Interviewed by Patrick May
PM: The banana is arguably one of the funniest of fruits. Why did you decide to center your story Two Bananas around it and not something else, like an apple?
TP: Bananas are without a doubt the funniest of the fruits. Including even litchi and star fruits. Exhibit A: the giant banana peel gag in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. I can remember writing a very earnest and self-serious paper back in college which argued, essentially, that the best part about Krapp’s Last Tape—the Beckett play—are its bananas.
Here’s the truth: I was in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, and I overheard one nurse telling another about a banana she’d accidentally sat on earlier that week. I started writing the story in a notebook about ten seconds later. No exaggeration.
PM: One of the many things I like about “Two Bananas” is that it takes the form of a dialogue between two people who seem to be trying to make sense of their lives by telling each other stories. Why did you choose to tell the story entirely in dialogue?
TP: Initially I was just imitating the banter of those nurses, but very quickly the pair morphed into distinct characters with their own histories and concerns. Partly, also, I was channeling the Barthelme story “On the Steps of the Conservatory,” which I love and which, as it happens, is also about two women talking to each other. I wasn’t certain I’d keep the dialogue as a structure, but then I really began to love the way that the primary story—about the boy and the banana—is elicited by and interrogated through their conversation. The nature and terms of their friendship became such interesting background noise.
PM: Do you think fiction is a dialogue between writer and reader, or a one-sided conversation?
TP: That’s an interesting question. I know that in some cases, as a way of putting distance between a narrator’s voice and my own, I will imagine that he or she is telling the story to me, so in a sense there is a conversation happening between me and that character, and maybe the reader senses that on some subtle level.
I never really feel like I’m in direct dialogue with the reader per se, but I do like the idea that a story I’m writing now—in 2016—can be in dialogue with other stories or works of art created over the last couple thousand years.
PM: In “The Real Alan Gass” and in other stories in your short story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, the reader encounters a sympathetic character drawn by an almost temporary insanity into doing something he knows is irrational. What draws you to characters like this?
TP: Well I love to write stories that bend otherwise sane and rational people away from what they know or, more accurately, think they know. To act rationally is to act sensibly, to use logic and reason in your approach to understanding the universe and our lives. We should live that way most of the time, definitely, guided by reason and logic. But sometimes I think we trust too much in our own rationality. Rationality might not always be the right tool for the job. It might not, for instance, deliver you to or help you make peace with a concept like spooky action at a distance—the idea in physics that entangled particles are interacting instantaneously across time and space. (I know that’s an overused example of the physical world going berserk in defiance of our expectations, but so be it.) My point is that there might be times when logic and reason have their limitations—their own biases—and that it might be useful on occasion for us to act and think irrationally. Sometimes we should trust our hearts and intuition more than our crusty computer brains which are, after all, programmed to exclude any information that doesn’t fit neatly into the logical, reasonable world we’ve decided to believe in.
PM: It seems like a lot of your characters are wrestling with their place in a fathomless universe. Do you see it as the writer’s job to make sense of the universe?
TP: I’m actually sort of suspicious of any person who (or group which) claims to have made much sense of the universe. My job as a writer—and maybe a basic duty of the artist, generally—might actually be to inject more uncertainty into people’s lives. I think our every belief should have a question mark at the end of it. Let’s not be too certain, please. Let’s treat other kindly and ask lots of unanswerable questions.
PM: What are you working on now?
TP: I’m writing a new batch of stories. I’m also in the final stages of editing a novel, which, the Good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, should be out in the world at some point in 2017 from Riverhead Books. The novel is sort of a love story, but it’s also about ghosts, the afterlife, and people trying to find their place in a fathomless universe.
PM: Are you currently reading anything?
TP: I hit a great stride recently because our baby was taking naps in a carrier, and I could walk around for two hours at a time just reading and thinking and tripping over roots. I read Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person, and really enjoyed it, and so now I’ve moved onto his In the Café of Lost Youth. I read The Good Soldier for the first time a few weeks ago and was blown away by that. I’d heard it called the greatest novel of all time, which of course I didn’t believe because I hadn’t read it and anything I hadn’t already read couldn’t possibly be the greatest, could it? Alas, if not the best of all time, it’s very, very high on the list.
PM: Would you give a hungry kid on the street your banana?
TP: I’d like to think so. Wouldn’t you?