The following interview was originally published August 8, 2013 on Telluride Inside … And Out.
Q & A with L. Annette Binder
Earlier this year at The Denver Press Club, all the finalists for the 2013 Colorado Book Awards were given a few minutes to read a passage from their work. Annette Binder read a section from “Nephilim,” the opening short story in her collection, Rise.
I was instantly—immediately, without question—captivated and struck with the quality of the prose. The writing was clear, understated and razor sharp. When I bought a copy and spotted the kind words of praise for the stories from Ron Carlson, who is a brilliant writer, I knew I would enjoy the whole collection. Not disappointed!
A review of Rise follows.
First, Annette Binder was kind enough to answer a few questions about the collection and her writing. If the Q&A inspires you to buy the collection, skip the review. Just go experience the 14 stories on your own. The recognition for “Rise” by the Colorado Book Awards was very well deserved.
Question: Having read the fourteen stories in Rise, I feel compelled to ask: do you think about mortality every day?
Binder: Ha! That’s a funny question. I think about mortality often, though maybe not every day. I was a pretty morbid kid but my outlook has brightened as I’ve gotten older.
Question: Many of the stories revolve around individuals who are dealing with and who are very focused on unusual medical conditions. Do you have strong feelings about our view and attitude toward our health today? Also, with all the medical detail, how do you go about researching the ailments and the various cures?
Binder: Research is a tricky thing. I spend a fair amount of time researching medical issues and whatever other details I need for the story. I tend to research as I write, not before and not after (to fill in any blanks). The research is an integral part of the act of writing for me. Most of my research doesn’t make it into the final product, but on some level it probably helps me to have looked at and thought about the sources I’ve found. The characters are always first and foremost in my mind, and at some point I need to let the research go and let them guide the story.
Question: Yet the title story, Rise, deals with a tragic accident. Is it fair to say one of your over-arching interests is in how humans deal with all potentially life-altering challenges?
Binder: Absolutely. I’m fascinated by how people deal with loss and how the motivations behind our behavior are not always what you’d expect. The whole idea that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one might work in the world of the science, but it doesn’t hold up nearly so well when it comes to the human heart.
Question: Colorado Springs—and the towns around it—serve as a backdrop for many of the stories. Does the city play a role in who these characters are and how they view the world? It’s your hometown as well—what don’t most Coloradoans know about life in Colorado Springs?
Binder: Colorado Springs plays a huge role in who the characters in my book are and how they view the world. And at the same time, Colorado Springs is in many ways a memory for me since I’ve lived away from the city for many years now. When I visit I see how much the city has grown and changed, and when I write about the city, I’m writing as much about memory as about a specific place. The city I grew up in is about as inaccessible to me now as ancient Rome, and yet it keeps pulling me back. Just about every story I’ve written is set there, and one of the few that isn’t (“Black Eye,” a story that isn’t in the collection) is about a lady who ends up moving from the Springs to Boston and promptly loses her mind. I’m not sure what most Coloradoans know about the Springs, but I suspect the sheer variety of people there would surprise most folks who haven’t spent time in the city.
Question: Your style is clear and rings with raw reality. You focus on small moments as a means to tell a much bigger story, like the orange rolling in the grocery store aisle in “Dead Languages” or the details of fish pond maintenance in “Shelter.” Can you talk about your writing process—the sources of inspiration and what ingredients you need to begin putting a short story together?
Binder: Most of my stories begin with a character and I often spend weeks dreaming and thinking about the character—trying to see the world through his or her eyes—before I start writing. That’s how it worked with “Galatea,” where I imagined a woman waiting in the plastic surgeon’s office for another of many procedures on her hands. What brought her there? Why was she torturing herself with these procedures? I wrote the story to find the answer to these questions. “Dead Languages,” on the other hand, began with that exact scene of the orange rolling in the aisle and the mother catching a glimpse of recognition in her son’s eyes before he goes away again. My writing is almost always character-driven. Though I write mainly in the third person, I need to feel extremely close to my characters in order to write anything worth keeping. Maybe that’s why I can’t write at all when I’m angry.
Question: Finally, short stories seem to making a comeback. Any favorite writers you’d care to recommend—short stories or full-length fiction?
Binder: There are so many amazing writers out there. For prose style, I go back to Cormac McCarthy and Joan Didion again and again. I love Michael Chabon for his wonderfully elaborate sentences. Wells Tower is amazing; I read Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned with an almost diabolical glee.
Honest. Clear. Raw. Fresh. Cliché-free.
Those were a few descriptions that occurred to me reading the stories in Rise.
There’s an underlying tone and weight that is written version of Binder’s specific DNA. She tends to start her stories or their sub-sections with simple clarity, some innocuous moment or statement and then drift her way toward the main action. “The corporate folks needed him in Chicago for three days.” “He ignored their cats and stalked his fish pond and fouled his tomato beds.” “Last summer a pregnant woman in Omaha lost her balance and fell from her bathroom loft.”
The stories dig deep into the psyche of their main characters. Point of view reigns over plot, though there is action and movement too. Ailments, disease and various medical “conditions” give these stories an underlying sense of a world turned inward, of a planet of people focused on what anatomical functions aren’t working well.
Most of the characters have modest, under-the-radar lives. Binder has the ability to peer deep inside her character’s thoughts and shine a light on basic human needs and wants. One man should be “home filing bills” but can’t resist a powerful urge to brush hair, as he’d done for his mother. A man with a wife who no longer recognizes him fashions a hobby out of “Mourning the Departed” and looking for conversation and the human touch during funerals for strangers. In “Shelter,” a heartbreaking tale of indifference, two neighbors go toe-to-toe in a bitter feud over the property line and only late in the story does Binder let slip the age of Frank, who is defending his turf. It’s not a gimmick and there have been clues along the way, but the age—and Frank’s resilience—come as a wow-moment shock.
The topics aren’t always pleasant, but Rise will give you a little lift for its nifty insights and its gem-like moments of hard humanity.
Read Rise and you will know you are reading the work of a writer who thinks deeply about her characters and who knows how to chisel real people out of words.
Earlier review of a Ron Carlson novel Five Skies here.