Stories of Desire: An Interview with Clare Sestanovich

Clare Sestanovich is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her writing has been featured in the Paris Review, Harper’s, Electric Lit, and the New Yorker, where she is also an editor. CJLC editors Campbell Campbell and Ashley Cullina interviewed Sestanovich on her new short story collection Objects of Desire (Knopf 2021) which features satirical and earnest stories about females exploring their unspoken desires. Cover image by Edward Friedman.

Ashley Cullina: What is your view on short stories as a form? How do you see them as distinct from other literary forms, and why are they your chosen medium? Is there a difference between writing an isolated short story, and compiling short stories for a collection? 

Claire Sestanovich: I was talking to a friend recently who said that he didn’t like short stories because he always wants to know what happens to the characters and the plot lines, and thinks that so much goes unexplored in short stories. I disagree. I have always been intrigued by how much I can do in terms of character depth, plot, pacing in the span of twenty pages. I love the challenge of how much I can convey in a short span…I think it’s especially true in the short form, where we know we’re only getting a “slice of life,” as we say. It sounds paradoxical, but there is to me such an opening of possibilities with the compression of [short] fiction, and that world that exists off the page, which is faster in a [short] story than it is in another form, feels filled with wonder in a way that then suffuses what is on the page, with that same “activated” feeling.  

Campbell Campbell: Is there a difference between writing one short story versus writing a collection for you?

CS: Because this is my first book, a book that I wasn’t sure would actually exist, as I was writing these stories I really wasn’t thinking about how they might become a whole. Maybe because I wrote them in a relatively short, relatively intense period, it feels very obvious to me that they belong together. It’s one of the sources of both interest and apprehension for me as the work approaches publication is to find out whether readers feel that way and how they feel. 

One of the obvious but not frequently discussed parts of being a writer is that you have to be a reader of your own work. And it’s often really unpleasant! The reader part is part of the compiling of a collection. There are times where it can feel really profound in the course of editing this book, which is a very collaborative process; it felt as if I was wrestling with the most essential and most elusive questions about what these stories were actually trying to say. But there were also times that were totally unglamorous and kind of maddening. 

I’d be on a run and it would suddenly occur to me that two different characters in two stories that are back-to-back have names that are one or two letters off from each other, and I would have to instantly run home and sit down and try to figure out new names. So it can feel very prosaic and that can become part of the fun of it, and it’s very fun to do with someone else. I would also get emails from my editor saying: “It suddenly occurred to me that this character has a birthday in the middle of this story. We’ve got to mention that.”

So it can be very granular in a way that, depending on the day and week, can feel like a maddening or a very fun part of the craft. 

CC: In many of your stories, the main characters use their personal lives for their creative writing. There’s even one story where two characters promise each other that they won’t use their shared experience in their stories. You have moments where writing is an imitation of life and the characters feel an internal pressure to make something of each moment as they’re living it. Could you elaborate on why you repeated this image of pressure? 

CS: One of the reasons why I enjoy writing about people who are in some capacity writers is the fact that it does feel like this universal profession. We are constantly narrativizing our lives, for better or worse. I’m really interested in that “or”. There’s the Didion koan about “telling ourselves stories in order to live”. 

And it sounds awfully nice. And as a writer whose stories are not only my life but my livelihood, I cannot beg to differ. 

But, there are so many stories that we tell that make it harder to live and that get in the way of life or get in the way of changing your life or even just from experiencing it. And there are times when a narrative structure can bring clarity to questions of identity, or can bring us closer to our sense of who we are. And then there are also times when the stories you know, we choose to cast ourselves in and they become ways of keeping certain truths at arm’s length. And I think a lot of the characters in these stories are trying to figure out how close they want to get to those truths. And writing is a vehicle for the characters. 

AC: I think, in reading, I felt that there was almost a tonal instability in the collection because you discuss difficult subject material in the final stories. How do you maintain a satirical tone throughout the collection despite discussing difficult topics, such as anorexia, suicide, and incest? 

