Alice Elliott Dark brightens when PW asks about her pop culture intake. "Extremely high level," says the writer whose current reading list includes the Bible, histories of religious saints and martyrs, Edith Wharton and Flannery O'Connor. Her interest in Ricky Martin and heavy metal isn't so much an effect of having an eight year-old son, but rather, Dark says, "I've always really liked it. I subscribe to the Star, I watch Lifetime television for women. My son tells his friends, 'My mom likes hard rock, she likes rap!' It's not ironic. I believe in popular culture, in what touches people."
Though In the Gloaming -- Dark's highly anticipated second short story collection, out from S&S -- is her first book to be published in nine years, the writer has some recent experience of her own in the public arena. The title story of the collection, which appeared in the New Yorker in 1994, was one of the most memorable stories published that year, and reached even wider audiences when it was made into a 1997 HBO film starring Glenn Close and directed by Christopher Reeve (it was Reeves's directorial debut).
Dark sees no point in distinguishing between high and low culture when it comes to interpreting human values, even in art. "I don't believe people are stupid outside of New York City," she says. A one-time New Yorker herself, the writer now lives just outside the city, in a quaint, homey carriage house in Montclair, N.J., with husband Larry (chief production editor at Businessweek and the editor of the O Henry Award series), son Ascher, and several happy, well-loved pets. Though she's gotten a taste of Hollywood, her home reflects a decidedly down-to-earth, comfortable and unassuming sensibility. It is plain she finds humor and intrigue in her ordinary environment, and she also delights in glimpses into worlds beyond her own. In her cozy, garretlike writing office, she points out one of the latest objects of her fascination: a photograph of an overlarge but rickety mansion on a desolate strip of gravel and litter. Every angle of the house, she notes, is crooked, and the mansion looks almost haunted by its own ugliness. "This is a picture of Saddam Hussein's summer estate," she says. "He d sn't have some gorgeous pastoral retreat, he has this! The photo is so pathetic and revealing it makes me want to start a collection of them: the leisure palaces of corrupt, powerful men."
Excitable and unpretentious, Dark has a way of using her imaginative range and inquisitive intelligence to convince people to see what she sees. In the Gloaming is full of recognizable characters, such as the awkward pubescent girl in "Maniacs" who hopes her mom will buy her a fashion magazine, and the distant father in "In the Gloaming." And familiar to urban dwellers everywhere is the bachelor in "The Tower," who dates models and strives to appear hip to close friends and strangers. But Dark's work is undoubtedly literary, with contemporary mainstream culture refracted through classic storytelling, pitch-perfect dialogue and timeless moral quandaries.
The title story provides a stunning example of Dark's ability to hit a range of notes, from the tragic to the lighthearted. In telling of a woman's relationship with her son who is dying of AIDS, it manages to be both devastating and gentle, harrowing and redemptive, and it expertly avoids sentimentalizing mother-love, death and spirituality. It was chosen to be included in John Updike's Best American Short Stories of the Century anthology, and was made into two films, including the aforementioned HBO version. Dark, in her characteristically straightforward way, says the biggest adjustment for her in dealing with its transposition into film was not that big names were suddenly attached to her quiet story, but rather the fact that the producers changed her main character's name from Laird to Danny. The writer also had to get used to readers' demands for more along the same lines. After "In the Gloaming" came out, she says, "everybody wanted another one just like it. But that was the last thing I wanted to write again. Also, I couldn't. Except for the ending, that story was written fairly quickly, it was like channeling, like I was tapping into something."
Generally, Dark works long and hard on her fiction, writing endless drafts and relying on her ruthless self-imposed literary standards to gauge the success of her efforts. In the small, private workshop she teaches in Manhattan -- a spinoff of a popular class she taught at the 92nd St. Y -- her eight students clearly respect the standards that Dark sets for them. Her teaching style is relentlessly honest, yet subtly persuasive; she seems relaxed and approachable but she also pushes her students to write, rewrite, risk and change their stories' endings. She is egalitarian, believing "everyone has the capacity" to be a writer if they work hard and commit to it, and she is happy to share her writing tricks and processes. The most important of these, hardly a trick, is to insist that the every story be a trajectory of emotional honesty. Dark rejects the idea that writers need to withhold information from their readers to create mystery in their stories. "I can ask people to read something that's honest, even if it's unpleasant, because people are lied to from morning till night."
Characters lie to each other and to themselves, but Dark d sn't lie to her readers. "As a writer," she says, "I need to tell everything I know about a character. Holding back what I know about someone d s not make them deep, it makes them vague." Learning about her characters takes time, and Dark sometimes works years on a story. Her stellar first collection, Naked to the Waist, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1991, is currently out of print, unfortunately for readers who will soon be clamoring for more of Dark's work. Dark fans lucky enough to find a hardcover copy of Naked to the Waist will be treated, in two novellas and four short stories, to the author's signature combination of human folly and hard-earned wisdom, humor and heart.
