Barbara Shoup talks with Janet Desaulniers

Appears in Other Voices #43

I had never heard of Janet Desaulniers when last spring Other Voices asked if I would review What You've Been Missing, her collection of short stories, but, as it turned out, I liked the stories so well—in fact, I was totally blown away by them—that I felt compelled to talk with her about where they came from. We met in her comfortable home in Evanston, where we chatted a long while about writing and the writing life before getting down to the questions I'd come to ask. Desaulniers spoke frankly, with insight and humor, about her time at the Iowa Workshop, her early success publishing stories in the New Yorker as a graduate student, and the unraveling of that early promise as years passed and she was unable to complete a collection of stories commissioned by Knopf—and what it has been like, finally, at the age of fifty, to publish the collection exactly the way she wants it to be. She is a writer after my own heart, one who believes that process is, well, everything. That the work you do making a story is the only important thing, after all—and passing on what you know to the writers coming up behind you. Desaulniers was as intelligent, passionate, and funny in her remarks about the work she does with students at the Art Institute of Chicago as she was about her work as a writer. About what life has brought her way—a beloved son, the happiest of marriages, the knowledge that the stories she worked on so hard and for so long will stay in print forever due to the new digital technology available to small presses—she is grateful and amazed. There's a quote near the end of Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegone Days tacked so that I can see it when I glance up from working at my desk; there's a tattered copy of it my wallet, because I just like to have it with me. “Some luck lies in not getting what you wanted, but getting what you have which once you have it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known.” Janet Desaulniers' life and work reflects how true this can be.

Barbara Shoup: Reading a collection of really wonderful short stories is like holding up a kaleidoscope to the light and turning it to watch, amazed, as the shards of color inside shift again and again into new pattern—each one different, yet they are all made of exactly the same things. Your kaleidoscope—your material—is loss and its millions of permutations. Would you talk about a writer's material—and yours in particular?

Janet Desaulniers: I think that art is inquiry. So I don't think I so much begin with material as with obsession and questions. What is this about? Or, how does this work—does it work? What does it mean?

BS: But you're obsessed about something. You find a pattern in the things that you inquire about.

JD: I do now, when I look back at things. I understand better, now, in my current work, what I'm interested in. But as a young woman, I hadn't heard my stories or my concerns or seen my people or the sounds I'd heard in the world in the literature that I'd read. Of course, we're talking a real traditional education. At the University of Iowa, where I began, all my teachers were men. They educated me into the male consciousness, which was really great. It was a wonderful gift. But I was interested in the mysteries of being a woman and that's what I was inquiring into in those stories. Being a woman requires one to become acquainted with loss, and maybe try to understand it. You don't see mothers telling their daughters, or daughters understanding when their mothers seem to say, “Hey, listen! Life is just one loss after another loss after another loss. I'm not going to deny it, but would you come and stand by me while this happens?”

BS: Yet Iowa is known as the place for aspiring writers. Despite failing you in that fundamental way, what did your experience there teach you in a general way about how stories are made?

JD: Unhappily, no one taught me how stories came to be at Iowa. It was a strict workshop situation. Your story was due on March 3rd and you'd think, Oh, my God, stories! Do I have any stories? It was only the tension of the deadline that brought you the sense that an audience was going to look at your work—and knowing that it was usually an audience that would bring all kinds of cruelty to it. So you would be as careful and frantic as possible. That's how I knew to write. It was utterly agonizing. Utterly!

BS: So you felt like you were writing for the workshop instead of for yourself?

JD: I had no idea who I was writing for. Some of the teachers would lead the workshops. But I also had a teacher who I don't think read any of the stories. He just sort of showed up. I never had a conference, ever—unless the person wanted to sleep with me. I never received an annotated manuscript. And I was a teaching/writing fellow. It's not that they didn't think I had talent. I was publishing in the New Yorker while I was there. At Iowa, you were just on your own. There are some things that are good about that, but I could have used a mentor.

BS: Graduates of MFA programs often say that they gained the most from the opportunity to be with other writers over a concentrated period of time.

JD: At Iowa that's a nasty thing. It was so demanding to be around people who are ambitious in ways I'd never, ever, ever encountered. I'm a working-class kid from Missouri. I had never encountered people who were that cutthroat. And then to be publishing in the New Yorker.

BS: They probably hated you!

JD: They hated me. They would say out loud, “You took my dream.” As if I had come to their homes and stolen something from under their pillow. They made me really uncomfortable.

