“I began writing this story fourteen years ago, [but I] didn’t know who the people were and set it down,” said Charles Baxter, this semester’s fiction reader for the Creative Writer’s Speakers Series. Baxter continues in saying that this is, or should be, a commonality among writers – a tendency to leave an idea dormant for a while until an affinity is developed for proceeding, a spark if you will. Baxter, who read a new short story of his last Thursday at the Black Conference Center in Burke, has written works from all types of genres from short stories, novels and poetry to nonfiction essays and theoretical works. Born in Minnesota and having received a Ph.D. from the University of Buffalo, Baxter has thus returned to his home state of Minnesota to teach MFA courses at the University of Minnesota.
He began by explaining that he is working on a collection of short stories that are split between virtues and vices and named after them as well. He says he plans to write the virtue stories first, having already accomplished “Bravery” and “Loyalty” with a good beginning start on “Chastidy,” something he feels has become sort of a taboo subject in our culture. Baxter then confessed an interest in strangers, not merely moments when strangers meet at the supermarket or bank but when somebody that a character once knew “shows up on their doorstep and needs help.” The story surrounded Wes, a middle-aged father with an ex-wife named Corrine, a wife named Astrid, and a son named Jeremy. When Corrine contacts Wes for help and subsequently a place to stay, he’s forced to confront the reactions from his wife and son, and Jeremy is forced to confront the return of his mother, Corrine.
Dealing with history, age, and family with sharp dialogue that rises through domestic narrative, Baxter redefines the social body and the connections we develop as people – specifically he calls to points of decision as to whether or not we choose to continue a relationship. He narrates in disconnection at points, emphasizing those moments where relationships must end in our lives through death, departure, etc. Baxter says he writes to show “emotional time rather than real time,” and I think that shows in his work and is very important to his writing process. In the story, Baxter addressed generational gaps, specifically those between Wes and Jeremy and, to a lesser extent, between both mother figures and Jeremy.
Definitively a short work with a working class feel and profound commentary on acceptance and love, Baxter’s teaser for his new collection works great. The domestic setting is in place, and although he stated that he doesn’t often recycle characters, I feel as if the protagonists for these stories will face similar struggles with acceptance against the growing difficulty of domesticity. In wait of that collection regarding our everyday virtues and vices, may I suggest two great books by Charles Baxter: “Burning down the house: essays on fiction” and “Believers: a short story collection and novella.” Both are fantastic earlier works, both published in 1997. “Gryphon: new and selected stories” is his newest release, but I haven’t had the chance to read it yet. If you’re looking for fiction that makes you think but stays mostly realist in the light of John Updike or John Cheever, read the works of Charles Baxter and experience a premier voice for fiction theory today.