Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories by Catherine Brady (with interview)

I've long been fascinated with short stories, how writers can pack a big punch in so few words. It's important to me that short stories have a bit of a plot, but I'm mostly attracted to rich characters and how the best short stories say so much about these people without saying much at all.

In The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories, Catherine Brady presents a diverse group characters in a collection of 11 stories. Each of the characters is unique, yet it was easy for me to identify with each of them in some small way. A woman who became a mother at a very young age and spends much of her life working hard so her daughter has a better life. A newspaper photographer who seems to be going off the deep end. A young woman forced to deal with her parents' health problems and her feelings toward her abusive father. There are many more fascinating characters, all of them joined together by events that cause them to feel as though they are falling.

There is a heaviness to the stories, almost as if you can feel yourself weighed down by the problems facing the main characters, and I liked that Brady pulled me into the characters' lives in a way that other short stories have failed. I don't usually like abrupt endings, but Brady brilliantly ends each story with a defining event for the main character, leaving you wondering what happens next without feeling as though too much was left out.

You can read an excerpt from "The Dazzling World," a story from The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories, here.

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I'd like to welcome Catherine Brady, author of The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories, to Diary of an Eccentric. Thank you so much, Catherine, for taking time to answer my questions.

What do you want the reader to take away from this collection of stories?

In The Mechanics of Falling & Other Stories, the focus is on moments in people’s live when they’re suddenly snapped free from their moorings—when things converge in just the right way to make a seemingly stable life give way. This is more or less the terrain of all short stories, so I’d probably add a bit to this explanation. Many of these stories have as their main characters mothers or their daughters who are just coming of age, so one thing I was looking at was the slippage that occurs in women’s lives. Has enough changed for our daughters? And conversely, how do the promises of feminist mottoes hold up in our real lives, when we have to negotiate our own needs with the needs of the people we love?

I began writing these stories because I saw a flyer someone had posted, seeking a room-mate for an apartment. It was headed, “looking for a female tenet,” and I loved the slippage of the spelling error. I think the mistakes that we make in our lives are so illuminating and reveal something essential about us: when push comes to shove, will we sacrifice a mistake to achieve a correctness that doesn’t offer us anything beautiful or sustaining?

I’m also fascinated by how much Americans believe in the idea of transformation. I live in San Francisco, where pretty much everyone subscribes to the idea that you can make yourself over any time you want. But is it really true that in one dramatic instant you can remake your whole life? Some of the characters in these stories believe this intensely, but others question it, or are troubled by it. And I still don’t know the answer.

Is there one story that was more difficult to write than the others?

It was hard hard for me to write “Slender Little Thing.” The story is about Cerise, who has worked all her life in menial jobs, and her daughter, Sophie, who’s about to apply to college, her chance at a better life. I had the idea for this story but just couldn’t start writing it: I was thinking about how easy it would be to see Cerise as limited and her failings as set in cement, and I couldn’t find a way to tell it that would allow me to challenge this in a way that I thought would be convincing. Finally, I wrote “the story” in one paragraph, just the facts of how Cerise was limited and how little she understood her daughter’s fear of leaving her for a better life. Then each section of the story begins with one sentence from this paragraph and in some way tries to refute it or to undermine it by showing what was left out of the deterministic story. Repetition is deterministic, and Cerise’s life can be defined in this way, so that was the formal barrier, which allowed me to keep the question in play.

I also had trouble with “Last of the True Believers.” I had published an earlier version of this story many years ago and was never satisfied with it. I’d wanted to write about a woman who’s been loyal for years to her husband, an old-style Berkeley radical, and is just beginning to lose faith in his rants and his absolutism. Just a few months before the manuscript was due, I ripped the story to shreds and started over. For me the solution was again in finding the right form: finding something else for the story to be about, which in this case was how these parents coped after a serious injury left their teenage daughter crippled. For me, a story only really gets going in my imagination when I have to somehow tell two stories at once.

Who is your favorite writer of short stories?

I have two favorites, pretty predicable, I’m afraid: Anton Chekhov and Alice Munro. They tell a good story in the most fundamental way—characters you care about in interesting predicaments—so anyone who picks up their work can get something from it. Yet if you want to pay more careful attention, there’s always a second story underneath the story. Whenever I reread the stories of Chekhov and Munro, I discover something I haven’t seen before—a good story lets you in immediately at some level, but it also just gives and gives infinitely.

What is the best book you’ve read so far this year?

