Jensen Beach's writing can simultaneously provoke readers' judgment while eliciting compassion. His stark, yet multiply-layered prose explores the deep uneasiness people feel, and communicates a complexity of emotions using an economy of words.
VPR's Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Jensen Beach, an assistant professor of writing and literature at Johnson State College, about his new collection of short stories called Swallowed By The Cold.
Beach will be reading from the collection at 7 p.m. Tuesday May 17 at Phoenix Books in Burlington.
On the overarching, interlocking themes in his new collection, Swallowed By The Cold:
The entire collection is set in Sweden over the course of two years with characters reappearing throughout, lending an interlocking connectedness to the pieces. And while Beach says he was tempted to turn the collection into a novel, the appeal of short stories won out in the end.
"This is my MFA thesis actually," Beach explains. "When I graduated in 2011 I just started writing stories set in Sweden which is ... a place I know pretty well. I was just writing stories and some of the characters recurred and they showed up in other stories. And then as the kind of webs and intersections of the book became clear to me that was something I more deliberately chased after. But I've always been a devotee of the short story form. I actually prefer stories to novels."
On Sweden's role in his writing:
"I'm not [Swedish] — I grew up in California. My wife is Swedish, and I do have a Swedish passport but I'm only I'm only Swedish by chance or adoption."
Beach says it was that it was a challenge to have his characters feel authentic in their nationality.
"[It] was a challenge for me actually to write Swedish characters rather than say American characters in Sweden. And it was an important challenge. I wanted to do that. I just simply started writing the stories I think in part because I wanted to get close to what it felt like even if that was just a fictionalized version of that feeling to be Swedish."
On the Hemingway Model:
Beach's writing style is reminiscing of the Hemingway model: deceptively simple sentences that describe the action of the story and do so in a way that hints at much greater meaning hiding in plain sight.
"I'm interested in the kind of messy subtext in a story," says Beach, "even if that stuff is unnamable or unnamed ... I've had to train myself as a writer and I try to teach my students to do the same thing, to just be open to those possibilities."
Beach says he "almost always" starts a story with no clear ending in mind.
"This sounds so precious, to let the story teach you what it's going to be about. But I do, as a writer, try to follow a story where it might need to go based on the things that make fiction compelling gesture and movement and subtlety."
On the story, "February 22, 1944":
The story describes an attack in Stockholm during World War II that's very brutal and sudden violence and its aftermath, which Beach says is based on real events.
"The Soviets bombed Stockholm in February 1944. One of the things that this book kind of deals with tangentially is Swedish history," Beach says. "One of the things I wanted to do was kind of write about these events not as a Swedish person but through Swedish characters in order to kind of understand if that had any impact on the cultural consciousness."
On his secretive characters:
A lot of the characters in Swallowed By The Cold seem to be hoarding secrets from others and from themselves. We run into Louise and Martin — a married couple featured in "The Apartment."
In this collection, they appear in a sad tale called "Kino" in which Martin carries on a homosexual flirtation with a young man that the two met at a party. When the story begins Martin is concerned that Louise has been drinking too much of the party but doesn't seem very concerned as to why she's doing so.
"Louise's is a character that's just not very honest with herself and probably in a lot of pain," Beach explains. "Partly, that's because of her husband and partly ... she's deceived herself for so long about what she really wants and how what's happened in her life is different from what she had really desired ... I find that notion incredibly sad in real life and really, really exciting in fiction.
"Both Martin and Louise are characters who want something else out of life than what they have and they were too afraid or too cowardly or too confused."
And while Beach does put his characters through the emotional ringer, he says he feels a tremendous amount of compassion for them.
"I never really understood that thing that some authors will say, you know your characters become real people to you," Beach says. "But I do have compassion for these characters because I think that we're all like this to a certain extent, right? Pursuing things that we think we want and then being disappointed when we get them."
To read more about Jensen Beach's work, check out an interview he did with VPR when he was celebrating the publication of the short story, "The Apartment," in an issue of The New Yorker.