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Tumult’s Instruments: An Interview with Elizabeth Tallent

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When the prose in a book is ordinary, one falls back on all sorts of other things to praise: the mood, the subject, the “voice.” Elizabeth Tallent’s new short story collection, Mendocino Fire—her first in more than twenty years, following Honey (1993)—crushes the need for such literary niceties. It is driving, furious, erotic, gilded, the sentences flying at you like arrows. A boy looks up from the twisted muscle of a crashed car into a “windshield full of amazed blue sky.” An ex-wife, energized by spite, observes the new wife’s toddler advance “with the lordly shamble of the drunk who finds himself charming.” And a family’s internal stalemate is captured with the phrase “the forlorn mutual incomprehension of delicate signals continually misinterpreted.”

Tallent is a professor at Stanford University, a teacher in the prestigious Stegner program. Her book is a meditation on the state of marriage, in both genteel, upper-class America and working-class America, but specifically the America represented by one town: Mendocino. Here the glow of Tallent’s writing finds its match in a landscape full of redwoods, burbling waves, “diamond afternoons” and poached abalone. But the character found here is not place, as reviewers love to say. It is, thank God, in the characters.

In “Nobody You Know” a perfectionist painter flees her marriage in Mendocino, only to return on a whim and walk straight into her husband’s lover at an ice-cream parlor. In “The Wilderness,” a circumspect English professor surveys her university and her place in it from within a torrent of tweeting and texting students. And In “Eros 101,” two female professors, years apart, embark on a licentious affair. If the situations in these stories sound familiar, they are anything but, because Tallent attacks them with an intensity one might expect from a story about combat or war; the moments of intimacy flare up like bombings of prose. “For strangeness, for fucked-upness—no kiss has ever come close,” Tallent writes at the denouement of “Nobody You Know” and I felt much the same way.

This is, to quote one of the characters, a book of “heartbreak and sex, never enough sex, impatient sex, adoring sex, fear-of-boredom sex” and bodies as “tumult’s instruments” and it welcomes back to the fray an American master.

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Karan Mahajan: It’s been twenty years since your last collection. Why the gap—and how do you feel you developed as a writer in the interim?

Elizabeth Tallent: For years my life wasn’t very peaceful and I couldn’t get quiet enough to detect those first intimations of a story. Some source of attunement had vanished. Or—just as likely—been suppressed to save me the pain of the conflict between the desire to pursue a story and the reality that every scrap of psychic energy was needed elsewhere. When I did start writing again it was in fits and starts, and that surprised me—I’d thought that beginning again would be like opening the sluice gates, years of stuff would come pouring through. Effortlessness is such a great dream! In reality the surveilling intolerance of perfectionism was keen as ever. But I was less scared of ferocity. I had the fantastic feeling of having less to lose. After all I’d just gone years without getting anything written—that was the real, and freeing, loss.

KM: You are a perfectionist among perfectionists in the writing world. Can you describe the process of polishing one of these stories?

ET: The backdoor brag of perfectionism lies in its seeming to testify to one’s exquisite sensibility—a dozen mattresses, and one tiny, hinky pea keeps me awake. Really perfectionism is dumbfoundingly callous in its hatred of risk, monotonously censorious. So you’ve got a large part of your brain acting as a lethally efficient negation factory, and you’ve got intuitions and impulses making their first shy appearance, and the problem is how to keep these alive long enough to discover what they can turn into. Emotional aliveness and how to sustain it and how to shape a story from it, those are problems that figured in every one of the stories in this book.

Sometimes when I tell someone that a certain story took years, they’re surprised, and really I get that, because, years—you ought to come out of that with a novel! But I don’t. I get a story that took all the time and love and attention I could spend on it.

KM: Which of these stories is your favorite, and which one was the hardest to write? (Please don’t dodge this with the old saw about loving all of one’s children equally…I have never believed it.)

