Heidi Pitlor is a bookish jack of all trades: novelist, former editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and current series editor of The Best American Short Stories. We caught up with Pitlor this April at the Newburyport Literary Festival and asked her about upcoming short story trends, technology, and our obsession with domestic thrillers.
Bookish: You’re the series editor of The Best American Short Stories, and each year you work with a different guest editor. What do you look for in a guest editor?
Heidi Pitlor: I try to find guest editors who are both critically and commercially successful. I also seek a diversity of writers, on every level: content, genre, style, personality, person.
Bookish: If you could pick any author, who would you want to work with next?
HP: Living, dead, anyone? Maybe because I was just reading a piece about him, the first person who comes to mind is James Baldwin. But if we’re sticking to writers who are alive, I’d love to work with Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Donna Tartt, Colson Whitehead. I’ve been absurdly lucky to work alongside the authors who have guest edited the series since I’ve been on board. We only invite American writers or those who live here to guest edit the book, otherwise I’d ask Ian McEwan, Roddy Doyle, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel… I could go on and on.
Bookish: If you could only recommend one short story to our readers, what would it be?
HP: I think I’d have to know the reader first. Fiction is so subjective, as everyone knows. But if I were forced to suggest a few story writers to someone who had never read any American short fiction, I might suggest Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro. Even listing those four was extremely difficult for me, and feels a little like being asked to pick the best person from a large country.
Bookish: Is there anything that you see in short stories that you wish was more present in novels? Or vice versa?
HP: That is so interesting and hard to answer. I guess that in literary stories and novels, and this is a vast and silly generalization, but I’d like to see a greater focus on momentum and conflict. It’s easy for writers to get caught up in words and language, and forget about story.
In some ways, stories and novels aren’t that different. They’re different to write, of course, but when I’m judging writing I’m in the same place in my head: I’m either engaged or I’m not. I want to keep turning pages or I don’t. One of the biggest gifts a writer can give a reader is to place a question at the beginning of the story or novel, a question that is only answerable by reading the pages that follow.
Also, I beat this drum all the time, I would love to see more humor. Comedy typically is associated with light fare, but I crave meaningful, deftly written, intelligent humor. Satire, weirdness, surprise.
Bookish: What new trends or themes do you expect readers to see in the future?
HP: More and more people are writing about technology. If I read anything set in the present day that has no mention of anything technological, I am suspicious. It’s hard for me to gauge future trends right now because, since last fall, everything in country has been up in the air. I’m waiting to see what trends and themes will emerge from this moment in history. Right now there’s just a lot of trepidation in the part of fiction writers, readers, publishers. (Nonfiction might have more solid ground.) That said, we might see themes of social justice and inequality creep into fiction. I do expect more writers to explore the impacts of technology.
Bookish: That’s a tough balance to strike. How do you keep up with the times when technology is changing so rapidly? In the time it takes to write, edit, and publish a book your references may already be dated.
HP: It’s tricky. But this is the world where we live right now. I’m always excited when I read a story that makes me think deeply about it or utilizes it in a way that’s artistic and organic. In some ways, it’s important as a writer to focus more on the writing and characters and their truth than on whether your references feel dated. To my mind, it’s not the rapidly changing technology or cultural references that will feel dated in the future as much as certain attitudes. For example, sexism, racism and xenophobia, no matter how subtle (the Chinese launderer, the Indian grocer, the frumpy mom, the ditzy teenage girl) date a work of fiction far more than anything else.
Bookish: When you aren’t compiling newest volume of Best American Short Stories, you’re writing novels. You mentioned earlier that writers offer a question at the beginning of a book that readers are compelled to find the answer to. In your second novel, The Daylight Marriage, a woman goes missing. The obvious question is: What happened to her? But did you have another question in mind when you wrote it?
HP: Yes–I wanted to explore the culpability of Lovell, the husband. Even if he’s not culpable in one way, is he in another sense? Where do we drawn our lines of culpability? To me, that is the most interesting question because there is no clear answer. As a writer, it’s always more interesting to set yourself a question without a yes or no answer.
Bookish: Hannah’s husband Lovell is a scientist, and in the novel you create a strong connection between science (and those small variables that can enact great change) and Hannah’s disappearance. Why did you choose to weave these two elements together?
HP: Lovell is a regimented thinker, a climate scientist driven primarily by physical proof rather than emotion. I wanted to push him into a realm where he was forced to rely on his own intuition and emotion, where physical evidence came not from his own work but someone else’s, in this case, the police. The novel is set during a time when many in government questioned the existence of climate change (this moment has unfortunately returned). Scientists were trying to prove the existence of global warming, as well as the fact that humans were at least partly to blame. The latter is infinitely difficult to prove, far more than it sounds. There are endless variables, and so we must rely on data drawn from correlative studies rather than directly causal data. Lovell is faced with a similar predicament after his wife disappears. And the more he thinks about what happened to her, the less he understands.
Bookish: Readers continue to be fascinated by novels that explore the things a character doesn’t know about his or her spouse. Why do you think we’re drawn to these stories?
HP: I started this novel right around the time of a high-profile murder in my town, a case involving a young husband and wife. I was fascinated by my own endless fascination with these people I had never known. So many of us are voyeurs. Writing fiction is a form of voyeurism. Marriage is often a closed room to everyone but the spouses. Fiction gives us the chance to explore these closed rooms, and if the spouses are closed off to each other? Even better for a reader.
I think that schadenfreude comes into play as well; we are glad to learn that a perfect-seeming couple is, in fact, anything but perfect. Not that my characters are perfect by any stretch, although they might look that way on first blush.
Bookish: You’ve said that Hannah’s thread in the novel went mostly unchanged during the editing process. What was it about her story or character that you felt you nailed the first time around?
HP: Hannah was very clear to me from the beginning. I understood her sense of lost promise. She was someone who was set on a rather charmed path as a child, and a few things happened that bumped her off. Her life became, well, normal. Most lives do. That’s part of growing up. But there’s a loneliness and isolation to young motherhood that can exacerbate a sense of lost promise. I began with a very simple dialogue between Hannah and a man that she meets at a time when her desires are extraordinarily raw and available. He can see them and easily manipulate her, and this dialogue became the backbone for the rest of the book.
Bookish: Are you working on another novel now? Can you tell us anything about it?
HP: I am working on my third novel. one about motherhood and specifically mothering a boy in modern society, and a bit about publishing. It’s satirical, so it’s a departure for me. It’s difficult at least for me to write about the world directly right now, so writing satirically feels just right.
Heidi Pitlor is the author of the novels The Birthdays and The Daylight Marriage. A former senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, she has been the series editor of The Best American Short Stories since 2007. Her writing has been published in Ploughshares, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Huffington Post, Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, and elsewhere. She currently teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Regis University in Denver. She lives with her twin daughter and son and her husband outside Boston.