Fearless Ballet: Q&A with Deb Olin Unferth

(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)
(photo by Elizabeth Haidle)

Wickedly funny and utterly relatable in its depiction of human plights and personal tragedies, Wait Till You See Me Dance (200 pages; Graywolf Press) marks the return of Deb Olin Unferth to the world of short stories. From the banal life of an adjunct professor harboring an unrequited love in the titular story to a man held prisoner by his phobia in “Fear of Trees” (published in ZYZZYVA No. 108 along with three other pieces), each story within the collection is imbued with Unferth’s wit and dark humor, capturing the spectrum of human drama with a tinge of believable absurdity.

Unferth talked to ZYZZYVA about her often-volatile relationship with writing, the influence of her family on her work, and her philosophies on craft.

ZYZZYVA: It’s been a decade, since your last short story collection, Minor Robberies, and a little over six years since your memoir, Revolution. Was the process of writing Wait Till You See Me Dance any different for you this time around?

Deb Olin Unferth: It was easier this time, to be honest. I’ve been in hiding for so long it feels like, working on three books at once takes a long time.

Z: Hiding or teaching? I’ve noticed that in many of your stories the protagonist is an educator of some sort.

DOU: Well, I’ve always taught when I write, been doing that forever, but recently I’ve been involved in a prison project that’s been taking a lot of my time. It’s a two-year writing program teaching inmates at a maximum-security penitentiary down in southern Texas.

Z: That’s interesting considering the main character in “Mr. Simmons Takes a Prisoner” teaches inmates, and—like many of the characters in the collection—is portrayed in an incredibly vulnerable way. You depict Mr. Simmons as an apathetic father and husband, who’s contemplating abandoning his family for a prisoner he’s teaching, yet you manage to make him sympathetic through it all. Is this vulnerability a conscious effort on your part?

DOU: It’s funny you mention “Mr. Simmons …” That story was based on my father. He volunteered, like Mr. Simmons, to tutor an inmate, help them rehabilitate before being released back into society. My dad started meeting with her all the time, writing her letters, paying for her textbooks and courses. When I wrote the first draft of the story I think I was a little mad at him—it was not a funny story. Years later I rewrote it for this collection and, at this point, my dad and I had healed our relationship. He literally sent me a fax saying he wanted to be closer to me and included these letters between him and the prisoner. I was furious with him back then and that was the original draft’s tone. So, when I took the story out of the box and rewrote it, I could see his humanity: he was a changed man and so was Mr. Simmons. In terms of vulnerability with my characters, I just want there to always be something at stake.

Z: There are some larger pieces interspersed throughout the collection, but the majority of the book is comprised of vignettes that are a page or less in length. “Fear of Trees, for example, is four sentences long. What draws you to these types of short stories?

DOU: Most of the short pieces here arrived from one thought. It’s almost like I hear it in my head and I just put it down on the page. They’re all different though. Other stories, like “Vice President of Pretzels” are basically nonfiction. My dad just told me that story and I found it so funny. Some are puzzling single words like “Likable.” I’m very interested in those words that can be used in a lot of different ways and have multiple meanings. Words that create a pattern or rhythm while reading and surprise or upset your expectations by the end of the story. That’s what makes me write short stories.

Z: I noticed that rhythm you speak of in stories like “Flaws” and “Defects,” which follow each other in the collection. Was there a deliberate structure to the book’s organization?

DOU: My editor and I spent a lot of time discussing that, actually. We talked about placing all the short pieces together, long pieces with longer pieces. We ultimately decided on this rhythm that was fun to read and would shake the reader after finishing each piece. I want breaks in between my stories as well. I like to think of the whole book as a song. Each short story is its own little song and the book is a suite. So the four pagination breaks interspersed in the collection are deliberate, where the music pauses, so to speak. When I go back and read my stories I’m always listening for when a registered note needs to change. Some of my stories, short-shorts or longer works, will sit in a drawer for years during this process. I guess I just don’t feel that desperation to get published. When I don’t hear those notes I need to change, that’s when I know a story is done and ready to be sent to ZYZZYVA.

