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.”

David added that, as a general matter, he needs “a situation and the tone of a first sentence” in order to get started on a story. “Out of those ingredients a character is formed. As for a theme or values . . . I know my own weaknesses and my own tendency toward the heavy-handed; when I’ve imposed too much of my own beliefs or dogma on a story, the manipulation becomes transparent and the narrative artificial. I prefer to let meaning reveal itself—and I know it will be revealed—if I let myself fully inhabit the situation and experience and trust the voice of the telling.”

One of the hallmarks of David’s fiction is its honesty; in particular, the way his characters wrestle with guilts and shames such as infidelity. David commented, “In her essay, ‘On Self-Respect,’ Joan Didion mentions that ‘self deception remains the most difficult deception.’ In the absence of mental illness, that notion seems right to me—that our flaws and failures and deficiencies are too well-known and understood to be denied. In this respect my characters may be a reflection of their author: they're honest enough to feel guilt in response to their overt behavior as well as their unexpressed desires, and honest enough to know that their guilt may not prevent them from continuing to engage in the behavior or the yearning that caused that guilt in the first place. The trick, at least according to Didion, is whether or not one can accommodate one’s failings and make peace with one’s less desirable qualities; the characters of Hints are struggling with that process, not always successfully. Didion’s essay, by the way, ought to be required reading at least once a year for its bracing, tonic effect.”

The character voices in David’s fiction are remarkably varied and distinct. I was curious as to how he succeeded in capturing such variety. “Dialogue is such an artificial construct,” explained David, “neither the a-grammatical blather of actual conversation nor the precision of written language. It exists somewhere in the limbo of the middle as a hint or a representation of what we hear, and I suppose in addition to those overheard conversations, my characters owe something to the characters and voices that I've read in other books and stories. Their spoken language has more to do with their attitudes and the tone they take to their given situation.”

Quite often, fiction writers begin their writing careers with stories of their youth, and then move on to wrestle with issues of maturity. At which point in his writing life did David start work on his novel, The Island?  “I have more than one unpublished novel in a drawer at home,” said David, “and writing The Island was an act of desperation. Most of the stories in Hints had already been written, and I had some sense that I knew what I was doing in the story form; I had no such confidence regarding the novel. I hated the idea of working for several years without anything to show for it. So, I began one summer with the idea that I'd just write a story and hope that it led to another story. I wrote the first chapter, and Black Warrior Review accepted it almost immediately. That seemed like a good sign. I wrote what became the second chapter and Missouri Review accepted that, again almost immediately. That gave me enough confidence and momentum to keep going (although I was nearly done before I could begin to use the ‘n’ word when referring to what I was working on). When I was through, over half of the novel had been excerpted as stories, and then I had to go back and smooth out the chapters, take out the repetitions, and so on, so that it would work as a novel and not just as a linked set of discrete stories. For a relatively small book, it taught me a lot about craft, how things work. While it may be true that every writer has a coming-of-age story to tell (everyone has a childhood, after all), The Island raised me as a writer.

“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.”

Thanks to a program called KVPR's Valley Writers Read, readers as fascinated by David as I am can hear him read his work here.

Dan is the author of The Limits of Pleasure, a rather controversial novel nominated by some for awards and by others for public burning (well, almost).  A former corporate lawyer, he shed his suits to become a rebel with a cause—creative freedom in life and art. Dan frequently publishes short stories and personal essays in literary journals and newspapers such as The Forward, Green Mountains Review and The Florida Review. He compiled and edited With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction, and translated Here Comes the Messiah!, a Russian-Israeli novel by Dina Rubina. He also teaches fiction writing for UCLA Extension. Dan can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , and his web site is here.

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