Suspend Your Disbelief

Reliving My Life in Fiction: A Conversation with Pamela Painter

"Each story idea comes with inherent fictional traits."

Interviews |

Reliving My Life in Fiction: A Conversation with Pamela Painter

"How many breakthroughs like that can a writer have?" Pamela Painter chats with Steve Yarbrough about her work over the years and her new collection, Fabrications: New and Selected Stories.

I’m not sure where I first came across Pamela Painter’s work, but I would guess that it was in the Atlantic. Certainly, by the early ’80s, when I entered a graduate creative writing program at the University of Arkansas, she had made an impression on me. By then, I had regular access to the best journals in the country and was regularly reading and admiring her stories in publications like Ploughshares, North American Review, and Sewanee Review. Also, she had become an editor, too, and in several instances rejected my stories for publication in StoryQuarterly. She disputes my last statement, I should add, but I know what I know. And frankly, I would think less of her now if she hadn’t rejected them.

Her own stories displayed a number of traits that the young Steve Yarbrough’s lacked: they were elegant and polished, her control of tone was impeccable, and even in stories that exhibited a high degree of ironic detachment, she could make you ache for her characters. Yet, as good as her fiction was in the ’70s and ’80s, it’s become even better with time. Her latest stories, the ones that make up the opening section of her recently released Fabrications: New and Selected Stories (Johns Hopkins University Press), would in and of themselves constitute ample reason to buy and enjoy the book. But in fact, Fabrications draws from her entire career, giving us the finest stories from her four previous collections: Getting to Know the Weather (1985); The Long and Short of It (1999); Wouldn’t You Like to Know: Very Short Stories (2010); and Ways to Spend the Night (2016). Margot Livesey has praised Painter’s “wicked intelligence and ruthless humor,” and Bobbie Ann Mason has called her “a master storyteller,” assessments with which I concur.

For the past eleven years, Pamela Painter has been my colleague in Emerson College’s MFA program in creative writing. I’ve spent many memorable hours discussing (and, yes, sometimes disputing) the merits of this or that writer with Pamela. I’m pleased to note that she is as lively and original in person as she is on the page. We recently had a conversation about Fabrications.


Steve Yarbrough: If I had a dollar for every time I‘ve mentioned you to another fiction writer, pretty much anywhere in the country, and heard effusive praise of your work, I could buy the two of us a memorable dinner at Grill 23 with plenty to drink. The stories in your splendid Fabrications: New and Selected Stories were written over forty-five years. Why in the world did you make us wait so long for a collection that spans your entire distinguished career?

Pamela Painter: First of all, let’s pretend (our privilege as fiction writers) that you indeed collected a remarkable sum and we have a reservation at Grill 23, first floor, table for two, where I will begin with a dry martini three olives, and order a steak rare. Yours will be Woodford Reserve. So there. Invitation sort of offered and invitation absolutely accepted.

In truth, I didn’t imagine anyone waiting for a “New and Selected.” A story writer is always writing stories and last fall I was deep into a longer story that just came out in Five Points, and in polishing five or six flash stories that were also published this year. When I was told that a press was looking for a collection, and my name had been put forward, I didn’t have a whole new collection yet, so I suggested a “New and Selected.” Well, they would consider it. So there I was reading stories I’d written forty-five, thirty-four, twenty-six, fourteen years ago. And there I was—sort of reliving my life in fiction complete with children, drummers, waitresses, an Elvis-look-alike, husbands, my divorce. The locales ranged from rural Pennsylvania, to Haiti, to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, Chicago, and on to Boston’s Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Several stories surprised, actually startled me, with their wild imagination. Someone pointed out that I have several canopy beds in stories, something I never owned and never wished for. Hey, my “distinguished career” isn’t over yet, so there is still time for a canopy bed.

In 1975, around the time you began publishing, some of the big names in American short fiction were John Cheever, John Updike, Hortense Calisher, Donald Barthleme, and Andre Dubus. Today some of the big names are Karen Russell, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Díaz and your former student Laura van den Berg. You have published your stories in the most prestigious venues, then and now. The literary landscape has changed dramatically. Do you feel that your own fiction has changed with it? Are you writing different kinds of stories now than at the start of your career?

Let’s examine your premise: the literary landscape has changed dramatically from when I began writing till now. Your question: has my own fiction changed with it?

Well, for one thing, maybe the dramatic change in the literary landscape has more to do with which trees are still standing. The writers you mention are gone—some like Updike with an ungrateful “good riddance”—but others such as Barthleme are simply not being read. The new writers you mention are doing exciting work, but they are not affecting my fiction in the way that, say, Alice Munro or William Trevor have.  I mean that Andre Dubus’s ending to “A Father’s Story” is still capable of changing every writer’s life. I read that story’s shocking ending, and then I went back to read the whole story again because I thought this can’t be true, Dubus has to be preparing us for that ending. Yes, he was, and I finally had to admit, to accept that the father in the story is forgiving himself for his act of murder. He is giving voice to God. What nerve. What genius. And from that point on I allowed myself to allow my characters to imagine anything.

