Under the Radar: Merrill Feitell, author of Here Beneath Low Flying Planes
Slugs have a bond, even if they've never met, even if they attended the
University of California at Santa Cruz in different years. Most people have some kind of an impression of the college, but even if you've
never heard of it, finding out that the school mascot is a Banana Slug gives you an idea what it's like.
When I discovered that fellow Slug Merrill Feitell had just published her first book of short stories, I had to track her down and read her work. From the first page, I was hooked. Her book Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes (University of Iowa Press 2004) contains exquisite, insightful stories that are universal enough to appeal to the general reader but polished enough to appeal to a poet's love of perfectly-chosen words.
ACN: You won the 2004 Iowa Short Fiction Award for your collection, Here Beneath Low-Flying Planes, just a few short years after getting your MFA. How did your career take off so quickly?
MF: It doesn’t feel like it happened quickly. I’ve worked on some of these stories for several years. I’m a big reviser. I actually tried to sell an earlier version of the collection right out of grad school and, as traumatic as the rejection was at the time, I’d be mortified now if that version of the book had ever seen the light of day. The stories are much better now, much more focused, and the collection hangs together better as a whole. I definitely learned that nothing good in writing seems to come to me when I rush.
ACN: How do you plan to market your book?
MF: I just got back from a 10-city reading tour. I wish I had t-shirts made.
Most of the readings were at bookstores, but I liked the gigs at schools best. After so many years of working on the stories and obsessing over different questions of craft, it’s a real treat to be able to discuss some of that hard-won learning with students still deep in the trenches of figuring out how to make a story actually work.
ACN: Most of your stories end on a note of optimism - a man finally bonding with his granddaughter (Such a Big Mr. England), a pregnant ex-girlfriend "leaving indecision behind" (The Marrying Kind), a disfigured woman experiencing peace of mind with her friends (And Then You Stand Up), a housewife enjoying her first solo adventure (Our Little Lone Star), and a cynical woman accepting the love of a younger man (title story). What do you think this reflects?
MF: I never force an optimistic ending on my characters so much as try to get to the bottom of a character’s conflicts. Every character is conflicted about different things in different ways, and I think sustained ambivalence is torture no matter what shape it takes. So when some moment of clarity or decisiveness comes, I think of it as a huge relief to a character. I think that’s what you are referring to as optimistic.
A character’s paralysis is interesting to me only insofar as exploring what the conflicts are beneath it. So in writing a story, I’m first interested in really seeing the dimensions of a character’s conflicts and then when a situation or event arises - be it an agent of love or violence or danger or desire - I’m focused on how it agitates that specific brand of paralysis and hoping it will inspire some kind of action for the character. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes they just get to see their own ambivalence illuminated and while that’s hardly a cure, it can be a relief. Something like redemption would be more emphatically optimistic, but in most cases, I’m pretty happy if a character can just get some relief.
ACN: Your characters don't appear to have any particular ethnic identity and I found myself assuming they were white/European-American. As a fellow "Banana Slug" (alumna of the University of California at Santa Cruz), you're probably well aware of multicultural analyses of literature. What are your thoughts about the relevance of your work in the multicultural context of the U.S., and the relevance of multiculturalism to your work as a writer?
MF: As a writer and as a reader, I am interested in coming to understand as much as possible about the human experience. I think if you really focus on the specific details of character, the facts of our lives that make us individual human beings, you are engaging with questions of human compassion. And while our ethnic experiences are undeniably important and inform who we are, in terms of fiction writing, they are merely the context for a specific character, a specific individual’s experience. I try to write to what makes us human in any specific moment, and at that point I should hope anyone can identify with anyone.
As a native New Yorker, raised Jewish by first generation American parents, I actually think of my characters mostly as ethnic New Yorkers - as products of all the integration, exposure, melting pot, and diversity contained therein. The main characters are mostly white, but they are also certainly and specifically, in my mind, part of specific cultural contexts.
