Q&A: Valerie Trueblood on Short Stories As Art

by Kelsey Thomas

I never know exactly what to expect when going into an interview (which I suppose is half the fun), but I certainly don't expect the author to thank me profusely for reading her work, seek my opinions on anything from the state of publishing to that of humanity, and then turn the conversation to my personal aspirations. But that's reflective of the type of writer — and woman — Valerie Trueblood is. In her eloquent but unassuming manner, Trueblood talked about her latest collection, Search Party: Stories of Rescue (Counterpoint), and her views on life, relationships, and establishing herself with a scope outside of "domestic issues".

Search Party, Trueblood's third collection, brings together 13 diverse stories of people lost and being found. On paper the characters are seemingly average: Parents, firefighters, travelers, and cancer survivors, but each story unlocks surprising depth and mystery, ultimately reminding us that we are all bound by our collective humanity.

BUSTLE: Let's talk about short stories as a form.

VALERIE TRUEBLOOD: It’s wonderful you use the word form, because it is a form. So often people will ask when I’m going to attempt a full-length work, and of course the short story is a full-length work.

Why is it your preferred form?

I didn’t really choose it.. it sort of chose me, in part because of its beauty. I have a slight mistrust of the novel. I read novels all the time but my affinity is for the short story, because there is a particular beauty in the fact that it doesn’t require the consequences and the resolution and the setting out of meaning for the reader that the novel does.

One of the things I love about the short story is that you can take the plot off the pedestal and focus on an idea or character.

What a wonderful comment. The plot doesn’t really figure into the short story, and that’s one of the problems when a short story is being reviewed: People summarize or paraphrase the stories. When you paraphrase a short story it’s going to sound like a soap opera. A review I got really recently said my stories were about “individuals with troubled lives,” and they do have trouble, but the story is not about that trouble in the way a novel would be. It has a freedom not to solve matters... really, it’s closer to a poem than to a novel in its possibilities.

How did this collection, Search Party, come about? Did you have a collection in mind when you wrote the stories?

They’re written over a long span of time, so I wouldn’t say I had specifically this collection in mind, but certain ideas have always been present in my work. These stories are not connected except by the thread of an idea: how people attempt to rescue each other, and rescue themselves, or try to. What connects these stories is the appearance of kind of a rope ladder in their lives that they have to notice and get onto. The attempt made in life to help one another interests me.

The story has less to do with causality than the novel does. It can draw a circle around a character, who can be aware of what’s outside the circle or not. What’s outside doesn’t have to figure into what happens inside the circle. It’s the isolation of a struggling character and how that isolation is broken into that attracts me . That is what made this collection come together.

How did you decide the order of the book? Did you want readers to read the stories in a specific order?

No, I would never demand of the reader that they do anything in particular. I often begin a book of short stories by reading the last ones. These do have a slight arrangement in my mind: They move from a story of finding to a story of being lost. It was a reverse order that really appealed to me.

You've mentioned that you do not let anyone read drafts of your stories or collections. Why?

Because they’re drafts. It doesn’t seem helpful to me. It would be embarrassing before I had done the work that had to be done to make them presentable. To some extent they’re always in draft, but to make them what I consider more or less ready is so intense and so private that I wouldn’t want to share the process. I do know that’s a kind of heresy now because of writing groups.

Quite a few of your stories feature characters referencing poetry.

My writing is very influenced by poetry. I read poetry all the time, and was a contributing editor to a poetry magazine for a long time, so I read and love contemporary poetry. It does influence me: it gives me a sense of how much can be cut. How little space you need, to say what you need to say. How much can be stripped away. When I was little, I remember discovering the obituaries , which were a huge revelation to me. I was quite young, but I remember asking my mother, “Everyone in the obituaries is good. Why is that?” There is this narrow five-inch column that has someone’s entire life in it, and the person is always good. I think that is one of the things that began my interest in the short story. An obituary is a story the size of the poem, with many of the aspects of a poem.

A lot of your stories are very dark and deal with harsh issues such as death and cancer. Do you see human nature as ultimately dark?

Not at all. I see human nature as incredibly variable in the same way that life is. I think it sways in and out of darkness. I don’t think illness is caused by human nature, but it befalls almost everybody and we all have to grapple with it. I would say my characters grapple with the things that befall us. I think we live not in a life we have caused, to a large extent. What interests me is the experiences that have to be absorbed because we didn’t cause them; they happened. Human character and human nature are capable of anything. A student life website said my stories should be read for the hope that is in them. I do feel that there is hope in them. The mystery that attracted me in the obituaries is the sense of human goodness.

