In the title story of Heather A. Slomski’s debut collection, The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons (winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award), two couples are out to dinner together: me, you, the woman with whom you had an affair, and Simon, her boyfriend. At a table near them are the Lovers, engrossed only in one another. The juxtaposition of couples and the use of a dramatic form create a story that, like the large mirror in the restaurant “reflecting the brilliance of a chandelier,” throws the characters, and the reader, into a room where the nuances of a relationship are reflected in many new and different angles. This is Ms. Slomski’s style—strong images, careful dialogue, precise prose—all working seamlessly to reveal characters’ hopes, longings, and heartbreak.
In this collection, stories not only happen at the dinner table where things are said and left unsaid, but also around a chair at a flea market, in the women’s lingerie section at a department store, and on either side of a telescope. Life appears elegant even when dealing with loss. Politeness reigns on the surface while strong currents threaten below. Elements of the surreal are quite real indeed. A refined collection and a remarkable debut.
We are pleased to present the following interview with the author and to have “A Fulfilling Life” published in Isthmus no 2.
Heather A. Slomski is the author of The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons, winner of the 2014 Iowa Short Fiction Award. Her work has appeared in TriQuarterly, American Letters & Commentary, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, The Normal School, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Minnesota State Artist Initiative Grant and a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant, she currently lives in Minnesota with her husband and son.
ISTHMUS: “Lovers, he knows, are mysterious creatures.” I feel that this line from “Silhouette” points to a unique attribute of the collection. Not simply are these stories an exploration of love but also a long look at people in love. What do you think we learn about love by looking at lovers?
Heather A. Slomski: I think we learn about our own love relationships by looking at the lovers around us. We learn how our relationships compare to other peoples’—what others have in their relationships that we don’t, good or bad, and what we have that they don’t seem to have. To some extent I think we also learn what we want and don’t want in our own relationships by looking at the relationships of others. These observations apply to the characters in the title story, “The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons.”
I also think we can learn something about love in general by studying, in a sense, the lovers around us. In “Silhouette,” the story you mention in your question, neighbors are looking through their windows at a pair of lovers in a kitchen. The neighbors watch these lovers the way people watch birds; they study and observe these lovers in order, it seems, to learn something. And at the end of the story, we do learn something that one of the neighbors has observed through his ritualistic watching of these lovers, but I won’t mention here what it is so that I don’t ruin the story.
ISTHMUS: Many of the stories include a scene at a dinner table. I always wanted to have a glass of wine next to me while reading your book. Why do you think you feel drawn to this setting?
HAS: One answer is that I enjoy cooking, and when I cook I like to sip on a glass of wine. I also like going out to dinner, and I have wine, of course, when I do. I don’t cook lavish meals or drink wine every evening, and I don’t dine out all that often, so in order to get my fill of these pleasures, my characters are often cooking, eating, and drinking wine.
A perhaps more useful answer is that the dinner table—at home or at a restaurant—provides a setting ripe with dramatic possibility. Here are two or three or four people in an intimate setting—either facing each other or sitting right next to one another—and regardless of how they feel about one another at the moment, they are more or less stuck at the table until the meal is over, as it is not a minor decision to get up to leave the table when someone has prepared a meal or when one is dining in a public setting. Furthermore, in addition to the dramatic possibility of what might be said, the dinner table also draws out of people—in the form of silence—things that they’re not saying but that are part of the conversation nonetheless. And then sometimes a character doesn’t eat the food before him or her, and that adds to the situation. If someone isn’t eating—that’s important information. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing dining scenes. They’re just too full of potential.
ISTHMUS: A number of stories deal with missed chances and regrets in love; stories where we can imagine the characters either taking action, or not, in the future. And then in the story “Neighbors” I feel we see a character (Finn) who is dealing with the result of choosing not to regret something, i.e., he has chosen to stay with his wife after she confessed an infidelity. He becomes increasingly suspicious and paranoid. In asking this question I don’t believe I’m ruining it for those who have yet to read the story, but what do you think becomes of Finn? Is there hope for someone who has made a choice similar to his?
