Laura Furman is an award-winning fiction and nonfiction writer and teacher. Her new collection of short stories, The Mother Who Stayed, out last month, is already receiving rave reviews.
Short story writers the world over also hope to catch Ms. Furman’s eye, as she is the editor of the prestigious PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories series featuring some of the best short stories written in the English-language today.
I caught up with her after a recent reading at the American Library of Paris to talk about publishing, Paris, and not trying to please anyone with your work until it’s done.
You’ve written novels, essays, memoir, and short stories. Does your writing process differ depending on the form you’re working in? What does each offer/require of you as a writer – or is the experience of writing basically the same for you across genres?
The question is for me best answered backwards—it’s the piece that dictates the form rather than the other way around. I also co-wrote, with Lynn C. Miller, a play, “Passenger on the Ship of Fools,” about the life and work of Katherine Anne Porter. We wrote and rewrote that play for about 11 years, and I learned a lot about narrative form from that experience.
As long-time series editor of the prestigious PEN/O. Henry Prize series, you read hundreds of short stories a year. What are you looking for as you make your selection of the best stories? Do stories continue to surprise and delight you?
The story form is my favorite in fiction, though of course I love novels too. I like reading, which is fortunate for the PEN/O. Henry job. When I read I wait for the story first to interest me, and then to move me. Without excellent writing and the writer’s attention to form, neither reaction will come.
Your most recent story collection, The Mother Who Stayed (Free Press) has a unique triptych structure – that is, three trios of stories. How did this idea come to you? In general, does structure arrive organically for you? The material calls for a particular shape?
The stories began to form the trios, and then it seemed like the right form. Certainly, ideas for stories, ideas for the structure of a whole book, don’t come from analysis. Most often, it’s a kind of subconscious thought process that emerges as a possibility, and then I can think it through.
At your recent reading at the American Library in Paris, you said you thought e-books provide exciting new possibilities for attracting readers. On the other side of the equation, there’s the writer, who now has a new way to reach readers, too. In this rapidly changing publishing industry, what do you think writers must keep in mind when making decisions about their writing career? How does a new writer navigate the landscape?
Every writer figures out navigation for herself. What I suspect about the supposedly new world of publishing is that it will resemble the one we know. There will be agents and editors. There will be publishers trying to keep the company solvent and even prosperous. There will be the Authors Guild to help published writers with contracts and importantly to stay knowledgeable. E-book publishing is another aspect of traditional paper-and-ink publishing. What remains to be seen is if a combination of electronic and paper publishing will be a winning formula to keep employed the many talented and experienced people in the industry now. I’m optimistic about the possibilities for growth but I also recognize that in any period of transition, there are losers and this is painful.
What is your connection to Paris and why do you keep coming back?
I first visited Paris in the 1970s, and I’ve returned since then for work as an editor and writer, and for pleasure. In 2010, I taught in the Institut du monde Anglophone (Paris 3), and this was an opportunity for my longest stay in Paris, from January to June. That was a wonderful time because I had an ordinary Parisian life of work, writing, friends. Now I’ve returned to write for a month. The reason I keep coming back is the same for me as for many other visitors—I love Paris.
You were just appointed to the American Library in Paris’ Writers’ Council. What is the mission of the Council and what kind of work do they do?
The American Library in Paris is a center of American literary culture as well as a helpful and interesting collection of books and other resources. It’s a place for reading and writing, for studying. There have been groups of readers meeting here for years. Last year, I’d take the 69 bus to the library every Tuesday to change out my books—mysteries, poetry, biographies—and it was a welcoming place. When I was asked to be on the Writers Council, I was honored and eager to do everything I could to support the wonderful library.
You’ve recently retired from teaching at the University of Texas at Austin (Congratulations!) What are your plans now?
The plan is to write and to enjoy more time with my family and friends under less pressure. At home in Austin, I swim outdoors year round. I’m looking forward to a more leisurely pace to each day.
Any advice for struggling writers?
Read! Read as much as you can, and don’t think about pleasing anyone in particular or about publishing until the writing work is finished.
For more information about Laura Furman, please visit her website.