California Book Club: Sarah Shun-lien Bynum Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman and guest Stuart Dybek.

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David L. Ulin: Good evening, everybody. I'm David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal and I'm really excited about tonight's conversation between Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and John Freeman for the California Book Club. Before we get to that, I want to go over a couple of things. I want to introduce Alta and the California Book Club for those of you who are here for the first time, and don't know about what we're doing here. Alta is a quarterly journal dedicated to the culture and life of the west, California and the west. And we also are doing a lot of online coverage on a daily basis, including an enormous amount of book coverage, reviews, features, interviews, et cetera. The California Book Club is sort of an outgrowth of those efforts to cover books. Once a month, John Freeman hosts an interview with a California writer about a significant California book.

I'm particularly delighted to have this book be the choice for January, since it was as the first book that we reviewed for the Monday book review when we launched that online in October of 2020, so it feels like a real homecoming or a full circle. I'm also thrilled that Stuart Dybek, one of my favorite fiction writers, is here is a special guest. It's going to be a really special night. So thank you all for being here. I want to thank our partners. We couldn't do this without them. And so I'd like to acknowledge Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Soup, BookShop, Diesel; A Bookstore, the Huntington USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Zyzzyva and Vroman's Bookstore.

Take advantage of the California Book Club sale and receive four issues of Alta Journal and a CBC tote bag for just $50.

I also want to let you know about a sale for California Book Club members. For just $50, you can get a year of Alta Journal, you can get the California Book Club tote back, which is a beauty, zippers, Velcro, pockets for your pens and one of our upcoming California Book Club books. You can look for that at and watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link to this great deal. I also want to remind everybody that we have a ton of great coverage around likes and around Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, as we do about all of the authors in the California Book Club. So please take a look, go to You can read essays and excerpts of the book and our coverage of the book, so please make sure to take a look at that. Without any further ado, I'm going to introduce John Freeman, the host of the California Book Club, who will take it away with the interview with Sarah. John, welcome to the first California Book Club installment of 2022.

John Freeman: Thank you, David. Happy 2022, everyone. I hope everyone's warm and safe, cozy where they are. When we were thinking about how to start this year, we really wanted a book that would recalibrate us as readers because it's such a peculiar time. And it's a very odd thing we do, looking at marks on a page that take us some place into someone's interior world, someone who often did not exist. And so we wanted a book that basically made us feel like readers again, a book that transported us, a book that made us feel that slippery edge of seduction, both the comforting feelings of it, but also the slight fear and the terror in it and the way that in that form of enchantment in reading that you sometimes get something you bargained for and some other things you don't, shadow feelings, ghosts, myths, that sort of reawaken.

All these things come alive in the work of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum across three books, Madeleine is Sleeping, her debut, which was up for the National Book Award, Ms. Hempel Chronicles, which I think has resurrected seventh grade teachers everywhere with the complexity of their inner life, and now this exquisite collection of stories, Likes, which we're going to be talking about tonight, which as with all of her work precedes in tones of fable and fairytale, but also quite realistic stories set among couples living and working in Los Angeles, a mother taking her daughter shopping, father looking through his daughter's Instagram account, the breezeway between the fabulous and the everyday is tighter and more neatly oiled than ever before in the store.

And they ask sort of fundamental questions. I think the most basic of which appears in "The Young Wife's Tale", which reprises the story of a girl looking for her prince. And it goes, "Could enchantment take hold among the milk crates, the sickly house plants, the student loan statements? When the match sparked and the wick flared, all Eva saw was her husband's face neither stunning or monstrous. The face that she loved. Wax did not drip from her candle. The spell went unbroken. He stayed right where he was, fast asleep." You won't stay asleep reading these stories if you've read them yet. Please join me in welcoming Sarah to the show. Sarah, hi.

Sarah Shun-lien Bynum: Hello. John, hi, it's so lovely to be talking to you face-to-face. I'm so honored to be here. I was so excited to be included in the constellation of authors that the California Book Club has honored. I couldn't be more excited to be talking to you, to be talking to Stuart. So thank you for making this all possible. Thank you to David for reviewing my book back in October and I'm so, so grateful to Alta for giving this platform to California writing.

