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August's Book
Collectors
by Paul Griner
Listen to a Real Audio file of the interview. 19:56 minutes


Bill Goodman, bookclub@ket host:
Welcome, good to have you with us today Paul.

Paul Griner, author:
Thank you.

Bill:
Let me first of all ask you to tell us a little bit about where Collector's came from in your own mind.

Paul:
Well that's a good question. It started out actually as a short story. The final chapter -- I have had that image of the woman on the boat and the man and a sense of dread or unease, and I tried to figure out how that got there. So I actually wrote that book backwards. I had the ending, and I had to figure out how the main characters got to that point. And where the original image came from I can't really tell. I don't know.

Bill:
Are you a sailor?

Paul:
No. I mean I have been sailing, but I don't have a boat, and I never have had a boat. I always liked to sail, but I am not a great sailor. I had to do a fair amount of research to make that sound correct, the sailing the terms and things like that. In fact I had somebody from Random House tell me that after reading the book, they learned a lot about sailing, and I had to warn her not to go by the book. I'm sure its mostly correct but I can't be positive about the little things.

Bill:
Are you a collector?

Paul:
No I don't collect I love flea markets and I have gotten to great flea markets all over the place. I lived in Portugal for a couple of years and there are wonderful flea markets there we used to go to, outside of Boston, outside of Syracuse, around in Kentucky as well. I have always been fascinated by flea markets and what people will sell and what people will buy. There seems to be a market for almost anything. I enjoy watching it. Occasionally I will buy things there. But I am not a collector myself. I don't have a collection of pens, and that emerged again as I was writing the book. I just saw Jean as going to a flea market and collecting pens, and I just followed what led from that image.

Bill:
Tell us about the development of Jean was that by any chance modeled on somebody that you know or does this all come again from your mind?

Paul:
Well, I suppose on some level all characters are modeled on people we know or have heard things about. I didn't have a specific image for her as I wrote and that led to sort of some interesting things. I have friends who are writers. I have one friend who when he is writing goes through a huge box of old family pictures and picks out faces for his characters from that and then uses those and looks at them quite often. I don't do that. I tend not describe my characters a lot. I have very brief description of Jean in there physically. I say she is tall and has long hair. What I found very interesting is that in the reviews every single reviewer said she was beautiful which I never said once in the book. And I don't have anything against her being beautiful, but I like to leave a fair amount of room for the readers to figure out what a character sort of looks like, to take their own experience and bring that to the book. I think that makes reading more enjoyable and sort of more enthralling.

And it's sort of a combination of things. She wasn't necessarily based on anyone I know, though I had heard stories of people ending up in the wrong places at the wrong time. I'm sure some of that leaked in there. I mean I want her to have a real physical presence in the book, and I think she does but her description -- I think a lot of that comes from the reader's own mind.

Bill:
Yet you did describe, at times vividly, Stephen.

Paul:
Yes. Well again, I do describe him more in more detail certainly than her though again not completely. Certainly if you look at some contemporary novels, but a lot of older novels the descriptions sometimes of characters go on for two or three pages which I don't do. But he is certainly more physically described than she is and I think that has to do that with most of the book. Though it's third Person, it's often from her point of view. So she sees him more than she is seen, and she also sees the other characters more than she is seen.

Bill:
One of the techniques that some of us picked up on right away that I didn't see in some of the reviews was that, of course, you as a male writing in third person but in a woman's voice.

Paul:
Uh huh

Bill:
What sort of technique was that I know that has been done before. Still why did you adapt that?

Paul:
Well, that's a good question, and I was surprised too that more people didn't comment it on the reviews, which I guess maybe I should take as a compliment, because it probably would have commented on it if they felt I hadn't done it well. But that wasn't a choice. I mean there are certain things in writing that are choices, though the farther I go, it seems to me, the less of those you actually have as a writer. But I just heard her voice. I was sort of locked inside of her mind from the beginning of that, from the very moment I had that first image of her being on the boat.

