Shouting Natalie Serber’s lovely prose

The Portland short-story writer talks about mothers, daughters, the writing life, and what's up next

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By JUDITH PULMAN

Sometimes it’s easy to forget what incredible literary talent lives in Portland. Of course there are readings at Powell’s, where the sharply dressed Chuck Palahniuk sits in the back and the reader might glance at him at intervals for approval but doesn’t mention his name, out of respect for the fact that he might get swarmed after. But beyond those moments and the marquee at the Bagdad Theater, it’s easy to forget what strong talent actually lives in this town. Mainly because many of the best writers are often at home, writing. Until you tell them you want to have a serious conversation about their passion. And that you promise not to take them away from their desk for more than an hour.

Last week I met with Natalie Serber, author of “Shout Her Lovely Name” (our interview lasted an hour and four minutes, so I was nearly as good as my word.) Serber’s honest and novelistic collection, released in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, contains eleven short stories that revolve around mothers and daughters.

These stories took the breath out of me. Not just because I identified with so many of the characters’ struggles, not just because I was frightened for the characters as they entered dark back seats and took drugs in order to impress men, and not just for the courage that must have been necessary to write so many private tales – I’m a reader who loves to be let in on what simply feels like a secret, whether it’s fiction or non – but also because the sentences were crisp, evocative, sometimes funny, and always interesting. Exhibit A: “Either way Donald, with his dark eyebrows that nearly met in the middle of his forehead and the rash of capillaries spread across his nose, made Nora’s mouth go dry.” Exhibit B: “Nora’s drink held a towering stalk of celery and green olives on a toothpick. She leaned forward, nibbled the drooping fronds.”

shout 2Eight of the stories in “Shout Her Lovely Name” chronicle the life of Ruby, who later becomes a single mother raising her daughter, Nora, in 1970s California. The other three shine light on different configurations of mothers, daughters, and how they manage their love for one another. The Ruby/Nora cycle starts when Ruby takes her first trip home from college and shows her father how well she can (not) hold her shots. In the last, Ruby is driving to a rehab center (with her new rehab bikini in hand) after visiting Nora, who is now a college student. Between these stories, hard decisions are made. Pain, longing, and life’s little tear-your-heart-open meanesses happen.

Serber grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and decided to stay home with her kids after finishing college, doing her writing on the side and later getting her MFA. All that work has paid off: Her children are now away at college, her book has been published, and she has other stories and reviews published in The New York Times, The Rumpus, and more. Though she’s rocking the literary high life — which is just another human life, no better, no worse — she was friendly and candid about her struggles and what it’s like to publish a book of stories.

Here are some excerpts from a longer interview.

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“I definitely feel grateful about this experience and all the attention — who wouldn’t be happy for reviews in Vanity Fair, Wall Street Journal and O — I’m also really happy about the letters that I’ve received. I got a letter from a guy — I think his name was Gus — who lives in New Orleans and is a mechanic and he went into the library — I’ve got to say, everything about that first sentence got me thinking, Wow, I’m so happy and surprised that Gus read my book! Gus went into the library and was attracted to the cover. He wasn’t open in the letter about the exact struggle in his family — though I have a feeling that it had to do with an eating disorder — but he wanted to write me a letter. That’s really gratifying. Another person who read the first story found me on Facebook and sent me a long message about how she sat her daughter, who is suffering from an eating disorder, down to read the first story aloud to her. She said she cried so hard while reading that she could barely make it through the story. Then she thanked me for bringing her experience to life. It was an intense long message and then she wrote, ‘By the way, I’m the reviewer for x’— I can’t say what x was because I want to protect her anonymity — ‘send me your book so I can write a review.’ It was so weird — the journal is big and I had this complicated reaction to it, because her message would’ve been enough without that last sentence. That last sentence made me feel kind of dirty because I want this to be pure and help someone and have a moment with them through my book, separate from the promotion stuff.”

