse. I already knew I was a lyrical writer, and I thought that if I worked there with Raymond Carver and Toby Wolff, they'd snap me out of that. Well, for various reasons, neither of them was there when I was, I was commuting seventy miles each way, I was pregnant -- and at the end of the semester I decided it really wasn't fun. One of my old teachers at Cornell, Walt Slatoff, urged me to take a graduate workshop, and then he urged me to apply to the graduate program, and they let me in. It turned out I hadn't learned everything Cornell had to teach me at all.

How has your writing changed since your graduate-student days? How has teaching fiction writing informed your work?

The big change is intentionality -- I have a much better idea now of what it is I'm setting out to do when I begin a story. It used to be that it didn't have to be "art" -- it just had to be in by Friday. I wrote more then. I think I write better now.

About halfway through my graduate program, I worked as a summer editor on Epoch magazine. I remember trying to figure out what it was I was seeing right away in story submissions that made it clear to me that they were or were not going to be any good. As a writer, I hated the idea that somebody would read two paragraphs and then ditch my story. In what was probably the only true epiphany of my life, I suddenly got it. It seemed so simple -- you can put stories together the same way you take them apart.

I also remember when Eudora Welty came to Cornell for a few days while I was there. She came to a graduate workshop, and she said in our discussion about one woman's story, "Well, we can't tell her how to write her story, can we?" We were all kind of taken aback, because that was exactly what we thought we were supposed to do. She really was reluctant to give advice, or to play the master. But later on she said -- and it really sounded urgent -- "Read your story. Your story will help you." I knew it was profound, but I didn't yet know what it meant.

That's now my engagement with craft: I try to read other people's stories and see how they work, and then take those tools for my own use. That's the big change. I've become much more craft-conscious.

Your first story for The Atlantic, "Running Out," was published in 1986, twelve years before its appearance in your collection And Both Shall Row, published last summer. How does it feel to see this story -- and others that were published long ago -- in book form, many years after their first appearances in print? How do your stories age?

"Running Out" was an interesting experience. When The Atlantic bought it, I was, of course, thrilled beyond measure -- and then they edited it. I nearly wept. I wanted to call and say, "I thought you bought it because you liked it, not because you wanted to change it." And I fought every change -- every change. Ten years later, though, I discovered that a good story is a tough thing, once it exists. You have to be very gentle with it as you're bringing it into existence, but once it's there, it can endure a great deal.

And Both Shall Row was a very accidental book. Diane Higgins at Picador had read "The Dummy" in The Atlantic when she was heading into work on the train, and was moved by it. She called me, wondering if I had any more stories. I work very slowly -- all I had was five other stories. I did have a novel that nobody wanted, my ugly child, so I sent it to her, along with the stories -- for her amusement, really, because six stories isn't a book. And she called me and said the novel wasn't something they were interested in, but didn't I have anything else to go with these stories? I had a novella in a drawer, which only two living people had read, because it's a useless form. I no longer had a workshop to take it to, and nobody publishes novellas alone. I really had no idea whether it was any good, but I sent it to Diane and she loved it, and she said, "We've got a book!"

Your use of the small-town setting in your novel August Heat allows you and your readers to follow many characters' daily experiences at once. Can you talk about the small-town setting as a literary device?

I don't think of it as a literary device. I set my stories in small towns because I grew up in small towns. One of my big concerns is how imperfect our understanding of one another necessarily is -- how mysterious we all are. If you can present the illusion of a community, of a whole, real, homogeneous world, then many of the impediments to understanding one another seem to be removed. These people are not foreign to you; they're familiar -- you've known them forever, and they know you. That's part of it. But the main reason I set my stories in small towns is that I've never lived in a city. Carbondale has about thirty thousand people, and Ithaca's not much bigger. I've never lived any place bigger than that.

We have this myth that in small towns everybody knows everybody, but they don't really. I certainly didn't know the adults in my towns when I was a kid -- I knew of them, but I didn't really know them. An odd thing about small towns -- at least in the towns in upstate New York and in New Hampshire, where I grew up -- is that there's not much visiting from house to house. You don't go into each other's houses. People have porches, and there is some porch interaction that goes on, but mostly you see people at the store, or at the library, or at school. You meet in the public spaces. So there's a lot I didn't know about people in my towns, and therefore a lot I could make up.

