Joy Williams Explains How to Write a Short Story
We spoke with one of America's greatest fiction writers to talk about her new book of very short stories, 'Ninety-Nine Stories of God.'
Joy Williams is one of America's greatest living writers. Her career stretches back to the 1970s, when legendary editor Gordon Lish published some of her earliest stories and George Plimpton published her debut novel, State of Grace (1973), under the Paris Review's book imprint. That novel became a finalist for the National Book Award, while her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead (2000), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, Random House published The Visiting Privilege, a collection of new and selected stories that span her lengthy career. This year sees the publication of Ninety-Nine Stories of God, a collection of short stories and fables that was previously only available in e-book form.
Despite its title, Ninety-Nine Stories of God is not a religious book—at least not in any traditional sense. These one- to two-page stories mix purely fictional tales with borrowed anecdotes and quotes from newspaper headlines and the lives of such disparate figures as Franz Kafka, Ted Kaczynski, and OJ Simpson. When God does appear, he is more often than not portrayed as a bumbling entity that has forgotten why exactly he did the whole creation business in the first place. He might be seen trying to adopt a turtle or participating in a demolition derby, to the existential horror of the car he chooses. At one point, a pack of wolves tell him how hard their lives are, yet still thank him "for inviting us to participate in your plan anyway." God keeps a straight face, but wonders, "what was the plan his sons were referring to exactly?"
In order to set up this interview, Williams, who famously eschews the internet and other modern technology, sent me a postcard of a barn in Oklahoma with her phone number. Eventually we settled on her finishing the questions and mailing them to me, which she did on hand-typed paper.
VICE: Your fiction frequently deals with animals and the animal world. Critics often talk about literature's ability to increase empathy for other people, but what about the natural world? Can fiction bring us closer to understanding animals, or are they ultimately unknowable for us?
Joy Williams: It's human beings who are unknowable—who can fathom or explain their cruelties and narcissism and nihilism? I used to rather like the word "empathy." Now I feel it's not nearly strong enough. Nor is sympathy hard enough. We need a radical shift in consciousness, a more generous conception of the whole, which is far more inclusive than we prefer to believe. I wrote a little piece about trophy hunters. The magazine that was supposed to take it did not. I maintained in the piece that trophy hunters are psychopaths. This is a dangerous sentiment, I guess, and one not universally accepted.
The stories in Ninety-Nine Stories of God were partly inspired by Thomas Bernhard's similarly hilarious, philosophical, and dark collection The Voice Imitator. Can you talk about the influence of that "cranky genius of Austrian literature" on your writing?
William Gaddis introduced me to the works of Bernhard. I first thought he said an Australian writer, and I said, "Oh, like Patrick White, I really like Patrick..." "God, no," Mr. Gaddis said, "Austrian..." I never understood how Bernhard could be a successful playwright when he disapproved so of engagement with people. Anyway, he's marvelous, delicious, his work can't be broken down. His little book The Voice Imitator certainly inspired me. A few of the early ones were rather in his voice—"#32" and "#82," for instance. I'm not sure where I found my own voice for this venture. Perhaps it was "#2" or "#70." I'm most pleased when God makes a thorough appearance—when he's hanging with the bats or a demolition derby or at the pharmacy, but I resisted this being the primary approach. Many different tones are struck in Ninety-Nine Stories of God. He's everywhere at once of course, but he must get tired of showing up all the time.
Many of the stories seem to be based on excerpts from newspapers or other real-world texts. Do you collect striking anecdotes or interesting snippets of text to use in fiction?
I keep notebooks. "#54" came directly from a newspaper headline. "CANCER DOESN'T STOP HUNTER, 86, WHO KILLS MOOSE FROM HIS RECLINER." There's everything in my notebooks, from the advice in James Cain's Mildred Pierce—"Never sell the beach house" to the photo of the adoptable dog Filo who "is well-behaved while out and about and is interested in a home where he'll get moderate attention."
Why did you decide to put the titles at the end of the stories in Ninety-Nine Stories of God?
I was writing these tiny pieces. They didn't seem grand enough for names of their own. Then I realized it was important that they have their own signs. Some of them descend more deeply into the story or the placement manages to enlarge the thought. Never did I begin with the title. I don't know! Some are more colloquial, funny. For "#89," for instance, it seems the only way out.
"Writing gives me no happiness, I've said this before." —Joy Williams
Your stories are filled with biting humor, and are some of the funniest works I've read. The humor often comes from the syntax and language itself. Do you edit and revise toward humor, or does it arise more organically in the writing?
I don't revise much. I work too slowly. Am I funny? Writing gives me no happiness, I've said this before, but once I told a group that a sentence I wrote in a story called "Hammer" made me laugh. A man had a pet beaver who lived in his house in its own little house made of twigs. "When you broke bread with my friend you broke bread with that beaver." There was silence.
Is humor appreciated enough by critics and readers?
Overly desired, I believe.
There's an anecdote I always remember from your interview in the Paris Review. You talk about showing your brilliant story "Taking Care" to a fellow writer at a writing residency. They like the story, but want you to cut the final line, "Together they enter the shining rooms." You say you are dismayed and will not cut the line because, "It carries the story into the celestial, where it longs to go." Is there an inherent relationship between fiction and the celestial?
When it's art, I believe so. Certainly not fiction in general.
Although that incident took place at Yaddo, not in a classroom, I'm curious how you feel about creative writing classes as someone who has both taken and taught them.
They've become too corporate now, like everything. But writers have to get out of the room sometimes. I hate talking about process or craft. Well I don't, I can't. There's the wonderful story in Bernhard about the dancer and the dance. Can't be too aware of what you're doing.
Your work has a lot of stylistic variety, from the dense gothic prose of State of Grace to the more minimalist philosophical prose of Ninety-Nine Stories of God. Do you see your style as evolving, or does each work create its own style?
Each work creates its own path to being told. I don't know how I was doing what I did in State of Grace , but having done it, I wouldn't know how to do it again. Paul Bowles told Jane that she should utilize "the hammer and nails" available to the fiction writer, the tricks and tools of narrative construction. But she had to make her own hammer and nails each time before should could begin.
Despite a lot of talk about how short stories should be a natural fit for today's short attention spans, it seems like short stories are continuing to lose prominence in the literary world. Do you think that's correct? What is it about short stories that readers can't relate to these days?
That's awful! I don't know why the reader can't relate to short stories. Maybe they're not told well enough, maybe they don't engage the reader at the most mysterious level. And that's what they should specialize in after all.
Perhaps inspired by this final question, Williams included a small slip of paper with her list of "8 Essential Attributes of the Short Story (and one way it differs from a novel)." I've reproduced it below:
1) There should be a clean clear surface with much disturbance below
2) An anagogical level
3) Sentences that can stand strikingly alone
4) An animal within to give its blessing
5) Interior voices which are or become wildly erratically exterior
6) Control throughout is absolutely necessary
7) The story's effect should transcend the naturalness and accessibility of its situation and language
8) A certain coldness is required in execution. It is not a form that gives itself to consolation but if consolation is offered it should come from an unexpected quarter.
A novel wants to befriend you, a short story almost never.
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Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams is out from Tin House in bookstores and available online.