Saturday, February 12, 2011

Steven Millhauser Interview

When I was in high school I worked at the public library. There was a special section of shelves reserved for the books that were new to the library’s collection. It was located directly in front of the entrance in hopes of catching the eyes of a patron looking for a new read. In 2008, the year that I graduated from high school, there was a particular book on the new shelf that I remember. Its cover popped with a Warhol style. In color tones of sunset likeness, there was the drawn face of a woman seen at a sideways angle, as though she were laying down. The entire face could not be seen, only part of her nose and, most predominantly, her mouth. Crimson and parted were her lips in an expression of happiness, satisfaction. The title of the book was Dangerous Laughter. This was my first encounter with the work of Steven Millhauser.

When I first started interning for Our Stories the main focus was on the interview being conducted with Millhauser. I was given the task of helping to formulate some of the questions that were being asked of Steven Millhauser in our interview with a Master series. When I step back and look at the entire process now I cannot help but feel that I was in the best position. The pressure of being in contact with him directly was non-existent, however I had the opportunity to ask questions that I was genuinely interested in. That being said I didn’t know where to begin. What sort of questions do you ask an accomplished writer like Millhauser, who has been through the rigmarole of interviews many times already and more than likely answered the same questions more than once? What's more, he is a private man who is generally loathe to even entertain participating in an interview to begin with—and we got him!

I know one thing to be true; Millhauser’s stories were not only great, but unique in the same way that the stories of Ray Bradbury are. They all had the quality of allowing you to be aware of many things but not everything. There was always that notion of uncertainty, as if you were sitting in a darkened movie theater, the movie theater in your home town that you frequented some Friday nights, but when you look around the lightly dimmed darkness you realize that you are the only one there.

I decided to gear my questions less towards the “How do you do what you do?” and rather more towards the, “Why do you do what you do?”. I already knew the effect of Millhauser’s work, how it made me feel. It was more important to me that I try to better understand the core of Millhauser’s work, the themes, symbolism, character development and how all of these things, when put together in Millhauser’s way, are distinctly profound.

After the questions were tightened up and the interview was conducted, I was sent the responses. It was interesting for me, as I mentioned before, to be distantly engaged in conversation with a writer whose work I had read. He did not know who I was but yet he was answering questions that came from me. This wasn’t at all impersonal, however. If anything it only made me more aware of the language that writers use to speak to one another, no matter what their personal style or mode. It is more than a language even. It’s an understanding that writers everywhere possess, though they may not fully know it. It is this understanding that adds light to the darkened theater and projects itself on the stark screen just enough to ensure a kind of familiarity.

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