Q&A with Karin Lin-Greenberg: ‘Vanished’ and the Art of Life

Christine Sneed

One of qualities I admire most about Karin Lin-Greenberg’s stories is their comic undercurrent, the subversive eye paired with an unflinching one that registers the world and its inhabitants with clarity and powerfully affecting insights into the complex, sometimes ruthless emotional negotiations of adolescence and adulthood. Her writing is at once lucid and engrossing, the kind of fiction that unfurls so seamlessly the final page arrives long before I’m ready to part ways with her characters.

Her first story collection, Faulty Predictions (2014), won the Flannery O’Connor Prize, and her first novel, You Are Here, will be published in May 2023 by Counterpoint.  Her second collection, Vanished (202 pages; University of Nebraska Press), received the Prairie Schooner Prize for Short Fiction in 2021, and one of the stories it features, “Housekeeping,” was awarded a Pushcart Prize.

Via email, I talked to her about her newest story collection. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ZYZZYVA: Some of your stories in Vanished focus on adult characters reflecting on events and people from their formative years, i.e., high school and college. What draws you to this perspective?

KARIN LIN-GREENBERG: Two stories in the collection deal most directly with this kind of retrospection. Both “Perspective for Artists” and “Lost or Damaged” revolve around the theme of regret, and I think retrospective narration is helpful in depicting this emotion.

In “Lost or Damaged,” the protagonist regrets her inaction; she sat by silently while a new student at her high school was bullied. In “Perspective for Artists,” the first-person plural narrators look back and regret the way they behaved toward a young art teacher who was new to their school. I wanted to examine the different catalysts for regret because I think, for many of us, we not only regret some of the things we did when we were younger, but also regret things we didn’t do.

I like this perspective because I think if someone regrets something that happened decades back and wants to tell a story about it—maybe a confession and apology for how they once behaved—then these events shaped the character in some way. In both stories, I consciously chose not to tell readers much about who the characters became—I didn’t delve into jobs or families or other aspects of who they are as adults—because I wanted the adult selves to be characterized primarily by regret and to have this indicate they have changed and would no longer behave that way.

Z: Your story “Mrs. Whitson’s Face” is written in second-person point of view, which you manage with aplomb, but it’s not easy to pull this off. Second-person is a somewhat polarizing POV among those of us who teach creative writing (yourself included). Why second-person instead of first- or third-? 

KLG: I think the key to working with second-person, and what I teach my students, is understanding all the ways it can be used and seeing that it’s not the limiting “you are the character” perspective that many people believe it to be. For a long time I believed second- person POV meant the reader became the character, like in those Choose Your Own Adventure books I read as a child. The “you” in those books could be anyone; their goal was to allow any reader to imagine themselves as the protagonist in any plotline.

Then I encountered the point of view in Lorrie Moore’s story “How to Become a Writer” in college. Up to that point, I thought the goal of second-person was to create a story where any reader could see themselves as the protagonist by stepping into the shoes of the “you.” But  if you look at Moore’s story, you can see the “you” character is someone particular.

In the first paragraph, Moore is already giving specific, identifying details: “Show [your writing] to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots.” The mom is a specific person and the story is placed in a specific time period because of the mention of the Vietnam War. Reading that story led to the epiphany that a second-person story could be about a particular person and the “you” didn’t have to be an empty vessel as the protagonists are in the Choose Your Own Adventure books.

A few years after encountering “How to Become a Writer,” I read “Note to Sixth-Grade Self” by Julie Orringer and loved how the adult protagonist was speaking to herself as a kid and expressing both frustration over how she behaved in sixth grade and an understanding of the motivations of her child self. This use of second-person was a revelation to me; it felt like the way we might speak to ourselves in our minds. That “you” could serve as a pep talk (as in “You can do it”) or a chastisement (“Why did you do that?”). This story gave me a new way of thinking about this point of view and opened up more possibilities for how it could be used.

At some point, I heard the advice (I wish I could remember where I heard it!) that second-person could work well for stories that a character wanted to tell in first-person but would be too difficult to tell using “I” throughout. It could work for stories where characters had experienced some sort of trauma and wanted to distance themselves from the trauma, so instead of saying, “I went through this,” they instead say, “You went through this.” It can work as a distanced first-person, where it’s clear the character is telling their story but having difficulty claiming their actions or struggling with telling a story about a traumatic time in their lives.