Z: All of the characters in the collection, even when placed in less than pleasant situations, are explored with an amusing and perhaps irreverent voice. When it comes to establishing a tone as a writer, have you always sought to tow the line between tragedy and humor?

DOU: I think the humor and tone of my work today is pretty much identical to the tone and voice when I first started writing. I never really took any formal writing courses before joining a local community workshop where I was living in Alabama. There I wrote this story about five abortions and I thought it was really funny, but the other people were horrified. It didn’t go too well. It wasn’t until later that I would learn that’s what writers are, voice, and that, wait a minute, “I do have a voice!” I’ve tried changing my voice and it always feels unnatural forcing it. I feel dirty afterward.

Wait Till You See Me DanceZ: You like to shift perspectives as well: in “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” we briefly shift from a shooter’s point of view as he prepares to fire on an unsuspecting family, to a bird, to a baby. Was that shifting perspective a craft experiment on your part or something that just occurred during writing?

DOU: That story happened after I heard about my sister and her husband bickering one time in public over something trivial, like it was a hot day. So I just wrote about that. Someone who reads my stories a lot is Ben Marcus and, after he read the original draft of “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” he really didn’t have much to say about it. I really felt something compelling here so I went back looking for what I could add that would push this story forward and I thought “Shooter! That’s it, I’ll add a shooter!” Then I had this imagery of a child on top of a hill with everyone just looking at her and I kept asking myself, “Why are they looking at her?” I started shifting perspectives with the bird, the people in the airplane above all of this and what they thought. After revising and revising I sent the final draft to Ben again and he said: “Now this is a great story!”

Z: Guns are featured in many of the stories here, to the point that they could be considered minor characters. We see this with the aforementioned shooter in “The First Full Thought of Her Life,” but even the married couple in “Stay Where You Are” are held hostage at gunpoint while backpacking in South America. Can you speak to the influence of guns in your work?

DOU: It’s definitely the news cycle and what’s been, unfortunately, happening far too often the past few years. I want my work to be relevant, of course, but I, like many, feel strongly against gun violence—and shooters are everywhere now. I don’t fire bullets and place guns in my stories just for tension, it’s sort of a statement, too.

Z: Your characters often possess a sense of self-aware humility, and we witness their day-to-day plights as sometimes comedic, sometimes painful, but always relatable. Where do you begin when creating your characters?

DOU: I usually start with my own experiences. “Pets,” for example, happened almost exactly how it was written on the page, even though I don’t have a son. For months and months, I had these turtles I adopted. I thought I was saving them from their horrible living spaces but it was horrible! One kept pecking the other, one couldn’t even swim, and then I came home and one of them had pooped all over the shower wall—it all happened just like in the story. Even the reptile “swamp and swap” meet. It all happened. The original draft of the story was just these events written down and it didn’t have much tension. “Oh, this woman has pet problems!”—big deal. So then the character became a mother, but writing tension isn’t that simple so the struggle with parenthood and alcoholism gave it real tension. Characters are almost always developed from my personal experiences, myself, or my family. My poor family.

Z: How does your family feel about their influence on your work? Have they always supported your writing career?

DOU: My sister doesn’t like it as much but my dad loves it. I’ll hand him something I wrote and he’ll basically just skim through it and ask “Is there a dad in here?” before actually reading it. He just wants to be in it, he doesn’t care if he’s good or bad. My parents definitely did not support me when I first started pursuing writing professionally. It wasn’t until I got a full-time day job first. Even when I was getting published they didn’t fully support it.

Z: You seem to fearlessly blend your lived experience with your fiction until it almost reads like memoir. Have you ever hesitated to include such intimate details in your stories?

