by Tara Menon
About Tara Menon
Tara Menon is a freelance writer based in Lexington, Massachusetts. Her book reviews have appeared in Na'amat Woman, Calyx, India Currents, Parabola, and Hinduism Today. Her poetry has been published in the following publications: Azizah Magazine; Aaduna; Yellow as Turmeric, Fragrant as Cloves; the view from here; and 10x3 plus poetry. Additional poems are forthcoming in Lalitamba, Damazine, and Cartys Poetry Journal. Tara's fiction has been published in the following journals and anthologies: Contemporary Literary Review India; Catamaran; The APA Journal; Elf: Eclectic Literary Forum; Many Mountains Moving; India Currents; The South Carolina Review; Living in America; and Mother of the Groom.
Q. Elizabeth, who is dying of cancer in the story "Oregon," wants people to know her life on earth wasn't in vain and, in order to achieve that aim, makes an unusual request to her friend's daughter. I wonder whether you knew someone like her. Are any of the characters in your collection are based on any people you know?
I would say that my characters - like, I suspect, the characters of other fiction writers - are based less on whole, real-life people than on specific traits or attributes those people might have, or on situations and circumstances they find themselves in, which present dramatic possibilities and intrigue to the writer who knows them. For instance, the title novella of my book originated with a diagnosis of a melanoma my brother-in-law received when he was in his twenties and he and my sister were newly married, but the characters in the story are not my sister and her husband. I ran with a "what if" premise suggested to me by that real-life situation, but the fictional story is not what happened in real life.
As for Elizabeth in "Oregon," I can't actually say that I do know specific people like her; she was a character who developed for me as I wrote about her. I do think that most people want to think their lives have significance, both while they are here and after they are gone, so it seemed natural to write that desire into her character.
Q. Your stories are very rich in detail. For example, in "The Nurse and the Black Lagoon" you are comfortable with police procedure. Did you do a lot of research for your book?
It's true that I have actually gone to a police station and asked them to show me the dashboard and signals inside a police car, but that was for my earlier novel, And Give You Peace. And I'm having to do some legal research for the novel I'm writing now, but I've actually hired an attorney-researcher to do that for me, because it ends up being fairly nuanced and I can't afford to make a mistake as I'm sometimes choosing plot elements based on what's possible and not possible under the law; you can make up a lot of things in fiction, but the law isn't one of them.
As for the stories, I did a lot of checking to make sure that I had factual elements correct - for instance, the date of the Dolphins-Bills football playoff game that my character watches in a bar in "Shirley Wants Her Nickel Back." That was also a story I had to do some legal research on - I had to have the husband essentially get away with having killed someone while driving drunk.
Like most writers, I used to spend a lot of time in the library looking up things I can now just search on Google. I'm tempted to feel nostalgic about the library research, and I do, but Google saves so much time, and it's so convenient. Of course, you have to be sure that what you find online is correct.
Q. I don't know any other writer who is grounded in realism, yet so superbly adds a dimension of surrealism to her stories. Is it a style you evolved completely on your own or were you influenced by any surrealistic writers?
Thanks very much for the compliment. Many other writers have influenced me, including John Cheever and Haruki Murakami, both of whom include surrealistic elements in some of their work - especially Murakami. I prefer to write about things that could actually happen, rather than magical realism, in which there's usually some element of fabulism or something that couldn't happen in our natural world. That said, I have written a fabulist story that is one of my favorites - I just haven't found a home for it yet.
Q. There seem to be more main women characters than men in your collection. Also, the relationship between the female friends in "Oregon" and the sisters in "Testimony" add to the enjoyment of the story. Do you see your primary audience as women readers?
I don't have an audience gender in mind when I'm writing stories, although I think it's pretty well established that more women than men do buy and read books, particularly of the kind I write, so it's probably true that more women than men would read my stories. And the fact that I write about mostly female protagonists probably also means that those stories would appeal to a general female readership, although I don't think that should necessarily be the case - personally, I don't like stories because they're about men or women; I like them because of the way they explore the characters, whoever they may be.
Q. Which is your favorite piece in the collection and why?
I think "Testimony" is my favorite, because it feels to me the most complex in terms of what I was trying to do, psychologically - I was trying to render the moment at which a young woman realizes that she might not be able to trust her own memory. Since that moment comes at the very end, I had to build to it carefully, and make sure that everything felt consistent in terms of her internal landscape.
Q. You have published two collections and one novel. Do you prefer writing short stories? If so, can you tell us why?
I do prefer writing short stories, because by virtue of being shorter, they're a bit more intense. That intensity often translates to more excitement in putting pen to paper (or finger to computer). And not having the luxury to meander - in terms of the prose - means that you have to focus on every word and how it contributes to the whole. Not that you don't have to focus on every word when you're writing a novel; it's just that you have to be aware more than ever, in a story, of how the details you're selecting might strike a potential reader. In pragmatic terms, it's often also easier to plot a story, because it's shorter than a novel.
Q. Do you prefer reading short stories or novels?
I don't have a preference. As long as it's written well and keeps me engaged, the form doesn't matter. Although I will say that I've more often had the experience of finishing an excellent short story and feeling breathless - in a good sense - than I've had that experience when I've finished an excellent novel. Again, I think that's because of the intensity of a good short story. They more often end with a punch, whereas novels gather steam and tend to end more quietly, which is gratifying in a different way.
Q. You teach at Emerson College. In what ways has teaching influenced you as a writer and, conversely, in what ways has being a writer influenced you as a teacher?
I teach fiction workshops, to both undergraduates and graduate students in our MFA program, so usually we are discussing either student manuscripts or published stories I've assigned for discussion. As trite as it sounds, it is definitely true that I learn from my students - often, I learn the most when they answer questions about their motives in terms of why they did this or that in a given story. In terms of teaching, I would say that not only being a writer but being a reader is what influences me in the classroom. I think the best way someone can learn to write, besides practicing the craft, is to read, read, and read some more. You absorb cadences that way, and learn to look for rhythms in composing your own work.
Q. Who are the short story writers whom you admire and why?
Besides Cheever and Murakami, Alice Munro is at the top of my list because of the complexity of her stories and the way she renders time - she will often write a story that encompasses years of a character's life. Tobias Wolff for the beauty and tightness of his prose, and the fact that he puts his characters in fascinating moral conundrums. William Trevor for language and character; Lorrie Moore for humor and intelligence; Deborah Eisenberg for her quirky characters, situations, and voice; Joy Williams for voice and poignancy. A relatively new writer I admire is Lori Ostlund, whose collection The Bigness of the World has been receiving a lot awards and critical attention.
Q. Novels are more popular than short story collections and the book publishing industry is under severe pressure. What do you think the future of short stories will be?
Even though the market may continue to be slimmer for short stories than for novels, I think that people will always write and read them. If they were going to disappear, it would have happened by now, especially in the current publishing climate. They're too valuable for us to lose.