Ernest Hilbert: Most of the stories in your collection of short stories Officer Friendly (HarperCollins, 2003) are set in areas like Point Allison and Cuxabexis. Can you talk a bit about the settings?
Lewis Robinson: Setting is critical in my stories, or at least that's how it feels from my end. I'm always hoping that the details of setting contribute to a general atmosphere, which then contributes to the overall tone of the piece. In many of these stories, I wanted to create a tone which wasn't oppressive or heavy-handed but permeating. With Point Allison and Cuxabexis, I was remembering a few places that have occupied significant space in my imagination since I was a kid. Point Allison especially. I spent most of my coming-of-age years in Yarmouth, Maine, about ten miles from Portland, and in Tenants Harbor, Maine, a remote fishing town near the end of a peninsula south of Rockland. Also, there's an island (unpopulated, now) where I've spent time in the past and which I think and dream about often. Point Allison may be an amalgam of the three.
Cuxabexis is a fictional representation of an island I visited in high school. My basketball team went there for a weekend, for a series of games. There are some curious details from that visit which are still very sharp in my mind, for whatever reason.
EH: The collection takes its title from a short story about adventurous young troublemakers, their attempts to entertain and legitimize themselves in an otherwise very sleepy town. Why did you decide to make this the title story?
LR: My favorite titles are those which are not immediately metaphoric or symbolic, but work contextually, associatively. I chose that title not because the story is emblematic of the collection but because I think the whole idea of an 'Officer Friendly' is tantalizingly weird. This is true especially in an insular small town where the elementary students being spoken to condescendingly will later be the lobstermen who are smuggling heroin in from the islands. The association I have with Officer Friendly has something to do with the sense I have of Maine, where many towns seem nearly lawless, or at least the laws derive from social necessity, not from limits imposed by government, etc.
Then, of course, there's also just the sound of the title, which pleased me. The other title I considered was 'The Diver'. Metaphorically evocative, I guess, but kind of bland otherwise.
EH: Can you address the place and function of the short story in America today, perhaps in light of the position it once held in the American imagination, say fifty years ago? What might the future hold for the form?
LR: I don't have much of an opinion about the place and function of short stories in America today, or at least, it all seems inscrutable to me, as someone who is mostly consumed by the task of getting my ass in the chair and staying immersed in an imagined world on a regular basis. I take the writing of short stories very seriously, but I have no idea where they fit in American letters at the moment. That's the problem with the moment . . . it's undecipherable until it's passed. I sometimes think looking too hard at the overall complexion of the writing scene interferes with actual writing. Likewise, I'm skeptical about prognostications of future trends. To me, trends seem like the wrong thing to emphasize. Good stories happen somewhere between excruciation and euphoria. That hasn't changed and probably won't. Ultimately, if I think too much about what short stories intend to do, or are actually doing, I get depressed or flummoxed or both, and then I don't write. Yes, I'll get ballistic on occasion when I realize more people know the work of J. Lo than the work of Alice Munro, but I think that's true of most people and their anxieties about doing work that is undervalued. Ultimately, my belief in the relevance of well-written stories-their personal importance to me, as a reader-supercedes this.
EH: Reading the most recent Granta collection of young British novelists, it is impossible to ignore the range and historical ambition of the selections. One might even detect a deliberate refusal to set a story in contemporary Britain, much less address "social" concerns. It is possible to suggest that their preoccupation with historical re-imaginings and global settings is their contemporary vision. How does this compare to American short stories? Do they tend to be set in more local settings with more modest goals?
LR: I think the historical re-imaginings are not necessarily more ambitious than the quieter, more personal narratives (of which there are many in this group). Also, I don't think its fair to classify these British writers as having distinctly different concerns than their American counterparts. For example, I admire Ben Rice and Zadie Smith for some of the same reasons I admire Kevin Brockmeier and Adam Haslett. What I'm after is good prose. Heather Clay's story 'Original Beauty' (published recently in The New Yorker) is wonderfully ambitious despite its "local" setting and lack of social commentary. Ben Rice's novella Pobby and Dingan is incredible. Are his goals modest? I don't think they are. The unfortunate thing about that Granta collection is that the original issue contained Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Salman Rushdie, and Ian McEwan, and since then, it's been tough to measure up. That's really how today's group is being defined: most feel they're not as strong as the1983 group. I don't think this is necessarily true. They may not be as ambitious in the ways those four have been in their work, but they are ambitious in other, equally important ways. Again, though: my hope as a reader and a writer is that the prose will spark recognition. By way of social commentary? Maybe. Characterologically? Hopefully, yes.
EH: It has been suggested that most new American short stories can be broken, roughly, into two categories: "The New Yorker" story, which centers itself on a moment psychological transformation for the characters, and the "McSweeney's" short story, which relies on satire, surrealism, and the overturning of such expectations. Is this a narrow assessment or is there something to it?
LR: I think there's something to it. There is, generally speaking, more narrative sincerity to The New Yorker fiction than there is to McSweeney's stuff. However, here's the more important distinction: The New Yorker publishes too many bad stories by famous writers, while McSweeney's doesn't have the same concerns (or the same wherewithal). I like the occasional John Updike story, but the way in which The New Yorker is beholden to such writers is unfortunate. Plenty of people have called Dave Eggers's A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius "ironic," but I think that's a superficial, shameful misreading. He's sarcastic at times, and inventive, but the overall tone of the book is straightforward and sincere. You can see that sensibility in McSweeney's, too. There's not a lot of sentimentality in McSweeney's, but it's not all satirical and surreal. I think Eggers has a wider range of taste than most people think.
Despite The New Yorker's fondness for established writers, it's still, in my opinion, the most important purveyor of short fiction. Of course, McSweeney's would probably have published David Schickler's 'Wes Amerigo's Giant Fear' (his most recent surreal New Yorker story, which I loved) if they'd had The New Yorker's deep pockets and distribution.
EH: Who are your favorite living short story authors?
LR: Matthew Klam, Rick Bass, Tobias Wolff, Alice Munro. I love Denis Johnson's Jesus's Son and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I love David Schickler's story 'The Smoker' and Michael Cunningham's story 'White Angel' and Stuart Dybek's story 'We Didn't' and Z.Z. Packer's stories 'Brownies' and 'The Ant of the Self'. I love Ethan Canin's collection The Palace Thief.
EH: How about historical examples?
LR: John Cheever, Vladimir Nabokov, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
EH: What are you reading at the moment?
LR: Sandra Newman's The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done and a biography of Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Morgan.
EH: Are you interested in the novel form?
LR: Yes. In school, I read more novels than anything else-I loved 19th-century British novels, especially-so it's probably the form I'm most familiar with, as a reader. I'm currently writing a novel, but I'll continue to write short stories, too.