Interviewed by Alex Ender
How did you begin Committed? What inspired this work?
I began with the poplar seeds. In June, the fluff is everywhere. Always in the air and underfoot. Russian pop songs are written about it. I remember a picnic on the riverbank with my wife that was lousy with it. We were in Samara. In the streets, small children gather the fluff into balls and light them on fire. And on the sidewalks older kids write chalk love letters to girls in balconies overhead. I combined these images for Sofia’s young suitors and wrote that scene several years ago hoping to eventually use it as part of something larger.
At an antique show once I saw a one-owner collection of Victorian Saint Valentine’s cards. It was sad to see them broken up and sold individually. They’d been together for so long. That’s part of the inherent beauty of antiques: they’ve survived, they’ve passed each cut, from generation to generation, circumstance to circumstance, always deemed special enough to preserve.
So in thinking about Committed, I started with those two displays of love—one fleeting, one somewhat more permanent.
Salinger’s “Down at the Dinghy” explores a misunderstanding of language, also, and his work is probably always in the back of my mind.
Like Committed, something is digestible about two focused characters in a short story space, the outside topics adding only to their development and our interest. Do you find short stories to be too crowded otherwise?
I think it’s a structure that can work quite well. The characters here are newlyweds with much to learn and accept about each other. It’s a quiet piece, with a great deal of nuanced interaction. This one may have felt too crowded if handled differently—either with more characters or additional action. Hopefully each story dictates the terms of its own construction, though; what is crowded here may be just right for other material. Committed was a bit of a departure for me. In its focus it was unlike other things I’ve written.
What are your thoughts on commitment, in both institutionalized senses (romance and mental health)? Do they merge? Converge?
I mentioned I began the story by considering those two proclamations of love. The more I thought about the mother’s decision, the more it seemed of a piece with them, the obverse of those initial sparks. On a separate note, I feel for Carson. He’s a collector and it’s killing him to watch that ruby ring.
Considering Sofia, could you tell us more about the idea that language shifts in moments of excitement or perhaps recklessness, particularly from bilingual people when a native speaker hears the slip in formality?
As it’s been explained to me, in heightened situations non-native speakers may find themselves searching for correct phrasing. So it’s less the rush and slip of a native speaker—a father addressing a son with an ill-considered “honey” in the Elizabeth Tallent story of the same name, for instance—and more a delay in expression. In real life, I find that delay endearing when it comes. As writers, we empathize. It mirrors our own struggle to voice our observations, make clear connections. For Sofia, I imagined it a delay in processing, a hurried understanding, which Carson exploits.
How often does Russian culture permeate your writing? Is it a common theme? Why?
It usually doesn’t. I have a few fragments—a train compartment shared with an intoxicated general, say, or watching lifeguard training on that riverbank I mentioned—written, still awaiting appropriate fit. My interest in Russia is the same as my interest in all things, no more or less. I look for something unusual, something that stands out in some way. That can as easily happen here in Maine as in Moscow. Antiques appear in my writing far more frequently. Objects—their histories, their acquisition, the motivations of their owners—are fascinating.
Could you inform us about authors who have been major influences? What do you see in their work that sparks envy or makes electricity otherwise?
“The Raft,” by Peter Orner, is a wonderful story and a very early influence. I read it and read it, amazed at what he accomplished so quickly. I fell in love with flash and short shorts because of it. I learned a lot about form from Stuart Dybek’s writing, especially “Pet Milk,” which pivots from brief opening memory to main narrative via a shared image of swirling drinks. It’s such an elegant method of deploying backstory. Mary Robison exploded what I thought I knew about conventional story arcs. Joy Williams. With all that said, for me, Mark Richard writes the best stories. The language, the voice, the material. His stories most consistently sound the way I want stories to sound.
Given that one of the principal characters in Committed is Russian, but not only for that reason, as I read “Committed” I could not help but think of Chekhov. Are you a Chekhov fan? If so, which are your favorite stories?
Ann Williams teaches an excellent introduction to Chekhov. He was so prolific. It seems I often encounter an unfamiliar collection or hear a plot described I haven’t read. “The Student,” and its quivering, unbroken chain connecting past and present, is a favorite—and his favorite, I believe. I also love the idealism of “The House with the Attic,” a meditation on art and artists. Working on Committed, and reflecting on trips to Russia, it was difficult not to think of Chekhov—or any of the Russian authors. The country’s literary history looms, its minutiae everywhere. An example: the stairs from Pushkin’s neighborhood bakery displayed on a St. Petersburg sidewalk, encased in glass, insistent the great poet once stepped here.
Tell us about another project you have published or are currently working on.
I’m currently completing my thesis, a collection of linked stories, at the University of New Hampshire. Carson appears in much of it. Committed is Sofia’s only appearance.