“Reading and writing fiction is so much about wanting to have a window into other lives.” Writers West Moss and David Ebenbach discuss compassionate fiction, writing beyond the boundaries of oneself, the seriousness of humor, and getting away from the writing desk to go for a run.
West Moss’s first short story collection is The Subway Stops at Bryant Park (Leapfrog Press). All of the stories are connected in some way to Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, McSweeney’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.
David Ebenbach is a transplanted Philadelphian living in Washington, DC, with his wife and son. He’s the author of six books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including, most recently, the story collection The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories, which won the University of Massachusetts Juniper Prize and was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in January.
David and West met at a really lovely artist colony called the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where they became fast friends and mutual admirers and also became somewhat competitive with one another about the game of Scrabble.
This conversation, the one you’re about to read, happened over email.
David Ebenbach: You know what I admire about your work, West? Well, a lot of things, but one of the things I admire the most about your writing is how compassionate it is. You take on an enormous range of characters in your short story collection The Subway Stops at Bryant Park—men and women; elderly people slipping into dementia and young folks trying to get their lives together; glamorous mothers, crazy bosses, and workers quietly waiting tables or managing an apartment building or collecting the trash. You approach all of these characters with, it seems to me, a very open heart; even when you’re funny—and you’re funny a lot—it’s not at the characters’ expense. The result is that the reader can’t help but fall in love each time. I think that’s one of the best things that can ever happen in a short story. Are you conscious of trying to make that happen? How do you do it? Do you find that you fall in love with the characters yourself?
West Moss: My stories tend to start with a character, usually someone I’ve seen on the street or the train, who sticks with me. I begin to develop stories about them in my head. It turns out that the people I notice are vulnerable in some way, or maybe that’s what I feel about them, that they are lonely, or misunderstood, or that they are kind in an unkind world. Regardless, they are the ones that drive the narrative. I hear their voices, I see their spouses or children or co-workers, and the story evolves. I don’t try to get readers to love these characters. No, not exactly. But as I get to know them myself, I come to care about them, sometimes deeply, and I guess that comes across.
I am not a big fan of cynicism in life or in fiction. I don’t like show-offs, and I’m not fond of writers who I perceive as being mean to their characters, if you know what I mean. While I am essentially an introvert, I have a great and heartbroken love for the world and the people in it.
I feel like this is something you and I maybe share. You, David, are never mean to your characters, and I found myself really feeling for them, even the ones who were quite different from me. Many of your protagonists seem so vulnerable. They want to belong, but they’re uncertain about the social rules of any given situation. You really allowed them to be funny and tender—such great traits, and maybe that’s why I was so engrossed. I cared about these characters.
So my question is about the diversity in your stories. In the story “Hunting, Gathering” in The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and other stories, you write from the point of view of a woman in a way I found startlingly true. I was sort of shocked at the end when I came back to reality and remembered that you had written this. But in other stories you write from the point of view of an African-American man, a teenage boy working at a theme park, a sex-worker, and on and on. Can you talk about that a little bit, about your take on diversity in your writing?
You and I feel the same way about writers who write out of a place of contempt. I don’t have any patience for that, either. On some level, I don’t even understand how a person can write about a character at any length without coming to feel some sympathy for that character. Take your story “Dubonnet,” for example—the main character of that story is not completely sane, and actually isn’t nice a lot of the time, but you, as the author, spent enough time with her for her full humanity to reveal itself.
That’s one of the reasons I write about people who are not like me in some ways. I think fiction—the sharing of stories between people—is an opportunity to reach beyond oneself, to enlarge one’s circle of empathy, and I want to take that opportunity on. Writers do have to be careful, though. When we write beyond ourselves, we have to work extra hard to get it right. And then there’s the history—people like me (straight, white men) have been telling other people’s stories forever, to the extent that other people have had to struggle to find a forum to tell their own stories. So there’s a lot to keep in balance. On the one hand, literature is dead when people only write about themselves. On the other, writers have to be extra respectful when they’re crossing boundaries, and we have to work to make sure there’s room for a lot of different voices. And there’s plenty of room for disagreement on how much boundary-crossing is okay.
But of course the self is bigger than we usually give it credit for. I write a lot of female main characters, for example, and I think that’s probably because I grew up in a house with my mother and my sister—just me and two women. Or when my characters are African American—well, the neighborhood I grew up in was mostly African-American. None of this makes me an African-American woman, obviously, but what I’m saying is that the experiences I’m writing about are not from the other side of the universe or anything.