How many breakthroughs like that can a writer have? And then one has one’s education enlarged by Beloved and The Transit of Venus and other brilliant uses of imagination. I guess I see today’s writers as continuing that thread of investigation. Meanwhile, my own landscape changed in terms of material: marriage, divorce, children, lovers, homes, cats, getting older, a fascination with mayhem, a nose for the unimaginable. William Trevor’s dark, dark stories were appearing in the New Yorker right along with Updike, but also with Junot Díaz, and gave me permission to write a story from the point of view of a crotchety old man who is pushed over a cliff by his long-suffering wife. And another story where a character is literally erased from the story’s life. In a recent story, two hitchhikers are foiled in their murderous plotting because one of the victims has such a vivid imagination that she knows what they are thinking.

Back to your pesky question: if any one thing has changed for me, it is the length of my stories. Since the late ’80’s I have written short short stories off and on, and my collection Wouldn’t You Like to Know was all very short stories. I think of them as “micro-observations.” I’m writing a story now about the dog that barks in the night in so many novels. Who is that dog? Why does another dog not answer? Is it in a dog house? Tied to a tree? One looks to Kafka for these queries about the absurd.

A footnote: I did come upon a sentence in Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel in which the narrator refers to a panel that “discussed the zombie school they had established to instruct extras in proper lurching and vocalization and makeup.” I wish she had pursued it, but she did not, so I am drafting a story about such a class: Zombie Moves. We’ll see where it goes.

We’ve gotten around to something I’ve been wondering about—specifically, how working in a new genre affects us when we go back to the one we worked in previously. As you know, my first three books were short story collections. Then I began to write novels, and after three or four of those, I realized that it had gotten very hard for me to write a story. Thus, I’ve produced exactly four stories in the last twenty-two years. Your journey went the other way, toward a more compressed form. If, as I suspect is the case, given some of your lovely new stories, you feel equally at home in both, what tells you that this will be a flash fiction story whereas that will be a longer story?

If one has written novels for years, as you have, I can imagine that returning to the short story form is in fact more difficult, but also perhaps less enticing. This could be because you see the novel and story as separate genres—totally different animals, needing different amounts of gestation, preparation, care and time, and different applications of the techniques of fiction. You have chosen to dedicate your time to the novel.  I dedicate my time to the story—and though I began writing mostly longer stories and my journey has indeed moved in the direction of the very short story—I don’t think of them as all that different. For me a story is a story—their components are the same, even when I totally ignore one or more of them.

As for what tells me that one idea will be a flash story and another idea a longer story, I have to say that each story idea comes with inherent fictional traits. For example, a story idea might present itself to me with no characters at all, and never require their appearance. These tend to be short short stories. Other stories come with characters involved in an unstable situation that I then resolve—not always to my characters’ pleasure or satisfaction—in a story of greater length. But I can’t remember writing a story that began between one hundred and one thousand words that then grew into a longer story. Likewise, not one of my longer stories was ever whittled away in revision to the length of a short short story.

I still have a lot of male narrators left over from those early years.

Were you ever tempted to write a novel?

I always forget that long ago I did begin a novel I never finished. I was working at the Writers’ Room when it was above Shreve, Crump and Lowe on Boylston Street, a few blocks from my home. I was on the second or third chapter—it had a Cape Cod setting—when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I never went back to The Writer’s Room even once and never returned to that novel. My husband died six months later, and I was consumed with grief and mired in probate. When the Writers’ Room lost their lease and moved, another writer graciously packed up my books and notes and moved it all for me. Twice. Each time she sent me gentle reminders that she had my material but I simply did not respond. Finally, when the Writers’ Room moved yet again, she wrote me a stern email saying that she was putting my books, notes, etc., out on her porch and if I didn’t come get them that she would throw them out. My son retrieved those notes and books for me—I probably still have them all somewhere—but I never looked at that work again. When I returned to writing, I put my grief into stories and I never again considered departing from that form.

Speaking of grief, there’s a story titled “Grief” in Fabrications. I will never forget the first time I read it, which was many years ago in an issue of Ploughshares. If I made a list of the most moving stories I’ve ever read, that one would be on it. I know you well enough to do some math and figure out that it’s one you wrote in the aftermath of your husband’s death. But the grieving character in this story is a man who has lost his wife, rather than the other way around. I’ve always been curious why you chose to cross the gender line when writing this unforgettable story.

I can’t remember the setting or occasion, but Jim Carroll was recounting the true story of his neighbor whose car was stolen and then recovered right off the street as in my story—with TVs in the trunk. I never knew what happened after that, but I wrote what I considered “the story” and sent it off to Ploughshares. Don Lee, the editor, returned it saying he greatly admired the writing, but for him it was an unfinished story. He suggested I lengthen it—in so many words, “finish the story”—and send it back to him. When I returned to my story, the inside story of the man’s grief over the death of his wife blossomed and became the real story. I crossed the gender line right from the start because that is how I heard the “story” and I never crossed back. Don passed it along to Gish Jen, and I was thrilled that as guest editor she accepted it for the next issue of Ploughshares. (Thank you, Don and Gish.) It went on to win a Pushcart Prize.

