Tony Earley prefaces his story collection Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True with an epigraph from Ernest Hemingway. The choice might seem odd: Earley's subject matter is typically far from Hemingway's larger-than-life romances and two-fisted adventures. But in some ways, it fits perfectly: Writing with short sentences and a deceptively simple style, Earley captures emotional moments with a breathtaking lucidity, whether exploring the role of television in his emotionally detached childhood ("Somehow Form a Family") or marking his distance from his family in a bungled act of mercy ("Shooting the Cat").
Earley grew up in rural North Carolina and lives in Nashville, where he teaches fiction writing at Vanderbilt University. But when he reads here Feb. 11 as part of the University of Pittsburgh's Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers series, it will be a homecoming of sorts. From 1994 to 1997, while his wife, Sarah, attended seminary, Earley lived with her in Ambridge, where he recalls shoveling a lot of snow and writing most of the pieces in Somehow Form a Family, most of which were first published in Harper's, The New Yorker and the Oxford American.
Earley has two novels to his credit, including 2000's best-selling, critically acclaimed Jim the Boy. Speaking by phone from Nashville, he says that novel's success surprised him, lacking as it did sex, violence, bad language and irony; he's currently writing a sequel, titled The Blue Star, in which a now-17-year-old Jim graduates from high school and readies himself to fight in World War II.
At his Pittsburgh appearance, Earley says, he might read some of his new, unpublished short stories. But he declines to commit himself, and seems happier discussing an advanced fiction class he's teaching, in which his students must write a children's story with an adult subtext. "It's a sneaky way to teach them modernism," Earley says. Meanwhile, he's busy brushing up on classic children's literature. "I'm amazed every time I read Charlotte's Web how good it is," he says. "I think it's The Great Gatsby with talking animals."