moral ambiguities in everyday life

Our fiction co-editor JD Fox recently had this exchange with Sam Gridley, our Issue #18 featured fiction author. Here’s what he had to say about his writing process, his guiding lights, and what went into “How I Found God in the Laundromat” and what he hopes readers get from it.

 

What inspired you to write this piece?

You know, I hardly ever remember how a piece took shape, and for this story I have no specific recollection. The figure of the grandmother, though, is important to me because one of my own grandmothers played a major role in my life, from my early years into adulthood. She’s been gone for two decades now, and her absence affects me still. The vision of the old person declining, and the complicated emotions it creates—everyone knows that all too well.

 

What do you hope readers take away from it?

A tiny sense of how “god” (whatever one means by that term) can emerge from ordinary life.

 

One of the things that stands out for me in “How I Found God in the Laundromat” is the way you flawlessly combine humor with profound emotional resonance. There are way too many “look at my family” stories that exude a sort of affected smugness to which you could have, but blessedly didn’t, succumb. Could you talk about how you walked this fine line between humor and heartfelt?

As you can tell from my mention [below] of Richard Russo and Jane Austen among writers who have influenced me, I aspire to fiction that treats serious matters with a light touch, including humor when appropriate. The setup of this story has naturally humorous elements. What’s more absurd than the trials of a 13-year-old boy? A lost old woman is pathetic or tragic, but if she’s lost in a laundromat—that’s kind of silly in itself, right? Overall, I think, the human condition is so naturally ridiculous that humor will emerge as long as we don’t beat it into submission with High Seriousness (a tendency the narrator criticizes in his parents). For a fiction writer, I suppose that means not being overly pompous about the situations and characters you create.

 

Have you ever been to Krakow?

Nope. Understanding what Krakow looked like before World War II was part of my research for this story.

 

As I read the story, I kept thinking how despite the Jewish words and experiences specific to a Hebraic upbringing, it has a universal feel to it; like every teenage boy, or man remembering his teenage years, could relate to it. Do you think that is more true than not, or do you see a wide gulf separating Jewish and non-Jewish childhoods?

I certainly tried to make the “becoming a man” aspect as universal as possible. In the widest sense, the theme is the child breaking away from uncomprehending parents—a timeless and global struggle. Even defining the conflict more narrowly, as a tussle between Old Country traditions and the young person’s desire to be an ordinary American, it’s common to most immigrant groups, and lots of people have written about it. One author who comes to mind is Susan Muaddi Darraj, whose story collection The Inheritance of Exile focuses on Arab American women in South Philly.

Judaism happens to have an elaborate ritual that takes place at a critical, magical, clumsy time of a child’s life, and so that made a good focus for my story. Also, for any number of historical and cultural reasons, Jews have been able to maintain a sense of distinctness even as they assimilate into the larger society. Thus situations can arise like the one in my story—parents who have little personal commitment to tradition insisting that their child devote a lot of time and effort to it. A fine fictional treatment of this theme is my friend Louis Greenstein’s novel Mr. Boardwalk, in which the secular protagonist discovers the poignant family secret behind his parents’ demand that he have a Bar Mitzvah.

I should say that I have no personal experience of a Jewish boyhood. My own heritage is mixed Protestant, and maybe a bit of Catholic, with a whole lot of Nothing thrown in. My wife is Jewish, though—in the same sense as Bernie Sanders, that is, nonpracticing, proud of being Jewish without adhering to a single belief—and so I have plenty of Jewish in-laws, in-laws-of-in-laws, nieces, nephews, etc., of various degrees of commitment to tradition and various understandings of what tradition actually means. I’ve attended numerous Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and the Working Writers Group itself includes several Jewish members. With this extended support group, I thought I could write a reasonable portrayal of a Bar Mitzvah boy. After doing my own research on Yiddish terms, dates and phrasings of particular Biblical translations, the calendar for assigning Torah portions, etc., I showed drafts of the story around. The reactions were interesting—no two people could agree about exactly how the Bar Mitzvah would have been conducted. Everybody had a different experience to draw from.

In revising the story, I made certain that the synagogue was described as ultra-liberal and the era as the early 1970s, before the recent waves of traditionalism. Back then, in such a setting, many variations were possible. During my wife’s childhood, in fact, her family had a Christmas tree (euphemistically called a Hanukkah bush) in the living room in December, and at their synagogue none of the men wore ritual accouterments, not even a yarmulke. And yet these fine people were convinced they were carrying on Judaism. That’s one theme of the story, I suppose: It’s all good. Respect the tradition by finding your own way to live it and appreciate it.

