Worlds Within Worlds: A Conversation with Steven Millhauser
By Kevin KoczwaraNovember 14, 2023
Disruptions by Steven Millhauser
Reading a Millhauser story can feel like being dropped into a familiar suburban fairy tale. There are single-family homes and green lawns. Children play on playgrounds and ride yellow school buses. Even if none of these details actually appear on the page, the stories carry the feeling that they must be there. But then, the plots don’t go the way we assume they will. “I like beginning, as a rule, in the real world and then veering off in the direction that some would call strange or fantastic,” Millhauser told NPR in August. His stories inhabit a relatable world but delve into something far deeper and more sinister.
Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972), a factious biography of a child writer by a fictitious fifth-grade author, was praised for its style and storytelling. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler. And while he had success with those two novels, published 24 years apart, it is Millhauser’s short stories, his uncanny ability to create whole worlds within the confines of a few pages, that stand out in his bibliography. Of his 14 book-length works of fiction, 10 are collections of stories and novellas. On top of the Pulitzer, he has won the Story Prize for his 2011 collection We Others: New and Selected Stories and the World Fantasy Award for his 1989 story “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” which was also adapted into the 2006 movie The Illusionist.
The fantastic never feels far away in Millhauser’s stories. His latest collection, Disruptions, features a tale about a town that becomes obsessed with shadows after watching a shadow play, and another about a man who climbs a ladder until he reaches the clouds and is never seen again. Magic and levity abound, the author jumping between styles and personas as he explores the weirdness of small-town America.
Millhauser graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.
KEVIN KOCZWARA: Since Martin Dressler won the Pulitzer 26 years ago, you’ve written numerous novellas and collections of short stories, but has writing another novel interested you, or is the short story the medium you prefer?
STEVEN MILLHAUSER: I do have a special love for the short story and novella, which can accomplish so much in so limited a space. And I sometimes think that my temperament is more suited to the small, quiet world of the story, with its radical ability to expand into a universe. But this isn’t to say that after Martin Dressler I deliberately abandoned the writing of novels. When I’m done with a piece of writing, however long or short it may be, I simply wait. I wait for the next spark, the urge, the inner necessity that drives me on. Exactly what wakens within me to emerge as fiction is a mystery even to me, and I’m deeply grateful each time, without ever wishing it had been something else.
Is there something that you love about the short story form? Today, it seems, short stories are out of style for one reason or another. Maybe they never were in vogue—I am thinking of how John Cheever wrote so many and his collections were often panned when they came out.
Is the short story really out of style? I’ve never been alert to literary trends. What I love about the short story is precisely its shortness. The details can be held in the mind of a reader, so that every moment plays its part in the unfolding pattern. The shadow of the opening sentence lengthens slowly until, at last, it moves across the final sentence. An adjective repeated later in the story grows richer and deeper as it summons the first. Are such things now out of style? If so, I’m happy to embrace out-of-style-ness.
The standout characteristic of your stories, for me, isn’t the strange or fantastic premises but the details between the lines: characters and places feel full and rich, in a way that would take other writers pages to flesh out—as if you wrote extensively and then edited. How much do you find yourself revising this kind of work?
I certainly revise, but not quite in the way you imagine. My early drafts are always written with a pencil, in a lined notebook—a method that keeps me loose. Usually, I begin with random notes, which might accumulate for weeks, and then I sketch out, very roughly, the probable order of events. I refuse to begin writing before I know the opening sentence and the direction of the story. When I finally do begin, I write fairly steadily, for many hours a day, often finishing the draft of a story in five or six days. But this is merely the first draft, which I then read through, over and over, adding and subtracting words, striking out sentences, inventing new paragraphs. Revision is as much addition as it is subtraction. At some point, as the manuscript approaches illegibility, I take the momentous step of typing it onto the computer (for years it was a typewriter), after which I make smaller and smaller edits until I stop. When I was a young writer, I used to be terrified that I might never be able to stop, since stopping implies a perfection that I refused to claim for myself. But something within me always tells me when the adventure is over.
You have said you want to take an idea to its limits, so where do these ideas germinate?