I agree. The difficulties of real life are present in your stories, but are discussed in a hopeful way rather than a pessimistic way. Many of the characters are in a state of acceptance of the difficult aspects of life.

Why thank you. I see that as a compliment. As one of my favorite writers Jim Harrison has said, “pain is in grand supply.” You can’t avoid pain if you are going to write about life, whether you are writing realistically or writing metafiction or fantasy. Pain is going to be in there because life is hard, but — and this is another sort of glory of the short story — the short story to me is able to express a delight in life that a novel just can’t sustain. It’s a great benefit of the short story that it can be about something difficult and leave you in an almost ecstatic state at the end anyway.

You’ve lived in Seattle for many years and your stories frequently feature descriptions of nature. Do you think the Northwest shows up in your writing?

Yes I do, in the beauty. Even if you’re not a landscape describer, which I would not say I am, there is no avoiding the water, the wet, the saturated atmosphere, the rain, the lushness, the greenness and even the darkness. The darkness of those long rainy months. I think that has to influence a writer here. It’s our own atmosphere. The mountains are very near and it gives us the perspective that we’re small. We can’t get the illusion that we’re very important when we see Mt. Rainier. Seattle also has a wonderful, radical history and a labor history. So for anyone who is conscious of economic issues and rebellion, it is a very rich place to be. The military presence on our coast makes you very aware of war and its interruption of life. Also, we look out at Asia. We don’t look at what people on the East Coast look out at. There’s a feeling of spaciousness. And I hope things like that are in my stories without being their subject.

Although unlike your past two collections, Search Party is not focused on relationships and love, those themes still show up in many of the stories, including the title story "Search Party". Why do you keep coming back to the theme of love?

That’s a good question. You know, I simply don’t know. Going back to the sort of child I was: I looked around me. I had a happy childhood, which I guess is becoming somewhat rare in itself, and that must have been what sank in. Also, if you look at all of literature, there are love stories and disaster stories. Those are the fairy tales, those are the folk tales, and that’s what we tell when we tell a story. How can you avoid love and disaster? I don’t write romance. I certainly don’t write romance! I don’t write of love where there are a lot of happily ever afters. I think that our deep wish to pair up and our deep interest in other people is fundamental. I’ve read reviews, usually by men, saying oh this writer just writes about domestic matters (marriage and love). If a man writes about domestic matters and marriage and love someone will call it sociological. But if a woman writes about those matters it’s called miniature. So I resent that. I think these things are a large part of our purpose in life.

It wouldn’t even have occurred to me to say your stories focus on domestic matters.

It’s not just said about me. It’s been said about Alice Munro, once of the greatest short story writers in English, whose stories cover huge areas of civilization. But they have protagonists who desire each other and somehow that becomes all that is said in reviews, that the woman is concentrating on the romantic aspect of life.

On that note, one of the things I appreciated about Search Party was that although it was stories of people lost and being found, you avoided the cliché of boy rescues helpless girl. In fact, much of the time people rescued themselves.

That’s a wonderful observation and I hope it’s true because sometimes the rescuing does have to done by the character.

So would you call your stories feminist?

At the risk of branding myself, I would have to say yes. I never think of a strong person saving a weak person or in terms of roles. I suppose I more often write from the point of a view of a woman but I've also taken the point of view of a man. My stories take women seriously and I see a lot of stories that do not. So, if that’s feminist then yes. And I do identify as a feminist.

You started writing fiction a little later in life, earlier on doing some investigative journalism and poetry criticism. What was the transition into fiction like?

You know, there wasn’t really a transition, because all the time I was doing those earlier things I was writing stories. I started really in childhood. It was a big joke in my family that I was always muttering to myself when I thought I was alone. I was telling myself stories. Things appeared to me as stories and I started writing them very early, usually very bad stories. I kept writing them in college and I’ve just been writing them all my life. I am a very late organizer and I devoted myself to a lot of other things before trying to publish my fiction . Publishing it was just never a goal. Then I realized that I had these stories that I really did want somebody to read, and found an avenue to do it. I was very discouraged by rejection when I sent the stories out when I was young. I think now young people are more sensible and hard-headed about submitting things and being rejected.

Why do you think people are more hard-headed about rejections now?

I think the Internet and blogs helped. People would put their rejections online and it became a humorous thing. For the short while I sent things out in the '70s I would get "We really like this story, but it's too much of a women's interest story." There's humor in such a comment, but it wasn't humorous to me at the time.

Although you've now published three full collections, it's unfortunate that you still face being classified as a women's issues writer or domestic writer instead of just a literary writer.

Or just a writer. I just want to be called a writer.

Image: Lucien Knuteson