Interview with Robert Earle - 2021
(fiction, short stories, literary fiction)
Robert Earle’s short fiction has appeared in more than 100 literary journals. He is the author of She Receives the Night (short stories); Nights in the Pink Motel (a nonfiction account of a year in Iraq); and The Way Home (novel). He also was contributing editor of Identities in North America: Search for Community. For twenty-five years, he was an American diplomat. He has degrees from Princeton and Johns Hopkins. He was born in Norristown, Pennsylvania and now lives in Durham, North Carolina.
Randal Eldon Greene: Hello, Robert Earle.
Your collection, She Receives the Night, is a masterful book. All of your stories in it are about women. Did you set out to write a collection concerning the female sex and gender or did this theme of being a woman just pop out from amidst the stories you've written and published?
Robert Earle: I have not done an analysis of how many stories I have written about women and how many I have written about men. I guess the distribution is about 50-50. One day I thought that some of my stories about women would make a strong collection. That was the origin of She Receives the Night. The stories I included were written and published over a number of years with no thought of ultimately bringing them all together.
Randal Eldon Greene: I am wondering, when did you began writing and when did you see your first publications?
Robert Earle: I began writing short stories when I was a teenager and have continued writing short stories ever since. My first stories were published in school and university literary magazines and then I had one called “The Violent Dreams of George Spain” published in Mississippi Review, which continues to be a great publication with a national following. After that, earning a living and family responsibilities got in the way for a while, but eventually I began publishing in literary magazines on a regular basis. The short story market now is much larger than it was when I started out; online journals give all kinds of work opportunities to be read. My view has always been to keep writing and keep sending things out. Persistence matters. It’s absolutely true that editorial choices are a “subjective” matter, as rejection notes often say, so I scan calls for submissions in Poets & Writers and try to match what I’ve done with a given publication’s stated interest and preferences. But I don’t think about where a story might be published beforehand. That comes later, sometimes much later. I have had stories accepted on the day of submission, and I have had stories sent back to me with a “no thanks” many times. If I think a story needs some tinkering before it’s likely to find a home, I almost always start by seeing if I can shorten it. This can be tricky, but looking over a story some months after I think I have “finished” it usually produces good results.
Randal Eldon Greene: You have this wonderful line early in the story "Monkey Girl" about an artist who makes wood engravings. It read: 'Each provocative print was unexpected, but permanent once seen.' I feel like this is a great way to describe my own experience with She Receives the Night. What do you think is the essential kind of thing that a story needs to make it both provocative and permanent once read?
Robert Earle: Making a story both provocative and permanent once read isn’t easy, and there surely are many ways to do it, but to me this question focuses on what I would call framing a story. In other words, what is the best way to begin a story and what is the best way to end it? I would point to two ways of beginning a story that might be provocative and two ways of ending a story that might achieve permanence in a reader’s mind.
Beginning a story in media res can be quite provocative because something is going on about which the reader lacks information; keeping some information back as the story unfolds also can be provocative, spurring a reader’s engagement and curiosity. But there is another way of beginning a story that I find provocative, namely, offering a few paragraphs that don’t seem to be headed anywhere in particular…and then coupling these paragraphs to the storyline at hand, i.e., the action. At first the opening paragraphs may bewilder, but that moment of linking them to the storyline can provide a stimulating jolt.
On the issue of endings, I think they are the most critical part of short stories, and I would point to two ways of handling them. One way is to ensure that the final sentence (or two or three) bears within it the entire DNA of the story, so that the reader reaches a moment of complete understanding. That last sentence is one that cannot have been written otherwise. It fuses the reader and the story together, perhaps justifying expectations or perhaps offering a perspective on what has been unseen but inevitable all along, generating a sense of revelation. Another way of ending a story with a view to making it permanently memorable is to put the power of the right ending in the penultimate paragraph and then add another paragraph designed to let the reader down easy, providing a moment or two for the reader to assimilate the full burden of the story. Short stories are all about endings. Often writers write short stories to discover endings, but sometimes writers know exactly what the ending must be, and the writer's challenge is to devise a provocative and compelling way to deliver that ending to the reader.
I sometimes refer to the way I begin working on a story as “whitewater drafting,” which means I put my paddle in the water, build some speed, and then navigate the currents, the waves, and the rocks.
Randal Eldon Greene: Usually the first thing I write when I'm working on a story is the ending. Where do you start your stories? Do you know the end when you begin, and how much of the material do you have figured out before you even start to write?
Robert Earle: Most of the time I begin a story at the beginning with a general sense of how the story might develop. On occasion I may have had a sense of how a story would end, but I can’t think of one offhand. Endings for me emerge out of the process of writing. I sometimes refer to the way I begin working on a story as “whitewater drafting,” which means I put my paddle in the water, build some speed, and then navigate the currents, the waves, and the rocks. It would be much more efficient to begin with an ending in mind, but I’m not inclined to tie myself to a conclusion I have not yet proven valid, and the actual ending for me signifies not only the conclusion of a story but the final words—those words are the true ending, the way they sound in my mind, their fidelity to what has transpired before they make their appearance, and the feeling they give me that my work is done.
Randal Eldon Greene: I'm privileged to know writers both younger and older than myself. I think a lot of younger writers feel a good deal of anxiety about proving themselves, if not to the world, then at least their parents (or their parental figures). It's, I think, a need to be validated as an adult who writes. I contemplated this when I read these lines from your story "The Door."
'With parents you talk about them until your being exceeds their being,' she said. 'Once your life is full enough and theirs, by virtue of age, is diminished enough, you move on.'
You've told us a bit about your publication journey, but when it comes to your self-identifying as a writer, I'm curious about that road. When did you feel validated as a person who writes stories? Did it take the aging of your parents before you felt wholly able to own that part of your life? Was your family's reaction toward your creative pursuits positive, negative, or maybe ambivalent?
