More at Peace than Ever Before
Kingsport native Lisa Alther talks with Chapter 16 about her career-retrospective story collection
by Tina LoTufo
In Stormy Weather & Other Stories, Lisa Alther has put together a collection of short stories written throughout her decades-long career. The selections are lively and varied and include stories about the aspirations and reversals of the generation that came of age during the Vietnam War; the compromises made by the young urban professionals of the 1980s and 1990s; the twists and turns of love, sex, and marriage; the ever-present specter of death; and even a pinch of Southern homespun.
Born in Kingsport, Tennessee, in 1944, Lisa Alther graduated from Wellesley College in 1966 with a B.A. in English. After receiving hundreds of rejections of her work, Alther finally burst onto the literary scene with her earthy coming-of-age novel, Kinflicks, published to great critical and popular acclaim in 1976. Since that time, Alther has produced five additional novels, a memoir, and, most recently, a volume of historical nonfiction, the bestselling Blood Feud
On October 25, Lisa Alther will be inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame and also receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Knoxville’s Friends of Literacy. Prior to the event, she answered questions via email from Chapter 16.
Chapter 16: The release of your previous book, Blood Feud—The Hatfields and The McCoys: The Epic Story of Murder and Vengeance, seemed perfectly timed to coincide with The History Channel’s very successful miniseries on the same subject. How did the popularity of the television show affect your experience surrounding the publication of the book, and what did you think of the miniseries?
Alther: My editor asked me to write a history of the feud because there hadn’t been an updated one for the general public for about thirty years. As I was writing it, my publisher learned about the upcoming miniseries and asked me to submit the manuscript six months earlier than planned so that its publication could coincide with the airing of the miniseries. The sales of the book benefited greatly from the miniseries-related publicity, and the book appeared on The New York Times bestseller list for several weeks.
Having to write the book faster than I normally write was a positive experience for me. I forced myself to cut to the heart of the issues without my usual embellishments. The miniseries did a good job of conveying the complexities of the characters and their motives. There were many historical inaccuracies, but the miniseries was, after all, intended to be a story based on the feud, not a documentary. Overall, though, the miniseries seemed to me more like a western hijacked to the southern Appalachians. Many details didn’t ring true for someone raised in those mountains. The saloon, for example—there were no saloons in rural Kentucky at the time of the feud.
Chapter 16: Stormy Weather & Other Stories contains stories both old and new. What surprised or pleased you the most during the process of collecting this material? Did you learn anything new about yourself as a writer?
Alther: I was surprised to discover that, taken as a whole, there was a certain coherence to stories written over the course of my fifty-year career. Each story tended to reflect the place in which I was living when I wrote it and the style in which I was writing. I discovered that the sense of divided cultural loyalties I have always felt—from having a New Yorker mother and a Virginian father—is reflected in my stories. About half are set in the South and half in the North. The Southern stories use nature imagery to try to make sense of the world, whereas the Northern ones are more concerned with human relationships and the political preoccupations of the 1960s and 1970s.
Chapter 16: Many characters recur throughout several stories. An example is “old man Partridge”: we first catch a quick glimpse of him fishing at a pond in “The Fox Hunt,” and he shows up next as the protagonist of “The Eye of the Lord.” Why did you choose to weave some of your characters through more than one story?
Alther: I think the fact that some characters recur in my short stories is evidence that I’m primarily a novelist. I have a hard time writing stories because I’m always left wondering what happens next to my characters, what events in their pasts have influenced how they behave in the present, who their ancestors were, what the minor characters are thinking, etc. Each of my six novels started out as a short story that I felt compelled to keep writing so that I could answer such questions about my characters for myself. Sometimes I kidnapped a minor character from a previous story and made him the main character of a new story just in order to find out what his life was like. Or a couple of times a major character reappeared at a future point in his own life so that I could learn what had happened to him over the years since I first created him. Sometimes I’m tempted to write sequels to my own novels just so I can find out what’s happened in the meantime to the characters I particularly like.
