a conversation with Elizabeth Cox      
Elizabeth Cox

  How much does the finished product of Bargains in the Real World differ from the collection of stories that you set out to write?

The truth is that I never set out to write a collection of short stories. I merely wrote one story, tried to get it published, then wrote another one. When I saw that I had thirteen stories, and most of them had been published, I thought to myself: Maybe I have a collection. Now, let me say that I do like the idea of having a collection with a theme that drives each story--I just haven't tried it yet.

I found thematic similarities in the stories while reading them. For example both "The Third of July" and "The Last Fourth Grade" reminded me of how fragile life can be, and how quickly it can be forever altered. What other themes or personality traits link the characters in the different stories in this collection?

The fragility of life is a theme that always interests me. I also study the way we, all of us, find ways to love--even in the most difficult situations ("Land of Goshen" and "Snail Darter"). I'm interested in the way passion guides a life toward something meaningful, yet that same passion can pull us into destructive behavior ("Biology" and "Saved"). I'm fascinated by our ideas of "what we want" and how wrong we can be--I mean, sometimes we get what we want and it isn't what we wanted at all ("The Singers, 1942" and "Stolen"). I'm interested in rituals that help us heal our heart--such as Lucas does in "Bargains in the Real World." And I'm most interested, probably, in the complexity of love: the fragility of relationships, but the strength, the power, of love to continue.

How did you decide the order of the stories, or what the anchoring story (in this case the title one) would be? Does the order in which they appear determine the order in which a reader "should" read them?

At first, I thought I should begin with my earliest story and move to the most recent one; but then I decided to give the reader (or the reader who chooses to read straight through in a linear fashion) a variation of style.

The anchoring story was chosen by my editor who said she thought that most of the characters were trying to strike a bargain in the real world. I thought she was right.

How do you define "striking a bargain in the real world"? Is this something that we must all to do to survive or to live comfortably?

Yes, I think we all "strike bargains in the real world." Sometimes those bargains destroy us, sometimes they make us stronger. Everyday life brings about situations that challenge us to keep our integrity or to give it up, to alter it--sometimes for selfish reasons, sometimes for the sake of someone else.

In "Land of Goshen" when Sara's husband (Franklin) left because he couldn't deal with his son's retardation, he exposed a failure in himself, but when he came back he seemed to have made a bargain. Sara forgave him. She forgot her own feelings in the bargain they were making to care for this son. In "Bargains in the Real World" Ernie decides not to tell all of what happened at the shed, and not to tell about Lucas' ritual--which seemed too private to share with anyone else. Many of our bargains, I think, have to do with our ability, or inability, to love. Our integrity (or failure) is shown in that moment of deciding for something larger than ourselves--or not.

Personal rituals play a role in many of your stories--the annual tree tradition in "O Tannenbaum," the visits to Mrs. Johnson in "The Last Fourth Grade". Why are rituals important? Have they lost their place or become more important today?

Rituals come from a long tradition in the human race--worship of the moon, eating rituals, dance, tribal traditions. These rituals seem important to me because they can place us more clearly (more physically) into a situation. Rituals within a family, within a group of friends or a community, create intimacy.

What I fear is this: without rituals to ground us violence becomes more prevalent. The young are creating violent rituals, and I wonder if more rituals in the home, or in the community, could lessen that cry for attention.

Do you have any rituals of your own that help you to write? In what sort of environment do you write?

The main ritual that helps me to write is walking. I walk two to three miles--sometimes before I write, sometimes in the middle of writing, when I'm stuck. The physical exercise helps to spur my imagination.

How do you approach short story collections? Do you read in order or by whichever title grabs you first?

I read short story collections by choosing titles that catch my eye. I never read them in the order the author has chosen. I like for readers to choose for themselves, any order they wish--like picking pieces of candy from a box. You might find a surprise, or you might want to put one back!

What makes a short story work? Are there any "rules" one should follow in writing them?

Each story is different. I sit before each story as though I have never before written a story, because I have never written this particular story. I like to come to each story, to each novel, with a kind of "ignorance," so that I can discover the style, the form, that the material demands. The "rules" I follow have more to do with creating a sense of place which holds the heart of the story, and creating characters alive enough that they will surprise even me, as I'm writing about them. If I do this, there is a kind of click that I hear, like a closing of a door or the lid of a box.

Do you have a favorite story out of your collection? A favorite character?

A favorite story? That's like asking which child do you like the most--sometimes one, sometimes another. I do have a soft spot for "Land of Goshen" and "Old Court"--I don't know why.

In terms of characters: I love the little boy (Sam) in "Stolen" and I feel concern for the teacher (Mrs. Johnson) in "The Last Fourth Grade." I worry about her. And I adore the unquenchable passion that Josie exhibits in "Saved."

Do you think any of these characters will make cameo appearances in your future writing?

No, I don't think any of these characters will show up again, but what do I know? Anything could happen.

Can you offer advice to aspiring writers?

My advice to aspiring writers is simple, but demanding: Pay Attention. Pay attention to everything around you: to the way light comes into a room, to the gestures of children, the odor of old people, the expressions of those in love; to seasons, birdsong, sunrise, the changes of the moon. Anything.

And read, read, read. Read poetry, astronomy, letters of artists, literature (old and new), biology, physics, social criticism, newspapers, essays--especially by Borjes or Updike or Nabokov. Read what grabs your interest, but let many subjects interest you. If you are paying attention, you will become wildly curious.

Is it possible to learn how to write?

I had a teacher in NC (Fred Chappell) who, when asked if creative writing could be taught, said "No, but it can be learned." I thought that was a fabulous answer.

What are you working on now?

I have just (in the past week) finished a new novel which deals with the violence children do to other children--trying to look (with a tough-minded compassion) at the kind of world we have created where that phenomenon happens.

--Laura Buchwald

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    Photo credit: Carol Bailey