Can you tell me about yourself?
Well, aside from being a writer, I’m also a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, which is where I’ve lived for the past six years. Before that, I lived all over the United States, from the East Coast, where I grew up, to the Midwest and California. In fact, for most of my 20s, I moved around a lot, teaching part-time at various universities across the country until I finally got the job at Trinity and had the time to settle down and finish my book.
How did you begin writing short stories?
I started writing short stories back in college, when I was about 21, mainly because of two courses I took at the time – one, a literature course on the history of the American short story, and the other a fiction writing course. Between those two courses, I was exposed to an enormous number of short stories and short story writers, and before long, I discovered that the only thing I liked better than reading short stories was writing them myself.
Where do you feel short fiction is right now, as the trend for publishers and readers tends to be on the novel?
That’s kind of a hard question to answer. On the one hand, it’s true that major national publishing houses are no longer publishing as many short story collections as they used to, but on the other hand, there are probably more literary magazines than ever before, more creative writing programmes and creative writing students (who are presumably reading and writing short stories) than ever before, more major awards for the short story, and so forth. In other words, I think the short story form is very much alive and thriving, that it still has a huge fan base and readership; it’s just that the majority of short fiction is now being published in smaller magazines, or on the web, and the majority of short fiction collections are now being published by independent and university presses. In other words, the market is still there; it’s just a different market.
There are a lot of similar themes in your stories, can you tell me more about that?
It’s interesting. When I sat down to put the collection together, I wasn’t really aware of all of the recurring themes in these stories. I was just trying to pick and choose stories that seemed to fit together tonally. It was only later, when I started having to talk about the book at readings or in interviews, that I noticed how certain themes, like the theme of memory, or the theme of family kept popping up. I’d like to pretend that I planned this all out from the start – that I wrote my stories around these themes, but that just wasn’t the case.
Is any of your work autobiographical or just plain fiction?
That’s always a tricky question to answer. In my mind, all of these stories are purely fictional, but when close friends of mine, or family members read my work, they always draw parallels between the stories and my own life, parallels that are hard to ignore. I suppose the best way to answer this question is to say that any writer’s fiction will inevitably be at least partly autobiographical, whether they intend for it to be or not. After all, when you’re writing fiction the only things you really have to draw on are the things you’ve observed and experienced in your life.
In The Theory of Light and Matter, your main characters experience major life changing events, in terms of plot, how does this event help to create the story?
I tend to think of the event as the centre of the story, the moment out of which everything else grows. This event, after all, is the reason the story is being told in the first place, the thing the narrator is trying to understand. So I suppose when I write the story, I write it around the event, which is probably why so many of my stories have a non-linear structure.
In terms of the ten stories included in the collection, which one stands out the most for you and why?
I like each of the stories for different reasons. For example, I have a certain attachment to both Azul and the title story, Theory of Light and Matter, because they both took me a very long time to finish and because finishing them felt like a major accomplishment. I also have an attachment to the first story, Hole since it was the first story I ever published and also the first story that seemed to define for me what I wanted to do as a writer. I could do this with each of the stories, explain my sentimental or stylistic attachment to them, but the short answer is that there isn’t one particular story that stands out for me more than the others. They all hold a certain importance for different reasons.
Who are your biggest influences and why?
There are so many writers who have influenced me over the years, but the one writer who has probably influenced me the most, at least in terms of style, is Raymond Carver. From an early age, I fell in love with his minimalist aesthetic and the clarity and precision of his prose. I basically learned how to craft a sentence from reading and rereading his stories, from studying the subtleties of his style and listening to the rhythm of his sentences. And though I rarely read Carver’s work anymore, I think the lessons I learned from his stories at a young age are still pretty deeply imbedded in my mind.
I know that you also teach, what would be your advice to anyone looking to begin writing short fiction?
My main advice would be to read as much short fiction as you can get your hands on, to familiarize yourself with the history of the form and to read the work of both past masters and contemporary masters. The only way you’re ever going to get better as a short story writer is to read a lot of short stories. I honestly believe that.
What do you feel is the future for the short story? Is a revival underway?
It would be nice to think so, though, as I said earlier, I think that the form is still very much alive and thriving. It might not be getting the type of mainstream recognition it used to, but it still has a loyal and devoted following.
What are your future plans?
Right now I’m working on a novel, which is currently under contract with Knopf/Random House and which I hope to finish in the next year or so. I’m pretty superstitious when it comes to talking about works in progress, but I can tell you that the novel is set in Houston and that it involves a family going through a crisis.