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. The voice of this novel is just amazing, and I think that Diaz set out to reconstitute what the quintessentially American voice really is. It’s an immigrant’s voice. He counters the facile idea that immigrants have to give up their old culture in order to become American and says instead, Listen up! Look what I brought you! I am a child of immigrants myself, so I really identified with this message, and the book is just so brilliantly done. The form and style are all about encompassing more—the narrator is as conversant with The Oresteia as he is with street slang and geeky science fiction.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received about writing and/or publishing?

Two pieces of advice that were given to me when I was a graduate student have really stayed with me. I used to work so hard to make stories “pretty,” to write fancy convoluted sentences, to work for the language to be lyrical. And one of my professors, Andrew Fetler, said, “Don’t try so hard to do what’s natural to you. Stop worrying about it.” I became a better writer because of that advice. I learned to mistrust the falseness of writing that tries so hard. The second piece of advice, from another professor, Tamas Aczel, might at first seem really minor. I’d given him a story I’d revised for my thesis, and he praised a simple change I’d made—taking a sentence and setting it off as its own separate paragraph, all by itself. He said something like, “Now that’s real writing.” I think he meant that the best writing—the best revision—is capable of getting the most effect from simple strategies. At bottom, complex effects in fiction often rest on simplicity—simplicity of plot structure, simplicity of language.

Thanks again, Catherine. I can't wait to read more of your work, and I wish you much success!

For more information about Catherine Brady, click here.


**Come back to Diary of an Eccentric later today to find out how you can get your hands on a copy of The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories!**

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to participate in tour for The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories. For the entire list of tour dates, click here.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The Mechanics of Falling and Other Stories for review purposes.

15 comments:

Angie said...

This sounds like a really intersting book. I'm going to add it to my to-read list.

bermudaonion said...

I haven't enjoyed short stories that much in the past, but I plan to give them a try again this year. Great interview.

LisaMM said...

Nice job, Anna! I'm on this tour too. Really enjoyed Catherine's interview, great questions!

Janel said...

I adore short stories. It takes so much talent to write them well. I loved the interview!

carolsnotebook said...

That was a wonderful interview. It sounds like a great book. I really enjoy short stories when I read them, I just tend not to read them that often, for whatever reason.

Serena said...

I'm on this tour as well and can't wait to start reading these stories. what a great interview! I love the writing advice she talks about and how the simple changes make the writing better...great advice.

Anonymous said...

Hi--

I just wanted to say thank you for reviewing my book, The Mechanics of Falling, and also to say how heartening it is to read the comments and see that there are still short story readers out there. It's easy to get an inferiority complex when you write in the "small" form instead of writing great big novels.

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Ladytink_534 said...

Personally I prefer anthologies with collections from different authors but every once in awhile I'll pick up an amazing short story collection. This sounds like it could be one!

Iliana said...

Great interview Anna! I have really been making an effort to read more short stories since last year so I'm definitely keeping this book in mind.

Literary Feline said...

Great review, Anna! I think you kicked off the start of this tour wonderfully. I think Catherine did an amazing job with this collection of stories. There wasn't one story I didn't like in this collection.

Thank you too for the interview with the author!

S. Krishna said...

I enjoyed your review, and great interview!

ibeeeg said...

This book has been put onto my TBR list...after reading your review I am glad it is there.
Loved the interview.

Wendi B. - Wendi's Book Corner ~ Rainy Day Reads in Seattle said...

Your interview has been added to About the Author - An Author Interview Index! ~ Wendi

Anna said...

Angie: I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

Bermudaonion: I'm picky when it comes to short stories, and I get excited when I come across a good collection.

Lisa: I'll be looking for your review. You may have posted it already, but I'm really behind in review reading.

Janel: I haven't mastered the short story. I'm trying, but they really are hard to write.

Carol: I find that I have to be in the mood for short stories. They take a lot out of me, figuring them out, etc. I enjoy it, though.

Serena: I'm looking forward to your thoughts on the book.

Catherine: Thank you for stopping by my blog. Glad you enjoyed the review.

Mandy: Thanks! I'm looking forward to receiving my Book Buddy!

Ladytink: You know, I've never picked up an anthology with short stories from a bunch of different authors. I'll have to look into those.

Iliana: I've noticed the short story talk on your blog. I'm always on the lookout for good short stories.

Literary Feline: Thanks! I'll have to check out your tour stop soon. I'm really behind in review reading.

S. Krisha: Thanks!

ibeeeg: I hope you get a chance to read it soon.

Wendi: Thanks!