Freeman: Oh, it's such a pleasure. It's really, really nice to have you here. I want to ask you just to start off with about these stories and about the title. I know it goes with this title story, Likes, but there are likes across all of these stories, sort of affinities. I know enchantment is the word that you probably get a little bit tired of in describing what you do, but when you're being seduced into a story with sort of dark undertones, one of the things these stories seem to all, if not celebrate then certainly acknowledge, is that within those dangerous juxtapositions or relationships, there's also a deep pull of excitement and like. I wonder if that's sort of something you're exploring to some degree.

Bynum: I did hope that the title would take on a more expansive meaning for the collection as a whole. As the title of the story, it's referring very specifically to the idea of social media and thumbs up and thumbs down. But I did hope it by removing it from that context and asking it to speak to all the stories, it would be raising all of those questions that you have articulated. And I think for me, one of the forces that pulls me back to writing again and again is the nature of obsession and is the nature of sort of following one's predilections, listening to one's inner voice, giving you permission to pursue those sometimes peculiar things that please you. So I do think that idea of what pleases us, what ignites us, what continues to attract us is something that excites me.

Because I think as a younger writer, I had a certain anxiety about, well, if I write about something once, then I need to move on to the next subject. I've done that one treatment and then I need to progress. Now having done this longer, I think one of the acceptances that I've relaxed into is the acceptance that I am going to keep returning to those same wells over and over again. The things that I like are the things that are going to energize me to put words to paper and that I just need to give into that, relax into that. So yes, I'm glad that the title sort of, for you, took on that bigger sense.

Freeman: Oh yeah, absolutely. It sort of ripples across all of the stories, like as acceptance, like as curiosity and fascination, like being actually like each other. There are stories in which there are girls who are friends who are in some ways alike, and then they gradually realize one of them is taller, one of them is Japanese, one of them starts to progress more rapidly sexually and so the meaning of like changes. I think one thing that unites a lot of the stories is one thing that you do that almost all writing teachers sadly tell writers not to do, which is that you often have more than one point of view in a short story, which is like letting the atom in the short story. I wonder if you can talk a bit about that.

I mean, Madeleine is Sleeping, your first book, takes place while this girl is sleeping and we go in and out of dreams. I guess I want to ask where that sense of porousness within narration emerged for you, where that sense of freedom to do that because it's often something that when writers are starting out, their teachers say, "Make it easy on yourself. One point of view, stick to a point of view and stay there."

Bynum: And John, I was one of those writing teachers who really preached the gospel of a focus point of view. In fact, to share a story from my I first writing workshop and Stuart was the teacher in that first writing workshop, the first manuscript that I turned in was a story that had a meandering point of view. It followed a family on vacation and the perspective sort of drifted from one member of the family to another. The story was diffuse, I guess would be a kind way of putting it, and my workshop members really pointed out how this very scattered point of view made the story feel unfocused. And now this is going to sound apocryphal, but it really is true. The next manuscript that got turned in, in this workshop, was a story by ZZ Packer called Brownies.

This story just was electrifying as when I first read it on a Xerox sheet, as it is when I returned to it now and I've returned to it so many times. One of the things that I realized that gave Brownies its power was the strength of the voice and the way in which the point of view really focalized the story. So with my next story for Stuart's class, I made a totally different set of choices, and I really embraced close third-person of a single character. In this case, it was the character of Ms. Hempel. This was sort of her debut and that discovery of like, oh, when I make a strong choice with point of view and I really commit to point of view, it brings the rest of the story into a sharp focus that my attempt at a sort of Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, drifting perspective did not achieve with that earlier story.

So for years I faithfully practiced close third-person, single point of view. I just loved the variety of effects one's able to create with that. James Wood often refers to it as free indirect style, so that's another term for it. But I just loved the possibilities and the flexibility of that point of view. But then I think I started to get a little restless after being this very faithful practitioner and especially the combination of having stuck to that approach myself for so many years, and also taught it as a writing teacher was such fervor for so many years, the importance of committing to a single point of view within the small space of a story, one starts to feel a little rebellious against one's own precepts. So I think a lot of the playfulness with point of view and the experimentation with point of view that happens in these stories absolutely grew out of my decades long, faithful embrace of close third-person, single point of view.

