J. Robert Lennon read from his latest collection of stories, See You In Paradise at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn. He was joined by his friend and former classmate David Gilbert. Gilbert’s novel & Sons was released earlier this year.
In the early 1990s, Lennon and Gilbert attended the University of Montana MFA program together. Gilbert chose to read an older, unpublished story from his workshop classes about a plumber, Grundy. Gilbert explained he had to figure out how to open the electronic file since it was last saved as a Word Perfect file. The story contained a number of details about plumbing and septic systems–things Gilbert says he had to research at the library since it was written before the internet.
Lennon reads a story inspired by their days in Montana as well. “Weber’s Head,” is about a recently single man seeking a stranger to fill the second room in his apartment. Weber, the new roommate, shares many quirks of Lennon’s former roommate, including a compulsion to cook dinner for both of them.
The two joke for a few minutes about their time at the MFA program. Gilbert says that everyone there seemed to be writing like either Denis John and Alice Munro. For himself, Gilbert says he thinks one of the problems about his workshop stories two decades earlier was his reluctance to write about what he actually knew about. For instance, he often wrote about “people doing heroin, when I’ve never seen heroin.”
They also credit the author Ann Patchett with discussing the practical side of writing. Lennon says she got their attention when she told them she could earn a thousand dollars in her pajamas by noon.
The oldest story in Lennon’s collection is “Flight,” published originally in The New Yorker. When he started putting the collection together, he considered thirty stories. He cut ten before sending them to his editor to review, who cut another six or seven after that. Many of those weren’t necessarily bad, but for one reason or another didn’t quite fit the collection.
“I don’t consider myself a good judge of my own work,” Lennon says.
His favorite story might be “Weber’s Head,” one that his editor wasn’t sure belonged in the collection. Mostly Lennon favors the story because the real life inspiration was so irritating.
Lennon says he prefers writing novels, but every now and then finds himself writing a story. Usually he writes the initial draft of a story in a week, and despite editing later, the framework mostly resembles that first draft.
“Stories are a kind of magical thing that happens now and again,” he says.
Writing and publishing can still be intimidating. “That thing you do that no one else does is terrifying because you put out there and then someone criticizes it,” he says. However, “That you I can do that no one else can do may not be the greatest thing,” but, he adds, is what makes writers distinct.