HAS: I can’t really say what becomes of Finn, because all I know of him happens within the story’s limits. But I like to think that there is hope for a person in his shoes. If I were the one in his position, I would hope that I would be strong enough to get past the other person’s mistake—if, of course, the relationship was good and healthy and right otherwise. In Finn’s case, though, it’s not exactly an infidelity but a potential or an “almost” infidelity. And the fear of another’s infidelity, I think, is in many ways worse than the infidelity itself, due to the power of the imagination and the anxiety that it can cause.
ISTHMUS: The theme of loss inhabits many stories. In some (“A Fulfilling Life,” “Before the Story Ends”), it is the main character’s loss, whereas in others (“A Seat at the Table,” “The Chair”), the loss is framed through other characters’ perspectives. Yet, no matter the narrative distance, empathy for the character’s loss is felt equally. As the writer, what do you account for in these different modes of storytelling?
HAS: The narrative distance that a story will employ is a decision that is made prior to my starting the story. I say “a decision that is made” instead of “a decision that I make” because narrative distance, for me, is not a conscious decision; rather it is part of the raw material inherent in my idea for a story. The narrative distance, in a sense, is the story. For example, I got the idea for “A Seat at the Table” when reading a literary journal one night and coming across the phrase “young widow.” Right away I saw in my mind a young widow sitting at a table inside a cafe. I, the writer, was standing outside the cafe, looking at her through the window. Then my perspective became that of two young girls looking through the cafe window at the young widow. So the story became about these two young girls processing the young widow’s grief more than it became about the widow’s grief itself. The effect that the young widow’s grief has on these girls—their trying to understand it, and, by the end of the story, seeming to understand it better than their father—became the story. In stories such as “A Fulfilling Life” and “Before the Story Ends,” the immediacy of the characters’ loss was present in the raw material of my ideas for the stories, so I wrote the stories using much less or no narrative distance at all.
ISTHMUS: Surreal elements are prominent in a few of the stories: a talking mannequin, a lover transformed into a cricket. I suppose one could argue that it is simply a figment of imagination in the character’s head. Or, rightly so, a metaphorical construct employed by the writer. Doing so however, I think, discounts some of the magic of fiction. Why is it more than just “being playful”?
HAS: For me, the woman’s lover really does turn into a cricket, and the mannequin is not so much a mannequin as she is a sort of half-human, which we come to understand by the end of the story. Taking these surreal facts or occurrences at face value does not, as I see it, make the stories less “believable” or merely “playful,” as the emotional context of these situations is the same whether, for example, the woman’s lover turns into a cricket or grows a mustache, and whether the mannequin is a mannequin or a “real” person. In the story with the cricket, the man leaves the woman and then returns, and the woman has to decide if she’s strong enough to take him back. Her dilemma comes not so much from the fact that the man is now a cricket but from the reason he left her in the first place. As for the mannequin, what happened in her past changed who she is. The fact that her past changed her physically is secondary to the ways in which her past changed who she is emotionally.
ISTHMUS: Your use of imagery is always elegant (“If this were a fairy tale, your mother would bathe you in a teacup then set you in your walnut-shell cradle, covering you with a rose petal.”), and your prose is “of rare leanness and refinement…” (Wells Tower). How conscious are you of this during revisions? What advice would you give to aspiring writers on how to achieve polished language without overediting or overwriting?
HAS: I like spare prose. I don’t like writing dense sentences or paragraphs. I like to let in some air. Some light. Writing lean prose is central to my aesthetic. Therefore my efforts at achieving it occur in the drafting stage even more so than in revision. I get the sentences as close to perfect as I can while writing. I am not a writer who writes rough drafts in the traditional sense. I work and rework my first draft so that by the time I give it to someone to read, it’s more akin to a twentieth or thirtieth draft than a first.
