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Author Steven Millhauser doesn't mind if his new stories leave you uneasy

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Steven Millhauser has a strange way of looking at the world. In his new collection of short stories called "Disruptions," one is about regular-sized people who live alongside other people who are just two inches tall. The tiny people sleep on folded handkerchiefs. And they're at constant risk of injuries from chipmunks. In another story, a town develops a preference for darkness, for shadows, for shades of gray. Blond women suddenly want to turn their hair jet black. Steven Millhauser is with us today to talk about his latest work. Thank you for making time for us.

STEVEN MILLHAUSER: Hi.

PFEIFFER: Steven, I used the word strange to describe your view of the world. But I actually wrestled with what the correct adjective should be. Are your stories weird? Are they unconventional? Are they twisted? Are they fantastical? I'm wondering what word you would use.

MILLHAUSER: (Laughter) I would probably evade all adjectives as carefully as possible.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

MILLHAUSER: I think strange is actually fair enough, so long as it's also clear that my stories are filled with deliberately precise, so-called realistic details. I like beginning, as a rule, in the real world and then veering off in the direction that some would call strange or fantastic.

PFEIFFER: That is a great description. And it's making me think of an interview I found that you did with NPR in 2015. You said, I like the idea of beginning with something common, ordinary and introducing something somewhat unusual and then pushing, pushing, pushing and seeing what happens. Would you walk me through that process with one of your stories? I'm thinking about the one called "Green," where a town starts replacing its lawns with tiles and cobblestones, and it eventually gets out of hand. How did that unfold in your mind?

MILLHAUSER: I had the idea of a town becoming obsessed with a certain way of behaving. I got at it by starting the opposite way, getting rid of all green things and then having them desire more and more and more. And I simply wanted to push this as far as possible and see where it took me - not that towns do that with green or do that to this extent, but that these kinds of habits, in fact, take over communities and towns, groups of people, whole civilizations as they push in unusual directions. You know, when I'm writing a story, I am not thinking about its possible abstract meaning. I am simply following a kind of tendency or urgency within the story and working it out.

PFEIFFER: You talked about your interest in obsessions. And I actually scribbled that note down when I was reading, that you focus on obsessions, on fixations, on extremes, on trends or fads gone mad. Is that something you think about when you observe actual life?

MILLHAUSER: (Laughter) It's a very good question. I don't actually think about that when I observe actual life. When I observe actual life, what strikes me is how little is known about even a simple experience, like walking down the street, which I do a lot. And I once, long ago, read a book on the eye and human vision. And the author pointed out something rather obvious that nevertheless struck me as extraordinary - said the human eye is constructed in such a way that we can never see any object entirely. If you look at a cube, you see only three sides. This is hardly surprising to any fifth grader. But to me, when I read it, it seemed like a revelation.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

MILLHAUSER: My God, of course - everything I look at is only half of what is there. That is my sense of life in general, as something wondrously filled with all sorts of things that we don't know.

PFEIFFER: You really do think about the world in ways quite different than many other people. Are you aware of that?

MILLHAUSER: Well, as I was speaking to you, I thought, this sounds strange, as if I'm a philosopher pondering things over and over again.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

MILLHAUSER: I'm not really that way. This happens within - something takes place when I get an idea for a story. By the way, the impulse to a story, the thing that makes an idea for a story feel urgent and necessary, is a mystery that I do not even pretend to understand. It's more primitive than the kinds of ideas that we're discussing here.

PFEIFFER: I was torn about whether to be honest with you about this, but sometimes I would finish some of your stories and be unclear what it was supposed to mean. Do all of them have a meaning?

MILLHAUSER: I think that's a very fair question because I put it to myself sometimes. And whenever I finish writing a story, I'll show it to friends, then I'll put it aside for a while. After several months in a drawer, the story will come out, and I'll read it again. And I will sometimes - not always, but sometimes - ask myself, what does that mean? Do I like the idea that I can't put my finger on exactly why I ended that way? And in certain instances, I may enter a revision.

And in other instances, I'll think, no. What I wanted to be clear is absolutely clear. And if it moves into some territory that I don't entirely understand, that's a gift of the story, and I accept it. It's all right. It means the story isn't exhaustible. And so long as I'm not using that as an excuse for a story that has gone awry in some way, I actively like the fact that there is some mystery even to me, the author, lingering at the end of the story, as if that justifies my sense of the mystery that drew me into the story in the first place.

PFEIFFER: I love that answer. So if I was scratching my head a little bit at the end of reading some of them, I shouldn't feel bad is what sounds like you're saying.

MILLHAUSER: No, no. And you should put it aside and then return to it.

PFEIFFER: (Laughter) You know, several of your stories actually left me feeling slightly unsettled, a little viscerally uneasy. Is that the effect you go for?

MILLHAUSER: (Laughter) If you have to go to your medicine cabinet...

PFEIFFER: (Laughter).

MILLHAUSER: ...I would feel guilty.

PFEIFFER: It wasn't that bad (laughter).

MILLHAUSER: And I will pay for that medication. But unsettled in a way that is not just irritation is fine with me. A story that just makes you feel soothed and satisfied, might as well watch a - I don't know - rom-com on TV. But if a story makes you question certain things that you've taken for granted, I think that's ideal. It shows you that the world is not necessarily more disturbing, but more complex than you had assumed. And that, I would argue, is a good thing.

PFEIFFER: That's Steven Millhauser. His new collection of short stories is called "Disruptions." Steven, thank you again for talking with us.

MILLHAUSER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.