Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Tyrone Jaeger is a professor of English and creative writing at Hendrix College and the author of a new short story collection, "So Many True Believers," which will be published by Queen's Ferry Press on Feb. 16. His fiction has appeared in the Oxford American, The Literary Review and the Southern Humanities Review, and his novella, "The Runaway Note," was published in 2012.
The stories in Jaeger's new book flirt with the fantastical — whether UFO cults or the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs — but they are most startling and compelling for their humanity, their ability to give us access to a narrator's pained, neurotic, hopeful interiority.
Lauren Groff, author of last year's National Book Award-nominated "Fates and Furies," calls Jaeger's new book "gentle and melancholy, a story collection linked like a set of Christmas lights, a series of bright bulbs glowing against the cold and dark night." Mark Richard calls it a "wonderful book of songs from a single musical; heartbreak songs, songs of wonder and disbelief."
Jaeger will read from the book at Hendrix on March 1, along with poets Jessica Jacobs and Hope Coulter, and an official book launch will follow on March 29, at the Oxford American Annex. We spoke recently about short stories, solitude and the influence of Arkansas on his fiction.
What do you think short stories can do better than novels?
When Peter Ho Davies visited Hendrix some years ago, he said that the difference between a short story and a novel is that you can hold an entire short story in your head. I like this; it suggests that we can experience and come to know a short story in a very intimate manner. A novel, even a short novel, becomes more elusive and mysterious, a thing we cannot quite possess. Davies also said that a novel can get away with a bad ending while a short story cannot. A story entirely depends on the resonance of the ending. For me, when I write a short story, I feel like I can swing for the stands, just really let loose.
What are the story collections you've returned to most over the years?
One of my favorite story collections is "Jesus' Son" by Denis Johnson. The prose hums, and the situations in the book are often grim; there's an underlying humor and brutal self-awareness that fascinates me. Recent loves are Jennifer Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad" and George Saunders' "Tenth of December" (all of his story collections are great).
You can't beat the sentences in Isaac Babel's "The Red Cavalry Stories." Sometimes when I sit down to write, I will copy a few sentences from the collection as a kind of stretching exercise. An example: "The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines among the clouds, the banners of the sunset are fluttering above our heads. The stench of yesterday's blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill" (from "Crossing the River Zbrucz").
As a young writer, I learned a lot from Mark Richard's first story collection, "The Ice at the Bottom of the World." J. D. Salinger's "Nine Stories" and everything by Flannery O'Connor made me want to write stories. Barry Hannah's "Airships" is a rush, and the stories that make up his novel "The Tennis Handsome" are delightfully depraved.
I read that you'd worked on the title story for several years before publishing it in the Oxford American. How do you know when a story is finished?
You're asking the wrong person — I never know when something is done. Stories are like an oil painting where the paint never really dries, which means that you can get back in there and keep pushing the paint around.
Six months after Erin McKnight from Queen's Ferry Press accepted "So Many True Believers" I had what amounted to a panic attack and convinced myself that the collection was a mess. So I went back and reworked many of the stories, tightening the connections. The center piece, a story called "These Are My Arms" doubled in length. After I sent the revisions to Erin, I didn't hear from her immediately — it was probably only a few days, but my anxiety stretched time — and I convinced myself that she hated the revisions and would refuse to publish the book. Fortunately, she loved the revisions.
I knew the stories were done after Erin painstakingly edited the manuscript. The stories were done when she said they were done.
Has Arkansas exerted any sort of noticeable influence on your fiction?
"Mercy Comes Calling" is set on Lake Conway. The summer my wife and I moved to Arkansas, we frequently ate at The Fish House, a restaurant where they have a combo meal called "The Snag." I ate a few of those, and having had waited tables in my youth, I started writing a story about a waitress that lived on Lake Conway. The lake, with its trailers, fishing shacks and bald cypress spurred my imagination, and somehow I ended up writing a story about euthanasia.
My first book, "The Runaway Note," is set in a surreal version of the Catskills (the Kaats Kills), but I conjured the book's spirit from "The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You," a book-length poem by Arkansas writer Frank Stanford. To me, "The Runaway Note" is very Arkansas. I grew up in New York's Catskills Mountains, and it seems to me that rural/urban distinctions might shape people more than regional distinctions like North and South. The Catskills cultivated my ability — my desire — to be alone for long stretches of time, which is vital for me as a writer.
A couple of your characters are teachers — how has teaching affected your work?
Teaching has affected my work in many ways. For one, teaching makes me a better reader, which in turn improves my writing. Teaching has proven to be some of my best subject matter. For about 10 years, I taught at a couple of different private high schools — one in Orlando, Fla., and the other in Denver, Colo. — that were geared towards at-risk youth. Those students had a profound influence on me. Many of them had horrible experiences in public schools, and it became my mission to connect with them and get them interested in the world. Sometimes I succeeded, often I failed. They taught me a lot. I'm still writing from the imprint they left on me.
Does writing come easy for you, or is it a painful, arduous process?
Yes, writing comes easy for me and it's also a painful, arduous process. I love writing. I hate writing. I never want to write again, and I want to write all day, every day. Writing is dreaming for me, and I can dream most anywhere. I dream best on a computer.
Certain images and elements recur in these stories — mermaids, a specific high school in Denver. How did you imagine these stories relating to one another?
Well, the stories are connected via character and the Nat Mota School, so characters recur in different stories. But they also relate through shared motifs or refrains. There's a Joan Didion quote that I sometimes think about: "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Didion points toward the human inclination to interpret the observable world, to create motive and causality, to impose narrative especially where it's not readily apparent. My corollary to Didion's statement, which is perhaps the crux of the collection, is that we need to believe the stories we or others create about the world. Subjective reality is a scary business. The stories in "So Many True Believers" explore how belief, no matter how misguided or ill-conceived, allows people to endure. Belief is tied to mystery, or suggests mystery, and in a world where information about anything is instantly at our fingertips, mystery is sometimes in short supply. We need more mystery. We're better people when we bathe in mystery — really, what else is there?
You live in Conway, though you aren't from Arkansas originally. Do you ever feel an urge to move somewhere bigger, or with more of a built-in cultural infrastructure?
I live with my family in the woods on a lake just outside of Conway. On our little ridge, we have solitude and beauty. The only time I miss living in a city is when I'm visiting one.