by Jill Kronstadt
Jill Kronstadt: Your website mentions that you are working on a novel based on the story “Dead Languages.” Is there anything more you can share about this project?
Annette Binder: I’m hard at work on a first draft right now. When I finished the story, I wasn’t ready yet to let Nicholas go, and it’s been great to find out why he is the way he is and what happens to him.
JK: How did the selection of “Nephilim” for NPR’s Selected Shorts come about? What did it feel like to hear it broadcast (or were you in the audience)?
AB: “Nephilim” had appeared in One Story and was chosen for Selected Shorts’ One Story anniversary celebration. I was in the audience during the performance, and Colby Minifie, the young actress who read it, was just remarkable. It was a huge thrill to be there, to meet Isaiah Sheffer, and to see how much love folks put into this show.
JK: You’ve taken a number of different educational and career paths, including classics scholarship and criminal law. At what point during all these transitions did you begin writing seriously? What were some of your earliest stories like?
AB: I began writing fiction while I was still practicing law. I’d never taken a creative writing class at that point, but I found myself working on a novel based loosely on events from my family’s history in Germany during World War II. The novel is in a drawer now, but I’m so grateful I had the time to write and revise it.
I wrote my first story in 2008, after the novel was as finished as I could make it. Some of my earliest stories are in Rise, including “Dead Languages” and “Mourning the Departed.” It’s hard to pinpoint changes to my stories over time, but I’ve grown increasingly fond of white space and omissions over the last couple of years.
JK: In all the stories in Rise, characters struggle to reassemble their lives in the wake of death, loss, and grief. Was there a conscious decision to make mourning so central to these stories, or was it a theme that emerged as you worked on the collection?
AB: It wasn’t a conscious decision, but the pattern became pretty clear once I had all the stories assembled in front of me. The notion of grieving and the stages of grief became the organizing principle for the order in which the stories are presented. The initial story “Nephilim” and the final story “Lay My Head” are bookends for this process, beginning with denial and ending with acceptance.
JK: You trace some of the fantastic elements in Rise to the German fairy tales you heard and read as a child. At the same time, the stories also have a very human emotional authenticity. As you write, do you tend to start with the realistic or the supernatural? How do you find the right balance between the two?
AB: I began some stories, like “Sea of Tranquility” (about the new father who becomes increasingly far-sighted) and “Dead Languages” (about the toddler who speaks only ancient languages), with supernatural elements, but most of the others began with a specific character or realistic moment in mind, and the supernatural elements found their way in as I wrote.
The question of balance is an interesting one. I try to focus on the characters and not the supernatural vs. realistic distinction. That a man would pay money to braid a woman’s hair seems every bit as strange to me as somebody else having (accurate) visions about people dying. There’s so much strangeness in all of us, and sometimes as I’m writing the supernatural elements don’t even feel like the oddest part of my stories.
JK: Are there stories, characters, or ideas in Rise that you feel are particularly informed by your professional “past lives”?
AB: It’s probably harder not to find characters who don’t somehow reflect the people I’ve met over the years. Some of them are from my time lawyering, but most are just from watching people and listening. From the military retiree who is so anxious he sleeps every night in a recliner to a little boy at a camping store who looks at a picture of somebody holding a trout and says, “I’ve seen bigger.” The world is full of interesting and strange characters, and so many of the heroes, the folks who work hard day in, day out, year after year, are hidden in plain sight.
JK: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
AB: Don’t worry about anything but the words on the page, from my wonderful teacher Michelle Latiolais at the University of California, Irvine. Don’t fret about publication or what people say about your work. Be especially cautious about praise, which can freeze you up even more than criticism. Just keep writing.
JK: What do you feel would be the highest compliment of your work?
AB: I’m always thrilled when people write to say they were moved by one of my stories.
JK: What book(s) are on your nightstand right now?
AB: I’m deep into research for my novel now, so it’s mostly nonfiction and historical texts about xenoglossy and speaking in tongues. I’m also reading James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have, Cleopatra Mathis’ Book of Dog and rereading No Country for Old Men for the umpteenth time.
JK: In an essay on the wolf’s significance in literature on the Publishers Weekly site, you compare the original, frightening Brothers Grimm fairy tales with the sanitized version you read to your daughter. Do you feel like she’s missing out? Do you think you’ll introduce her to the scarier originals once she’s older?
AB: Absolutely. People have different opinions about this, but I think there’s nothing more reassuring than reading something scary with your mom and dad. The scary stuff is out there, no matter how much we try to sanitize the stories. I’ve already started to introduce her to some of the originals, though my husband draws the line at the creepy German nursery rhymes I love best.
Click here to read Jill Kronstadt’s feature piece on L. Annette Binder.
Homepage image by Gary Gartley