Second-person can also be effective when it might feel like a character is complaining or whining if they use the “I” of first person throughout; using “you” instead seems to temper the sense that the protagonist is complaining. In “Mrs. Whitson’s Face,” I was thinking both about the trauma aspect and the whining aspect. Trauma is too severe a word to use for the protagonist’s circumstances, but she’s seventeen and a senior in high school and she knows her three best friends will all be going far away to good colleges soon. They all have bright futures ahead, whereas her future is uncertain, and she’s afraid they’ll forget about her. I think when one is seventeen, the prospect of losing important friendships can feel traumatic, even if, looking at the situation as adults, most people might label those feelings as melodramatic.

The protagonist of “Mrs. Whitson’s Face” is also upset because her friends perform better academically than she does and plan to apply to top-tier colleges, and she is embarrassed when her guidance counselor suggests a lower tier of colleges for her. I think adult readers could find the protagonist’s worries and complaints to be tiring in first-person, but second person tempers it a bit, I hope, and also helps the protagonist tell the story that’s difficult for her to confront and discuss.

Z: “Roland Raccoon” features an actual raccoon as the title character. You often have animals in your stories, and they’re figures of pathos and comedy, as is the case here. How did you learn to write non-human characters with such empathy and verisimilitude? 

KLG: I suppose I should give some credit for any animals that seem real to my cat, Peanut, whom I’ve spent a great deal of time with since the beginning of the pandemic. Spending a lot of time at home with a pet makes you realize how much of a personality each individual animal has, and I figure when writing, it makes sense to give animals particular traits so they seem like a specific animal and not a generic animal.

I live in a house with a grassy backyard near a wooded area, and there are frequent animal visitors—deer and turkeys and foxes and rabbits and raccoons and groundhogs and all sorts of birds and squirrels and chipmunks and probably a bunch of other animals I never see. Before the pandemic, when I was a lot more engaged with more activities outside of the house, I didn’t spend too much time looking at and thinking about these animals but, in the last few years, I’ve spent a great deal of time watching them and noticing how they interact with each other. I can see there are hierarchies in their groups and there are connections between them and they care for each other.

There’s a family of hawks that lives somewhere near the backyard and likes to sit on top of the telephone poles right beyond the backyard and swoop down to prey on animals in the grass. About a year ago, I noticed a loud clucking sound—it was intensely loud and cut through the air sharply; I could hear it upstairs, even though it was coming from the ground outside—whenever one of the hawks was on a pole surveying the ground below for prey. Finally, I saw a tiny chipmunk on the ground, its entire body puffed out each time it clucked. I was in awe of how something so small could make such a loud sound. I did some research and found out the clucks are a warning to other chipmunks about the hawk, a kind of distress signal to tell them to hide. That’s amazing, isn’t it? That one chipmunk will stand out in the field sounding a call, risking their own life, to let others know to hide? Maybe this behavior is more instinctual than conscious decision-making, but when you learn things like that, how can you not think of animals as possessing some of the same fears and desires as humans?

Contemplating the relationships human characters have with animals is interesting to me as a writer. I think readers can learn a lot about a character by how they interact with animals. In “Roland Raccoon,” I hope readers can deduce that Margery, the woman who saved Roland by paying for expensive veterinary care and who now allows him to live in her house, is lonely after the death of her husband, enjoys having an animal to care for, and likely spends a great deal of her time and attention devoting herself to a raccoon. I think it would be hard to show how lonely and alone she is without making her a point-of-view character and bringing readers into her home, but showing her interactions with Roland in public reveals a lot to readers about her life. I hope readers are also surprised by the ending of the story, when another character, who has been shown to be mostly tough and mean, has a moment of vulnerability while interacting with Roland. I’m not sure if I’d have been able to show the character utterly letting down her guard in another way in that scene.

An interesting challenge for the future might be for me to try to inhabit an animal’s perspective for some or all of a story. I really liked David Means’ story “Clementine, Carmelita, Dog” that was in the 2021 edition of Best American Short Stories. In the story, we follow a dacshund who gets separated from her owner during a walk one day, and readers see and hear and smell what the dog does. That story impressed me so much because it affected me emotionally, even though the perception is filtered through the senses of a dog. It made me think a lot about the connections between animals and the people who care for them. Usually, we’re contemplating these connections from the perspective of the humans in the relationship, but this story made me consider how these relationships also affect animals.  

