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Perabo on the Power of What If

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 Why They Run the Way They Do by Susan Perabo

Perabo on the Power of What If
An Authorlink interview By Columnist Ellen Birkett Morris

February 2016

 


Why They Run The Way They Do
by Susan Perabo

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Susan Perabo didn’t spend her childhood reading like many other writers. She was outside playing ball. She was a college film major before she discovered the power of story by writing plays. By her junior year, Perabo shifted her focus to fiction and immersed herself in writing and literature classes.

“I liked having complete and total ownership over what I made.”
—PERABO

“I liked having complete and total ownership over what I made. I wanted to be able to shape a piece from beginning to end. You could do that with fiction,” said Perabo. 

She went on to get a MFA at University of Arkansas. “It was the first time I was with people who were as passionate about word by word, sentence by sentence writing as I was. I learned everything that is important about writing there and I rely on that to this day.”

Perabo is the author of the short story collection Who I Was Supposed to Be and the novel The Broken Places. Perabo’s third book, Why They Run the Way They Do, is a collection of short stories, some of which explore the nature of story and its role in our lives. The collection features regular people, who watch television, play board games and work in office jobs. They lose pets and parents and best friends move away. There are affairs and accidents. What makes the stories special is the humor and poignancy with which the characters are depicted.

“More often than not I start with a situation.”
PERABO

Perabo begins her stories with a question to herself. “More often than not I start with a situation. Wouldn’t it be weird, interesting, funny if blank happened? Then I ask, who would be the most interesting person for this to happen to?”

In A Proper Burial a divorced father deals with aftermath of his dog’s death.  “The dog dies and he puts it in the freezer. Who would do that? Why? What does it mean? What are the consequences of that?” asked Perabo.

Because of her background in film, Perabo’s first drafts often consist of what a friend calls a “dialogue shower.”  “As a teacher, I see that a lot of great writers have a fear of dialogue. I rely a lot on dialogue to reveal the story and move it along. My first drafts are often pages of dialogue, and I add description and even narrative later.”

Her flare for dialogue is evident in Why They Run the Way They Do.  Life Off My E is the story of two spinster sister living together and how the balance is thrown off in their relationship when one discovers a pregnancy test in the trash. The other sister admits to having a boyfriend.

“Does he have a job?”
“He’s a magician.”
I sat back in the chair. “Maybe you didn’t hear me,” I said. Í asked if he had a job.”
“Ha ha.” She put down her coffee. “Magician is a job.”
“Magician is a job for like two people in all of human history,” I said. “Houdini and David Copperfield are the only two people to ever put ‘magician’ under ‘occupation’ on their tax returns.” 

Perabo writes the first drafts of most of her stories over the course of several days so she doesn’t lose the voice of the characters. “It is so hard to get back to that voice, if you leave it.”

She wrote the first few pages of the story Shelter and then put it away. She went back to it every couple months and it took her a few years to figure out what the story was about.  “I had to let myself do it wrong for a while and trust it would come to me as I continued writing,” said Perabo. “It doesn’t have to be pitch perfect as it goes on the page. You have to be able to write through bad paragraphs; if you don’t, so many stories will go unfinished. I trust that the story I want to tell will find a way out. “

“I love beginnings and endings. Middles are always so hard.”
PERABO

Perabo also has a talent for compelling beginnings and satisfying endings of stories. “I love beginnings and endings. Middles are always so hard. I often start with something strong, something tight with a lot of energy, and rewrite the first paragraph a hundred times.”
Living up to the promise of those starts is another matter entirely. She said the characters will lead you to then ending of the story if you know them well enough. “The trick is gathering enough steam in the middle and not rushing to the end of the story.”  

Has the process of writing gotten easier since Perabo’s first collection debuted in 1999?

“I wouldn’t say it has become easier. I trust myself more, and I trust that if I work hard enough and am patient enough I can tell the story the way I want to tell it. Confidence makes this effort easier,” she observed.

Perabo offers advice she got in graduate school to apprentice writers who are unsure of themselves. “If you don’t love the work itself, you should definitely do something else. The work itself should be its own reward. You shouldn’t have to be validated by the world, a publisher, your mom.”

She keeps her focus on the writing itself and not on the idea of conveying a larger message. “If I find myself wondering what I’m trying to say in a story, I close the document and won’t go back to it until I can think of the character as real people and not someone created to make a point.”

This fidelity to character helped her create a memorable collection of stories that address what it means to be human.  

Persistence is essential to success. “Allow yourself to fail repeatedly. If you know your characters well enough, they will show up and do what they need to do to make the story work.”

Perabo is currently at work on a novel. 

About the Author

Susan Perabo is Writer in Residence and Professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA. She is the author of the collections of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be and Why They Run the Way They Do, and the novel, The Broken Places. Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including One Story, Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning journalist whose interviews and reviews have appeared in Authorlink, Prairie Schooner Online, The Louisville Courier-Journal, and reprinted in the reader’s guides to The Receptionist and Clever Girl. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Antioch Review, South Caroline Review and Notre Dame Review. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink.