You’ll recognize the characters in Jim Breslin’s debut short story collection, “Elephant,” twenty-one stories about suburban life and its discontents. The men and women here are struggling to jump-start lives interrupted by abuse, addiction, or divorce. They could be the people down the street, the people next door, the people sitting at your dining room table. Breslin lives, works, and writes in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where he is active in various writing organizations. Breslin founded and emcees the West Chester Story Slam, and his nano-publishing business Oermead Press has now produced two titles.
I caught up with Jim over the holidays to ask him about his inspirations, obsessions, and more.
Q: Let’s get straight to it: Why do you write?
Thanks Dave. This is a darn good question, and I’m not sure I have a logical answer. I think we are all drawn to do something unique, and what that really is can be lost as we get swept up in life. For me, writing is art. It’s no different than painting or sculpting, but words are the medium I’m most comfortable with. I think writing is a way to explore life and mortality. I know many people read to escape life, but I’ve always been interested in reading to confront it. And I think that’s what I’m interested in writing also. I recently re-watched the documentary Man on Wire, where Philippe Petit walked the tightrope strung across the Twin Towers, and I remember thinking why would he do that? There was nothing logical about it, but he did it, and it was beautiful.
Q: Petit risked his life during that performance piece, and was arrested for it. What do you risk when writing? Is the act itself, or the product, a transgressive act like Petit’s was?
I think the act of writing itself is transgressive. It’s really a form of exploring one’s own psyche, and that can be a bit terrifying. Like walking a tightrope. One of my favorite quotes on writing is from Kerouac. “I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.” Trying to reach that place is daunting. That being said, I don’t think my stories would be considered “transgressive fiction.” Although my characters are often sitting on the edge, they are trying to keep it all together, and they aren’t necessarily deviant. I write with the phrase in mind, “All conflict is internal.”
Q: Talk a little bit about your short story “Elephant” from the collection you recently published. I think you externalized the character’s internal conflict here in a strange and thrilling way. Had you read Raymond Carver’s story “Elephant” before writing this?
Thanks for the nice words. “Elephant” came about in a strange way. In my first drafts, I thought the elephant was going to be that they couldn’t discuss a miscarriage or a stillborn. Only after awhile, did I realize the elephant was something only he could see. I thought it added a bit of creepiness. I think when I wrote Elephant, I was probably subconsciously influenced by the film Revolutionary Road.
Now, about Carver. For years, I have owned every Carver short story collection except for Elephant. Only after I had written the story (and we’d started on the collection) did I notice Carver’s book and of course read the story, which I love. I think it’s totally different in theme.
Q: I agree. Though it does have some Carver-ish overtones, with the drinking and unspoken tension between the husband and wife. Is Carver an influence on your writing? Who else do you read? Is maintaining a regular reading regimen an essential aspect of your creative process?
Carver has been a big influence since I first read him in college. He conveyed so much without flowery language. “A Small Good Thing” is one of my favorite stories of all time. I have really fallen for Lydia Davis. Her Collected Stories is always on my nightstand. I love Flannery O’Connor, Cheever, Hemingway, Checkhov. I also love a few of the gritty writers such as Larry Brown, Harry Crews and of course Bukowski. Out of today’s writers, I really admire both Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell and have been fortunate to interview both on my blog. In addition to writing daily, I believe reading daily is key to stay motivated and continually learn.
Q: How do you vet your work? Do you have an editor, a critique group? How do you know when something is finished?
It’s a long process. I belong to three different critique groups, each one with a different character. Most of my stories have been vetted by at least two of the groups. After I’ve taken the story as far as I think I can, and I think it’s finished, I’ll take it to one group for feedback. I’ll often revise several times after that and then eventually take it to a large group where about 25 people will show up to discuss the work. That experience is awesome, like listening to a focus group. It’s my belief that a writer strives for excellence not perfection, since perfection can’t be obtained. Sue Gregson was my editor for Elephant. She is in one of my critique groups and a good friend. She understands my sensibility and is very frank when something isn’t working.
Q: What inspires your ideas and characters?
Inspiration is all around. Personal experiences, experiences of friends, seeing a work of art. The short story, “The Ex,” was inspired when my friend told me he his ex-wife left a message on his answering machine one day, to the dismay of his current wife. I thought that could be a good story. From that flashpoint, I wrote out what I thought could have happened. My short story in Chester County Fiction is called “Real Gentlemen,” and was inspired by a Jamie Wyeth painting that hangs in the Brandywine River Museum. The portrait is of this guy Lester, and I imagined what it might be to hang out with the teen one night. For me, there is always a flashpoint that excites me and makes me want to explore.