Robert Earle: I thought of myself as a writer when I met my own definition of a writer—"a writer is someone who writes." That means that I thought of myself as a writer in my early twenties, I suppose, because I was writing as regularly as I could with “daily" being the goal. I think I came up with my definition of a writer for two reasons: I had begun meeting a lot of people who felt called to writing but did not actually write anything, so I didn’t consider them writers. I also felt that anyone who did write regularly, whatever the result, deserved to be considered a writer, given how difficult writing can be.
As for my parents, they never encouraged or discouraged me from doing anything I chose to do. I guess that is pretty exceptional, but that is the way they were. In fact, when it comes to writing, looking for parental blessings or encouragement is something of a false hope. Parents and other family members read what one writes from a particular perspective. Unless a parent happens to be a writer, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to parental attitudes, judgments, praise or criticism. The quote you cite was written in an entirely different context, which was psychological development and a sense of independence affecting all aspects of one’s life. To put it another way, you have to become your own parent at some point. That’s a necessary stage of individuation and underlies my story, “The Door."
Randal Eldon Greene: Individuation, or more so transformation, seems to be a theme running throughout this collection. Of course, if stories are dynamic, characters change. But I would venture a guess that the theme of transformation is something you intentionally explore in many of these stories. A woman catches fire and emerges, like a phoenix, as a bird. An alcoholic moves from silence to speech. A man with cancer transforms into a woman in complete remission.
Robert Earle: It does seem to me that transformation is one of the most wonderful things that can happen to a person. Through struggle or crisis, someone has a chance to be free from a troubled past. Few things could be more difficult to achieve. If I sense the possibility of transformation in a character or story, I am apt to go after it.
Randal Eldon Greene: The most evident example of transformation is of the character Henry Chatterjee, who undergoes a sex change so that he can keep prostate cancer from killing him. Where did the idea for, "On Being a Woman" come from?
Robert Earle: I had a friend who was going through a series of prostate procedures and running out of options. It occurred to me that the only people who don’t ever have prostate problems (as far as I knew) were people who did not have prostate glands. That would be women. So perhaps my friend should become a woman, I thought. After all, becoming a woman couldn’t be worse than dying, could it? Of course not. So that’s how I came to write, “On Being a Woman.” Fortunately, my friend did find a solution to his problem, proton therapy, that didn’t entail gender reassignment, and he’s still with us.
Randal Eldon Greene: I'm happy to hear your friend is doing well. And I suppose I'm glad such a terrible circumstance had its own transformation into a story.
What was the decision process in putting Henrietta into another story where she only plays a supporting role?
Robert Earle: There was no decision process in putting Henrietta into another story. It just happened. As I recall, I sat down one morning with no specific thoughts and began writing “A Life” and took it straight through to the end. Everyone has to think when writing, of course, but sometimes the mental process is closer to listening than thinking. Henrietta didn’t need a sister and didn’t have a sister until she appeared and once she did, I found myself developing her more or less out of thin air.
Randal Eldon Greene: One of the most fun stories to read in the book (though by no means the only fun story) is "The Frying Pan." Part of the fun is the experimental form in which it's written:
one kid after another smoothing their wild hair with her wet palm reaching to sink for more and
hey I said hey how do I look
you look great where did you get the tie
at Nordstrom's where do I get everything
and into her blue blouse blue slacks
no makeup white ankle socks white shoes
back into the kids' rooms
go go go out everyone into the van
I find that stylistic freedom often lends an air of fun to a literary work. Do you agree? And, if so, what are your thoughts on the relation between experimental freedom and the general enjoyment that comes from crafting stories?
Robert Earle: There are many writers whose quirkiness is the bouquet of their work. That’s their style and no doubt pleases them as much as it pleases readers. I’m thinking of Barthelme and Brautigan at the moment. Experimental freedom is always there for them, but it’s there for everyone else, too. There are very few fixed rules in fiction. As Saul Bellow once commented, We make this stuff up. I believe he made this comment to Philip Roth, who also employed all kinds of strategies to tell his stories. In fact, Roth’s ultimate success hinged on breaking away from conventions established by Henry James (and others), whom he took too seriously in his early novels. So I think breaking boundaries is good and can help you get at something not otherwise available.
Randal Eldon Greene: Barthelme was an early influence on my own writing, and Roth's break from established conventions is probably why I enjoy his early work but don't adore them like I do his more mature novels.
What's in store for you next? A new novel, another collection of short stories, or something entirely different?
Robert Earle: I have been writing a mix of short stories and novellas for some time now. In August I have a story called “The Safe Room” coming out in Cagibi. In September Blue Lake Review is publishing a story called “Yin and Yang.” Last year Eclectica published a novella entitled, Jabber from the Streetworld, that is the last of a series of stories about two homeless kids making their way from L.A. to the upper Midwest and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. I have a short novel and a new novella (The Woman in the Puffin Hat and Unilaterals) making the rounds, looking for homes, and am working on another novella and a few more stories. I’ll keep busy; I’m sure of that.
Randal Eldon Greene: Wow. That is just amazingly prolific. What does a typical day of writing look like for you?
Robert Earle: Normally I write two to three hours every morning, six days a week. Sometimes I write an hour or two more in the afternoon and sometimes I write every day, no breaks, for a week or two. Richard Ford came to Chapel Hill for a book signing and talk a few years ago. Someone in the audience asked about his writing schedule (much like mine) and expressed surprise that he worked so hard. Ford laughed and explained, “I don’t have anything else to do!".
About the interviewer:
Randal Eldon Greene is the author of
Descriptions of Heaven
, a novella about a linguist, a lake monster, and the looming shadow of death. His typos are tweeted
and his website is