Long Story Short | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Long Story Short

Fourteen years after publishing her first short story, local author Jennifer Bannan marks the publication of her first short-story collection, Inventing Victor, by talking about writing, about being American, and why book tours go better with friends

Jennifer Bannan says the first great writer she knew was a neighbor in her hometown of West Miami; when they were 8, she and Alicia even wrote a play together.

Her childhood friend's influence was still reverberating when Bannan came north to study creative and professional writing at Carnegie Mellon University in 1987. Indeed, Alicia inspired "Inventing Victor," the title story in Bannan's first short-story collection, a wide-ranging, often comic series of narratives exploring everything from family dynamics ("We Said Mother") and cross-cultural Internet dating ("Comfort Isn't Everything") to Generation X ("Take the Slackers Bowling") and closeted gay parenthood ("Fear of Heaven"). Settings range from a chi-chi vomitorium ("La Perche") and the world of modern PR ("Make It Good") to the cloistered world of Hasidic Jews ("The Bruise on Jupiter").

Though set for publication by Carnegie Mellon University Press on Oct. 15, the book has already garnered positive notices, most prominently in industry bible Kirkus Reviews, where it was favored with a coveted "starred review." Kirkus called Inventing Victor "[e]leven stories demonstrating a broad imagination and a chameleon's ability to leap seamlessly from culture to culture, subject to subject." The magazine described Bannan -- who works days as a marketing writer and lives in Friendship with her husband, Rich Engel, and their daughter, Tova Rae -- as "[a] large new talent that can go anywhere it wants."

"Inventing Victor," first published in 1989 in the Oakland Review, concerns a Cuban-American teen-ager who creates a fictional beau to impress her girlfriends. It was inspired by a stunt of Alicia's -- and especially by the intensely imagined notes she fabricated to perpetrate it.

Alicia sounds intriguing.
She and I lived across the street from each other. We started to know each other early, from when we were 6. And we started to write together. And I was always like, "When am I going to see Alicia's book?"

Was she Cuban-American like Dacia in the story?
Yeah. And that story is totally real. I admired her with every bone in my body. She was a great writer. I still have some of her [fabricated] notes. She did it not so much because she wanted to be popular as [because] she was a great writer and wanted to impress her friends.

In "Victor," the narrator is essentially a fiction writer, writing a destructive fiction -- she even fakes a threatening note to terrorize another girl.
All that trouble that she gets other people into, it's also affecting her. It's not the stories that get her in trouble so much as that rape note, which is such a horrible thing -- and her mother comes in and says, "You know, things are really creepy out there. Now you can't leave your yard." Everything she says sort of creates problems for other people but for her too. Part of the problem is she's so overprotected. She's doesn't know how to make life interesting without totally making it up.

Facing skeptical friends, she makes Victor more credible by saying he hits her.
It was definitely a commentary -- I didn't realize it until some of my teachers told me -- on the violence of machismo society. And that is true; it was like that. My first boyfriend totally knocked me down, hitting me once. And I ended up staying with him for another couple of months.

You're not Cuban, though?
My school was 87 percent Hispanic. Now it's like 99 percent. Nobody believed me when I wouldn't speak Spanish, because I never really learned Spanish, and I look it. I spoke enough to get by.

Did being a minority in high school give you a different perspective on American culture?
I think it gave me a really realistic perspective on American culture. But it also kind of made me like an expatriate. I live in a different land, in some ways. It's almost like being brought up in Hawaii or something -- just really a foreign place in a lot of ways. And I love that I grew up in that. I had down-home American friends too. Miami had a side of it that was very small-town.

How does Miami itself figure in the stories?
Even in the stories that aren't about Miami or don't have Miami in them, the beach, or a lake or whatever -- I've always got bodies of water cropping up. I use the [Highland Park] reservoir in [several] stories I've written.

Why is that?
I think that's where people reflect and you start you realize how small you are, and yet how big it is. It's just an inspiration to me.

