The winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, Jessica Hollander’s debut collection, In These Times the Home Is a Tired Place, is a smart, confident book bursting with tales of pregnant couples, lost souls, and finding a place in the world.
When a story idea comes to you, are you thinking ahead to narrative style or story length? Do you know, for example, this is a one-paragraph story, or that, like the collection’s title story, the narrative will take a non-traditional structure?
I’m really conscious of different styles and how they affect the reader and highlight various themes. So I do often go in thinking about style, though sometimes it does evolve. In the title story, I started to write little, short scenes, and then I decided I wanted to put them together as three different parts, with three different patterns. And this mirrors what we traditionally expect a story’s structure to look like: rising action, climax, and declining action. Plus, since the story is about divorce, the cut-up snippets speak to the theme and to the actions in the story, which ends with a pile of shredded paper in the bed and the mother dreaming about death. So I like to play with style and to expose the scaffolding of a story when I can.
Your use of dialogue, the way your characters speak to each other through both traditional conversation but also through non-sequitur or distracted responses, is fascinating. How did you come to this approach?
A long time ago, when I was first learning how to write, I turned in a story to my workshop where a character said, “I have to go to the bathroom,” and then she got up and went to the bathroom. And my teacher told me how dialogue should be somewhat surprising and interesting. She suggested that I think about dialogue like poetry, so that it has a higher level of meaning. And this is weird, in a way, because you want to think of dialogue as realistic and natural. But this made sense to me in a different way, too, because I started thinking about dialogue as associative, specifically in the way people often respond to each other in an indirect way. A response may not make logical sense, but it makes emotional sense. And I do think that’s the way we talk to each other. We always have a conversation going on in our head while we’re talking to someone else, so we’re often only half-responding. And we’re also maybe subconsciously directing the conversation in the way that we want it to go.
Many of the stories in the collection contain both traditional narrative arcs with injections of the bizarre. How do you find the balance between the very real and the strange?
If I were to define the literary tradition I think I’m writing in, it would be hyperrealism. Someone like Gerhard Richter creates photorealistic works of art, something that seems like a photo, but then when you get closer, you realize it’s too bright, too vivid, and you notice that this is actually a painting. That’s how, stylistically, I think about my own writing: it’s turned up a notch. Dialogue is heightened, and things that happen are just a little bit more extreme than they would be in normal life.
Do you plan to continue with short fiction, or is a novel in your future?
I’ve worked on novels before. I like working in spurts, something longer, then back to short stories. Right now I am working on more short stories and a couple of essays. I’m teaching a gothic writing class, and that has been great. Great material to filter into my stories, and I’m energized by it. I always feel like I need to try to do something a little bit different than I’ve done before, and even finding a different motif is enough. In general, though, short stories let me take more risks. There’s an audience for every kind of short story, but with longer works, it’s harder to find an outlet.
And since you’re the recipient of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize, I hope you can share your favorite Katherine Anne Porter story.
“Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which is a short novel, as Porter wants it to be called. I like the mix of humor and tragedy. There’s a war going on, but everyone in the story is back home, pretending that the war doesn’t matter to them. They’re mocking the fighting, and they’re laughing in the face of the soldier character, Adam, who is about to ship off. They’re laughing about how he’s about to go off and die. Porter is always self-mocking, but then this ultimately ends up being a very tragic story. I love when humor is injected into this kind of tragic work, and you feel these mixed emotions of pleasure and guilt for taking part in it and chuckling along with the sadness.