DOU: Not really. Like in the title story, “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” I just made a character from my own experiences when I taught a language class for non-English native speakers back in Chicago. I had known a student, I believe he was from Serbia, whom would be drafted in his country’s war and more than likely die if not studying abroad here in America at the time. Thankfully, he wasn’t actually a part of my particular class and did pass his other courses, but I had to write this story adding the tension of death from failure and a teacher falling in love with her student. Even the dance itself, with that weird Native American costume, that all happened in real life. Falling in the pit? That was the few degrees separated from reality. I promise, though, I am not in love with any of the young men (or women) in my classrooms.

Z: In the past, you’ve travelled across the globe, whether with fellow author Diane Williams or as a participant in the Sandinista movements during the late Eighties. Travel seems formative to both you and the characters in “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” and the theme of feeling isolated while traveling has long been in your work. Is this a conscious decision on your part?

DOU: Yes, that was a great trip with Diane. We went and watched a few sex shows together. We laughed for a week straight, my stomach was aching by the end. That trip was an outlier, though, the first trip I ever took with a friend. Usually, I travel by myself. There’s something about travelling that’s inherently lonely and human. You put yourself in a new or different background and find yourself new and different there as well. I’ve always been a little bit of a loner, still am. I’m married and have the best husband and dog in the world, but I think travel appears in my work because of how many times I had to move when I was young. It’s hard finding yourself when you have to make new friends, adapt to new places, when everything’s new again and again.

Z: Your story “Voltaire Night” veers toward the absurd as a group of students and their teacher share a series of increasingly surreal personal tragedies as part of a drinking game. How do you convey the absurd nature of reality while maintaining the reader’s believability? Or do you even care about the reader’s believability?

DOU: I definitely consider believability when writing my stories, but not too much. You just have to write assuming people will believe you because the truth really is weirder things happen in real life than in fiction every single day. You have to write with that confidence to convince your reader what they are reading can happen or already has. Conflict should be in the first line but don’t ever apologize for anything you write. Don’t hold back because you think “nobody will believe this!” Instead, go further. I think that’s important for any writer, young or old. Take all the risks. Don’t ever write what you think people want you to write. Keep in mind: nobody cares about the story at first. It’s got to be your voice that makes them care and makes it unique. Step up to the bat and slam that thing! If you strikeout, so what? Who cares?

Z: On that note, do you have any other advice for aspiring writers?

DOU: Write with urgency. Write what feels most important for you at the moment. If you start to feel bored with something, leave it! Move on. Even if you’re writing the same scene or focus over and over again. Even if you keep saying: “Oh God, I already wrote about this!” Think of it this way: an artist always draws the same fruit over and over again to practice shapes, shades, and shadows. Don’t be afraid to do that, to practice. If you haven’t found that urgency, just keep searching for it. Don’t ever force yourself away from that search.

Z: Dissatisfaction within relationships is a motif that reoccurs throughout the collection, and “How to Dispel Your Illusions” features a narrator wrestling with their own inner self. Did you intend these stories as a meditation on the nature of love and relationships or something more personal?

DOU: “How to Dispel Your Illusions” was really the story of my life the past few years trying to get back into writing. For a while I kept thinking “Why am I writing?” I went through a period where I didn’t want to be a writer anymore. I felt really mad at writing. Maybe you’ve been all alone, following the advice in this interview, telling yourself that “This is just me, I don’t care what anybody else thinks about my writing,” or “This is who I am, this is what I’m doing.” It’s agonizingly lonely work. Writing really is like a relationship or marriage. You’re going to have hard times every once in a while but you have to keep moving forward if you want it to work. Some relationships become stronger, some just hobble along till the end, some break. I wrote “How to Dispel Your Illusions” in that state of mind, when I was frustrated with everything, all of my writing in the collection to that point. Even in “Wait Till You See Me Dance,” you see this frustration with writing evident.

Z: What made you choose “Wait Till You See Me Dance” as the collection’s titular story?

DOU: It’s been awhile obviously since my last collection and I felt like I’d been in hiding. I kept thinking people probably believed I was just gone or dead now, that I stopped writing. So the idea for the story itself and the title was to show that: “No! I’m still here!” That I’m only just getting started. “Wait till you see me dance!

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