The first image I had was of her being on the boat watching the anchor disappear into the water. And it was from her perspective so it never it never occurred to me to have it be from Stephen's perspective or from anyone else's but hers. The female voice was just natural. And obviously it was one of the things I worried about when I was done, whether people would take it as a realistic voice. There are quite a few men that write women characters badly I think and quite a few women who write male characters badly. I was a bit nervous about it, but the first person who read it was my wife, and she loved it. The second person was my agent who's also a woman, and she loved it as well. So I was much more comfortable after that, and no one ever said anything to me about that in a bad way, only in a good way, so I was happy with the way it came out. But it was not really a choice. It just sort of happened.

Bill:
The reviews have been quite kind. Do you think the reviewers and the people that have commented on your book do you think they got what you were trying to do?

Paul:
I think so. Obviously with sort of varying degrees of success. Most reviews were excellent, and one of the things I was most interested in in terms of the book was I didn't want Jean to be simply a victim because victim stories in the end lack Interest, at least for me, I think for most readers as well. I wanted a sense of her being somewhat complacent in the events that happened to her. And how much is, of course, the question which I want readers to be left with. Most reviewers seem to get that. They talked about how she ignored clues to Stephen's background somewhat willfully, in cases because she was paying attention to other things.

One of the reviewers I think it was Seattle, talked about that the warnings from her neighbor, Mrs. Olson. She is much more concerned about ending up like her than she is ending up in the clutches of someone like Stephen. And that whole question of how culpable we are to what happens to us is really for me the central one of the book. And reviewers did seem to get that. They brought that out in almost all the reviews, which I was glad to see. I think that is really important and reviewers have hard work. There are thousands of books coming across their desks and they have to pick a certain number and then from those they have to try and do the best they can. So I was very happy with the reviews.

Bill:
The Lexington Herald Leader wrote, "the novel draws it's intensity from Griner's skillful use of language. His words are rich and dripping with sensuality and meaning, almost decadent." Do you like that?

Paul:
I do actually. I thought that was a very nice review. I wouldn't describe my own work as decadent. I mean the prose is decadent.

Bill:
Are you embarrassed about that?

Paul:
No. Not at all I mean I wouldn't describe it that way but I took it as a compliment. I think what the reviewer was saying there I that, given the nature of what happens in the book, the prose sort of reinforces that, which I think is a very nice reading. And it's funny what people say about one's writing in terms of just the prose. Many people called the writing very spare. Some people called it lush and some of them would pick the exact same passages. So there is a lot of variety in what people will say about your work, and the Lexington one was a very nice review. As for others that said the writing was spare and to the point and that that works to increase the book's effects as well. Unless somebody says something outright nasty about my work it never much bothers me.

Bill:
We first mean Jean and she seems outwardly and inwardly too angry.

Paul:
Uh huh.

Bill:
Do you think that makes her more vulnerable from the first time the reader really gets to begin to know who she is, what she's all about?

Paul:
I think so. I mean obviously if she were not in some ways unhappy what happens, wouldn't happen. But her unhappiness and sort of anger is not only projected outward but inward, There is a scene very early on where she is looking at her own work on the wall that she has got mounted on the wall, but she is waiting and hoping that Stephen will call her after their first meeting. He hasn't called, and it's gone on a long time, and she gets very angry with her own work. She thinks it's weak and a poor imitation of other people's work and that's a moment for me when the extent of her vulnerability is revealed -- that even in the things she has accomplished and accomplished well, she is unhappy. I think most people are susceptible to it at various times in their lives and those are the times sometimes when we meet the wrong person, usually not with such disastrous consequences, but those things do happen, That's part of what's behind the book as well.

Bill:
Were you pleased with is this the first time you have worked with Random House or did they do your first book?

Paul:
No, they did my first book, Follow Me. They did my first book of stories as well.

Bill:
One of the things that we often talk to writers about is support that they have gotten from their publisher or how difficult it was to go through the whole process and the editor who was assigned and so forth and so on. One of the things I want you talk just a little bit about is that whole relationship that you had and also the book cover - which, we all thought from the very beginning, was quite unique in the way they put this sort of water colored smeared cover on it which I know is a selling point and part of marketing. Were you delighted with that also?

