|The Plain Sense of Things
Author Q & A
Pamela Carter Joern
Would you call The Plain Sense of Things a novel?
I set out to write a collection of related stories. I wanted to tell a big story that took
place over decades and generations, but I wanted to drop down into specific moments
in the history of a family without having to explain the before and after. A few people
who’ve read the book—including Julia Alvarez who graciously wrote a blurb and the
reviewer for Publishers Weekly—have referred to it as a novel. I love the idea that the
work may have morphed into something beyond my imagining. I am sure that if I had
conceived of this book as a novel, I would not have written it the way that I did.
What was your process?
This book was shaped over a number of years. It started with the story “Pipe Dreams”
which I wrote as a student in the MFA program at Hamline University. I got hooked on
stories and on writing about Nebraska, the state where I spent my childhood. For my
thesis, I wrote a collection of stories that included more stories about the Preston
family plus other stories in which the family appeared as minor characters. The
collection (titled Listen for the Meadowlark) won the Prose Thesis Prize when I
graduated, but my readers said: “Either the family stories or the other stories, and we
vote for the family.” I spent the next year writing additional stories about the family.
And then, more readers and more revision, pulling some stories in, leaving others out,
until finally this book emerged.
What happened to those other stories?
Several of them have been published in literary journals. One of them, “Confessions,”
won the Tamarack Award sponsored by Minnesota Monthly Magazine. In some ways,
they are stronger stand-alone stories because they were not so interdependent.
Do you prefer writing stories or novels?
I like both. They are different experiences. The short story is intense, more like an
elongated poem, and that requires a focus and discipline that I find challenging. The
novel, on the other hand, affords a bit more luxury to meander and embellish and bring
in sub-plots and complications, and that’s fun, too. The challenge with a novel is
keeping all those threads weaving together.
Are these stories based on real people?
Yes and no. Isn’t that the way it is with all fiction? More than some things I’ve written,
these stories are inspired by my family and its history. I grew up hearing stories about
my grandfather, for instance, although he died before I was born. The broad outlines of
the story are my effort to bear witness to my family, who I think showed heroism and
courage and abiding love. At the same time, I made up a ton of things, all the little
details that carry the stories.
I think it must be strange to be close to a fiction writer. Readers assume your
characters are your family, even when they aren’t. A friend of mine wrote two books
about an alcoholic mother, and her own mother said, “At least, it’s not me.” But my
wise friend said, “Oh Mom, everyone assumes that it is you.”
I hope the work stands on its own. I hope the stories convey something about what it
means to be human and search for meaning and love. I think that’s universal.
What were some of your early influences?
We lived in the country when I was young, so I didn’t have access to a library. I read
most anything I could get my hands on, my dad’s Field and Stream magazines, my
brothers’ Boy’s Life. My teachers in a one-room country grade school sometimes
brought me books, things like the Bobbsey Twins. I only owned two books beyond
picture books: a book of fairy tales rescued from the coal shed at our school and a
Bible, King James version. I read both of them, and both were filled with great stories. I
think the fairy tales fed my imagination, and the Bible stories encouraged me to look for
meaning and grandeur. Plus, that King James English, the same language as
Shakespeare, was a wonderful introduction to cadence and beauty.
Why do you write? What drives you?
I love language. I’m interested in ideas and relationships, and story moves me. But
mostly, I write to teach myself compassion and empathy. I suppose those are the same
reasons I read, but after being a life-long reader, at some point, I decided to immerse
further and try the work myself. Plus, there’s a great satisfaction in creativity, striving
toward patterns that are beautiful and true.
Who are your favorite authors?
There are a lot of wonderful books in the world. I’ve been known to weep in libraries
because I won’t have time to get to them all. Whoever I am reading right now becomes
my favorite, so here’s what I’m reading in July, 2008: Per Petterson’s Out Stealing
Horses; a fat anthology of short stories edited by Richard Ford called American Short
Stories; a new book of poetry, Milk and Tides, by Margaret Hasse, a marvelous
Minneapolis poet. I just finished reading The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck, a book
I did not know about until I was on a remote northern island with ten other people and
a collection of 12,000 books.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read, read, read. And try to move through your life awake. Notice things. Be curious
and interested in going beyond the surface.
Then, it’s a matter of practice and perseverance.