Backings and Forthings and Rethinkings: An interview with Edith Pearlman


Pearlman2Sycamore Review is honored to publish “Last Words,” a new story by Edith Pearlman, in our forthcoming Winter/Spring 2011 issue. On January 11th, Lookout Books published a volume of her new and selected stories which we review below. Be sure to read our online review.

Edith Pearlman has published more than 250 works of short fiction and short non-fiction in national magazines, literary journals, anthologies, and on-line publications. Her work has been selected by Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Prize Collection, Best Short Stories from the South, and The Pushcart Prize Collection. Her essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Preservation, and Yankee. Her travel writing has been published in the New York Times, The Boston Globe, and She is the author of four collections of stories: Vaquita (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), Love Among The Greats (Eastern Washington University Press, 2002), and How To Fall (Sarabande Press, 2005), and Binocular Vision, published by Lookout Books in January 2011.

Sycamore Review: Your new book Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories showcases your dynamic narrative range, from 1st point of view coming of age stories, to a trilogy of stories that follow a woman from London during the blitz to her living in New York in her old age. There is even a formally experimental story told through a bereaved young woman’s January term paper. But “Last Words” seems to be a new kind of story for you. It takes place in the near-future and in a society that ours could become if we are not careful.  Even though this story takes place in the near-future, it is also very much rooted to recent events including the recent Bernie Madoff ponzi scheme. Can you discuss where the origins of this story came from and how you turned that germ of an idea into a fully realized story?

Pearlman: Like many of my stories, this began when one preoccupation intersected another.  I’d long been irritated by the exaggerated nature of elegies given by clergymen; and now that family members and friends elbow each other off the pulpit, funerals have turned into  rhetorical competitions.  So I wanted to produce a mild satire.

The other preoccupation, more recent, arose from a lecture by a respected scientist who said that our life span is limited by the irreparable decline and then death of our neurons.

I invented some characters who, as usual told me what they were up to.  Bernie Madoff was a gift from current events.  Any crook imaginary or real would have done; but Madoff’s cherubic aspect and careful accounting were irresistible, so I stole them.

Sycamore Review: The role of the eulogists in “Last Words” is thematically pivotal in the story because they are employed by the state to give eulogies that are devoid of passion and never judge the life of the dead. This mirrors the state-sanctioned medications that are meant to banish physical and psychological disease, but has created a benumbed citizenry devoid of passion and pain. When you set out to write this story, did you have these large themes and cultural critiques in mind when you sat down and typed the first word? Or did these themes become apparent to you during the process of writing the story?

Pearlman: The dystopia of the country of Last Words became apparent as I followed the logic of life without disease; but it was only vague in my mind at first.

The first word – whatever it is – is always destined for the wastebasket; so is the first paragraph; also the first draft.  I revise and revise and revise.  In the process themes become apparent.

Sycamore Review: A follow up that last question: One of my favorite new stories in Binocular Vision is “The Little Wife” (how could I not love a story with so much bacon?!). Gail, the protagonist, believes that even in death there is something to be learned and that for her “discovery is a lifetime habit.” That read to me like a manifesto for a writer’s life. Can you talk about the act of discovery you find in writing short stories? Do you enter each story knowing the beginning, middle and end and then fill-in between, or do you start with an image and discover the story as you write it?

Pearlman: I usually start (see first question, above) with an intersection of preoccupations.  I enter the story with that and perhaps with a character or two, who will change considerably during the writing and revising.  I don’t discover the story – I create it with hundreds of backings and forthings and rethinkings. Its elements have been discovered, invented, combined, observed, and dreamed..

Sycamore Review: The publication of Binocular Vision is a testament to your writing career to this point, but the new stories in the collection and “Last Words” in this month’s new issue of Sycamore Review point to your continued dedication to the craft. Many of the readers of Sycamore Review are writers themselves, so I wanted to ask a question about the writing process you have developed over your career. Where and when do you prefer to write? Do you write with music on or do you need complete silence? Do you have any rituals that you need to perform before you can sit in front of the keyboard be productive?

Pearlman: I write on a typewriter which sits atop my desk.  I require quiet but not silence.  Music is too distracting.  I drink lots of coffee.  I never answer the telephone

Sycamore Review: I am sure that you have too many favorite writers to list, but can you talk about some of the writers that have influenced you throughout your writing career? More specifically, are there any writers that directly influenced you while writing “Last Words”?

Pearlman: My favorite all time writer is Dickens, but talent can’t imitate genius.  However I’ve tried to give characters noticeable and repeated attributes; and I’ve done my own mild mob scenes with Barnaby Rudge and Tale Of Two Cities in mind. I’ve been influenced by all the short story writers I’ve read.  Some have instructed me in how not to write; but most have taught me positive things.  I’ve studied  the construction of sentences from Sylvia Townsend Warner, the precision of detail from John Updike, daily tragedy from Chekhov, lush descriptions  from A.S. Byatt.  And a million more.  As for Last Words – I don’t read Science Fiction but I do read the fantastical stories of Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, and Ursula Le Guin, and I’d like to join their club.

Sycamore Review: In an era of MFA programs and commercial workshops, can you discuss your self-reliance as a writer and what advice you have received along the way that proved most useful to your career?

Pearlman: I belong to a long-running 2-person once-a-month writing group.  My partner is the excellent writer and matchless reader Rose Moss.  She knows more about literature than anyone I’ve met.  We are ruthless with each other’s prose.  So I consider that I have earned an MFA equivalent with a master.  An official program with its multi-person workshops would not have suited my reclusive nature.

Best advice?  Respect your characters and your readers both: it’s your job to introduce them to each other – not to show off your artistry but to conceal it; not to lecture on some moral precept but to let it reveal itself.