You know, I’m interested in your comment that you’re an introvert. You’re also a really fun and warm person, so that’s interesting and complicated. But I see it in your stories. The reader gets wonderfully close to your characters, but the characters themselves tend to be on their own. The main characters in a number of these stories work alone; many of the characters are distanced from their families by geography, misunderstandings, neglect, or even death. Earlier you said that you tend to notice lonely people, and they become the drivers of your stories. Why do you think that is? What draws you to lonely characters?
Your comment about Dubonnet struck a chord. Certainly her son and daughter-in-law wouldn’t say she was a nice person, but she’s based on someone I saw in Bryant Park only once, for maybe 3 minutes. She had bags with her, as Dubonnet does, all wrapped in Saran Wrap, and her lipstick went way up right to her nose, and she was being very tidy about how she arranged all of her bags. Well, I couldn’t get her out of my mind. She understood so much about being out in the world—about cleaning up after herself, about her clothes being laundered and some of the social norms. But there was also this whole swath of things she didn’t seem to understand about how odd she was. I felt for her, but I didn’t pity her (pity, as an aside, seems to me to be a kind of contempt), but I wanted to try to imagine her day. Why did she bring so many things with her to the park? Why did she wrap everything up in Saran Wrap? Why did she have a little rain kerchief on even though it was sunny? What would it be like to live with her? Reading and writing fiction is so much about wanting to have a window into other lives, which is what you referred to when I asked about the diversity in your own writing. I guess it comes from a place of wanting to peek inside the minds and lives of other people. It’s one reason that I love so many of your stories—they give me a glimpse into the private thoughts of people I want to know.
What draws me to lonely characters? Hmmm. I can best answer that by telling you who I’m not that interested in writing about. I don’t have much interest in the brash, show-offy, successful types who seem like they really want me to know them. I remember back when I was dating in my 20s. A guy came up to me at a party and said, “Guess how much I make?” He pushed and pushed until he finally just blurted out his salary, which was a lot. I guess he wanted me to be impressed, but it had the opposite effect. If he ever ended up in one of my stories, he would probably be a “flat” character because who wants to get to know that guy better? Not me. I am much more interested in the people who are complex and subtle and who are not forever trying to be known. In fact, I could say that about friendships in life and not just about the characters I tend to write about. So maybe it isn’t really that I am drawn to lonely people, but to reticent characters who are nuanced and complicated. The guy with the big salary was not someone I cared to get to know.
To go back to your collection, I noticed in many of your stories that you explore the worry that we’ve all had that there is something really cool happening, and we are not invited. That’s pretty front and center in the title story, but it’s there in other stories too. In “Eleven Girls,” for instance, there’s this sense that Josh has to pick the “right” girl, or that having the right girl pick him would answer a lot of questions, would settle things. He thinks it’s a high-stakes question, but it seemed like you were gently making fun of all the weight we put on these things. In the end, what many of your characters come to understand is that “we are the same,” as you write in “Everyone around Me.” In fact, that line, “We are the same” is like a prayer, almost, a profound resolution to the isolation many of your characters seem to feel.
That is one theme in your collection that I loved—the fear that we are the odd-person-out, resolved by the eventual understanding that “we are the same.” The collection has such a powerful and cumulative effect. In “The Shy Birds of Hope” towards the end, Paul has the feeling that “he was finally part of a larger conversation, one he’d wanted to join all his life.” That sentiment seems prevalent in several of your stories, the wanting to belong, and yet the already actually belonging. My question then is two-fold. First, how do you see the connection between these stories, and second, what do you think you know now with this collection, that you didn’t know with your earlier collections?
The collection got started when I found myself in this very cliquish social environment (I’m not going to get any more specific than that, in order to protect the innocent), and I constantly had this feeling that something amazing was happening nearby but that I wasn’t there and wasn’t invited and could never get in. It was a very alienating experience, but it provoked a number of short stories, including “The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy,” the title story, which is of course all about leaving someone out. And the funny thing about that story is that, whenever I read it at a reading, people are always coming up to me and telling me that they’re that guy—the guy who isn’t invited. What’s funny about that is that everybody says it; everybody is the not-invited one. Maybe even the guy who asked you to guess how much he made for a living. Maybe especially him! And I think that means that, first of all, there is no orgy, and maybe we should let go of that idea. And second of all, we are all the same; we all imagine some paradise that’s always happening somewhere else, never here; we all feel a little left out. That’s what I learned in writing this book, and it moves me deeply. This truth about human experience—our certainty that we’re each outsiders—is poignant and it’s funny and it has the chance to save us. We’re all in it together, even if we usually can’t see it. I want to help people see it.