Would you agree that on the whole your male characters seem to accept their lots in life -- and in love -- more readily than your female characters?

I keep trying to figure out the difference between my male characters and my female characters. It's hard. Being female -- I'm one of five daughters in a family of eight, and I'm close to my mother, and I have daughters -- I'm more familiar with how difficult it is for women to accept what can't be changed. So, maybe in my work I concentrate more on the women's struggle because I'm less familiar with the male struggle. I like my men, but I worry that I haven't made them complicated enough. Though quite honestly, with a few remarkable exceptions, men don't seem as complicated to me as women are.

Of course, when I write about men, they seem to be near or in middle age. I have yet to write what I think of as a successful young-man character -- those are the mysterious people to me. I mean, I do not understand the energy and restlessness of males between thirteen and forty. At all. So I don't go there. I remember early on in feminism reading something about hormone levels, and realizing that what we didn't yet call premenstrual syndrome was the period in our cycles when we were most like men. And I thought, It's a wonder any of them live! Fifteen-, sixteen-, seventeen-year-old boys, they're going around feeling like that all the time! I see in my undergraduate students especially, when a young male writer is going to try out a female point of view, he almost always writes a story that involves abortion or childbirth or rape. He immediately goes to the furthest and most mysterious part of femaleness as he understands it. Writing about young male sexuality would be the same thing for me. I just have no hint.

My female characters, of course, tend to be middle-aged or older, too. I think women have a more accepting period earlier in their lives, in their twenties and thirties -- at least the small-town women that I know about. This is the child-bearing time. You take what comes, and you put up with the husband that you've got, and the life that you get, because there are these children. And then as you grow older, and the children are grown, you wonder, "Is this all there is?" You begin to struggle against it. Maybe it's just that men and women are out of kilter with each other in those developmental areas. Maybe.

A number of your characters are incapable of communication. The elderly stroke victim who drives your novella "And Both Shall Row," for example, can speak only a few specific, unpredictable words. What has drawn you to such characters?

Well, there's a cute answer to this -- and then there's a better one. The cute one is that my biggest difficulty in writing is dialogue, so my people tend not to talk very much! But I think one of the reasons I have trouble with dialogue is that the people I know and am interested in tend not to be articulate people. Even if they are -- or maybe especially if they are -- they know how little effect it has. You can say something beautifully, and no one's going to understand it even then. Or they'll understand a little, but not the heart of it. With the people I write about, what they do matters more than what they say. And they know that, somewhere deep inside. My characters are better talkers now than they were ten years ago, but still they don't have much to say.

I know it's sort of peculiar. I love language, and I love working with it, and I believe in it. But I also believe it won't work. I think Faulkner is much the same way. People yell about him overwriting and all that, but I feel like he's doing it in despair. He's just throwing all the words he can at it, and people still don't get it. I thought just this morning about this phrase that we use when we talk about "art" writing. We say, "Well, of course, it can also mean ..." As if there were a bucket from which we could eventually pull all possible meanings, and then we would know the truth. But no. Shakespeare proves it -- he can "also mean" just about forever. That's metaphor: there's more, there's more.

Is "The Man With the Lapdog" to be part of another collection, or will you be returning to novel-writing next?

I believe "The Man With the Lapdog" is the first story of a new collection. That's my plan. I spent last spring in Galway, Ireland. It was the first time I had ever been abroad, and it was, as promised, a "life-changing experience." I am Irish-American, but I wasn't raised in a heavily ethnic world. There are Irish-Americans who go to Ireland and say, "Ah, I feel at home." It didn't look like home to me. It looked like a completely foreign place. I had no intention of writing about Ireland, especially in fiction. So I was very surprised when stories started showing up, and they showed up in a big clump. I've got six short stories I intend to write, and a novella.

I seem to be better at writing short stories than at writing novels. The stories in And Both Shall Row were written absolutely independently of one another. With the Galway stories, though, I have a central intention. So I may be approaching a novel-in-short-stories, whatever that beast may be. I don't know what that beast is, but I'll know it when I see it.

Join the conversation in the Arts & Literature conference of Post & Riposte.

More Facts & Fiction interviews in Atlantic Unbound.

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