It is difficult to pinpoint how Dark's stories skim under their well-crafted surface realities into the murky zones where subjective reality slithers, constantly shapeshifting and yet incontrovertible. Her characters' psychologies are neither labyrinthine nor linear, but prismatic, illuminated with karmic suspense, and an inexorable emotional logic. Such characters labor at life, but their trials are compulsively readable, and their lives seem lived rather than invented. Dark's writing process d s involve a unique combination of zen and toil. She says her characters work only if she works hard enough at understanding them. "So much is a matter of getting out of your own way, your own ego. When you see people through your own ego, as in daily life, you judge them, and it's separating. In my fiction I'm less judgmental and it's connecting. I feel empathy for all my characters no matter how flawed they are."
A Long Apprenticeship
Growing up in Bryn Mawr, Pa., Dark received what she calls an excellent education at her all-girls high school, becoming such an independent and avid reader of literature that she majored in Chinese in college, wanting to immerse herself in a subject she couldn't learn on her own. Dark never took an English or a writing class during her years at Penn, enjoying the way Chinese studies fell so far outside her familiar academic zones. Studying Chinese made Dark "rethink everything," including, of course, her first language. The nascent writer's first serious forays were as a poet, and she spent two years living in London pursuing this dream, attending a graduate writing program in the late 70s. Seduced by beautiful words and the possibilities of revealing inner truths through them, Dark says, "it was a language thing, an attraction to words," and that when she decided to become a fiction writer, she "had to get rid of that. You can make things sound good that make no sense at all. Some of the first fiction I wrote was very poetic but really made no sense."
Once again rethinking her modus operandi, she stopped writing altogether and focused on reading "nonstop," she says. "I read different writers, everything they ever wrote. There were bad things by great writers, which is liberating. As an apprentice writer you need the sense that even the best writers had a process." She claims the Bible contains some of the most persuasive, compelling storytelling in existence, and says that "it speaks to everything I've learned as a writer" while continuing to teach her aspects of what a memorable, transformative story is. As an apprentice, she also learned a crucial lesson that many writers don't: "I gave up the idea of trying to show how smart I am." Abandoning the trompe l' il effects of impressive vocabulary and experimental language, she made a concentrated effort to find true windows into her characters' souls. "Now I want the language to be transparent, for people to totally forget they're even reading a book."
This comment is ironic coming from Dark, who, after all, spent nine years writing In the Gloaming. And it is especially so since she has had many complex, and in some ways confusing, issues to cope with since Naked to the Waist first came out almost a decade ago. One happy event was the birth of her son, who arrived in the world on the publication date of her first book. Dark feels this coincidence was an interesting omen, signaling the onset of a major change in her writing life. However, her book was well-received and Dark continued to write stories. But like many short-story writers, she was soon expected to follow up her collection with a novel, and spent the next few years writing one. The endeavor turned frustrating and painful when her novel-in-progress was turned down. Dark went back to the drawing board. "I holed up, I went underground. I didn't send anything out for a while." She emerged triumphant "a couple years later" and soon had stories published in the New Yorker and Harper's.
Dark, with this difficult, yet illuminating experience behind her, is effecting another literary transformation; she is now working on a new novel. She makes clear her belief that "different ideas work for different forms, and this is a novel. It is not an elongated short story. I had to learn a new form." The novel in progress is about a woman at three key points of her life, ages 10, 25 and 45. Her struggles involve "accepting who her parents are and what that means. That lifelong process and integration of the self," as Dark sums it up, adding with a self-mocking grin, "there's lots of action!"
In real life, occasional teaching gigs, family responsibilities and intensive work habits provide plenty of action for Dark, who has very little time for schmoozing on New York's literary scene. She says that she used to never apply for writing grants because she simply didn't know anyone to ask for a recommendation letter. Now she is enthusiastic about a writers group she belongs to in Montclair, where she can talk about the exciting or exasperating details of writing and publishing.
In the Gloaming is already getting national attention, but Dark fantasizes more about finally having enough time to write than about basking in fame or acclaim. Busy as she is, she seems a balanced working mother and writer at peace with her environment and identity, teaching her son to field calls and negotiating errands with her husband as the interview progresses.Yet when PW notes this appearance of calm equilibrium she laughs, a captivating, zinging sound, and says, "Really? I think I'm kind of perverse!" Like her characters, whose ordinary lives are experienced as anything but, Dark's secrets are out in plain sight: they are simply hard work and faith. "I know what I believe. I've always known what I wanted, and it never had anything to do with worldly fortunes. I have to write. I'm just a writer."
Shaughnessy is a New York-based freelancer and poet. Her first collection, Interior with Sudden Joy, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1999.