Though Philip F. Deaver is originally from Illinois, he now lives in Florida, where he’s writer in residence and Professor of English at Rollins College. He also teaches fiction and poetry in the brief residency MFA program at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in venues such as The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Missouri Review, and The Best American Catholic Short Stories. He’s also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, made the list of 100 most distinguished stories in Best American Short Stories ‘95 , and Garrison Keillor even read his poems “Flying” and “The Worrier’s Guild” on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac in 2005.
Deaver’s other work includes the poetry volume How Men Pray, and Silent Retreats, a collection of short stories that won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 1986. In 2007, he edited Scoring from Second: Writers on Baseball, a collection of essays from authors about how the sport has affected their lives.
To read more about Philip, visit his website at http://philipfdeaver.com
You’re a passionate advocate for the short story. What are the qualities of the short form that you find most compelling? Can you name a few writers who, in your opinion, best demonstrate these in their work?
PFD: The first short story writers I imprinted on were John Cheever and John Updike, in the mid-1960s. Cheever never ceased to amaze me, and it was always these beautiful stories that gelled quickly and perfectly. It may be outrageous to say this, but with the exception of Couples, admittedly an acquired taste, Updike’s novels never did much for me, but there was something gem-like about his stories in the New Yorker. I waited for a collection of Updike stories to come out like I craved the next Rolling Stones album. In the 1970s and ‘80s it was Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver. Then I finally grew into seeing what the excitement was about with Alice Munro. Then Tim O’Brien, my old friend Ken Smith, then the wave of Flannery winners, including Antonya Nelson. Andrea Barrett! Jamaica Kincaid! Edwidge Danticat. Joan Silber. Mary Waters. What are the qualities? I can just name one – how in 8,000 words we can be pulled into a story, compelled by its characters and situations, and it can play out and end, complete and satisfying and memorable. Like a portrait, small, beautiful in and of itself. And for the writer, to embark on the writing of one not knowing where it would go, and to follow it, craft it, and have it be a wonderful surprise. Maybe to write three or four of them in a year, stories you didn’t even know existed inside you before you wrote them but you stuck with them and now they are your personal treasures. I send you to the story “Helping,” by Robert Stone in his collection The Bear and His Daughter, and “Passion” in Alice Munro’s collection Runaway and Ann Beattie’s silvery wondrous “Find and Replace” in her collection Follies and other Stories. These stories are gems, and they contain gems – moments that are rich and warm and so very right, and also that are riveting, mind-bending. I read these stories very closely, and I’m always looking at them to find out what that author did to make me as a reader spin like that, and then I try to write stories that have that effect on my readers.
Your volume Silent Retreats won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 1986 and the book came out in February of ‘88. How did these stories come into existence and eventually become a collection?
PFD: It’s interesting to note that there were co-winners of the Flannery most years, and that I was a co-winner with the estimable Melissa Pritchard who also taught in the Spalding brief residency MFA program. I missed her by about a semester but it’s a fun fact nevertheless. The stories in Silent Retreats were just one-off stories that I wrote in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. I happened upon a character, this fellow named Skidmore, and he would make cameo appearances in stories that were about someone else. He had a way of helping me set a tone. He had to be dealt with. He was raucous. Then I wrote a couple of stories that were actually about him. I was sort of chasing themes with Skidmore as a vehicle and catalyst, and one day I looked up and there were almost enough pages there for a collection. I added some that didn’t have Skidmore in them, set some of them outside of Illinois – other venues of mine: Texas, Washington, D.C., San Fran, Nebraska/South Dakota/the Black Hills. Year after year I submitted to the O’Connor competition, modifying the set of stories from one year to the next. Dropping stories that were lame, putting in new ones I was excited about. And one year I won.
As writers strive to become more adept at their craft, they often try to play to their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. What are some of the traps writers might fall into?
PFD: I don’t know any possible answer to this question. The traps are everywhere ! Writing is a fine art. Successful writers are really artists, and they follow their own lights, swim in and out of different influences and approaches, learn to trust their intuition, take risks, make corrections, steer their own course. Success is fleeting sometimes, and that’s tough, but continuing success can also derail writers. They can freeze at a certain point in their artistic growth and fall back on what worked when they were really happening, cease to be brave and grow. Or, with continuing success they can become headcases – begin to believe they can do no wrong, take too many risks or at least the wrong ones, lose control of their art. Success can be hard on a writer. Or at least, so I hear.