Freeman: It actually makes sense so much too, given the stories that you're telling. I mean, the first story is a mother and daughter who sort have of gone shopping together and they're practically joined by hands, but they're having completely different experiences of what they're doing. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that and just where the American short story, if you identify yourself as the practitioner of such, comes from? Because from my point of view, to some degree, the story comes from Poe and America. It emerges almost out of a horror and the effects that Poe created. If you agree with that, what does that mean for the sort of epigenetics of the sort of practice that you're doing when you're using this device?

Bynum: Yeah. And Poe, I mean, he talked out the unity of effect. That was something that was so important to him. I think that I sort of draw as much upon the American short story tradition as I do upon storytelling traditions from other languages and from other cultures. So on the one hand, I embrace that lineage of Poe and especially the ways in which horror and the fantastic creep into his work or even someone like Nathaniel Hawthorne. I remember reading The Birthmark and just being so haunted by that story. So I love how these early American writers don't have necessarily kind of strict senses of genre, that there is a kind of, to use your word, sort of porousness with genre in terms of how the earlier American short story writers, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman and The Yellow Wallpaper. I mean, but it's so interesting to me because I feel as if as the American short story then evolved and developed into the 20th century. Some of these generic delineations became a little bit more strictly enforced in some ways. So I, and maybe that has more to do with how critics were writing about American short fiction than the writers themselves were. But I do feel as if, like when I was a student first being introduced to the short story, I was introduced to it via Hemingway in our time. I was also, one of the early books I read was Raymond Carver, Susan Minot, and Beattie.

So I, as a young writer, associated the short story so purely with that particular branch of American realism, and it wasn't until much later when I first read Italo Calvino or Borges or Angela Carter that I began to realize that the short story can sort of be a form that doesn't have to be inextricably bound to the conventions of naturalism and realism. So, am I answering your question at all, John? I'm sorry. It's so fun to sort of think about all the many branches of the tree, but-

Freeman: It's like a sort of... It's like the short story has a kind of over story in which all these forms of storytelling, which seemed to have representations across your work because your three books are not the totality of your work. There's things that you've written that are uncollected and it feels like one of the things that differentiates your work perhaps from other writers in the United States of your kind of age group is just how much you've just blown open the doors between the ways of telling stories. And so this first story in your book, which I'd love to hear you read from, it does feel like it comes from the Angela Carter/ Stephen King school of little girl who sees a guy across an open green wearing a cape, which is neither dark nor light, and has the color of night in it. And it's just, it makes her hair stand up because her mother doesn't see this man.

Bynum: Would you like me to read from the opening?

Freeman: Yes, please.

Bynum: So this is a story called "The Earl Cake."

It is just as Kate hoped, the warm path, the bells tinkling on the gate, the huge fir trees dropping their needles one by one. A sweet, mushroom-y smell, gnomes stationed in the underbrush, the sound of a mandolin far up on the hill. 'We're here, we're here, 'he says to her child who isn't walking fast enough and needs to be pulled along by the hand. Through the gate they go, up the dappled path, beneath the firs, across the school parking lot and past the kettle corn stand into the heart of The Elves Fair. Her child is named [Andine], but answers only to Ruthie. Ruthie's hand rests damply in hers, and together they watch two scrappy fairies race by, the swifter one waving a long string of raffle tickets. 'Don't you want to wear your wings?' Kate asked that morning, but Ruthie wasn't in the mood.

Sometimes they are in cahoots. Sometimes not. Now they circle the great shady lawn, studying the activities. There is candle making, beekeeping, the weaving of God's eyes. A sign in purple calligraphy says that King Arthur will be appearing at noon. There's a tea garden, a bluegrass band, a man with a thin sandy beard, and 100 acorns pinned with bright ribbons to the folds of his tunic, boys thumping one another with jousting sticks. The ground is scattered with pine needles and hay. The lemonade cups are compostable. Everything is exactly as it should be. Every small Elvish detail attended to, but as Kate's heart fills with the pleasure of it all, she is made uneasy by the realization that she could have, but did not secure this for her child, and therein lies a misjudgment, a possibly grave mistake."

