Granta’s online editor Ollie Brock interviewed Jess Row about his writing, featuring in a ‘Best of Young Novelists’ collection, and his homegrown publishing project. He says that the real value of the short story has ‘barely begun to be explored by writers and critics’…
OB: You were named one of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists in 2007, along with Jonathan Safran Foer, Yiyun Li and Gary Shteyngart. Where were you in your writing career at the time, and how did this affect it?
JR: My first book, The Train to Lo Wu, came out in 2005 – so by the time the Granta award came around I was immersed in a new collection of stories (a few of which appear in The True Catastrophe) and a novel. Those projects are still under way. The award itself was just a wonderful honour. I was especially proud to be among such a varied cadre of writers whose work is both American and – an overused word – ‘global’ in spirit.
I’ve noticed quite a dark, violent streak running through your work. The story featured in Granta’s 2007 ‘Best of Young American Novelists’ describes a college-student-turned-jihadi; one of the stories in your new collection The True Catastrophe is about two girls killed in a lift shaft, and a death in 9/11; another tells of a horrific conceptual art stunt that reminded me of Teddy Giles in Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved. Do you mind my asking what is behind these preoccupations?
I think what I’m most drawn to in writing about this subject is the way in which very small, intimate acts of violence (not even necessarily physical violence) often serve as a microcosm or incubator for the massive, cataclysmic violence we see all around us in the world. All of the stories you mention have to do with characters who seek out that connection or who feel it forming inside them in some way.
The story collection is from your very own Suture Press: beautifully bound books in uncoated paper covers, with elegant typefaces, produced in strictly limited numbers. Can you tell me a little about this new project?
In the last few years I’ve been going to the Bookfair at the Associated Writing Programs conference and seeing waves and waves of new small presses appearing. Many of them are producing books – or book-like objects – that look and feel ‘handmade’, whether they’re letter-pressed, stamped, hand-numbered (as ours are) or what have you. And I’ve been really inspired by this return to a more intimate and idiosyncratic way of publishing and distributing literature. When I was in high school and involved in the underground/hardcore/punk music scene, most of what I read and listened to was produced in this way, so in a way the value of independence – the ‘DIY’ ethic – was inculcated in me from an early age. Add to that that my wife and co-editor, Sonya Posmentier, has had a long-term interest in book arts and bookmaking, and you have Suture Press. I chose the word ‘Suture’ because it comes from an Indo-European root that means both ‘to sew or bind’ and (in Sanskrit) ‘a book’, i.e. a ‘sutra’, like the Yoga Sutra or the Kama Sutra.
The particular project that we’re starting with this chapbook, the New Series, is a series of chapbooks that simply celebrates the diversity of the contemporary American short story. I wanted to create something that readers can collect and cherish, and that preserves an intimate feeling of literally coming from the hands of the author.
You seem to favour the short story as a form. García Márquez said that writing each short story is just as hard as writing a novel – do you agree? Do you think it could be the most appropriate form in our time-starved, information-soaked era?
I think it could be the most appropriate form, and I wish it was, but honestly I don’t think that the short story will ever attract as many readers as the novel. The novel is an immersive form, and I think many readers turn to literature for that sense of immersion, taking comfort in an alternate universe that lasts for a while. (This, I think, explains the lasting popularity of nineteenth-century novels in particular). Of course, the short story does have a devoted and loyal readership – it’s just a rather small one. And mainstream publishers have always had a difficult time reaching that audience in a sustainable, economical way. Perhaps this is changing with the advent of electronic publishing – who knows?
One problem, as I see it, is that the short story isn’t taken very seriously as an art form in its own right. We don’t honour the short story’s distinctiveness as, say, the string quartet is honoured as distinct from the symphony, or drawing is as distinct from painting. Regarding what García Márquez says – it may be true, in some cases, but I don’t think that it’s profitable always to compare stories to novels. The values the short story embraces – economy, brevity or ‘quickness’, compression, miniaturization, density, stasis – have barely begun to be explored by writers and critics. Perhaps if the short story were appreciated on its own terms, it would have more cultural cachet and thus a wider audience.
Photograph © Brooklyn Book Festival