BS: But over time you found your own way, discovered your own process. How do you work now? How do stories gather and evolve for you?

JD: I collect anything about anything. With the book I'm working on now I've been so moved by what patience brought me. I had 120,000 words of just domestic moments. I was thinking, am I writing a domestic novel? What is this book? And I'm sitting at the Humanities Festival and I hear Shirley Hazzard say, “We need a Flaubert of the workplace,” and something clicks. Something comes full circle. Because I grew up in a workplace. We had a family business in Kansas City, an ambulance company, a 24/7 operation so the workplace was an extension of family life, and the employees an extension of family. My folks bailed employees out of jail and lent them money and drove them to work during ice storms and held their hands while they died of cancer. So imagine how the workplace was a great and utter surprise for me, especially recently. In the last ten years—I guess it started in the nineties—the workplace became so grotesque. It became so cruel. You can't even count on good work being rewarded; in fact, sometimes, good work is a truly bad thing to do for an employer. Also, I'm really eager to get to the bottom of middle management. Anyway I decided to give all this material to a husband and wife and the wife's best friend and a few other people who are caught in a grotesque work environment. In that context the domestic, no matter how whacked out, people dying, losing themselves to drugs, whatever, is like the last hope for consolation because there at least is a chance you will stumble across a passing glimpse of humanity.

BS: So you were collecting moments…

JD: Anything that shimmered. My husband would sit down at the dinner table and say something, and I'd write it down. My son would come over and explain to me the twelve kinds of punk rock in the Chicago area and I'd write it down. Now I see that I have a story line that engages me. I think I might be writing a book again about what domestic life offers people. The fact that you come home from hell and your handyman who doesn't speak English is screaming, “Your husband say pay, you no pay, your husband no pay.” That's the only humanity you're going to get that day. The crazy handyman who reminds you that you're alive and reminds you that things make sense. “You say pay, you no pay.” And you think, You're right!

BS: When you're in the collecting mode, are there things you see or hear that you write down and things you see and hear that you don't write down? How do you recognize something as your own?

JD: There's a kind of a thrill or a ping or a shimmer. I usually describe it as a shimmer—a shimmer of your mind. You know it the same way you know when you've written a good sentence. Sometimes the world writes it for you. That's one thing I never paid attention to in the first ten, twelve years of my career. I never understood that the world was writing for me. So I thought I had to do all the work.

BS: Could you give an example of that happening?

JD: There's still a story I haven't written—about my son, who was probably ten years old, and his pal, T-Bone. T-Bone came over and he had seen this great pair of shoes, with lights on them. If they're going to be pals they've got to have the same shoes, right? And I am simply the car that's going to drive them to the shoes. I just remember watching and writing down later this marvelous drama between these two who were looking at the shoes, picking out the shoes that mattered. I knew I had that. In my old way of working, I would sit down with that and I'd go, I wonder what this story is about. Then I'd look around the house. Maybe it's about a woman with leaky pipes. I would be so stuck in the here and now, because I hadn't collected enough. If I'd have let that be and then collected another ten, fifteen, forty thousand words—or thirty words, perhaps I wouldn't have immediately tried to push something around and try to make it into something. I had nothing to fall back on, nothing else to work with. So I believe in accumulation now.

BS: The collection of stuff you're working with now? Do you think it's turning into another collection of short stories? A novel?

JD: I'm going to call it a novel. The beginning, of course, is incredibly fractured, but I'm wondering if I'll find myself back to a smoother narrative. Right now I'm just being patient with that aspect. If I hadn't been patient, if I'd rushed, I would have missed this book I want to tell.

BS: How long did the collection process take?

JD: I bet I was two years collecting words. People would say, “Working on that book?” I'd say, “Sure am.” “When's it coming out?” “I don't know. But I've got a lot of words!” It was only being comfortable with that that allowed me to hear the thing that would spur the book I wanted. That's what I don't think anybody ever tells writers. You certainly don't hear it from Joyce Carol Oates, or her stripe. For her it's not true. But for a whole lot of people, like myself, it is a matter of patience.

BS: Does it ever freak you out that it takes so long? Do you think, I'm not accomplishing anything?