Freeman: Thank you for reading that. If you can tell in that passage that Sarah just read there, there's an almost beveled quality to your language here that if you put line breaks in some of these paragraphs, you could run them as poems, and as much as are stories are paying close attention to the moment that they can kind of pull us under or sweep us through into the other room where the rules of reality don't necessarily apply, they're also looking very closely at the surface of things, at the sort of the arrangement of the surface of things. And I wonder if you can talk about that because this collection also has quite a few stories about adult life, and adult life in the context of Hollywood for lack of a better word.

Bynum: Yeah.

Freeman: The sort of adult version of that kind of play date that the mother and daughter are on in the first story appears and reappears in the form of Hollywood, and I wonder if there's any kind of connection for you between the fascination described in looking at surfaces very closely and also the messages and the lure that Hollywood has, not just for people working in it, but for us who consume its products.

Bynum: I'm a writer who tends to rely really heavily upon sensory detail. I think it's also because just as the way my mind work and the way my memory works, it really, it heavily depends upon my five senses. So the smell of something will suddenly conjure up a lost association or a lost detail, but... Or if I'm trying to recollect a particular event, I'll often try to remember, "Oh, what was the music playing when that dinner conversation happened?" Or "What was the album that came out that summer?" I'm always trying to use sound and sight and smell and sensation as this sort of compass by which I am able to revisit past experiences. So I think, for me, I really lean on them as I'm writing because they do become these sort of guideposts that end up often leading me to where I'm not expecting because they can open up these portals into the past, into memory, into associative thinking.

So my sort of fascination with surfaces and my fascination often with objects, I think springs out of my habit of sort of trying to gather as many sensory details as I can as a way of entering into or accessing a space that is sort of beyond the logical or the everyday, and I think the kind of surfaces that Hollywood traffics in is a different kind of surface. But as someone who is a lifelong lover of Hollywood movies, they have entered my vocabulary of sensory memory. So I don't... I know that Hollywood's often maligned for being a place that's inherently superficial or a place that values surfaces over depth. But for me, it's the surfaces that allow access to depth. So I don't sort of see it as being sort of inherently inimical to genuine experience or genuine sensation. I see the sort of beautiful, enchanting surfaces that Hollywood manufactures to be just as sort of rich a material as the wooden toys at a Waldorf fair.

Freeman: Oh, it's so nice to hear because the... Film and television is such a big part of so many of our lives and I think that the thing that film and television cannot do is it cannot tell us what someone who works in the garden of a Los Angeles home smells like arriving at work early and how his shirt might smell of laundry, the way that the character does in the second story Tell Me My Name, and the juxtaposition of that scent with the garden and the work that's happening to maintain the house. It does all the work of having to explain the kinds of labor that maintains that place and the labor it takes to remain human in the middle of creating that façade, and you do that with just one scent, which a film version of that could not do.

One of the short story writers, I think aside from you, who works with the senses better than any other is, is Stuart Dybek, who's here with us today. He's the author of two collections of poems, most recently Streets in Their Own Ink, as well as six works of fiction. He's a winner of the Guggenheim [inaudible] and a MacArthur fellowship, and he was also, apparently, as I have discovered here, one of your professors. Stuart, could you come on and talk to us? I think you probably have a question or two for Sarah. Hello, Stuart.

Stuart Dybek: Hey. Hey John, how are you?

Freeman: I'm good. How are you?

Dybek: Good, wonderful to be here. Hey Sarah.

Bynum: Hi Stuart. It's really, really wonderful to see you.

Dybek: I know. I know. I remember immediately that class when you told that anecdote. You were writing, you were already writing I think under cover of darkness. Madeleine Is Sleeping.

Bynum: I was, I was. But it was hard to bring a novel to the workshop. So I started writing short stories and Stuart, I remember at the end of my first disastrous workshop after my classmates had pointed out all of the flaws in my wandering point of view, I remember you saying to me, "But I'm interested in that one character, that teacher character." She was just one of the many members of the family, and it just took you saying that one comment just to give me excitement and permission to go down the rabbit hole with Ms. Hempel. So I will always remember you ending the class with that kind of kindness and curiosity about her.

Dybek: Well, I mean there were so many things about both those books, Madeleine and Madeleine Is Sleeping and Ms. Hempel that I actually thought about as I read Likes. I mean in each of them, especially the Ms. Hempel stories, the relationship between people who once were children, but are no longer children, and children, is so beautifully explored, and one of the things I thought that was going on in Likes that absolutely fascinated me because it was almost by degrees on how close each one of those stories would come to a tail and how much each one of them would stay on the other side of modern fiction that that relationship between adults and children play it out.