You know, speaking of funny—segue alert—you’re really hilarious. As a person and as a writer. Your stories unearth lots of humor in your characters’ experience, and of course humor is not a light thing; humor deepens and strengthens your stories, it seems to me. The conversations between the daughter and her father in “Sky View Haven,” for example, are shaped by the father’s progressive dementia, and are therefore simultaneously ridiculous and heart-wrenching. The attempts to catch a restaurant-basement rat in “Lucky Cat” are so entertaining that they’re almost what you could call hijinks, and at the same time there’s this very tender story there about a person coming of age. That blend is in so many of your stories. I wonder if you could talk a little about that—as a writer, what relationship you see between the comic and the serious/tragic, and what you think you’re saying about it in your work.
Humor is a funny thing (no pun intended). I laugh a lot, and I am drawn to funny people. Also, people who are funny are usually smart. It takes game to make people laugh, so I enjoy smart people too. But the thing is, I don’t consciously try to be funny in my writing, in the same way that I don’t consciously place symbols in my stories, or artificially insert themes. Some of these things just come to pass as you’re telling a story, and perhaps reveal a bit about a writer’s personality.
I am aware, though, of not trying to be too sentimental in my writing, even when I’m writing about very emotional stuff. For instance, “Sky View Haven” takes part almost entirely in a nursing home. When I set out to write that, I wanted to avoid the clichés associated with nursing homes—the smell of urine, the overly sad context of people left to die. My father had recently died in a nursing home, and the truth was that over the months that we visited him there, in addition to the crushing heartbreak of his imminent death, there was a lot that was hysterically funny there. There was a one-legged nun, for just one instance, who played poker all day, and hopped out on the back porch to smoke. She’ll be a character in one of my stories eventually. There was just a lot that was funny there, but because of the context, it was the kind of funny that also cut me to the quick.
In the end, I think that if you want someone to feel how painful a situation is, as a writer, you can’t look that squarely in the face. As Emily Dickinson famously put it, “Tell it slant.” You can’t just have a protagonist who is always crying or the reader will feel nothing. It’s the sadness juxtaposed with other stuff, like humor, that I think makes the sadness more vivid. Is that crazy? All I know is that, as a reader myself, if someone is trying too hard to make me cry, I resist. But if an author can make me laugh in the middle of an emotionally painful scene, the scene turns into pathos and becomes kind of exponentially moving.
But you are also a funny and outgoing guy and I laughed out loud while reading many of your stories. In “Everyone Around Me” for instance, I underlined the line, “My desire for her to fail approached the level of prayer.” It was so funny, perhaps, because I’ve secretly hoped for someone to fail too. But it’s also the flip side of what you describe above—that we all want so badly to belong, but also sort of want to outdo one another, and can be jealous of one another’s success. That humor really amped up the way I felt such tenderness and relief by the end of your story. In “Out of Grapes” humor sort of goes bad. The timing of the joke-telling is just slightly enough off that everyone gets uncomfortable. So, to steal your question, what is your take on humor in your writing?
I have another, totally unrelated question. I recall that you are a runner, and I’ve started to hike. I find when I go out for walks, I come back full of ideas for my writing. Do you find that running influences your creativity?
You know, I once heard a writer named Dylan Krider give a great talk about humor, and he argued that humor enhances the intensity of other nearby emotions. Sad things become sadder, scary things become scarier. I think that’s true, and that’s why I think humor in fiction is actually a pretty deep thing. When I was just getting started as a writer I didn’t get that. I worried that humor might be low-brow, and so I avoided it and only focused on extremely serious stuff. (My early stories were kind of a slog to read.) These days, on the other hand, I don’t tend to feel great about a story unless it’s got a range of emotional experiences in it.
But I agree that you can’t try to be funny. When you’re writing a story, you can’t really try to be anything—funny, serious, intellectual, political, clever, etc.—because then the story stops being a story and instead becomes a snapshot of the author caught up in the act of exertion, straining, face screwed up and turning red. Nobody needs to see that. So the story can only be funny if I naturally find the characters and the situation funny. Luckily most things are at least a little bit hilarious, don’t you think?
