Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Q&A with Deb Olin Unferth

Deb Olin Unferth is the author of the new story collection Wait Till You See Me Dance. She also has written the story collection Minor Robberies, the novel Vacation, and the memoir Revolution. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Granta and Harper's. She lives in Austin, Texas. 

Q: How did you decide on your new book’s title (also the title of one of the stories), and what does it signify for you?

A: The truth is, it had bee six years since I had a book come out, and I was starting to feel I wasn’t a writer any more! I was working, but things were not coming together. When this was accepted, I had the story already, and it struck me as a good title: You thought I was gone, but look what I’m going to do next!

I also have a graphic novel coming out in the fall, so I feel I’m back on track.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories collected in this book?

A: A long time—I’ve been writing stories for so many years now. When my editor at Graywolf asked me about putting together a collection, I looked at all the stories I’d published…It turns out I didn’t like most of them any more. I had 90 pages left, so I spent one long summer writing new stories.

There are a few old favorites and some new stuff published in the last year…the book is 200 pages long—I’d say half and half [old and new].

Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear?

A: I don’t know—it was a big drag. I had names on notecards and shuffled them around. I have short shorts and it was awkward. I decided on long, short, long, short—I liked that.

Q: What themes do you see running through the whole collection?

A: I guess one thing I feel is something I write about a lot…is that there’s always someone trying to help someone else and being inadequate at it, or not supposed to do it….

I feel that’s in a lot of stories. It’s the way I’ve lived my life. My last book was about when I was 18 and went to Central America to try to join a revolution with my boyfriend. Now I run a prison program here in Texas….How do I teach these people who are so different from me? It’s a bigger challenge than I’d thought.

I’m trying to help people and animals—I’m a vegan; it’s a huge thing in my life. Every time I try to help it ends up a mess [especially earlier on]--a lot is based on my life!

Q: In addition to your story collections, you’ve also written a novel and a memoir. Do you have a preference?

A: Not really. Novels are really hard. I’m trying to finish one and it’s so hard—I’m thinking, No more novels! I think I want to try doing some nonfiction next. My last book was a memoir, I’m doing stories and the graphic novel. I have a project in mind that I’m not ready to talk about yet.

Q: Is your writing process similar no matter what you’re writing, or is it different depending on the genre?

A: When I started, in earlier years, it felt really different. Now it doesn’t so much. Sometimes I write reviews, journalism, and that feels different. With the other stuff, it’s not that it feels the same, but I don’t apply [different criteria] other than the rules—if it’s nonfiction, it’s the truth, and with fiction, I can make things up. I try to keep my voice.

Q: Can you say more about the graphic novel?

A: It’s about a mother who loses custody of her child, called I, Parrot.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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