You sometimes reference Pittsburgh in your stories, but most of them could be set anywhere.
I read somewhere that an author doesn't really bring a town to life until he or she leaves a town for good. So that might be why.

Stylistically this collection covers a lot of ground: "La Perche" is satirical, "We Said Mother" is spare and abstracted, and other stories are naturalistic. What holds them all together?
I had to write the book-flap, which I totally agonized over. And what I really wanted to say about the book and that what I think the styles represent -- and it's very difficult to say, because it sounds pompous as hell -- I want to write the American voice. And I think that's completely diverse and crazy. Like Sybil, 16 personalities. I hedged around it and said the book is really about truth and lies, but I think what I really wanted, which is what the Kirkus review said, is the diverse American landscape. Yeah, that's it -- I was so happy when they wrote that, because you can't really say that about your own work. First of all, they're short stories: It's only a novel that can be an epic American blah blah blah. But so far the comparisons have been "Kurt Vonnegut with an Anne Tyler thrown in," which, how do you make those two …? But I like that. And I am a copycat. When I read other stuff, I try to go do it.

Your stories touch on a lot of social issues -- eating disorders in "La Perche," racial angst in "B and B." Are some inspired by headlines?
It's funny. Kirkus says, "She steps out of her personal experience so easily." But a lot of it is not very many degrees removed. I'm definitely inspired by social issues. "La Perche" is from the headlines, and I don't really think it's about eating disorders; I think it's about excess and too much of everything that Americans seem to be really good at doing, and also about throwing it all away, which Americans are really great at, and buying something new. I [read] that Courtney Cox was seen coming out of a high-class restaurant bathroom wiping her mouth. And there was something about the way the reporter wrote about it that seemed to indicate he thought it was yes, repellent, but also kind of sexy, puking in a fancy restaurant.

"B and B" is actually somewhat autobiographical. We went on vacation and we met this awesome couple and we loved them and then we're like, "What's wrong with us -- why do we love them so much, and then again, why don't we have black friends?" And then we're like, "Wait, they're so professional, so well paid, is it really representative?" And then, we're like, "God, what are we saying?"

That story has a lot of tension between ridicule of the characters and empathy.
It's both about the massive amounts of guilt about how most blacks live and the guilt of being so comfortable. That's what creates this self-hatred and constant examination of things that in a lot of ways are mundane. It's dissection of guilt, which involves not ever knowing black people and being so privileged.

Your stories often examine the issue of human nature. In "Take the Slackers Bowling," the characters affect a lifestyle of not caring, and taking pride in not finishing things
. But Bob, the bowler, is driven almost in spite of himself to excel.
There's even like a sexual thing there, a gender thing, where women are so admiring of men's ambitions. I do feel like women, or at least girls, want to kind of follow what their boyfriends are doing. We listen to the music our boyfriends like. I always wanted to write something about that. The girl will have like 20 CDs, and the guy's going to Paul's CDs every single week.

I guess what I was going with there [was] here they all are with this sort of movement going on, and probably it was mostly defined and made into a movement by boys, and girls are like, "OK, I'm game, I'm part of this thing." And then they see that boys just have this thing about excelling and being ambitious and all that stuff, and they're like, "Well, that doesn't really match up." It's an inconsistency, but at the same time they really admire it, are drawn to power. What it all comes down to is, "This relationship is more important to me than whether I'm part of this movement." In other words, the girl will continue to follow the boy.

I mean, I was a slacker, and I thought I really liked this. I was like, "We're slackers," and Slackers was our favorite movie, and I read Generation X. I was very into it. But it was so obviously not going to be sustainable. And it was a little bit masturbatory. And there was this whole feeling to it like it was a movement -- but we're all standing around not doing anything, so how was it a movement again?