Meanwhile, hiking sounds like a great idea; I bet it’s really nice for the writing. Running’s good for my writing, or it can be. Sometimes I have to step away from the desk, and then I come back knowing more about the story than I did when I got up from the desk. Sometimes the rhythm of running—or the music, if I’ve got music on while I run—lets me work through lines and sentences. Or maybe I listen to a podcast—I’ve been listening to a great podcast called Jazz Insights lately—and it gives me ideas for things I can write. (Like how a lot of early jazz musicians died tragically young in car accidents, to the extent that you begin to wonder whether car manufacturers were engaged in a conspiracy against the emergence of jazz as an American art form.) Or maybe running just gets my blood moving faster and juices up my brain.
Some of it falls apart on the page, though, when I get back, because I can’t really write in my head. I can refresh, and get ideas, and so on, but I can only write on the page itself. Still—some of it doesn’t fall apart, and I guess that’s what stays.
So—one last question for you: What’s your favorite thing about The Subway Stops at Bryant Park, the thing that makes you the most glad and proud to have written it?
You wrote above that “when you’re writing a story you can’t really try to be anything” because it ceases then to be a story and becomes about the author’s exertion. Well, that’s a revelation to me, and so totally true, and something I wish I could go back and tell my younger-writer self. It is such a verity that, as writers, we must be wholly ourselves or the writing comes out stilted and forced, and the readers are thinking more about the author than about the story. I think I’ll steal your concept and try to give it to my students all wrapped up in a bow so that they can skip the entire step of trying to be someone they aren’t, and can maybe just get down to the business of being themselves, if that’s even possible for beginning writers.
What am I most proud of with my short story collection? Publication is a funny thing for me. When I was first getting my stories and essays published, I would get excited, really excited, like it was going to change something tangible in my life, like it was going to change my worth or the respect I’d get, or my sense of myself as a legitimate writer. I’d get so excited, in fact, that I would then get too swept up in that, lose focus on my actual writing, and then feel horrible when nothing actually changed. It got worse when I published in more famous journals, and then I started winning awards, and that really threw me off my game. After an award that I won two years ago, I decided to stop entering contests for a while, and to try to find my center, where I could sustain my own sense of myself and my writings despite the vagaries of the publishing world or the opinions of readers.
So I’m proud about my circumspection surrounding the publication of this, my first book. I’m excited about it, but I know it won’t change anything in my life. I look forward to readings and to meeting people who read my work. That sounds lovely. I’m looking forward to seeing how the business of publication and marketing actually works. I take enormous pleasure from things like this interview and the ways in which writing can be collaborative and can give me an excuse to spend time with friends. And I’m also proud when I look at those stories and see how much I’ve grown as a writer. Some of those stories feel like real beginner’s stories to me, and I still love them. I can see in other stories where it seems like I’ve begun to hit my stride as a writer, too, and it’s nice to be able to take stock of my growth. I love that my writing is getting stronger. So I’m most proud that I’m continuing to write, that I am already quite happy before the book comes out, that I don’t expect it to change my life, nor do I want it to. I’m glad that that the thrills are now more in the work than in how the outside world reacts to it.
With this most recent collection, you are the author of six published books, so I’d be interested to hear what you are most proud of as this most recent collection is published. I imagine that what you are most proud of has changed with each of your books. Has it?
You know, it has changed, from book to book. With my first book my reaction was pretty much purely, Oh my God my book is getting published I’m going to have a published book people are going to read my book Oh my God! Though of course I was also happy with the things that I thought I might have gotten right in that book. You know how you look back at some moments or even some whole stories and you think, Wow—I got that right? It’s wonderful.
Beyond the first book, I think the big thing for me is that I never want to be doing something easy, something I already know how to do. There were stories in early drafts of this collection that ultimately got yanked because they were too easy, and I felt sure that the reader would feel that, like I had just cranked those ones out of the Story-matic 3000. The stories that stayed in this collection were the ones where I had a really significant chance of failure. A story from the 1st-person plural perspective of a group who didn’t invite a guy to an orgy? A story about a haircut that actually might be about the purpose of existence? I mean, what was I thinking? Well, I always want to be writing at the very edge of what I’m capable of, and I think I did that here.
West, it’s been a pleasure. Let’s do this again sometime!