I don't know if it was instinctive on your part because I think you've been doing it at least from the start way back then, or how conscious, but it is so impeccably done. I don't know if I've asked the... I guess I haven't asked it as a question, but I don't know if I've been clear as to kind of what I'm getting at. Let me put it in one sentence maybe. One of the things that you play a lot around with in this collection of stories are classic fabulous tropes. The childrens are classic fabulous ropes, and yet the children in these stories are, exceed being tropes. I'll stop there. I don't know if you can...

Bynum: Well, I think that the idea of working instinctually is something that I really learned to trust from both your work, and having you as a teacher I feel as if your stories are such sort of a beautiful lesson in how to listen to the story and to allow the form of the story to arise out of image, or to arise out of a phrase, rather than to sort of work in this very conscious, structured, logical way. So for me, that habit of working instinctually was something I just so attribute to being in class with you, but also, even more lastingly, continuing to return to your stories as examples. I've taught them so many times now, but I've also just returned to them so many times. As I sometimes we'll be in my own process and be hitting a wall. And then I need to be reminded to let go. And need to be reminded to listen to the story, to listen to the music of the story, or to return to the image out the story first sprung.

I think that the fabulous trope of childhood is not something that I ever consciously or deliberately martial in my work. I think it's just the place that instinct often leads me back to. Sometimes my daughter teases me and says that she has a hard time seeing me as an adult because she thinks that I'm still ultimately like a teenager just in a middle aged person's body.

And I do think that that space of childhood, as I was saying to John at the beginning, that's a well that my path keeps returning to somehow. And I think that that learning to trust one's instincts and not fight them was one of the great gifts of being your student.

Dybek: By the way, I've been teaching your stories now, since. I have a little booklet every time I teach this class in fabulousim. And we start out with The Erlking. But your work is loved. Your work is a model. And I guess that's what I'm trying to talk about. One of the things that I've noticed in trying to actually teach, I mean, teach in big quotation marks, for lack of a better verb, is certain kinds of transitions in the kind of story you're writing, the inventiveness that it takes.

I thought the inventiveness, for instance, in Likes was really brilliant. And it's a word I'm guardedly using. Hoarding it for things that deserve it. The story is told through the lens of an adult, a father. And the only way he seems to communicate with his daughter is through these clues on Instagram and media.

And yet, he feels that there's this secret world that she has, which might or might not be true. And the transitions that you use there, number one, you've got her wanting to be in the Nutcracker. Now we've got this one foot in fabulousim and the other foot in everyday parenting in the 21st century.

And one of the things that the stories that you and John were talking about is that they're all about metamorphosis. They're about transformation. You're reading that story and you're wondering, "Well, how in the world will this writer, where she's got herself. Will she, or won't she create a transformation at the ending of the story?"

And the transformation in that story just blows you out of your socks. I mean, that was maybe the primary thing that struck me about that book was how you use the child. It's not just about parenting. It is about parenting. It's not just about children being tropes, but they are tropes. I mean, it's all integrated and going on at once. And it's not the same in every story. It's like one story demonstrates this, another story demonstrates that.

Bynum: That's part of what's lovely about the short story. That you can make up the rules anew with each one. And I think that's why I love the form is that it offers so much field for play. And there's also just so much potential for surprise.

I do wonder if it's like the form itself that gives rise to maybe some of the metamorphosis that you're describing. Because I almost want to attribute it to the very nature of the form that the short story. I mean, I guess the conventional wisdom that often writing teachers will say to first time short story writers, is that the final unwritten sentence of every story is, "And after that, things were never the same again." I think this question of change is so wrapped up in the form itself. It's like a form that requires some form of change or transformation. And of course, within the American naturalist tradition, often that change is incredibly subtle. Or it's some just very nuanced shift that will happen. But then, going back to the tale tradition or the fable tradition, that change can be radical.

And so, I think one of the things I love about the short story form is how it drives me towards thinking about how is this transformation going to happen? And in what new way can it happen? And I never know when I start writing, what shape it's going to come in. I don't know if it's going to be one of those very quiet transformations, or if it's going to be something that's much more astonishing. But I think that's one of the things love about the form is that it sets me on the path towards being alert to the possibility of transformation.