JD: That's what I mean about patience. You're talking to someone who brought her first book out when she was fifty! I better have learned to deal with what am I accomplishing? And that was really hard. But less hard once I married an artist, because artists understand patience in a way I don't think writers do—especially fiction writers. Fiction writers have that horrible thing hanging over their heads: I might write the Great American Novel. Or, I might make some money out of this. Artists know. Poets know. I used to tell my students, “We should all pretend we're poets. Think about how much more relaxed we'd be about everything.”

BS: Would you talk about how the relationship with your husband influenced your work?

JD: He's playful and intuitive. He was everything that I didn't know how to do. We could sit there at the table and read the paper for four hours, just making jokes and telling stories. I'd say something simple and he'd say, “You should write that down.” I'd say, “Why should I write that down? That's one line. What am I going to do with it?” When he was in charge of the first year program [at the Art Institute], he came up with a whole curriculum that was designed to remove utility from a certain part of an art student's education. I had read his work about training young artists. It was the first thing that made sense to me. He said, there's direct scholarship and that's finding out what people know that you don't know. Americans really love their children to excel in direct scholarship. What we're not so sure about teaching our children about is indirect scholarship. Indirect scholarship is finding out what you know that you didn't know you knew. I was an absolute naif about that. I had no idea how to find out what I knew that I didn't know I knew, because I didn't know my own process at all. I knew what I had been doing, but I didn't know how I had been doing it. I was taking these agonizing forty-mile trips to indirect scholarship, and I began to find much easier ways to get there. Also, I can't tell you what it's like to live in a house in which there are materials for art making all over the place. You say, maybe I'll make Christmas cards—and you're making art. My son's an artist, too—a truly gifted artist. So between the two of them, I just began to see.

BS: Against the idea of how one develops as an artist, there's something that's always there and has been there from the start. Camus probably said it best when he observed, “A man's work is nothing but a long journey through the detours of art to the two or three simple and great images which first gained access to his heart.” What are those images—or ideas—for you?

JD: For me it's been language more than anything. I've always been an abstract woman, like many of my characters, so language has meant a great deal to me. One of Eliot's poems says, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” That is something I think I've looked for. A lot of my characters experience and come to know really hard things and find a way to live with them. What's left of you when you've been battered or someone's been taken from you, I think that's humanity. That's human identity. That's really what you came in with: how far you got, that other stuff, was chaff. It certainly is consoling to me to watch people move on, just take one more step.

BS: Which takes us back to what grounds everything in your work: loss. There's so much of it, yet there's also the thing that balances it, which is the human connection. Often, literally, touch. In the story, “The Good Fight,” there's that beautiful line, “Everyplace he touches becomes a place where her sorrow is not.”

JD: Actually, I rewrote that sentence because Lorrie Moore wrote to me. In the first version, the sentence is, “Everyplace he touches is a place where her sorrow is not.” And she said, no, you need to say, “Everyplace he touches becomes a place where her sorrow is not.”

BS: Those really small changes can make so much difference. The willingness to stay with a story long enough to see where you need to make them is often difficult for student writers. They want to get finished, get published.

JD: It's such hard news for them to accept. It's one reason I love teaching in tutorials. I had a young woman come in the other day. She's enormously talented, at the very beginning of her career as a writer. I said, “All you need from graduate school is for people to sit and work with you at the sentence level. I wouldn't want to tell you how to tell a story, or this goes or this doesn't go. Let's just look at your sentences and let's try to make them land at the top of their form. I'm a sentence level writer. I'm very, very careful. I go back and go back and go back and go back. It's the sentences that lead me to the material, to the comfort. Despite the fact that Frederick Bush said “this collection will break your heart,” I actually feel these stories to be moments of connection that are consolation for me. They're what I was looking for. They are what I was afraid people were missing: that in the midst of some really awful situations are these moments of humane exchange or grace—whatever language you would use to describe it. I meant to dramatize those moments. I needed to find them, as an artist, and as a human being in the world.

BS: How do the real things that you collect—moments, objects, bits of dialogue—morph into fiction?

JD: I call it translation. All it takes for me to be able to translate anything is for me to have two characters. Then everything I've collected is fodder for these people. They can have any of it. What a man might have, a woman could have. Or a child. Any of the material can belong to any of my characters. Intuition is playing a large role there; you just kind of feel for what sort of material could belong to a particular character. But since it's mainly in the words I collect that I find the action, dialogue and the little ellipses of conclusion, it's sort of easy. The character starts to build him or herself. The next thing you know, you know who that person is and you know what their problems are—and there you go.