ET: “Briar Switch”—hardest to write, and favorite. When I held the published book in my hands I was surprised to find out it wasn’t very many pages. In my mind it seemed a hundred pages long at least, because I had lived in it so deeply. I also loved writing “Winter.” In Mendocino it snows so rarely that the chance to get a big snowstorm on the page was wonderful.

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KM: You grew up in DC, studied in Illinois, lived in New Mexico, published in the New Yorker—but now I think of you as a California writer: someone deeply engaged with the landscape and politics—and literary magazines—of the West Coast. Did you gradually adopt California as you wrote these stories? Or were they an expression of an existing rootedness? When did you first begin to write about Mendocino, where you live?

ET: I was eighteen when I first saw New Mexico and had never felt at home anywhere before, not even close. And then this lightning strike of belonging; New Mexico was where I started writing, it was all I wanted to write about. Because for me the impulse to write was place-bound, I understood that leaving meant I was going to be in trouble as a writer. California offered teaching, it offered a way to make a living while raising my son, but because for whatever reason I don’t experience universities as wholly real places, I was pretty lost. My brilliant idea was to move to Scotland, to the Shetland Islands, with my son, to try to live there cheaply—completely crazy—but then someone said you should see the Mendocino coast, it looks a lot like Scotland but close enough you could keep your job, and when we got to Mendocino at night the town was a string of lights along a dark cliff with the sea slamming into it. I’d been rescued a second time by a place. It did take a long time to get to know it well enough to feel like I could write about it—my little boy, this infinitely curious small person who could charm almost anyone, was my ticket to a whole range of acquaintances. People here need to work hard to figure out how to stay here, and if they do it’s because they love it, and that matters to me, those are problems and decisions I’m deeply interested in writing about.

KM: What role has religion—or a religious background—played in your writing life? I’m thinking of the moments of transcendence in the stories—particularly the tree sitter’s fall from a Redwood in “Mendocino Fire,” in which she feels a sense of “cradling infinity.”

ET: One of the first instants of literary awareness I ever had was as a child in a Baptist church in Tennessee whose preacher was a storyteller in full command of his art. Everybody in his pews was sitting up straight. I was five, maybe. He was narrating the Rapture befalling a series of characters. A fairly common set-up in popular culture now, maybe, but at that time, brilliantly innovative to portray these characters going about an ordinary Monday morning, or whatever, and then the heavens blaze open, and some people exalt, they’re saved, but one—a milkman whose big worry a second before was over the freshness of the milk in his bottles—this milkman has to grasp the fact that he’s going to burn for all eternity, and I had this double experience of, first, repenting of every terrible thing I’d done by age five, and second of wanting to do what that preacher had done, to show people seized by extremity, their souls for once plain to see. If you want to deal in the breaks and rifts in ordinariness—moments of transcendence, falls from grace—the short story is a great genre.

KM: Your father worked for the Department of Agriculture (according to a Google search) and you’ve taught at Iowa and Stanford. These biographical details show up in the collection. We’re currently living in a memoir-soaked time, but I wonder if you felt a resistance to being autobiographical, and, if so, how you overcame it.

ET: I have no resistance to it! Because to me even the least outwardly autobiographical story is fingerprinted all over with the writer’s sensibility. The biographer-narrator of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando says something like after you read single page by a writer you know who she is, her style gives you her mind and soul, and how can facts compete? The shift (in some of these stories) to working with places and events from my googleable existence doesn’t feel very different from writing about a character who would strike a reader as not me—I don’t feel like much of an authority on my own life, though probably you’re supposed to. Right now I’m working on a memoir, and just as in writing fiction, what I feel is uncertain—the research, the daydreaming, the awaiting of some elusive perception, the craving for genuineness, the teeth-gritted recognition of superficiality and other errors you have to go back and try to set right, those are the same.

KM: These stories veer from the lives of academics to the troubles of working-class people and hippies in Mendocino. Did you research these communities or did you learn about them from your day-to-day interactions with locals?

