David Borofka: An Interview
Daniel M. Jaffe
David Borofka’s short story collection, Hints of His Mortality, won the 1996 Iowa Short Fiction Award, one of the most prestigious and coveted of all U.S. fiction awards. He has also earned the Missouri Review’s Editors’ Prize and Carolina Quarterly’s Charles B. Wood Award for Distinguished Writing. His novel, The Island, was published in 1997 by MacMurray & Beck, and his short fiction has appeared in such publications as Gettysburg Review, Shenandoah, Southern Review, and Glimmer Train.
Hints of His Mortality begins with an epigraph from William Wordsworth’s “Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollection of Early Childhood.” David’s story collection is then broken into sections reflecting themes mentioned in the epigraph: “A sleep and a forgetting,” “Trailing clouds of glory,” and “Shades of the prison-house.” I asked David which came first—the epigraph or the stories that fit so well with its themes. “The answer may be a little bit of both,” he explained. “The stories in Hints were written over a ten-year period of time. I’d finished the MFA program at Alabama, I was in California and feeling exiled from a community of writers that I’d enjoyed for three years. I suppose it forced me to learn some craft on my own.
“Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’ was a serendipitous part of that. A colleague of mine at Reedley College, Syd Bowie, often used stanza 5 as a language exercise; he'd black out some of the key words and ask his students whether they could figure out what words had been removed. Cool exercise. But then I realized that I loved the poem for itself, not just in the context of a composition exercise. When I wrote the title story of the collection it was originally just the first section and titled “Steam,” but the story and the situation and the character wouldn’t let go, and I began to see that it was an even more depressed version of Wordsworth’s anguished assessment of whether one could recapture or remember a connection to the divine. Later, as I began to assemble the stories, trying to find some way of making the collection an organic whole, the poem offered itself again as a structural device. When Elizabeth Gaffney reviewed the collection for the New York Times Book Review, she mentioned that taken together the stories had ‘the sort of narrative power that rivals a swiftly plotted novel.’ That was the greatest compliment I could have received.”
“I do feel more competent writing stories than novels. Certainly the risk of failure isn’t as great. If a story goes nowhere, I’ve wasted a month, maybe, at most. I've had one novel project that is now entering its seventh year, and there’s no end in sight. I confess to a feeling of helplessness about it. I’ve made some choices in the telling that have made it unattractive to publishers, but for some perverse reason, those choices were precisely why I wrote the book in the first place. I’ve set it aside for now, to return to the consolation of stories, but I know that at some point, I’ll go back to it rather than moving forward, and like the cliché of a bad relationship, it will no doubt end badly yet again: with a bruised ego and other evidence of emotional damage.”
David shared the origins of his interest in writing: “As a child, I always read, although in high school I have to admit that my reading habits were suspect. I was not raised on classic literature, and given a choice between Moby Dick or The Bourne Identity, I wouldn’t have given Melville the time of day. And yet, the common denominator in each is narrative, and while there’s still enough of the lowbrow in me to appreciate a plot with some velocity, my main concern now is the complexity of character, and the different ways we can use a story to look at the human condition.”
On David’s web page, he states: “Writing fiction is not rocket science or calculus, it is not dependent on theory or lofty abstraction, nor is it the life-and-death drama of medicine or the cutthroat battle of the courtroom. The writer of fiction does not need the alphabet of credentials after his or her name in order to play the game. But what the writer of fiction absolutely needs is the willingness to dream, to trust the truthfulness of his or her intuition, and the ability to translate those dreams onto paper, knowing full well that no matter how distant the contents of the story or how effaced the writer remains, his or her heart is going to be on display. That can be a dangerous exploration and a certain kind of bravery is required, for those who write face dragons every day.”
Was there a time when David experienced difficulty in finding that bravery? Does it ever falter? He replied, “That bravery is lost and found just about every day, to the degree that we’re willing to look and ask questions. In all of the classes I teach, I use a passage from one of Adrienne Rich’s essays, in which she talks about the task of the writer. She uses the phrase, ‘the imaginative transformation of reality’ and qualifies that further by saying, ‘You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate, nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name. For writing is re-naming.’ It’s a hell of a thing, isn’t it—to be willing to challenge everything? But it’s also something of a game—of turning over one’s conventional expectations in favor of something else, something surprising, perhaps even revelatory, about one’s unconsciously held beliefs. There’s always the possibility that those beliefs are not necessarily noble or even attractive, but that’s the risk we must be willing to take.”