Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel Jaws tells the story of a menacing great white shark that terrorizes the fictional Long Island town of Amity, NY. In 1975, Steven Spielberg turned it into what was, for a time, the highest grossing film at the box office. If Benchley and Speilberg’s Jaws has a topical and tonal opposite, it just might be Terese Svoboda’s tale of a weird, dark family road trip that we published as our May online exclusive. Also entitled “Jaws ,” Svoboda’s story is as naturalistic as Benchley’s is conventional, and we were itching to ask her about it because at nearly every turn, this little story surprises. We emailed Svoboda to ask about the story, about her other writing, and about the necessary work of making something new.
Nate Brown: Your story begins with a little trick that’s more commonly seen in poetry, I think, where the title of the piece also functions as the de-facto first line of the piece. Here, the title is “Jaws” and the first line of the body text is “That’s the book she cracks as soon as she’s fought off her little brother for the back.” In addition to writing fiction, you’re a poet, and I wonder if that poetic convention sort of found its way into this piece. Is that accurate to say?
Terese Svoboda: Poets work at the vanguard of language. To knock fiction into the 21st century requires theft from the front.
NB: This may sound silly, but it that an aim of yours? To knock fiction into the 21st century?
TS: I would hope that would be the aim of all writers, to somehow advance the form, add one’s little fillip of progress.
NB: It struck me that as opposed to the kind of danger presented by, say, a shark in the open ocean, the danger in this story comes from the tight quarters of that station wagon. Once your protagonist is sick, the whole equilibrium of this road trip is thrown off. For those of us with big families (myself included), this all feels very, very familiar. Did the piece grow out of something you’ve experienced or is it purely imaginative?
TS: Ha. My sister (seventh out of nine) reports that this is a fairly accurate rendition of her experience. It’s actually an amalgam—as most stories are—of several stories tossed with the (little) insight that comes with age. I was particularly struck by the boat-like quality of those old station wagons, and the miracle of water anywhere in the plains.
NB: Yes, I’m particularly interested in that water! There are so many wonderfully contrasting elements in this story—the wheat, the cow wallow, the waterfall—and they give the story a dreamlike quality. I found myself wondering how you might describe this story (if forced to!) to others. It’s naturalistic, sure, but it’s also verging on something else, something moodier or dreamier than domestic realism. Can you talk bit about some of those contrasting elements of the story and, more broadly, about the kind of fiction that you’re interested in writing?
TS: I like where naturalism abuts the often-more-real world of emotion. Fiction tells the truth best when it’s emotionally driven. That said, I am tickled when I pull one over on you, convincing you with just enough detail that the story is true. Made you look.
NB: Are there other writers who you think pull this off particularly well? Or, more generally, are there fiction writers who you’re loving right now?
TS: I’m reading The Guild of St. Cooper , Shya Scanlon’s third novel. I’m adoring his seemingly effortless descent into the weird, guided by his complicated, mirrored persona.
NB: You’ve written poems, fiction, memoir, libretti, and have worked in film. I’m wondering what kind of creative attention each requires. Do you find that all of your creative efforts require the same baseline level of work, energy, or effort, of does one mode come more easily or with more difficulty for you?
TS: Poetry is easiest. How can you not be seduced by words and the possibility of making sense and sensuality across space? With regard to fiction, I hate plot, the artificiality that writers think will make people read. People read for so many reason other than Who Did What To Whom. Besides, there’s a neatness implied with plot that the postmodernist feels uneasy about. But of course I deal with it. My husband says when he hears the fridge open, he knows I’m working on fiction. Who doesn’t find a blast of cold air inspiring?
NB: What are you working on now? Can you tell us a bit about what you’re up to?
TS: I’m publishing When The Next Big War Blows Down The Valley: Selected and New Poems in October, five books-worth of not-so-bad poetry, and I just turned in the manuscript for Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet that will appear next January. My two long prose projects are Harpies and Irish Princess.
NB: Lots to look forward to, then! Thanks for talking with me, Terese, and for the great story.
TS: Thanks for asking.
A recent Guggenheim fellow in fiction, Terese Svoboda is the author of six novels, five books of poetry, a memoir, an opera, and a book of translation from the Nuer. Forthcoming this year and next are When The Next Big War Blows Through The Valley: Selected and New Poems, and the biography Anything That Burns You: Lola Ridge, Radical Poet.