Life as a boy
In the last few months, Jodi Angel has seen her celebrity rise with a staggering velocity. Those lucky enough to have already read the UC Davis alumnus' short-fiction debut, 2005's The History of Vegas, already knew Angel as a skilled writer of short fiction, but it is her new volume, You Only Get Letters From Jail (Tin House, $14.95)—set for release July 16—that truly cements her as a master of the form. These are stories of grit and longing, love and loneliness, desperation and decision, told with an almost dizzying and fearless skill. Her work has appeared in publications such as Esquire and Tin House magazines, One Story, Zoetrope: All-Story (to name but a few), and has been praised by the likes of literary rock stars Dorothy Allison, Ron Carlson, Donald Ray Pollock and Pam Houston. Her book tour launches with a Sacramento release book party and reading at Time Tested Books (1114 21st Street) on Monday, July 8, at 7 p.m. Angel talked to SN&R about teenage boys, Raymond Carver and why writing short fiction is like writing poetry.
How did you become a writer? Did you start very young?
For as far back as I can remember, I always had a love for writing and words. By seventh grade, I had learned about the elements of fiction—plot, character, setting, dialogue. That year, I wrote a 30-page story from the point of view of a boy who lives in the mountains alone with his grandfather. After the grandfather dies—tragically, of course—the boy must survive on his own. My English teacher didn't know what to do with me. I wrote because I loved the sound of the words on the page, and I didn't care whether anybody liked it or not. I was writing stories in Cockney dialect about a boy who escapes on a ship—but there is tragedy—and a woman trapped in the basement of a castle who accidentally kills her only chance at being rescued—also tragic. I was hammering out stories before I could drive a car.
There’s certainly tragedy in your work, but I also find so much of your fiction to be sharply funny. What’s the balance there?
Reality is pretty rough. I got roughed up quite a bit as a kid, and I learned at a very early age that life got a whole lot easier if I found a little humor in things. I don't think that I should change those rules in my fiction.
Let’s talk about form. As a culture, we tend to appreciate novels more than short fiction. What is it about short fiction that draws you to it?
From the time I started writing, I was a short-story teller, and as I got older, I seemed to intrinsically understand the demands that a short story makes on a writer. It is closer to poetry than it is to a novel—everything about it is grounded in compression—every sentence, every scene, every choice must be exact and necessary and accomplish about 10 different things at once. There's no room to wander. A story must go deeper than wide, and it has to hit very, very hard—knock a reader right out of his or her comfy little reading space, and I love that challenge.
And yet I understand you’re working on a novel.
I am working on a novel right now, for better or for worse, and some days, it's very, very bad. I guess the reasons I took up writing a novel is to: A. see if I can sustain fictional elements for more than 25 pages, and B. because of what you just pointed out—our culture tends to appreciate novels more than short fiction, and when somebody finds out you're a writer, and you tell him or her that you write stories, they tend to look at you with sort of a blankness in their eyes and sympathy, as if it's sort of sad that you're not good enough to write something “real.” Like a novel. I don't know how Raymond Carver ever avoided that phenomenon, and I wish I had his confidence to just be a short-story writer and let people deal with it.
With Carver, it might have been confidence, or it might have been alcohol.
Well, maybe it was his drinking that gave him the attention span to only write short stories. He had a window of opportunity to get the words down on the page before he got too drunk to write.
The protagonists in You Only Get Letters From Jail are all teenage boys. What is it about that age or gender that interests you as a writing subject?
I like writing from the teenage-boy point of view because it stretches my imagination—I can't get more opposite than teenage and male—and because I think the teenage years are a golden time of confusion between childhood and adulthood. And in that gap, there is the potential for a lot of trouble—and I always figure that boys have more of a chance to get away with more things—it's our cultural double standard. So, I like to use boys for the trouble that fiction requires if it's going to be anything any good.