Do you think there's such a thing as human nature?
I guess I do. I never really thought about it that way. I do, but I think people are capable of change. I've seen it in my life, and I think they can make tough decisions and tough changes. One of the things I had hoped would come through the stories too is that these characters usually try to go in the direction of something more hopeful or life-affirming. And I don't have any victims in my stories. They're trying. They might not be doing a good job at it, but they're wanting to make some kind of active move.

Only two of the stories in Inventing Victor are in the third person.
I'm surprised, because lately I've been using it a lot. And in fact, "B and B" and "The Bruise on Jupiter" are my most recent stories in the collection. And I think I like it because it gives you a lot of freedom with point of view. And I think it's a nice point of view for novel-writing, and I'm really trying to do the novel thing right now. I prefer to read novels in the third person, because you feel more like a voyeur.

"Fear of Heaven" was published just last winter, in the Chicago-based literary magazine ACM.
That's pretty much my coup. They've been around for 25 years. And actually that happened because of a conference. So if you're giving advice to writers in this thing at all, that really helped. I went to a conference that Rich helped me find, based on it being short -- I have a job and a baby -- and cheap. It was only $450; they're usually like a thousand. We went up there and Sharon Solwitz, who's the editor of ACM, she was one of the teachers. She taught one of my classes. She was in charge of judging all the short-story entries in the conference and giving a prize, and she chose "Fear of Heaven." It was in a very different form. But even with all the flaws she really liked it. So I feel like, "Gosh, if I had been going to conferences a little more, and meeting more editors of magazines …" So then I asked her for a blurb and she said no! [Laughs] She said, "I'm so busy with ACM," and I think she's getting a novel finished.

You've published five stories over 14 years.
I think that the whole literary magazine world is a really tough place. I have probably 75 rejection letters -- really nice ones, but you know. I've gotten four nice rejection letters with written comments from The New Yorker. But it's so tough. I used to think if I got a story in the Gettysburg Review it would all be sealed up. That's not true. I think it's better to have a collection.

So what does that mean? Try to meet people who are running these presses, and show them your stories one by one, slowly, because that's what happened with [CMU short-fiction series editor] Sharon [Dilworth]. Sharon had a very specific vision of what she wanted to do, though, and one of the things she was after [she was] established, [she wanted] to publish a Carnegie Mellon alumna. And so I was the lucky winner. It just had to do with the fact I've been showing her stuff for years and years and years.

I mean, we're friends, there's no getting around that. But [the book] feels legit when I start to really promote it, and especially when the starred Kirkus review came out, it really felt legitimate. It was like, "Oh my god, I'm a real writer. A tough reviewing outfit gave me a really great review." I'm not as troubled by that as I used to be. I used to be like, "Well, this is something that Sharon, a friend of mine provided to me. I'll have to prove myself still."

Do you write differently to get published?
No, I don't think so. I write to tell a good story and to please a set number of people who I know that they have a good outlook on life: my writers' group, and my mentor, who happens to be Sharon, my sister, and that's about it. Not even Rich, because he never responds to my stories the way I want him to!

I'm working on a novel, and I do try to keep it edgy and fast, plot-driven.

You're marketing Victor partly with informal readings, the next one being at Quimby's bookstore in Chicago on Oct. 17.
I got an invitation to a baby shower in Chicago. I said, "I'm not going to go unless I can make it worth my while." So I scheduled a reading.

Your last one was in Atlanta.
There was a review in [the alternative newspaper] Creative Loafing that came out right before the reading. For the most part it was a really good review. And the reading was great. There were like 20 people there. A lot of it's due to the efforts of [a friend] who lives over there. That's what readings are about, I'm realizing: bringing out your friends. A lot of books were sold, and people were really enthusiastic.

You can already buy Inventing Victor on Amazon. Could you find out how many have sold?
I probably could, probably just by calling the distributor, but I'm wary of that. I don't know why. I'm afraid it would be bad news. But I've surpassed most of the Carnegie Mellon Press books, as far as sales go. And I know that because Amazon ranks you. In my case, when it first came out it was two-millionth, and I was humiliated. After the Kirkus it went to 1.5 million. And I don't know if it's just momentum or what, but now I'm at [900,000].

