I’ve always been interested in the workplace. I think the workplace is a very vibrant and rich arena for drama, mainly because it’s so regimented. It’s so constrained, and there’s a lot of stuff that happens underneath. I like the challenge of dramatizing that.
Once I started writing the first few stories, I tried to be self-conscious. It can’t just all be intuitive. I’m interested in stories that don’t get told and people on the margins. I think that the challenge is to engage the reader, somehow, with people who, on some level, don’t seem to matter. The thing that makes them interesting is the way I tell the story.
Who are your literary antecedents? I immediately thought of HENRY James when I read “Temporary Stories.” Did you?
There’s very specific model for “Temporary Stories.” I’m a big fan of a book by Italo Calvino called Marcovaldo. It’s great. The subtitle is “The seasons in the city.” He tells these tiny little episodes of this manual laborer in a big city in Northern Italy in the post-war boom in the ’40s and ’50s — they’re fables.
I knew I couldn’t do what he does, but I did want to tell an episodic story about somebody who works and somebody somewhat invisible in the workplace. The language is very different from what he did, but that was the inspiration for it.
Have you ever temped?
Oh yeah, I’ve temped. I’ve worked in offices. Before I went back to school, I was working in offices in various positions for about 10 years. When I went back to school , I was temping in the summers.
It always killed me, how they would entrust we temps with all this super-sensitive information.
“Orientation” made a pretty big splash. Ed Park’s Personal Days and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End are (obviously) both novels of office life told in the first-person plural. Have they come back to you and said you were a direct inspiration?
We had Joshua Ferris visit out here at University of Idaho for a few days, and it was really great talking to him. He was kind enough to mention “Orientation” as one of many inspirations. That was really generous of him. I haven’t read Ed Park’s book, but I was really taken with what Ferris was able to do with that collective voice. I thought it was a real tour de force.
“Officer’s Weep” reminded me of STEVEN Millhauser. it’s not about office life. Where did it come from?
One of the things that engages me with several of the stories I’ve written is doing the research and getting the exact, precise detail that convinces the reader that you know everything about what you’re writing about. That’s a quote from Doctorow: “Do enough research to convince the reader that you know everything about your subject and then stop.”
Detailing the world in a precise, concrete way is an essential way for me to get at the characters, to work from the outside in. They move through a vacuum and they don’t engage anything unless you have stuff there for them to engage in. Every story I write is getting at a discrete problem.