On Writing: The Short Story Edition, with Anne Perdue
Known for her chameleon-like ability to inhabit wildly different voices, Anne Perdue’s new book I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore (Insomniac) is dark, witty and yearning. She talks to Open Book about perceptions of short fiction, how to craft great characters and the joy of “landing a precise punch with the perfect verb”.
Tell us about your book, I'm a Registered Nurse Not a Whore.
It’s a book that celebrates seemingly ordinary lives. A tribute to the underemployed, the overworked and the often unnoticed. It’s about people we all know who are, in some way, battered or bruised and need love or understanding.
Many of the characters want to escape from their lives and are searching for recognition while haunted by regret. They set out to improve their lives in a myriad of innocuous ways: going on an expensive vacation, preparing the perfect birthday dinner, buying a house or practising benevolence with a Haitian immigrant. But endeavours are misguided and some wild rides ensue as best intentions run amok. The stories are infused with equal doses of pathos and humour.
What was most challenging about writing or publishing this collection?
Major challenges arose from the great freedom and complex nuances of writing in third person with multiple points of view. But I stuck with it because I believe the bold immediacy of third person suits the stories and because I also wanted to link them with a common narratorial voice.
Writing with a style that is controlled and reckless at the same time was also a challenge. As was the exigency to keep the writing alive and kicking while subjecting it to ruthless rewrites.
And finding a publisher was an entirely different kind of challenge, of which I probably can’t say much that hasn’t already been said many times, except that I’m very grateful to Insomniac Press for publishing I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore.
How do you know when the germ of an idea will be the right fit for a short story?
I get a physical rush of energy and I can’t stop thinking about it.
What do you enjoy most about the process of writing a short story?
It requires me to exercise every bit of grey matter I can access.
I love the energy of writing itself. Using the rhythm and cadence of words, sentences and paragraphs, to convey dramatic tension. There’s nothing more exciting than landing a precise punch with the perfect verb.
Creating characters who howl against conformity, hypocrisy and the many useless expectations life can demand of us, is pure pleasure.
And the art of Jenga. Paring the story down until there’s nothing left to remove that wouldn’t significantly alter the essential architecture. (I know I also said this was most challenging; writing’s like that.)
How do you make a character vibrant and realistic in just a few pages?
I spend a lot of time with characters, writing out pages of details and idiosyncrasies before writing a story. I absolutely need to visualize a character, so I’ll sometimes resort to flipping through magazines or walking the streets in search of a face or a gait or a gesture that’s dripping with attitude. And I need to hear them: their patterns of speech and the ways in which they succeed and fail in conversation. And people are most revealing in times of great stress so I find it’s good to never let trouble fade far from the page.
What recurring themes or obsessions do you notice turning up in your short stories?
How what we do for money defines us and can simultaneously build us up or take us down.
Economic and environmental doom and gloom and the constant confusion, pressure and fear we experience as a result.
The rules of life that ought to be broken and the great joy that occurs when we do so.
The harsh and unreliable ways we judge one another and the discrepancies between our internal and external worlds.
Our heroic yet often laughable attempts to do the right thing.
Regret. Loss. Post-colonial guilt.
The decline of the WASP Empire. The ways in which we try to find our footing in a culturally diverse setting.
Is there such a thing as a perfect short story? What story have you read that's come closest?
Yes. Absolutely. Here are four:
J.D. Salinger: A Perfect Day for Bananafish
Anne Enright: Until the Girl Died
John Cheever: Reunion
Caroline Adderson: Falling
What would you say to convince someone who is "more into novels" to give short fiction a try?
Don’t feel you need to read a collection in the same way you read a novel (although that can be very satisfying). Think of short stories as hedonistic adventures. If you feel like gorging, a collection of shorts can be a weeklong fling between novels. If you prefer to snack, read a couple of stories one night and think of them as a tantalizing indiscretion while you’re also seriously committed to a novel.
Anne Perdue lives in Toronto. Her website is www.anneperdue.com
For more information about I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore please visit the Insomniac Press website.