Dybek: One of the transformations in your story for me is that in your writing, and especially in this book, was again, going back to the thing that you and John were talking about. Let me back up one bit.

There was the guy at Iowa long before your time named Arnošt Lustig. He arrived there after Duchek fell, a whole ton of Czech writers came to the international writers' workshop. They had nowhere else to go. And Arnošt was there, he had survived Auschwitz. He had survived other concentration camps. Spectacular man.

And I taught with him in Prague later. And he always had his students, no matter what workshop he was teaching, begin with a fairy tale. And I was so impressed by this guy that when I was trying to teach this class, I asked my students to do that. And I never had the success he did with that. And one of the problems was, especially for undergraduates, is if you tell them something like that, several of them try to copy the fairytale. And it's a dead end for a lot of women. Because to actually trying to copy a fairytale, where the knights and the kings and the princes and everything rule, I mean, it's easy for guys in the class. It's deadly for the women.

One of the things that's going on in your work is you have solved that problem over and over and over again. I don't know. Again, it's a question. I mean, that was really clear to me in that Tin House issue, that the story about the woman and the king first appeared. But I mean, again, is that something you consciously went after to just say, "Look, I want to hang on the tale, but I don't want to be in this stereotype"?

Bynum: And that Tin House issue, that was an issue that was revelatory for me to see all the other writers who were exploring this tale. It just, it was so exhilarating to feel I was part of this underground collective somehow. We were all working alongside each other, yet not always aware of. It was so exciting to be in that issue with Karen Russell, with Aimee Bender, with Kelly Link.

And in fact, out of that issue, Aimee Bender, and I ended up becoming very, very close friends. She's one of my absolute favorite people, but it really all stemmed from that one issue of Tin House. And putting all of these writers together, who were all women, all playing with the fairytale tradition in different ways.

And for me, again, nothing conscious. I think for me, again, just instinct. And following the instinct of how do I both capture the feeling of fantasy that the early Disney fairy tales that I grew up with always just suffused me with? I was absolute, total huge fan of Walt Disney's Snow White. That was the very first record album I owned.

I used to have a wonderful recording of Danny Kaye reading fairy tales aloud. The Thumbelina and other Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. This was really what I was raised on and not the revisionist feminist version. I was raised on the undiluted Disney version of these fairy tales. And I think just by instinct, I wanted to try to tap in to the absolute enchantment that those stories had on me at the time.

But as you said, the trap is re-inscribing a lot of those patriarchal energy that just are inescapable in those stories. But it's realized. I think for me again, Angela Carter was so pivotal. Patricia [Ekins] was another writer that was really important to me, in terms of showing me how this tradition actually so predates the Walt Disney and Danny Kaye, Hans Christian Andersen stories that I had been raised on. That in fact, there was a much longer, deep, richer tradition that preceded it. And often it was a tradition that was being shared and being built upon by women sharing stories orally.

And I think it was that realization that the Disney era of fairy tales is ultimately just a little blip in this much, much, much longer lineage. And I also just loved the freedom of not having to be original. I think as a young writer, you're so worried about being overly influenced by your favorite writers. There's so much hand wringing about finding one's voice and having something new to say.

And working within the fairy tale tradition, the whole notion of originality just gets thrown out the window. There is no such thing as an original fairy tale. It really is about how do you add your own stitch to this big tapestry that so many unnamed storytellers have been crafting together through time?

And so it was just a great relief, just to discard these notions of authorship and originality, and the lonely artist working in solitude. Because with working within fabulousim and fairy tales, I always feel as if I'm just channeling other people's voices. In the best way possible, not in a derivative way, but in this coral way. Do you know what I mean?

Dybek: Oh, absolutely. And for me, what you do so well, and I see you'll take no credit for it, is that to make that little new stitch you're talking about it, is where the huge invention. I mean, the invention isn't coming from the fairy tale, as you say. That's there for everybody to use.

But what you do with it, to deep internalize it. I mean, what you did with, for instance, the wonderful properness of the Madeleine stories with Madeleine is Sleeping. I mean, number one is, besides being totally rebellious and funky, it's hilarious. And I mean, I feel like then again, in a lot of these stories where you are using, instead of classic children's books, fairy tales, or something else along those lines, there's just a very welcome defining myself even as I use the material. Defining myself against even as I use it.