As an aside, when I first began writing stories, word was it was easier for male writers to be published. I sent out my first two stories under a male name, and then my ego won out and when the first was accepted for publication, I owned up to my real name. A second aside, my first husband said he did not want to find himself in my stories, so I wrote stories from the point of view of a male drummer, postman, a dying man, a young boy, etc. When I finally gave voice to female narrators, my husband (by then an “ex”) was skewered in so many stories that I felt sorry for him and wrote another story from his point of view. I still have a lot of male narrators left over from those early years. 

Neither of us has ever felt restricted to inventing characters who represent our own demographic. Your stories are full of people whose backgrounds and circumstances are very different from yours. Has the time for that come and gone? Do you feel more constrained today?

I’m not sure what you think my demographic is . . .

A well-educated, widely traveled, seriously accomplished, relatively affluent liberal white woman from the east coast. 

Well, if one considers the usual demographic categories, my “own demographic” has changed over the years so my characters do have a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances.

My parents both grew up in Paintertown, and we went back to their family farms every weekend of my childhood. I remember the excitement when they finally acquired indoor plumbing and could get rid of the chamber pots that lived under the eaves. Paintertown was merely the side of a steep hill that had a gas station that sold bread, milk and eggs. Everything social happened at the Fire Hall, pronounced Far Hall. One of my early stories that gave the title to my first collection was about a woman who leaves her husband and is excited but nervous about being hired as a counter girl at Woolworth’s. (I was such a counter girl at fourteen.) She studies the waitress’s small talk—and understands that “getting to know the weather” is important casual conversation.

Even now, I’m writing a story about a girl who is dazzled by the Puccini and Verdi arias on the restaurant’s jukebox where she works, which was true of the restaurant where I worked. One of the regular patrons was a math professor at the University of Pittsburgh who said the “songs” I was playing were from full operas. I gave him my tips from several nights and he bought me the complete La Bohème. I was enthralled, and later in high school my friends and I would go to the operas in Pittsburgh. My father played the fiddle, and my parents gave me violin lessons and also baton lessons, which were equal in their eyes. Every Saturday, my father woke me with “Mule Skinner Blues.” For the first year of my violin lessons, he could mimic what I was learning but finally admitted that he couldn’t read music when I wanted him to play simple Mozart duets with me. I was the first in my family to go beyond eighth grade, inspired by teachers who also encouraged my parents to be ambitious for me. Amazingly, from an early age college was a given. And throughout my childhood, as now, I was constantly reading, and my relatives, which were numerous (my father had eleven siblings, and my mother three), knew me as “There’s-that-Pam-with-her-nose-in-a-book.”

Pamela Painter

So you were a reader from early on. What made you write fiction? 

It happened by chance. After college, I taught high school in a little town in New Hampshire for three years. The third year I was given a creative writing class, even though I told the principal I hadn’t written anything except a few bad poems. So, the first day I told the students to write a story that night and bring it in the next day. They bitched and moaned, somehow knowing how difficult it was, so I said, “Do it. I’ll write a story with you.” That was my first story. Then I wrote a second one and revised and revised it and it became my first published story. Then I began another story and revised it until it was published.  When I stopped teaching to have three kids, I continued to write stories and joined a writing group who said don’t wait for a story to be published to begin the next story. Keep on writing. It was an amazing group—almost everyone has published one or two or more books. By then, I had moved several times, begun a literary magazine called StoryQuarterly with two other people, gone back to grad school, and went through a divorce. That was Chicago. Then I met my future husband and moved to Boston.

But your original question, in addition to asking about demographics, also asked about constraints.  I think the major constraint for a writer is the limit of one’s intelligence and imagination. Was it Charles Baxter who said it is difficult to write about a character who is markedly more intelligent than you are—perhaps when he was writing First Light about a character who is an astrophysicist?  

Well, I agree with you and Baxter both. But since we’re running out of time here, I’d like to ask you about a different kind of constraint. You had to make some difficult choices when deciding which stories to include in Fabrications. Inevitably, you had to leave some fine ones out. How did you decide what made the cut and what didn’t?

Selecting the stories to include was difficult, and I find myself lamenting some of the stories I omitted, both new and older. As a result, each of the four sections of Fabrications which represents a book has, for me, a sort of ghost image waving forlornly and tagging along. I didn’t want too many stories about dysfunctional relationships or failing marriages, or tortured families, or the death of a beloved person, or infidelity or suicide or war. And some of my experiments with form felt out of place, but now I wish I had included more of those stories. Because after all, I considered them successful though odd, and clearly editors also believed in them. I also tried to balance female and male points of view. Past and present tenses. I do love my sexy tribute to Janis Joplin, but it strikes a note all its own.

Do you have a story in mind that you wish I had included? 

Well, to cite just one of many, I would have loved to see “The Mystery of Mistakes” in there. But the thing is, there’s nothing in Fabrications that I’d be willing to see replaced. So before we say goodbye, let me just say that this gorgeous book is one of the best collections of stories I’ve read by anybody in years. And as always, Pamela, it’s been a joy to talk fiction with you.

Oh, Steve, it was such a pleasure for me to have your keen reader’s eye focused on my stories.  Thank you for all your good wishes and support.

Literary Partners