Is there a story idea you’ve never finished but that you just can’t seem to leave alone?
PFD: Many. I have notebooks of good ideas, some of which I try and try to pursue but can’t get them to go. I might think about one of them when I’m running, get an idea for making it happen – I’ll be thinking, “That’s it!” And when I get home and give it a go, I hit a sandbar yet again. I’ll look back in the old notebooks sometimes, and run upon a series of tries on a short story idea I’d been obsessed by but finally abandoned. I’ll think, “Oh yeah, I remember back then – that’s when I was trying to get that idea going.” There is something, I think, sometimes, too neat about a “good idea.” It turns out to be too pat, too flat, or I get so fixated on the specifics of it that it can’t breathe on its own. This probably doesn’t answer your question. I think we all have a basket of “good ideas” that go nowhere because they’re “too good,” not messy enough to really play with. The task with a “good idea” becomes not to discover a story by writing it but rather to execute, to effectively perform the writing of a pre-conceived “good idea” — like pointing the bat to the center field stands and trying to hit the ball there, instead of going with the pitch. More of a circus stunt than making art.
When did you first realize you wanted to devote your life to writing?
PFD: Haha. I’m a little slow at realizations. I’d been a writer a long time by the time I realized I was devoting myself to writing. It was something I tended to do since my first typewriter, in sixth grade. It was something I was always doing when I should have been doing something else. One thing though is that I was always alone in this. There were no other writers around me, no one who’d committed in that direction, no one who could show me how a writer uses a notebook, how a writer knows when a story is complete, what the best practices are in shaping realistic effective dialogue, what the literary conventions are and the taboos. Instead I just did it and didn’t talk about it – got my models from reading the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. And now from the Department of Divine Intervention: In 1976 I ended up somehow at Murray State University in Kentucky, at a time when it had become an interesting backwater enclave for some fine writers in my own generation. I wasn’t there as a writer or even as a professor. I was there as a staff person. But for the first time I had friends who were writers, and they saw me as one, too, and off I went. The validation in Murray was key to my proceeding on.
What’s the best advice a writing teacher ever gave you?
PFD: Read. Subscribe to the magazines you want to be in. Submit. Persistence never has a slump.
The lives of readers are becoming more cluttered with each passing day, forcing them to become more selective about what they read. Who is the author you suspect we haven’t read but who you think we ought to consider picking up?
PFD: Two: Jennifer Egan and Benjamin Percy. As for how cluttered the lives of readers are, we could worry a lot about readers these days. Writers, too. Bookstores and publishers, too. We need to be willing to keep writing and not let the chaos stop us. Everything will be okay, so long as we keep writing and trying to get better. Or maybe everything won’t be okay, but at least we stayed focused and thought about stuff and kept on trying to do the good work.
Some people can’t live without poetry, others can’t be bothered with it, and many reside in the space between. Even the most well-read person may feel a bit intimidated or even clueless when it comes to reading poetry, much less writing it. What can it do for us?
PFD: I think some very good readers are actually bored by poetry. What they’ve read of it doesn’t speak to them, at all. To them I say, go to poetry readings, public readings of prominent poets. Find their readings on Youtube (for instance, Robert Hass, reading “Consciousness” at the Geraldine R. Dodge writing conference). Listen to them speak their own poems. It was the late seventies when I first heard Charles Wright and William Matthews and William Stafford and Gary Soto and Jorie Graham and Jim Galvin – at Murray State. Whatever I thought poetry was, this was different. I suddenly saw poetry as possible, as a way of writing I could get into. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to get good at it, but I really wanted to. My point is, I was pulled in by hearing the poets read their work live. Then I started reading it. Reading it, now, is one of my great pleasures.
What writer, living or dead, would you most like to have lunch with, and what question would you most like for that person to answer?
PFD: Kurt Vonnegut. I don’t know what question I’d want him to answer. I’d want to be his friend, get his email address, compare notes from time to time. I’d want him to call me up if he was going through town, come and stay at our house. If I had lunch with him, I’d just sit there, I know I would. Great regret, I never met him. Mark Twain reincarnated, and I never got to meet him.
To see more about Philip F. Deaver’s books, go here.