Bookselling This Week is happy to present its second "Book Sense One on One" feature in which a bookseller who has nominated a title for the Book Sense 76 interviews that title's author.
This week Anne Whalen of Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts, interviews Adam Haslett, author of the short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here (Doubleday).
In her nomination of You Are Not a Stranger Here for the July/August Book Sense 76, Whalen wrote, "This first collection of stories is astounding. They're all vastly different from each other, connected only by their brilliance. This is Alice Munro territory; great stuff."
Whalen: First, I loved the book and look forward to many more stories. Some questions: Many of your characters could be considered mentally unstable; how do you try to draw the reader into their world? And why?
Haslett: For me capturing the interior life of a character always begins with detail. If I can get down on the page not just the quality of light in a room, but how that light is perceived by my character, what kind of memory it evokes, et cetera, then I'm inside their distinctive perception of the world and I know them better. As for mental instability, some of the characters in the book are people diagnosed with mental illness, but many others are simply people in states of inner turmoil. My ambition in writing about both kinds of characters is a romantic one: to move people to empathy and compassion. That might mean readers identifying with people in the book, feeling less alone because experiences similar to theirs have been put into words, or it might mean empathy for the suffering of others. Either way, the aim is to engage people's emotions in the most thoughtful manner I can.
Whalen: Some novelists say that their characters take the story in directions they hadn't consciously intended. Do you find this happens in the short story form?
Haslett: If there's anything that takes my stories in directions I hadn't expected, I would say it is the rhythm of the language. On a good day, when I write a sentence, or a paragraph, the music of the words suggests more words, further ideas, and a plot evolves from the mood and cadence of the prose. Though I'm always aware of the character, the energy that guides me is often more tied to the construction of particular sentences.
Whalen: Have you physically traveled to all the places you set your stories in, or is this creative journeying?
Haslett: I have traveled to many of the settings in the book, though not all. I lived in England as a kid, and grew up in New England. But even the settings I know are usually slightly transformed in the fiction to fit the needs of the story. My ideal is to know enough about a place to set a story there, but not so much that I'm distracted by trying to reproduce it in every precise detail. This way I can focus on the characters and the emotions and let the setting be a backdrop.
Whalen: Do you see yourself writing a novel, or staying with the shorter form?
Haslett: After five years of writing short stories, I'm definitely ready to move on to a novel and I'm in the early stages of one right now.