Paul Maliszewski is a friend of mine. He recently published a short-story collection called Prayer and Parable. Around the end of last summer, I asked him if I could interview him about it. We exchanged questions by e-mail for a week. Several times I said that I was incompetent—forget the whole thing—but Paul reassured me I was doing fine. What I especially like about the book is that Paul doesn’t compromise when it comes to portraying reality. He’s a little like Fellini in 8 ½: he preserves the confusion, meaninglessness, suddenness, and asa nisi masa of the everyday.
I have a question that might be a little bit unanswerable. I know you think a lot about individual sentences, and I wondered what makes a good sentence. Am I right in thinking that you give a lot of time to them?
I do give a lot of attention to sentences, but mainly because they don’t come out right for me on the first go-round, or the second, or the eighth, or the thirtieth. Revising takes me a lot of time. I drive myself crazy. I’ll just stare at lines. There are sentences in this book where I had a page, back and front, of all the different versions I was at one time trying. One sentence I’m thinking of was not particularly long or complex, but it was at the end of a story, and I didn’t want it to seem too ending-y, or pat. So there I was, scratching out, writing something new, circling back.
Reading like that is a hard thing to turn off. I catch myself revising e-mails and I think, What are you doing? When I’m working on a story or essay, if I find something messed up, I make myself start over and read it through again. If I find something else wrong, I start back over, and I keep starting over until I can read it without stopping, until I don’t suffer any doubts. That takes a long time, Worse, sometimes revising one sentence throws things off further down the page. It’s like I’m working on a pipeline and making a repair at one point, and whatever fix I make feels right, but it twists things around so that they get gummed up later. Read More