ET: I come from a family of scientists whose dinner-table arguments were often about whether some assertion was correct or not, so I’m left with a love getting the details right because I want to be able to say at that long-gone dinner table, Absolutely this person would act this way. Then in college I studied anthropology, a discipline whose chief astonishment is how readily observers misinterpret what they’re seeing, and how extremely seductive certainty and authority are in any confrontation with unknown others. The prongs of the paradox, wanting to get a character’s experience right and understanding it’s extremely hard to get right, prick away at conscience.   Research is wonderful and seductive, and there is no real end to it, no absolute assurance that you’ve done enough. When I had what I thought was a near-final draft of “The Wrong Son” I asked a friend, a fisherman turned rare book dealer, to read it and tell me if some detail wasn’t right. When he gave the ms. back all he said was, “Everything about the fishing is okay.” Good to hear, but I discovered I’d wanted him to say Great story!

KM: What was the logic of the arrangement of the stories in the collection? I noticed, for example, that mushrooms appear at the end of “Never Come Back” and at the start of “Mendocino Fire,” which are contiguous.

ET: I sometimes don’t like story collections that are too ordered thematically or whose stories work cumulatively toward some novel-like cohesion. I want stories to have utmost liberty of what I guess has to be called material, to go chasing off after whatever scents they catch and range as far as they want. In structure in general I’m a fan of a little wonkiness and unpredictability. For Mendocino Fire I wanted a sequence that felt intuitively right, and I moved the stories around till I felt like they had that, but logic didn’t really play a part.

KM: In what ways has teaching been hospitable to writing, and in what ways has it been a detriment? How has teaching–and access to student reviews–changed your view of yourself as a person and writer? Which writers do you teach again and again?

ET: I love the seriousness of teaching at Stanford, the feeling that nothing is lost on the writers I have the good luck to work with. Since my inner weather is icily inhospitable as far as my own work’s concerned, the responsible generosity at the heart of serious teaching has been instructive. In The Art of Recklessness Dean Young says that in writing we are always trying to bring into being something that doesn’t exist, and “we must always be prepared for its initial unrecognizability.” For my students I seek to model willingness, slowness, care, attentiveness to the risks being run in a piece of writing; I want a seminar room where the heart can be laid bare. Most writers can make good use of trust, and it’s going to be a rare experience in any writer’s life, sitting at a table with readers making a good-faith effort to see through initial unrecognizability down to the new thing coming into writing. Siding with possibility has slightly dilated the aperture my own work must slide through.

Writers I teach again and again—a list that can only be partial here, but Kafka is on it, Chekhov, Virginia Woolf. D.H. Lawrence for fearlessness. Alice Munro and Deborah Eisenberg, two very different geniuses of story form. I’ve given Updike’s The Centaur to a lot of students for its marvels of metaphor and perception—it doesn’t get loved as often as I’d like, I’m not sure why. Another book I like to get into students’ hands is Agee’s A Death in the Family.

KM: I worked for you as a researcher after college—researching Methodism and environmentalism—and I noticed that global warming and colony collapse syndrome make it into your work. Have you been involved in activism outside your writing?

ET: That’s the stuff of sleepless nights—the climate-change-related calamities my students will live to see—and a letter I wrote to the university’s president and Board of Trustees urging comprehensive divestment from fossil-fuel companies now has 375 faculty signatories. (You can find it here.) In April last year Stanford took the first step of divesting its endowment from coal, but the university is delaying the crucial next decision on comprehensive divestment from fossil-fuel companies. Delay is part of the problem of climate change, and here is a great university that could embody not delay but profoundly ethical action on its students’ behalf if it divested. One really hopeful aspect is that Stanford’s Fossil Free student activists have done extraordinary outreach and organizing: they’re absolutely serious about compelling the university to divest.

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Elizabeth Tallent is the author of the story collections Honey, In Constant Flight, and Time with Children, and the novel Museum Pieces. Since 1994 she has taught in the Creative Writing program at Stanford University. She lives on the Mendocino coast of California.

Karan Mahajan is the author of the novels Family Planning and the forthcoming The Association of Small Bombs. Originally from New Delhi, he currently lives in Austin, Texas.

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Posted in Interviews, Nonfiction

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