Karin Lin-Greenberg has made a splash on the literary scene with her debut story collection, Faulty Predictions. As one of two winners of the 2013 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (along with Monica McFawn), Lin-Greenberg received a publishing deal with University of Georgia Press, which sponsors the award, for the collection of stories she submitted for the contest. Reading Faulty Predictions, one sees very quickly why Lin-Greenberg was selected for the award: she has command of the story form, great empathy for her quirky and very human characters, and a droll sense of humor that adds an inspired light touch to her tales of family conflict, identity, and coping with a rapidly changing world. I expect to hear much more from Karin Lin-Greenberg after this stellar debut. (My review of September 26 is here.)
Tell me about the Flannery O’Connor Award application and selection process and how it led to the publication of this collection.
The Flannery O’Connor Award is sponsored by the University of Georgia Press and each year two winners are selected and their books are published the next year. All the collections submitted are first sent to four or five preliminary judges, who each read their batch and then pass on a certain number (I believe about ten manuscripts) to the series editor, Nancy Zafris. Then Nancy chooses two collections from the collections given to her by the preliminary judges. Once my collection was chosen, I worked with Nancy on revisions to the stories and then worked with a copy editor on smaller issues. Finally, I was able to give some input into the cover and design.
I love the wide range of characters in your stories: high school students (“Editorial Decisions” and “Half and Half Club”), college professors (“The Local Scrooge”), two Chinese immigrant women engaged in a power struggle (“Prized Possessions”), a bus driver coping with drunk and disorderly college students on Halloween (“Designated Driver”), an emotionally distant brother reluctantly helping his sister find a bridal gown during the annual Running of the Brides sale at Filene’s Basement (“A Good Brother”), a pair of senior citizen housemates on a crime-stopping mission inspired by one’s psychic messages (“Faulty Predictions”). What inspires or comes to you first in your stories, an idea about a particular character, a specific conflict, or a theme you want to explore?
Each story happens differently for me, but one element I never start with is theme. I believe themes emerge, especially in revisions, but I think it’s dangerous to start out a story intending to write about a certain theme. I tell my students to let the literature folks think about theme and for the creative writers to worry about telling a compelling story.
Sometimes I start with conflict. For example, for “A Good Brother,” I was reading an article about the Running of the Brides, and I thought, “Who would be really pissed off by this?” And then I came up with the character of an uptight brother that has to take his sister shopping for wedding dresses. And not only does he have to go shopping for wedding dresses, but he has to be in the middle of all this chaos and has to miss a golf outing for this event. Once I came up with the protagonist who’d be disturbed by this event, the conflicts kept unfolding.
I asked the same “Who would this really piss off?” question when I wrote “The Local Scrooge.” For three years I lived in Ohio and would sometimes go to an ice cream place called Jeni’s in Columbus. They have this menu in brightly colored chalk on huge chalkboards with all of these unique ice cream flavors (like goat cheese with fig and wildberry lavender) that I found exciting, but I started to think about a type of character who would find these kinds of flavors exasperating. Then I started thinking about what else would bother this character, and I realized that complicated drinks in coffee shops would drive him crazy. And then, thinking about coffee shops and ice cream shops, I knew that this character would abhor tip jars, and I started to ponder what sort of character could be so enraged about tip jars that he’d—very inappropriately—bring one to his job. I came up with a college professor demanding tips from his students. So one thing just kind of leads to another oftentimes as stories unfold for me, but stories can really start anywhere or with any sort of spark.
You have so much empathy for these wonderfully eccentric and very human characters. How do you get inside these people and decide how to present their flawed attempts to fix themselves, others, and/or the circumstances they find themselves in?
I think fiction can really teach us—as both readers and writers—empathy. I’m most interested in characters who are flawed and might make bad decisions, but whose motivations we understand. I love being able to inhabit characters’ minds, which is why I generally stay away from the objective point of view. I think the big question I ask when writing is “Why is this character this way?” For example, the grandmother in “Prized Possessions” is judgmental and critical, but ultimately, as her backstory is revealed, I hope readers come to understand that she just wants to be appreciated by her family and to have an important role in the lives of her grandchildren.
How did you choose the title story? Is it the central story thematically, your favorite story, or just a good umbrella label for the collection? (“Prized Possessions” and “Half and Half Club” also seem like they would have been appropriate titles.)
I looked at the list of all the titles of the stories in the collection, and there were some that could just be crossed out as the title of the entire collection because of either their vagueness or specificity (“Bread,” “Miller Duskman’s Mistakes,” “Late Night With Brad Mack”). I contemplated the titles that were left and decided that “Faulty Predictions” applied to all the stories. I think all the characters believe their lives or relationships are going to progress in a certain way, and something happens in each of the stories to contradict these “predictions.”