Freeman: Sarah, just, I'm going to jump in here because we're getting towards the end of the hour and there's some questions from the audience. But I want to bring us back to Likes very briefly before we close, simply because, just as in Stuart's great story, "Pet Milk", the two characters in that story who fall in love, and as they're riding the subway away from this dinner they've had, they're suddenly aware that how are they possibly going to keep this up? How's this feeling possibly going to ever end? And so, they're aware of the story that they're trapped in, that they're in the middle of a love story. And I think one of the things that I would ask you about with Likes is that some of your characters are aware of the story they're in. In "Burglar", one of the characters in that story is aware that he's being asked to write the stories about Black life that drive him crazy. And so, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you have characters aware of the stories that they're in, rather than you being aware of writing the story.

Bynum: Yeah, yeah. No, and I think, to speak to Stuart's point about how a certain strand of the fairytale tradition has been so constraining to women, narrative can be as much a trap as it can be a form of escape. Right? So, in that story, it's a writer who is trying to imagine his way out of reinscribing some of these really just diminishing narratives about Black men in the United States, that either you fit into the archetype of the noble, long suffering, wrongly-accused, the Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird type, or the only other alternative to that is the type who is somehow a threat or a predator, or that the narratives are so strictly codified that in order for him to tell this story for his TV show, he has to choose one or another in a binary.

And I actually found, as I was writing this story, that I was at the edge of reinscribing a lot of those narratives and tropes. That was my great anxiety in writing a story that has a burglary in it, that has a, quote, unquote, criminal, in it that I was just going to be writing right back into those really destructive narratives and those really constraining narratives.

Freeman: You have red herring strewn everywhere in this book. There's houses, there's forests, there's castles, there's elves, there's clocks, there's dolls. There's every single aspect of the fairytale. If you upended the fairytale toolkit, every single bit of it is in [crosstalk] And so, just at the point where you think, "Aha, I know what's going to happen here." Then, suddenly, one of these images appears out of context and it does all this strange work inside the story, vibrates. And I wonder if those decisions are deliberate, or if, again, you're writing instinctually in those moments, and, in some ways, the history of the craft is channeling through you.

Bynum: As I said before, it's like those moments when you hit a wall and you don't know where else to go. And when I was writing "The Burglar" and I was sticking very much within the realm of realism, and I was shifting the points of view from the burglar, to the wife, to the husband in the writer's room, that was exactly where I felt like I was about to step into this quicksand of simply reinforcing and reinscribing some really destructive narratives. And I was like, "How do I keep writing this story without falling into that quicksand?" And it's like when the magical object appears on your journey just when you feel as if you've reached your limit.

And that was how it functioned in this story. The possibility of an imagined character suddenly entering into the seemingly realistic world that had been established. That became the magical object, the journey of writing the story. It became the way to move forward. It became the way to write out of the narrative trap that I felt myself heading towards. Because once the character from the TV show enters into the story, then the energy shifted.

Freeman: You're right. You're right. Both you and Stuart have written in very, very short form. Madeleine is Sleeping is a novel, but the parts of it operate like what people might call flash fiction. And Stuart's got this lovely book called Ecstatic Cahoots, which is one of my favorite books of love stories, because the accelerant of love is captured in the speed of the stories. But both of you have also written novels, and someone from the audience was asking if you could talk about working in the novel versus working in the short story as a forum, how it... I guess I Sailed with Magellan as a novel in stories, if you will. How do you both feel about those delineations, or is it [inaudible] to you?

Bynum: Well, Stuart, I'd love to hear your thoughts. I think I would call myself an accidental novelist. And that the two books that I've written that have been categorized as novels were both books that grew out of the accumulation of much, much, much shorter pieces of [inaudible], but that neither case did I set out thinking to myself, "I'm embarking on a novel." That just wasn't the canvas that I thought I was working on. I tend to think much more as a miniaturist than as someone who works on a really big canvas. And so, in the case of both of those books, it was just, in a sense, like the putting together a Joseph Cornell Box, of taking lots of very small things and putting them together and being interested in how they spoke to each other, rather than taking a Jasper Johns approach and making really big brushstrokes on a big canvas.