BS: What do you say, explaining this to students?

JD: It's about respecting humanity and then the individual, in particular. Someone said [about What You've Been Missing], “You know, what I think is great is that you don't just have a mistress come on and play the role of the mistress and everyone thinks she's awful. But that actually she is somebody. She's got her own life, she's coming from somewhere.” I'm just trying to be fair. Nobody gets to come on and play the bad guy or the mistress. Nobody gets to be two-dimensional. Everyone has to be a human being.

BS: So it's not only finding the material, it's learning to look at it a particular way, not necessarily coming to conclusions about any of those people. Just, there it is—almost like an object.

JD: It's more an inquiry for me. I think, what's going on with these people? Mainly, translation is slowing drama down, slowing it way down so that two people may just be saying five lines to each other, but something happens. Otherwise, why write those five lines? To work at sentence level, you're so far into minutia and the nuance of a drama that's going on that suddenly what Eliot called the objective correlative of any moment becomes clear. Suddenly each gesture, each move the dog makes registers the emotional fluctuation. So I slow way down and see what else I can see. Then I usually stand back. I really try to see everything there is.

BS: Your stories are full of small moments that resonate with meaning, moments that must have been the product of that kind of patience. For example, the moment in “Everyone is Wearing a Hat” when the narrator feels totally displaced and the loss of her child hits her full force in her realization that she's the only person on the elevator not wearing a hat.

JD: That's a part of translation, too. I stand in this elevator and I think, the hat. I just slow it way down. She actually remembers [the death] when she's in a completely different moment, one that's also been slowed way down and that actually moves sort of around her. Then the other moment from the past—when we get to stand there and look around and see that everybody but her is wearing a hat—quietly comes back and enlarges and informs the present moment. It doesn't feel like I'm doing anything other than being really patient. Louise Gluck said a sentence needs to move across the page as a series of surprises, and I think that's how scenes need to work. You think, what, what, what—oh! You try to find the “oh!' It was hardest thing that I ever did: to kill a child in a story. I sat on that story for months because I thought, no way am I writing a story with a dead kid in it! I can't kill a kid. I had written that dialogue. I just knew something was wrong with those people, I had no idea what it was—and it was that their kid was dead.

BS: Another characteristic of your stories is what I think of as “the leap.” You see it in “Who Knows More Than You,” which shifts suddenly from being a story about an older, unmarried, childless woman dealing in a series of phone calls with a harried younger sister who's in crisis about her little girl who's been abused by a baby sitter to a phone call in which she “talks down” a male friend who can't believe he can possibly be capable of doing the right thing for his young son.

JD: Initially, it was part of a larger story, maybe two different stories. For about ten years, most of the people I loved most lived far away from me—so there was the whole life-on-the-telephone thing. My experience was very similar to the younger sister's in that story. I was a single mom and I would call people—the child's bathing for two hours, and what are you going to do? You would kind of invite this person in to the bathing triangle. You're doing this, you're doing that—all at the same time. So that was one kind of story. Then there was the kind of story about the fact that real intimacy lives far away and talks to you on the phone—those kinds of conversations. And the sense of difference in adult people who care for each other. So it came out of phone calls. I had three or four of them, and I thought I was going to do a long piece. Then I realized that what the younger sister said to the woman in this one was exactly the thing that was going to be everything for Walter in this one. So there was no reason for those other phone calls. I just put those two things next to each other and they came to be that story. It was the first time of this new process of mine, that collection and allowing. I began to look at all my little pieces of things and say, I wonder if there is anything I can do for you or with you.

BS: It was a really daring leap, but it worked! How did you know it would?

JD: The other good thing that collection does is that it relieves you of transitions. That's my new discovery. I found I was hating reading because people put all this verbiage in there that wasn't necessary. You know, later the next day, around seven, Tom came home. I'd think, skip ahead! I just don't care! I cannot write a transition. Perhaps I'll find my way back to them, but here's where I am now: I can't write “as.” As always signals that you want to talk to the room or that you're just taking a fake way to something. As I walked across a room—you're afraid I won't figure out I'm in a room?

BS: So what would you do?

JD: Just be in a room.

BS: White space?

JD: Yes, white space. The world has clearly won on this one, though. Actually, this was mine. I gave it to one of my characters. I'm watching Diane Sawyer and she made a transition from Daniel Pearl to whatever one of the little ice cadet girls hadn't made the triple-triple axis jump in the winter Olympics—and you sit up and go, No! You look around and there's only the dogs to say, “Oh my god, so Diane Sawyer is the devil.”

