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DANGEROUS LAUGHTER An Interview with Steven Millhauser By Tobias Seamon


here’s no forgetting the first time that one reads Steven Millhauser. The author of 11 books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, the Saratoga Springs resident is frequently compared to Borges for his ability to explore grand themes through the miniaturized or magically real. Whether describing a Saturday morning cartoon or a department store, Millhauser takes a keen insight into overlooked delights of the ordinary and then embellishes to an extraordinary extent, so that the finest specks of fabulist nuance become stepping stones towards the impossible made to seem plausible. Released this February, Millhauser’s latest collection, Dangerous Laughter, continues his exploration of “what if.” By the end of collection, readers will feel like the youth in the title story: astounded and wondering whether they’ve been led to sublime heights, convulsive depths, or the mazy pleasures of both. In an e-mail interview conducted over a six-week period this winter, Millhauser discussed Dangerous Laughter and his remarkable career as a writer. While Dangerous Laughter is a collection of short stories, the three sections have the thematic feel of novellas, much like the tripartite format in The King in the Tree and Little Kingdoms. Was this intentional or did the groupings come after the fact? When I write a story, it’s the only story I’ve ever written and the only story I’ll ever write. It bears no relation to anything else, least of all to my own work. When I’m done with it, though, I recognize that it attaches itself to other stories I’ve written. I see resemblances, connections. The stories in Dangerous Laughter were written over a period of nine years. Each story, when I wrote it, was an independent object. But as they grew in number and I began to think of arranging them in a collection, I noticed possible groupings, especially for the stories now called “Impossible Architectures.” Near the end, I wrote several stories with the sense that they would fit into a plan that had somehow taken shape behind my back. Did you envision “Cat ’n’ Mouse” as a cartoon reel for a collection of stories, or did it just fall into place when Dangerous Laughter was being put together? “Cat ’n’ Mouse” was written without any thought of a collection. When the accumulating stories began to fall into groups, I began to entertain the possibility of an opening story that might touch on all the others. I saw that “Cat ’n’ Mouse” has a vanishing theme, as in the first set of stories; an architectural theme, as in the second set; and even, as in the third set, an historical theme, in the sense that the story pretends to resurrect an historical artifact (a midcentury cartoon), though one that never existed. Apart from all that, I miss opening cartoons when I go to the movies.Where did they all go to, the opening cartoons of my childhood? Since the movies no longer provide them, I wanted to provide one myself. Life is better with an opening cartoon. 54 BOOKS CHRONOGRAM 4/08

In a 2003 interview in Bomb magazine, you said that novels in their exhaustive form “want to devour the world” while being written. In hindsight, are story collections almost as ravenous? I think it’s a mistake to pit stories—or story collections—against novels. In that kind of contest, the novel always manages to win. But stories, though they appear modest, are secretly ambitious. They want to express the entire world in as short a space as possible. In this sense they dare to think of themselves as superior to novels. A novel, to them, is a lumbering elephant, a sluggish dinosaur.They say:Why do you take up so much space, novel? Why do you take such a long time getting anywhere? One of the enjoyable aspects of Dangerous Laughter is that motifs and images are expanded upon story by story within each of the three sections. Over the years, you’ve done similarly throughout different works with automaton theaters, miniature palaces, and the moonlit walks in Little Kingdoms and Enchanted Night. Do you think the deepening and broadening of themes ever really stops, or should such things be taken on an artist-by-artist case? I don’t see how it can ever stop. Certain things demand to be returned to because they resist finality.You find yourself going back to them, and looking at them in different ways, precisely because they feel inexhaustible.They promise new revelations, if only you can find them. A writer’s craving to do something absolutely new, every time, seems to me a sign of mediocrity. It seems that a writer’s craving to do something absolutely new every time would also mean being an absolutely new writer every time as well. How familiar do you feel with the self that wrote earlier works like Edwin Mullhouse? Some people seem to leave their earlier selves behind at every stage of development. Others–the kind I like–never lose touch with those earlier selves. I’m still friends with the young man who wrote Edwin Mullhouse. We sometimes take walks together. One of the more fascinating aspects of your writing is the use of the “we” narrative voice. I use “we” less in this collection than in The Knife Thrower, but it continues to fascinate me.The first thing to say about “we” is that it isn’t “I” or “he.” For every 10 billion stories written in the first-or-third person singular, one is written in the first-person plural. This means that its possibilities haven’t been exhausted, that in fact they’ve barely begun to be explored. For this reason alone, “we” is an exciting pronoun. But your question was about how the pronoun is used in my stories. Always, of course, it’s the voice of a community, a group. But the community can be either of two entities. It can be a group that represents what’s usual and normal, into which something strange and dangerous intrudes. Or it can be

Chronogram - April 2008  
Chronogram - April 2008  

A regional magazine dedicated to stimulating and supporting the creative and cultural life of New York's beautiful Hudson Valley. - April 20...