The Bookshelf: Short Story Writer Joseph Hurka

Sep 4, 2015

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Joseph Hurka. The southern New Hampshire writer is a careful observer of human behavior, especially morally dubious behavior, such as drug abuse, adultery, and deception. All these vices are easy to find in the stories in his new collection, Graceful Lies, which was published in August. Hurka writes without judging these characters, but with empathy. Take a listen to Hurka's conversation with All Things Considered host Peter Biello, or scroll down to read the Q&A below his book picks.

1.  Separate Flights by Andre Dubus. "Published in 1975, this was the first of Andre’s great short story collections. The stories—one novella and seven short stories, fit seamlessly with one another, and Andre’s deep understanding of the human soul shines through every tale."

2.  House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. "The story of a dispute between a homeowner and a homebuyer who, through a series of complicated circumstances, wind up fighting over the same house; this novel became, to me, a metaphor for the titanic struggles going on in the Mideast. When HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG was published in 1999, it firmly established young Andre as our best current dramatist."

3.  Mamaw by Susan Dodd. "This is a sleeping masterpiece—a fictional account of the life of Zerelda Samuel, the mother of Jesse James. Though written as realism, there is a kind of magical realism to the piece that surrounds the characters and suggests the strong influence of fate; MAMAW is an extraordinary portrait of a mother’s strength and endurance."

4.  Women in their Beds by Gina Berriault. "Winner of the 1996 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 1997 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, this is a definitive collection of stories from one of America’s most powerful and exacting writers."

5.   Jump and Other Stories by Nadine Gordimer. "Nadine Gordimer lived through, and fought against, apartheid in her native South Africa. Her writings chronicle the struggles of ordinary human beings against injustice, and JUMP, a collection of sixteen stories, is one of her best efforts. When I read her stories I am in Africa, but I can’t help feeling I am in current America, as well, with our racial tensions. The mark of a great writer—and Nadine Gordimer was one of our greatest—is the ability to make you see all of humanity through a single character. She does so, again and again, beautifully. Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1991 for her work, and kept producing powerful fiction and essays until her death last year at age ninety. She said, Truth isn’t always beauty, but the hunger for it is."

Let’s start by digging into one of these behaviors, adultery, which seems to be one of the most prevalent in this collection. What draws you to this subject?

I’m interested in, I would say, the imposition of society on primal behavior. I mean, as an example, I once saw a legislator in Massachusetts coming out of the statehouse saying very defiantly that gay marriage is not normal. And I thought at the moment: “And I thought at the moment: Is marriage normal? Is it really, that you stick two people together for the rest of their lives? Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but there’s a lot of pressure on people to maintain that.”

And it seems like that pressure is at the heart of the stories that do involve adultery because these people are satisfying that primal urge, but they also feel a lot of guilt about their behavior.

Yes, there’s always that primal fight, and you feel so sad when you see people locked in these boxes.

How do you go about creating empathy for a character engaging in this kind of behavior.

Basically what you want to do is be as truthful as you can about your characters. The object in the end is to write about a character in such a way that everybody can see themselves in that character. That’s what makes a universal character. So you have to be as honest as you can. Usually these things are coming from something autobiographical, so if you come from a situation where you feel you didn’t measure up, you have to be truthful about that, you can’t paint yourself as a hero. Then you put that into your characters.

You mention in the dedication to this book influence from a great writer, Massachusetts writer, Louisiana writer, too, perhaps, Andre Dubus, and also his son is a friend and mentor of yours. I have to say, I’m a huge fan of Andre Dubus, and I saw his influence most clearly in the title story, “Graceful Lies.” In that story, an overweight woman works hard to lose weight, and as she loses weight, she watches the relationship she has with men change. Your mentor, Andre Dubus, also wrote beautifully from the perspective of women. Is this story kind of an homage to him and his style?

It might be, because he certainly wrote about very similar characters. I began writing that story, if you can believe it, thirty years ago in graduate school, and finished it only very recently. Sometimes stories take that long to be put together. Yes I think a lot of Andre is in that story. It’s really a story about the presence of miracles in people’s lives and how we can miss them. In this case, with the character whose name is Penny, she’s so involved about worrying about her weight—and I’ve been there, too, I understand it—she’s unable to see the miracles that are there before her. Eventually she loses the weight, but she still has still trouble mentally dealing with the problems it gave her early on. Again, about society and acceptance—very similar to the adultery thing.

So, over the course of thirty years, did Andre Dubus, and then his son, Andre Dubus III, give you advice on this story?

Young Andre, probably not, but the father, certainly. He was giving me advice as I was writing this and three other stories in the book. There was actually one that I wrote as a result of Andre’s accident. I’m not sure if you want to get into that. He was helping some people who had hit a motorcycle, a guy who was drunk on a motorcycle. He was helping them out and he got hit by a car then himself and broke 34 bones, and he lost is right leg. It was a very serious thing. So when he was in the hospital, he told me a story. He had wanted to buy a boat for his daughter and I had advised him against it because it seemed as though the price wasn’t right, and in the hospital, when he finally woke up under morphine he said, “you know, Joe, you were right about that boat, it turned out to be a scam.” And I wanted to say, “I told you so,” but he was in such an awful condition, that instead I told him a story about when I was a child and I’d been scammed for the first time. And he looked at me and he said, “Write that story.”

And that was the story about the little boy and the submarine?

“The Angry Boy.” I get emotional thinking about it, but I wrote that for him while he was in the hospital. He directly influenced a lot of the book.

I wanted to talk about, not just that story, but the stories in this collection that—they stray from those vices I mentioned earlier and go into the world of children where these little moments just get exploded with emotion. In that particular story, the little boy works so hard to save up money to buy a little toy submarine and he sends the money to the magazine and gets a different toy in response and he’s just so angry. And it’s a little thing, you put it in context of someone’s whole life, not a big deal, but in that moment, it’s really powerful.

Yeah, it happened to me. The story is just autobiographical. That’s exactly how it happened. And it’s the first time I remember having the outside world cheat me. But when you think about it, kids are lied to through advertisements something like 200,000 times by the time they’re seven. I saw that statistic once. And this is an unfortunate thing that is happening in the world and I think it happens with a lot of my characters in that they’re constantly seeing this kind of deception out there in the world and they’re having to somehow deal with that.

Perhaps the last group of stories within this collection is the group about musicians. What inspired these? Are you a musician?

I am. And again, those are quite autobiographical, the two. One is about a blues band that I worked with in Lawrence. They were called the Chase Street Rhythm Band, they were great. And I fictionalized someone of their experiences. And the other one was, I was a songwriter in Nashville for a while, so I spent a lot of time on the busses with various people like Randy Travis and Willie Nelson, and I was writing songs in the back of the busses. I wasn’t in their busses, I was their entourage, a nobody, a songwriter in the back, but I learned a lot about that world and wrote those stories from that.