The Little Stories that Could

New fiction by writer and KU professor Deb Olin Unferth

KU assistant professor Deb Olin Unferth had a book of short-short stories called "Minor Robberies" published by McSweeney's in September. It is included with two other books of short-short stories, by Dave Eggers and Sarah Manguso, in a collection called "One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box."

It's awesome. You read one, and it's so short, you're like, "I'll just read one more." And then it's 2 a.m. and you've finished the book before you know it. And it fits in your pocket (if you have a big pocket). Unferth is originally from Chicago and came to KU in 2005 to teach creative writing.

You're taking this semester off from KU. What are you doing?

I'm living in New York and doing a pretty extensive book tour.

What's your schedule like?

I've been flying around quite a bit giving readings. This month ... I'm going to MacDowell, which is an artist residency. I'll be there for four weeks, I guess. I've been traveling around. I went to Chicago and gave readings there. I went to L.A. I did a little radio show there and gave a reading. I'm going to Buffalo and Bennington and I gave a bunch of readings in New York.

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"One Hundred and Forty Five Stories in a Small Box: Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, How the Water Feels to the Fishes, and Minor Robberies," by Dave Eggers, Sarah Manguso, and Deb Olin Unferth

What's your process for writing short-short stories? How's it different from writing a regular short story?

It is really different. It takes me so long to write. Most of the stories in that volume took years. ... I just have a little stack of stories that I sort of carry around all the time and work on. And then I just shuffle through them. I just keep them in the shuffle pile for years and then every now and then I say that one of them was done. That's different from a longer story, because I can work on a whole pile of those little pieces at a time, and just move between them, whereas a longer piece I spend a lot more concentrated time on it.

What is it about short-short stories that you like as a writer?

... Big question... I started writing shorts in response to a particular dialogue that was going on in contemporary writing that I wanted to be a part of and that I found resonated with the feelings that I had about writing fiction. And I continued with it for quite a while. Does that make sense?

What dialogue are you talking about?

... It's a certain approach to fiction that takes into account the formal aspects of the project of fiction in a very direct way. In a way that's very much on the surface. Some of the writers who are excited about that kind of writing would be Lydia Davis and Diane Williams. If you go further back it comes out of the tradition of Kafka and Robert Walser. I was just interested in pursuing that tradition.

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Submitted Photo

Deb Olin Unferth

You play with literary conventions in these stories. There's a story called "Brevity," which is simply a list of story elements, like "Setting: No one around here has teeth," and "Characters: They were staggering off one way or another-in buses, mostly, but also in cars and airplanes, on bicycles."

... This journal called "Encyclopedia" gave me five words to choose from, and they said that they wanted me to pick one of the words to write about. One of the words was "brevity." I take so long to write, and they gave me like three months or five months to write it, so I picked "brevity." And I seriously spent like three years writing that little piece. I kept taking it out every now and then and adding a sentence or deleting a sentence. I spent so long writing that thing, and by the time I finally finished it, of course, the journal had appeared years before. Finally, I had finished my story, "Brevity," and had no one to give it to.

Tell me about humor in your stories. In a story called "Bad," a woman cheats on her husband at a party-it's a serious subject-but the word "bad" is repeated in different funny ways and the woman and the guy she sleeps with have a conversation about whether it's "I feel bad" or "I feel badly."

It's so funny that you should pick that story in particular. I feel pretty strongly that I don't really try to be funny. In fact, I think that it's really sad. That story's a perfect example. When an editor accepted that story, he said that it was "so funny," and that was why he wanted it. I had thought it was a really sad, disturbing story. It's only two pages, but here's this woman cheating on her husband and she feels so lonely and she feels so guilty and everything around her seems to be repeating, like the word "bad." ... And then he said, "Oh, I love this story. It's so funny." I was almost a little afraid for him, almost like there was something wrong for him that he should think that that story was funny. I have that experience all the time. I never feel like the stories are funny, and people always say, "Oh, that's so funny."

Can't it be dark and disturbing and also funny?

I guess, yeah. Now, in my more recent work that I've been doing, I think I'm a little more aware of what's funny and what's not. I think that just comes from experience of writing. A lot of times when people think that the sentence is funny, really I'm just trying to write down exactly how it happened, or exactly how it sounded, or how it sounds in my mind if I'm making it up. There's just something about the sound of things and something about sentences that people actually say that are funny.

