The Interview | With Alice Fulton

Distilling decades into fiction

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Anna Mundow
June 29, 2008

With "The Nightingales of Troy: Stories of One Family's Century" (Norton, $23.95), her outstanding first fiction collection, poet Alice Fulton reveals herself to be triumphantly at home in the short story. Spanning the 20th century - from a farm birth in 1908 to an MRI in 1999 - Fulton's stories are sublime distillations, not only of the individual lives they so eloquently describe, but also of the eras throughout which the formidable Garrahan family endures. Fulton, who teaches at Cornell University, spoke from her home in Ithaca, N.Y.

Q. As a poet, how do you approach writing fiction?

A. It is entirely different, very refreshing. I think what I bring from poetry is the interest in language and in compression. But the difference is character, psychology; the external world is much more important to fiction. It allows me to create a world and think more deeply about other people.

Q. Did you always envisage this as a linked collection?

A. I had that idea early on, after I wrote "Queen Wintergreen," which is about the great-grandmother figure from Ireland. My mother was born in 1913, and I set everything four years earlier, so in the story "Happy Dust" she's the baby who's born in 1909. Her great line was "I gave birth to myself" because her mother was alone on the farm when it happened. Thinking of my mother's life - she's still with us at 95 - and of her sisters, my aunts, the whole group I was brought up with, I thought how interesting it would be to go back into their lives at different periods. Then I started the research.

Q. How did you go about that?

A. I used different resources for each story. In the Troy [N.Y.] Record I found my great-grandmother's obituary. It was odd and uncanny because in those days the obituaries were long accounts of the person's life and death, very detailed. The newspaper was a primary source. For the story set in the 1930s I read the Journal of American Nursing (my mother was a nurse), which is such an eye-opening record. This was before antibiotics; the case histories were just harrowing to read. You see nurses struggling to take care of people in the 1930s, when everyone was poor. For the 1940s, I went back to a journal of psychiatry and read up on insulin sleep therapy that was used for schizophrenia. My challenge was to make my stories less horrific than the reality. I couldn't make them too grim; readers couldn't stand it.

Q. Did you ever consider writing this as a novel?

A. No. My initial intention was to learn to write fiction by writing short stories, because I had this notion that I could write them and throw them away if they didn't work. It would be much harder to discard a novel. This was my way of learning different narrative techniques as well, because the short story allows that, whereas a novel would have demanded continuity of tone and style. I had a vague intention of evoking the linguistic qualities of particular epochs. "Happy Dust" has some qualities of 19th-century writing; the 1920s story is spare, more modern; the 1930s one seems to have a WPA feeling; and "The Real Eleanor Rigby" I tried to make as effervescent as a lava lamp.

Q. Was it helpful or distracting to set each story in a specific decade?

A. I think it slowed me down because every time I changed decades I had to do research to create the milieu. But that was part of the pleasure too; going back and finding out what people ate, what colors they wore. I loved things like the advertisement in the Troy Record from the 1920s for clothing in colors called "Baghdad Blue," "Verdigris," "Sandalwood." How they suggested the exoticism of the 1920s. Each time I changed decades I immersed myself in the texture of the period. This also reined me in because I tend to write a lot, so without this structure I might have produced reams of unreadable prose. I didn't want to write an amorphous, lyrical, blathering thing.

Q. But you do allow characters and motifs to endure from one era to the next?

A. That happens almost organically, I think. For instance, my father did own the Phoenix Hotel in Lansingburgh, N.Y. - the 1930s character Sam Livingston is based on him - and Herman Melville actually did write "Typee" in a cottage two blocks down from that hotel. That novel in turn became a wonderful way to get into the 1960s story, because for my character Ruth, who is reading "Typee," the Beatles are her Polynesia. They're so exotic! They're from Liverpool!

Q. Are you in any of these stories?

A. Well, like the character Ruth, I saw the Beatles in 1966 at Shea Stadium. I won a ticket by sending in 100 postcards with the disc jockey's name on them - something like "Bob Brown Is Sexy" . . . - and they picked one and the Beatle Buggy came to our house. And in the early 1970s, when I was a disc jockey, I did meet John Lennon and George Harrison, but not quite as it happens in the story.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

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