Exclusive Interview: Joy Author Erin McGraw
It would be very easy to introduce the following email interview with writer Erin McGraw with a reference to that Royal Teens song, “Short Shorts” (“Who wears short shorts / We wear short shorts”). Especially given that the short stories in her new collection Joy And 52 Other Very Short Stories (hardcover, Kindle) are all only three or four pages long. But I won’t do that. I have too much respect for you and for her. So don’t ask.
Photo Credit: Nadia Peters
The stories in Joy are each only a couple pages long. What is it about really short stories that you like so much?
These stories found me. I’ve never been a particular fan of short-shorts or flash fictions; when I was teaching, I wouldn’t let my students write them. But I was commissioned to write something very short for a magazine, and liked the careening, hell-bent-for-leather quality of it, so I wrote another one. And then another one. It was like eating potato chips.
So aside from the length, is there a common theme to the stories in Joy?
There are a few themes that run through the book: artistic creation and its discontents; God’s apparent absence in our lives; class consciousness in the United States. Ultimately, I think it’s a book about who’s inside and who’s outside. More specifically, whogetsto be inside.
How about a framing device, like what Ray Bradbury employed in The Illustrated Man; does Joy have one of those?
Joy doesn’t have an overt framing device, but the repetition of style from one story to the next becomes a kind of frame. Readers quickly form expectations, and so anyone reading Joy will come to anticipate a certain kind of drama that will wrap up in three to four pages. My task is to keep it interesting.
So in terms of the stories themselves, what genres or combinations of them do they cover?
If you want to get technical, most of the stories are dramatic monologues, in which characters come forward and directly address the reader about their lives. There are a couple of variations — one story told all in dialogue, another out of temporal sequence, a third in the form of a prayer — but the dramatic monologues dominate. I like them because characters attempting to explain their lives can be relied upon not to do a good job. Mostly they lie, and lies make excellent fiction.
I have always thought that the best way to get to know a writer, and their style, is through their short stories. Do you think Joy is a good introduction to your writing style?
My style hasn’t changed much over seven books, but I do think this is a pretty good place to start. Short pieces are easy to read and remember, and these are bite-sized. Like getting the appetizer rather than the main course.
Half of the stories in Joy have previously been published in such places as Ploughshares, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review. Are the versions in Joy the same as those, or did you change anything of major consequence about them?
The versions are the same. Not because of policy, but because I don’t see anything that needs changing. I work on a piece until it feels finished, which is another way of saying that continuing to revise feels less and less fruitful. Then it’s time to move on.
Now, this is not your first book. It’s not even your first short story collection. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a big influence on the stories in Joy, or maybe just one of them, but not on anything else you’ve written?
I recently finished Joy Williams’ superb 99 Stories Of God that I’d love to claim as an influence, but hers is a very different book. If there’s any writer I was consciously invoking with this book, it was the great dramatic monologist in the English language, Shakespeare. I don’t write like him, obviously, but I kept thinking about his ability to compress and refine characterization, and then trying to imitate it.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or video games; did any of those have a big impact on any of the stories in Joy?
Joy is a very literary book; in these stories, a lot turns on a word or the rhythm of a sentence. That’s not the kind of thing that usually comes from movies or TV, although I’ll bet there are places where I was channeling movies without thinking of it.
Speaking of which, has there been any interest in adapting any of the stories from Joy into a movie, TV show, or video game?
I wish! But, again, these stories were designed for the page, and that really defines them. They are a single voice speaking from the darkness, and a great deal relies on the character’s interpretation of events. For example, in the story about a man impulsively shooting a boy at a Little League game, “Comfort (1),” the real issue isn’t the murder. Everybody agrees on who did it, including the murderer. The story lies in why he shot the kid, and that kind of psychological backstory doesn’t really lend itself to riveting movie- or TV-making.
Finally, if someone enjoys Joy, which of your other short story collections would you suggest someone read next, and then which of your novels would you suggest they read after that?
It would make sense to read the most recent story collection before this, The Good Life, which deals with a lot of the same thematic issues.
Similarly, I would recommend the most recent novel, Better Food For A Better World, which has a number of characters taking turns to narrate their versions of events, often contradicting each other, and frequently getting things wrong, which is when, as we all know, stuff gets interesting.