CS: Well, I’m glad that I was able to do that. As a writer, and as a person, I’m interested in the mundane. And I do think of these stories as being comprised in large part of details that can be seen in the boring parts of life. And literature, like life, can seem most dramatic in moments of rupture or moments of conflict. But of course, they also consist of all the moments in between those moments. And so there’s a story, for example, at the end of the collection, that we might say, is a story that is about suicide. But just as validly I can say that it’s a story that’s about showers and seltzer. And you know, that same story, vomiting, and masturbating take up as much space in the story as climate change.

I write in this mode because in the way that I live, the mundane, the profound, the tragic, and the nearly inconvenient are constantly jostling for space, time, and meaning. I think that it’s in the sort of collisions of those planes of existence where stories get made. And, hopefully, where some type of truth is discovered even if it is an unstable truth.

CC: I am curious why you choose to focus on twenty-something female characters who are partly satirical and partly earnest in their attempts to find love, learn, and determine who they are. Why did you choose to focus on this type of character and perform a character study? 

CS: I am interested in how those two facets of identity may seem contradictory yet feel extremely real to me. I am interested in how all “character” is performance and what happens when the performance drops, what happens when the character is shifting out of the mode in which they’re most comfortable and can be removed from the judgment of other characters. And you are in the most immediate part of a moment where you stop being a narrator of your own life and become the actor in your own life. 

CC: Was there a cohesive theme you imagined for the collection?

CS: I write about topics that I can’t stop thinking about. Writing, to me, has an obsessive quality. I’m circling something, I’m questioning something, I’m trying to get something. What is that something? If I knew, I certainly would not write stories about it. I could probably write one and be done, and my hope is that I can bring the stories together with some strain of questions and need to know a topic more fully. 

AC: Campbell and I had fun trying to place your collection alongside a genre or group of writers. We were able to brainstorm some contemporary and classic writers, but you have a very unique voice for your generation. How do you see yourself alongside other authors? Do you think of yourself as writing in a genre, or does that label come afterwards?

CS: Until several months ago, I could count on one hand the number of people who had read this book. Thinking of myself in some larger conversation was the farthest thing from my mind. 

When I was writing this book, I was also reading other works by contemporary writers. When I’m not reading, I can feel that my writing gets slow and loses part of its quality. One of the great things about writing is that there’s just an endless library that you can plunder from and that I do. There are always certain books that have an outsized significance on my process of writing, and I’ve had the experience of a book that seems to arrive at exactly the right moment to teach me something that I’ve been totally blind to. This happened with Garth Greenwell’s most recent book Cleanness: it came at a moment where everything I was reading had this pared down and sentimental prose, and that book was filled with these long sensual sentences that are completely unrestrained. That felt like such a revelation to me at a time when I was making an effort to get right down to the bone of something. I knew that this was the joy of feeling like you’re in conversation with other writers, which you can do without having ever met them or spoken to them. All you have to do is pick up a book and see a new side to how you’re writing. 

CC: You mentioned Cleanness. What other writers and books were you reading when you wrote Objects of Desire

CS: Many other writers jump out at me for teaching me a similar lesson to, for lack of a more artful term, letting loose in writing. I read a book called Why did I Ever by Mary Robison, and it’s both one of the funniest books you’ll ever read and one of the most lonely and sorrowful books. What allows those registers to cohere is this voice that is totally singular. I think that it’s easy, or it has been easy, to forget that characters need personality and need idiosyncrasies, and that book was such a reminder of how complicated and distinctive a voice can be. It’s one of those books where you think, oh, I’ll never do that, but that can be a good type of book to read.

AC: How do you see writing today? What do you think of the new narratorial voices emerging? 