ACN: Have you tried other genres/forms? How did you pick the short story form?
MF: I am currently trying my hand at a novel and finding it exciting and challenging. It feels like a whole new sport - and I’m not sure if I’ll be good at it yet. I love how short stories allow me to engage with specific moments of insight into a character. I think the novel demands more velocity than that. I think you really have to cook up consequences to these insights and propel a story forward more aggressively. I’m trying it out. We’ll see. But stories are still, currently, my first love.
ACN: What do you think is the relevance of writing for the printed page in modern times, when most people prefer watching their stories on television and in films?
MF: I read online, but nothing compares to being alone somewhere with a book.
ACN: As an adult I find myself usually reading in fragments - often from several different books concurrently - unlike childhood, when I read David Copperfield in four days straight. As a poet, I have the luxury of being able to finish a typical piece in one sitting. As a fiction writer, do you often find yourself writing in fragments? When and where do you find time to write?
MF: Much to my own disadvantage, I do write in fragments. This is partially because I’m scattered and have too much to do - but mostly, I think it’s simply out of fear. I’ll second-guess what I’m up to and jump around a lot, so I’ll have bits written from all over the story in various perspectives and voices which makes it tough to pick one and just stick with. Once I figure out the voice, I can generally drive through the fragments and get them to fit together, but there is a period in writing where I’m so all over the place I have no idea how I’ll be able to get everything to come together and to clean up the mess.
ACN: There are a lot of myths about artists and writers needing intense personal drama for inspiration that have probably landed many an aspiring creative in a 12-step program. Is emotional instability necessary to write well?
MF: I think curiosity and compassion are the necessary things.
ACN: If you have ever collaborated with another writer, what were the challenges and advantages?
MF: I spent this summer helping build 826NYC, a nonprofit writing center for kids, ages 6-18, right here in Brooklyn. The writing center is, in part, funded by The Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co., a storefront offering all the equipment and supplies any superhero might need. Creating the products and writing the package copy for them was certainly a creative collaboration - and I loved it. Because there was so much humor and whimsy, working as a group was fairly easy. And the end result is really a testament to the power and joy of writing, and the environment really reflects for the students how much you can create with writing and trusting your own voice.
ACN: You recently read in Los Angeles (November 1, 2004, at Dutton's Brentwood Books). How was your reading?
MF: Great. Fun! I saw friends I hadn’t seen since college at UCSC [Santa Cruz]. It felt a little like This is Your Life.
And I love LA more and more all the time. I love the sense of velocity I get there, and the optimism. New York makes so much sense to me deep in my gut; it’s so much a part of me. But L.A. baldly just fascinates me. Every time I visit I get more of a sense of its spirit and how it all comes together as a diverse city, but I still get the tingle of feeling like I’m in a place I don’t quite understand - a little like I get when writing a new story. I’d love to get a visiting teaching job or something and have a chance to really spend some time there.
ACN: What are your current writing projects?
MF: I am currently working on a novel about two sisters that takes place in Santa Cruz and is about the intensely intimate and volatile friendships that so often occur between girls.
I am also working on new stories that seem to be taking shape as a sort of series, all engaging questions of fear, illness, accountability, surveillance, and the building of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Merrill Feitell was born and raised in New York City and currently lives in Brooklyn. She studied writing as an undergraduate at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and went on to earn her MFA from Columbia University. Her stories have appeared in Book Magazine, Glimmer Train, Hampton Shorts, and Best New American Voices. She has been short-listed in Best American Short Stories and The O. Henry Awards, and has appeared as one of Fiction’s New Luminaries in the summer 2004 Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2003 Merrill was the Margaret Bridgman Scholar in Fiction at Bread Loaf. She hopes to teach writing at the college level, as well as to continue volunteering at 826NYC (826nyc.org), a nonprofit writing center for kids. Her website is www.merrillfeitell.com.