BS: Working in this untraditional way, how do you revise?

JD: What people call revision, I call writing. I don't understand revision. You write the book, and then you write the book. I'm always revising. Writing to me is a progression of the application of craft. You bring intuition; it comes all the way through. But, in the beginning, what I've found is that I should trust intuition way more than I have. I should keep craft at bay. Let's not shape this yet. Let's not start doing any more than collecting and listening to say what it has to say to me. I try to be of service to it. If I find that I've got great dog things, I think, I need more dog things. So, here we go. Or handymen.

BS: How many different collections might you have going on at once?

JD: I call it all fodder.

BS: You don't separate it.

JD: The wonderful thing is, I go on working on a longer piece and take things out of it and create. Who's to say that's not a prose poem? Who's to say this isn't miniature fiction? I actually published a little piece of it—four different parts. I put them together for a grant, and I thought, that's kind of good. That's interesting. It becomes its own thing.

BS: Where's the balance in collecting stuff and actually making something with it?

JD: Usually, I do a month of pure collection, and I try to set really high goals for the number words I'm going to collect. 50-60,000 words. Then comes a time that's similar to something I did as a mother. I might still be collecting, but the process isn't as playful. It's incredibly alert, vigilant. I look at what I have and I begin to see see patterns, predilections, habits. I say, Look, I did that again. Or, There's that again. And I try to collect or make more around those patterns or predilections. I offer those patterns everything I've got, all my material and all the ways I know about how words work or drama moves. It's important to note that even at this stage I don't have a steady idea where I'm going. I'm just trying to give myself and these new ways opportunity.

Which is something I learned as a mother. Unlike me, my kid was visual, and he was also a maker. So I tried to be alert to circumstances that might engage him, lots of drawing materials, those Ed Emberley books, the usual. Shortly I saw that he quickly improvised on any kit or set of directions, running it six ways to Tuesday until he surprised himself. He didn't want kits. He wanted everything and he wanted permission. I think this explains how he grew into a boy who once rubber cemented a condiment-package mosaic to the wall. But I learned two important things from him. You feed a promise with everything. You offer it all you've got. And you feed it never knowing what's going to come out the other side.

BS: If I were going to watch you doing that, what would I see?

JD: Sometimes I stack and re-stack things. Then I'll go in search of more along that line, more of those kinds of tensions. I'll just walk around it for a few days. It can be a dynamic. I'll notice that six of the characters, when things pile up, have the same kind of reaction of moving into quiet and then into an outburst. And I'll begin to then look at other conflicts. I'll see somebody under stress and I'll think, do you want to go this way or do you not? Am I going to learn a new thing that characters do? If you notice those dynamics or ways of saying things or whatever, you begin to understand what works.

BS: And are there times you find yourself all of a sudden writing something totally made up that comes from the collection.

JD: Oh, sure! I'm actually better at making stuff up out of the clear blue than I've ever been in my life. I don't know why. All I have to do is shift one thing on top of another to begin to see possibilities.

BS: Having been at this a long time now and having come to your own process through great difficulty and disappointment, what would you say is the most important thing you've learned about the writing process and the writing life? The thing you never could have imagined when you were young?

JD: I never knew it would be second to anything, and what I've been pleased to find out is that it's second to everything. When I was young, I was urgently and avidly devoted to writing and nothing else. I remember an instructor at Iowa who brought me into his office and said, “You'd better find something else to do with your passion,” and I thought, “What are you talking about, old man? Get out of my way.” I desperately wanted to tell stories. I wanted my stories in the world, and I thought that that was going to be what I'd do with my life. The thing that I'm incredibly surprised to find out is that I would never have wanted only to do that with my life. What I value most is almost everything else that I've done. Not that I don't value writing. I do. This book has been a pure, thrilling adventure. There's nothing I would change about it; I've learned so much from it. It's so nice to have this book out the way I really wanted it—because it's forever. But it doesn't even approach my own domestic life—my life with my husband, my friends, my child, my students, my colleagues. I just never would have thought that I'd have the imagination to have a domestic life this marvelous. That's because I'd never experienced one, I had to make it up. This, I know, is a major part of my art: that I've achieved this life that I certainly wasn't ready to believe one could have.