On a sunny and warm Tuesday afternoon in April of 2019, assistant editor Annie Adams sat down with Erin McGraw to talk about her then forthcoming book Joy: And 52 Other Very Short Stories. The two discussed some of the stories in the collection, the writing life following retirement, and about the importance of giving yourself permission.
Their conversation began with McGraw’s accidental genesis of Joy and its very short stories. “I got started with these by accident,” says McGraw. “A friend asked me to contribute to a book, and he asked me to write a story in the form of a prayer. I thought, That sounds like fun, but I couldn’t sustain it for over three and a half pages.” But the short form presented a legitimacy problem for the author: “In my life, real stuff was what Flaubert wrote. It’s not this little dinky, trivial thing.” Only through sheer proliferation of stories did they finally begin to appear like a “real book,” a real collection. “I just kept writing these little things. And I probably had forty of them before I acknowledged that this was in fact the new book,” McGraw admits.
The creative freedom afforded by the form proliferates in the varied subject matter of the stories in Joy—from imagining the inner lives of a public figure as in “Ava Gardner Goes Home” to “Bucket,” which is inspired by the gossipy, tantalizing fodder of advice columns. It also manifests in McGraw’s joyous discovery and refinement of her writing life in retirement: “I let myself off the hook a lot. I quit treating writing like my nine-to-five job. I quit feeling like I had to clock in every day.” And to aspiring writers she says, contrary to conventional wisdom and advice that even she herself used to give as a teacher: “Forgive yourself. Go easy. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s not supposed to be perfect.”
The Sewanee Review Podcast is recorded in the Ralston Listening Room at the University of the South. It is produced by Hellen Wainaina and edited by Alex Martin with music by Annie Bowers. Don’t miss any of our conversations with some of today’s best writers. Subscribe to the Sewanee Review Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. Joy: And 52 Other Very Short Stories is available for purchase from Counterpoint Press.