Paul:
Sure. Well let me take those two questions they sort of bleed together. In terms of the editor, my editor is Dan Meneker who for many years was one of the main fiction editors of The New Yorker and about five years ago he went to Random House, and my collection of stories was the third book he bought when he went there. Then he also bought the novel obviously which came along later, and I have been very happy with him. I am very fortunate to work with him. He has a great ear and a great sense of what stories and novels need or don't need which is equally important. When I turned in Collectors he made two very minor suggestions. I mean just about shading differences but they were really good ones.

I went back into the manuscript I spent another three or four months re-writing it, not totally based on his suggestions, just taking his suggestions and heightening things and then going back over and sort of line by line again. The two suggestions he made were quite good. They made Jean a little clearer in places and Stephen a little more menacing in another, and it was great to work with him. There were never any problems. I never had shouting matches with him about line by line; I have friends who had things like that happen with their editors. And so working with him was wonderful and has been wonderful.

He was equally right with my stories and very supportive. Collectors got a lot of review coverage and that's directly from Dan taking a lot of time to write newspapers and magazines and call people up and make sure because first time novels are often hard sells, especially after a book of short stories. He put a lot of effort into it which was very nice. Sometimes he had to fight the corporate structure to get the kind of support for it wanted, but he did that, so I was quite happy. In terms of the jacket cover he sent that to me and my first reaction when I opened it was, "geez they should have sent me one that wasn't damaged by the rain."

Bill:
(laughs)

Paul:
You know its got the sort of runny letters on it and to be perfectly frank my initial reaction was sort of surprise about the cover because, when he bought the novel, the first thing he had said to me was that it was such a dark book that happens in such a bright world, meaning the world of advertising and the world of sailing and the harbor front and all that. I had expected a sort of a combination of the two on the cover, though I have no idea how that would have come about. So I called him up and I told him that, and he laughed. He said well you know I have to tell you I'm really surprised because this is the first cover we have had complete agreement on in Random House top to bottom. It's just brilliant. So think about it over the weekend. And I did. I put it up on the mantle next to other covers and one of the things he said about it was that it was mysterious. It would draw readers to pick it up. You can tell by looking at it that something is off, though you don't know what. And over the weekend I became convinced he was right, and I absolutely love the cover now.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Paul:
Though I have to say I've had a number of people come up to me and say when they first got it, they thought it was damaged. In fact, one of my colleagues bought it by email and sent it back saying it was damaged.

Bill:
(laughs)

Paul:
And got another one similar damaged in return. And Rick realized then what the cover was. But I think that's actually a good sign. That means that the sort of off kilter look of the cover has worked.

Bill:
As we close let me just ask you about your teaching and about how much time you are writing and about students these days. What's going on at the University of Louisville with writing and what's going on with your personal writing. What are you doing now?

Paul:
Well I'm always working on various projects, short ones, long ones. As I did the novel, I stopped and wrote a novella for a magazine, Zoetrope. Some writers like to stick with just one project. I'm more comfortable switching back. forth. In terms of teaching I teach a couple courses every semester, usually one writing workshop and one other course, sometimes a lit course, sometimes a composition course. It's a very nice job. I went from teaching six courses a semester to two courses a semester when I came down here which gave me a lot more time to write and spend with my family which is a blessing, a bonus.

The students I have been very happy with. I have had undergraduate students who could very easily have gone to graduate theater writing programs and some of them have, and some very good graduate students as well.

You read the paper and there is a lot of news about how students can't write or that there standards aren't as good as they used to be, but I taught at several schools. I have taught at one of the State University of New York schools and at Syracuse University, and I have been very happy at U. of L. Students are committed to the work they do. They come in, they are happy to be there. Part of that, to be fair is because its they are elective courses, creative writing courses. They usually have chosen to be there. But even so they are reading a lot, they are writing a lot, and I feel lucky to be working in that field.

Bill:
Thank you for being with us.

Paul:
Thank you, I enjoyed it.

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