So, in finally getting around to answering your question, I think the extent of a “gulf” between religious or ethnic groups, in childhood or later, depends on the particular community and on individuals themselves. In Israel now, there are huge gulfs between different brands of Judaism, and at the same time there are Jewish Israelis with Palestinian friends. No matter how strong traditions may be, a gulf exists only if people let it. The only absolutes are prejudice and hatred versus respect and tolerance.

 

Why do you write under a pseudonym?

Well, when I started writing in earnest, at age 22 or so, I assumed I’d soon be overwhelmed with fame, fortune and groupies. I figured I could handle the first two, but I was truly afraid of being mobbed by attractive young women.

No, seriously, it was a combination of general bashfulness and a desire to avoid sharing my writing with my parents and other family members–not that they would necessarily disapprove, but I just didn’t want to discuss it with them. As it turned out, they paid no attention anyway. Once I got used to the pen name, I stuck with it. To this day, if a new acquaintance asks what I do, I don’t say I’m a writer. That seems grandiose. Instead, I say I’m an editor or book designer or businessowner or Phillies fan (all of which are true).

 

Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?

I used to be extremely disciplined in my allocation of time. Every day at a certain hour, I would sit down at my desk to write, whether I had any ideas or not. Lately I’ve become more flexible in both place and time. I can start writing at my desk, or in the living room or TV room, at any time of day when I have an idea, a bit of energy and some battery life in my laptop.

Once a first draft is finished, I usually do an immediate revision, developing the ideas I didn’t understand until the arc of the story was complete. Then I let the piece sit for two weeks or more. Then I revise it two or three more times. Then I like to show it to the Working Writers Group, a small collection of Philadelphia-area writers with whom I’ve been associated for decades.

Those people are the best critics I know. After their input, I revise two or three more times. Or ten times. Any of these revisions may range from a minor tweaking to a major reworking. Recently I threw out the entire second half of a story and took the plot in a new direction. Usually, though, if a piece looks like a huge mess, I’ll just bury it and trust that anything useful in it will reemerge later in a different form.

 

What is the first story you remember writing?

I think most of my preteen and adolescent efforts were poems. Dreadful, of course. I wanted to write fiction but couldn’t think of how to approach it. In college I avoided writing courses. Finally, while doodling around ineffectually in graduate school, I wrote a couple of short stories. One, I remember, switched back and forth among four points of view in less than ten pages. It ended with someone shooting a caged rabbit with a shotgun. I can’t imagine how that made any sense.

 

What writers have been important to your development as a writer?

Classics: James Joyce, who demonstrated that (a) fiction writers are free to do almost anything and (b) such freedom can be greatly abused. Ford Madox Ford, who showed how to encourage readers to focus on the “why” rather than the “what.” Jane Austen, who made small domestic stories as rich as epics.

Contemporary: Richard Russo, who convinced me that modern-day characters can be extremely flawed and still likable. William Trevor, whose quiet, precise style is a model of effectiveness without pretension.

 

What are you working on now?

I’m beginning to assemble a collection of my published stories. One possible title is Death, Sex and Dogs—because those seem to be my main themes lately. Of course, my friends say that’s a horrible title. At least put “Sex” first, they say.

 

Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?

Maybe the worst—and also funniest—experience was my opening day in the Stanford graduate writing program. The director had asked people to supply stories to start off the fiction workshop, and perhaps I was the only participant dutiful or nerdy enough to do so. Whatever the reason, one of my stories—the aforementioned rabbit piece—became the first work subjected to group criticism that year. After I read the story aloud, there were three seconds of silence, and then one of the other fiction fellows launched into a heated diatribe against it. Others jumped in and defended the story. I sat there silent, slightly traumatized, amazed that anything I wrote could provoke such strong opinions. I mean, it was just a story, and a stupid one at that! This wasn’t a really bad experience, and the rest of the year was great, but I’ve never forgotten that lesson in the diversity of readers’ reactions.

The best experiences have come in the Working Writers Group as the members help a fellow writer understand what’s working and what needs revision. There have been many such times.

 

What author gives you inspiration?

I don’t know that I’m ever guilty of inspiration, but the authors who most get me thinking are ones who explore moral ambiguities in everyday life. Some current fiction writers in that category are Colm Toíbín, Robin Black and Elise Juska.

 

What’s your favorite children’s book?

For reading aloud to young children, The Book with No Pictures by B.J. Novak is a recent favorite. It forces the reader to make all sorts of weird and funny sounds. It’s not for the faint of heart.

 

What is your ideal creative weather?

Any unobtrusive weather that doesn’t distract me from work.
… Oh, sorry, you’ll have to excuse me now. It’s so nice outside, I should go walk the dog.

Sam Gridley

Sam Gridley is the author of the novels The Shame of What We Are and The Big Happiness. His fiction and satire have appeared in more than fifty magazines and anthologies. He has received two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, and numerous honors from magazines. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife and neurotic dog.

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