Most people think that what prevents greater love is a lack of truly understanding each other’s experiences. By going to the opposite extreme in “The Invention of Separate People,” you demonstrate that isn’t entirely the case. What prompted this idea?
I was probably experimenting toward this idea rather than demonstrating it. The experiment arose from my instinct that what’s most exciting about other people, what’s most likely to inspire our passion and our empathy, is their mystery; when we cease to acknowledge that mystery and convince ourselves that we truly know them, rejecting the possibility that they might not be quite the people we imagine, is when we stop perceiving them as enigmatic other human beings and only as a type of themselves—an easy maneuver to make once you grow familiar with someone, and comfortable with his or her habits, but it spells death, I think, for honest love. Here’s a fitting quote from Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which I happened to be reading today: “In another dream an old woman told me that at my age, she wished she’d known that the soul never stops appearing.”
I never much considered that a career exists repairing floral coolers, but of course it does! What made you think of this choice for the woman, and does it have any deeper meaning?
Part of me still has the same primary-colored notion of the work grown-ups do that I had when I was six or seven. Everyone is a doctor, a nurse, a teacher, an actor, a janitor, a pilot, a chef, a police officer: the kinds of jobs it was easy for me to conceptualize when I was little. It’s not that I can’t apply a layer of symbolism to the work I assigned the woman in “The Invention of Separate People,” or that she herself couldn’t, but the truth is that, first and foremost, I was just trying to remind myself that the world is bigger and more anomalistic than my reflexes often suggest it is.
What was the hardest part of writing this story?
The hardest problems for me are always the problems of language: In this case, trying to intuit my way, sentence by sentence, toward a prose style that was simple enough to strike the classic tale-telling tone I wanted the story to possess yet would accommodate the complications of numberless different minds, and also—a closely related difficulty—to find the forms of phrasing that might belong simultaneously to both one person and to many, that could be both individual and shared, so that I could write unconfusingly about a world in which, as the story posits, “all people were the same person.”
I know you have taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and many of our readers are aspiring writers. Is there any quick piece of advice you’d like to give?
When you’re trying to decide which stories to write, choose the ones that matter deeply to you—or, if you’re beginning from a different set of bearings, apply the things that already matter deeply to you to the stories you choose to write. Then make sure that every sentence is tuned as perfectly as possible to its own purposes. There are many other pieces of advice I could offer depending on what your intentions are, but those two, I think, are universal.
What are you working on lately?
I had hoped to make “The Invention of Separate People” part of a story suite—twenty or thirty short tales about beginnings rather than endings, and joy rather than unhappiness; stories with something of the Book of Genesis about them rather than the Book of Revelation, of Cosmicomics rather than Blindness. I had hoped, in other words, to counteract my natural tendencies toward isolation, dejection, and finality. I did write another of these stories, but the project turned out to be more exciting to me in the conception than it was in the execution, and for now, at least, I’ve set it aside to work on something else.
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