Erin McGraw is the author of three novels, most recently Better Food for A Better World (2013), and three collections of short stories, including The Good Life (2004) and Lies of the Saints (1996). Her story, “Ava Gardner Goes Home,” is forthcoming in the Spring 2017 issue of the SR. We asked her a few questions about humor, the challenges of writing about real people, and the limits of short fiction.
SR: How did “Ava Gardner Goes Home” come to be? And how did the story change, in terms of plot, narration, and so on, as you moved from the initial concept to the finished piece?
McGraw: I spent a couple of years immersed in Frank Sinatra, listening to his music and reading everything I could find, including James Kaplan’s massive biography. As is often the case with great artists, a chasm existed in Sinatra that separated the genius singer from the jerk of a human being, and I wanted to explore that. Along the way, I learned quite a bit about his second wife, Ava Gardner, probably his greatest love. She was no great shakes as an actress, but she was peerlessly beautiful, and for most of their short marriage, her career eclipsed his. The outline of the short story is true—Gardner did come from small-town North Carolina, and she did haul Sinatra back home for a visit that reportedly did not go well. That meant that I had the frame for a story handed to me: it had to happen in 1952, it had to happen in Winston-Salem, and tensions between Frank and Ava had to be high. Since so much was given, I didn’t go into the story with a plot in mind. Instead, I just nosed around to see what might happen, given combustible characters and the pressure they were under. In earlier drafts Ava already had a black eye, and Frank made out with one of his bobby-soxer fans. Both those things were certainly likely, but I wrote them out in favor of a more focused tension.
SR: At a reading you gave in Sewanee this February, you mentioned that your exploration of increasingly compact sorts of fiction—as opposed to novels and short stories of a traditional length—has been a recent, and surprising, development. What challenges has this new mode posed for you, and how have you adapted to them?
McGraw: The most obvious new challenge is that I have to come up with material all the time. Once a person is committed to a novel, she’s got the subject matter that’s going to occupy her for the next few years. That material might swerve and go into unanticipated directions, but generally the novel writer doesn’t have to keep coming up with whole new ideas every four pages. I’ve turned into a magpie, grabbing for anything shiny. And as is the case for any new way of thinking, once you get used to it, you take it everywhere. If you get obsessed with basketball, you see basketball metaphor and moves and insights on all sides. If you start writing short-short stories, you start seeing potential plots and characters every darn place. Friends and relatives should be careful what they tell me.
SR: How does your approach to writing about well-known cultural and historical figures (i.e. Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra) differ from your approach to characters who are entirely your own creations? Are there unique difficulties, or rewards, involved in that process?
McGraw: I love writing about real people specifically because there are unique difficulties, and those difficulties can lead to unique rewards. I couldn’t impose some of my pet preoccupations on Ava and Frank—they couldn’t have unresolved yearnings for God or concerns about the nature of virtue—and that forced me to think down new channels. Writing the story made me ponder, from the inside, the particular restrictions of public marital imbalance, public sex appeal, and artistic giftedness contrasting with celebrity. These were questions I didn’t think I was interested in until I started to live them through Ava Gardner’s skin, and now I’m passionately interested in them. This could be one of the few situations in which writing might make me a better, or at least more readily engaged, person.
SR: I’m not one to argue that writing always, or even usually, makes us into better people. What does it make you into, most of the time?
McGraw: I wondered if you would let me get away with that line about fiction making me a better person. Honestly, most of the time, it doesn’t. It makes me peevish and crabby and, when I get a review I think is unfair, whiny. And it’s not just me. As a rule, writers—or at least several of the ones I know—are not nice people. They often are good story-tellers, since that goes with the territory, and they can be superior gossips, but they can be defensive and fragile and extremely annoying when it comes to their Voice or their Material or whatever it is they’re so sure they can claim. In my experience, the practice of art is not particularly ennobling, and the drop from the exultation of an artistic insight to sulkiness about having to unload the dishwasher is stunning in its speed.
SR: What are your thoughts on even shorter forms, such as flash or the 100-word story? Is it even reasonable to apply the word “form” to fiction in this way, as one might to poetry?
McGraw: It depends on what you think a story is. I like Joseph Heller’s phrase to define story: “something happened.” That ‘something’ doesn’t need to be external or dramatic; not every story should be “a shot rang out.” But whether it charts the course of an uprising in Mozambique or an elderly man deciding not to drink his customary 4:00 cup of tea, a story, to my mind, shows something occurring and gives the reader enough context to understand why he should care. That’s hard to do but not impossible—think of the famous “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” My frequent dislike and distrust of very short fiction comes from pieces that are little more than pretty language. I’m not much interested in stories that don’t somehow engage the “something happened” issue.
SR: You’re not hesitant about exploiting the potential for comedy that a mismatch between a character’s personality or appearance and their expected role can create—indeed, one of my favorite things about your work is your keen, unflinching sense of humor—but the laugh is never the end of it, and those characters certainly have more work to do than sitting around looking incongruous. (I’m thinking especially of Teeny, the fat contortionist from Better Food for a Better World, though Ava, a movie star returning to a world of rayon and red velvet cake, is in a similar boat.) Can you talk a bit about your approach to humor? Do you think about or employ it differently, depending on whether you’re working in long- or short-form fiction?
McGraw: Long fiction lets me develop a comic situation across a good long period. When Teeny Marteeny shows up in Better Food, she’s automatically funny because she’s a fat contortionist, and then she becomes funny in a different way because of her upcoming marriage to a rancher, and then we return to the comedy of her original situation when the rancher watches her perform at a county festival. Good comedy, to my mind, doesn’t evaporate once the funny line is delivered; it lingers in the mind and ideally allows us to think about a situation from a fresh perspective. When Ava Gardner’s friend Betty Louise asks whether there are orgies in Hollywood, the line is both funny and not—Betty Louise’s prurient interest is made pretty obvious, but so is Ava’s quick comprehension of the distance separating her from her old people. That’s all the joke that the story’s length permits me to make, but I hope that the joke does, as you say, more than leave both characters flat-footed and made fun of. My heart goes out to both women in that moment, utterly unable to reach each other. Gotta make a joke. Otherwise, I’ll cry.