Audio clips

The Little Stories that Could

Another story is called "Deb Olin Unferth." It opens with the line, "No one in Wyoming thinks that Deb Olin Unferth is a fuckup." It continues in that fashion, listing who doesn't and does think you're a fuckup. I read online about a blogger who hated that story so much that it almost drove him crazy:

It was a pretty funny experience. Nobody ever writes about me online or anything. I didn't really know how to do Google searches to myself. It was just something I hadn't clicked into yet. And I noticed that a lot more people knew about that "Deb Olin Unferth" story than was warranted, people who I talked to. Finally someone told me, "You know, there's this thing online about you. This guy wrote this thing." So I read it and it was so funny. The thing is, I can't find it anymore online. I guess maybe he took it down. I was so in love with these pieces this guy wrote. All I wanted to do was write to him, I wanted to call him, I wanted to say, "This thing you wrote is so hilarious and it's so sad." Because it was hysterical. He said he took the story to a local workshop and that he read it aloud to them. He would stop at every sentence and be like, "Why is this bad writing?" or whatever. All of their answers were really stupid, and he wrote about how stupid the answers were and how it was so frustrating to him that they didn't understand. He felt so alone because they didn't understand. And then it made him feel depressed that he was so alone and that nobody understood him and that the story was so stupid and that he was the only one who understood what the story was trying to do. Anyway, it was great.

How did you get to the level where you're having things published by McSweeney's and Harper's and all that?

It was just a lot of rejection. I mean, hundreds of rejections. I sent those little pieces out for many, many months, and they got rejected everywhere. Everywhere. I'd come home and my mailbox would be stuffed with rejection letters. I wouldn't even be able to get the mailbox open. It was horrible. Nobody wanted those stories. I worked my way across the vast United States, all the little journals, just sending it and sending it. I had no connections. I didn't know anybody. Most of those pieces were published in really small places. Luckily, once I started getting published in smaller places, then slightly bigger places took notice eventually and started publishing them. Still, I've only had a couple stories in bigger places. But I was really lucky that Dave Eggers (McSweeney's founder) plucked out that "Deb Olin Unferth" story. He liked it. I think he started seeing my work in other places, too, because he listed me a couple times on a couple lists of stuff he liked.

The rejection must have been depressing.

Oh God, and it went on forever. I got so many rejection letters. Actually, you know what? I always say that I think I've gotten more rejections than almost any writer I know. But then one day I met this woman who's not so much older than me, in Chicago, and I was telling her about how much rejection I've had. She said, "You don't even know what rejection is." I think that she's gotten a lot of rejections too. So maybe there's some other writers who have gotten a lot of rejections. Sometimes that can be a good sign, because sometimes it means that people just haven't quite gotten onto your voice yet, and that you do have something, it's just that people aren't quite getting it yet. And other times it just means the writing's bad.

How'd you end up at KU?

Well, I applied for the job and they offered it to me. I just really lucked out. It's a great job. I love it. I love KU and I love the students. There's nothing about it I don't like, frankly. It's just a great job all around. Lawrence is such a great place.

How much space does the English Department give your creativity?

They've been so supportive in that way. Pretty much any idea I come up with they support, in terms of teaching classes. In fact, I can't think of a single class that I've suggested that they've said no to. And I've come up with some pretty weird things. I had one class called "A Lot Less," which was about the short-short. And I taught a class called "Comics and Collage," about the graphic novel. I taught a class called "Strange Texts."

How often do you write in the short-short form? What other forms do you use?

I've been working for a couple of years now very hard on a novel, which is kind of finished now. I'm still tinkering. I haven't really been writing short-shorts very much since I started this. Once the book of stories was accepted, that little book, I kind of stopped worrying about the short-shorts. I feel like now I have a short-short collection and I want to do other things. I'm working on this novel. And I love writing a novel. I'll probably do another novel next. I have a lot of longer stories that have been published and I have several longer stories that are in process.

The process of writing a novel must be a lot different than short stories, particularly short-shorts.

Hugely different. It's shockingly different. It's so different that I think that they're different art forms altogether. I wrote one novel, I spent like three years writing a novel, and then I had to just throw the whole thing away. And then I wrote this novel. It's like I had to write a whole novel to learn how to write a novel, because it's so different. Just like I had to write a lot of stories before I wrote a story that anyone wanted.

What's your process like for writing a novel?

I have to spend a lot more time on it than I do with the short-shorts. I have to be very immersed in it. The short-shorts I can work on and then put aside for the day and not think about them, and come back the next morning and work on them and make movement to progress. The novel isn't really like that. The novel I have to think about in the morning, and in the night, and also, preferably, in the afternoon. It's very time-consuming, but rewarding. It's so rewarding to write a novel.

What are some of your favorite books?

"The People of Paper" by Salvador Plascencia, anything by Lydia Davis, anything by Chris Ware, "Motorman" by David Ohle (who teaches creative writing at KU), "What Is the What" by Dave Eggers, "Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine" by Stanley Crawford, "Portnoy's Complaint" by Philip Roth. »

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