Why Edith Pearlman is not known to a broader audience is a mystery on par with how the pyramids were built -- so suggests Ann Patchett in the introduction to Pearlman's Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories. At age 74, Pearlman has published over 250 works of short fiction in national magazines, literary journals, anthologies and online publications. Her work has won three O. Henry Prizes, the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature, and a Mary McCarthy Prize, among others. (Binocular Vision was a finalist for the National Book Award for fiction.) Her fiction is also included in Best American Short Stories from the South and The Pushcart Prize Collection.
This year, Pearlman was the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award, which puts her in the ranks of John Updike, Joyce Carole Oates, and other luminaries. She received the award in a ceremony on December 2nd. We caught up with Pearlman and asked her a few questions about life and craft:
HP50: You've had a superb and long-standing literary career. How did you begin as a writer and to what do you attribute your longevity?
I always loved to read and I wanted to be part of the project of literature. My physical longevity is due to luck and my literary longevity is due to my physical longevity.
HP50: Many believe that writing is the one profession where age is actually an advantage. What are your thoughts on this?
Everything is an advantage, or at least an opportunity -- age, experience, situation, gender. Think of the stunning things that have been written in jail. Tony Judt's remarkable The Memory Chalet was written from the prison of mute immobility. As for age: to the young writer the world is fresh and the task is to learn to write and then to learn to revise (and revise and revise). To the mid-career writer the task is to vary subjects and change points of view -- getting stuck in one way of doing things is everybody's fear. To the older writer the task is to see things again as fresh. Insouciance does increase with age -- that's a great plus. Wisdom? -- I don't know.
HP50: Do you believe it's a positive attribute that insouciance increases with age? And how does the older writer "see things again as fresh"?
You care less about popularity, write more freely (with age). The ordinary experiences of aging alter and clarify your view of past, present, and future.
HP50: What is your creative process? From where does the inspiration and the source of your characters come?
Ideas, plots, characters, conflicts, places -- all come from memory, observation, dream, invention, anecdotes, conversations with other people, conversations of other people, sneakily overheard to ... and sometimes from other stories.
HP50: There is the old adage that writing is rewriting. How extensively do you rewrite?
My first draft is scaffolding. I rewrite each story ten times. By the tenth the scaffolding has been incorporated into the structure of the story.
HP50: What advice would you give someone who wants to write a book and/or a memoir for the first time at the age of 50 or older?
Start with anecdotes from your childhood. Join a writing group.
HP50: What is the one rule that you feel you can break with impunity now that you're over fifty?
Flaubert famously said: "Live like a bourgeois so you can write like a revolutionary." I've pretty much followed that -- lived conventionally, written the way I wanted to, not concerned myself with popularity. There's no rule I want to break or ever wanted to break -- I find the conventional life gratifying -- as long as I can sit at my typewriter, alone, for half a day.
HP50: What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew when you were growing up?
That there are as many ways to live life as there are people who live it.
HP50: What is the one piece of advice you'd give aspiring writers of any age?
Take the time to be brief.