Jaimy Gordon once used the term “carefully worked surfaces” when she and I were discussing my work, and that term feels right to me. I work and rework the surfaces of my stories in order to reveal just enough below. I certainly wouldn’t call my stories “open-ended,” but I also don’t usually spell everything out by the end of the story, and I know that this can frustrate some readers. Many readers want to be sure of things by the end of the story, and I don’t blame them. I think that I resist connecting all the dots, however, for the sake of a bit of mystery—to leave a hint of uncertainty. I say “I think,” because this is something that I do naturally—not intentionally—when writing. In life, we’re not always sure what happened. We come to our own conclusions based on the information we have, and we never have “all” of the information. So it often feels false to me to provide “all” of the information in a story. It’s not that I’m withholding information from the reader, but that I as the writer don’t even have all of the information myself. And if I did, I don’t think I’d find writing nearly as fulfilling. Often—in both my writing and my reading—I find the clues more interesting than the reveal.
You also mention imagery in your question. I rely very heavily on imagery. An image can do a lot of the work that we normally attribute to plot. A strong image can almost tell its own story, and I’ve learned to cut a lot of the fat out of my writing in order to let the images, in a sense, speak for themselves.
What advice would I give to aspiring writers on how to write strong images and to achieve polished language without overediting? I would tell them to practice writing as clearly and simply as possible in order to illuminate their images and to find the rhythms inherent in their sentences. I would tell them that training themselves to write clearly and simply in the drafting process will lessen the risk of their images and sentences losing their luster from overediting in revision.
ISTHMUS: Readers may feel accustomed to stories in three sizes: small (flash fiction), medium (the traditional twelve to fourteen pages), or large (novella). The stories in this collection range in length from two pages to twenty-nine, with quite a few in the five to nine page range. I enjoyed the varying lengths, feeling each story was perfectly contained. When writing these stories did you ever feel yourself trying to stretch or cut a story to a size it just wasn’t meant to be?
HAS: I have never cut or stretched a story. When I have an idea for a story, I right away have a general sense of its size and scope. I know I’m writing a “short short” before I begin. I know I’m writing a longer story as soon as I have the idea for it. Right now I’m working on a novel, and I have never considered the possibility of it being a story instead. The length or scope of a piece is one decision (like narrative distance) over which I do not have to struggle.
ISTHMUS: Do you have a typical writing routine? Ritual? Time of day? What are your writing habits?
HAS: I write best early in the morning, starting at about 5:00, when it’s still dark out. I like to wake up inside the story I’m working on. I like to enter into my story before the world and my life wake up around me. I don’t often write well in the afternoon. I can revise and edit in the afternoon, but by that point in the day my brain is too distracted with all the other parts of my life to turn to generating new material. When I was younger I used to write at night, but now I prefer to read at night—to disappear into a world that someone else has created. This rejuvenates and inspires me for the morning.
ISTHMUS: How has having a child influenced not only your schedule but also the stories that you feel compelled to write?
HAS: Before I had Oscar I could write whenever I wasn’t teaching, marking up student writing, cooking, loading the dishwasher, sleeping, etc. Now, of course, that’s not the case. However, aside from the first six months after becoming a brand new mother, I have had the hours in a day that I need to write; I just have to structure my day differently in order to get those hours. I have always loved working in the early morning, but until I had Oscar writing in the early morning wasn’t a live or die situation. That is—if I didn’t wake up at 5:00 to write, I could begin writing at 7:00 or 8:00 instead, provided that I wasn’t teaching at that time. But now Oscar wakes up at 7:30, and on mornings when I am the one caring for him, I have to stop my work at 7:30 to give him breakfast, to read stories to him, to take him to the park, etc. As I mentioned, however, I’m at my best very early in the morning, before he wake up. So having Oscar actually pushes me more to write during the hours when my work yields the best results. (And now before too long he’ll be starting preschool, so I won’t always have the 7:30 cutoff time. But right now it works for both of us.)