Then I started comparing my ranking to every emerging writer I could think of. I check it all the time. It's like my odometer. Isn't it funny? And I Google my name every day. I'm like, "What if there's a new review?"

Are there drawbacks to being published by a small press?
I'm glad that it's not a major publisher in some ways, because they pick where you go, where you tour, and they pay for it, which is great. But you don't get to go see your friends, like I'm doing. You don't have a guaranteed audience. I've heard of a lot of established writers going on tours that are paid for and chosen by the marketing departments of the publishers and they can't bring out a crowd. And the author can't bring out a crowd because it's not a town where his friends live. So it's kind of stupid. I don't think the publishers really think much about what the author can do for them. It's like, "Let us do it for you."

There's nothing in my stories about Atlanta. But I have friends there, and that was the pitch to the bookstore. Actually the guy was very skeptical. He said, "Uhhh, well, send me the book. I don't usually do short stories." A lot of people say that. Short stories don't sell. And that's just like an industry fact. Ultimately I would love to have a novel, but short stories are what I can do in the meantime.

Why don't short stories sell?
I think people think of it as something you read in a magazine, and you just read one, and you don't want to look at an author's vision through short stories; you want to see it through some kind of -- I mean, I prefer to read novels. You want to be sucked in for a while, and you want something lasting, not like this little treat. There's not a lot of really good collections on the shelves, and that's just because nobody really has faith in the form. And you study short stories in college, too. Maybe people think of it as sort of the practice medium. And I think of it that way too. I'm trying to write a novel and it feels like growing up a little bit, and it's really different and it's really hard.

How do you over-hype a short-story collection? "A sweeping view of …." It just doesn't have that Michener feel. I think it would be tough to market collections. If that were my job, I would be looking for another one.

From "B and B"

A short story by Jennifer Bannan

Stan zipped through the snarl and Catherine was reminded of her father's comment the last time she had visited her parents in Florida. "The blacks -- the black men -- they're very aggressive drivers." Catherine wondered now, why her father often had some insight about black people, when he never associated with them and rarely saw them.

"Take it easy on the company car," Simone warned him, and Catherine felt ashamed that she had assumed he was anti-environment. He couldn't help what car corporate America wanted to lay on him.

They unloaded the Land Rover of the beach chairs and cooler and their bags. Catherine noticed the ultra-pleased smile that was directed to them from families unpacking their cars nearby. She felt her anger flare at the approving, almost relieved expressions reserved especially for the rare spectacle of the inter-racial couples out and about together. What right did these white families have to tender their appreciative glances? Perhaps they were just happy to leave racial harmony to the rest of the world.

The sand on Virginia Beach was soft and smooth, and even though it was the Fourth of July weekend, there wasn't too much of a crowd.

Now Catherine looked across the beach and saw no more blacks than the 12 percent national average, despite her co-worker's description of Virginia Beach.

And here they were, two couples out for relaxation on the beach, black and white, professional, healthy, well adjusted. Maybe the subtext didn't have to be this loaded, but it was, wasn't it? At least it was for Catherine, who hadn't done much mingling with blacks, and who couldn't seem to stop smarting at the realization.

Catherine remembered a visit from an old friend who had moved to Portland and been living there for a few years. "I miss Pittsburgh!" she had exclaimed, as they sat on the front porch relaxing with a bottle of red wine. "You see black people here! You never see them in Portland!"

"Yeah. But we don't know any. We just see them."

"Still, that's something. I mean you never see them in Portland!"

At the time, the wine made it hard for Catherine to understand why her friend's comment bothered her. But in hindsight she saw that her friend's attitude sounded like reassurance at the sight of endangered animals, like appreciating their value, but from a distance informed by caution, or fear.

Excerpted by permission of the author

Comments (0)
Comments are closed.