Chapter 16: A number of the stories in the collection deal with characters who whole-heartedly follow a particularly idealistic path only to wake up years later to a life they find disappointing. Why does this theme in particular resonate with you?
Alther: I think the theme of disillusionment is inevitable in life. As children, many of us think we’re capable of anything—including all the feats in the tales and myths to which we’re exposed. As we grow up, we discover that we can’t leap tall buildings at a single bound. We also learn that the various ideals presented to us by our parents, churches, schools, are just that—ideals that are sometimes difficult to attain and sustain. So, much of life is a process of disillusionment and of learning our limitations as human beings. But I think it’s sad if people lack this early idealism. If you’re aiming high, when you inevitably fail, you end up much closer to the ideal than if you never aspired to something higher in the first place.
Chapter 16: A couple of the stories have a distinctly Southern feel to them. You were born in Tennessee but have lived much of your life outside the South. How would you characterize your connection to the South of your birth?
Alther: Actually, I’ve lived close to half my life in the South—from birth to eighteen, and then again from 1999 through the present. Earlier in my life I thought I had to choose between the South and the North and declare my loyalty to one region or the other, but now I live part of each year in Vermont, Tennessee, and New York City. I love both the red states and the blue states, but for different reasons.
Chapter 16: The collection’s final piece, a novella called “Birdman and the Dancer,” is quite different from the rest of the book. The story follows middle-aged, Greek-American businessman Kostas Powers from his perfect life in New York City through an Odyssey-like journey into a mysterious world of myth and magic. It was inspired by the work of French visual artist Francoise Gilot. Can you describe how you came to write this story and what it means to you?
Alther: Francoise Gilot showed me a series of powerful monotypes she had made that featured a creature that looked half-bird and half-human. As she created these monotypes, she had a scenario in mind. But when I studied them, they suggested to me a story completely unrelated to hers. During the first Gulf War, when many Americans were glued to their TV sets watching the unfolding of Operation Desert Storm, I was so upset by this invasion that I locked myself up and started working on the story inspired in me by the vivid monotypes. It gradually came to embody my explanation to myself of war—and of violence in general.
Chapter 16: You often create characters facing disillusionment, betrayal, and death. In contrast, the story “Stormy Weather” sounds a more hopeful note, despite the many trials and failures the main character, Jesse, has had to endure. The story unfolds on Jesse’s fiftieth birthday, which makes me wonder about your own attitude toward aging. Do you feel hopeful about the future?
Alther: I love early old age—especially considering the alternative. I’m more at peace than ever before, despite the physical challenges of aging. I don’t feel either hopeful or pessimistic about the future. I know what my own future holds: at some unspecified point no longer too far off, I’ll die. What happens after that is the great mystery. As for my sentiments regarding the future of this Earth that I’ll leave behind, all we can see in the past are wars, epidemics, and natural disasters. No doubt these will continue. But I do believe that the human race has the skills to survive these ongoing difficulties and will continue to evolve into a more compassionate and benign species.
Chapter 16: The industry is so different today than it was when you began with Kinflicks in 1976. What advice do you have for young writers, especially regarding publication?
Alther: The publishing industry is certainly in turmoil. But it has always been quite difficult to get published. It took me fourteen years of writing and 250 rejection slips to get my first novel published. So my advice to would-be writers is to keep your day job, to write for the love of it, and not to get discouraged by the inevitable rejections. The best advice an older writer ever gave me was to keep my overhead low.
Chapter 16: You have written novels, historical nonfiction, memoir, and now a collection of short stories. Is there a type of writing you haven’t yet attempted but would like to? And have you chosen your next project?
Alther: I’ve also written a lot of journalism and book reviews. One type of writing I haven’t yet tried is autobiography. I’ve known a lot of interesting people, but I’m not that eager to spend long periods of time thinking about myself, so I doubt if I’ll ever attempt an autobiography. I don’t know yet what my next writing project will be. I think I’m going to take a sabbatical and travel around the country in my RV, before my daughter has to take my keys away and ground me.
On October 25, Lisa Alther will be inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame and also receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from Knoxville’s Friends of Literacy.
Published Friday, 19 October 2012