I noticed in the Acknowledgements that three stories (“Late Night with Brad Mack,” “Half and Half Club,” and the title story) have not been previously published. Are these your most recent stories? If so, do they reflect any particular/current preoccupations and/or approach?
Yes, those were three most recently written stories. I tried to get them published before the book went to press, but I just wasn’t able to with the time constraint. I wrote all three of the stories when I was teaching during the 2011-2012 academic year at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. Boone is a fairly isolated town in the mountains of western North Carolina.
The second semester I was at App State, the poet Toi Derricotte visited and gave a reading, and she read a poem based on an experience she’d had as a young woman on a train. There was a character in the poem who didn’t realize that Derricotte was black and made a disparaging comment to her about another black passenger on the train. She spoke about how some people are in the position of always being aware of race, while others don’t ever think about race at all or believe they can be flippant about it.
After she read the poem, Derricotte asked the audience how many people thought about race on a daily basis. She asked for a show of hands. About three or four people in a room of maybe sixty students raised their hands. The raised hands belonged to the few students of color that were in attendance. I realized then that I’d been thinking about race a lot more in Boone than I ever had before.
Boone was probably the least racially diverse place I’ve ever lived. I’ve lived in some small towns and places that weren’t very diverse, but I’ve worked at colleges and universities that were able to draw somewhat diverse faculty and students. But the faculty, students, and non-university people who lived in and around Boone were almost all white.
I’m half Chinese and half Jewish and I’m pretty sure there was no one else in Boone like me. So I set “Faulty Predictions” in Boone and created a character who hasn’t known anything but this fairly homogenous town. She has a granddaughter who’s mixed race, and she wants to connect with this girl but can’t allow herself to. This woman is clearly a racist, but I also wanted to show that she is a product of her environment and living in an isolated place and not being exposed to people unlike her has, in a way, ruined her.
I wrote “Half and Half Club” right after I wrote “Faulty Predictions,” and that story is also concerned with race, once again in an environment where there isn’t much diversity. So, yes, I definitely see connections between these two stories. “Half and Half Club” is also one of the longest stories I’ve ever written, and I think I was writing toward a novel; lately I’ve been wanting to tell larger tales than a short story can contain.
How did you and your editor decide which of your stories to include in Faulty Predictions? I see from your website’s list of stories that you have many others.
The stories in the collection are the stories I’d submitted originally. Nothing was swapped out. Nancy Zafris and I worked on the order a bit. The first and last stories stayed where they were, but we shuffled everything else around, trying to make sure stories that were similar (in terms of characters or point of view or types of endings) weren’t right next to each other.
Before I submitted the collection, I did a lot of thinking about what stories to include because, as you mentioned, I do have other stories. When I first started submitting to prizes for story collections in 2006 when I graduated from my MFA program, I included every story I’d written that had ever been published. I thought that publication was a stamp of approval and meant the story needed to go in a collection. But over the years I’ve thought a lot more about how collections work, and I’ve also realized that because my stories are set in many different places and have a lot of different types of characters, they need something to hold them together. I tried to choose stories that have a similar sensibility to include. I think these stories are alike in terms of voice and tone, and they all have (I hope!) something funny in them.
How do you find time to write while working full time as a professor at Siena College?
I certainly write more during the summer and other breaks from teaching than I do during the school year. I do, however, get inspired to write when my students are excited about a topic we’re discussing in class. For example, last semester I taught a class on experimental fiction and we read several stories that were written so they progressed backwards chronologically. Several of the students in the class tried to write their own stories whose chronologies worked this way, and I so appreciated the way they grappled with the form and its challenges. It made me want to go home and try my hand at the same technique.
What books have you particularly enjoyed recently that you recommend?
A book I read recently and loved was Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Brunt does such a great job of creating a teenage character who feels realistic and vulnerable and true. And the ending of the book is a real knockout. I don’t want to give anything away, but that book had the most emotionally affecting ending I can remember reading in a long time.
I also recently read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, which I actually tracked down because of your glowing review on this site. That book and the characters have stuck with me, and I keep thinking about the incredibly effective way Ng employed omniscient point of view to allow readers to know and understand the secrets the characters keep from each other. It’s not a point of view I’ve ever been able to use successfully, so I’d like to go back and reread and really examine how Ng accomplishes what she does.
Right now I’m reading and thoroughly enjoying Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. It’s an epistolary novel, entirely in the form of letters of recommendation written by a professor of English and creative writing. It’s hilarious because it does such a good job of depicting some of the particularly ridiculous aspects of academic life.