A few months ago, long after I had finished writing Grey Inserts Himself, Like an Oven Mitt in a Top Hat, I found Issue 3 of McSweeney’s at a used bookstore and purchased it. In the letters to the editor section there were questions from David Shields, and as I read them, I recognized some of the things that had motivated writing my story. So I am using his questions as a kind of/ not really interview. Thanks to McSweeney’s for giving permission to reprint these questions.
DS: Is there a sense in which a writer’s vision gets more thoroughly and beautifully tested in a book of linked stories than it does in a collection of miscellaneous stories or in a novel?
BW: Linked stories provide cheat codes to writing a longer work. You are able to walk through walls and have multiple lives. Which is not to say that it is easy, but there are certain things you can do in seven stories that you can’t in one long one. You are able with each story to start fresh. By linking them, they work together as a whole. I think linked stories have the benefits of both short stories and longer pieces. You can work on the micro and macro level simultaneously and consciously. Novels that focus too much on micro tend to be disjointed, whereas short stories that focus on macro seem unfinished.
DS: How do linked-story collections combine the capaciousness of the novel with the density and intensity of the novel?
BW: Each story is a separate entity. It has a function and a purpose in and of itself but also in support of the collection. Because each story contains tendrils that attach themselves to the other stories, they function together as a whole. The density comes from the accretion of each story building towards one large story. Like Voltron.
DS: Why do linked stories often have a stronger thematic pull than do novels?
BW: Typically the theme is what links the stories. In a novel, you have one theme that may manifest itself in various ways and you might stray from the theme to develop other aspects of tone or characterization. But in short stories, especially if they are very short, the theme is going to be like a pulse that you feel asserting itself in every story, and every story might do it differently.
DS: How does each story in a collection of linked stories achieve a sort of closure-but-not-closure?
BW: This was one of my main interests in writing these stories. I wanted each story to have a problem that was resolved. I wanted a series of births and deaths, so to speak. Because each story is its own reality, each story has its own rules. I was interested in making these rules rub up against each other in the spaces between stories, which I felt leant it that lack-of-closure aspect. It is like watching the coyote get hit in the head repeatedly by the anvil. It brings the story to a close, but it can’t because you know that it is just one link in a chain.
DS: What is the difference between repetition and reprise?
BW: The coyote getting hit in the head with an anvil over and over is repetition. There are certain elements that repeat in the Grey stories. Certain phrases or ideas. Reprise is variation on a theme where the same kind of thing happens but there are subtle changes and amplifications. These tend to underpin the feeling of interrelatedness without drawing attention to themselves.
DS: To what degree do linked stories seem to be about pattern, about authorial obsession, about watching a writer work and rework his material until he or she simply has nothing more to say about it?
BW: I was interested in pattern, in telling maybe the same story in different ways, becoming obsessed with an idea, the idea of writing it and the idea being conveyed. I felt that grey paint as an object of obsession – it was the only emotion one could feel towards it. And “working and reworking” could very well explain the contradictions intentionally sewn into the narrative.
DS: What epistemological questions thus get raised? E.g., Is everything we know provisional?
BW: Is there such thing as truth or a soul? Where does it come from? How do stories help us re-author our lives? Can fractured, conflicting stories be more comprehensive than a straight-forward or “true” event? Are there an infinite number of universes? What do we learn?
I am interested in the questioning aspect of story-telling and I think that my answers here are just that: my answers. Your answers might be different. If you’ve read the book, or even if you haven’t, feel free to add your comments.