Hester Kaplan is the author of the new short story collection Unravished. She also has written another story collection, The Edge of Marriage, and two novels, The Tell and Kinship Theory. She teaches at Lesley University, and she lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
Q: Why did you select “Unravished,” the title of one of your stories, as the title for the entire story collection?
A: The first time I heard the word “unravished” (I came across it when I was doing some reading for the story), I couldn’t get it out of my head. It’s such a great word you don’t hear often, with a kind of twisted and twisting logic—and of course, sexual, even violent overtones. For the story, it seemed like just the right word to describe a piece of innocent land that might be destroyed by greed and vengeance.
The word as title seemed right for the entire collection because it suggests to me the state of mind of so many of my characters have. They remain untouched by reality they don’t want to acknowledge—until harsher truths ravish them. One of my characters has to admit she’s attracted to the corrupt side of power; another sees that her unwillingness to believe a man’s story has led to a lifetime of unhappiness for him.
I think we all get blindsided at times by what we’ve chosen and worked hard not to see. It’s inevitable and also essential to have our views and assumptions and opinions challenged. Otherwise, we’re just boring and predictable, and we learn nothing new about life. I always want to be surprised by life, even if it hurts.
Q: Family relationships, often complicated ones, are at the heart of many of these stories. Do you see any themes that unite your characters throughout the collection when it comes to how they handle their family dynamics?
A: Every relationship we have is, in some way, an echo of our original family dynamic. Because family is how we first understand the way people interact with each other and the world, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as an uncomplicated family relationship. (Or maybe that’s just me!) I think our family becomes fixed in our mind—he’s like this, she’s like that. This means that when a family member acts out of character, we’re not always sure what to do with it.
One question that drives many of my stories is this: what do we do when someone we think we know so well, someone who love us, does something we can’t accept or understand? For many of my characters, family love is the most mysterious and baffling kind, and they approach it with caution and a certain amount of self-deception.
What does a wife do when her husband reads her support as just the opposite? What does a husband do when he realizes his wife only wanted him for the child he could give her? How does a mother accept the truth that she doesn’t really know her son at all? My characters don’t handle these troubling family dynamics smoothly or soothingly, but who could? Their world has been turned upside down—and this isn’t always a bad thing.
Q: Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?
A: I prefer writing short stories, and think it’s a much more natural form for me. I’m an incredibly bad storyteller in real life. You’ll be sorry if you get stuck with me at a party. I leave out the good parts and rush to the end.
Writing short stories though forces me to mine experiences (real or made up) for all their nuances and riches and hidden meanings, and then attempt to make some sense of the total mess I’ve uncovered. Writing short stories allows me to slow down, consider everything, and inhabit another person, which for me are the great pleasures of the work.
Q: Which authors have influenced you?
A: I have books and authors I return to all the time to remind me of how perfectly and exactly some ideas and emotions and events are expressed. I’m big on the novelist guys from the old white man’s club: Philip Roth, John Updike, Richard Ford. I find the amount of detail in Ford’s writing exhilarating and liberating. I read a lot of short stories, most recently by Elizabeth McCracken, Antonya Nelson, Jamie Quatro. I read a lot of Charles Dickens and Judith Krantz when I was a kid. Who knows what that weird combo did to my own aesthetic.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m finishing up the second novella in a series set in the days—months? years?--before the world ends. I don’t read much speculative fiction, and I’m not so interested in sci-fi or fantasy, but tossing this urgency into a story has been really exciting—and has made me think about how I approach my own life day to day. Then it’s back to stories, stories, stories.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’ve been thinking about what an interesting (that’s me trying to be polite here) state publishing is in these days. It’s not entirely clear what a writer should or can do in terms of self-promotion. I’ve been told to use social media to promote my books but not be too self-promote-y. See how that could be pretty confusing? I think the impulse that drives many people to write is the same impulse that can makes self-promotion painful stuff. Thank you, thank you, Deborah, for giving writers such a wonderful and supportive place to talk about their work.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. For a previous Q&A with Hester Kaplan, please click here.