Z: One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Since Vincent Left,” which focuses on a creative writing professor. You have a novel coming out soon, You Are Here, and a couple of its characters are academics. As a writing professor yourself, you know this territory well. Have you thought about writing a campus novel, à la Richard Russo’s Straight Man or Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members?

KLG: I love reading campus novels and Straight Man and Dear Committee Members are some of my favorites. Both authors masterfully capture what’s humorous and ridiculous about academia and also show that teaching writing at the college level isn’t necessarily the easy and lofty job that some people believe it to be.

I wouldn’t say that I’d never write a campus novel, but it’s not on the horizon right now. There are some characters in my forthcoming novel who circle near academia, but don’t spend their days on college campuses. (One point-of-view character is struggling to finish his dissertation and spends his days managing a mall bookstore.) I set the novel in a mall because it’s a place where many people work in various jobs. In some jobs (including many of the jobs at the mall), work confines you to a particular space or setting, and there’s a lot that can happen when a character is forced to interact with people they might not come into contact with outside of work.

I think the type of work someone does and whether they’re happy or unhappy doing it reveals a lot about a character. And I think there’s a lot that can be done with setting and how setting can serve as a source of conflict in work novels or stories, even if, or maybe especially if, the setting is confined to a workplace. I’m thinking of your wonderful new novel, Please Be Advised, and how you show the daily successes and indignities and squabbles and celebrations and connections that can all happen within the confines of an office.

So much of our lives are spent at work, and in real life people often spend more waking hours with co-workers than with friends and families. Simply because of the time we spend at work or working, it makes a lot of sense to examine the many things that can happen in the workplace. So I would say that although it’s unlikely I’ll write a campus novel, at least in the near future, it’s likely I’ll write more about characters’ jobs and have more stories set in the workplace. There’s a lot to mine there.

Z: Your stories “Perspective for Artists,” “Still Life,” and “Mrs. Whitson’s Face” feature artists as main characters. You yourself are an artist and have published graphic narratives. How does your artmaking inform your writing? And, tangentially, why do you find artists to be such good subjects for fiction?

KLG: I’m interested in art and have taken classes to try to improve my skills, but I definitely wouldn’t call myself an artist. I’m really interested in thinking about how images and text can come together to tell stories, so that’s why I’ve been working on graphic narratives in the past few years. As someone who has spent many years telling stories using only text, it’s been a good challenge to figure out how images can carry meaning independently and how images can complement text without necessarily repeating information that’s already been communicated in writing.

In both life and fiction, I’m really interested in people who engage in any sort of creative work. In a way, this relates back to the last question about work; I think creating anything counts as work, and what a real person or a character in a story creates reveals things about who they are. I’m fascinated by artists because they can take a pile of materials and make something completely new and unique. I suppose writers do the same thing, but our process of making something isn’t as compelling to observe. Art can be dramatized in more vivid ways than writing can because the external action of art making is more physical and more visually captivating than watching a character type and stare at a computer screen.

I often use art as a stand-in for writing in my stories and hope I get enough of the details of the art world correct enough for the stories to feel authentic. The main issues I’m dealing with have to do with people who want to create something and how what they’ve created is received. In a story like “Still Life,” I can grapple with the ideas of different types of art-making and be able to show this through action in the story (the protagonist, Alice, works slowly and meticulously in oil paint and makes figurative paintings, whereas her young colleague, Tabby, works spontaneously in spray paint and her work is experimental and abstract). Alice is aghast one day when she arrives on campus and sees her students outside the art building spray painting the exterior with Tabby. Using art, I can depict this clash of values and aesthetics, whereas I think it would be a lot harder to show these ideas in scenes in a story about two writers who value different types of writing.

Artists also seem more compelling to me than writers do since I know a lot of writers well and know them as people who happen to write, whereas anyone I’ve encountered who is an artist, I mostly know through their work or teaching and they haven’t crossed over into the “human being who happens to make art” category for me. They all still feel like capital-A artists because I don’t know them as people beyond their art and their ability to make art. So, because artists still feel a bit mysterious to me, they are more compelling to explore in fiction, which allows me to try to figure out their goals, dreams, and struggles.

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