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“I seem to repeat a scene in my writing where a person is walking through a neighborhood and carrying her burden — whatever it may be — during the gloaming, that moment between day and night. This person sees a yellow light emanating through the windows of other people’s homes, there’s light from the TV, or a mom is cooking onions or lasagna and children are being called to the table, and the person on the outside carrying whatever burden imagines that the people on the inside are not carrying a burden. That disassociation creates so much pain for the outsider. One of the things a woman at a book group said last night was that she had had similar feelings to some of the characters’ in ‘Shout Her Lovely Name’ had but she never knew how to express them — that these things were inside but she was unable to put them into words. For me, that was eye-opening because maybe it’s not that people are withholding truths because they are afraid or they have shame, maybe they just don’t know how to say it or get it out of their body. So whatever — whether my book or a poem or Rothko — helps this woman experience her own emotions in a deeper way, awesome! If my writing can shine a light on something people are ashamed of, then I am so lucky.”

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“As a first-time writer of a collection of short stories, I don’t really have a lot of power. I mean, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt were really taking a chance on me and in addition to that, I’m a woman writer and that has to make a difference, too — I’m sure you’re familiar with the VIDA count? I’d say that being a woman first time writer of short stories puts me at the bottom of the totem pole. That’s not to say that they didn’t treat me well, they did, and I don’t think any other publishing house would have been better, I loved working with my editor, she’s tremendous and very sensitive in her reading, but she did have a very specific idea of how she wanted the short stories in ‘Shout Her Lovely Name’ ordered.”

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“Of course I’m obsessed with ‘Girls.’ You can see from my work why I would be. That episode [season 2, episode 5, where Lena Dunham spends two days with Patrick Wilson in his brownstone] was an amazing one-act play. And when she started on and on with her little narcissistic jag, I just felt so bad for her! And we’ve all had narcissistic jags and wrecked what we might have seen as potentially great things — though as outsiders, we knew that nothing was going to come from that experience of her playing Ping Pong, topless, with that hunk of a rich doctor. I sent Lena Dunham a copy of my book; I don’t know if I’ll hear back. It doesn’t matter if I do.”

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What Natalie Serber is working on now:

“The novel I’m working on right now is about a husband and wife with twin girls who move to Boring, Oregon to find a more wholesome life. That turns out not to be the case for them. When I began, I wrote in present tense since I was really interested in the idea of simultaneity: how we never really know that the people we love are safe or well or what they’re up to. While we imagine one thing, something entirely different can be going on even in the same room. I was really interested in how frightening that concept is for parents of teenagers and so as I was writing the story, from the mother’s point of view, and it just came to me that she was recovering from breast cancer, so that became a piece of it too, that she was losing a piece of her sexuality just as they were gaining theirs. It made the story more complicated and dynamic and added a new level of fear, I think, and so I proceeded with the novel. Then I was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was really crazy and scary. So. It’s really hard for me to dive back into this novel.”

“Since my illness, I’ve been writing blog posts. On the blog, I’m not just making stuff up, which feels a little more frightening because I don’t have the screen between myself and what I say. For some posts, like the one about nipple piercing, I got to go into art and post paintings, which was really fun, but that post was tied into something my daughter did so I was exposing someone else — I’m happy to expose myself but try to be very careful about exposing those I love. I’m just revving up for work on the novel. I’m gathering courage, I’m couraging — I’ve decided that courage isn’t a noun but a verb — I’m couraging myself towards the work ahead.”

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On writing evocative, resonant sentences:

(Here’s a sample sentence, for the curious, from ‘Shout Her Lovely Name’:  “While she was tempted to show off the change in her, it was the change in her that would not comply.”)

“I read my work out loud and I pay close attention to sounds — that’s why a page a day for me is enough. I fiddle with them. Charlie D’Ambrosio once told me that he views a good sentence as something that you can stand on, and if you cant stand on it, then it’s not a good sentence. I can’t tell you what that means, but it’s meaningful to me — the sentence needs to be able to carry weight, it has to do something, it has to sound beautiful, and if it’s evocative of an image or sound, then great. I was an only child who was around adults a lot so I was a listener and a watcher — I became aware of cadence. I never don’t read my work out loud. I like thinking of sentences as not so much like Legos, but more like pop beads that are strung together in a way that makes something that hangs together beautifully. Legos seem too much like fortresses or like Faulkner, but pop beads make something that is elegant — playful, too — and something that is whole.”

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NOTES:

  • Robin Romm’s review of “Shout Her Lovely Name” from The New York Times Sunday Book Review is here.
  • Ru Freeman’s review for The Huffington Post is here.
  • Devan Schwartz’s review for The Oregonian is here.

 

 

 

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