Dybek: I've always been fascinated by the overlap between novels that depend heavily on chapters, and works that could be called story collections, but really are somehow not. Winesburg, Ohio and Dubliners come immediately to mind. And the thing that interests me about books like that is that they seem ready-made for exploring neighborhoods or platoons, the things they carried.

That it's not just the collection of stories, but there's a spine running through it. And you certainly are going to be able to create characters or a family, which is what I was fooling around with in I Sailed with Magellan. But before I decided on that title, which is the title of a song that one of the character makes up in the novel, it was called Little Village, which was the name of one of the neighborhoods I grew up in, a Hispanic neighborhood. And so, I'm not trying to generalize about novels and stories so much as to say that the one that you brought up, John, thank you, I had that form in mind that had other precedents, but it did this particular thing of making a neighborhood, or a platoon, or a little town come to life.

Freeman: Yeah. Another story I would recommend would be from The Coast of Chicago called "Blight", which is a miniature novel... I mean, I can't tell if that's a novel or a story. I would love to talk to both of you about the short story as a form for hours because I feel like we've barely scratched the surface of the exquisite beauty of these stories, and how strange and marvelous they are, and how intimately they convey their transformations. And I feel like in your works there, you see the depth of what you can do. There's a question from the audience, before we go. Stuart, it's for you, actually. In what city was your Little Village neighborhood?

Dybek: Chicago. South side of Chicago.

Freeman: Sarah, I wish I could put this story to you, because if you looked at Ms. Hempel Chronicles, Likes, and Madeleine is Sleeping, you might think she lived in the 19th century in France, she lives possibly in California, she lives in outer space. I mean, you seem to be the most connected, unconnected writer I've ever come across because you have access to place, but you are also slip right out of it when you want to. Do you feel at all longing for the place-connectedness that's in I Sailed with Magellan, or do you ever feel like, "I wish I could be that person who wrote the Winesburg, Ohio of Boston," near where you grew up?

Bynum: Well, it's funny because California is the first time I have felt that deep inspiration that comes from place. And I don't know if Boston, as much as I have fond memories of growing up there, I don't know if I could ever write a Coast of Chicago or I Sailed with Magellan about Boston, even though that is the sight of this well of childhood memories and associations. But there's something about California that just sparks me in a way that no other place I've lived has. And maybe it's because it's not the place I grew up. Maybe because there's always a way in which I'm looking at it through an outsider's eyes, despite having now lived here for, going on, 17 years. But I haven't lost my sense of wonder about living here.

My daughter said to me, she's on the verge of applying for colleges and thinking about leaving California, and she said to me, "What is this that people mean about California light? They just keep talking about California light. What does that mean?" And I realize she's like a fish who doesn't know what wet means. She's someone who has grown up entirely immersed in this environment. And I said, "Well, just spend one February in New England and you'll understand what people mean by California light." But I haven't lost just the excitement about living here. And I do think it has given me a sense of place that I never really had before.

Freeman: Well, you take us to your own private California to some degree in these stories, and also, beyond. You also have the most perfect rendition of the [inaudible] accent, which I heard growing up as a young person in my early 20s [inaudible] And I will not do any more accents because I think Stuart would win that game, hands down. Yeah, [inaudible] freezing snow. Sarah, it's been a pleasure talking to you about Likes. Stuart, it's lovely as ever to see you, and to hear you talk about her work in the short story. Thank you, everyone, for coming. You can read more about this book online at the Alta Book Club. And I think it's time for David Ulin to come back. Another Boston guy, sort of.

Ulin: Another guy who's never going to leave the state of California. I agree with you entirely, Sarah, about my entire imagination. My head blew off when I got here and I'm never going back. So, thank you all. Stuart. Thank you so much, Sarah. Thank you so much, John. This was a fantastic conversation, so much to chew on, so much to think about. This interview was recorded and will be available at So check it out. Next month, California Book Club will be talking to Natalie Diaz about her book, Postcolonial Love Poem. That will be on February 17th. I want to remind everybody about the sale for the Alta membership for CBC members at Please participate in a two-minute survey that will pop up as soon as this event ends. And stay safe, everyone. See you all next month. Take care.•

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