Where indeed do these ideas germinate? As I’ve said, the birth of a story remains a mystery to me—a mystery that I celebrate. The apparent origin may be anything: an image that appears in my mind while I’m thinking about something else, a sudden memory, an object that strikes my attention in a new way. I do recall the origin of one particular story, many years ago: I was sitting by the window in a friend’s house on a snowy day, with a book in my lap, watching the snowfall gradually stop. Some children came out and gathered nearby. They began making a snowman: three globes of snow, piled on top of each other. Sticks for arms, a carrot for a nose. They made a second snowman, much like the first, though someone added a scarf and hat. As I watched, I was deeply pleased by seeing these familiar snowmen, straight out of my own childhood, but at the same time something in my blood cried: “Only that? Only that? Why stop there?” And that was the birth of my early story “Snowmen.”
Who was Steven Millhauser as an adolescent? As a teenager? What did he do? What was Connecticut like in the 1950s and ’60s?
I often return to those years, trying to make sense of them. Who is that adolescent who bears my name? In one sense, he’s a boy who loves familiar everyday things, like going to the beach with friends on a sunny day, playing ping-pong in the garage, swinging with his girlfriend on her backyard swing, taking photographs with his twin-lens reflex, watching TV comedies, talking on the phone. But he’s also a different sort of boy: a passionate reader who craves solitude, someone growing restless and impatient without any clear aim, someone craving adventure beyond the bounds of a loving family in a small Connecticut town.
I see a lot of suburban America in your stories, much like Cheever’s version in “The Swimmer,” but with both your work and his there is something off-kilter. How did the suburban New England world affect your writing and your aspirations for writing?
I grew up in two different kinds of Connecticut town. In fact, I was born in Brooklyn and moved to Connecticut when I was four years old, when my father took a job at the then brand-new University of Bridgeport. My childhood was spent in an Italian and Polish working-class neighborhood in Stratford, to the east of Bridgeport. When I finished eighth grade, my parents moved to Fairfield, on the other side of Bridgeport. We now lived in a middle-class neighborhood not far from a beach. I loved many things about Stratford, and leaving it seemed to connect it forever with my vanished childhood. I grew familiar with the details of a new world, which revealed itself all the more sharply by virtue of its contrast to that earlier world. Here were the ranch houses of the area where we lived, the leafy neighborhoods with large houses set back from the road, the nearby beach with its tilted umbrellas and its glittering sandbars. Both towns have richly fed the worlds of my fiction. At the same time, I felt a sense of increasing estrangement from both towns, as if my real life lay elsewhere, and I believe this distance helped feed my growing desire to create new worlds with words.
I’m wondering if there is a sense of dreaming, a wandering of the mind that comes from reading about the world outside of the place you grew up in your formative years?
Oddly enough, reading has rarely created in me a desire to see more of the world. Reading a work of deeply imagined fiction seems to replace the outer world so completely that I ask nothing except not to be disturbed. Even so, any serious story or novel challenges our sense of what the so-called world really is. For me, a work of literature isn’t a form of diversion. It’s something that leads you away from a conventional response to the world, toward the center of things.
Something that struck me reading Disruptions, and especially stories like “Theater of Shadows,” is that you love to build worlds inside of worlds and describe how things move inside those worlds. It’s as if you had studied technical writing: you create a place and all of its mechanisms in simple and clear terms. How does that method come into play as you’re developing a story? How do you see tales like “The New Automaton Theater” or “Paradise Park” working as you’re writing them?
Some of my stories, by their nature, require a good deal of research. This was certainly true of “The New Automaton Theater” and “Paradise Park.” For “The New Automaton Theater,” I read books on the history of automatons, the history of miniatures, the inner workings of the clockwork creatures I was trying to imagine. For “Paradise Park,” I researched the history of the three Coney Island amusement parks, the structure of mechanical rides, the costs of operation. I accumulated many notes, written out on many index cards. But always, in matters of research, I reach a point at which I decide to put all books aside and pay attention only to the story itself.
In the case of “The New Automaton Theater,” I knew from the beginning that I was going to move relentlessly in a particular direction and then take a sudden turn that would seem to undermine the very art I had been celebrating. With “Paradise Park,” I knew I was moving toward greater and greater extremes of questionable pleasure, toward the most extreme and questionable pleasure of all: total destruction. A somewhat similar pattern occurs in a more recent story, “Green.” My own deep pleasure in writing such stories lies not simply in the move away from realistic places to inventions of my own but in the careful description of the real and well-loved places I will later leave behind.
Steven Millhauser is the author of numerous works of fiction, including the novel Martin Dressler, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and We Others: New and Selected Stories, winner of the Story Prize in 2011 and a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Kevin Koczwara is a journalist in Worcester, Massachusetts. He has written for Esquire, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe Magazine, Boston magazine, and Literary Hub, among other publications.
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