To answer the second part of your question, I wrote all the stories in The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons before I had Oscar. Before having Oscar there were not many children or parents in my work. But now that I am a mother, and now that there is a little boy running around my house, I feel all sorts of new emotions. I have new worries, new obsessions, more fears. I am gaining a new understanding of what it means to love someone—this kind of love being different than anything I’ve ever felt. Because my world has opened up by becoming a mother, so have my ideas for writing.
ISTHMUS: What are your thoughts on grad school now that you have some distance from your time there? What are your thoughts on the changing landscape of academia?
HAS: Grad school gave me three years to focus on my writing in an environment that helped me to discover my priorities as a writer. I was very fortunate to work with Stuart Dybek and Jaimy Gordon, two fantastic writers who are also first-rate teachers. Likewise, I worked alongside a very talented group of writers who made workshop an invaluable experience.
There is certainly a bit of nostalgia at work here, but the farther I get from grad school, the more I seem to miss it. Grad school was not only a period of time when I was able to focus nearly all of my energy on reading and writing, but it was also a time when I was surrounded by people who shared those interests. And, naturally, because I shared with my peers two of my primary interests, I also connected with them in many other ways as well, and they became some of my best friends. But then after a few years we all parted ways. It was actually quite heartbreaking to leave that community.
One way in which I see first-hand the changing landscape of academia is hearing my students talk about the practicality of getting a job with the degree they pursue. This is not to say that they are completely prioritizing job prospects over their interests; rather I hear in their concerns a very mature consideration of how to balance their interests with the pragmatic necessity of providing for themselves in the future. I am not concerned that college students will all of a sudden stop signing up for creative writing classes, fine arts classes, or music classes; however, I feel confident that this next generation is going to work toward striking a balance between personal fulfillment and financial security.
ISTHMUS: What are you working on now?
HAS: I received two Minnesota arts grants—a Minnesota Emerging Writers’ Grant and a Minnesota State Artist Initiative Grant—to spend six weeks in Krakow in the summer of 2013 and to take two course releases last year from teaching in order to begin working on a novel. This novel, The Starlight Ballroom, tells the fictional, somewhat fantastical story of the lives and deaths of my paternal grandparents. In this project I am again looking at love, this time a lifelong marriage. But because the scope of the story is much larger, and the characters are (loosely) based on people I once knew, this project is challenging me in new ways.
I’ve had the idea for this novel for years. Actually, when I first started working on it, I thought it was going to be a play. Now I know that’s it’s a novel, but knowing that it’s a novel doesn’t solve any problems in and of itself. I’ve been trying to figure out the POV, the voice, and the form, and I shouldn’t jinx myself, but I think that a couple weeks ago while participating in the Iowa City Book Festival I figured out something crucial. In this one discovery, I think—I hope—that I’ve figured out the POV, the voice, and the form all at once, and I feel excited about where the project is going.
ISTHMUS: Which writers have had the most influence on your work? Who is a new, contemporary writer you read recently whom you would recommend to others?
HAS: Every writer I have ever read and loved has I’m sure had some sort of influence on my work. As far as naming the writers whose influences are at least somewhat apparent in my story collection, I’ll mention Lydia Davis, because some of my stories are as short as hers typically are, and many of her stories and mine have amorous content. Also, I love Angela Carter’s work, and her fairy tales certainly have had an influence on my own inclination toward the fairy tale genre and form. (There are two fairy tales in my collection.) I also think of Lorrie Moore, in particular her breakout collection, Self-Help, both for its focus on relationships and for its use of the second person, which I use in both the first and last stories of my collection.
As for a new, contemporary writer whom I would recommend, I am going to recommend two: Kathleen Founds for her novel-in-stories When Mystical Creatures Attack! and Peyton Marshall for her novel Goodhouse. These are excellent books by new writers to read right now and writers to watch in the future.