CS: I don’t think I’m any more privileged to answer it than any other reader. I think that there’s been an interest in the concept of the internet novel, and it seems incontrovertible to me that our experience being creatures and writers online is affecting literature. I don’t have a diagnosis of what that effect is or is not, but I am wary of the idea that there’s a collective voice that can be described as the internet voice. The work of reading is identifying patterns, and here is one pattern of the internet novel, 

And I don’t possibly have a diagnosis of what that effect is or isn’t. But I think it is. I’m in general, wary of the idea that there’s sort of any collective voice that can be described as simply a sort of like, here’s the internet voice. Um, so I think it’s sort of you know, it’s the work of reading is identifying patterns. And you know, here’s one case where there’s a pattern, we have these internet novels. But I’m also very hesitant to over-generalize. 

AC: I would love to hear your thoughts on intimacy or the lack of intimacy between writers and readers. How do you create intimacy between you and your reader? 

CS: One answer is that I have no idea how to create intimacy on the page, and that every time it’s the impossible task that I have to figure out all over again. I think another answer is that the trick is never letting myself slip into believing that I have something figured out about the characters, the moral of the story, the dynamic between characters, what my reader will think. The instant that knowingness sneaks into a story, it goes cold in my experiences. Most of the time I start writing a story for the same reason that I start needing a story, which is to figure out what will happen. There are usually two or three moments in the course of drafting a story where I think I have the answer and I see where this is headed. If the story is any good, the truth is that I have no idea. The immediacy of the story, the intimacy of the story, is created by that desire to know. 

CC: How do you think intimacy is constructed in your text between the characters? And do you think it needs to be reimagined in our current moment?

CS: I think that the job of being a person is reimagining intimacy and that there are a lot of characters in this book that feel the difficulty of bridging distances between people. These may be distinctly modern difficulties of technology that can give us the illusion of intimacy but still do not protect us from feelings of isolation, or it can be the age-old distance between a parent and child that modulates over the course of growing up. I had no thesis about intimacy going through this whole work because it would just be too easy if we knew how to connect and used that method every time. The problem is that we have absolutely no idea. 

There’s this great Miranda July story that I think about and that contains the image of people crawling through the dirt to track their suburban mom and wondering if they will ever get there. It has this primitive element of how we are going to get there. Can we bridge the divide? Some of us are digging through the dirt, some of us are swiping on a screen. 

AC: I saw dual images of seeing and perceiving others, and being seen and perceived by others. Is that something that you were conscious of as you were writing? 

CS: I think that it returns to my interest in my characters as performers. It feels like a big part of being alive and figuring out what you want your life to look like. To reconcile one’s role as an observer and as a protagonist of your own life. I think that a lot of these characters to whom I’ve devoted full stories, would be skeptical of the idea that they deserve a story or are writing their own story. This renders true to the way I live my life as a writer: serving things and collecting details of my own life and the lives around me. When you get on a subway car, you are sizing everybody up and wondering who they are, what they’re thinking, what they dislike, what podcasts they listen to? What does that act of imagining of what is going on for somebody else have to do with your life? How does it affect who you are and who you’re becoming? There’s something in that totally invisible exchange of our judgments and assumptions and imaginings; that is where you are becoming a person. 

CC: Your main characters are often coming to philosophical, romantic, intellectual realizations in these texts, which situates them in the coming of age genre. Would you agree with that characterization? What realizations do you envision for these female characters? 

CS: Maybe one way to think about this question is to focus on the last story in the collection, which is distinct in the amount of time that is covered in the work. We end up following a woman from her 20s to her 50s, and it covers a lot of terrain and milestones, in the terminology of an autobiography. There’s death, there’s birth. I think that it would be convenient if these milestones coincided with these epiphanic moments that you describe, but our reckonings with existence are happening all of the time. They’re the product of existence and routine, and it’s this ongoing process of realization and unraveling information that I try to capture in this story. Is it the work of weaving insights together so that you can step back and see it all together at the end of your life? My narrators are at different points in their lives, and some are older than others, but I don’t think any of them are further along in the process of realization. They’re all on the cusp of it, which I think is how I experience my own life and experience revelation.

Objects of Desire by Clare Sestanovich available through Penguin Random House