Darkness on the Edge of Town | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Darkness on the Edge of Town 

Last Updated: 08/13/2013 4:34 pm

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In a New York Times blog, Means wrote, “We don’t tell novels at the kitchen table, we tell stories. We carry them around, mull them over, twist them, pass them on to someone else, who, in turn, adds a few things—and that’s what interests me: the magic of how a small story grants us an enormous amount of grace.”
He’s made two abortive attempts at writing a novel, which he finds “hugely different. It’s like swimming out into a lake until you can’t see the shore anymore; you’re completely surrounded by it.” He may revisit one of the manuscripts someday, but has abandoned the other. “When you throw out 700 pages of something, it’s brain-numbing and sad. But nothing goes to waste as a writer. A lot of times you have to write one thing in order to write another,” Means explains, adding, “It’s easy to go into a defensive crouch about short stories versus the novel.”

Especially when your best friend is Time-anointed “Great American Novelist” Jonathan Franzen. Means admits to “a couple of weird moments” over Franzen’s meteoric rise, especially during the frenzy over The Corrections. “Jonathan came over to play tennis the day he was picked for Oprah’s Book Club. I can tell you he was extremely happy, and also a little dazed.” Both were relative unknowns when they met in New York in the late 1980s; Franzen is still Means’s first reader, except for his wife, who often reads stories aloud to him.

Means writes first drafts longhand, and encourages students to do the same, saying, “There’s less distance between yourself and the page.” There’s also a visible record of changes, and the opportunity to see the work fresh when it’s typed and printed. It’s also nice reaching the end of a page. “The scrolling screen is really dispiriting. I mean, infinity? Nothing like knowing you can write forever.” He laughs with a warmth that seems out of joint with his stories’ dark preoccupations. Talking with Means is a little like meeting a character actor—say, Steve Buscemi or Christopher Walken—who specializes in portraying twisted souls. Though he may be a prince of a guy in his offscreen life, there’s an uneasy sensation of “Where did that come from?”

Means isn’t telling. “I do have a backstory, intimate personal things in my history that I’m totally unwilling to talk about right now,” he says bluntly. “Why would I use that fuel up?” If, as Socrates noted, the unexamined life is not worth living, the overexamined life may not be worth writing about. Means’s art seems to flow from its own hidden vortex, the razor-blade spot just before something painful roars over the edge.

“Sometimes I have the urge to go on Oprah and unburden, confess,” he admits, leaning back in his chair. But he cherishes privacy. “There’s an element of this country that can devour and destroy you. I write about people in really dire circumstances, and I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it.” That’s all he will say on the subject. The rest is for fiction.

Asked how he’d describe his work to a neophyte, Means responds, “I don’t know. Fun? Cheery?” He laughs, then offers, “Traditional. At the same time, pushing the envelope formally. I’m always trying to do something new. And I’m trying to engage with the reality of America right now, of poor people being tucked into certain corners and hidden. I’m not concerned with people who aren’t in some kind of predicament. I know there’s a lot of people out there who actually can’t afford cell phones.”

Like all writers today, Means wonders how new technologies will affect reading habits. He’s just recorded a podcast of “The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934,” the freshly edited New Yorker story he’ll read at the bookstore tonight. “If you don’t keep rotating in this culture, you will disappear. The Internet is a portal that takes us away from loneliness. Writers used to sit around waiting for the mailman, or even the morning newspaper in its little tube. Now there’s an infinite mailman arriving all day long.”

Not long ago, Means rode home on the train across from a family who’d obviously just been to visit Vassar. It was one of those autumn days when traveling alongside the Hudson feels like a gift from God. “They’d never been up here before, but they weren’t even looking outside,” he says, incredulous. “Look out the fucking window!”

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