There’s a story in Pushcart Prize winner Susan Perabo’s new collection of short stories, Why They Run the Way They Do, where an awkward stuffed-animal armadillo creates a metaphor for a struggling marriage. How is that even possible, you wonder? I have no answers. Perabo’s magic lies in her ability to pull beauty, insight, and depth out of the most mundane experiences. Read on to learn more about Perabo and some of the stories included in her collection.
Kati Heng: The first quote I fell in love in this book with comes quickly — “My father thought the Hanleys were lunatics, but…he believed it was important for me to be exposed to lunatics — provided they were harmless — in order to be a well-rounded adult.” Did your parents share this same theory? Who were some of the “lunatics” you were exposed to while growing up?
Susan Perabo: My parents never said this to me in so many words, no. But they always encouraged my sister and me to see situations from other people’s perspectives, to not make snap judgments, to mentally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, whenever possible. This was obviously instrumental in my education as a writer…not to mention my education as a person. As for my childhood lunatics, this sounds like a dodge, and it is, but it’s an honest dodge: Every single person I knew was a lunatic in his or her own way. That was another part of my writer’s education.
KH: All of the stories in this collection, in some way or another, are about loss — whether it’s a death, a breakup, or that moment when you realize a friendship is only temporary. Did you know this would be a theme when you started making the collection? Can you talk a little bit about why you are interested in exploring loss through your writing?
SP: Not only is there is no intentional “theme” to this collection, but I often don’t see the themes that connect the stories until they’re pointed out to me. In large part this is because these stories were written over a fourteen-year period. Each story seemed unique to me as I was writing it, completely unconnected to the last story I’d written. Now, of course, I can see some of those commonalities.
Life is a series of losses, an endless string, big and small, some necessary, some inexplicable, some absurd, some devastating. We are constantly redefining ourselves because of what, or who, we’ve lost. I guess I’d say it’s the redefinition that interests me more than the loss itself.
KH: There’s a character in the story “Life Off My E” who is a middle-aged magician. How do you, personally, feel about magicians? Why is it often so sad to see a grown, less-than-successful magician?
SP: Listen, it’s impossible to see a middle-aged, less-than-successful magician and not feel like that person is working really hard to fill a hole in his life, or in his heart, that can’t be filled in any other way. It’s socially acceptable, much less sad, for this kind of hole to be filled by jamming in a suburban garage band made up of a bunch of guys in their forties. But really we’re talking about a similar desire. The magic aspect just takes it over the top. Magic is all about control, right? About being able to do the impossible. About pulling off miracles. I once knew a psychologist who moonlighted as a magician. That guy was a walking metaphor.
KH: Another pattern in these stories is a lot of them, we find out, didn’t happen — not in that they are fiction, but because they are stories the characters have told themselves to hide the truth. Are you attracted to unreliable characters — and I guess, do you even consider these characters unreliable? As a writer, do you have a habit of “rewriting” some parts of your own life?
SP: This is another of those themes that — almost unbelievably — I didn’t recognize until all the stories were collected in this one volume. Apparently I’m not very self-aware. But yes, I am definitely attracted to unreliable narrators, and (to your next question) to the gray areas of unreliability made possible by art, by stories. I think of a story like Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” where we have that wonderful chaos created by the combination of an unreliable main character and a unreliable narrator. It’s those intersections, those ambiguities, that interest me.
I think that what happens in our imaginations, the stories we tell ourselves, the fantasies we inhabit regularly — for entertainment or solace — can have a profound effect on the life we’re actually living. I think the ways we negotiate those two lives, the internal and the external, define us.
KH: Finally, tell me about where your books are kept. What room are the most in? How do you sort them? Which books have you had since you were a girl? Which books are on your nightstand?
SP: There are books in every room, not surprisingly. A recent move has left them less “sorted” than usual, but of course there is a stack beside my bed. The books I’ve had since I was a girl, that wind up in that bedside stack more than others: The Dog of Barkham Street, Hang Tough, Paul Mather, The Man Without a Face. Those books taught me how to write, before Chekhov and Cheever and O’Connor.