The Bookshelf: Tim Weed's Stories Rooted in Place

Aug 4, 2017

Author Tim Weed has spent many years putting together his latest short story collection, which finds inspiration in a variety of settings: Rome, Nantucket, Cuba, Venezuela, and of course New Hampshire.

The collection is called A Field Guide to Murder and Fly Fishing. Tim Weed joined NHPR’s Peter Biello to discuss the work. Scrool down to read a top five reading list from Tim Weed and a transcript of his conversation with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

Tim Weed’s Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.  The Old American by Ernest Hebert. "This is my favorite book by Hebert, whom I consider the premier novelist of the psychological, cultural, and physical character of southern New Hampshire. The people and landscapes in all Hebert’s books are believable and deeply engaging. That he is able to bring them alive in a story set in a distant century—and in a time so pivotal in the genesis of modern America—is nothing short of miraculous. Like all Hebert’s novels, The Old American is a great read. It was the single most important fictional inspiration for my own first novel, Will Poole’s Island."

2.   Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. "Another great New England novel, Ethan Frome is of particular interest to writers because of what Wharton was able to achieve with point of view and character. Wharton’s use of the 'third person close' point of view allows her to give us Ethan’s soaring, lyrical perspective on the natural world—in particular the emotionally refracted, lovesick, crystalline beauty of a Berkshire winter—while at the same time portraying with astonishing realism the personification of flinty, hard-bitten, laconic New England."

3.   Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson. "One of the best American short fiction collections ever written, in my view. Particularly compelling is Johnson’s deft hallucinatory writing: the way he uses the interior perspective fiction can convey better than any other narrative art to push the boundaries of objective reality. This is only one element of the power of these stories, all of which are beautifully written, irresistibly suspenseful, and profoundly resonant in their cumulative poetic impact."

4.   The Delicate Prey by Paul Bowles. "Another masterful short story collection, but in a very different way. Bowles is a cold, merciless writer whose fictions are among the most vivid I’ve ever read. His stories are impossible to put down once you start them. Bowles is particularly good at painting ominous and exotic locations, a rare skill that’s very much in evidence in this harrowing, jewel-like book."

5.   Euphoria by Lily King. "This recent novel by Maine author Lily King is a love triangle set in 1930s New Guinea, inspired by the life of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. If that concept isn’t intriguing enough to convince you, read it for its gritty portrayals of New Guinea’s remote Sepik River region, for its well-drawn characters, and for its page-turning stew of love, ambition, and desire.

So a lot of these stories have some element of nature, and a lot of them have travel. Maybe we could start with the element of being outside in the outdoors. That seems to be really important to you.

Well yeah, I'm glad that you noticed that. It is really important, it is something that's sort of a commonality in these stories. The wilderness and outdoor settings are very important.

It's sort of a reflection that it's something that is a personal priority. But I also think it's a reflection of what I like about fiction, which is that one of the more immersive elements of fiction is setting. If you're in a setting that's unfamiliar, then as a fiction writer you are driven to describe it. And vivid,  descriptive writing is one of the things that I think is one of the triggers for immersive writing.

So as a fiction writer, I'm often inspired by natural settings. A lot of writers start with character or plot and I tend to start with place. That the emotional center of gravity for my fiction.

And there are a variety of places in this collection. Fly fishing is in the title, but it's not all stories about people in boats fly fishing. One of the stories I really liked is set in Rome, and Rome is often romanticized in fiction, like it's just this perfectly beautiful place. For you, in this story Rome is kind of a dangerous, amorphous, shapeshifting kind of place.

It is. And you know it has a sort of ominous-ness. In this story, there's an ominous-ness that sort of seeps up from these ancient stones. I was sort of seizing on that a little bit. And again with fiction you know you want a setting that has a certain amount of internal conflict in the setting. And Rome was a great place to capture that.

I think another story that I really liked in this collection was “Steal Your Face,” which is about a young man who is following around the Grateful Dead. So I have to ask, are you a Grateful Dead fan?

Yeah, actually. I didn't follow them straight for two years in a row or anything, but I did go when I was in high school and early college, I went to a lot of Dead shows.

A lot of these stories, not just “Steal Your Face,” are told in the first person. Do you tend to draw on personal experience often?

Yes, I think that a lot of these stories have autobiographical elements to them. But one of the things I love about fiction is that it allows you to take an autobiographical situation—something that actually happened—and then, unlike you would be able to do in real life, it allows you to sort of follow it to its logical conclusion. And sometimes in very dark ways.

For me, the autobiographical elements were sort of an inspiration, part of the ingredients that went into the story. But then the fiction is sort of taking that to its logical conclusion.

So you took several years writing these short stories.

I did, a number of years actually. You know one of the things I am so happy about with this collection is that these stories took shape over many, many years. They were in a way the stories that really taught me to be a writer. They’re very personally meaningful to me.

So it's wonderful to see them in this collection. Some of them were written long ago, some of them are more recent. But all of them have been revised extensively.

Is there one story that you can point to in which you learned something particular about writing?

It's interesting, because I love writing fiction because it is such a challenge. You start off as a writer and also as a reader of fiction with the assumption that what I'm writing is a lie.

You as a reader know that it's a lie as well. So why would you read it? The reason is, well, I think that it has to be entertaining and immersive but it gets at a truth that's a little deeper, or something that's truer than true.

That's why fiction is such a great challenge, and it's one of the reasons I'm so passionate about writing it. In terms of lessons from one of the stories, I think that the deeper truth that you're getting at with fiction is more in the nature of questions than it is in terms of answers.

It’s kind of ineffable. I hope that's sort of an answer to the question, but I can't really answer it.

So you're also a teacher of creative writing. You've taught in Cuba, you've taught at Grub Street in Boston. What is the relationship between your personal writing and your teaching of writing?

Well you know it's really great because teaching allows me to really focus on the analytical side. And you know to look at other people's writing and to look at some of the great works of literature and sort of break them down, take them apart and put them together again, which I think really helps you as a writer. Every writer has the intuitive side and the analytical side, and teaching really helps with the analytical side.

Short stories aren't something that people necessarily take to the beach in the summer. Is the short story healthy as a form of fiction?

I think it's getting healthier and healthier. I think for a while it was unhealthy, but I think it's getting healthier. The challenge with storytelling, with short stories, is that to me it's like every time you start, as a reader, a new work of fiction, it’s kind of like lowering yourself into really cold water. It takes a while to get into the story and with a short story collection the challenge is you have to do that multiple times.

With a novel you only have to lower yourself into that water once, and so short stories are really challenging to write because they have to be so intense, and they have to grab you so much, that you the reader are willing to sort of immerse yourself in the next piece of cold water.